There are some impressively stacked events on the horizon in 2016, with both UFC 198 and UFC 200 in particular appearing to be up there with the best line-ups we’ve seen in the modern era of the sport.
The only way to really get a true sense for how these events stack up though is to take a trip down memory lane and look back at the most impressive fight cards that Dana White and Co. have assembled over the years since Zuffa first took the reigns at UFC 30 in early 2001.
Of course any list like this is going to be subjective, but it’s also worth setting a few ground-rules before we begin.
First off, it’s important to stress that this we’re not looking for what proved to be the best, most entertaining UFC events here. We’re specifically focusing on the quality of the line-ups, even if the fights didn’t prove to be as enjoyable on the night as they looked on paper.
However, we will be using the benefit of hindsight to add emphasis to cards that featured future champions / stars of the sport, even if they weren’t as well known at the time.
Of course major fights at the top of the card will be an important factor, particularly if there’s a title involved. Two big fights with little to support them underneath is not enough though. A truly stacked event should ideally have a strong selection of bouts from start to finish though – the more star-studded, the better – and a robust set of prelims will be looked upon favorably.
So, without further ado, let’s begin our chronological journey through the most stacked shows in UFC history, and as we’ll quickly discover, with far fewer shows and a smaller, more focused roster to contend with, the early years of the Zuffa era delivered some of the best cards we’ve ever seen.
UFC 31: Fully Loaded
UFC 31 was the second show under Zuffa ownership and serves as an impressive introduction to the kind of stacked line-ups they frequently delivered during those early years.
Randy Couture defended his heavyweight title in a memorable main event battle with Pedro Rizzo, while Pat Miletich looked to extend his welterweight title run to five fights against Carlos Newton.
Meanwhile, Chuck Liddell faced former heavyweight champ Kevin Randleman, and 7ft giant Semmy Schilt was also on-board prior to becoming a kickboxing legend.
Throw in the debuts of two future champions, BJ Penn and Matt Serra (Vs. Shonie Carter), together with Olympic wrestling silver medalist Matt Lindland Vs Ricardo Almeida and you’ve got yourself a stacked card.
UFC 34: High Voltage
UFC 33 had proved to be something of a disaster, so Zuffa were determined to make amends here, with a show headlined by a rematch of UFC 31’s ‘Fight Of The Year’ between Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo.
In the co-main event Matt Hughes was poised to size the welterweight belt from Carlos Newtown and begin his legendary title reign.
Future heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez was pegged to fight Pete Williams, while emerging star BJ Penn took on Shooto champion, Caol Uno.
Another heavyweight champion in the making, Josh Barnett opened the main card, and the strength in depth carried over to the prelims, with future middleweight champion Evan Tanner on-board alongside Matt Lindland Vs Phil Baroni and Frank Mir making his UFC debut.
UFC 36: World’s Collide
In hindsight, perhaps UFC 36: World’s Collide should have been called ‘Champions Collide’ as this eight-fight card featured no less than nine past or future UFC title holders!
In the main event Josh Barnett fought Randy Couture for the heavyweight title, while co-main event honors went to Pedro Rizzo and future titleholder Andrei Arlovski.
Matt Hughes also defended his welterweight title for the first time against Hayato Sakurai, after a rumored fight with Anderson Silva fell through.
Former middleweight kingpin Pat Miletich also fought the undefeated Matt Lindland, while the other future champions competing on the night were Evan Tanner, Frank Mir, Matt Serra and Sean Sherk.
UFC 40: Vendetta
UFC 40 is often seen as a pivotal moment in the promotion’s history, with the public’s imagination captured by the beginnings of a classic rivalry between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock.
In the co-main event there was more star power with Chuck Liddell fighting Renato Sobral, while Matt Hughes looked to make another welterweight title defense against Gil Castillo.
Former champ Carlos Newton also fought Pete Spratt on the main card, which was opened up by emerging star Robbie Lawer Vs Tiki Ghosn.
Future heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski took on Ian Freeman on the prelims, which also featured Vladimir Matyushenko Vs Travis Wuiff.
UFC 44: Undisputed
UFC 44 rolled out with a light-heavyweight title unification bout between two of the promotion’s biggest stars, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture, and Tim Sylvia defending his heavyweight title in the co-main event against Gan McGee.
Andrei Arlovski was heading towards the heavyweight title against Vladimir Matyushenko, while another future champion Rich Franklin also featured against Edwin Dewees.
What makes the card particularly intriguing in hindsight is the number of stars who made their debuts, including Nick Diaz, Josh Thomson, Karo Parisyan and Jorge Rivera, while Hermes Franca Vs Caol Uno kicked off the proceedings.
UFC 46: Supernatural
Having just ended Tito Ortiz’s title reign, Randy Couture defended the 205lb title in a rematch with Vitor Belfort at UFC 46, while a huge co-main event saw BJ Penn return to fight for the welterweight title against long-reigning champion Matt Hughes.
Frank Mir took the third spot on the card in a rematch with Wes Sims, just one fight prior to winning the heavyweight title, while former champ Carlos Newton was also on-board, as was notorious UK fighter Lee Murray who’d undertake his only UFC fight against Jorge Rivera.
The prelims that night were top notch, with Georges St. Pierre making his debut against Karo Parisyan, while Josh Thomson fought Hermes Franca, and future welterweight champ Matt Serra squared up to Jeff Curran.
UFC 52 took place just a week after a pivotal moment in the promotion’s history, The TUF 1 Finale, and was headlined by a huge rematch between the show’s superstar coaches, 205lb champ Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell.
That night also featured an instant classic welterweight title encounter between Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg, while future welterweight kingpin GSP fought Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller.
