Trilogies in combat sports are as old as time itself and have always been an integral part of fighting culture.
As we inch closer to UFC 276, and the third installment of Alexander Volkanovski (24-1, 11-0 UFC) vs Max Holloway (23-6, 19-6 UFC), we thought it would be fun to look back on the greatest trilogies in UFC history. There have been some doozies throughout the promotion’s storied past, so buckle up while we go for a ride down memory lane.
5: BJ Penn vs Matt Hughes (UFC 46, UFC 63, UFC 123)
The trilogy between BJ Penn and Matt Hughes took place over the course of six years. There were no instant rematches or quick turnarounds for these two. Their first meeting took place in 2004, at UFC 46. The bout saw Penn move up a weight class to challenge Hughes for the welterweight strap. It didn’t take long for the ‘Prodigy’ to make a statement and silence the critics.
Penn controlled a good portion of the fight, as he stuck to Matt like a wet blanket. Penn was able to control, punish, and exhaust the hard-working farm boy. By the final minute of the very first round, Hughes was tired, and in deep trouble. With only twenty-one seconds left, Penn slid in a rear-naked choke, forcing Hughes to tap. The win by Penn is listed as the sixteenth biggest upset of all time by Tapology.
Two years would pass before the two legends would face off once again. In those two years, the ‘Prodigy’ was stripped of his title due to a contract dispute. Hughes would end up facing Georges St Pierre for the vacant championship, where he regained his welterweight crown. UFC 63 had a much different vibe over their first meeting. The world knew Hughes was beatable, and they knew Penn was the man for the job. Hughes wasn’t having any of it that night in 2006, as he would beat Penn via TKO stoppage in the third round.
Despite having to overcome an eye poke, and multiple submission attempts from Penn, Hughes was able to get Penn in the crucifix, where he had his way until the referee was forced to intervene. With each man even at one fight a piece, it was only a matter of time before the third meeting.
It would be four long years before the two would meet again. Both fighters on differing paths would collide for the final time at UFC 123 in November of 2010. Penn would only need a few seconds to end Matt’s night and put a stamp on the rivalry between the two. In under 30 seconds, Penn was able to land a vicious right hand that sent Hughes to the canvas. The Hawaiian then followed up with brutal ground and pound that left Hughes lifeless in front of the Detroit crowd. Penn’s victory snapped a two-fight losing skid, and pocketed him a nice bonus for the finish, as it earned KO of the night.
They wouldn’t compete against each other again, after the third bout. Hughes went on to fight only one more time, before calling it a career. Penn would continue to fight up until 2019, but the victory against Hughes at UFC 123 would be his last win inside the Octagon.
4: Conor McGregor vs Dustin Poirier (UFC 178, UFC 257, UFC 264)
Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier first squared off in 2014 at UFC 178. The two went toe to toe for nearly two minutes, as it didn’t take long for the Irishman to find a home with his patented left hand. Some would say McGregor had this fight won before they even set foot in the cage. McGregor’s trash talk was next level in the build-up to the dance, as he played mind games with the young, and fragile Poirier. With the victory, ‘The Notorious’ pocketed $50,000, as he took home a performance of the night bonus.
Fast forward nearly seven years later, and the second installment of the trilogy was set. McGregor and Poirier would meet again at UFC 257, as things were red hot on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. The lead-up to their second scrap was the polar opposite of the first time around. McGregor wasn’t barking like usual and showed nothing but respect for the ‘Diamond’.
The fight itself had a completely different vibe, as they were no longer kids, but now full-grown gladiators. Both fighters came out looking sharp, as Poirier worked his leg kicks, and scored a takedown. McGregor was able to get back up without taking much damage, but Poirier continued to tear McGregor’s leg apart with kicks. Calf kicks from the Louisiana native would lead to a vicious non-stop onslaught of punches that eventually put ‘The Notorious’ away. The display from Poirier is ranked at number seven among knockouts in 2021.
The third battle between the two stars took place just six months after the Abu Dhabi scrap. The trilogy bout took place in the fight capital of Las Vegas, Nevada, as UFC 264 rocked sin city. The scrappy Irishman didn’t hold back with his trash-talking and personal attacks on the ‘Diamond’. Poirier proved to the world, and maybe even himself that he’s grown immensely in regards to his mental game.
‘The Notorious’ came out with heavy leg, and body kicks that kept Poirier out of range. ‘The Diamond’ was able to close the distance eventually and land some beautiful combinations that stunned McGregor. The fight hit the canvas, where both landed nasty elbows. McGregor made his way back to his feet, and with seven seconds left in the first round, his ankle snapped. The round ended with Poirier dropping bombs on McGregor, and the fight was stopped between rounds. The brutal injury gave Poirier the TKO victory, as he moved to 2-1 against the UFC’s most sought-after athlete.
