The 5 greatest Lightweight title fights in UFC history
- The Lightweight division has given us some classic title fights over the years - but these are the five greatest.
- BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar and Khabib Nurmagomedov have all been involved in classic title fights.
The UFC’s Lightweight division might’ve taken a while to warm up – it was even scrapped for a while, between August 2004 and March 2006 as the promotion struggled financially prior to the TUF boom. But for the past decade or so, it’s arguably been MMA’s best and most talent-filled division.
Since Jens Pulver won the UFC’s Lightweight title back at UFC 30 in 2001, we’ve seen plenty of classic title fights between the best fighters at 155lbs, with names like BJ Penn, Conor McGregor and current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov all involved in some true classics.
While we’re all waiting – and hoping – that the next title fight between champion Nurmagomedov and top contender Tony Ferguson can happen next month, here’s a look at the best five UFC Lightweight title fights we’ve seen to date, in chronological order.
#1 Jens Pulver vs. BJ Penn – UFC 35
The UFC’s inaugural Lightweight champion, Jens Pulver, made two defenses of his title before departing the UFC after some contract issues. The first was an absolute stinker against Dennis Hallman at UFC 33, but the second was a forgotten classic against BJ Penn at UFC 35 in January 2002.
Penn came in as the hot-favorite, surprisingly enough. ‘The Prodigy’ had debuted less than a year before his title shot but had ran through his first three opponents like a knife through butter and had taken out Caol Uno in a matter of seconds in his most recent fight.
Pulver, on the other hand, was more workmanlike; he’d only finished one opponent – John Lewis – in his UFC career and his fight with Uno, although he won, was a close one to call.
But in this fight, it was Pulver’s gritty style that won the day. Sure, Penn had him in trouble on a couple of occasions, most notably with an armbar in the second round that had ‘Little Evil’ tapping out, but only after the buzzer had sounded to end the stanza.
Overall though, Pulver outwrestled the Hawaiian, taking him down on a couple of occasions, and generally outboxed him too, even stunning him in the fifth round – something that’d prove tricky for any fighter to do to Penn in later years.
Was the fight full of fast-paced action? Not exactly, but this was a back-and-forth, tactical fight that showed Pulver at his best – a gritty, super-tough fighter who wouldn’t back down even against the most dangerous opponent he’d ever faced.
The fact that it also launched a feud that fueled the best season of The Ultimate Fighter – TUF 5 – makes it well worth watching, too.
#2 BJ Penn vs. Sean Sherk – UFC 84
After two years on hiatus, the Lightweight division returned to the UFC in 2006 and the promotion soon crowned a new champion, as Sean Sherk outpointed Kenny Florian for the vacant title at UFC 64.
It didn’t take long for the 155lbers to endear themselves to the fans. The likes of Tyson Griffin, Clay Guida, and Frankie Edgar put on enough fun fights to ensure that, but it quickly became clear that what the Lightweight division really needed to get back on the map was a blood feud.
That’s what we got in 2008, in the form of BJ Penn vs. Sean Sherk. To briefly recap the feud, Penn returned to 155lbs in 2007 and beat his old rival Jens Pulver, but before he could challenge Sherk for the title, ‘The Muscle Shark’ tested positive for nandrolone and was suspended, vacating his title in the process.
Sherk denied ever using the drug, but by the time he came back, Penn had captured the title by defeating Joe Stevenson – and was gunning for the former champion, who he saw as an outright cheat. Suddenly, UFC 84’s subtitle – ‘Ill Will’ – made perfect sense.
The fight was an excellent one, too, and would stand as the only time that someone really pushed Penn at 155lbs until he was dethroned by Frankie Edgar two years later.
Sherk – always at a disadvantage in a striking match due to his short arms – actually took the fight to ‘The Prodigy’ with his boxing and tagged him with some combinations and leg kicks in the early rounds, despite the crowd being firmly against him – even chanting “steroids” at points.
Slowly but surely though, Penn – and his ramrod jab – began to take over the fight, bloodying Sherk up and stopping him in his tracks.
By the latter part of the third round, ‘The Muscle Shark’ was clearly struggling, and with seconds to go, Penn caught him with an uppercut that staggered him – and followed with a flying knee that sent him crashing to the ground before landing some follow-up shots.
The buzzer then sounded to end the round, but in a strange turn of events, Penn appeared to call the fight off himself, yelling “he’s done” – and sure enough, referee Mario Yamasaki agreed and stopped things there.
Penn would go onto have more dominant title defenses – against Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez – in 2009, but this was the fight that really launched him as a superstar, and it stands as one of the best title fights at 155lbs in UFC history.
