2023 marks the 30th year of the UFC, and over the past three decades, we’ve seen some truly incredible action inside the octagon.
Every year that the UFC has been in existence, we’ve been treated to some unbelievable knockouts in particular, with punches, kicks and slams all being responsible.
With the sport of MMA evolving over those years, we’ve also seen skills develop in the octagon, meaning strikes that would’ve seemed impossible in 1993 are now commonplace in 2023.
Here, then, are the best knockouts from every year of the UFC’s existence, starting with the period from 1993 to 2002.
#1. Gerard Gordeau vs. Teili Tuli – UFC 1 (1993)
The UFC’s first event wasn’t quite like the Jean Claude Van Damme movie it’s often made out to be. It was, in many ways, a vehicle for Royce Gracie and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
However, that didn’t stop it from producing some crazy action. With just a handful of rules, per say, and confusion over how fights could be stopped, nobody was really sure what to expect.
Incredibly, it didn’t take long for the event to produce some serious violence. The first bout of the night saw kickboxer Gerard Gordeau take on former sumo wrestler Teila Tuli. Within the opening seconds, Gordeau struck.
He avoided a rush from Tuli, shoved him aside, and then kicked him square in the mouth. A right hand followed and the referee immediately called the fight off, sensing that the sumo wrestler was done.
In a gory scene post-fight, Tuli’s tooth was shown on the canvas, a sure sign that he hadn’t worn a mouthpiece. This was a brutal way to start the first UFC event, and the promotion never looked back.
#2. Patrick Smith vs. Scott Morris – UFC 2 (1994)
If UFC 1 had produced some confusion around the rules of the octagon, then the promotion’s second event didn’t help matters either. In many ways, the event caused even more violence than before.
The most brutal knockout of 1994, then, was Patrick Smith’s savage finish of Scott Morris, a purported practitioner of ninjitsu. It took Smith a matter of seconds to secure a takedown, and from there, he quickly took full mount and began to utterly destroy Morris’ face with a series of elbows.
With the supposed ninja’s face now resembling a cold pizza, the fight was clearly over – only Morris’ corner refused to throw in the towel despite the pleas of referee John McCarthy.
Instead, Smith essentially called the fight off himself, potentially saving the life of his opponent. It was a scary moment, and it remains memorable – and historic – today.
After this brutal finish, McCarthy forced the UFC to change its rules to ensure that a referee could step in if a fighter failed to intelligently defend himself. It was arguably the first step MMA took towards cleaning itself up.
#3. Tank Abbott vs. John Matua – UFC 6 (1995)
While he didn’t actually win a title or one of the promotion’s tournaments, David ‘Tank’ Abbott quickly became a cult hero to early UFC fans.
Billed as a pitfighter or a street fighter, Abbott eschewed traditional martial arts and preferred to fight like he was brawling in a local bar. The first taste of his style that fans were treated to came in 1995, when he produced the year’s best knockout.
Faced with 400-pound Hawaiian John Matua, ‘Tank’ stunned his opponent with his first punch and didn’t let up. He hit Matua with a ferocious flurry and left him convulsing on the ground, with his arms flailing in the air.
When Abbott then mocked those convulsions in his post-fight celebration, a star was born. This knockout remains one of the most memorable in octagon history, even nearly 30 years later.
#4. Don Frye vs. Thomas Ramirez – UFC 8 (1996)
One of the first fighters to really blend striking and grappling together successfully, Don Frye won two tournaments during his time with the promotion.
Had there been weight classes back then, Frye would’ve been a shoe-in to win gold at 205 pounds, and he remains one of the most historically underrated fighters in the promotion’s history. ‘The Predator’ also almost certainly produced the best knockout of 1996.
Matched against an opponent in Thomas Ramirez, who weighed over 400 pounds in his octagon debut, Frye needed just eight seconds to win the bout. He walked out, pawed with a jab and then landed a quick flurry that put the big man down, knocking him completely unconscious.
It was a red-hot start for ‘The Predator’, who went onto win UFC 8’s tournament with two more wins later that night.
#5. Vitor Belfort vs. Scott Ferrozzo – UFC 12 (1997)
While fighters like Don Frye and Tank Abbott had won fights in the UFC’s early days with their boxing skills, nobody had seen anything quite like Vitor Belfort when the Brazilian debuted in 1997.
Initially billed as a jiu-jitsu grappler, ‘The Phenom’ instead stunned everyone with his ludicrous hand speed and punching power. His debut knockout of Tra Telligman was impressive, but his finish of Scott Ferrozzo later at UFC 12 was even more stunning.