3: Matt Hughes vs GSP (UFC 50, UFC 65, UFC 79)
Matt Hughes and Georges St Pierre had an incredible trilogy of fights that took course over three years. The two first met inside the Octagon at UFC 50 in 2004. The bout was set for the vacant welterweight title since BJ Penn was previously stripped of the belt. The war of ’04 went down in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and would only last one round. Even though the scrap only went for five minutes, we witnessed wicked strikes, completed take-downs, and multiple submission attempts from both.
Hughes spent the final minute controlling ‘Rush’, as he refused to let the French Canadian get back to his feet. The world figured we were on to the second round of madness, but with just one second left, St Pierre was forced to tap due to an armbar that Hughes secured with no time to spare. St Pierre was tapping, as the horn sounded to signal the end of the round. The win for Hughes meant regaining his belt, as his submission is etched in UFC history.
After the first affair, both men appeared unstoppable, as they continued to plow through anyone in front of them. It was inevitable that Hughes and St Pierre would meet again, and it would take place at UFC 65, in 2006. Nearly two years after the first fight, their paths crossed once again. Hughes was riding a 6 fight win streak going into this one, and St. Pierre had put together 5 straight victories. The second fight had a different flavor than the first, as GSP used his reach and kicks to keep Hughes on the outside. ‘Rush’ was also displaying some improved takedown defense, as he fought to keep the fight standing.
GSP caught Hughes with a superman punch, followed by a left, and it looked to be all over. Fortunately for Hughes, the round ended, and he was able to stumble his way back to his corner. The second round started, and Hughes was worn out beyond belief. GSP landed a head kick that dropped Hughes, as the Canadian swarmed in with thunderous ground and pound. Big John had no choice but to call the fight, as he saved Hughes from any further damage. That night in Sacramento, GSP won welterweight gold and avenged his only loss in professional MMA. The fight is listed as number 3 in the greatest welterweight fights in history according to Tapology.
The trilogy fight between the Canadian and the American went down just over a year after the second fight. The bout was for the interim championship belt, as Matt Serra held the strap, but was sidelined due to injury. The meeting at the packed Mandalay Bay events center served as the main event for UFC 79 and did not disappoint. Hughes tried to work his takedown early, as he’d previously tasted the power GSP could implore.
‘Rush’ wasn’t having it though, and decided to take down Hughes himself. For the most part, St Pierre had his way with Hughes in this one. The trajectories in each fighter’s career were clearly on display, as the Montreal native dictated the pace. After nearly two full rounds of dominance, GSP was able to slip in an armbar that forced Hughes to verbally quit. St Pierre was awarded the interim belt, earned a performance bonus, and set up his rematch against Serra.
2: Chuck Liddell vs Randy Couture (UFC 43, UFC 52, UFC 57)
Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture faced off against each other three times in the span of just three years. The first fight in the trilogy took place in 2003, at UFC 43, as the two went face to face for the interim light heavyweight belt. The ‘Iceman’ was riding an unreal ten-fight win streak and was a moderate favorite going into the bout against the ‘Natural’.
Couture was working hard on the feet, as he was trying to set up a takedown. Even though Liddell was taken down on more than one occasion, Liddell’s ability to get back to his feet was on full display. A slam from Couture wasn’t even enough to keep the ‘Iceman’ down. Couture came out in the second round like a man possessed, as he continued to land strikes on the ever-elusive Liddell. The third round is where Couture really came to life, as a thunderous slam would spell the beginning of the end for Liddell. The ‘Natural’ was able to get the mount and pummelled down shots until the referee had no choice but to stop it. The scrap shocked the MMA world, as nobody expected the wrestler to out-strike the striker.
The two living legends met for the second time in 2005 at UFC 52. The fight was huge in every way possible, as both men were coming off the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, where they went head to head as coaches. The success of the reality show, mixed with the fact this was a title fight made the rematch an all-time great. The MGM Grand Garden Arena was hopping that night, as fight fans new and old tuned in via PPV.
There was a different feel from Liddell this time around, as he appeared to have a solid game plan. The plan to not get taken down was obvious, and the ‘Iceman’ utilized his tools to perfection. Couture never really got to even try a takedown, as this one would end early. Despite getting a thumb in the eye, ‘The Natural’ was able to continue. Visibly impaired from the accidental eye poke, Couture attempted to march on. Unfortunately for ‘Captain America’ he caught a hard left from Liddell that rocked him. Liddell followed up with a right that crumbled Couture, and Liddell finished the fight via ground and pound. The ‘Iceman’ had his belt, and the series between the duo was tied at one a piece.
