UFC Turns 20: The 20 Most Important Fighters in UFC History

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterNovember 13, 2013

UFC Turns 20: The 20 Most Important Fighters in UFC History

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    Markus Boesch/Getty Images

    Twenty years ago this week the UFC made its debut from the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. Eight quarterfinalists and two alternates stepped into an Octagon to test their martial skills against all comers.

    Karate masters, kung fu artists and judoka matched wills with jiu-jitsu players, wrestlers and street fighters. Called human cockfighting by critics, it was compelling from the jump. 

    The winner—a skinny grappler who just happened to be the promoter's brotherbecame the sport's most iconic fighter. Royce Gracie, who went on to win three of the first four tournaments, was the UFC's first great fighter.

    He wouldn't be its last.

    Every fighter who competes in mixed martial arts has guts aplenty. The best also have the brains, talent and artistry necessary to outlast even the fiercest opponent. 

    In the course of 252 UFC events, thousands of men (and a handful of women) have stepped into the cage. These are the 20 most important. Disagree? Let us know in the comments.

20. Rich Franklin

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    Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    Record

    29-7-1

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC middleweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Stopped Evan Tanner at UFC 53 to win the strap.

     

    Why He's Ranked

    Good looking, articulate and a former math teacher, Franklin was the perfect spokesman for a sport looking to take the edge off a dangerous reputation. He gets bonus points for being able to fight a little bit too.

    At his very best, he ranked just below the true elites of the sport. He could give almost anyone a good fight, but next-level athletes like Anderson Silva were always going to be there to stop him from achieving his dreams.

    That left Franklin to wander the margins of the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, finding meaningful fights where he could—and often winning them. He was the ultimate company man who took fights on short notice and in different weight classes to help the promotion out of tough spots.

    The UFC and the fans loved him for it, which made "Ace" one of the most popular fighters of his generation.

19. Forrest Griffin

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    19-7

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Stephan Bonnar in a classic bout that changed the sport.


    Why He's Ranked

    Forrest Griffin put a face on "ultimate fighting." Along with his housemates during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, he helped to humanize a sport that had previously treated its fighters as little more than disposable gladiators. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor and wore his emotions on his sleeve.

    It turned out that fighters were more than just automatons. They were real people with thoughts and feelings that ran as deep as anyone else's. 

    Good or bad, you also knew what he was thinking or feeling. When he was thanking the crowd for their support after a victory, he glowed with sincerity. On the flip side, when he was disappointed or embarrassed as he was against Anderson Silva, no one was worse.

    With time, the negativity that seemed to follow him in the final days of his career will fade, and we'll remember the early days when our eyes were wide with his courage and sly smile.

    Griffin was one of the special ones. And nothing can ever change that.

18. Dan Severn

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    Severn (left) in a late-career fight
    Severn (left) in a late-career fightDaniel Berehulak/Getty Images

    Record

    101-19-7

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC superfight champion

     

    Signature Fights

    Beat Paul Varelans, Tank Abbott and Oleg Taktarov to win the Ultimate Ultimate 1995 tournament.


    Why He's Ranked

    Severn's most famous win was an abomination of a match with Ken Shamrock. The two stared at each other for the duration, as fans lustily booed what was called "the Dance in Detroit."

    Of course, his bouts weren't all dull and painful viewing. Severn emerged onto the scene in grand fashion at UFC 4, hitting poor Anthony Macias with a succession of German suplexes before eventually falling short against Royce Gracie in the tournament final.

    Severn was the first man to show just how potent wrestling could be in the cage. Although he would fall quickly from the top of the sport, Severn wasn't one to give up easily. His 100-plus fights are a testament to his persistence and the power of amateur wrestling.

17. Vitor Belfort

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Record

    24-10

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Blitzed Wanderlei Silva in just 44 seconds in 1998.


    Why He's Ranked

    Belfort was such a compelling figure in the sport's formative stages that fans waited for years for the return of the "old Vitor." The Belfort of their dreams combined a stunning musculature, knockout power in both hands and the Brazilian jiu-jitsu to survive a battle on the ground, if it came to that.

    For 12 years, fans waited patiently for his return. Success came and went, but he never looked like the budding legend of old. Until he found his proper home—at 185 pounds.

    Since dropping to middleweight in 2008, Belfort has been on an unprecedented tear. At 36 years old and against all odds—and powered by testosterone replacement therapyhe's better than ever. 

16. Jose Aldo

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    23-1

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC featherweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Destroyed Urijah Faber's leg in a brutal five-round title defense at WEC 48.


