MMA has a reputation for often being able to deliver the fights the fans want at a higher clip than most combat sports. This reputation is not entirely deserved because there are certainly some all-time great matchups that could have been made, but weren’t.
We will only be looking at fights that could have potentially been made – prime Georges St-Pierre versus prime Robbie Lawler is a potentially interesting fight but chronologically could never have occurred.
Neither will this be a discussion as to whether a fight would have been more interesting if one fighter had been in better condition, such as if Mauricio “Shogun” Rua would have been a much more interesting opponent for Jon Jones had he been more like his 2005 self.
This list is purely for fights between fighters who never fought. It will be ranked by the criteria of significance to the sport, how big an event it would have been and how interesting the fight would have been. We will also discuss who we would have thought would win and why.
The 5 Biggest Fights We Never Got: Number 5.
Matchup: John Dodson vs. Joseph Benavidez
Reason for fight not being made: UFC refusal to make it
The UFC struggled for a long amount of time to market its 125-pound flyweight division. The biggest issue by far was simple; Demetrious Johnson was its first champion and the UFC marketed everything around him. The result, however, was that the division seemed to be in the shadow of its kingpin. And while this effect might have been mitigated if Johnson was replaced by a new champion, he resolutely kept on winning. The UFC tried desperately to find more challengers for Johnson, but in the process left the rest of 125 to rot.
The result, then, was that one of the potentially all-time greatest flyweight fights in MMA history managed to slip through the cracks. In their haste to find another competitor for Johnson, the UFC somehow neglected the opportunity to book a clash between two of his greatest opponents: Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson.
The two men’s careers could not have been more different. Benavidez had swiftly made his way to the WEC and fought at bantamweight where he quickly managed to establish himself as second to none aside from one Dominick Cruz. After the UFC established its flyweight division, the same story re-occurred with Demetrious Johnson. Benavidez could seemingly triumph over everyone he fought but the prime versions of the greatest fighters in the two respective divisions he fought in.
Dodson, on the other hand, had a more checkered past. Where Benavidez was consistent Dodson was all over the place, going 3-3 in his first six fights. But he also showed moments of legitimate greatness early on, including finishing a young T.J. Dillashaw. Dodson’s speed and power were legendary. In a division lacking in heavy hitters, Dodson scored a knockdown over Jussier Formiga with a shot that hit Formiga’s glove.
Both fought in vastly different ways, too. Benavidez’s style emphasized his wrestling; his headlong charges often setups for takedowns and his scrambling style eschewing jiu-jitsu fundamentals in favor of an inexorable rise to his feet every time. Dodson on the other hand was a classic southpaw counterpuncher, pounding in shots straight down the middle on overextended opponents.
If the two had fought, both would have had an opportunity to expose the other’s weaknesses. Benavidez was far from incapable of good striking on the feet but especially earlier in fights, over-relied on linear rushes, often throwing his head forward of his feet. Against a quick and powerful counterpuncher like prime Dodson, the best 125 lb matchup we never saw could have very well ended in a round or even a minute.
But while Dodson was dangerous he was far from invincible. He gave Johnson hell in their first fight but as the five rounds wore on Johnson started to find one of his key weaknesses. While Dodson’s balance and takedown defense seemed to defy physics at times, his ability to get off the cage was mediocre; if he was trapped in a clinch his excellent footwork and hand speed would be more or less neutralized. His threat level would also drop off in the championship rounds.
While Dodson could stylistically be considered the favorite then, if he didn’t get Benavidez out of there early, he might very well have been ground to dust once Benavidez got his bearings.
Since their heyday, both fighters have unfortunately fallen on tough times. Benavidez has earned the unenviable status of being the fighter with the most undisputed title shots without ever getting a belt (4) and is currently on a three-fight losing streak, while Dodson’s unsuccessful attempt to move up to bantamweight resulted in a string of disappointing fights and an eventual departure from the UFC. It’s hard not to feel both men’s careers are lesser for having never fought each other.
The 5 Biggest Fights We Never Got Number 4:
Matchup: Urijah Faber vs. Norifumi “KID” Yamamoto
Division: Bantamweight or Featherweight
Reason for fight not being made: signed to different promotions
One of the most consistent criticisms leveled at the smaller weight classes of combat sports is a lack of drama. If your shots can’t knock someone out, why bother watching? So it’s appropriate that the two biggest trailblazers for the smaller weight classes on both sides of the Pacific were both finishing machines. Urijah Faber was tearing up both King of The Cage and the WEC while the late, great Norifumi “KID” Yamamoto would run rampant in Hero’s.
Both frequently were willing to take on all comers in a bid to make their names. Faber would fight a total of 10 times across 2006 and 2007, even going up from his natural weight class of bantamweight to featherweight. Yamamoto – who at 5’4” could have conceivably made flyweight in this day and age – fought as far up as Hero’s unique 165-lb weight class, even winning a tournament where he defeated Royler Gracie, Caol Uno and Genki Sudo in succession, all by finish.