#3 Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard – UFC 125 and UFC 136
Frankie Edgar’s reign as UFC Lightweight champion isn’t remembered fondly by most UFC fans. Not only did he dethrone a hugely popular champion in BJ Penn, but despite holding the title for the best part of two years, he only fought three fighters during that time period.
If you take into account the rematch he was given with Benson Henderson after losing the title to him, it felt like his entire reign was encompassed by never-ending rematches.
However, that’s doing a massive disservice to his two fights with Gray Maynard in 2011; either one could’ve made this list but it’s easier to discuss them in one slot, as the first ended in a draw, meaning the second one felt more like a continuation of the first.
Incredibly, both fights followed a similar pattern; the larger, more powerful Maynard came out of the gates like a bull in a china shop, destroying Edgar with strikes and seemingly having him close to being finished on numerous occasions.
Somehow though, in both fights, ‘The Answer’ was able to will himself back from the dead, and in the first – despite being battered from pillar to post in the opening round – he did just enough to secure a split draw.
The second fight started in exactly the same way. ‘The Bully’ absolutely destroyed the champion in the opening round, knocking him down on two occasions and busting his nose up badly.
Despite this, he couldn’t put Edgar away, and evidently decided to conserve energy, he slowed down dramatically in the second round.
That turned out to be a big mistake; Maynard had allowed Edgar far too much time to recover, and by the third round, he seemed to be back in the fight.
The fourth round saw ‘The Answer’ looking more confident, and with just over a minute to go, when Maynard defended a takedown, Edgar saw an opportunity and took it, landing a thudding uppercut that put the challenger down.
‘The Bully’ popped up, but Edgar was quickly on him, and a series of follow-up punches put him down for good, ending the rivalry once and for all.
The first title fight between the two was perhaps the better one in terms of overall quality, but the second somehow managed to top it in terms of drama, and if you were ever unconvinced by Edgar’s title credentials, watching these fights would definitely be enough to change your mind.
#4 Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor – UFC 229
This one was, of course, the most highly-anticipated fight in UFC history – until Khabib vs. Ferguson of course – as it pit the reigning, defending, unbeaten champion in Nurmagomedov against the man who never actually lost the title – as well as the biggest star in the history of the sport – in Conor McGregor.
The show that the fight headlined – UFC 229 – ended up drawing 2.4m buys on pay-per-view, blowing away the UFC’s previous record, but did the action live up to the hype?
Well, kind of. As much as a largely one-sided fight can, at any rate. The general consensus going in was that ‘The Notorious One’ would have a shot at winning if he could prevent Nurmagomedov from taking him down, but that proved to be impossible.
The Dagestani took him down in the first round and beat him up, and in the second, he outright knocked him down with a big right hand before hammering him with ground-and-pound.
‘The Eagle’ largely took the third round off, allowing McGregor fans some hope, but by the fourth round he put the pressure back on the Irishman, took him down again, and this time he was able to take his back and apply a neck crank, forcing him to tap out.
The fight has, of course, gained far more notoriety for what happened after the finish. Nurmagomedov leaped into the crowd to attack McGregor’s grappling coach Dillon Danis, while the Dagestani’s teammates brawled with ‘The Notorious One’ inside the Octagon, but in all honesty, even before that debacle, the fight basically delivered the goods anyway.
Was it as good as Edgar vs. Maynard or Pulver vs. Penn? Certainly not, but as a big fight it’s definitely worth seeing if somehow, you haven’t seen it already.
#5 Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway – UFC 236
Okay, so this fight was technically for the interim UFC Lightweight title rather than the “real” title – which was still held by Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was suspended following the UFC 229 debacle – but it’s too good of a fight to be left off a list like this.
When the UFC put it together – pitting top contender Poirier against the reigning UFC Featherweight champ Holloway – it sounded like we’d be guaranteed fireworks, and the two definitely didn’t let us down.
The fight turned out to be a brawl for the ages, as both men came out swinging for the fences, trading openly literally from the first moment of the first round until the last moment of the fifth.
The story of the fight turned out to be all about power; Holloway arguably landed more volume than Poirier, but ‘The Diamond’ – a much larger man – clearly landed the harder blows.
Each round saw both men land some huge shots, but ‘Blessed’ was the one who looked more hurt when Poirier was landing, and by the end of the fight, he was visibly worse off, looking like he’d been slashed with a machete across his forehead.
Even so, it was a tough fight to score; the fourth round actually ended with the Hawaiian firing combinations at Poirier while screaming abuse at him.
In the end, though, the judges awarded Poirier the fight, all three scoring it 49-46 to award him the interim title.
And although he would go onto lose in his attempt at unifying the titles when he was defeated by Nurmagomedov later in 2019, fans of ‘The Diamond’ can still console themselves with one thing: Khabib had never put on a fight this good in his career.Published 26 Mar 2020, 02:42 IST