UFC

The Top 3 Mixed Martial Artists of All Time by Division

Craig AmosFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2014

The Top 3 Mixed Martial Artists of All Time by Division

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    Felipe Dana/Associated Press

    Rankings are a fixture in mixed martial arts. Even before the UFC released its own official rankings, most MMA news outlets had their own division-by-division listings. 

    Whether they are seen as official or just someone's opinion, rankings have served to shape the collective view of the MMA landscape for at least the past decade.

    Some MMA enthusiasts love the prevalence of rankings, while others deem them misleading or irrelevant. Some see them as a tool to determine right of way for big fights and title shots, while others see them as promotional tools that serve as evidence against the corrupted logic that determines such dealings.

    Whether you rate rankings as valuable or worthless, they hold a measure of intrigue for just about everyone. Either taken as legitimate accolades to reaffirm a fighter's position in the sport or just another chance to argue, rankings are invariably an engaging topic.

    Because the UFC has something of a monopoly on rankings these days—with publishing an official set for its own promotion and with the promotion dominating the sportwe at Bleacher Report decided to commit to a different exercise.

    Taking a broader view, we've assessed the accomplishments of fightersnot in a vacuum of the here and now but across the history of the sport. Using these assessments, we have created top-three rankings for each major division in MMA.  

    Due to the relative youth of women's mixed martial arts, we've elected to go the route of a pound-for-pound listing for our WMMA selections.

The Ranking Process

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Ranking fighters across disparate promotions and time periods is a very subjective exercise. Because the practice is so deeply rooted in opinion, it was necessary to put a multitude of perspectives to work. To this end, I called on my colleagues to help form the top-three lists for each division.

    A panel of 15 Bleacher Report writers contributed to this article, with each one providing his or her personal top-three list. Using the data from each submission, consensus rankings were generated by using an inverse point-to-position system.

    Each time a fighter received a No. 1 ranking, he was awarded three points. Two points were given for a second-place rank, while a third-place rank yielded one point. The final rankings were determined by the total number of points that were garnered by each fighter.

    The results posted over the next nine slides were formed by a collective of 15 educated perspectives, but the rankings are grounded in opinion. As such, I encourage readers to contribute to the discussion by making use of the comments section below.

Heavyweight

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    1. Fedor Emelianenko

    It's hardly a surprising selection, given that Fedor is regularly cited as one of the best mixed martial artists to have ever competed in any division. In fact, prior to his rapid decline, which coincided with the height of Anderson Silva's dominance, Fedor's name was frequently found atop pound-for-pound lists.

    After cutting his teeth in the Rings promotion, "The Last Russian Emperor" solidified his status as a legend in Pride, routinely dispatching top-level fighters in a convincing manner. And while never stepping foot inside the UFC cage provides ammunition to his detractors, it is important to remember that the majority of the MMA community believed that the Japanese promotion's heavyweight division was superior during the zenith of Fedor's fighting life.

    While it would have been intriguing to see Fedor make it to the Octagon, even near the end of his career, his status as the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time is well intact.

    Points: 43

     

    2. Cain Velasquez

    What Velasquez has accomplished to date is but a drop in the Fedor Emelianenko ocean, but the current UFC champ is a real threat to one day usurp the No. 1 spot. Currently in his prime, he has established himself as the best heavyweight fighter today, convincingly dismissing the de facto No. 2 man Junior dos Santos in back-to-back clashes.

    His cardio sets him above the field. His endless tank enables him to maul his foes relentlessly, draining their energy and rendering them defensive and unable to threaten back.

    But it's not like Velasquez got to where he is solely because of stamina and grit; in addition to those important attributes, he is also a tremendous wrestler and possesses a striking repertoire that has become very dangerous, even if he wields just average punching power for a heavyweight.

    Points: 27

     

    3. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira 

    Like Fedor, "Minotauro" made his name in Pride, regularly outdueling the best the sport had to offer. Unlike Fedor, he didn't always dominate but often found a way to win when the outlook seemed bleak.

    His ability to absorb punishment and fight back when the writing already seemed etched onto the wall only helped to emphasize the talent and determination of the legendary Brazilian. Of course, wearing both Pride and UFC heavyweight titles helped to demonstrate his greatness as well.

    Now operating in the twilight of his career, Nogueira figures into the picture as a solid but no longer championship-caliber heavyweight. While further accolades are unlikely to come, "Big Nog" has accomplished more than enough to lock down the No. 3 spot on this list.

