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MMA 125: Ranking the Top 20 Lightweights in Mixed Martial Arts

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 18, 2014

MMA 125: Ranking the Top 20 Lightweights in Mixed Martial Arts

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    David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    Ten years ago, the UFC's lightweight division was in dire straits. Limited to a handful of cards every year, the company took a hard look at a weight class that had failed to take MMA fans by the proverbial throat and cut bait.

    Today, that seems unthinkable. Not only does the UFC have so many cards to fill that it's opened the promotion up to both men below 135 pounds and even women, but the lightweight division is so stacked with talent that we've included 20 fighters on this list rather than the usual 15.

    Lightweights are now part of the old guard, firmly established thanks mainly to the force of one man's charisma: BJ Penn. The Hawaiian's is a shadow that still looms large, even as his immediate successor has given way, in turn, to a new generation of fighter. 

    These new lightweights are Penn's progeny, like him a combination of crisp stand-up, solid wrestling and fight-ending grappling. All that's missing is his unyielding will and palpable love of combat. That's what captured fans' hearts and remains the difference between grudging respect and passionate advocacy.

    The 155-pound division is still looking for the next BJ Penn. Can UFC champion Anthony Pettis fill that role? Can anyone? For hundreds of little guys trying to make a living in the fight game, millions of dollars ride on the answer.

    This list is not a ranking based on past performance. MMA math does not apply here. Instead, these ratings are a snapshot of where these athletes stand right now compared to their lightweight peers. We've scored each fighter on a 100-point scale based on their abilities in four key categories. You can read more about how the ratings are determined here

    Disagree with our order or analysis? Incensed over a notable omission? Let us know about it in the comments.

20. Diego Sanchez

2 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 72"
    Fight camp: Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA
    Record: 25-7 (6 knockouts, 9 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Ross Pearson (Dec) UFC Fight Night: Henderson v. Khabilov
    Lost. Myles Jury (Dec), UFC 171
    Lost. Gilbert Melendez (Dec), UFC 166

     

    Wrestling 

    14/25

    Takedown Average: 1.56, Takedown Accuracy: 21%, Takedown Defense: 48%

    Early in his career, just a few years removed from his state wrestling title at Del Norte High School, Diego Sanchez was an extremely wrestling-centric fighter. Although he diversified his game smartly in his 11 fights leading up to the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, wrestling was still what buttered his bread.

    That all changed after fights with Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck and a drop to lightweight. Sanchez reinvented himself as a wild slugger, a striker without conscience or fear. He'll still attempt the occasional takedown, especially in a scramble when things get a little wild. But it's no longer an emphasis, either in the cage or in training.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 1.2

    One of the best fights I've ever seen was Sanchez's battle with judo sensation Karo Parisyan in 2006. Parisyan tossed Sanchez over and over again with his upper-body attack, a series of judo trips as beautiful as they were powerful. But taking Sanchez down and keeping him down were two different things. Sanchez, despite losing the battle of the takedowns, won the battle on the mat, much as he had in a previous bout with Nick Diaz.

    Sanchez simply has a gift when things get out of control in an MMA fight. Even when matched with someone objectively better than he is, even when he's on his back and seemingly in trouble, he finds a way to exert control. It's what has made Sanchez a lasting star in a sport which has left all his contemporaries behind. 

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.74,  Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.85

    When you look at the list of the 125 best mixed martial artists we've assembled, you'll find almost no one who gets hit more than they hit. It's just not a trait typically associated with a winning fighter. When you get hit a lot, you're generally losing. And Sanchez gets hit a lot.

    But here's the thing: He's willing to take it. His heroes, like the late boxer Johnny Tapia, were willing to take a beating to give one. Sanchez has the same twisted ethos.

    Against a technical striker, he'll pay a steep price. But when one of his winging combinations connect? Look out! There is nothing more terrifying than a Diego Sanchez who smells blood.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    13/25

    Sanchez was MMA trainer Greg Jackson's first breakout star. The two have walked the same road and know each other well. 

    But Sanchez is not your typical disciplined Jackson-Winkeljohn disciple. Sometimes, he follows the game plan smartly. Sometimes, he seems to abandon it entirely. There's an edgy intensity that surrounds Sanchez during every waking moment. That's not always to his benefit. 

    Sanchez has seen it all. His experience shines through in fights like his most recent "win" over Ross Pearson. Sanchez knows that planting a fearsome scowl on his face, moving forward and flurrying briefly in the final 30 seconds can win rounds. Sanchez's veteran savvy allowed incompetent judges to make the wrong call.

