25 Best MMA Fighters Ever, According to an OG MMA Fan

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Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is the popular name of the sport many fans today are introduced to from the organization known as the UFC. When looking at MMA’s history, especially under the MMA acronym many will cite the first UFC event, UFC 1 in 1993 as the event that sparked it’s inception to turn it into the regulated and popular sport it is today. While names like Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal and Jon Jones are common amongst today’s fanbase, the 27 years MMA has been around has produced a lot of names that can be considered greats and legends in the sports history.

The current best fighters in the world, likely got inspired by someone that fought before regulation and weight classes were brought into the sport. The UFC has a Hall of Fame for men like this but sadly, not all the men that are deserving of a place in a hall of fame for the entire sport get brought up enough. Some of these men fought before social media and Youtube helped market a fighters career and some of them are still fighting now.

In no particular order, here are the 25 best fighters to ever compete in MMA.

1. Royce Gracie (15-2-3)

2. Fedor Emelianenko (39-6-1)

Emelianenko is the probably the greatest heavyweight to never fight in the UFC, but in time would face former UFC champions and defeat them. In his prime, he held the heavyweight title in Pride Fighting Championships which was the biggest MMA promotion in Japan at the time and a direct competitor in the sport with the UFC. Emelianenko was the 2004 Grand Prix Champion which was a tournament style series of events, and the last heavyweight champion Pride FC would have before the promotion folded in 2007. Recently, Emelianenko came out of retirement and was a finalist in Bellator MMA’s world Grand Prix where he lost to Ryan Bader. 2020 was supposed to be his retirement tour of fights but with the COVID-19 pandemic pausing sports and travel, he may have to extend those plans into 2021.

3. Bas Rutten (28-4-1)

Rutten was in the 2012 film Here Comes the Boom alongside his close friend and the film’s star, Kevin James. In it,he plays an old school MMA champion that coaches young and upcoming fighters which was not far from the truth. Rutten, a former UFC Heavyweight Champion and three-time King of Pancrase fought his way into a successful career in combat sports through his passion for martial arts. Through Kyokushin Karate and Muay Thai, Rutten found his way into the Pancrase organization which was essentially MMA, with no gloves (only open handed strikes to the head). Becoming a champion there would make him a great signee for the growing UFC promotion where he would win the heavyweight title in 1999. He would coach many fighters including Duane “Bang” Ludwig and Mark “The Smashing Machine” Kerr and do commentary for Pride FC, The World Series of Fighting, currently, Karate Combat.

4. Kazushi Sakuraba (26-17-1-2NC)

When people think of pro wrestlers that make their way into MMA, the average fan thinks WWE. Brock Lesnar and CM Punk going into the UFC, however they would be wrong if they think those were the first. Sakuraba won the UFC Ultimate Japan Heavyweight Tournament but he would become known as “The Gracie Hunter'' in his prime as he started to rack up victories against members of the Gracie family. His match with Royce went for 90 minutes before Gracie’s corner threw in the towel. In Japan, Sakuraba was never afraid to compete in open-weight matches and holds victories over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Vitor Belfort and Carlos Newton. Today, he is the founder of the team-based submission only grappling promotion known as Quintet.)

5. Norifimi "Kid" Yamamoto (18-6 2NC)

By the time Yamamoto got to the UFC he was already nearing the end of his career and sadly, his life. Born into a wrestling family in Japan, when Yamamoto began his fighting career 21 when he transitioned from wrestling to MMA and if ever there was a fighter that would go from zero to 100mph at the sound of the first bell, Yamamoto would be that guy. Most of his career during his prime was fought in Japan’s K-1 Hero's, Shooto and DREAM MMA promotions. He went 0-3 in the UFC with one “no-contest” in his last fight in 2015 due to an eye poke. Yamamoto passed away in 2018 after a losing battle with stomach cancer that he kept quiet until just before he passed away.

