For 26 years, the UFC has been home to the best fighters on the planet — great champions in every weight class, with technique in the Octagon and charisma outside of it.
When things get personal between opponents in the UFC, one could say business picks up.
There’s nothing in combat sports like a grudge match, and the UFC has produced them in spades. One of MMA’s most epic blood feuds is chronicled in ESPN’s 30 for 30 “Chuck & Tito,” which premieres Tuesday. Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz are two of the biggest names in UFC history, and the only thing that burned brighter than their stardom was their dislike for each other.
In honor of “Chuck & Tito,” ESPN takes a look at five of the top rivalries in UFC history.
Diaz, fresh off a win over Michael Johnson on Dec. 19, 2015, pulled the microphone closer to his mouth and let loose, live on Fox: “Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for, m—–f—–! I’m gonna fight your f—in’ ass!” And so perhaps the greatest feud in UFC history was birthed — the hard-nosed tough guy from Stockton, California, against the equally foulmouthed consummate showman from Dublin, Ireland.
McGregor vs. Diaz didn’t come together right away. It took a wild twist of fate. McGregor was supposed to challenge for the UFC lightweight title against Rafael dos Anjos in March 2016. But Dos Anjos broke his foot and withdrew 11 days out. In stepped Diaz, three months after his initial callout, and the rest is history.
Diaz, a heavy underdog, stunned McGregor via second-round submission after taking a heck of a beating early at UFC 196 on March 5, 2016. It was McGregor’s first UFC loss, though he went up two weight classes to face Diaz at welterweight. On Aug. 20, 2016, McGregor avenged the defeat, beating Diaz by majority decision at UFC 202. The events were two of the biggest ever for the UFC on pay-per-view. They catapulted McGregor’s brand to new heights, making him the biggest moneymaking star in UFC history. And Diaz suddenly became a household name after toiling as a pro for 12 years.
The rivalry bred hatred — including the two sides throwing bottles and energy drink cans at each other during a pre-UFC 202 news conference — but also mutual respect. The best part: It is far from over. A trilogy fight between the two is likely, and it will be one of the biggest bouts in UFC lore.
Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz
Liddell and Ortiz came up together on the red-hot Southern California MMA scene. Both were managed for a time by current UFC president Dana White. The two fighters were friends and didn’t have a desire to fight each other for a long time, at least according to Ortiz. Heading into their first fight at UFC 47 in 2004, Liddell said Ortiz was using that “friendship” as an excuse to duck him. Liddell never really liked Ortiz all that much, and he wasn’t afraid to let everyone know.
Independently of each other, Liddell and Ortiz had become two of the biggest stars in the fledgling sport of MMA — Liddell the brawling knockout artist, Ortiz the brute-like wrestler with a wide fan base among fellow Mexican Americans. Each had his own kind of charisma. Liddell was the strong, silent type. Ortiz was the kind of guy to pantomime digging graves after finishing opponents. The two were very much opposites, right down to their attire. Liddell, “The Iceman,” wore icicle graphics on his shorts; Ortiz wore flames.
They were long on a collision course, and Liddell knocked out his frenemy in the second round at UFC 47 on April 2, 2004. Liddell knocked out Randy Couture two fights later to become UFC light heavyweight champion. Ortiz was able to win five in a row to get back into title contention. The two met again on Dec. 30, 2006 at UFC 66 with both at the top of the sport, and it was the biggest pay-per-view event in UFC history at the time, garnering more than 1 million buys. Liddell would win by TKO in the third round.
A third fight was booked several times, but it didn’t come to fruition until November 2018 under the Golden Boy MMA banner. Ortiz finally got his revenge, knocking out Liddell in the first round.
Jones and Cormier started off on the wrong foot, and the dislike of each other has only grown deeper. In 2010, Cormier was with teammate Cain Velasquez when he won the UFC heavyweight title against Brock Lesnar. Jones was backstage and was told Cormier was a former wrestling Olympian. Jones went up to Cormier and jokingly told him he could take him down. Cormier, who was in only his second year as a pro fighter, saw it as a show of disrespect.
The two met in the Octagon for the first time in January 2015. The lead-up was ugly, with a lot of back-and-forth on social media and a brawl in the MGM Grand lobby during a press event that earned them both fines from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Jones won definitively by unanimous decision to retain the UFC light heavyweight title.