    He's the last man standing from the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, part of a group of fighters who helped put this sport on the map. He's seen better days and wears the scars of his legendary fights proudly. But he's no longer a true title contender. He's a man counting the days until he can no longer do what he loves for a living. 

     

    Overall

    59/100

19. Gray Maynard

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 34   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Power MMA
    Record: 11-3-1 (2 knockouts, 0 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost. Nate Diaz (KO) TUF 18 Finale
    Lost. TJ Grant (KO), UFC 160
    Def. Clay Guida (Dec), UFC on FX 4

    Wrestling

    21/25

    Takedown Average: 2.60, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 86%

    There are guys who push opponents to the cage, and then there are guys who grind opponents into the cage. Gray Maynard is a guy who grinds opponents into the cage. A three-time NCAA Division I All-American, Maynard has one of the best wrestling resumes in MMA.

    He uses those skills expertly to get opponents' backs to the wall, hold them there, punch them a bit if necessary, then drag them to the ground. He has been able to find success against some very formidable lightweights over the years with those skills, including skilled grapplers and wrestlers like Jim Miller, Frankie Edgar and Kenny Florian.

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 0.7

    The term “lay and pray” is sometimes thrown around with Maynard. Normally, I'm quick to the defense of a fighter maligned that way, but with Maynard, the claim isn't entirely inaccurate.

    Once “The Bully” takes an opponent down, he is very good at keeping him there. Beyond that, however, he doesn't do much to win fights. Like other frustrating fighters of this kind, for Maynard, a takedown isn't the means to an end. It is the end.

    He might throw some punches. If you're lucky, you might see him go for a submission. For the most part, you will see him smother an opponent en route to a decision victory. All eight of his most recent wins have come in just that manner.

     

    Striking

    13/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.09, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.50

    Maynard's striking has never been particularly scary. While his boxing, with time, was plenty technical, it struck fear into exactly no hearts. Power and killer instinct were both lacking, making Maynard a relatively safe opponent for your long-term health.

    Footwork was perhaps his single best skill. Maynard did a very good job of keeping his opponents in front of him and the cage behind themjust where he wanted them for an eventual clinch-fest to come.

    You may have noticed all those past tense verbs in there. In three of his last four fights, he suffered tough knockout losses. The two most recent ones, to Nate Diaz and TJ Grant, were both particularly scary.

    Against both, he made sloppy mistakes which the "old" (read: younger) Maynard would not have made. Two years ago, he was a much more effective striker. Father Time, as he eventually will to us all, has wreaked havoc on the once-proud contender's physical ability. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    11/25

    Maynard's recent stretch of injuries and losses has many questioning how much time he has left in the sport, and for good reason. Since beating Clay Guida two years ago, he has fought just twice and been knocked out as many times.

    During those fights, he has demonstrated two things: an overall sluggishness and a rapidly deteriorating chin. A Gray Maynard circa 2010 would still be very competitive in today's lightweight division. The current model, though, just doesn't seem to know how to wield his weapons anymore.

    It might be struggles with his lingering knee injuries. It might be how he has bounced around between gyms (the downside of his career started immediately after leaving Xtreme Couture). It might be something else altogether. Either way, it's a problem that needs solving if he wants to start climbing back to the top of a suddenly crowded ladder.

     

    Overall

    61/100

18. Abel Trujillo

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Blackzilians
    Record: 12-5 (5 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    TBD against Bobby Green, UFC 176 (Aug. 2)
    Def. Jamie Varner (KO), UFC 169
    Def. Roger Bowling (TKO), UFC on Fox 9

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average 2.50, Takedown Accuracy: 66%, Takedown Defense: 37%

    Note these statistics and then immediately purge them from your memory. Abel Trujillo is a much better wrestler than the numbers show.

    I'll explain.

    A proper account of Trujillo's wrestling prowess requires us to acknowledge the Nurmy factor. Against the unstoppable Russian phenom Khabib Nurmagomedov, Trujillo was taken down 21 times, defending just six attempts throughout the three-round contest. Nobody else has found an answer for Nurmagomedov's takedowns, either, and if we throw this fight out, suddenly Trujillo's takedown defense leaps to 63 percent.

    Trujillo is a four-time NAIA All-American wrestler himself, a muscular powerhouse capable of dumping opponents on their back with a nice blend of power and technique. It's an added wrinkle for opponents who are mostly concerned with keeping their heads attached to their necks for a full 15 minutes.

