Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, has overtaken boxing to be the world’s number one combat sport and it is still growing and getting more popular every year. The UFC is the most well known of the organisations, but it’s not the only one, with Vale Tudo in Brazil (MMA’s predecessor), and Japan’s Pride Championship, and more recent incarnations such as Bellator.
Mixed Martial Arts started because of the desire of people to test their martial arts or system against others. The first few UFC tournaments pitted boxer vs wrestler, Jiu Jitsu vs Karate and Judoka versus brawler. However, it soon became clear that there was no one system that was better than all others (although Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu came close) and that led to people cross training and taking the best bits from each system and moulding them together to make an awesome hybrid. It was this that led to what we now know as MMA.
Mixed Martial Arts, whether in the UFC or other organisations has seen the world’s greatest fighters go head-to-head, so we thought we would run down 12 of the greatest ever Mixed Martial Artists to grace the sport.
One of the most recognizable names ever to grace the Octagon, BJ Penn was one of the outstanding lightweights of his generation. In a long career, he has fought and beat some of the best mixed martial artists in the world both in and out of the UFC, including Matt Hughes, Carl Uno, Matt Serra and Renzo Gracie. He often fought people much bigger than himself, which although leading to some inevitable defeats, it also marks him out as one of only two people to hold belts in two separate weight classes.
Many think that if he’d have stayed in both the UFC and his own weight category, BJ Penn could have gone on to become the greatest pound for pound fighter in the UFC but his desire to fight anyone, any size put paid to this. What cannot be denied though is just what a good mixed martial artist he was at his prime.
Tito Ortiz is an icon of the UFC, even if he has had many disputes with it and its founder Dana White. During his prime between the years of 2000 and 2006, Tito Ortiz won 11 times, being defeated just twice. He won the UFC Light Heavyweight belt by beating Wanderlei Silva and then he went on to defend it five times, a record at the time. He beat such UFC luminaries as Ken Shamrock, Evan Tanner and Elvis Sinosic. His two defeats during this period were two of the greatest fighters ever to step foot in the Octagon, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture.
Tito Ortiz’s career has probably gone on too long past his best for him to be considered in the small number of truly elite fighters in the UFC, as he continued to suffer a number of heavy defeats after 2006. However, judging him on his skills, tenacity and record during his prime, he truly deserves his place in the top 12 MMA fighters of all-time.
You can’t have a list of the best ever MMA fighters without having one of the Shamrock brothers. Despite being less well known than his brother Ken, Frank was marginally the better fighter with a better record.
During his reign as the UFC Middleweight Champion (now known as the Light Heavyweight Championship) he was ranked as the number one pound for fighter in the UFC. It’s not just in the UFC though that Shamrock fought and won, he also won the WEC Light Heavyweight Title, the Strikeforce Championship and the King of Pancrase title, as well as being named the ‘Fighter of the Decade’ for the 90s in the magazine Wrestling Observer.
Unlike his brother who is still fighting, Frank Shamrock is enjoying his retirement and is a commentator, author and social activist.
Bas Rutten was a true Mixed Martial Artist, with black belts in Kyokushin Karate, Taekwondo, Shin Tai Karate, Judo and Kickboxing. A legend in MMA, he was a three time champion of the UFC and King of Pancrase three times. He retired after a 22 fight winning streak, beating such MMA luminaries as Kevin Randleman, Minoru Suzuki, Guy Mezger and Frank Shamrock.
One of the few fighters to have gotten better with age, he was also one of the first high level stand-up fighters to have success in the UFC. However, always the perfectionist, his ground fighting was in reality just as good. Rutten is now a popular commentator.
A true legend of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Royce Gracie is a member of the famous Gracie family, the Brazilian family that brought the world of Mixed Martial Arts to prominence in the world. Dominating the early years of the UFC, he reigned supreme, stopping eleven of his opponents via the Gracie specialisation submission. Dodging nobody, his two greatest rivals in the early days were Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock, both stunning martial artists and Royce Gracie beat them both.
Although arguably, he didn’t face the standard of fighters that modern MMA fighters do, that was not Royce’s fault, and he was the man more than any other that brought the Ultimate Fighting Championship and MMA in general to the general public. His record only show two losses, to Matt Hughes and the great Kazushi Sakuraba known as the ‘Gracie Hunter’. He later avenged his loss, but Royce was found to have taken illegal steroids, a blot on what was otherwise a stunning Mixed Martial Arts career.