    Points: 15

     

    Others receiving votes

    Randy Couture: 4 points

    Junior dos Santos: 1 point

Light Heavyweight

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    1. Jon Jones

    As difficult as it is to believe that Jon Jones is the best light heavyweight of all time at age 26, it's even more difficult to make the case that he doesn't deserve to be recognized as such.

    Already the American has accomplished so much, and you get the sense that wins over stars like Mauricio Rua, Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida are just the tip of the iceberg. Whether he remains at 205 pounds or eventually jumps up to heavyweight, his future looks as promising as his past looks impressive.

    Next up for Jones is Glover Teixeira, presumably followed by a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson. If "Bones" can convincingly defeat "The Mauler," whom many feel should be wearing the belt at this point, he'll cement his status here and probably reign a long time.

    Points: 45 (Unanimous vote)

     

    2. Chuck Liddell

    Liddell was one of the UFC's original superstars. Just as the sport began crawling into the mainstream consciousness, "The Iceman" established himself as one of the most marketable, exciting and charismatic men in the game.

    Between 2004 and 2006, he amassed an impressive seven-fight win streak (all knockouts), which were bookended by victories over his rival Tito Ortiz. During that period he also captured the UFC light heavyweight title and defended it four times.

    Though Liddell's career veered off quickly and drastically, his greater body of work is undeniably special. Few fighters have ever been as feared as Liddell was during his run.

    Points: 25

     

    3. Tie: Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Wanderlei Silva

    Before Zuffa dominated the mixed martial arts landscape nearly unopposed, fans loved to play the UFC vs. Pride game. While both organizations boasted stars, few fighters under the Pride banner were talked about more than Silva.

    With a brutally aggressive style, scores of vicious knockouts to his name and a burgeoning rivalry with UFC poster boy Chuck Liddell, Silva was seen by many as the best of what non-UFC fighters had to offer. 

    Though he was never able to replicate his Pride successes inside the Octagon, his 17-fight unbeaten streak in the Land of the Rising Sun will forever be remembered as one of the most decisive reigns of terror in the history of the sport.

    Shogun's close relationship with Silva, as well as his penchant for aggressiveness, made him an obvious heir apparent to "The Axe Murderer." But it didn't take long for Rua to step out of the shadow and into the spotlight, winning the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix (205 pounds) in 2005.

    When he entered the UFC in 2007, he was widely identified as the best light heavyweight on the planet. Though his Zuffa tenure got off to a rocky start, he eventually went on to capture the title.

    Points: 8 

     

    Others receiving votes

    Randy Couture: 1 point

    Rashad Evans: 1 point

    Quinton Jackson: 1 point

    Frank Shamrock: 1 point

Middleweight

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    1. Anderson Silva

    Perhaps the easiest pick on the list, Anderson Silva is without a doubt the greatest middleweight of all time. In fact, it's difficult to make a case against him as the best mixed martial artist to ever strap on a pair of gloves.

    Starting his UFC tenure with 16 straight wins, fighting over two weight classes, defending his title 10 times, racking up fancy finishes—Silva made it all look easy. And never before has a fighter possessed a more revered or terrifying tool than his striking.

    Though "The Spider" has dropped back-to-back contests to Chris Weidman, his UFC accomplishments remain unrivaled.

    Points: 45 (Unanimous vote)

     

    2. Rich Franklin

    Franklin reigned over the UFC middleweight division for a time, but the period when he exercised his supremacy is not remembered as the golden age of 185ers. On the contrary, his level of competition often forms the arguments of his detractors who argue that he was always overrated.

    But Franklin lacks nothing in the way of accomplishments. He started his career 14-0, was a UFC champion and regularly took on the best competition that was out there—he did as much as he could with the challenges that were presented to him.

    So while his name is not likely to pop up on many all-time pound-for-pound rosters, his work at middleweight makes him a comfortable fit for the No. 2 spot here.

    Points: 20

     

    3. Dan Henderson

    Henderson's 29-11 record doesn't jump out as exceptional, but when you consider the unceasing onslaught of talent he has fought, it's quite impressive. Add in that a few of those losses have come since 2013 when he was already on the wrong side of 40, and it doesn't take much to justify his spot here.

    In addition to capturing the Pride title at 185, he also earned the accolade of being the now defunct promotion's last 205-pound kingpin. 

    Henderson's candid personality and sometimes sharp tongue have made him a favorite among fans, while his substantial accomplishments and unholy ability to absorb damage ensure his legacy.

    Plus, many fans remember his knockout of Michael Bisping quite fondly.

