What does it mean to be iconic? Do you have to be a hero or a celebrity? Is it representing the symbolization of an idol? When the term is used in sports, it’s not thrown around loosely. One thing is for sure, the term is connected to winning. Like Charlie Sheen winning, but with actual results. To become an icon of a sport, one most have to pull off feats that only a few others can say they have. They have to be champions and alphas of their craft.
With the UFC being born in Denver, Colorado, in 1993, the company has gone under several transitions and ownerships since that time. UFC started as a once a year spectacle, holding a one-night tournament with 16 brave souls from every type of combat sports background. As the years grew, it went from a tournament style format to a weight class format.
In the pre-Zuffa era, which is before Dana White and the Fertitta brothers bought the UFC in 2001, you had a sport still trying to find its spot in the sports world. There were so many talented fighters, yet, the difficult part was trying to deliver a great brand to the mass market. It was also a time of uncertainty as politicians like Senator John McCain would go on a witch hunt to make MMA illegal in the United States. You can consider this list paying homage to the men who sacrificed their bodies in a time with so much uncertainty. Besides, who doesn’t want to know what the craziest and toughest guys in the world are doing today?
15 Pat Miletich: Self-Defense Coach/MMA Broadcaster
What do UFC champions Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Tim Sylvia, and Robbie Lawler have in common? They all trained out of Bettendorf, Iowa, under the tutelage of Pat Miletich at his gym, Ultimate Fitness. Before Pat was churning out world-class champions, The Croatian Sensation made history by becoming the first UFC Welterweight Champion in 1998. His MMA career didn’t start in the UFC, but once he debuted for the promotion, he was a wrecking ball.
14 Oleg Taktarov: Actor
In the mid-90s, only a few man could beat The Russian Bear in a combat match. Taktarov would bring a unique style of sambo and judo that was rarely seen in the UFC at the time. He would lose to Hall of Famer Dan Severn in a tournament semi-finals match at UFC 5, however, the loss motivated him to become the winner of UFC 6 several months later.
13 Don Frye: Actor
With his bushy mustache, bulging muscles, and thick accent, Don Frye became a hero to many fans. You can’t talk about MMA or show a compilation of crazy MMA fights without Don Frye. The Predator grew up as a collegiate wrestler and also trained in amateur boxing before making the shift to MMA in 1996. He would the UFC 8 Tournament Championship, become a finalist at UFC 10, and win the Ultimate Ultimate 96 Tournament Championship.
12 Dan Severn: MMA Comeback
That record you see online is not a misprint. That’s right, Dan “The Beast” Severn has literally destroyed 101 men in a competitive fight. If you’re not familiar with the history of the UFC and MMA, but know a lot about professional wrestling, then you probably recognize Severn from the Attitude Era of the WWE. He made his MMA debut at UFC 4 and won his first two matches in the tournament before succumbing to the number one fighter on this list in the finals.
11 B.J. Penn: MMA Return/Website Owner
You would think most people who are wealthy wouldn’t want to participate in such a harsh and brutal sport. That wasn’t the case for B.J. Penn as the native of Hilo, Hawaii, had options to easier paths, but decided to tough it out in the sport he loves. Penn wanted to learn from the best and traveled to Brazil to get that type of experience in 2000.
10 Chuck Liddell: Actor
The Iceman is another fighter that bounced around the UFC pre-Zuffa era but once Dana White and the Fertitta brothers bought the promotion, they propelled him to new heights as one of the cornerstones of the company. Liddell got his first taste of MMA action at UFC 17 and by the time of his last fight at UFC 115, he had become a Light Heavyweight Champion, Fighter of the Year, and Hall of Famer.
9 Mark Kerr: Car Salesman
He went by The Titan, The Smashing Machine, and The Specimen, as Mark Kerr looked like an absolute freak of nature with his outstanding strength. As an incredible collegiate wrestler, Kerr laid down a path of destruction when he made his debut and won Brazil’s World Vale Tudo Championship 3 in 97. It didn’t take long for him to enter the UFC as he would become UFC 14 and UFC 15 Tournament Champion.