Neither men were well known for particularly nuanced skillsets – they had a few good tools on the feet, Faber’s right overhand and Yamamoto’s leaping hooks, and were superb wrestlers with Faber also possessing a lethal guillotine. But what set them apart was their natural abilities. Both were incredibly fast, strong, and explosive to a degree almost never seen in MMA even nowadays. Even at the ripe old age of 40 Faber was still able to knock the bantamweight prospect Ricky Simon unconscious. Yamamoto, on the other hand, would take on the Japanese kickboxing legend Masato under K-1 rules, managing to score a knockdown in the first round as well as going the distance in a losing effort.
Sadly, a matchup between the twin stars of east and west never materialized. Perhaps if both had kept their success going they would have eventually collided. But in 2008, Faber would be knocked from his throne by Mike Thomas Brown while Yamamoto’s prime was forever ended by a knee injury that set him out of the sport for years.
To add insult to injury, both would actually briefly occupy the bantamweight division in the UFC at the same time. But while Faber still had enough moxie and popularity to beat some elite opposition and get title shots, a shot Yamamoto went on a three-fight losing streak before being cut.
Both fighters never rose to their old heights again, although both left an indelible mark on the MMA landscape, not only with their fights but with their gyms. Faber’s Team Alpha Male is still a fixture of the UFC’s lower weight classes, while Yamamoto’s Yamamoto Sports Academy would help produce such luminaries as Kyoji Horiguchi. The premature loss of Yamamoto to cancer was a huge blow to the MMA world.
As to who would have won if the fight would have occurred when both were at the heights of their powers? Difficult to say. As with Dodson/Benavidez, KID would have been favoured for an early finish, while the legendarily tough Faber likely would have taken the nod in a longer fight. However, while Faber’s career was definitely grander, comparing peak ability versus peak ability, KID’s sheer force would likely have been too great for even Faber to survive.
The 5 Biggest Fights We Never Got Number 3:
Matchup: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Randy Couture
Reason for fight not being made: Tsuyoshi Kohsaka’s elbow, managerial squabbling
Fedor Emelianenko has had an exceptional career, and one of the most impressive bits about it is how many UFC heavyweight champions he has fought and beaten without ever having to fight in the UFC. He defeated Mark Coleman and the late, great Kevin Randleman in PRIDE FC, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski in Affliction and Frank Mir in Bellator. Along with his victories over Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor vanquished virtually notable heavyweight of his era – save two. Josh Barnett and Randy Couture.
Couture himself would make a name as someone who always performed his greatest feats after being seemingly counted out. After a long stint at heavyweight, Couture dropped to light heavyweight after two knockout defeats, only to then vanquish the up-and-coming Chuck Liddell and a reigning champion Tito Ortiz. When a resurgent Liddell knocked out Couture twice he seemed done for good again, only to rise to heavyweight once more and take the belt again from Tim Sylvia and defend it against Gabriel Gonzaga. Couture’s record belied what he was capable of.
Especially galling is that their matchup nearly occurred in RINGS Fighting Network. Both were entered in the RINGS King of Kings 2000 tournament and would have met in the second round if both had won their matches. Couture defeated Jeremy Horn, but in a match against JMMA pioneer Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Fedor was scraped by an elbow from a slipped punch in the opening minute and was cut so badly the fight was stopped. Elbows were illegal in RINGS but, bafflingly, the bout was declared a loss for Fedor instead of a no contest.
However, this might not have been the most interesting period for the two to fight, since Fedor was far from at the peak of his powers yet, having only barely been victorious over the future light heavyweight great Ricardo Arona. After PRIDE started to fall apart post-2006 and Fedor left for greener pastures elsewhere, the UFC seemed to be a possible destination, and he certainly could have ended up fighting Couture there. But the UFC and Fedor bitterly fought over pay, and he ended up going to the more lucrative opportunity of the short-lived Affliction promotion.
Any luster the matchup could have had was swiftly dissipated post-2007 as Couture’s final UFC heavyweight reign was ended by an ascendant Brock Lesnar while a shopworn Fedor broke his streak by dropping three in a row to Fabricio Werdum, Bigfoot Silva and Dan Henderson.
As for who would have won the fight back in the day, as with all elite heavyweight matchups both fighters certainly had a chance. Fedor likely would have been unprepared for Couture’s use of the fence as part of his wrestling system; PRIDE FC used a ring, not a fence. But on the other hand, Couture’s wrestling generally revolved around the clinch, an area where Fedor was even more adept in due to his immense judo experience and incredible balance. Combined with Fedor’s incredible handspeed, combinations and ground and pound, this likely would have been too much for Couture to survive.
The 5 Biggest Fights We Never Got Number 2:
Matchup: Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre
Reason for fight not being made: Different divisions
It is rare for two all-time greats to go on division-defining streaks at the same time. Rarer still for their divisions to be right next to each other. So it was that the UFC found itself with Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva. St-Pierre’s march to greatness was slow and methodical – albeit with a few hiccups, notably in the form of Matt Serra. But by 2011, he had established himself a force to be reckoned with as the best offensive and defensive wrestler in the company as well as being someone who worked tremendously in transitions.
