For years, the sport of mixed martial arts was blackballed from television and was even called “human cockfighting” by United States Senator John McCain. This was a terrible time to be a fan of the sport and to be a fighter. This was in a time where there were no rules in the sport, which led to some vicious fights that featured legal blows to the genitals, eye gouging, and just about anything else you could imagine. When Dana White was able to convince Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to get into business with him and purchase the Ultimate Fighting Championship, everything changed.
By instituting rules and working with the local athletic commissions, the UFC was at the helm of the rise of MMA in the United States and around the world. While the UFC is the biggest and most known fight organization in the world today, that wasn’t always the case. There were promotions like K-1, PRIDE and Strikeforce, that allowed new stars to be born. Many of the fighters from these organizations would go on to fight in the UFC where some of them excelled and others struggled.
The fighters that were able to excel in the UFC after successful stints elsewhere got a leg up on the competition because of their experience level. In the sport, there have been so many talented and quality fighters that have had their time as the top guy. Some of these fighters have had a brief stint at the top of their division, but not all have been called the pound for pound best fighters in the world. In the annals of MMA history, who are the 15 greatest fighters of all time?
15 Kazushi Sakuraba
The first fighter to make the cut as one of the best 15 in the history of MMA is the Japanese sensation, Kazushi Sakuraba. The man known as “The Gracie Killer” has competed in four weight classes during his career between Welterweight and Heavyweight. Sakuraba, who has also competed as a professional wrestler had a 26-16-1-2 career record as an MMA fighter, which may not seem like a big deal to some fans, but with wins against just about every Gracie including Royce in a 90 minute fight, Ken Shamrock, Vitor Belfort, Carlos Newton, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, has earned his spot as one of the best of all time. He is also a former UFC Japan Heavyweight Tournament Champion.
14 B.J. Penn
“The Prodigy” B.J. Penn is a name older and younger MMA fans know and appreciate. The native of Hilo, Hawaii has a 16-10 career record including five losses in his past eight fights. Throughout his career, Penn competed in big fights and more often than not, was victorious. In his fourth professional fight, he fought for the UFC Lightweight title and nearly earned the win via decision. Five fights later, he was competing against Matt Hughes for the UFC Welterweight title and earned the first round submission win. Penn would go on to win the UFC Lightweight title and successfully defended it twice before beginning to slide at the end of his career. He holds key victories in his career against Hughes (x2), Takanori Gomi, Sean Sherk, Matt Serra, and Kenny Florian.
13 Frank Shamrock
Also known as The Legend, Frank Shamrock has done a lot of great things for the sport as a fighter and an ambassador. He last fought in 2009 and finished his career with a record of 23-10-2. During the course of his 17-year career, Shamrock fought the biggest names in the sport and earned victories against the likes of Tito Ortiz and Bas Rutten. After beating Kevin Jackson in 1997 to win the UFC Light Heavyweight title (then known as Middleweight title), Shamrock would defend the title on four occasions before relinquishing the title and retiring. Following his retirement, he would return to win the Strikeforce Middleweight title and the World Extreme Cagefighting Light Heavyweight title.
12 Chuck Liddell
When MMA became popular again in the mid-2000s, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell was one of the biggest stars. After coaching on The Ultimate Fighter against Randy Couture, the two men fought for the UFC Light Heavyweight title and one massive punch later, Liddell walked out as champion and as the face of the company. The 2009 UFC Hall of Fame inductee finished his MMA career with a 21-8 record including losses in his final three fights and five of six overall. The lone win in that streak was the 2007 Fight of the Year against Wanderlei Silva in a fight that fans had wanted to see since the days of PRIDE. Liddell also owns victories in his career against Tito Ortiz (x2), Randy Couture (x2), Vitor Belfort, and Alistair Overeem.
11 Jon Jones
The first active fighter to make the list is the current UFC Light Heavyweight champion, Jon “Bones” Jones. Many fans may argue that Jones doesn’t deserve a spot on this list ahead of someone like Tito Ortiz or Ken Shamrock, but the amount of things he has done in the sport already before his 28th birthday are remarkable. He holds a 20-1 career record and is currently considered to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. His lone loss came by disqualification against Matt Hamill in a fight that Jones dominated from start to finish. During his brief career, Jones has already defeated former world champions Rashad Evans, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
10 Dan Henderson
The second active fighter to make the cut as one of the 15 greatest MMA fighters of all time is Dan Henderson. During the PRIDE days, Henderson was the man in the promotion. In his final fight under the PRIDE banner, Henderson knocked out Wanderlei Silva to win the Middleweight title, which was in addition to the Welterweight title he already owned. In the first two fights of his UFC return, he unsuccessfully fought in unification bouts against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Anderson “Spider” Silva. In his career, “Hendo” holds a record of 30-12 with wins over many of the biggest names the sport has ever seen including Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mauricio Rua (x2), Vitor Belfort, Akihiro Gono, and Murilo Bustamante (x2).
9 Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
One of the heroes of MMA in Brazil is Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. With a record of 34-9-1-1, Nogueira has the resume to go down as one of the best fighters of all time. Now in his late 30s, he is struggling to keep up with the younger Heavyweights the UFC has to offer him, losing five of his last eight fights, but that won’t take away from his legacy. The former UFC and PRIDE Heavyweight champion has had many battles and wars inside the Octagon and other cages around the world. The list of men he has beaten looks like a who’s who of MMA including Fabricio Werdum, Ricco Rodriguez, Dan Henderson, Josh Barnett, Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia, and Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic.