It wasn’t the fact that he would win, but how he annihilated every opponent in under two and a half minutes. He would leave the UFC for Japan’s Pride FC promotion and unfortunately couldn’t capture the same success. Watching Kerr perform in 1997 was truly an unbelievable moment, like catching lightning in a bottle, but that wasn't the case in the 2000s.
8 Vitor Belfort: MMA Fighter
Most people in the United States at the age of 19 are in college or working some job they hate, maybe both. Do you know what Vitor Belfort was doing at the age of 19? He was in the UFC and won the UFC 12 Heavyweight Tournament Championship. It literally took him two minutes to defeat two opponents and win the tournament. Ever since that moment, he has been a legend of the sport.
7 Mark Coleman: Recovering From Injury
Mark Coleman’s use of the ground and pound was incredible. For those of you that aren't aware, it’s when you’re able to pin your opponent to the mat before you proceed to hammer that opponent with vicious punches. The Hammer was never a stand-up fighter, however, he would terrify anyone if they went to the ground. He would make his MMA debut the same night he won the UFC 10 Tournament Championship.
6 Tito Ortiz: Bellator Fighter
The Huntington Beach Bad Boy made his MMA debut at UFC 13 as an alternate for the Light Heavyweight tournament in 97. He would win his match and was fortunate to step into the finals, however, he would lose to Guy Mezger. Even though he lost, there was something about him that energized the fans. As the UFC was transforming its brand into a better product, they looked to Tito Ortiz as the fresh young face that could propel the sport into the 21 century.
5 Bas Rutten: MMA Analyst
For novices, you may be asking Bas who? Well, he’s arguably the greatest MMA fighter ever but only fought in the UFC two times. So, what gives? El Guapo came from a kickboxing background and started his MMA career in Japan’s Pancrase. He would have unbelievable wars with the Shamrock brothers and became a three-time King of Pancrase World Champion.
In 1998, Bas would step foot in the octagon for the first time and win by TKO. In his next fight, he would win the Heavyweight Championship that was vacated by Randy Couture. Sadly, after dropping down to middleweight which forced him to vacate his title, he would sustain serious injuries while training. His career would never be the same and he would only fight once more, seven years later in WFA. Even though his career was cut short, Bas would finish with a 22-fight unbeaten streak.
4 Matt Hughes: Politics & MMA Seminars
This warrior epitomizes the blue-collar working man. While wrecking the competition in the Welterweight division, Matt Hughes would double down and tend to his farm, making him the classic hard nosed American. He didn’t get his MMA start in the UFC but became a star when Zuffa bought the company in 2001. He would become the Welterweight Champion after upsetting Carlos Newton at UFC 34: High Voltage and he'd have epic feuds with legends like B.J. Penn and Georges St-Pierre.
3 Randy Couture: Acting
The U.S. Army veteran and three-time NCCA Division I All-American collegiate wrestler entered MMA at an older age (33) than what we're used to seeing now. With a patriotic background, he quickly became a fan favorite when he won a Heavyweight Tournament the same night that he stepped into the octagon for the first time in 1997 at UFC 13. Couture was a natural at the sport and would go on to become a two-division champion and be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2006.
2 Ken Shamrock: MMA Fighter
Before "he World’s Most Dangerous Man reached the television sets of millions of Americans at UFC 1, he was tearing it up in Japan’s Pancrase. By the time UFC 1 came, Shamrock admitted that he thought he would easily beat everyone. You can’t blame him, he was the most jacked up guy and had real MMA experience as compared to everyone else.
1 Royce Gracie: Bellator Ambassador
Without Royce Gracie and his family, there wouldn’t be a UFC, let alone MMA in the United States. Many novices just see Gracie as the guy who wore the kimono and tapped out his competition, but his story and contribution to the sport is far deeper than you can imagine. His family not only came over from Brazil and brought Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with them, but they also were the original owners of UFC.
Not only was Royce an unknown competitor among many shoot fighters (Ken Shamrock), but he would be the only man to represent the family in the first UFC event, destroying the competition. The Hall of Famer would win three UFC tournaments in four years and become the Babe Ruth of MMA.
Today he is a brand ambassador for Bellator and recently fought his rival Ken Shamrock in a nostalgic match at Bellator 149 in February. Sadly, they both tested positive for PEDs.
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