The UFC has always known how to close out a year in style, which is why compiling a list of the most memorable and historic moments to occur in the month of December has always been extremely difficult.
Simply put, there are too many incredible moments to choose from.
Think I’m joking? Being hyperbolic? Here’s a handful of the happenings that didn’t make the collection of historic December highlights:
- Chuck Liddell goes up 2-0 on Tito Ortiz at UFC 66
- Rampage Jackson knocks out Wanderlei Silva at UFC 92
- Cain Velasquez regains the heavyweight title from Junior Dos Santos at UFC 155
- Demetrious Johnson makes quick work of Joseph Benavidez at UFC on FOX 9
- Carla Esparza becomes the inaugural UFC strawweight champion
- Amanda Nunes ends Ronda Rousey’s career in the UFC cage at UFC 207
- Eddie Alvarez hands Justin Gaethje his first career loss at UFC 218
- Bryce Mitchell hits the second twister in UFC history at UFC on ESPN 7
- Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno fight to a draw at UFC 256
- Charles Oliveira submits Dustin Poirier at UFC 269
That’s an impressive list, but they’re the honorable mentions here; that’s how good the UFC has historically been in the month of December.
These are the moments that stood out the most.
This is The 10.
Royce Gracie def. Dan Severn (UFC 4)
Can a fight be both a continuation of a familiar pattern and a changing of the guard at the same time?
After withdrawing from UFC 3 due to exhaustion following his opening round win over Kimo Leopoldo, Gracie returned at UFC 4 and once again won the tournament, and defeated a beast of a man with a glorious moustache in the finals. It would be the last time Gracie competed in the tournament format, and the start of an impressive 18-month run for Severn.
Prior to this bout, the longest Gracie had spent in the Octagon with one opponent came in his semifinal bout with Keith Hackney, which lasted five-and-a-half minutes. Against Severn, it took three-times as long before the Brazilian jiu jitsu ace was finally able to lock up the fight-ending triangle choke.
Gracie would go on to face Ken Shamrock in the first UFC Superfight at UFC 5, his final appearance in the Octagon until his clash with Matt Hughes at UFC 60, while Severn would go 7-2 over his next nine UFC bouts, winning the UFC 5 and Ultimate 95 tournaments as well as the Superfight Championship before losing to Mark Coleman in the inaugural heavyweight championship bout at UFC 12.
Both men are rightfully enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame.
BJ Penn def. Diego Sanchez (UFC 107)
The first real punch that Penn throws in the fight shook Sanchez’ equilibrium, and while he quickly rose to his feet, that opening moment set the tone for the entire fight.
Every era has one or two fighters that old heads speak about with incredible reverence that newer generations just can’t comprehend, and Penn is likely to end up being one of those guys. Penn went 1-9-1 over his last 11 appearances inside the Octagon, and finished his career with a pedestrian-looking 16-14-2 record overall.
But those that saw him at the outset of his career or during his best days at lightweight, you knew you were watching something special — a preternatural talent with the skills to be a two-weight world champion — and this is one of the fights that really drove home just how good “Baby Jay” was inside the Octagon.
Sanchez came in feeling like a real threat to claim the lightweight title, riding a four-fight winning streak overall and fresh off a pair of Fight of the Night-winning punch-ups with Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida to earn his shot at UFC gold. Penn made it immediately clear that not only would the title not be changing hands that evening in Memphis, but that Sanchez did not stand a chance.
He’s had better finishes and more iconic moments, but this might be Penn’s best overall UFC performance, as he was in complete control from start-to-finish, and never let off the gas. This victory cemented the popular Hawaiian as the unquestioned top lightweight on the planet.
Jim Miller def. Joe Lauzon (UFC 155)
If friends or family members ever ask me why I enjoy mixed martial arts as much as I do, this is the fight I would show them as an explainer, provided they don’t mind a little blood.
Neither Miller nor Lauzon were in the championship picture at this time — Miller was coming off a loss to Nathan Diaz, Lauzon a win over Jamie Varner — and from the outset, they got after it. Miler split Lauzon open midway through the opening stanza, but Lauzon stung Miller with a knee to the midsection soon after. The entire right side of Lauzon’s face was painted red, blood staining the rest of his skin, and creating the same effect on Miller’s body, as well.
It didn’t stop either of them; not for a second.
