In the hours after a mind-bending knockout by Joaquin Buckley at UFC on ESPN+ 37, a question: How does one judge the greatest knockout in UFC history?
Do you mainly value technique? If so, perhaps you’ve considered the thing of beauty that was Anderson Silva’s front-kick knockout of Vitor Belfort at UFC 126 the greatest ever in the octagon. Edson Barboza putting himself on the map with a flawless spinning wheel kick against Terry Etim in 2012 belongs in this category, too.
How much do the circumstances during the fight itself matter? Yair Rodriguez landing an upward elbow to drop a charging Chan Sung Jung with one second left in the fifth round of their UFC 25th anniversary event headliner made an already great knockout a lot more memorable than it would have been had it occurred midway through some random fight on a random night.
Then there are the times the knockout serves as the serendipitous culmination of a storyline. Dan Henderson landed many picture-perfect “H-bombs” during his career, but none was more memorable than when he put Michael Bisping to sleep at UFC 100 to close out a particularly rancorous season of coaching on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Sometimes, fans simply have visceral memories of the first insane knockout they ever saw. An entire generation still remembers where they were when Gabriel Gonzaga head-kicked Mirko Cro Cop in 2006. For this writer, Tank Abbott mocking a twitching John Matua after finishing him in 20 seconds at UFC 6 feels like it happened yesterday.
And while Abbott’s 1995 KO of Matua and Buckley’s stoppage of Impa Kasanganay on Saturday night are polar opposites from a skill standpoint, they’re similar in this regard: They’re both moments that will be remembered decades down the road.
Buckley’s space-age spinning back kick on “Fight Island” already has some proclaiming the knockout as the greatest in UFC history. Like Silva on several occasions before him, Buckley did something that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
How in the world does someone not only manage to keep their composure in that moment, in which your opponent catches your first kick, but to turn it into something special? At any point, Kasanganay could have shoved Buckley off balance in any number of ways, and a viral moment never happens.
But Buckley cleared the first hurdle when Kasanganay held on milliseconds too long. Buckley took the leap of faith in the moment and somehow managed to push himself off and execute the proper velocity and precision to land a bullseye on a kick which, even if you’re starting with both feet on the ground, is an extraordinarily difficult maneuver to pull off.
— UFC (@ufc) October 10, 2020
All those factors just might have earned the title of most spectacular knockout in UFC history and is on the very short list of the most technically proficient. But is the most spectacular knockout the same as the greatest knockout? I’m not sure I’d go quite that far.
(Side note: Yes, we’re limiting this to the UFC. If we opened it to the entire sport, my pick might be Fedor Emelianenko catching Andrei Arlovski mid-air attempting a flying-knee KO of his own in Affliction in 2009. Also, this column isn’t meant to be a comprehensive listing of every great UFC knockout ever, so apologies in advance if I don’t mention your favorite.)
I’ve left out one of the biggest factors worth considering: the stakes in any given fight. Are you capable of delivering something memorable in the biggest moment, under the most intense spotlight, when the pressure is highest? After all, Malcolm Butler’s interception of Russell Wilson was nowhere near the most spectacular pick in NFL history. But you already knew without me specifying that I’m referencing his clutch play during the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIX with the Seattle Seahawks on the New England Patriots’ 1-yard line.
Under those parameters? No knockout in UFC history ever resonated like Holly Holm’s head kick of Ronda Rousey at UFC 193.
Rousey was at the peak of her powers as a cultural force in late 2015. Too many people who should have known better (think Joe Rogan and “once in a lifetime does not apply to Ronda Rousey”) fell for the aura of Rousey’s invincibility. The largest crowd in UFC history at the time flocked to Melbourne, Australia, to see it.
Those are incredible circumstances under which to perform. Holm’s head kick finish of Rousey to claim the bantamweight title reverberated far beyond the sport. It was the topic in the sports and entertainment worlds. Tens of thousands of people showed up to Holm’s hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., to greet her.
Was Holm’s kick more spectacular than Buckley’s? Of course not. But they also won’t throw a large parade for him in his hometown.
Buckley deserves all the plaudits he is receiving for what’s probably the flashiest knockout in UFC history. But “most spectacular” and “greatest” knockouts are two separate (if sometimes overlapping) things, and until someone duplicates what Holm accomplished in similar circumstances, you won’t convince me we’ve seen one greater.