Best in the world – The UFC’s most memorable title fights outside North America

On Saturday (3 a.m. ET on ESPN, 6 a.m. ET on ESPN+), Jessica Andrade will defend her UFC women’s strawweight title against Zhang Weili in Shenzhen, China. It will be the second UFC title fight outside of North America in a month. It’ll also begin a run of three straight UFC title fights held outside the continent and will be the first time that has happened.

Going into Andrade vs. Zhang, there have been only 30 UFC title fights outside North America among the 263 championship fights in the promotion’s history. The most recent was women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko defeating Liz Carmouche on Aug. 10 in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The UFC’s return to China features a strawweight division championship fight, one that fans in Shenzhen have been anticipating for several months.
Zhang Weili, who is 19-1 and fights out of Beijing, will look to take the title from Jessica Andrade in Saturday’s main event.

UFC Fight Night: Andrade vs. Zhang
• Saturday, Shenzhen, China
• Prelims: ESPN, 3 a.m. ET
• Main card: ESPN+, 6 a.m. ET

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After UFC Shenzhen, the next two title bouts are Khabib Nurmagomedov putting his lightweight belt on the line against Dustin Poirier on Sept. 7 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and middleweight champ Robert Whittaker facing interim belt holder Israel Adesanya on Oct. 6 in Melbourne, Australia.

This year will have the most overseas title bouts ever, with five, topping 2015, which had four. In addition to the four from August to October, Andrade beat Rose Namajunas to win the strawweight belt at UFC 237 on May 11 in Rio de Janeiro.

Here is a look at the most significant title fights to take place outside North America in UFC history:

UFC 193: Nov. 14, 2015, in Melbourne, Australia (Watch on ESPN+)

There was a UFC-record crowd of 56,214 inside the stadium in Melbourne, Australia, for the 2015 title bout between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm. Scott Barbour /Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The head kick heard ’round the world. Rousey vs. Holm wasn’t just the biggest UFC title fight outside of North America. It was also one of the biggest title fights ever. Attendance at Etihad Stadium (now Marvel Stadium) was a UFC-record 56,214, and the event reportedly drew more than 1 million pay-per-view buys, putting it in rarefied air in terms of fan interest.

Holm’s head-kick knockout of the previously undefeated Rousey had ripple effects across the UFC — she was its biggest star — and was possibly the most watched knockout in mixed martial arts history, if you include the clips that were played all over mainstream television.

It was a shocking result, especially to those outside the hardcore MMA bubble. Rousey seemed invincible. She had a 12-0 record and six straight UFC women’s bantamweight title defenses and had finished her previous four bouts in 66 seconds or less. Rousey also was crossing over into Hollywood, had just put out a bestselling book and was one of the biggest celebrities on the planet. Holm walloped her off her high horse with a breathtakingly technical and tactical performance, culminating with a perfectly timed left kick to Rousey’s head. Rousey fought only once after that night.

UFC 75: Sept. 8, 2007, in London

UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson unloads on Pride champ Dan Henderson during their showdown in 2007 in London. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

UFC 75 was titled “Champion vs. Champion.” In today’s era of MMA, we are somewhat desensitized to such things, as superfights are a regular occurrence in the UFC. In 2007, however, champions fighting champions was nowhere near as prevalent. To take it a step further, Jackson vs. Henderson was something completely different. “Rampage” was the UFC light heavyweight champion. Henderson, recently signed by the UFC, held the Pride Fighting Championships titles at 83 kg (183 pounds) and 93 kg (205 pounds).

At the time, Japan’s Pride promotion was on its last legs, but it still had prestige and some of the best fighters on the planet. Jackson and Henderson were both huge names in MMA, and this was a legitimate promotion vs. promotion title unification, the likes of which are very rare in 2019. UFC 75 drew 16,235 to the O2 and a monster number on Spike TV — an average of 4.7 million viewers, with a peak of 5.6 million. At the time, it was the most watched MMA event ever in North America. Those numbers are even more impressive, considering it aired on tape delay. Jackson ended up winning by unanimous decision, and a month later the UFC bought Pride.

