The UFC began simply as a way for the Gracie family to see which style of Martial Arts was superior, Judo, Karate, Aikido, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu whatever it was, the family and the rest of the world wanted to know. What we saw was that if a grappler could get his hands on a striker, the grappler would take them down and submit them or punch them until they went away. This caused men like Maurice Smith to develop their takedown defence and ground skills in order to counteract these grapplers and bring the fight back to their feet where they’re most comfortable. Then grapplers honed their striking abilities in order to counter all the sprawl and brawlers and eventually we reached a point where champions like Chris Weidman and Demetrious Johnson possess world class skills on their feet and on the ground.
When push comes to shove (or pull in a grappling sense) though, it seems that the most successful fighters in Mixed Martial Arts tend to be the ones who have incredible grappling technique rather than those with a striking background. There are certainly exceptions to the rule like Mirko Cro Cop and Anthony Pettis for example, but they’re just that, exceptions.
As a tribute to these tremendous grappling wizards, this list will rank the top 10 grapplers in MMA today. These fighters have to possess tremendous grappling skills, but not only that, they have to actively use these skills in the cage. In terms of credentials, I’ll put it this way: belts and BJJ championships don’t mean squat unless you can apply those skills in MMA. I’m not limiting this list to one discipline either, so the entries don’t necessarily have to have x amount of submission wins but can be excellent at controlling their opponents on the mat. Another factor to note is the level of competition that each entry has faced in their career (sorry Ben Askren fans). It’s one thing to tap Joe Schmo, it’s something to submit another fighter with a high calibre of grappling.
10. Charles Oliveira
As the youngest fighter on this list, 25-year-old Charles Oliveira still has a lot to prove in his UFC career. He’s dropped career-making fights to Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar but nobody can deny the skill which Oliveira has in his grappling. Oliveira is only number 10 on this list but he is arguably the most exciting on the list. Do Bronx possesses extremely dynamic submission skills and is able to pull any submission from anywhere including a reverse calf slicer!
His most impressive performance came in his match against esteemed Japanese featherweight Hatsu Hioki in which Oliviera submitted Hioki with an modified D’Arce choke. To put it in perspective, Hioki had not been submitted in 34 fights. If Oliveira keeps on this path, he can be near the top of this list by the time his career nears the end.
9. Johny Hendricks
We go from the most exciting grappler to a fighter whose grappling is not exactly exhilarating. When he is standing on his feet, Hendricks has power that could KO a dinosaur, but on the mat Hendricks has a suffocating double leg takedown and top game which has stifled the offence of all his opponents. He isn’t going to pull a flying triangle choke anytime soon, but what he will do is take you down and muscle out strikes all night long, whether you like it or not. His wrestling ability is so damn good that he actually defended some of the takedowns of GSP, the best wrestler in MMA history. His ability to control a fight puts him right at number nine.
8. Frank Mir
If you were to judge Frank Mir by his past couple of performances, he would not even sniff this list but you can’t forget the long career of excellence which preceded his recent troubles. Even from his UFC debut back in 2001, fans could tell that Mir was a fighter who you could not give a single chance to come back in a fight. Time after time, Mir has shown that when given even a second to capitalize on a submission, he will grab it.
Despite being a former two-time UFC Heavyweight (one interim) Champion, Mir’s finest hour came when he snapped the legendary Antonio Minotauro Noguiera’s arm with a kimura seconds after Mir had been rocked on the feet and trapped in a guillotine. With heavyweight power to match his bone breaking technique, Frank Mir is one of the most dangerous men when the fight hits the floor.
7. Rousimar Palhares
If MMA would have a grappling equivalent to a berzerker, I think you would have to award that title to “Toquinho” Rousimar Palhares. One of the best fighters competing outside the UFC, the World Series of Fighting welterweight champion is a contender for the scariest fighter in the entire sport due mostly to one reason. The reason? He attempts to make crazy straws out of his opponents’ legs and while he has yet to drink soda through a toe, he has tapped out 11 opponents with various leg locks including Jon Fitch in his MMA career.
Outside of the cage, Palhares is also an ADCC Submission Wrestling Championship (the most prestigious grappling tournament in the world) silver medalist, winning three out of his four fights with you guessed it, leg locks. He may be unsportsmanlike with how long he holds on, but he is still one of the best grapplers.