Despite being outweighed considerably, Belfort’s hand speed negated any size advantage that ‘The Pitbull’ had. He popped Ferrozzo with a jab, then dropped him with a left hand before hammering him with punches on the ground to put him away.
It was a truly scary showing from Belfort, who was just 19 years old at the time. While he never quite reached his potential, at the time, it was hard not to believe that the greatest fighter ever had just debuted.
#6. Frank Shamrock vs. Igor Zinoviev – UFC 16 (1998)
When Frank Shamrock claimed the UFC’s inaugural 205-pound title in 1997, a new era was essentially ushered in for the promotion. Unlike his predecessors, Shamrock was a fully-rounded mixed martial artist able to finish an opponent in any facet of the game.
He proved that by producing not only 1998’s best knockout, but probably the best slam knockout in MMA history, too, when he faced Igor Zinoviev in his first title defense.
With just seconds gone in the fight, Shamrock quickly shot for a takedown and hoisted Zinoviev into the air, over his shoulder. From there, he drove the Russian down into the mat, knocking him unconscious immediately.
The finish was so violent that Zinoviev suffered fractures to the collarbone and spine and would never fight in MMA again. 25 years later, it’s a finish that’s never really been replicated.
#7. Brad Kohler vs. Steve Judson – UFC 22 (1999)
The most obscure fighter to make this list is undoubtedly Brad Kohler, who unexpectedly scored 1999’s best knockout when he dispatched fellow unknown Steve Judson.
At this point, the UFC was well into its so-called ‘Dark Ages’ period, with few fans outside of hardcores following the promotion. That probably explains why a knockout as good as Kohler’s has largely been forgotten.
Essentially, the heavyweight stepped forward, landed a short right hook to the jaw of his opponent, and caused him to fall face-first, completely unconscious. It was such a violent shot that Judson almost appeared to have been hit by a sniper in the crowd.
Kohler never fought in the octagon again, but this knockout belongs on any list of all-time greats. It’s disappointing that more modern highlight reels don’t include it.
#8. Jens Pulver vs. John Lewis – UFC 28 (2000)
The UFC’s first lightweight champion, Jens Pulver, gained somewhat of a reputation for a safe approach during his time with the title. However, that wasn’t the case earlier in his career.
In fact, ‘Little Evil’ produced the best knockout of 2000 when he took out skilled grappler John Lewis with a single punch, ending his MMA career in the process.
Like many great knockouts, it didn’t take Pulver too long to deliver. After gaging the distance, he quickly stepped forward and leveled Lewis with a hard left hand, dropping him like a ton of bricks. ‘Little Evil’ didn’t even need to follow up as it was immediately clear that Lewis was done.
It later transpired that Lewis’ jaw had been shattered by the punch, showing exactly how much power Pulver actually packed for a smaller man.
#9. Shonie Carter vs. Matt Serra – UFC 31 (2001)
2001 was the year that saw the course of UFC history change for good, as the promotion was bought out by the Fertitta brothers and Dana White. It also featured a ridiculous number of great knockouts, but one stands out more than the others.
The knockout in question saw Shonie Carter become the first fighter to finish an opponent in the octagon with a spinning backfist, as he dispatched Matt Serra in the third round, writing himself into octagon legend in the process.
Remarkably, ‘Mr International’ had already used the low-percentage, flashy strike to drop Serra earlier in the fight. At that time, ‘The Terror’ was able to recover.
When Carter repeated the trick, faking a low kick to throw the spinning strike, it was more effective. The future welterweight champion went crashing down and Carter had scored a highlight reel finish for the ages.
More than two decades on, this knockout still regularly appears in official video packages.
#10. Chuck Liddell vs. Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral – UFC 40 (2002)
2002 was another year filled with great knockouts, making this one a difficult choice. However, due to sheer brutality, it’s hard to top Chuck Liddell’s finish of Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral.
The fight took place at UFC 40, an event that saw light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz defend his title against pioneer Ken Shamrock. It was the promotion’s first real pay-per-view hit for years.
Liddell was actually positioned as the top contender at the time, but chose to step aside, recognizing how big an Ortiz vs. Shamrock bout could be for the promotion.
Showing remarkable faith in his own ability, though, ‘The Iceman’ didn’t simply wait in the wings. Instead, he took a fight with the tough Sobral, knowing that more eyeballs would be on him than ever before.
In the end, the risk paid off handily. After a feeling-out process in the first round, Liddell caught Sobral leaning for a takedown and countered with a brutal left kick to the head. ‘Babalu’ was sent flying to the ground, and ‘The Iceman’ wasted no time in following up to put him away.
If anything, it was a performance more impressive than Ortiz’s win over Shamrock, and it signified the trajectory that the light heavyweight division was about to go in.