The UFC returns to Madison Square Garden this weekend for UFC 281 headlined by Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira for the Middleweight title. It’s always a big fight feel when the UFC returns to the Garden and this weekend is no different. The UFC has hosted 5 events at Madison Square Garden starting in 2016. Let’s take a look at the top 10 biggest UFC moments at Madison Square Garden.
When Kevin Lee took on Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244 in 2019, many expected him to lose. He was coming off back-to-back losses while Gillespie was the undefeated dark horse of the division that had just finished 5 consecutive opponents. It was a big opportunity to make a statement, as this was the opening fight on the main card that was headlined by Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz. After losing to Rafael dos Anjos, Lee knew he had to make a change. He went to Montreal to start training with Firas Zahabi at Tristar Gym. Lee showed early in the fight what he had learned at Tristar, as he finished Gregor Gillespie with a head kick knockout. Gillespie was unconscious before he hit the floor and folded back against the fence. The crowd erupted for Lee who had his back against the wall.
When Israel Adesanya made his UFC debut in February 2018, he said he wanted to be active and fight consistently. He quickly racked up 3 wins in 6 months defeating Rob Wilkinson, Marvin Vettori, and Brad Tavares. Adesanya looked good, but how good was he? After defeating Brad Tavares, the UFC booked Adesanya in a fight against Derek Brunson who had fought the best of the division. This was a test for Adesanya because if you defeat Derek Brunson, you’re one of the best fighters in the Middleweight division. This was Adesanya’s first appearance at Madison Square Garden and his first appearance on the main card of a UFC PPV. Not only did Adesanya defeat Brunson, it was his best performance of his rookie year. He made Brunson look like he didn’t belong, as he finished him by 1st round knockout.
Though the fight ended itself ended anti-climatically, Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz had to be on this list for the spectacle that it was. The year 2019 marked the resurrection of Jorge Masvidal who had returned to competition after not fighting at all in 2018. His first fight of 2019 took place against Darren Till who had just challenged for the UFC Welterweight title. Till was the betting favorite and was expected to defeat Masvidal in front of his people in London, England. Masvidal stunned the 02 Arena by finishing Darren Till by knockout in the 2nd round. This earned Masvidal a fight against the undefeated Ben Askren at UFC 239. At the time, many believed that Askren would have earned a UFC title shot had he won. Masvidal made history that night, as he set an all-time record for the fastest knockout in UFC history by finishing Askren with a flying knee in 5 seconds. This propelled Masvidal to Superstardom.
The following month, Nate Diaz returned to action after a 3-year layoff and defeated Anthony Pettis. It was in his post-fight speech that Diaz called out Masvidal to a fight. Both Diaz and Masvidal grew up on the streets and were cut from the same cloth. This fight was so big that it headlined Madison Square Garden without any UFC title fights on the card. Instead, the UFC created a BMF title that Masvidal and Diaz would compete for. President Donald Trump was in attendance and The Rock would be wrapping the BMF title around the winner's waist. This was a spectacle like never before in the UFC. It was an action-packed fight while it lasted, but the fight was called off after the 3rd round by a doctor because of a cut that Diaz had above his eye.
The first fight between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington at UFC 245 is widely considered one of the greatest title fights in UFC history. It was a back-and-forth fight where both men kept attacking. It was in the final minute of the fight that Usman finished Covington by TKO. Though he was finished, Covington disputed the stoppage saying that it was too early. Usman went on to defend his title 3x after defeating Covington and was regarded as the pound-for-pound #1 fighter in the world. Their rematch was set for UFC 268 at Madison Square Garden for the Welterweight title. The rematch started differently from the first fight, with both men being patient. Usman dropped Covington twice in the 2nd round and it seemed like the end was near. Covington rebounded quickly, pushing the pace in the 3rd round. The rematch after the 2nd round looked just like the first fight, with both fighters being very competitive. Usman went on to win a decision, which ended up being the final win of his legendary winning streak.
You know it’s going to be an intense every time Justin Gaethje fights and Michael Chandler was set on matching that intensity for their fight at Madison Square Garden in 2021. This was one of the most anticipated fights of the year and what made this fight unique was that it kicked off the main card for UFC 268. Gaethje’s teammates Rose Namajunas and Kamaru Usman were competing in the co-main and main events respectively, so the team requested that Gaethje kick off the main card so the coaches had a gap to prepare for the title fights. This fight started the card with a bang, as it was one of the biggest brawls in UFC history. Both fighters had success but it was Justin Gaethje that earned the decision win.