One of the most well known faces ever to step foot in the Octagon, his martial arts background was in college wrestling and he was also a black belt in Neil Melanson submission wrestling system. During his time in the UFC, he was a three time UFC heavyweight champion and two time UFC light heavyweight champion, and is one of only two Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters to have held championship titles at two weights, the other being BJ Penn.
Competing in 15 title fights, he has fought and beaten such greats as Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Gabriel Gonzaga and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, with defeats by Liddell, Brock Lesnar and Lyoto Machida. Specialising in the clinch and ground and pound, Randy Couture has been one of the better technical fighters to have fought in the Octagon and is a now a member of the Ultimate Fighting Championship Hall of Fame.
Matt Hughes’ list of winning fights reads like a who’s who of UFC and MMA.. The Oregon farm boy has beaten such Mixed Martial Arts legends as BJ Penn, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk and the mighty Georges St Pierre. Fighting in both Pride and the UFC, Matt Hughes dominated his weight division between the years of 2001 and 2006, fighting many people much bigger than him due to Pride not having a 170 pound division.
Known as the master of the knockout by way of the slam, it is for being the first fighter to defeat Royce Gracie in the UFC that Matt Hughes will be best remembered for, which ushered in the new era of MMA and ended the Gracie’s reign of dominance of the Octagon.
Sakuraba will forever be known as ‘The Gracie Hunter’. Defeating Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie and Ryan Gracie, he was the man more than ever that broke their dominance of both the UFC and Pride.
He began his career as an amateur wrestler, and was schooled a type of shoot wrestling that actually had its roots in Lancashire in the UK. Known as ‘catch as catch can’ style wrestling, it was brought to Japan by Billy Robinson who trained many great Japanese champions. It was this unorthodox style that led him to being able to beat so many great fighters in both the UFC and Pride. As well as the Gracies, this included Vitor Belfort, Marcus Silveira and Quinton Rampage Jackson.
It will be for his complete dominance over the Gracies though that Kazushi Sakuraba will be best remembered, changing the landscape of UFC and Mixed Martial Arts forever.
One of the most recognisable faces of MMA, Charles David ‘Chuck’ Liddell has a background in several martial arts, being a 5th Dan Black Belt in Kenpo Karate and Koei Kan Karate as well as being a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and a collegiate wrestler. With the record for the most knockouts in the UFC (13), it is he and Randy Couture that are thought to be the two people who brought the UFC to the attention of the general public. He’s had a long career and fought everyone of note that was put in front of him, beating most of them. Perhaps his career went on a lttle bit too long which blemishes his record. But there is no denying that Chuck Liddell is one of the greats of the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts in general, beating such greats as Tito Ortiz, Vitor Belfort, Guy Mezger, Jeff Monson and Randy Couture.
Sambo and Judo specialist Fedor Emelianenko had one of the longest undefeated streaks ever in Mixed Martial Arts, remaining undefeated from April 2001 to November 2009 for 28 straight fights. During this time, he fought such great fighters as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko Filipovic. However, much of Emelianenko’s career in his prime was spent in Pride rather than the UFC, which was where arguably the better fighters in the heavyweight division were.
However, the fact is that such a record cannot go unrewarded, and he does rank amongst the best fighters of all time, just not quite as highly as he might had he tested himself against a wider variety of opposition.
Georges St Pierre
Georges St Pierre, also known as GSP is truly one of the legends of MMA. A true allrounder, he holds black belts in Kyokushin Karate, Shidokan, Gaidojutsu and Brazilian Gracie Jiu Jitsu. His only two losses were to two of the best MMA fighters of his generation, Matt Hughes and Matt Serra. His win over the latter is one of the greatest upsets that the sport of Mixed Martial Arts has ever known, as he was a huge outsider before the fight.
Georges St Pierre was known for his stoppages during his prime, using a wide array of tactics such as rear naked chokes, arms bars as well as overwhelming his opponents with punches. However, his fights in more recent years have tended to go more to decisions, unlike some of the other fighters in this list such as Anderson Silva who have remained devastating throughout their career.
Anderson Silva is arguably the most awesome competitor to ever step foot in the UFC Octagon. Between 2006 and 2012, Silva was unbeatable, winning 17 times, knocking 14 of the clean out. He has a truly mixed martial arts background, with extensive experience in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Capoeira, Taekwondo and Judo, and although primarily known as one of the greatest ever strikers in the UFC, he was just as at home on the ground.
He’s beaten some of the best fighters ever to fight in the UFC, and with most of them, he didn’t just beat them, he annihilated them. Names such as Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin and Chael Sonnen have all succumbed to the awesome fighter that is Anderson ‘The Spider’ Silva.