Few sports on the planet resonate with the human mind as deeply as mixed martial arts. Much of the reason why is the fierce and enduring rivalries that captivated us. From heroes, villains, and everything in between, here are the 10 greatest rivalries in MMA history.
When Rousey and Tate sparked the original feud in elite women’s mixed martial arts, few could have imagined how far it would go. Rousey was a former Olympic Judo Bronze Medallist with grand designs on flipping the sport on its head. Tate was the reigning Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion, who saw danger from the distance.
One of the greatest MMA rivalries of all time was forged when Rousey submitted Tate in March 2012, taking her title with her. The pair would lock horns once more when the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s CEO Dana White signed both of them to compete in a brand new, women’s bantamweight division. The pair would engage in several public back-and-forths before Rousey asserted dominance for a second time at UFC 168 in 2013.
2) Alex Pereira Vs. Israel Adesanya
One of MMA’s greatest rivalries was born in a Chinese kickboxing promotion named “Glory of Heroes.” This intense duel featured two names that would go on to be counted among the best mixed martial artists on the planet, with both men picking up world titles in the UFC.
Israel Adesanya had already lost twice to Alex Pereira before joining the promotion in 2018. He won his first title by defeating longstanding middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in 2018, just one year before Pereira followed his lead.
The pair would reignite their feud in 2022, with the Brazilian handing Adesanya the first KO loss of his MMA career. It was the first since suffering the same fate at the hands of his foe in 2017 in kickboxing. Adesanya responded by knocking out Pereira in their rematch at UFC 287, setting up what is sure to be one of the most highly-anticipated fights in MMA history.
3) Anderson Silva Vs. Chael Sonnen
The history of MMA could have looked a lot different had Chael Sonnen kept his nerve at UFC 148. Anderson Silva was the closest thing to perfection that MMA had ever seen. But to the obnoxious Sonnen, he was merely a fraud. Following intense berating and verbal sparring, Silva extended an invitation to settle things inside the cage.
Sonnen entered the cage at UFC 117 as a cast-iron outsider. So much so that few could believe what they were seeing as he rag-tagged the middleweight champion for four rounds. With less than two minutes left, Sonnen – ahead on the judges’ scorecards – slipped up, allowing Silva to lock in a triangle armbar. It was one of the greatest comebacks ever seen, and miles away from the one-sided KO win that ended their rivalry at UFC 148.
4) Chuck Liddell Vs. Tito Ortiz
Fortunate young spectators were introduced to the UFC off the back of Liddell vs. Ortiz. Widely regarded as one of the greatest MMA rivalries of all time, some credit the rivalry with sparking global interest in MMA.
This battle between fire and ice would span three fights (and 18 years), with Lidell ending the first two with knockouts. The final fight of the feud, in 2018, was held on a chaotic Oscar De La Hoya MMA card. It was over after 4:24 seconds of the 1st round, with Ortiz claiming revenge for previous losses.
On paper, it may seem strange to consider Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor to be one of the greatest rivalries in MMA history. But there is no getting away from the fact that this fight represented more than just a will to win.
Nurmagomedov was a respectful and disciplined warrior, who stood for everything good about martial arts. McGregor was the brash and cocky prodigal son, intent on avenging the honor of his friend, Artem Lobov. Khabib and his gang clashed with Lobov, prompting McGregor to fly a private jet packed with his “goons” from Dublin. The Irishman and his team smashed a bus carrying “The Eagle” and other fighters into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, leading to his arrest.
The world watched on as both men set a date for their long-awaited showdown. At their pre-fight presser, McGregor attacked Khabib, his team, and even his religion. Nurmagomedov hit back by attacking the Irishman’s homeland and history, although it did not appear to carry the same venom. At UFC 229, the former UFC double champion would be made to atone for his actions.
Khabib vs. McGregor was simply a one-sided beatdown in favor of the Dagestani. In keeping with the circus-like theme, the post-fight brawl and back-and-forth ensured the rivalry would always be remembered. Perhaps for the wrong reasons. Either way, all involved would benefit greatly from 2.4 million pay-per-view sales – the most sold in history.
6) Demetrious Johnson Vs. Adriano Moraes
The UFC has produced many of MMA’s greatest rivalries. But one epic that was forged outside of Las Vegas was Demetrious Johnson vs. Adriano Moraes. Unlike many of the other battles in this article, there was no trash talk or excessive drama – these were two warriors with great respect for each other.
Johnson vs. Moraes 1 was fought in Singapore at ONE on TNT 1 in April 2021. Moraes ended the contest with a deft knee, stopping the ONE Championship flyweight king in his stride. One year later, Johnson would get his revenge, landing a spectacular flying knee in Round 4 that knocked his opponent out. The title was back in the hands of Johnson, who would make it 2-1 the following year with a decision victory at ONE Fight Night 10.