    Why He's Ranked

    Aldo is still only 27, which makes it feel like he has just arrived in MMA. But the results speak for themselves.

    He's undefeated since joining the WEC in 2008 and has defended his title seven times against the best in his weight class. Simply put, that makes him one of the most successful champions, statistically, in UFC history.

    Unfortunately for Aldo, he entered the UFC as champion, and the promotion has done little to build other stars to combat him. He's a shark who is swimming with guppies. If he wants to become a historical great, he'll have to journey into the deeper waters at 155 pounds.

15. Mark Coleman

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    image courtesy of Sherdog.com

    Record

    16-10

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC's first heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Dan Severn to become heavyweight champion at UFC 12.


    Why He's Ranked

    Coleman's record can be deceiving at first glance. After all, 10 losses against 16 wins hardly scream "all-time great." But it would be wrong to discount his historical legacy. 

    Although he didn't innovate ground-and-poundthe credit for that strategy has to go to SevernColeman perfected it. At his peak, there was nothing scarier than Coleman bringing his fists and granite head crashing down on an opponent's face.

14. Quinton Jackson

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    Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    Record

    32-11

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Knocking out the legendary Chuck Liddell at UFC 71.


    Why He's Ranked

    As strange as it may seemespecially considering he won the world championship in his second fight with the promotionJackson had already peaked before setting foot in the UFC's iconic Octagon. He finished his UFC career, after all, with a paltry 7-5 tally in the promotion of record.

    What does it say, then, about him at his best? Even in his decline he was able to beat Liddell and stand toe-to-toe with greats like Dan Henderson and Lyoto Machida. Though his final three fights all ended ignominiously, his UFC legacy includes a title reign and a record-setting ratings run on The Ultimate Fighter opposite rival Rashad Evans.

    A heated feud with UFC president Dana White makes it unlikely he will be heaped with praise on UFC programming going forward. It will be up to usthe fans and custodians of this sportto remember him for what he was: one of the most entertaining fighters of this or any era.

13. Ronda Rousey

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Record

    7-0

     

    Top Achievement

    First UFC women's champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Arm-barred rival Miesha Tate, dislocating her elbow in the process, to become Strikeforce champion.


    Why She's Ranked

    Too much, too soon?

    I can see merit in that viewpoint. Rousey, after all, has had just a single UFC fight. And though she arm-barred challenger Liz Carmouche in the first round, she wasn't the unstoppable juggernaut she was advertised to be.

    But even if she never fights again in the Octagon, Rousey would be one of the sport's most compelling figures. Her star power opened the door for women to join the UFC. Without her, there wouldn't be a women's division at all. And considering the amazing fights they've put on in the first year of competition, we're all better off for it.

12. Ken Shamrock

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    Shamrock with a heel hook at UFC 1
    Shamrock with a heel hook at UFC 1Holly Stein/Getty Images

    Record

    28-15-2

     

    Top Achievement

    First UFC superfight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Dan Severn at UFC 6 to finally win a long-awaited championship.


    Why He's Ranked

    Ken Shamrock bridged the gap between two eras of the UFC. Along with Royce Gracie and Dan Severn, he was one of the early stars who propelled the promotion to the top. Then, after a stint in the WWE, he returned to the Octagon to help lead a new generation of stars to financial success.

    Shamrock was utterly compelling. Even when he wasn't actively fighting, his presence loomed largely. His feud with Tito Ortiz was the hottest thing going—long before Shamrock could ever think about consummating that match. When they finally met nose to nose, Zuffa's box office records were shattered, and the sport had received a second wind.

    Todayand forgive me if this sounds like a broken recordShamrock's feud with UFC head honcho Dana White means his place in history is in danger of being lost. But no matter what White and other critics may saysome of it justifiedShamrock helped build this sport. He's one of the pioneers who created an industry.

    For that, if nothing else, he deserves our respect.

11. Brock Lesnar

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    5-3

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Frank Mir at UFC 100 and then rampaged around the cage like a crazy person.


    Why He's Ranked

    For a moment, it looked like Brock Lesnar was about to re-invent the UFC's heavyweight division. A massive wrestler with hands so big they required custom-made gloves, Lesnar was like a modern Mark Coleman.

    Even more exciting for the UFC's brass, his pro wrestling fame made him the biggest drawing card that the sport had ever seen. Every Lesnar fight was an event. The bouts were more than athletic contests; they were enormous town-hall meetings about him.