     

    Grappling

    11/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Trujillo can wrestle, but can he grapple?

    The jury remains out.

    Again, Nurmagomedov made him look like an amateur here, but Nurmagomedov has done that to everybody thus far in his UFC run. Beyond that, we've seen Trujillo try and fail two submissions—one guillotine choke and one north-south choke—against Marcus LeVesseur, and we've seen Jamie Varner pass his guard with ease.

    Trujillo still has plenty of room to grow in this area of the sport, but with his strong wrestling base and thirst for blood on the feet, it's unlikely that we'll ever see him develop legitimately elite skills as a grappler. His goal here will be returning as quickly and painlessly to his feet as is humanly possible. His success in this endeavor will decide how far he can make it in a division with solid wrestlers at the very top.

     

    Striking

    17/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.73, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.50

    In his three UFC victories, Trujillo has notched three stoppages via strikes. His latest was a highlight-reel right hand that flattened Jamie Varner at UFC 169. His is the kind of power that guarantees an athlete is never out of the fight. He's always one strike away from seizing the moment, something just as important as technique in the broad scheme of things.

    The truly elite, of course, combine power and craft, something Trujillo hasn't yet shown. Right now, few lightweights are scarier than Trujillo in terms of sheer power, but there's more to the striking game than just hitting hard, and Trujillo can snug up his defense and work on becoming more patient if he wishes to ascend to the top of the division. 

    His approach is more explosive than technical, and he sometimes disregards conventional striking wisdom to throw elbows to the body or wing a wild haymaker in hopes of ending the fight. Trujillo is creative in this department, and he's legitimately dangerous at distance, in the clinch or on the ground. His power is nothing to sneeze at, and he can unleash it from anywhere in an instant.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    Trujillo is all kinds of ferocious, which makes him a threat at any point of any fight. You can't teach the type of power and aggression "Killa" possesses; these are arguably his greatest assets inside the cage.

    To illustrate, first look at his UFC debut against LeVesseur. After hurting him multiple times with knees, punches and elbows, Trujillo forced LeVesseur to turtle against the cage, offering little in the way of defense. 

    Most fighters would have attacked with punches, plaintively looking at the referee to intervene. Trujillo's instincts are different. Instead, he placed one hand on the back of LeVesseur's head, pushing his face toward the canvas. Then he launched knee after knee to LeVesseur's midsection, eventually causing a stoppage with these devastating shots to the body.

    It was some caveman, alpha-male barbarism, and it perfectly summarizes Trujillo's brutal nature. Give him an opening and he will shut out the lights in a flash.

    Of course, this same "kill or be killed" mentality causes him to get caught up in ill-advised slugfests as well. Trujillo is content to ride or die with this attitude. Regardless of the outcome, it's insanely fun to watch as a fan of the sport, and Trujillo is quickly making a name for himself as one of the most dangerous lightweights in the world because of it. 

     

    Overall

    61/100

17. Edson Barboza

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: Valor MMA
    Record: 13-2 (8 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost. Donald Cerrone (Sub) UFC on Fox 11
    Def. Danny Castillo (Dec), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Rafaello Oliveira (TKO), UFC 162

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Takedown Average: 0.72, Takedown Accuracy: 66%, Takedown Defense: 83%

    As one of the most dynamic kickers in the lightweight division, Edson Barboza's defensive wrestling is absolutely critical to his success. To that end, he joined up with former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in a years-long mission to improve that one area of his game. The results have been mixed but generally positive.

    Mike Lullo, Ross Pearson and Rafaello Oliveira all tried to beat him at wrestling and failed. It was a different story when he squared off with more polished wrestlers. Jamie Varner twice took him down before finishing him with ground-and-pound, and Barboza barely survived the first round when he fought Danny Castillo.

     

    Grappling

    11/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

    Barboza has pretty much no grappling skills to speak of, offensively or defensively.

    Should he wind up on top of an opponent, he will awkwardly lie on top of them. Passes? Submission attempts? Ground-and-pound? Never heard of them.

    Defensively, he is similarly unremarkable. He will buck and try to kick out from underneath an opponent but looks utterly lost against even the most mediocre of grapplers.

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.17, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.44

    Looking strictly at Barboza's kicks, the guy is amazing. With his exciting blend of taekwondo and muay thai, he can hit anybody, anywhere, from any angle. His highlight reel is extensive, and while his spinning knockout of Terry Etim will live on as one of the most beautiful, most devastating things ever seen in MMA, his thunderous leg kicks are no less impressive.