8 Bas Rutten
Many new fans of MMA know Bas Rutten as one of the hosts on AXS.TV’s Inside MMA, but that's barely half the story. The native of the Netherlands finished his career in 2006 with a 28-4-1 career record including an unbeaten streak in his final 22 fights. When you begin to analyze the numbers of other elite fighters on this list late in their careers, it gives you a great perspective into how good Rutten was. He is a former UFC Heavyweight champion, even though he only fought in the Octagon twice, and also earned King of Pancrase World Champion honors three times. Three of his losses came to the Shamrocks, with Ken earning two submission wins and Frank earning one with a majority decision. Regardless, "El Guapo" knows exactly where to hit you, in the liver.
7 Randy Couture
“Captain America” is one of the most iconic figures in MMA. He is a former UFC Heavyweight and UFC Light Heavyweight champion and was a world-class Greco-Roman wrestler before entering MMA. On his first night in a MMA cage, he won a UFC Heavyweight tournament. Two fights later, he won the UFC Heavyweight title. He would vacate that title, but then beat Kevin Randleman to take it back. After dropping the title, he would go on to win the UFC Light Heavyweight title on two occasions and at the age of 43, won the UFC Heavyweight title for the third time, beating Tim Sylvia.
6 Wanderlei Silva
Another active fighter makes the list as one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. When Wanderlei Silva was in PRIDE, he was a man that nobody wanted to face. Known as “The Axe Murderer,” he won his first PRIDE Middleweight title by beating Kazushi Sakuraba. As champion, he would defend the title successfully against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Ricardo Arona, and was also the 2003 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix Tournament champion. Since coming back to the UFC in 2007, he has gone just 4-5 and has been in a notable feud with the now-suspended Chael Sonnen. At 35-12-1-1, Silva has a lot of experience in the fight game and has two of the most powerful hands in the sport.
5 Matt Hughes
Love him or hate him, Matt Hughes was great for business. The model American fighter was the typical wrestler from the Midwest and he turned that into a tremendous career. The UFC Hall of Famer finished his career with a 45-9 record, but ended his career with two straight losses to B.J. Penn and Josh Koscheck, and losses in five of his last nine fights overall. Despite the rocky finish to his career, he is a two-time UFC Welterweight champion and took part in several large feuds with Frank Trigg, Georges St-Pierre, B.J. Penn, and Dennis Hallman. Hughes has also been vocal about fighters that make the sport look bad, with the Jon Jones-Daniel Cormier incident being the most recent example.
4 Royce Gracie
Known as the pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu around the world, Royce Gracie is the man. He retired from the sport in 2007 and finished his career with a 14-2-3 record. When he first began to fight and beat men that were double his size, he changed the way MMA was going forever. He began his career with a 12-0-1 record including notable wins against Dan Severn, Keith Hackney, and Ken Shamrock. His first loss came in the 90 minute fight with Kazushi Sakuraba in May 2000. It was a fight that changed the MMA world and in 2006, after 11 years away from the UFC, returned to fight Hughes, where he suffered his second career loss.
3 Georges St-Pierre
For years, the man at the top of the Welterweight division in the UFC was Georges St-Pierre. The Canadian-born superstar, aside from a minor stumble against Matt Serra in 2007, was unbeaten for eight years until vacating the UFC Welterweight title and retiring following a win against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in November 2013. He finished his career with a 25-2 record and won the final 12 fights of his career, including nine title defenses against top challengers like Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit, B.J. Penn, Jon Fitch, and Jake Shields. If he ever returns to the Octagon, he will look to reclaim his spot at the top of the division, but the landscape of the division has since changed. Should he decide to never fight again, the greatest Welterweight of all time will still be enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame.
2 Fedor Emelianenko
The only man to make this list without every fighting in the UFC is “The Last Emporer,” Fedor Emelianenko. The Russian-born Heavyweight finished his career with a 34-4-1 record, including wins in his final three fights. Between April 2001 and June 2010, there was arguably no better fighter in the world. He was unbeaten in 28 straight fights and several times during that streak, fans were clamoring to see him enter the Octagon against Randy Couture or Brock Lesnar. Neither fight ever happened and instead, Fedor went on to suffer three straight losses in Strikeforce that ended his reign at the top spot in MMA. Despite those terrible losses and never fighting in the UFC, it is hard to say he isn’t one of the best, but there is one fighter who does deserve to be ahead of him.
1 Anderson Silva
When Anderson Silva entered the Octagon for the first time, he was the underdog against Chris Leben. Forty-nine seconds into the fight, Silva had become the No. 1 contender for the UFC Middleweight title. As most say, the rest is history. Silva’s career in the UFC has been filled with many highs (comeback win against Chael Sonnen, beating Rich Franklin to win the title, submitting Dan Henderson) and lows (miserable performances against Patrick Cote, Thales Leites, and Demian Maia). In spite of it all, Silva was the man in the division from October 2006 until July 2013 and overall had a 17-fight winning streak going before Chris Weidman pulled of the upset. He then broke his leg in a horrific way in his rematch against Weidman, but will fight again.