6. Georges St-Pierre (26-2)

7. Renzo Gracie (14-7-1-1NC)

With his academies in New York City, a lot of fighters near the region come out of team Renzo Gracie. Even St-Pierre has made the trip from Canada often to train with Renzo who has fought some legendary battles of his own. Coming from the family that brought Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the masses, Renzo came into MMA fighting in Brazil’s Vale Tudo circuit. For newer fans, that was Brazil’s version of UFC 1, but was around a bit longer. Renzo, at 51 years old fought in ONE Championship’s Reign of Kings event in 2018 where he won by submission.

8. Randy Couture (19-11)

Couture is a former, three time UFC Heavyweight CHampion, and two time light-heavyweight champion. He accomplished those feats when he was in his forties, an age many consider too old for professional sports. He holds wins over Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and boxer, James Tony. His career led him to opening Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas where many of today’s elite fighters still train. He has also been featured in The Expendables films and currently does commentary for The Professional Fighters League.

9. Mirko "Cro-cop" Filipovic (33-11-2-1NC)

“Right leg, hospital; left leg, cemetery,” was a quote that summed up the game plan of one of the most dangerous strikers to ever transition to MMA. Usually, a one dimensional fighter from boxing or kickboxing has to make a lot of adjustments for the rules that make the sport of MMA. But for Filipovic, he brought his dominant skillset to the sport and left a trail of unconscious opponents with his signature left high-kick. In his prime, even knowing the kick was coming would not save them from the inevitable. If they were able to avoid the left high kick, the right kick was no better. Filipovic fought in Pride FC, the UFC, and ended his career in Bellator MMA with a win over Roy Nelson before retiring from fighting in 2019.

10. Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0)

11. Evan Tanner (32-8)

Tanner was a wrestler that taught himself how to fight. He was convinced to try out fighting in local shows where his wrestling skill brought him success but he knew he would need more. He would get a hold of VHS tapes by the Gracies to learn submissions and eventually start training with other fighters at Team Quest to hone his skills. Like Rutten, Tanner would make his way to Japan and fight in Pancrase before making his way into the UFC where he would become middleweight champion. Tanner passed away in 2008 due to heat exposure when his motorcycle ran out of gas in the California Desert.

12. B.J. Penn (16-14-2)

Known as "The Prodigy", Penn fought almost everyone who is anyone in MMA. He earned the nickname because he got his black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in about four years (on average it can take 10). He then pursued a career in MMA competing in weight classes from featherweight to middleweight, winning the UFC lightweight and welterweight titles during the prime of his career. Penn is one of the fighters that made the lighter weight divisions popular and while he did try to return to fighting back in 2017, he suffered four losses his most recent last year to Clay Guida at UFC 237.

13. Matt Hughes (45-9)

Hughes had a rivalry with both Penn and St-Pierre in the UFC welterweight division, facing them more than once. He is a two-time UFC welterweight champion and brought his athleticism from wrestling into his MMA career. When St-Pierre was on the rise in the UFC it was Hughes that would hand him his first loss. While he would eventually lose their next two rematches, Hughes would have already cemented his legacy amongst the UFC’s welterweight elite.

14. Jens Pulver (27-29-1)

15. Shinya Aoki (44-9-1)

Aoki is another fighter out of Japan who competes for Rizin Fighting Federation and ONE Championships. He’s competed at both lightweight and welterweight,and is known for his brutal submission finishes. Of Aoki’s 44 wins, 29 come by way of submission. While Aoki’s career has mostly taken place in Japanese organizations he would face the likes of Eddie Alvarez in Bellator and lose a decision against Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce lightweight title. In his post fight interview, Melendez addressed boo’s from the fans because he would not engage Aoki on the ground, saying he was “dangerous down there,” and he would be correct.