6. Frankie Edgar
“The Answer” has made quite a few appearances on my lists, and this yet another notch in his belt. A Brazillian Jiu Jitsu black belt under former UFC fighter Ricardo Almeida, Edgar combines his BJJ skills with some of the best wrestling in the sport to create one of the hardest challenges for any fighter regardless of their style. No matter who he has faced at either lightweight or featherweight, Edgar has shown that he creates grappling problems for his opponents whether their name is Gray Maynard or Cub Swanson.
Speaking of his win over Swanson, Edgar put on a MMA grappling clinic over five rounds in that fight before finishing Swanson with a neck crank with four seconds left in the fight. Expect Edgar to give Jose Aldo fits if they ever have a rematch.
5. Ronda Rousey
As one of the few people in the world of MMA with a respected Judo background, one has to wonder why more Judoka haven’t followed in Rousey’s footsteps. I would suggest perhaps that they don’t follow her because she is just too damn good. Rousey is the only entry on this list with an Olympic medal and she backs up that reputation in the octagon with a fearsome grappling style. Put simply, if Rousey clinches with you, your night is finished as she will slam you with a cornucopia of Judo throws.
Once she gets her opponents down in side control she immediately goes to work with ground and pound until her opponents make a mistake and once they do, Rousey grabs their arm like it stole her Pokemon cartridge. This is quite literally how most of her fights have gone. Rousey’s armbars are without a doubt the best in MMA, as she’s able to hit them from any angle against nearly ever woman she’s faced. She’s the queen of Women’s MMA and she will snap your arm if you think otherwise.
4. Demian Maia
Prior to his MMA career, Maia was one of the most feared athletes on the grappling circuit and he definitely earned that reputation. A multiple time world champion in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and ADCC gold medalist in 2007, Demian Maia entered the UFC with a ton of notoriety. Maia immediately showed the UFC fans just how good his grappling was by submitting his first four opponents before being blasted into oblivion by Nate Martquardt.
After failing to capture the UFC Middleweight championship and struggling to compete with bigger middleweights, Maia dropped down to welterweight and found new life at a weight class where he refocused his grappling attack, putting on spectacular performances versus Rick Story and Jon Fitch. His grappling has been tested in the octagon and even in defeat, it always looks great.
3. Jake Shields
On paper, it seems that Maia has a better claim to the number four spot than Jake Shields. After all, Maia is an ADCC world champion while Shields only has a bronze medal from the 2005 tournament but remember that my list places emphasis on grappling in a MMA context. In that sense, there are very few fighters who are better at controlling an opponent on the floor and smothering them like a wet blanket than Jake Shields. Shields has outgrappled a who’s who of MMA lore including Dan Henderson, Carlos Condit, Robbie Lawler and perhaps most notably, Demian Maia! Since his exit from the UFC, Shields has earned two submission wins and still looks to be the juggernaut grappler that he always was.
2. Ronaldo Souza
The Middleweight division in recent years has gone from one of the UFC’s weaker weight divisions into becoming one of their best. A big reason for this would be the acquisition of Judo and BJJ black belt Ronaldo “Jacare” (means Alligator) Souza. Souza was terrorizing the grappling scene for years before he entered the UFC, becoming an ADCC world champion in 2005 and also a runner-up in the open weight class, a division where any weight of fighter could compete. He has yet to be outgrappled in his MMA career and it’s impossible to see how he could be, as he possesses some of the best takedowns and the most crushingly offensive top game in the entire sport. If Jacare gets by Yoel Romero, it’s hard to see how champion Chris Weidman will deal with Souza’s grappling ability.
1. Fabricio Werdum
Believe it or not, Fabricio Werdum’s experience with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu got off to a terrible start. Trying to impress his girlfriend, he challenged her ex to a fight and got choked out in short order due the ex’s training in BJJ. That was the catalyst for a young Werdum, as he set to train in grappling from that day forward and the results have been spectacular.
Another Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Werdum is a two time gold medal winner at the ADCC World Championships and IBJJF World Championships, the most prestigious grappling and BJJ tournaments in the world. He has translated that success into MMA brilliantly, being the only man to ever submit the iconic Fedor Emelianenko and only the second to tap Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Werdum’s ability to sweep and submit anyone off his back has always made him a dangerous man but now that he rounded out his striking, he may just be the baddest man on the planet. We’ll see in due time if Cain Velasquez has anything to say about that.
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