    Points: 17

     

    Others receiving votes

    Chris Weidman: 3 points

    Vitor Belfort: 2 points

    Murilo Bustamante: 2 points

    Chael Sonnen: 1 point

Welterweight

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    Frank Gunn/Associated Press

    1. Georges St-Pierre

    Can you believe it? Of course you can. As with Anderson Silva coming in atop the middleweight list, St-Pierre at No. 1 was a foregone conclusion as soon as the idea for this article was conceived.

    He has a 25-2 record, avenging both losses. Few match the talent, credentials or star power of the Canadian legend. From the beginning of his career to its (presumed) end, St-Pierre was a dangerous, dynamic athlete inside the cage and a perfect gentleman outside it.

    While he took some flak for "playing it safe" in the latter stages of his career, his increasing dependence on wrestling signified what had always been his sharpest tool—his mind. By playing to his opponent's weaknesses, minimizing risk and absorbing as little damage as possible, GSP was able to consistently outclass the welterweight division's best, and he retired (again, presumably) as the UFC champion.

    Points: 45 (Unanimous vote)

     

    2. Matt Hughes

    The rise of Georges St-Pierre came at the expense of Matt Hughes, who was the greatest welterweight to ever strap on a pair of gloves before "Rush" started climbing the ladder. Still, Hughes settles in comfortably at the No. 2 spot, receiving a second-place vote from every writer on the Bleacher Report panel.

    Hughes was one of the first guys to combine wrestling and submission grappling at a level that rendered opponents with just one or the other essentially harmless. During the height of his career, he blended his talents to mask his only average striking and enjoyed a lengthy reign as UFC champion.

    In addition to his in-Octagon successes, Hughes was also one of the sport's first stars, serving two stints on The Ultimate Fighter in a coaching role. 

    Points: 30

     

    3. Pat Miletich 

    Miletich does not enjoy the same level of recognition as either St-Pierre or Hughes, since his successes came prior to MMA's thrust into the mainstream. But his name belongs alongside, if slightly below, the aforementioned welterweights.

    With a tournament victory and a UFC title to his name, Miletich ranks as one of the UFC's best pre-TUF fighters. His ability to finish foes with a variety of different submissions set him above the competition of his day and enabled him to stand out as a man who was ahead of his time.

    Though success became more difficult to find for him at the end of his career, the all-time great went out on a high note. After fighting just one time in the prior six years, Miletich defeated Thomas Denny by knockout in December, 2008 before calling it quits for good.

    Points: 10

     

    Others receiving votes

    Carlos Newton: 2

    Jake Shields: 2

    Royce Gracie: 1

Lightweight

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    1. BJ Penn

    It seems odd to feel no resistance at putting a guy with a 16-9-2 record in the No. 1 slot, but Penn looks to be right at home here. 

    A testament to the fighting adage of "it's not how many you beat, but who you beat," Penn spent his career mixing it up with the best that his weight class—and sometimes the divisions above his own—had to offer. The names on his record, both under the wins and losses columns, are of the highest quality.

    So while questions over his ability to put it all together and his work ethic persist, no one can question his willingness to walk straight toward the toughest challenge he could find. Through it all, Penn garnered UFC titles in two divisions and racked up wins over some of the best fighters of his day

    Points: 45 (Unanimous vote)

     

    2. Frankie Edgar

    Though Edgar holds a 2-0 record against Penn, his accomplishments against other competition don't quite match up. That is not to say, however, that his only noteworthy achievements are his wins over "The Prodigy." Indeed, Edgar ascended to the lightweight throne during one of the most competitive periods in the division's history. 

    In addition to taking the belt from Penn and then defending it from him, Edgar also retained his title on two occasions against Gray Maynard (one win, one draw). And while his time as top dog of the 155ers was not particularly long, razor-thin decision losses to Benson Henderson in consecutive title bouts demonstrate how close Edgar was to establishing a longer reign.

    In the end, part of what makes him so special is not only his accolades, but how he obtained them. His ability to grasp the faintest hope and parlay it into victory helped him to build a persona of the ultimate underdoga role he both embraces and deserves.

    Points: 17

     

    3. Takanori Gomi

    Gomi's UFC career may elicit some curiosity regarding his place on this list. To say that it has been mediocre would be generous. But before hooking up with Zuffa, he established himself as the top lightweight in Japan, back when Pride remained an equal to the UFC's stable of talent.

    Best known for his knockout power, he pummeled his way to Shooto and Pride titles, as well as Pride Lightweight Grand Prix honors. Unfortunately, the collapse of Pride seemed to signify the end for Gomi, who has since gone 7-6.

    He will look to rebound from a controversial loss to Diego Sanchez against Isaac Vallie-Flagg at UFC 172 in April. It's unlikely the 35-year-old will ever recapture his former standing in the MMA world, but he has put in consistent performances of late, suggesting he is not completely done making his mark.

