What’s the greatest UFC fight card of all time?
Ask 50 people and you’re going to get at least 25 different answers, because opinions vary, options are plentiful, and what makes a fight card great is not only subjective, but also at times an ethereal, “you just know it when you feel it” kind of thing.
In trying to put together this collection of my picks for the top UFC fight cards of all time, the initial long list of 33 included early pay-per-views, the two cards that featured nothing but finishes, a couple different UFC on FOX events, and a host of triple-digit pay-per-view cards with loaded lineups and heaps of significance.
There are some of these you might not agree with for one reason or another, and that’s okay — partially because it’s my list, but also because not everybody likes the same things.
But I think it’s pretty representative of the nearly 30 years of events to take place inside the Octagon, and I look forward to hearing what you think.
This is The 10.
The first real summer blockbuster in UFC history, the centennial pay-per-view in the summer of 2009 featured an incredible ensemble of some of the top names of the time and produced moments that still resonate to this day.
In the main event, Brock Lesnar avenged his debut loss to Frank Mir before growling and snarling at the camera and cutting a WWE-style promo on the mic after the win, with consummate professional Georges St-Pierre registering a unanimous decision victory over Thiago Alves in the co-main event.
UFC 100 also featured Michael Bisping getting halted courtesy of a Dan Henderson’s “H-Bomb” (and forearm smash), as well as an emerging talent named Jon Jones collecting his second victory inside the Octagon.
And tucked away on the prelims, lightweight Jim Miller registered a unanimous decision win over Mac Danzig. Seven years later, Miller kicked off UFC 200 by stopping Takanori Gomi, and next year, the veteran from Sparta, New Jersey will — fingers crossed — compete at UFC 300 as well because he’s Jim “F’N” Miller and he fights on centennial shows.
UFC 129: St-Pierre vs Shields
When the province of Ontario finally legalized mixed martial arts, the UFC understood that its debut event in Canada’s most populous city and province had to be something special, and boy was it!
UFC 129 saw more than 55,000 people pack into the SkyDome (fine, Rogers Centre) for an absolute spectacle of a show that included a John Makdessi spinning back fist knockout, Jake Ellenberger starching Sean Pierson, and Rory MacDonald tossing Nathan Diaz around the Octagon, all on the prelims.
On the main card, future lightweight champ Benson Henderson made his UFC debut with a win over Mark Bocek, Lyoto Machida sent Randy Couture into retirement (and his tooth into orbit), and Jose Aldo out-hustled Mark Hominick to defend his featherweight title for the first time before the evening was capped by St-Pierre successfully defending his welterweight strap with a win over Jake Shields.
As a kid that grew up in Southern Ontario and was just breaking into covering this sport at the time, it was incredible to be back home covering this event. I can still close my eyes and picture Hominick hustling out to the cage wearing a Hamilton Tiger-cats hat as “Coming Home” echoed through the cavernous venue.
This one was truly special.
UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs Brandao
You have to offer up a round of applause for the folks that put this one together because they absolutely nailed it.
The UFC paired its return to Dublin with the return of Ireland’s favorite fighting son, Conor McGregor, to produce a magical evening at The 3Arena.
From the opening bout where Paddy Holohan submitted Josh Sampo and Cathal Pendred and Neil Seery picking up wins on the prelims, then the main card where adopted Irishman Gunnar Nelson stopped Zak Cummings in the co-main event, the energy and volume in the arena continued to rise as the night progressed towards the main event.
And then McGregor made his way to the Octagon and the roof came off the gaff.
“The Notorious” one received a hero’s welcome and then sent the fans home happy, as he dispatched Diego Brandao in just over four minutes to pick up his third UFC win and resume his march towards the featherweight title.
UFC 189: Mendes vs McGregor
That featherweight title fight was supposed to take place in the main event of this card, the crown jewel of International Fight Week 2015, but less than two weeks prior to the event, Jose Aldo was forced out with an injury and replaced by Chad Mendes.
None of it mattered.
This remains the most electric atmosphere I have ever experienced at a live sporting event, and the weigh-ins on Friday afternoon could very well be second. With literally thousands of Irish fans in attendance, this card started slow and then started to simmer when Matt Brown choked out Tim Means in the final preliminary card fight.
