There are few finishes in mixed martial arts more aesthetically pleasing than the head-kick knockout. It is a knockout decisive and sudden; there is little in the way of build-up or time to prepare – not for the fighter on the receiving end or the fan watching with their jaw slack. It is, for this reason, as dramatic a moment as any you’re likely to find in a sport chock-full of such moments.
This past Saturday (June 17) we watched Holly Holm, a former champion in desperate need of a win, put the head-kick to good use, as she caught Brazil’s Bethe Correia with one a minute into round three of their headline fight at UFC Fight Night 111. In winning via this method, Holm not only halted a three-fight losing run, thus re-emerging in the women’s bantamweight title picture, she also became the only fighter in UFC history to have won two fights by head-kick knockout (her first came against a little-known former Olympian called Ronda Rousey, of course).
So, in tribute to ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’s pet move, here are ten of the best ever head-kick knockouts produced in an Octagon.
Pete Williams vs. Mark Coleman
UFC 17 (1998)
There can be no better place to start than the beginning. In this this case, the very beginning. Peter Williams’ UFC 17 head-kick knockout of Mark Coleman, a former UFC heavyweight champion, arrived 38 seconds into the first round and marked the first time a UFC fighter had ever won a fight via that particular method. A right kick, landed with force on Coleman’s face, instantly shut down the ‘Godfather of Ground-and-Pound’, and triggered referee John McCarthy to rush in and save him from further punishment.
Yves Edwards vs. Josh Thompson
UFC 49 (2004)
If ever a knockout summed up the versatility and unpredictability of mixed martial artists it was the head-kick delivered by Yves Edwards on Josh Thompson in 2004. Beforehand, before the kick, Edwards had been trying to haul Thompson to the floor from behind, only to suddenly decide against it, which led to them coming apart. It was then, during the ensuing scramble, Edwards managed to connect with his foot at the exact same time Thompson looked to strike with a spinning back-fist. It was all going on: takedown attempts, scrambles, a spinning back-fist and a head-kick. But the kick won out (and, to make matters worse, the momentum generated by Thompson’s spinning back-fist only served to lead him directly into the path of what was coming back the other way).
Rashad Evans vs. Sean Salmon
UFC Fight Night: Evans vs. Salmon (2007)
Rashad Evans wasn’t a fighter known for his head-kicks, let alone head-kick knockouts. He was instead considered a power puncher, a man who could do damage with right hands, as well as a very accomplished wrestler. But that certainly didn’t stop the man from Niagara Falls winding up a right kick and landing it on the jaw of Sean Salmon in 2007. Salmon, as surprised as everyone else, took the kick flush, stiffened on impact and then crashed to the canvas like a tree felled in a forest.
Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Mirko Filipovic
UFC 70 (2007)
It wasn’t so much the kick itself that ensures Gabe Gonzaga’s offering will live long in the memory – it’s the man against whom it landed. You see, Mirko Cro Cop was, for a time, the master of the head-kick. He’d boast about it, too: “Right kick hospital, left kick cemetery.” Which is why, when Gonzaga, a perennial contender seemingly destined to be head-kicked into oblivion by Cro Cop at UFC 70, ended up switching the script and landing a right kick on Cro Cop, a shot which instantly turned the Croatian’s body limp, it was heard all over the world and became a moment destined to be replayed over and over again. Talk about getting a taste of your own medicine.
Alessio Sakara vs. Joe Vedepo
UFC Fight Night: Diaz vs. Neer (2008)
Alessio Sakara’s knockout of Joe Vedepo is a nod to the benefits of being relaxed and loose in the Octagon. On the back foot and under pressure, Sakara spat out a leg kick, one that caused little or no damage, and then loosened up, dropped his hands, allowed Vedepo to feel a false sense of security, and proceeded to stun him with an impromptu left to the chin. The kick instantly shut Vedepo down, turning his legs to rubber, and the fight was over.
Lyoto Machida vs. Randy Couture
UFC 129 (2011)
The closest a fighter has ever come to emulating Daniel-san’s crane kick from Karate Kid, Lyoto Machida knew the only way to finish a warrior as tough and determined as Randy Couture was to do something otherworldly and shocking. So that’s exactly what he did in 2011. Unexpected and violent, Couture was preparing for the left kick, having worked his way through a minefield of feints and pump fakes, but then found himself nailed by a shock right sent through the middle. Couture lost the fight and some teeth for his troubles. Machida, meanwhile, seemed like something straight out of a video game.
Edson Barboza vs. Terry Etim
UFC 142 (2012)
This was the head-kick KO that had everything. It had the kick itself – one of the spinning wheel variety – and it had a clean and pure connection, somewhere around the top of poor Terry Etim’s head. It also had the “timberrrrrrrr” fall, which is to say one that was dramatic and terrifying, and the subsequent casual walk off, a sign Edson Barboza knew there was absolutely no need to add any sort of finishing touch to his work, a sign he knew he’d landed not only the best kick of his life, but perhaps the best kick in UFC history. The amount of times it has been replayed and discussed since is testament to the fact this is probably true.
Junior dos Santos vs. Mark Hunt
UFC 160 (2013)
There was a real element of surprise to Junior dos Santos’ spinning hook-kick knockout of Mark Hunt in 2013. For one, it’s rare we ever see dos Santos throw kicks, much less ones of the flashy and unorthodox variety. Two, Mark Hunt, a veteran of 20 years in combat sports, is rarely ever hurt by strikes, let alone finished by them. Therefore, to see dos Santos pluck a spinning hook-kick from out of nowhere and for it to land high on Hunt’s head, essentially ending the bout in an instant, was something that had to be seen not once but twice to be believed.
Yair Rodriguez vs. Andre Fili
UFC 197 (2016)
Yair Rodriguez, they say, represents a new breed of striker. Inventive, intuitive and deadly, he can strike from any angle and cause damage with every part of his anatomy. It was ninja kick this time round, though, as Andre Fili looked to escape, backed away on the fence, and then found himself blindsided by Rodriguez raising his right leg and following through with his left, an elaborate move which left Fili unconscious.
Lando Vannata vs. John Makdessi
UFC 206 (2016)
There haven’t been many cooler head-kick knockouts than the one Lando Vannata produced against John Makdessi in December 2016. Casual to the point of concern, Vannata lowered the tempo of the fight, almost placed his left foot on the thigh of Makdessi, which worked as a kind of distraction, and then used that move to pivot and unleash a spinning wheel-kick from hell, which caught Makdessi by the nose and sent him sprawling to the ground. To make matters cooler, Vannata, rather than follow up with punches and risk making things look messy, simply strolled over to his grounded opponent, checked the deal was done and wandered away again.