Trying to put on what could potentially be the biggest heavyweight title fight in UFC history is no small task. You have to spend money marketing the event to inform and educate the public about the participants, try to secure sponsors and endorsement deals to offset the costs of production, and make sure all the licensing and regulation requirements are satisfied with the athletic commission. And even if you manage to turn a profit, about half of each pay-per-view buy automatically goes to your cable, satellite or internet distributor.

That’s why it must be refreshing to the UFC brass when they get to promote a fight using words like “heavyweight championship of the world” and “trilogy” or “greatest rivalry,” as they did last month at UFC 166 when Cain Velasquez successfully defended his title against former champion Junior dos Santos, the only man ever to defeat him. Of course, it begs the questions: was this really the greatest rivalry in UFC history, or was it just another well-marketed rematch?

Rivalries and rubber matches have always and will always be a staple of the fight business, but they don’t always deliver. Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski were the best the UFC’s heavyweight division had to offer from 2005 to 2006, and yet they’re both most known for getting knocked out by Fedor Emelianenko after leaving the UFC. Some rematches seem like a big deal at the time, like B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver, but ultimately play out the way you would expect. Even as exciting as the Matt Hughes-Frank Trigg fights were, they only helped solidify Hughes’ legacy, with Trigg being another victim on his way to the Hall of Fame. Others, however, have the perfect mix of personal conflict, significance in the division, and excitement upon delivery to be worthy of the title “Greatest Rivalry in UFC History.”

On Jun. 6, 2003, two future UFC Hall of Famers stepped into the Octagon to vie for the interim UFC light heavyweight title. Chuck Liddell was the heavy favorite, and despite not being a UFC champion, was widely considered the best 205er in the UFC, if not the world. Randy Couture, a former two-time UFC heavyweight champion at this point, had just come off back-to-back losses prior to his drop to 205 pounds and was seen as a placeholder on the card so that Liddell could eventually fight the man who held the belt at the time, Tito Ortiz. Couture, though, shocked the world by finishing Liddell with strikes, and later moved on to unify the belts and become the undisputed UFC light heavyweight champion.

Liddell would work his way back up the ladder, and the two would square off again on Apr. 16, 2005, with Liddell ending the fight early in the first round via knockout, the result many expected in the first fight. This inevitably would set up a third bout less than a year later, with Liddell once again winning by knockout, but this time in the second round.

Although the second and third fights never shocked us the way the first did, they did generate significant interest and pay-per-view numbers in a time when the UFC was still having a hard time staying out of the red, even after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. If it wasn’t for that first shocking upset, we would have never had a second or third fight. And let’s not forget that the only reason they fought in the first place was because of Ortiz’s refusal to initially fight Liddell.

You can’t talk about Liddell-Couture unless you also talk about Liddell-Ortiz. The two men should have fought each other long before their Apr. 2, 2004 encounter. This time there was no title on the line, or even a guaranteed title shot , but there was plenty of bad blood and hype. Due to Ortiz’s long reign as the UFC champion and his notorious ground-and-pound style, there was without a doubt many who felt he stood a fair chance of defeating “The Iceman.” But Liddell’s ability to avoid the takedown and tear Ortiz apart standing led to a second-round knockout victory for Liddell. Liddell went on to score six straight wins via some form of knockout, capturing the UFC light heavyweight title along the way and ending with a third-round TKO over Ortiz for the title on Dec. 30, 2006.

To Ortiz’s credit, he did earn five straight wins before their rematch, but without a doubt the level of competition was not nearly as stiff as the murderers’ row that Liddell disposed of in devastating fashion. Despite Liddell winning both encounters, a third fight was booked for Jun. 12, 2010, after the two coached on the 11th season of The Ultimate Fighter, but Ortiz had to withdraw from the bout due to an injury. It’s unlikely anyone lost any sleep over there not being as trilogy, as most anticipated the fight would end very similar to the first two. Nonetheless, the personal rivalry outside the cage more than made up for how one-sided each affair was inside the cage.