Thomas Almeida kicked off the main card by knocking out Brad Pickett with a flying knee, Nelson quickly tapped Brandon Thatch, and then Jeremy Stephens one-upped Almeida by finishing Dennis Bermudez with an even better flying knee in the middle of the main card. What followed was unforgettable.
Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald engaged in one of the most vicious, competitive, memorable fights in UFC history, dueling over the welterweight title and leaving pieces of themselves inside the Octagon when the dust finally cleared. Their stare down at the close of Round 4 remains one of the coolest visuals in MMA history, with the fight rightfully taking its place in the UFC Hall of Fame earlier this year.
Then the lights dimmed and the main event combatants made their way to the Octagon. Aaron Lewis sang Mendes out to battle before the late Sinead O’Connor belted out “The Foggy Dew” as McGregor made the walk; the roar was deafening and the moment magical.
Mendes won the opening round, but McGregor turned the tides in the second, putting away the perennial contender to claim the interim featherweight title and up the stakes for his future clash with Aldo.
I’m certain this has become one of those events where 250,000 people now claim they were there, and while that wasn’t actually the case, it sure felt like it.
UFC 194: Aldo vs McGergor
There were a bunch of quality fights and sharp performances on this card, including Leonardo Santos stopping Kevin Lee, Warlley Alves submitting Colby Covington, and Max Holloway continuing his ascent with a unanimous decision win over Jeremy Stephens, but this card makes this list primarily because of the final two fights.
Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman were like the quarterbacks from rival high schools — good looking, talented athletes that were actually rather friendly with one another, but also genuine rivals. Weidman entered the co-main event as the champion and was doing well until an ill-advised spinning back kick attempt in the third shifted all the momentum in Rockhold’s favor.
Just past the midway point of the fourth, the fight was halted and a new champion was crowned.
After a year-long build and one postponed engagement, Aldo and McGregor finally faced off in the main event, with featherweight supremacy hanging in the balance.
As the duo began making their respective walks to the Octagon, I sat on press row, enjoying their signature walkout tracks, listening to the roar of the crowd, and pondering what was about to happen. I have no idea why I opted to close my laptop and simply take in the fight without distractions, but I did, and it meant I was one of the few people on press row to witness McGregor sleep Aldo in 13 seconds.
It’s a weird thing being at an event live and having deadline responsibilities — you have to worry about what you’re writing while also trying to watch the fights and take in what is going on, and the opening moments of bouts are usually a feeling out process. Many times, that means you’re staring at your screen, but this time, I was staring at the action in front of me, watching McGregor pivot off and drop a left hand on Aldo’s chin that ended his featherweight reign in 13 seconds flat.
For my money, the UFC 189 / UFC 194 combo remains the best two-fight, two-event set in UFC history.
UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos vs Cerrone 2
Okay, let’s take one quick second to acknowledge how incredible 2015 was because it started with Jones-Cormier I at UFC 182, featured the arrival of “Joanna Champion” at UFC 185, Holly Holm knocking out Ronda Rousey at UFC 193, and a truckload of other outstanding fights and amazing performances in addition to three of the best fight cards in UFC history!
2015 was a blockbuster year and I won’t hear otherwise.
A week after UFC 194, the UFC on FOX event in Orlando, Florida was headlined by Rafael Dos Anjos successfully defending his lightweight title against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, but it’s a card that continues to be noteworthy and meaningful to this day for two other reasons.
First, this is the card where Nathan Diaz dropped his famous post-fight tirade aimed at McGregor, which ultimately led to their twin battles at UFC 196 and UFC 202 the following year.
Second, this event featured seven current, former, or future UFC champions, including Dos Anjos, Junior Dos Santos, Charles Oliveira, Kamaru Usman and Leon Edwards fighting for the first time, and the promotional debuts of Francis Ngannou and Valentina Shevchenko, not to mention future title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz, as well.
This was a terrific card that has aged like the finest wine in your cellar, and is a fitting final card for the best year in UFC history.
UFC 205: Alvarez vs McGregor
Just as getting into Ontario was a big deal in 2011, finally getting to host an event in New York City was a milestone moment, as well, and the UFC did it up right for its first show at Madison Square Garden.
The night started — started — with a bantamweight bout between former title challenger Liz Carmouche and Top 15 fixture Katlyn Chookagian, and featured a preliminary slate that included wins by Jim Miller, Vicente Luque, Tim Boesch, Khabib Nurmagomedov in his “you know I must fight for the title” victory over Michael Johnson, and Frankie Edgar.