    His pro wrestling roots and cocky persona made him a natural villain for traditional MMA fans. For traditional wrestling fans? His real life success was manna from heaven for a fake sport that was constantly looking for legitimacy.

    Diverticulitis stopped the big man in his tracks. After getting sick, he was never the same fighter. Eventually, after consecutive losses, he called it quits, returning to the WWE for another run. But his absence was noticed, at least by book keepers. The UFC has yet to replace him as its top pay-per-view attraction.

10. Jon Jones

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    Record

    19-1

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 by guillotine choke and then dropped his limp body like a sack of potatoes.


    Why He's Ranked

    At this point, it seems like a given that Jones will finish his career as the best fighter in UFC history. Just 26 years old, he's already set the record for light heavyweight title defenses and has shown no signs of slowing down.

    Jones has the length and striking technique to confound grapplers and the wrestling and devastating ground attack to punish strikers. The combination makes him one of the most confoundingand one of the bestto have ever stepped into the cage.

    With the cerebral Greg Jackson in his corner, look for Jones to develop new weapons and perfect the tactical use of his current tools for years to come.

9. Tito Ortiz

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    16-11-1

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Ken Shamrock at UFC 40 to secure his spot as the UFC's top star.


    Why He's Ranked

    A huge drawing card, Ortiz was the face of the company in the early years of Zuffa ownership. Following in Frank Shamrock's footsteps, he helped establish light heavyweight as the home of the UFC's best and most marketable fighters.

    Long holdouts in his prime and a rash of injuries kept him from reaching his potential. Eventually his peers Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell passed him by in the cage. His drawing power, however, lingered.

    Ortiz may have never been the best fighter in the world. But he carried himself like he was. And that made all the difference.

8. Randy Couture

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Record

    19-11

     

    Top Achievement

    First man to be UFC champion in two weight classes.

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 to regain the heavyweight title.


    Why He's Ranked

    If Randy Couture's career record seems a little lacking, I'll refer you to a list of his opponents. For the most part, he fought only the best of the best.

    There was no learning curve for the former wrestling star. His fourth fight was for the UFC title. After that, he faced a murderer's row of top talent.

    What can you say about Couture that hasn't been said already? He was so good he needed two nicknames ("Captain America" and "The Natural"). He was a multiple-time champion at heavyweight and light heavyweight.

    Today, like so many others, he's on the outside looking in. His relationship with the UFC is so bad that the promotion reportedly tried to prevent him from cornering his own son at UFC events.

    Over and over again, he was matched up in an effort to launch others to the top. Over and over again, he defied the odds and his own place in UFC history.

7. BJ Penn

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    Penn chokes out Kenny Florian
    Penn chokes out Kenny FlorianJon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    Record

    16-9-2

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC champion in two weight classes

     

    Signature Fight

    Beat Matt Hughes at UFC 46 to win the welterweight title.


    Why He's Ranked

    Penn was a star in hardcore MMA circles before he ever stepped into the cage thanks to unprecedented success in competition jiu-jitsu. There had been whispers about a practice-room prodigy who was too much for even light heavyweight legend Frank Shamrock to handle.

    And for once, a fighter lived up to the hype.

    A champion at both lightweight and welterweight, Penn was dominant when interested, eviscerating his foes and literally tasting their blood. That success made it so frustrating to his legion of fans when he seemed disinterested, bored and undertrained.

    When he put it all together, Penn was the best. When he didn't, he was human. Unfortunately, being human is not enough once you've established yourself as being more than that.

    He had more potential than almost any other fighter on this list. But inconsistent effort cost him the chance to be one of the elite. Like all true Penn fans, however, I haven't give up hope. A spirited return from retirement could help the Hawaiian into the top five.

6. Frank Shamrock

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    courtesy of Sherdog.com

    Record

    23-10-2

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC's first light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Submitted Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson in just 16 seconds to claim UFC gold.


    Why He's Ranked

    Frank Shamrock, Ken's adopted younger brother, was the most dominant fighter of the UFC's dark ages. He won all five of his fights definitively and retired from the promotion while still champion after dispatching Tito Ortiz at UFC 22.

    He was one of the first UFC fighters to master more than one discipline. He had solid striking, wrestling and submission skills, which made him more than a match for the era's other top stars. He was also one of the first to put a premium on cardiovascular training, which paid off in spades when he outlasted the younger, stronger Ortiz in his final UFC fight.

    Shamrock is the greatest UFC fighter not to be recognized by the promotion as a Hall of Famer. Like many others, disagreements with UFC president Dana White have left him on the outside looking in.