At one point in the second round, the fight was paused while the two battled on the canvas in order to cut some tape off Lauzon’s glove. Referee Yves Lavigne told the two men to maintain their position, and while he scurried about to find a remedy to the tape issue, Miller and Lauzon had a brief conversation, giving each other props for a great fight as they wiped blood off their respective faces.
They would go the distance, neither man giving an inch or letting off the gas, and when I spoke to each about it before they ran it back in Vancouver a few years later, both looked back on the evening fondly, enjoying every last second of their bloody battle with one another.
Fights like this are why I fell in love with this sport and remain in love with it to this day.
Conor McGregor def. Jose Aldo (UFC 194)
The energy inside the MGM Grand ahead of this one was indescribable.
Having just watched Luke Rockhold claim the middleweight title with a fourth-round stoppage win over Chris Weidman, it was finally time for the main event — a previously postponed grudge match between reigning featherweight king Jose Aldo and his trash-talking Irish nemesis, interim titleholder Conor McGregor.
As the two made their way to the Octagon to their signature walkout tracks and milled about in the corners as Bruce Buffer began his main event spiel, I closed my laptop, took a deep inhale, and settled in to give each and every moment of this monumental clash my full, undivided attention.
And then 13 seconds later, the roof came off the building.
Aldo pressed forward uncharacteristically and McGregor clocked him with a clean left hand, ending a decade-long undefeated streak with a single blow, leaving everyone in attendance (and watching at home) in disbelief. I’m sure many of my contemporaries didn’t see the punch land, not in the moment, as fights rarely end that quickly and the beginning of a contest is usually when you get off one last tweet or make sure you’re all set up to detail the action for your given outlet.
I sat there laughing in amazement, listening to the deafening roar careening throughout the arena, taking in the bewildered looks of everyone around me.
“Mystic Mac” had struck again and it was absolutely incredible.
Cub Swanson def. Dooho Choi (UFC 206)
As soon as this fight was announced, anyone that knew the fight game knew it was going to be electric.
Swanson was a Top 15 fixture — a veteran truth machine who only lost to elite competition — and Choi was a rising star on a 12-fight winning streak with 10 finishes, including one in each of his first three UFC appearances, none of which made it out of the first round.
These two came out of the chute lobbing grenades at each other before graduating to rocket launchers and culminating by sending heat-seeking missiles towards the other down the stretch. This could have turned into a cartoon where they hit each other with gigantic anvils and I’m not sure either would have gone down for more than a half-beat to regain their breath before clambering to their feet and returning fire.
You know a fight is special when the annotation next to it in the “Notes” column on each of the competitors’ Wikipedia pages reads, “Fight of the Night. Fight of the Year (2016). Hall of Fame (Inducted 2020).”
If this one isn’t on your annual re-watch list, you need to fix that right now.
Cody Garbrandt def. Dominick Cruz (UFC 207)
This might be the best title-winning performance in UFC history, and I say that knowing there are several other candidates for that distinction on this list, but hear me out here.
Cruz made his mark being the guy that would dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge incoming attacks, constantly forcing opponents to swing and miss while getting stuck with clean shots for unexpected angles. Even after multiple knee surgeries and foot issues, Cruz returned to the top of the bantamweight division, re-claiming the belt he never lost in competition with a split decision win over TJ Dillashaw at the start of 2016.
At UFC 207, Garbrandt played the Cruz role and the champion was the one left befuddled and bewildered, as “No Love” repeatedly slipped shots, avoiding attacks, and cracked Cruz in return. Several times during the virtuoso effort, the undefeated challenger stepped back to admire his handiwork and clown on Cruz, and there was nothing the veteran titleholder could do about it.
In the moment, it felt like the start of a brand-new era in the 135-pound division. Instead, it was just one magical moment and an incredible title-winning effort.
Francis Ngannou def. Alistair Overeem (UFC 218)
If I didn’t watch this knockout happen in real time, I would still likely argue that it came from some Hollywood film that just so happened to cast Ngannou and Overeem as the warring heavyweight rivals because it was too cinematic to be real.
Positioned as the co-main event at UFC 218, this was the fight that was meant to determine if the streaking, devastating finisher Ngannou was ready to challenge for championship gold, as Overeem entered as the top contender in the division, with a 6-1 record over his previous seven bouts, with his only loss coming in a championship clash against Stipe Miocic at UFC 203 the previous autumn.