    While he can be absolutely dazzling on the attack, his striking defense is often lacking, as he habitually carries his hands low to prevent opponents getting hold of him. Against weaker strikers, he can get away with it with his quickness and reach.

    However, when he comes across a fighter who is equally rangy like Donald Cerrone, he can get cracked with jabs. Or when a fighter has good timing and explosiveness like Varner, his casual defensive posture can get him rocked repeatedly.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Barboza, like most high-level strikers in MMA, is physically gifted and markedly patient. He's a guy who is better than the majority of the division standing up, knows it and does everything he can to exploit that fact.

    While he is one of the flashiest fighters in MMA, it's a controlled aggression. He is commendably disciplined and rarely puts himself in a disadvantageous position, even following big spinning kicks.

    However, his one-size-fits-all approach has cost him in both of his bouts with established talent. Barboza is the kind of front-running fighter who excels against no-hopers and permanent fixtures of the prelim. When tested, he's been found wanting. 

     

    Overall

    61/100

16. Justin Gaethje

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    Age: 25   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 70.5"
    Fight camp: Grudge Training Center
    Record: 11-0 (9 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights
    TBD against Nick Newell, WSOF 11
    Def. Richard Patishnock (TKO), WSOF 8
    Def. Dan Lauzon (KO), WSOF 6

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Justin Gaethje is a former Division I All-American wrestler from the University of Northern Colorado, but you would never know that from watching any of his recent fights.

    Early in his fighting career, Gaethje discovered that he possesses scary knockout power, and he's fallen in love with the stand-up game and the sweet, sweet blood that comes with it during his run in the World Series of Fighting.

    If we look back before he was signed to the big show, however, we see traces of that dominant wrestling base, and the footage is equal parts frightening and impressive. He knocked out Kevin Croom with a slam in his professional MMA debut, and his highlight reel is littered with impressive lifts and throws.

    However, Gaethje's wild striking style (which we'll get to in a second) opens him up to his opponents' takedowns, and we've seen him get dragged to the mat after throwing a wild strike on multiple occasions. Luckily, he can fall back on his wrestling pedigree and has always managed to reverse position or pop back to his feet thus far in his career. 

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Combining his strong credentials as a wrestler with Tony Basile's tutelage at the Grudge Training Center, Gaethje has become a solid grappler who can dish out a variety of submissions inside the cage. He snagged two armbars as an amateur, and a rear-naked choke over Sam Young represents his lone submission victory as a professional.

    Other times, however, he looked lost on the mat. When he was threatened from the back by Brian Cobb at WSOF 3, Gaethje could not escape, and he was saved by the bell before Cobb could lock in a fight-ending choke or pound his way to a referee stoppage. 

    As a natural athlete, though, the potential is there for Gaethje to become a fearsome grappler. For a truly beautiful representation of Gaethje's grappling abilities, watch this reversal of Cobb that came moments before the clip embedded above.

    While we haven't seen Gaethje's ground game lately because of his early knockouts, it's safe to assume he's learned and developed quite a bit since the hiccup against Cobb. Until we see it in the cage, though, it's unfair to rate him too highly in this category. 

     

    Striking

    17/25

    There are not many wrestlers who can transition to MMA and become devastating, diverse strikers right off the bat, but that is exactly what Gaethje has done early in his professional career.

    His 11-0 record (which is 18-0 if you want to include his amateur fights) is peppered with 13 knockouts, 12 of which were a result of his stand-up attack (the last one was the slam against Croom).

    That's impressive, but it becomes even more impressive when you consider that only some of these knockouts were the result of punches: One was from an elbow that opened up a nasty cut and forced a doctor stoppage, one was from leg kicks, one was from a combination of punches and elbows, and one was from knees.

    That's an exhausting list, and it perfectly showcases the variety in Gaethje's lethal stand-up attack. He packs serious power and can unleash it from any limb. He needed a mere 12 seconds to put away UFC veteran Drew Fickett, and he's already earned four similar first-round knockouts in his young MMA career.

    Don't mistake Gaethje for Anderson Silva, though. Just as his aggression leads to early finishes, it leaves openings for counters. The ability with which Gaethje has picked up the art of striking is astounding, but his defense is far from perfect, and he often gets sloppy and wild, opening himself up to counterattacks in the process.