Silva’s path to the top was more circuitous. Starting out in the Japanese scene as a welterweight – who would notch a victory over the great Hayato Sakurai early on – Silva would gradually hone a set of tremendous striking skills in PRIDE and Cage Rage after moving up to middleweight. When he finally made it to the UFC, he would shock American audiences with his destruction first of the iron chinned banger Chris Leben and then the long-reigning champion Rich Franklin.
Whereas St-Pierre’s weapons were a ceaseless jab, an explosive double leg and incredible top control, Silva’s arsenal was full of more exotic striking techniques. Silva was a master counterpuncher who was fantastic at drawing his opponents into fight-ending shots when they gave him the opportunity – and often struggling to lead when they did not.
Both would eventually achieve such dominance of their divisions that the company started to struggle to put together decent fights for them. St-Pierre would end up fighting the scrappy but relatively unproven Dan Hardy after he cleared out his division of legitimate contenders, while Silva would batter Forest Griffin and Steven Bonnar at light heavyweight non-title fights.
While the fight was mooted for a while, it never materialized. The exact details are unclear, but Silva in his late 30s, having truly grown into a middleweight frame, likely could never have made 170 again, while St-Pierre was likely reluctant to give up so much weight to a man who had proven to be such a force.
Had the fight happened though, it’s likely that St-Pierre’s style would have massively compensated for the size disadvantage. Silva struggled most with wrestlers who were willing to mix in striking to get takedowns and conservative strikers who could use feints to disrupt his sense of anticipation. St-Pierre ticked both of those boxes more decisively than anyone in the history of the sport, but as with every fight on this list, we will never really know and we are poorer for that.
The 5 Biggest Fights We Never Got Number 1:
Matchup: Tony Ferguson vs Khabib Nurmagomedov
Reasons for fight never happening: Training injuries, lung issue, tiramisu, a TV cable, once in a century global pandemic
It will likely be something incomprehensible to future MMA historians, but there was once a time when the two best fighters in the most competitive division in the best promotion in the world both held consecutive win streaks of 12 victories in that promotion and yet neither would ever fight the other. Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson will remain an eternal MMA mystery.
For most fans this situation – and why it ranks easily as number one on this list – hardly needs explaining. But for those who need an explanation, here it follows: throughout both men’s careers in the UFC they were booked against each other multiple times. Each time it fell apart, usually because of injuries. To the UFC’s credit, while they did feel free to kick the can down the road whenever they wanted, they also kept trying to make the fight.
Most gallingly was when they were booked to fight each other for the vacant lightweight strap and just a week before, on April Fool’s Day 2018, Ferguson – an avid fan of wearing sunglasses indoors – tripped and fell over a cable, seriously damaging his knee.
By 2020 it had been booked and canceled an astonishing four times, along the way giving birth to one of the funniest (and in hindsight, most tragic) MMA fan videos of all time.
The large amount of interest generally derived from whether Ferguson’s eccentric style composed of a grindy high pace and Jiu-jitsu from the notoriously esoteric 10th Planet system would triumph over the undefeated Nurmagomedov’s cage wrestling. The longer a fighter goes on for without losing, the more and more people start paying attention, anticipating a moment of cathartic defeat.
It seemed that fate had been truly defied when in 2020 the fight was booked for the fifth and final time. Some considered it past its expiration date, Ferguson having seemingly lost some of his edge in performances against truly post-prime versions of Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone. Nurmagomedov on the other hand looked as dominant as ever after smashing Dustin Poirier. However, it was widely agreed that Ferguson was owed the opportunity. But it would not come to pass.
The coronavirus pandemic scattered all plans for the fight. Nurmagomedov was shuttled around by the UFC till he ended up back in Russia, which locked down its borders. Meanwhile, desperate to salvage the situation, the UFC sacrificed Ferguson’s final undisputed title shot on the altar of its ESPN commitments by booking him into the second interim title bout of his career, this time against Justin Gaethje.
While Ferguson had his moments of success in the fight, by the time Herb Dean waved it off deep into the fifth it was clear that Gaethje had well and truly shattered the legend of “El Cucuy.” Ferguson struggled to navigate Gaethje’s lightning-fast counter punches and was never able to build up his usual momentum.
When Gaethje met Nurmagomedov later in the year, he was unable to repeat his performance and the Dagestani dragged him down and submitted him early in the second. With Nurmagomedov retiring from professional competition at his mother’s request following the death of his father, the hope of a long-awaited showdown was finally dead for good.
It’s certainly possible to dismiss even a prime Ferguson’s chances. For all the talk of his vaunted guard, Nurmagomedov is likely the best guard passer in MMA history and recent losses against Charles Oliveria and Beniel Dariush have called into question how sound Ferguson’s grappling fundamentals ever were, now that they are shorn of much of his speed and pace. But if we could simply sit down and work out with a pen and paper the result of any fight then we would scarcely need the sport at all.
MMA is truly the sport where the impossible is possible and the unexpected must be anticipated. The answers to Dodson versus Benavidez, Faber versus Yamamoto, St-Pierre versus Silva, Emelianko versus Couture and Ferguson versus Nurmagomedov will always be something we can guess at, but never know for sure. That is why it’s such an indictment on our sport that they never happened, and a reminder of why the fights we do get are so precious to us.
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