The behemoths clinched for the first minute and change before referee Dan Miragliotta separated them off the fence. As they reset in the center of the cage, Overeem missed with a winging right hand, ending up off balance, but Ngannou didn’t attack. They reset again and Overeem swung a looping right hand that missed and looked to follow with a left that Ngannou took on the side of the neck before unfurling a counter left uppercut that snapped Overeem’s head back as if he were a Pez dispenser.
This was a gnarly knockout and got played a lot over the next couple weeks, as Ngannou was booked into a January 2018 title bout against Stipe Miocic. Watching it back now as I write this, it still gives me the chills.
Amanda Nunes def. Cris Cyborg (UFC 232)
This is one of those “other candidates” for the best title-winning performance in UFC history I mentioned earlier.
What crucial to remember here is that Nunes wasn’t quite the dominant force everyone knows now heading into this featherweight title fight — she was the reigning bantamweight champion, but her last two victories were a razor-close split decision win over Valentina Shevchenko and a drubbing of Raquel Pennington, neither of which had fans breaking down doors to see “The Lioness” back in the Octagon.
But this one had a different vibe to it, as Cyborg had claimed the featherweight title with a unanimous decision win over Holly Holm the previous December and successfully defended the belt in March against Yana Kunitskaya. She was unbeaten in 21 appearances and riding a 10-fight win streak into UFC 232, and this clash of Brazilian titleholders felt like it could determine which of these women would stand as the top female fighter of all-time.
Nunes did what no one else had wanted to do for some time, meeting Cyborg in the center of the Octagon and willingly exchanging with her countrywoman. A sharp low kick gave her an opening to land a hard right hand, prompting the featherweight titleholder to press forward, looking to get one back right away.
Cyborg backed Nunes into the fence, the two heavy hitters swinging hooks, and as Cyborg continued to press forward, Nunes clipped her. Rather than hurry things, Nunes wisely picked her shots, patiently throwing darts that hit the bullseye, dropping her foe’s health meter by huge chunks with each power shot landed.
Cyborg tried to battle back, getting dropped to a knee and hit with big rights until one final rocket found its mark and sent her spinning to the canvas in a heap.
The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.
Alexander Volkanovski def. Max Holloway (UFC 245)
When it was first announced, this fight felt like one of those instances of two competitors with very different levels of recognition colliding in a championship fight that didn’t quite get the attention it rightfully deserved.
The champion Holloway seemed like he was just hitting his peak of popularity, having rebounded from his failed bid to claim the interim lightweight title with a dominant victory over Frankie Edgar in the summer. Despite a 17-fight winning streak and 7-0 mark in the UFC, plenty of people still weren’t completely sold on Volkanovski’s credentials as a title contender.
They found out pretty quickly as the challenger came out and won the opening round, showing Holloway that he was in for a fight. For 25 minutes, the two men battled, each making adjustments on the fly, responding to what the other was offering, with Volkanovski getting the better of things.
All three judges scored the fight differently, but all three awarded the Aussie the victory, making this the first fight in a three-bout, 31-month saga that finally concluded in July with Volkanovski earning a third consecutive win over Holloway.
Julianna Pena def. Amanda Nunes (UFC 269)
Pena said she was the one to beat Nunes, and never wavered in her belief. It didn’t matter to her that the only people that truly believed her were in her camp and in her corner, because she knew what she was capable of doing and remained steadfast in her belief.
Even through the first round, where Nunes controlled the action and seemed poised to cruise to a victory, Pena kept battling and held strong, knowing, trusting that if an opportunity present itself, she could turn the tide and shock the world.
And that is exactly what she did.
Right out of the chute to start the second, Pena stuck an awkward jab in Nunes’ mug and continued to repeat this each time the champion tried to throw something with a little steam. The more Nunes looked to connect with power, the more Pena mushed her left hand into her face, following with the odd overhand right until it became evident that the bantamweight titleholder was fading quickly as she searched desperately for a fight-ending connection.
With just under two minutes remaining the second, Pena hit a lateral drop off the fence and instantly scurried around to Nunes’ back, sinking in a rear-naked choke before even setting either of her hooks. Fatigued and dead-to-rights, Nunes gently tapped the canvas, prompting referee Marc Goddard to stop the fight and the place to erupt!
Nearly a year later, this still feels like the greatest upset in UFC history.