    When the UFC tells its version of history, Shamrock is all but erased. But fans know better—as long as we are around, the legends and pioneers will never disappear.

5. Matt Hughes

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    45-9

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC welterweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Choked out Frank Trigg at UFC 52 in one of the most exciting fights in UFC history.


    Why He's Ranked

    Hughes replaced his mentor Pat Miletich as the UFC's standard-bearer at 170 pounds. A two-time champion, he beat six current or former UFC champions during the course of his Hall of Fame career.

    At a time when his fellow wrestlers were losing ground, Hughes was among the first to diversify his game. He added basic boxing and competent submissions to his wrestling base and dominated the division for almost three years.

    During his initial run as champion, he struggled at the box office. But after beating Royce Gracie at UFC 60 and unleashing his inner villain on The Ultimate Fighter, Hughes became a drawing card on par with his in-cage excellence. The combination made him one of the key fighters in the UFC's rise to prominence.

4. Chuck Liddell

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    21-8

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC light heavyweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Knocked out Randy Couture at UFC 57 to win the rubber match between them.


    Why He's Ranked

    With his trademark mohawk and head tattoo, Liddell had one of the most iconic visages in MMA. An innovator who used his wrestling skill to stay standing and deliver knockout blows, Liddell used his "sprawl and brawl" strategy to score seven consecutive knockouts during his height.

    He was the UFC's top star in the early years of the Spike TV era, drawing record pay-per-view numbers against Tito Ortiz and becoming the promotion's first real crossover star. When the wheels fell off, however, the decline was quick and ugly. He lost five of his last sixfour by knockoutbefore retiring in 2010.

3. Anderson Silva

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    33-5

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC middleweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Knocked out Vitor Belfort at UFC 126 with an incredible front kick to the face.


    Why He's Ranked

    Silva is the sport's all-time best at 185 pounds. And yet his most compelling turn was in one of his few jaunts to light heavyweight.

    Against former champion Forrest Griffin, Silva was transcendent. He seemed to be channeling Neo, the hero of The Matrix franchise. He saw Griffin's punches coming in slow motion and dodging them with his hands nonchalantly down by his waist. When he finally threw the knockout blow, it was almost disdainful. 

    At his best, no one could touch him.

    Silva made his UFC debut in 2006 against UFC fan favorite Chris Leben. He won that bout in less than a minute and proceeded to go on a rampage the likes of which the UFC had never seen. By the time it ended at the hands of Chris Weidman, Silva had won 16 in a row. It's a record that may never be matched.

2. Georges St-Pierre

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    24-2

     

    Top Achievement

    UFC welterweight champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Knocked out Matt Hughes with a head kick to finally win the welterweight title at UFC 65.


    Why He's Ranked

    St-Pierre, arguably the finest fighter in UFC history, is also its biggest cautionary tale. Small gloves colliding with vulnerable skulls makes anything possible—and St-Pierre is the living proof. His knockout loss to Matt Serra in his first title defense made that crystal clear.

    That loss aside, his run as champion has been the best in UFC history. While Anderson Silva may have had more defenses, St-Pierre's list of opponents has the more impressive pedigree. In what has traditionally been the most competitive division, St-Pierre has reigned supreme for nearly six years.

    Though his style no longer resembles the whirling dervish that earned the nickname "Rush" in his early days, St-Pierre still has the tools to finish any fighter at any time. That he hasn't finished a fight since UFC 94 may be a product of his tough opponents and less a reflection of his new, more cautious style.

1. Royce Gracie

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    Markus Boesch/Getty Images

    Record

    14-2-3

     

    Top Achievement

    Three-time UFC tournament champion

     

    Signature Fight

    Submitted Dan Severn in a come-from-behind win at UFC 4.


    Why He's Ranked

    Royce Gracie is more than just the most influential fighter in UFC history. He's the most influential and transcendent martial artist of his generation and arguably of the entire 20th century.

    While Bruce Lee revolutionized what fighting looked like on film, Gracie taught us what it looked like in real life. Using his family's custom grappling style, he proved the efficacy of jiu-jitsu against all comers during the first five UFC events. 

    Though he was later surpassed by stalwarts like Matt Hughes and Kazushi Sakuraba, they wouldn't have beaten him without first studying his family's art. That made Gracie, even in defeat, the biggest winner of them all.

    The Gracie family set out to prove that their art was the real deal. They created a sportand an even larger legacyin the process.