UFC 134: Aug. 27, 2011, in Rio de Janeiro

Ending a dry spell of 13 years without a UFC event in Brazil, Anderson Silva walks away from a fallen Yushin Okami after defending his middleweight belt in 2011 in Rio de Janeiro. Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

MMA can trace its origins in the United States to the Gracie family and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Rorion Gracie was one of the UFC’s founders. Yet between 1998 and 2011, the UFC did not visit Brazil. UFC 134 was the promotion’s first event there in 13 years, and it was a blockbuster: the homecoming of Silva, who was the best fighter on Earth. He had won 14 straight fights, including eight middleweight title defenses, heading into this bout.

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With all due respect to Okami, a hard-nosed Japanese veteran, this was the Silva show. “The Spider” was coming off a first-round knockout of countryman Vitor Belfort, a victory that is credited with making Silva a mainstream celebrity in Brazil. Just two fights prior, Silva beat Chael Sonnen in a bout that made Silva a big pay-per-view draw in the United States.

Silva vs. Okami was watched by about 30 million people on TV in Brazil, according to UFC president Dana White. A sellout crowd of 14,000 was in attendance at HSBC Arena. Meanwhile, back in the States, the fight was shown on a huge screen in Times Square, high above Manhattan’s “Little Brazil” block. Silva did his part, too, finishing Okami via TKO with a flourish in the second round.

UFC Japan: Dec. 21, 1997, in Yokohama, Japan

Randy Couture has his hand raised in Yokohama, Japan, after winning his first UFC championship by dethroning Maurice Smith at heavyweight in 1997. Susumu Nagao/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The era of “The Natural” started in earnest on this night. It was the first time the UFC heavyweight title was being defended outside the United States, and Couture captured it from Smith with a majority decision. Couture was a novice at MMA, holding just a 3-0 record coming in. For the three-time Olympic wrestling alternate and three-time Division I All-American, this was his first UFC title. He later amassed three reigns as heavyweight champion and two as light heavyweight champion. This was the beginning of Couture’s rise to becoming one of the biggest crossover names in the UFC.

Kazushi Sakuraba, who became a UFC Hall of Famer, like Couture, stole the show at Ultimate Japan, winning a heavyweight tournament against Marcus Silveira, a man 60 pounds heavier than him. But Couture, who fought in the main event, was on his way to becoming one of the men the UFC would build around as it moved toward the sports mainstream. Couture vs. Smith was not a great fight by any means, but it was an important one. Unfortunately for Couture, he never got to defend the belt during this reign. He was stripped after a contract dispute with the UFC and fought in Japan for the next three years before returning at UFC 28 in 2000.

UFC 198: May 14, 2016, in Curitiba, Brazil (Watch on ESPN+)

Stipe Miocic leaps over the Octagon in Curitiba, Brazil, to celebrate with his team after winning the UFC heavyweight championship in 2016. Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Curitiba has long been a hotbed for mixed martial arts. Some of the biggest stars in the history of the sport were born in the city in southern Brazil, with Anderson Silva, Cris Cyborg, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Wanderlei Silva among them. This was the UFC’s first trip there, and the occasion was a heavyweight title defense by Brazil’s Werdum. A crowd of 45,207 packed the Arena de Baixada soccer stadium for the historic card. It still stands as the third-highest attendance in UFC history, behind UFC 193 and UFC 129 in Toronto, headlined by Georges St-Pierre vs. Jake Shields.

This was the first time the heavyweight title had been defended outside North America since 1999, when Kevin Randleman successfully defended against Pete Williams at UFC 23 in Tokyo. In this one, Miocic knocked Werdum out in less than three minutes to start the most successful heavyweight title reign in UFC history, with three straight title defenses. At the time, Werdum was considered one of the best ever in the division, with six straight wins, most recently a submission finish of Cain Velasquez to win the title.

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