The main card also featured Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral Vs Travis Wiuff and Matt Lindland Vs Travis Lutter, while the prelims included the likes of Joe Riggs Vs Ivan Salaverry and Patrick Cote Vs Joe Doerksen.
UFC 73: Stacked
UFC 73 was titled ‘Stacked’, and that was no idle boast as this was a strong card from top to bottom.
Anderson Silva made his first middleweight title defense against Nate Marquardt in the main event, while lightweight champion Sean Sherk fought Hermes Franca.
Third on the bill was former 205lb champ Tito Ortiz, who was still a key player at the time, going up against undefeated TUF 2 winner and future title holder, Rashad Evans.
PRIDE heavyweight legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira debuted against Heath Herring, while recent lightweight title challenger Kenny Florian opened the main card.
The prelims continued the ‘Stacked’ theme, featuring the likes of Stephan Bonnar and Chris Lytle, while future lightweight champion Frankie Edgar kicked off the evening against Mark Bocek.
UFC 92: The Ultimate 2008
It could rightfully be argued that UFC 92: The Ultimate 2008 was top heavy, but what an impressive show of force this was.
The event saw hugely popular TUF Season 1 winner Forrest Griffin attempt to defend his 205lb title for the first time against Season 2 winner Rashad Evans.
Co-main event duties saw PRIDE legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira defending his interim heavyweight belt against Frank Mir, who’d just defeated Brock Lesnar.
What also left fans salivating prior to this show was a long-awaited rematch between bitter rivals Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Wanderlei Silva which served as a very strong lead-in to the two title bouts.
Those three fights helped disguise the fact that the rest of the card was largely underwhelming, though Yushin Okami fought Dean Lister in the featured prelim and Pat Barry made his UFC debut in the opening fight.
UFC 100 was an enormous night for the company and they delivered a star-studded, heavily promoted line-up to celebrate in style.
Brock Lesnar had just become the heavyweight champion and was set to rematch his bitter rival Frank Mir in the main event, while the UFC’s other top draw, welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, fought Thiago Alves in the co-main event.
Meanwhile, fresh off of coaching TUF: USA Vs UK, rivals Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping helped deliver a high-profile third bout on the bill.
Rounding off the main card was Jon Fitch Vs Paulo Thiago and Yoshihiro Akiyama Vs Alan Belcher, while the prelims featured a fast rising phenom named Jon Jones, alongside Dong Hyun Kim Vs TJ Grant and Stephan Bonnar Vs former heavyweight champion Mark Coleman.
The first fight between long-time middleweight champion Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen was a huge occasion for the promotion, with the challenger having talked up a storm prior to the fight.
Jon Fitch Vs Thiago Alves may not seem like the most glamorous co-main event, but Fitch was still a top contender at the time, while former champion Matt Hughes took on Ricardo Almeida.
Future lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos also fought Clay Guida on the main card, which was kicked off by a pre-title winning Junior dos Santos going up against Roy Nelson.
UFC 117 wins points for a solid prelim selection that included the likes of Johny Hendricks, Phil Davis, Rick Story, Stefan Struve and Ben Saunders Vs Dennis Hallman in the first fight of the evening.
In hindsight UFC 126’s line-up looks even better than it did at the time.
The main event found Anderson Silva going up against Vitor Belfort in a fight that would single-handedly turn MMA into a mainstream sport in Brazil.
Meanwhile, the co-main event featured two of the UFC’s most beloved former champions, Forrest Griffin and Rich Franklin.
Superstar in the making Jon Jones was on the verge of a title shot as he took on Ryan Bader, while rising welterweight contender Jake Ellenberger also appeared on the main card.
The card benefited greatly from an influx of top talent from the WEC, with Donald Cerrone, Chad Mendes and Miguel Torres all making their UFC debuts that night, as well as future flyweight king Demetrious Johnson who fought Japanese legend ‘Kid’ Yamamoto.
UFC 129 marked the promotion’s first ever major stadium show and would break their attendance record with over 55,000 fans in attendance in Toronto.
Headlining the show was Canadian superstar Georges St. Pierre who was fighting Jake Shields in his prime, having recently vacated his Strikeforce middleweight title.
Dominant WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo defended his new UFC belt against the Mark Hominick in the co-main event. Another WEC star and future UFC champ Ben Henderson also made his promotional fight on the main card against Mark Bocek.
Two former title holders, Lyoto Machida and Randy Couture took the third spot on the bill in what would prove to be ‘The Natural’s’ retirement fight, while Rory MacDonald and Nate Diaz offered a compelling featured prelim.
UFC 167 marked the organization’s 20th anniversary with a strong line-up, and while UFC 168 would prove to be the more popular event, this one had a deeper card overall.
Headline honors were handed to GSP who was defending his welterweight title for the ninth time against Johny Hendricks, while Chael Sonnen would compete for the final time in his career against Rashad Evans.
Robbie Lawler fought Rory MacDonald for the first time, with both on the verge of title contention, while Tyron Woodley went up against Josh Koscheck.
Donald Cerrone Vs Evan Dunham was the featured prelim on an undercard that also included the likes of Thales Leites Vs Ed Herman, Rick Story Vs Brian Ebersole and the debut of Sergio Pettis.
UFC 194 was as stacked a card as the promotion have put on for many a year, featuring not only big name stars, but also well-matched fights.
Long-reigning featherweight champion Jose Aldo and the sport’s newest superstar Conor McGregor headlined the event in the most heavily promoted fight in UFC history.
Demian Maia Vs Gunnar Nelson promised to be a treat for grappling fan, while Max Holloway Vs Jeremy Stephens ensured early stand-up fireworks.
The prelims couldn’t quite live up to what was to follow, though the ever popular Urijah Faber starred in the featured undercard bout.