The highly anticipated third bout between the hall of famers went down in 2006, as Liddell was set to defend his belt for a second time. UFC 57 took place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, and the entire card delivered on every level. Liddell vs Couture 3 was the main event of the evening, and fans couldn’t wait for things to unfold inside the Octagon.
Randy came out in this one showing some improved striking, as he was able to catch Liddell a couple of times. The ‘Natural’ secured a takedown, but once again the ‘Iceman’ displayed amazing skills to get back to his feet. The first round ended with Couture pinning Liddell against the cage, and ‘Iceman’ was clearly not happy with what he considered stalling.
Round two started with Couture throwing some decent strikes, but a slip on the canvas would ultimately cost him. Couture appeared to slip slightly, just before eating a powerful right hand from Liddell. The punch dropped the ‘Natural’, and the fight ended with Liddell reigning down massive blows to the skull of Couture. Chuck Liddell put a stamp on the trilogy and would go on to defend his strap two more times.
1: Fankie Edgar vs Gray Maynard (Fight Night 13, UFC 125, UFC 136)
Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard had their first showdown in 2008, at a Fight Night in Colorado. Both youngsters were undefeated going into the tilt, as ‘The Answer’ sat at 9-0, with ‘The Bully’ entering at 4-0. The scrap ended up going the distance, as Maynard used his wrestling to utterly dominate Edgar. It wasn’t exactly the most entertaining fight for the fans, with nine takedowns scored for Maynard, and zero submission attempts. ‘The Bully’ dominated the scorecards, with a unanimous 30-27 decision. While the fight wasn’t what we craved, it would set up a rematch for the ages.
Nearly three years would pass, before the two crossed paths again. Edgar vs Maynard II took place in 2011, at the sold-out MGM Grand Garden Arena. Since the loss to Maynard, Edgar went on a tear winning five straight and securing the lightweight strap in the process. ‘The Bully’ was still red hot himself, as he was riding a nine-fight win streak. A streak that kept him undefeated in his pro career. This fight had it all, and there’s a reason it’s widely considered one of the best to ever go down inside a cage.
Maynard had Edgar hurt on numerous occasions early on, and the fight could’ve been stopped on at least three separate occasions. How Edgar ever survived that opening round is still an MMA mystery. Somehow, the New Jersey native was able to recover between rounds, as he appeared to be the fresher fighter in the second. Maynard started to wake up halfway through the round, as we saw him work his hands, and secure a takedown. The third round saw more of the same, as Edgar continued to work his hands.
Edgar started to pull away in the fourth, outstriking and outworking the visibly tired Maynard. Edgar attempted a choke, but Maynard was able to defend. The final round of the championship bout was arguably the closest one of the entire trilogy. Both warriors left it all inside the Octagon in hopes of either becoming or retaining a championship belt. Over 500 combined strikes were thrown, 6 total takedowns, and 3 submission attempts. To have this one scored as a draw made it even more special, and forced the trilogy bout to be booked immediately.
The final meeting between Edgar and Maynard would happen at the Toyota Center, in Houston. UFC 136 would host the bout, and in a continuation of their last scrap, the two men went straight to work. Both worked their stand-up early, as ‘The Bully’ had Edgar hurt. ‘The Answer’ put his toughness on display again, when he was able to recover from being dropped. There was a clear power advantage that went to Maynard, as he battered the lightweight champion. How Edgar survived the first is still incredible, it was like something out of a movie.
Edgar was able to take some time in the second to regain his wits, as the action slowed somewhat. Both were happy keeping things standing in the second, as minimal damage was done. By the third round, Edgar was fully recovered, as he started taking control of the fight. Edgar worked his hands, while showing off some amazing takedown defense. The champion came out on fire in the fourth. Edgar was slipping punches, landing hard shots, and his movement was on point. ‘The Answer’ remained laser-focused, and it would pay off in a big way. Frankie Edgar caught Maynard with an uppercut, then followed it with a right hand that put Maynard away. Maynard would protest the stoppage, but it was clear he was out.
Edgar would remain champion, and the two wouldn’t cross paths again. You can still catch Edgar in action, as he continues to fight the world’s most elite martial artists. As for Maynard, he isn’t officially retired but hasn’t seen action since his 2018 loss to Nik Lentz. Although Maynard is no longer part of the UFC, it’s worth noting that he has been in talks with Bellator among other notable promotions.
Are there any trilogies in UFC history that we left out? Let us know in the comments.
Featured image credit to Embed from Getty Images