Now comes the turn to list the 15 top MMA fighters of all-time, in my opinion. They are, in reverse order:
Honorable Mention: Pat Miletich (probably more for being a coach than for his fighting days)
15 – Mirko Cro Cop: if you like knockout highlights, look no further. A great kickboxer, Cro Cop came from the K-1 Organization bringing his skills to the Pride FC ring. He immediately became one of the most feared heavyweight strikers in the MMA world, using a high kick to head as his weapon of choice. Heavy strikes and great technique have made this Croatian a fan favorite. Notable wins include Igor Vovchanchyn and Wanderlei Silva. Still fights in the UFC.
14 – Genki Sudo: the biggest showman ever in the MMA spectre. At Pancrase, UFC and K-1 MMA his entrances were outstanding: worthy of WWE status, and then some. Inside the ring/ octagon he taunted his opponents by turning his back, acting like a robot or using pro-wrestling moves. But make no mistake, for Sudo was an outstanding fighter. Very skilled on his feet (he fought in regular K-1, too) and with impeccable grappling skills (Abu-dhabi caliber), Sudo could fight in every aspect of the game. Retired too early due to injuries.
13 – Ken Shamrock: the “World’s Most Dangerous Man” isn’t exactly a catchy nickname, but Ken was one of the originals. He fought in Pancrase, was there at the beginning of the UFC, had a stint with the WWE, came back to MMA through Pride FC and finished his career in the UFC. He’s a UFC Hall of Famer that contributed to make the sport recognized and popular. His feud with Tito Ortiz was memorable, even if too one-sided inside the octagon.
12 – Chuck Lidell: the “Iceman” is the perennial mohawk striker with the wicked takedown defense. The San Obispo native was a number contender for the UFC LHW title for a long time, beating quality opponent after quality opponent. The triangle between him, Couture and Ortiz made for some memorable fights. Chuck eventually captured the UFC title, as he deserved, helping the UFC in going mainstream. He also had some matches in Pride FC; Lidell has provided MMA fans with many knockout highlights.
11 – Frank Shamrock: the younger brother of Ken Shamrock, Frank emerged as a fighter with the entire package: striking, grappling and stamina. Beating guys such as Tito Ortiz and Jeremy Horn, Shamrock was able to capture the UFC title. He never lost the title, he simply retired. Then came back, fighting as he fights now in EliteXC. He’s not in the UFC mainly because there is a lot of bad blood between him and Dana White. But it is also clear that, even at 35, he’s still able to fight anyone.
10 – Mark Coleman: “The Hammer” was an outstanding wrestler and also the first fighter to really coin the term «ground ‘n pound». His two highlight moments are the capture of the first-ever UFC HW title (beat Dan Severn) and winning Pride FC’s 2000 GP Tournament (beating Igor Vovchanchyn in the finals), Pride’s first ever tournament. This former NCAA division 1 champion is also recognized by his imposing physique.
9 – Tito Ortiz: the bad boy from Huntington Beach actually came into the UFC as an alternate. Tito instantly became recognizable due to his attitude, by feuding with the Lion’s Den, and by becoming a cardio machine that won the UFC’s LHW crown, defending it 5 times in a row with success. Tito is still pretty much in the game, as a real contender, and leads one of the most respected camps in Team Punishment. His participation in TUF 3, as a coach, also showed a more friendly side of him to fans.
8 – Bas Rutten: “El Guapo” is known for many things. For being a Pancrase pioneer, for being a UFC HW champion and also for his brilliant tv comments for Pride FC. He was a dutch striker that added some grappling to his arsenal, sporting an impressive 28-4-1 record, beating many quality opponents such as Frank Shamrock, Kevin Randleman, Maurice Smith and Guy Mezger.
7 – Kazushi Sakuraba: Saku came from a pro-wrestling background, which usually spells bad things. But Sakuraba established himself as a submission wizard, a fan favorite of the Japanese crowd, someone who could put on a true show. When he was already a popular fighter, he became legendary when he beat 4 Gracies (in order: Royler, Royce, Renzo and the late Ryan), being dubbed “The Gracie Hunter”. He never became Pride FC champion, but his many victories and slick submissions earn him a spot here.
6 – Matt Hughes: a great wrestler turned awesome all-around MMA fighter. Known for his patented slams and raw strength, Matt has been also able to develop a solid striking and submissions game. Pound for pound, Hughes had the biggest title dominance in the UFC… ever. His welterweight championship days were crowned with victories over a who’s who of MMA: Hayato Sakurai, Carlos Newton, Frank Trigg, Georges St. Pierre, Sean Sherk, and the list goes on and on.
5 – Wanderlei Silva: the “Axe Murderer”, known for his raw tenacity and viciousness. Where Pedro Rizzo is shy to attack, Silva is just shy to stand back and counter punch. A solid purple belt in BJJ, but his real strength has always been his muay thai, especially those knees. Wanderlei was able to rule Pride FC’s MW division with an iron fist, annihilating the likes of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Henderson, Kazushi Sakubara, among many others.
4 – Royce Gracie: for showing the world that fighting wasn’t just a matter of standing up and striking. For showing that, with the right tools, a little guy can beat a bigger opponent. For showing the world moves and submissions never seen before. For being the man that the Gracie family chose as representative upon the creation of the UFC. For what MMA has become. For sparking the biggest revolution in martial arts since a guy named Bruce Lee.
3 – Antonio Nogueira: Minotauro is one of those guys that can submit you in a blink, without a gi. His solid striking game is clearly surpassed by his astonishing submissions. Look no further than his armbar on Bob Sapp, anaconda choke on Heath Herring, or triangle choke on Mark Coleman. Until Fedor came along, Minotauro was Pride FC’s biggest champion. Can he become the next UFC HW champion?
2 – Fedor Emelianenko: a pity he’s not under contract with the UFC. A shame that there are MMA fans who’ve never seen Fedor fight. There’s not a weak spot on his game, and he’s beaten everyone put in front of him. Can you strike? He’ll take you to the ground, pound and submit you. Are you a big-time grappler? He’ll punish you with fast and heavy blows on his feet. Not a **** in his armor… at least so far.
1 – Randy Couture: both Minotauro and Fedor have bigger and probably more impressive records than Couture, both in terms of % of wins and also when it comes to the quality of opponents they beat. But the “Natural” has always defied the odds. Age doesn’t mean a thing when this guy is around. He’s the only fighter in UFC history to have held both the HW and LHW belts. He’s an inspiration and all-around good guy, just the kind of icon the sports needs.
Any others I should’ve included?