16. Tito Ortiz (21-12-1)

Ortiz might be one of the original stars marketed by the UFC. Known as the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy”, Ortiz would publicly feud with UFC president Dana White which somehow translated to more pay-per-view buys when he fought. His rivalries with Ken Shamrock and Chuck Liddell made for some of the most memorable moments in MMA, with an ESPN 30-for-30 being done on his history with Liddell. In those days, Ortiz would lose their first two matches and in 2018 he would avenge those losses in Oscar De La Hoya’s attempt to get into the MMA space with Goldenboy Promotions.

17. Cris Cyborg (22-2-1)

Cris “Cyborg” Justino is the current Bellator featherweight champion, and has also held the featherweight title for the UFC, Invicta FC and Strikeforce making her the only fighter in MMA to hold four titles in major MMA promotions. Her fight with Gina Carano where she won the Strikeforce title happened before Ronda Rousey became a household name. While Cyborg did want a fight with Rousey it would never materialize. By the time Cyborg got to the UFC, Rousey was retired from fighting but Cyborg would still fight at both 135 pounds and eventually return to featherweight to claim the title there before losing it to current champ Amanda Nunes and being released by the UFC.

18. Chuck Liddell (21-9)

19. Jose Aldo (28-7)

Aldo was the last featherweight champion to come out of the WEC. His dominance at featherweight carried over to the UFC where he would defend the title seven times before losing to Conor McGregor in 2015 at UFC 194. Aldo is still competing in the UFC and has moved down a weight class to bantamweight where he recently fought for the title at UFC 251 and lost to Petr Yan.

20. Anderson Silva (34-10-1)

Silva’s early MMA career would not have had fans think he would become known as one of the best middleweights in the sport. He fought in Pride FC and in other promotions before honing his skills to become the man that would win the UFC middleweight title and defend it ten times before losing it to Chris Weidman. In his prime as champion he would defend the title against the likes of Chael Sonnen, Demian Maia, and Dan Henderson. Retirement might be coming soon for Silva but he is still fighting the best of the best in the UFC with a scheduled bout coming against Uriah Hall in October. He also went the distance and lost a decision to current champion, Israel Adesanya.

21. Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson (30-3-1)

Johnson was the inaugural flyweight champion of the UFC and would defend the title 11 times before losing a split decision to Henry Cejudo in 2018. Johnson would then go on to do a rare trade in MMA with ONE Championship who sent over their then undefeated welterweight Ben Askren for Johnson. ONE Championship would come out on top as Askren would suffer his first losses in the UFC and eventually retire whereas Johnson would go on a three-fight win streak to win the ONE Championship flyweight Grand Prix. In his downtime, Johnson is also an avid gamer and a popular streamer on Twitch.

22. Jon Jones (26-1-1)

23. Daniel Cormier (22-3-1)

Cormier has won a title in every promotion he has fought in including the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix. In the UFC he once held both the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles. His rivalry with Jones will likely become a future 30-for-30 but his self-awareness as an athlete and his background as an Olympic wrestler has made him a great ambassador for modern MMA. He currently co-hosts a podcast on ESPN called “DC & Helwani” and provides insightful commentary during live UFC events.

24. Nick Diaz (26-9-2NC)

Nick is the elder of the Diaz brothers and mentor to his younger brother Nate. While Nate has broken pay-per-view records with his fights with Conor McGregor and Jorge Masvidal, Nick was paving the way first for the Diaz brothers to become a force in MMA and put their town of Stockton, California on the map. Diaz would win the Strikeforce welterweight title and score wins over Paul Daley, B.J. Penn and Robbie Lawler in the UFC.

25. Igor Vovchanchyn (56-10 1NC)

Yes, you’re reading that record right. Vovchanchyn is the Ukrainian kickboxer turned mixed martial artist whose career began when the sport was known as “no holds barred” fighting. With his first fight in 1995, he would precede Filipovic as one the earlier successful strikers to come into MMA. Coincidentally, Vovchanchyn would also fight in Pride FC and eventually meet Filipovic in the ring where he lost via head kick in 2003. He would compete until 2005 before retiring from competition but during his prime he would carry a 37 fight win streak which is nearly unheard of in MMA today.

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