    Points: 16

     

    Others receiving votes

    Sean Sherk: 5 points

    Benson Henderson: 3 points

    Gilbert Melendez: 2 points

    Kenny Florian: 1 point

    Anthony Pettis: 1 point

Featherweight

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    1. Jose Aldo

    The featherweight division lacks the illustrious history of the heavier weight classes, but it didn't take long for Jose Aldo to establish himself as the very best it has to offer. Making a name for himself in the WEC before becoming the first UFC champion at 145 pounds, he has looked nearly invincible for the last five years, posting a 12-0 record since 2009 and 17-0 since 2006. 

    Speculation that he is set to make the move to lightweight continues to gain momentum with each passing year, but with his outstanding blend of pinpoint striking, considerable power, tremendous takedown defense and reliable grappling, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which he fails to find success in any class. 

    Regardless of how much longer Aldo sticks around at 145, he is the best that the featherweight division has ever seen. And it's not really that close.

    Points: 39 (Unanimous vote)

     

    2. Urijah Faber

    Faber was the first true star of MMA's lower weight classes. His affable personality, unceasing success and effervescent fighting style made him a household name in the WEC and now a fan favorite in the UFC.

    His inability to capture a UFC title to this point represents the only blot on his resume. He has held gold in the KOTC and WEC promotions and defeated many of the top fighters at both featherweight and bantamweight. He now plies his trade at 135 pounds.

    Time may be running out for Faber's UFC title aspirations, but whether or not he ever gets there, he's a clear No. 2 choice on the all-time featherweight list.

    Points: 26

     

    3. Mike Brown

    A pair of wins over Urijah Faber means a great deal, but Brown's position at No. 3 is more a testament to the infancy of the featherweight division than his level of talent.

    Still, he has been a very good fighter throughout his career, as evidenced by his accomplishments in the WEC. Unfortunately, his transition to the UFC has been less than successful.

    So long as Aldo continues to rebuff challengers at 145, Brown is likely to maintain his spot here, but it's only a matter of time before someone supplants him. 

    Points: 10

     

    Others receiving votes

    Chad Mendes: 3 points

     

    Two members of the voting panel chose to abstain from providing featherweight ranks. 

Bantamweight

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    1. Renan Barao

    So, Renan Barao has won 32 fights in a row. Impressive, no? Even more impressive is that his five most recent wins have come against some stellar competition. And he has made it look easy.

    He defeated Urijah Faber to win the UFC interim bantamweight title back in 2012 and has since been named the official undisputed champ. But don't think that mobility was solely the result of Dominick Cruz's health woes—Barao has already defended the strap three times, finishing each challenger before the final bell.

    His mix of deadly jiu-jitsu and vicious striking has enabled him to dominate at 135, and he is rocketing up pound-for-pound lists all over the place. The scariest thing about Barao might be that he is still just 27, which means his best is yet to come.

    Points: 33

     

    2. Dominick Cruz

    It wasn't a drop-off in performance that caused Cruz to lose his UFC title, but rather a rash of injuries that have sidelined him since 2011. 

    His inability to stay healthy is a shame at every level. The fans are deprived of his unique, fast-paced fighting style, as well as a dream matchup between him and Barao. The Brazilian is denied the chance to prove he is truly the best at 135, while Cruz has already missed out on nearly two-and-a-half years of his prime.

    It would be robbery for all parties if "The Dominator" is unable to return to the level that saw him win and defend WEC and UFC titles. 

    Here's to wishing him a complete recovery.

    Points: 27

     

    3. Miguel Torres

    Torres had the unfortunate timing of being the best bantamweight on the planet right up until interest in the division exploded and the 135ers started receiving the recognition they deserve.

    Prior to losing his WEC title back in 2009, he amassed a ridiculous 37-1 record. Since that time, he has dropped six of 10, but he remains an important figure despite the drop-off.

    Torres' slick submission skills and penchant for letting his hands go were instrumental in drawing attention to smaller fighters, specifically the bantamweight division. If he were still experiencing the success he had five years ago, he'd be a massive star.

    Points: 7

     

    Others receiving votes

    Urijah Faber: 4 points

    Masakatsu Ueda: 1 point

     

    Three members of the voting panel chose to abstain from providing bantamweight rankings.

Flyweight

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    Steve Yeater/Associated Press

    1. Demetrious Johnson

    Though the flyweight division has barely taken a toe-hold in the world's most important MMA promotion, it has already produced its first star. Johnson, who had previously made a case as one of the top bantamweights on the planet, dropped to 125 back in 2012 and became the UFC's inaugural flyweight champion.