The saga took a major turn after that. Jones was arrested on felony hit-and-run charges and later convicted. The UFC suspended him and stripped him of the title, and Cormier ended up winning the vacant belt. Jones was supposed to return in July 2016 at UFC 200 — billed as the biggest event in promotion history — to attempt to get the title back from Cormier. But a positive Jones drug test result came back the week of that fight and the bout was canceled. Jones finally returned at UFC 214 in July 2017 and beat Cormier by third-round TKO, but that was later overturned to a no contest when Jones failed another drug test. Cormier was given back the title.
The two have not stopped going at each other in interviews and social media over the past five years. And it doesn’t look like there will be closure. Cormier has said he’ll fight just once more, against Stipe Miocic in a trilogy for the UFC heavyweight title Cormier once had. Jones, meanwhile, has again taken his place atop the light heavyweight division. Jones and Cormier are two of the best fighters to ever grace the Octagon.
Unlike the other rivalries on this list, Liddell vs. Couture was short on trash talk. But what it lacked in vitriol, it made up for in a big way in sheer influence. Liddell and Couture were two stars — along with Ortiz — who helped the UFC gain major traction. They fought three times. When the trilogy started, the UFC was in the hole financially. When it ended, it was one of the biggest rising sports entities in the world.
In their first fight for the interim UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 43 in 2003, Couture was counted out. He was 40 years old and on a two-fight losing streak at heavyweight. Meanwhile, Liddell had won 10 in a row and was the promotion’s superstar-in-waiting. Couture, a former Olympian, ended up winning by third-round TKO with a steady diet of takedowns and ground and pound. The victory made Couture, who twice previously held the heavyweight belt, the first UFC fighter to win titles in two different weight classes. That fight also represented Couture’s run atop the UFC, earning him the nickname “Captain America.”
Couture vs. Liddell 2 was among the most important fights in UFC history. The two coached opposite each other on the inaugural season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” the reality show that is credited with keeping the then-floundering UFC alive. UFC 52 on April 16, 2005, which Liddell and Couture headlined, produced what was then the best live gate ($2,575,450) and most pay-per-view buys (280,000) for the promotion. Liddell would get revenge, knocking out Couture in the first round.
The trilogy had even more success a year later. UFC 57 set records for gate ($3.3 million) and PPV buys (more than 400,000). Liddell was at the height of his popularity, and Couture was fielding a bevy of television and film offers. Liddell knocked out Couture in the second round to win the series. Without the Liddell-Couture fights, who knows where the UFC would be today.
For the UFC and Silva, this rivalry could not have come at a better time. Dana White might never have been angrier after an event than he was at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. Silva put on a lackluster performance, to say the least, against Demian Maia. The UFC middleweight champion easily defended his title against the outgunned Maia, but he spent more time clowning his Brazilian countryman than fighting him. Silva was bored. He was the best fighter on the planet — arguably the best who ever lived — but his motivation seemed lacking. Enter Sonnen. Previously a bland (but skilled) journeyman, Sonnen amped up the trash talk as he climbed the middleweight ladder toward Silva. Sonnen’s charismatic, witty verbal takedowns of Silva changed the game in many ways regarding the way fights are promoted. And he provided the perfect foil for Silva, a champion who was not moving the needle on pay-per-view.
Best yet, Sonnen almost snapped Silva’s 12-fight winning streak and prematurely ended his title reign. Sonnen dominated Silva for the better part of five rounds — until Silva, from his back, cinched in a Hail Mary triangle choke at UFC 117 on Aug. 7, 2010. Sonnen tapped out at 3:10 of the fifth round. It was one of the greatest comebacks in MMA history, and Silva was suddenly golden in the eyes of the fans again. They wanted to see the arrogant Sonnen get his comeuppance, and he did in heartbreaking fashion.
In his next bout, Silva beat countryman Vitor Belfort with a highlight-reel knockout. That victory (and Silva’s surging popularity) is credited with making the UFC mainstream in Brazil, where it now holds a multimillion-dollar broadcast deal with Globo. Silva and Sonnen met again at UFC 148 in 2012, a card that pulled in well over 1 million pay-per-view buys and generated a gate of nearly $7 million. Silva won by second-round TKO.