As long as we’re discussing Ortiz and light-heavyweight rivalries, we cannot leave out his trilogy with Ken Shamrock. The two first met when Ortiz was still the UFC champion and Shamrock was returning to the Octagon after a less than successful stint in Pride. Their feud, however, goes back further.

Shamrock felt Ortiz had long been “disrespecting” him and the other fighters who trained at Lion’s Den in Las Vegas. Regardless of whether or not Shamrock was a legitimate contender, he was still one of the biggest names in MMA at the time. On Nov. 22, 2002, Shamrock got one last chance at UFC gold. Ultimately, he lost to Ortiz via TKO when his corner threw in the towel at the end of the third round.

However, nearly four years later, both men were still big enough draws to warrant a rematch. After coaching opposite each other on season three of The Ultimate Fighter and ultimately building the rivalry further, a rematch occurred on Jul. 8, 2006. Ortiz won via TKO in the first round.

Normally, a third fight only happens when each fighter is takes a victory in the first pair of fights, but the stoppage was questionable enough and the fight marketable enough that the UFC decided to put on a third fight. It would also end via TKO in the first round, to nobody’s surprise. Thankfully, it put an end to the feud once and for all. Ortiz would go on to come up short in one last title fight, and Shamrock would never again fight in the UFC.

With so many interesting rivalries in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, one might be apt to forget about one of the craziest rivalries to occur in recent history in the heavyweight division. We are, of course, referring to Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir.

Lesnar had only fought in MMA once after leaving a very successful career in the WWE and a far less significant stint in the NFL. So, as expected, Mir, the veteran fighter and former champion, took the opportunity to label Lesnar as what everyone thought he was, a freak-show fighter. Lesnar was able to take Mir down and do damage with his lunchbox hands, but Mir, the always game opponent, secured a kneebar and it didn’t take long for Lesnar to tap.

Lesnar’s performance, however, earned him another fight in the UFC. He defeated Heath Herring and went on to capture the UFC title with a win over Couture. Mir went on to win the interim title, and the two squared off a second time at the famed UFC 100 to unify the belts.

Mir had nearly four times as many fights as Lesnar, and he didn’t hide his distaste for the fact that Lesnar was wearing the belt. Lesnar responded in kind by pounding his way to a second-round TKO victory, and he even let his anger carry over after the fight with some disrespectful antics towards Mir and one of the UFC’s sponsors at the time, Bud Light.

A third bout was always expected at some point, and efforts were made at one point or another to put it together, but it never came to fruition. Mir came up short in two more title fights opposite Shane Carwin and Junior dos Santos, and Lesnar successfully defended the title once more, but then lost his next two fights and ultimately retired from the sport of MMA. Regardless of what eventually became of both men’s careers, this was such a unique and interesting rivalry to have, and the fights themselves were so exciting, that it is possible such an occurrence will never happen again, making it that much more special.

There are without a doubt other rivalries with famous fighters, such as Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard, B.J. Penn-Matt Hughes, GSP-Hughes, or even GSP-Penn, but the light heavyweight rivalries involving Liddell, Ortiz, Couture and Shamrock occurred at a time when the UFC was desperate for superstars to build a brand and grow the sport into what it is today. There will also always be something special about the “Brock Era,” however short-lived it was, and maybe part of what makes it so special is because it only lasted a short while.

It’s hard to say for certain if Velasquez-Dos Santos tops these other epic bouts, but when two men as skilled and athletic as these two fight—and they are without a doubt the two best heavyweights of their era—you can only hope history will judge them properly. Besides, there’s no guarantee we won’t see a fourth fight in the future, which is something none of these other great rivalries can or will ever claim. And that’s the bottom line.

Photo: Cain Velasquez (L) battles Junior dos Santos (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Justin Fuller
Associate Editor/Senior Writer

Justin Fuller is a writer, broadcaster, and political analyst. With a background in sports talk radio, he now runs his own podcast, "The Fuller Fight Factor LIVE."