When the action moved to the main card, it commenced with Raquel Pennington upsetting Miesha Tate, who then announced her retirement, followed by Yoel Romero knocking out Chris Weidman, before Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Tyron Woodley retained their respective titles in bouts against top contenders Kowalkiewicz and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
And then, in the main event, McGregor made history by becoming the first person to simultaneously hold UFC titles in two weight classes by orchestrating a virtuosic performance against Eddie Alvarez to claim the lightweight title.
In a sport where anything can happen, and quite often does, this felt like the correct way for this card to end — with McGregor perched atop the Octagon wall, championship gold slung over each shoulder.
UFC 249: Ferguson vs Gaethje
UFC 249 was a memorable one in the Octagon, but even more so because it brought a sense of normalcy to a very not normal time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The card itself was very good — Bryce Mitchell showing his upside with a win over Charles Rosa, Vicente Luque doing “Silent Assassin” things against Niko Price, and Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone giving us WEC nostalgia on the prelims.
On the main card, Calvin Kattar hit a nasty step-in elbow on Jeremy Stephens to earn a finish, Ngannou blitzed Jairzinho Rozenstruik, and Henry Cejudo successfully defended his bantamweight title with a second-round stoppage win over Dominick Cruz before announcing his retirement and promising we’d never have to hear from him again… which wasn’t the case… at all.
In the main event, Justin Gaethje turned in his best performance to that point of his UFC career, halting the lengthy winning streak of perennial contender Tony Ferguson to claim the interim title and set up a clash with Khabib Nurmagomedov later in the year.
This was a welcomed port in the storm during a tumultuous period, and a tremendous night of action in Jacksonville.
UFC 261: Usman vs Masvidal 2
I feel like this fight card is going to be one that ages quite nicely and eventually lands on more of these kinds of lists in the future but, for right now, it registers as a bit of an under-appreciated gem in my opinion.
There was nothing particularly special about the prelims — finishes for Ariane Carnelossi, Danaa Batgerel, Brendan Allen, and Randy Brown — and then the main card started with Jimmy Crute being unable to walk after Anthony Smith kicked him in the calf, and Chris Weidman breaking his shin 17 seconds into his fight with Uriah Hall.
It was honestly trending towards being a bit of a downer before the championship tetra-pack began, and then everything changed.
Valentina Shevchenko turned what was supposed to be a stern test in the form of Jessica Andrade into another masterful, successful title defense, and then Rose Namajunas became a two-time strawweight champ by knocking out Zhang Weili with a beautiful and perfectly executed head kick 78 seconds into the opening round of the co-main event.
A great deal was made about Kamaru Usman facing Jorge Masvidal for a second time in the main event, as “Gamebred” hadn’t fought since their first encounter, and that short-notice bout was not particularly exciting. The challenger promised to “baptize” the champion, but it was Usman that performed that particular ceremony, knocking Masvidal out cold with a clean right hand a minute into the second round to retain the welterweight title.
One after the other, the champions delivered, turning a solid, but unspectacular, night into one of the best cards ever.
UFC Fight Night: Volkov vs Aspinall
Much like when the UFC returned to Dublin in 2014, the promotion’s first trip back to London post-pandemic was special.
The card was chock-a-block with talent from the United Kingdom and, for the most part, those athletes delivered, much to the delight of the electric crowd that packed The O2 Arena.
Muhammad Mokaev looked sharp in his promotional debut, Paul Craig did Paul Craig things against Nikita Krylov, and Sergei Pavlovich ended a two-year absence by blasting through Shamil Abdurakhimov prior to the action shifting to the main card. Ilia Topuria kicked things off by stopping local favorite Jai Herbert, but then Molly McCann set the place alight with a third-round knockout win over Luana Carolina before Gunnar Nelson returned to action and the win column with a victory over Takashi Sato.
The place went nuts for “Paddy the Baddy” as Paddy Pimblett bopped to the Octagon and beat Kazula Vargas in one, which was followed by Arnold Allen doing similar things to Dan Hooker in the co-main event of the evening. To close out the show, British heavyweight hopeful Tom Aspinall ran through Alexander Volkov to take another big step forward in his climb up the rankings.
This was another one of those nights where things just built up one fight after the other through to the main event, the outcomes adding to the excitement and enjoyment of the moment.