Whenever something special like what transpired Saturday night at Madison Square Garden takes place, there is a rush to determine where it ranks in the pantheon.
As soon as Dana White wrapped the middleweight title around Georges St-Pierre’s waist to effectively bring UFC 217 to a close, the discussions about where the show fits amongst the best events the company has ever produced began and while something like this will always remain subjective and up for debate, I’m pretty comfortable calling it the best event in UFC history.
Re-watching the event Sunday morning, I started making a list of the other exceptional fight cards that have taken place, thinking about the classic fights, the memorable finishes and the “where were you when?” moments that will remain forever etched in the minds of fight fans for years to come.
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There have been tons of incredible individual performances — great fights, thrilling finishes, shocking upsets — but the secondary and tertiary pieces needed to elevated the card as a whole to all-time-great status aren’t always there.
Randy Couture’s comeback title win over Tim Sylvia is iconic, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone that can name two other fights from that card without looking; the same goes for the night Chris Weidman ended Anderson Silva’ reign atop the middleweight division. Conversely, UFC 129 was a massive moment — the first event in the province of Ontario, the largest crowd in UFC history at the time — and it featured some quality performances, but you don’t get that same “Oh yeah, that card was awesome!” reaction from people when you bring it up to them.
Few events do, which is why the truly epic ones really stand out.
Surveying social media, the battle for the best card in UFC history appears to be a two-horse race with Saturday’s instant classic at MSG running neck-and-neck with UFC 189, the July 2015 blockbuster that ended with six consecutive finishes and was closed out by Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald engaging in the best fight in UFC history before Conor McGregor iced Chad Mendes to claim the interim featherweight title.
I was there. It was amazing and I don’t know if words can do justice to what it felt like being inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena with what felt like a million Irish fans going absolutely bonkers for the entire evening, but when I think back to that card, all I think about is McGregor and his pursuit of the featherweight title.
Don’t get me wrong: Lawler-MacDonald II is embedded in my memory and something truly special, but the entire event was built around McGregor chasing Jose Aldo and then needing to clear an unexpected hurdle in order to once again set up a fight with the Brazilian champion.
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Additionally, UFC 189 isn’t the seminal moment in the career of anyone on that card except for perhaps Lawler, though you could certainly argue that him finally winning the title at UFC 181 takes top billing.
And that’s part of what takes Saturday’s event over the top for me.
On a very basic level, you had an 11-fight card that featured nine stoppages, including a nasty spinning elbow, OSP kicking Corey Anderson into an alternate realm, two fights that ended in confusion and three title fights where not only were new champions crowned, but where all three bouts featured at least one “Oh s—!” moment.
UFC 217 is where Ricardo Ramos, Curtis Blaydes, James Vick and Paulo Costa all took another step towards contention and potentially stardom for Costa, who mauled Johny Hendricks before declaring he’s going to be the next Brazilian superstar in the UFC. Should they all continue to rise through the ranks, we’ll look back on this event as a key moment in their careers.
The entire week was a coming out party for new women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, who was a picture of icy cool and steely composure in the face of Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s customary Fight Week aggressiveness and impressive championship pedigree.
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After being burdened with “The Next Ronda Rousey” expectations coming off Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, the 25-year-old has grown into herself as a person and a fighter and rose to the occasion, finishing Jedrzejczyk in impressive fashion. Regardless of what happens from here on out, she’s become the star everyone forecasted her to become, but she’s done it at her own pace and her performance in New York City has instantly become a key moment in the brief history of the division.
T.J. Dillashaw’s win over Cody Garbrandt capped their rivalry, but also renewed it in a way, as Garbrandt still believes he’s the better fighter and came close to putting Dillashaw away at the end of the first round. Lost in the shuffle of Saturday’s outcome and the waves it has produced since is the fact that Dillashaw did something very few former champions are able to do — reclaim the title.
It’s only happened seven times in the past (including Jose Aldo getting reinstated as “undisputed” featherweight champ) and Randy Couture is responsible for three of those instances. It’s rare a fighter gets knocked from the top of the division and scales the mountain again, but Dillashaw did it and did it in impressive fashion, strengthening his case for being the best bantamweight in UFC history.
Then there is Georges St-Pierre, who not only became the fourth man to win UFC gold in two different weight classes, but did so after nearly four years on the sidelines, while moving up in weight and in come-from-behind fashion.
Though he looked terrific early, it felt like Michael Bisping seized the momentum in the second and even managed to do more damage from bottom when St-Pierre opened the third with a takedown. Covered in blood and clearly tiring, he got back to his feet, caught Bisping with a clean hook on the button and eventually laced up the fight-ending choke, completing his comeback with a championship victory that bolsters his case for being the greatest fighter of all-time.
And the kicker for me is how the night built to a crescendo through the three championship fights — first-round finish, second-round finish, third-round finish; each featuring more drama and more intriguing.
The entire night just built and built and built and the final three contests showed us everything we love about this chaotic, unpredictable sport one after the other.
There have been some outstanding events over the years, but for me, UFC 217 is the best event in UFC history.