    Since winning the title, "Mighty Mouse" has kept it clutched close to his chest. He has steadily improved over the course of three defenses, finishing John Moraga and Joseph Benavidez and collecting three Fight Night bonuses along the way.

    It's not difficult to understand why he has found so much success. With technique that Joe Rogan often lauds as the best in the game to blend with blinding quickness, Johnson is a nightmare matchup for virtually any style of fighter.

    Points: 36 (Unanimous vote)

     

    2. Joseph Benavidez

    Benavidez is just 4-2 as a flyweight competitor, but adding that record to his bantamweight body of work makes him a fair candidate for the No. 2 spot.

    With the type of power that is not commonly seen at flyweight, equally powerful wrestling and a solid submission game, he has posted an impressive 19-4 career mark. Consider that he spent the majority of his time fighting at 135 and that he's only ever lost to Dominick Cruz and Demetrious Johnson, and his stats look even better.

    Benavidez will seek to rebound from a bad loss to Johnson at UFC 172, where he will take on Tim Elliott. A victory would put him right back in the thick of the title hunt.

    Points: 19

     

    3. Ian McCall

    After beginning his career at bantamweight, McCall dropped to flyweight in 2011, where he quickly reeled off three straight wins. While impressive at the time, that run looks even better now that Jussier da Silva, Dustin Ortiz and Darrell Montague have since become recognizable names.

    McCall's 1-2-1 UFC record is not exactly sterling, but it is forgivable given the strength of schedule he has had to contend with. Between a pair of tussles with Johnson and one against Benavidez, he's done more to prove that he is just a fraction behind the best in the business than he has to suggest he doesn't belong in the Octagon with them.

    He recently withdrew from a fight with Brad Pickett because of an injury. While that pairing would have made for an entertaining scrap, McCall has numerous intriguing prospects on the horizon, and he'll get chances to threaten those who outrank him on this list.

    Points: 7

     

    Others receiving votes

    Mamoru Yamaguchi: 4 points

    John Dodson: 2 points

    Shinichi Kojima: 2 points

    Yasuhiro Urushitani: 1 point

    Alexis Vila: 1 point

     

    Three members of the voting panel chose to abstain from providing flyweight rankings

Women's Pound for Pound

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    1. Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino

    You don't see as many women rack up knockouts as their male counterparts, but Cyborg is an exception. With 10 knockouts over the course of 13 fights (12 wins), she definitely has stopping power and plenty of it.

    In addition to her considerable striking talent, she carries an ADCC bronze medal in her back pocket, proving she's more than a wrecking ball on the feet. Her combination of skill, sheer power and comic-book physique makes her the ideal antagonist to the UFC's poster girl Ronda Rousey, with whom she is jostling with for WMMA supremacy.

    A failed PED test casts a gloom over Cyborg's accomplishments, but it's difficult to deny she is not a worthy candidate for this top spot. Should she ever find her way to the UFC, a showdown for the title would mark a crucial moment in the history of the promotion and the sport as a whole.

    Points: 37

     

    2. Ronda Rousey

    The other half of everyone's dream WMMA match comes in just a hair behind Cyborg on this list. UFC women's bantamweight champion Rousey has done nothing but win—and talk—from the moment she took up mixed martial arts.

    Her judo game provides her with one of the most effective weapons in the sport, and she's developed an equally devastating armbar to make every trip, throw and takedown count. Her recent knockout over Sara McMann shows that's she isn't done rounding out her skill set just yet, which is a scary thought for her competition.

    If the stars align, Rousey will soon challenge Cyborg for the No. 1 spot on the women's all-time mixed martial arts list. If she can't directly challenge Cyborg, she at least has the UFC marketing machine, a solid roster of potential opponents and plenty of time to leapfrog her without a head-to-head scrap.

    Points: 31

     

    3. Megumi Fujii

    Before there was Ronda Rousey, Cristiane Justino and even Gina Carano, there was Megumi Fujii. In terms of skill, she was the first true female star of MMA. In terms of notoriety, well, that was more likely Carano.

    A submission machine, Fujii began her career by reeling off 22 consecutive victories. Her first defeat came at the age of 36, and as with so many aged fighters, that signified a quick downturn.

    Though she was a pioneer, her activity has actually overlapped with both Rousey and Cyborg's. However, Fujii plied her trade at 115 pounds and was never set on course to face either current star. She retired after losing to Jessica Aguilar in October, 2013.

    Points: 19

     

    Others receiving votes

    Gina Carano: 2 points

    Michelle Waterson: 1 point

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