It was Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fight against Michael Johnson that put him on the map to a mainstream audience. Before fighting Johnson, Khabib had just returned from a 2-year layoff and defeated Darrell Horcher. Many considered Khabib the best Lightweight fighter in the world, but a string of injuries kept him on the sidelines. When he came into UFC 205 to fight Michael Johnson, he knew he had to make a statement. His fight against Johnson was the featured prelim while Conor McGregor fought Eddie Alvarez for the Lightweight title in the main event. Not only did Khabib dominate Johnson, he spoke to him while doing it. “You need to give up. You know I deserve this” Khabib said while smashing Johnson. Khabib also spoke with Dana White in between rounds letting him know he was next for the title. Khabib called out Conor McGregor in his post-fight speech and set the tone for one of the biggest blockbuster rivalries in UFC history.
When Cody Garbrandt defeated Dominick Cruz for the Bantamweight title, he looked like the best fighter in the world. He put on a masterful performance that earned him the Bantamweight title. His first title defense would be against his former teammate TJ Dillashaw. At the time, there was a lot of turmoil between Dillashaw and Garbrandt’s camp Team Alpha Male. The team felt like Dillashaw turned their back on them which made the fight personal for everyone involved. A few days before the fight, Cody Garbrandt released sparring footage of him dropping Dillashaw. This footage made people believe that Garbrandt was going to have an easy night against Dillashaw. The fight started and Garbrandt dropped Dillashaw at the end of the 1st round. The tide turned in the 2nd round, with Dillashaw finishing Gabrandt by knockout and then screaming in his face. Years of pent-up aggression came out at that moment. Cody Garbrandt was never the same after this.
When Joanna Jedrzejczyk came into her fight against Rose Namajunas at UFC 217, she was undefeated and had defended her title 5x. She was regarded by many as the best Women’s fighter in the world and was expected to run through Rose Namajunas. It was during fight week that we saw a different side of Joanna. She tried to bully Rose and intimidate her more than she did with previous opponents. This made a lot of people turn on Joanna and cheer for Rose. As soon as the fight started, it was apparent that Rose was ready for the moment. She dropped Joanna early in the fight and went on to finish her by knockout to become the Strawweight Champion. No one expected Rose to defeat Joanna in the way that she did.
To many, Georges St-Pierre is the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. He was a long-reigning Welterweight Champion that defended his title 7x. After defeating Johny Hendricks in 2013, GSP relinquished his title and walked away from the sport. He didn’t say it at the time, but the reason that GSP walked away from the sport was because he felt that UFC fighters weren’t getting drug tested properly. He wanted an outside company to come in and conduct drug testing. It was in 2015 that the UFC brought on USADA to drug test their fighters. This inspired GSP to make his eventual comeback. It was announced in 2017 that GSP would return to the sport and move up to the Middleweight division to challenge Michael Bisping for the title. After 4 years off from the sport, GSP came back and looked better than ever. He went on to finish Michael Bisping to become the Middleweight Champion. Two of GSP’s biggest criticisms were that he would never finish fights and he was afraid of moving to Middleweight. GSP put both of those criticisms to rest with one performance. This would end up being the final fight of GSP’s career. A perfect ending to a nearly perfect career.
For years, it was an uphill battle for mixed martial arts to be sanctioned in New York State. The UFC tried for years to get into NY, but it was always stopped because of political reasons. In March of 2016, New York became the 50th U.S. state to legalize and regulate the sport. UFC President Dana White said that the UFC would host an event at Madison Square Garden for UFC 205 in their inaugural NY event later that year. The UFC being in New York was already historic on its own. What made it even more historic was that Conor McGregor was challenging for his 2nd UFC Championship that night. McGregor was the UFC Featherweight Champion and was trying to become the first fighter in history to hold two UFC Championship titles at the same time as he challenged Eddie Alvarez for the Lightweight title. McGregor put on a masterclass performance against Alvarez, knocking him out in the 2nd round to become the first double Champion in UFC history. The first event in New York and the first double Champion in UFC history. Until this day, this remains one of the most historic moments in UFC history.