7) Georges St-Pierre Vs. Matt Hughes
Even the consummate professional can lose themselves in healthy rivalries. Georges St-Pierre, widely regarded as one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time, cast his eyes on former champ, Matt Hughes. Following Hughes’ win over Renato Verissimo, St-Pierre entered the Octagon to inform the American he was “not impressed” with his fight style – the former champ accepted the challenge.
It would take Hughes less than one round to submit “GSP” at UFC 50, with the Canadian looking shaky and unsure. Hughes, now the UFC welterweight champion for a second time, would complete a five-fight win streak before running into St-Pierre for a second time at UFC 79. However, this time, GSP would stun his rival with a 2nd round TKO. At UFC 79 in 2007, GSP would land a rivalry-ending armbar in Round 2.
8) Quinton Jackson Vs. Wanderlei Silva
Depending on who you ask, you might hear Jackson vs. Silva described as the ultimate MMA rivalry. But we’re content with discussing it among the greatest rivalries in MMA, instead. And why not? Both “Rampage” and “The Axe Murderer” would be involved in a feud lasting 18 years.
Their first fight took place in the now-defunct Pride promotion in 2003. Jackson battered his way through the Brazilian’s guard with ferocious knees to end the contest and win the promotion’s 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix. The two would run it back in Pride the following year, with Jackson winning by devastating Muay Thai knees once more.
Four years later, Silva got his revenge by knocking Jackson out at UFC 92. Redemption. Finally. And perhaps, it would seem, the end of this most incredible MMA rivalry. But to many a fan’s surprise, there would be one last dance between the pair at Bellator 206 in September 2018. Silva headed into the contest 1-2 down in the feud. The Brazilian legend scored a KO in Round 2 to close things out at 2-2 apiece.
9) Conor McGregor Vs. Nate Diaz
A great warrior plays to their strengths – no strength of Conor McGregor was greater than his tact for mental warfare. The Irishman burst onto the global MMA scene like a hurricane, sweeping everything that stood before him. Much of the two-weight Cage Warriors champion’s success on U.S soil came down to his mouth. Nate Diaz, however, didn’t think much of it.
In many ways, Diaz was the polar opposite of McGregor in the fight game. He didn’t care much for dialogue; his checks were small; he had done things the hard way. The Dubliner – coming off a stunning KO victory over all-time great, Jose Aldo – was soon to realize just how tough things could get in the Octagon. With Rafael dos Anjos pulling out of a lightweight title clash with McGregor, Diaz got a shot to surprise the world.
According to the story, Diaz was enjoying some downtime on a boat when the offer to fight McGregor at welterweight came through. He accepted. Not long after, he was thrust into the spotlight, with global attention focused on his frame. Betting odds were stacked against Diaz, who initially looked no match for the pumped-up Irishman. But at UFC 196, Conor McGregor would be humbled.
The second instalment of one of MMA’s greatest rivalries went down at UFC 202. Both men fought like starved dogs for the last scraps from the table. McGregor edged it by a nose hair, exciting the MMA world for the final, decisive chapter of this enthralling tale. One that would, at least at the time of writing, never come to fruition.
Mixed martial arts rivalries have come and gone. Few have left such a lasting impression as Jones vs. Cormier. These two warriors represented different things to different folks. Jon Jones, the prodigious phenom, was touted as everything from the Muhammad Ali of MMA to Superman. But beneath the veneer, Rochester’s favorite fighting son was troubled.
It took UFC fans a long time to warm up to Cormier. When his first fight with Jones was announced, many saw the NCAA D1 wrestling standout as nothing less than another pin to knock over. But if you study footage of Jones’ attitude and demeanor from around that time, it looked as though he saw nothing less than a fierce rivalry. For once, it appeared that Jon Jones had a worthy adversary.
Few observers had expected Jones to struggle with Cormier. At UFC 182, the oddsmakers looked spot on with the assertion that this was a fight Jones, the UFC lightweight champ, would win comfortably. Which he did. Before and after the fight, both men clashed both physically and verbally, with accusations of drug use thrown Jones’ way. But what most fans saw was a sore loser.
By the time Jones vs. Cormier 2 arrived in July 2017, the rivalry was legendary. Both bickered online, with all kinds of threats and spikes exchanged between the pair. Many spats involved Jones’ drug use, which he vehemently denied. Jones went on to knock Cormier out with a head kick KO – but following post-fight tests, he was stripped of his title for testing positive for steroids. Having already served over a year on the sidelines for failed drug tests, Jones was disgraced.
Cormier suddenly had a whole new fanbase. One that he could carry into the arena when the men would meet for the definitive chapter of their story. But just like other great MMA rivalries on this list, there is always one last time – the problem is that some warriors never know when to give up. But in the annals of MMA history, the Jones-Cormier rivalry will also take some beating.
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