    Thus far, nobody has been able to exploit this hole in his game, but as his competition gets stiffer in the WSOF, we may see him eat a punch or kick that puts him out and smears his spotless record. It's a significant problem in his stand-up game at the moment, so we need to dock his striking rating accordingly. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    When considering Gaethje's intangibles, I see a wash between his incredibly useful and game-changing power and his incredibly alarming and porous striking defense.

    Just as his power is an asset, the holes in his stand-up game are a liability moving forward in his career. Even if opponents cannot counter with strikes, Gaethje opens himself up to takedowns with his flying knees and spinning kicks, and in a volatile sport like MMA, logic tells us that he will eventually pay for his recklessness.

    Still, this go-for-broke attitude is part of what makes Gaethje can't-miss television, and his fights are always electric and entertaining, even if his level of competition leaves a little to be desired.  

     

    Overall

    68/100

15. Will Brooks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: American Top Team
    Record: 14-1 (4 knockouts, 4 submissions) 


    Last Three Fights
    Def. Michael Chandler (Dec), Bellator 120
    Def. Alexander Sarnavskiy (Dec), Bellator 109
    Def. Saad Awad (Dec), Bellator 105

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Will Brooks' wrestling makes all the difference in his fights.

    Brooks is a natural athlete with quick, relentless shots inside the cage, and his game plan centers around taking his opponents down and nailing them to the canvas.

    So far, this has worked well for Brooks, leading him to a 14-1 professional record, culminating with a Bellator interim lightweight championship win against Michael Chandler at Bellator 120. While Chandler dumped Brooks on his back multiple times in the fight's early going, Brooks would not go away, and he returned the favor later in the bout with a few takedowns of his own.

    This was the first time we saw Brooks matched up against somebody whom many considered a better wrestler, and he handled the test well, proving that he can wrestle with Bellator's best.

    Brooks sets up his takedowns with kicks to push his opponents back, and then he shoots, oftentimes finishing with a standard blast double. His wrestling repertoire doesn't involve fancy trips or throws, but it's effective, and he's overwhelmed many a competitor with his relentless pressure and solid technique. 

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Before facing Chandler, Brooks primarily showed off a smothering top game that left his opponents no room to breathe or reverse position. While avoiding submissions and passing guard to set up some ground-and-pound or a submission attempt is impressive, it wasn't until Brooks fought Chandler that we saw the full extent of his grappling skills.

    The resulting display was impressive.

    Chandler was a dominant physical specimen on the ground in his previous bouts, but Brooks nullified any offense when the Alliance MMA product took him down by utilizing an active guard and creating scrambles as soon as his opponent gave him space.

    While we knew that Brooks could effectively employ the "lay and pray" approach, his fight with Chandler showcased a more dynamic, technical grappling game than we had previously seen from him. There's room for improvement here, too—something you can't always say for fighters already at the top of the heap.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Brooks possesses a nice bag of kicks, including snappy left kicks that will target an opponent's head, legs or midsection. By utilizing a kick-heavy approach, Brooks makes his 71" reach even longer, and he can keep his opponents at bay until he decides to close the distance and initiate a takedown.

    On top of this, his boxing is ever improving. Since being knocked out by Saad Awad in his only career defeat at Bellator 91, Brooks has revamped his striking game, and his defense has looked better with each consecutive showing, thanks to improved footwork and head movement. He showed off a crisp jab against Chandler, and he looked comfortable and confident on the feet throughout their five-round affair.

    Don't look now, but Brooks is rapidly becoming a well-rounded mixed martial artist.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Brooks' athleticism is evident. He made Chandler look like a plodding plough horse with his fluid and quick movements. That kind of native ability can go a long way, making up for gaps in his technical skill simply by being faster and stronger than his opponents.

    When you combine that kind of athleticism with a keen intellect, you have the makings of something special. Brooks can stick to a game plan, and he has no problem grinding out a decision victory if he feels it is his safest route to victory. The man is a competitor, and he places winning before entertainment, an intelligent, albeit sometimes boring, strategy.

    Brooks' true test comes now that he's strapped a shiny golden belt around his waist. How will he handle the pressure and attention of being champion?

    To this point in his career, Brooks has been nothing but professional and composed, but success has a funny way of changing fighters. Let's see if Brooks continues to grow and improve now that he has a little more hardware upon his mantle. 

     

    Overall

    68/100

14. Rustam Khabilov

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA
    Record: 17-2 (4 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Loss. Benson Henderson (Sub), UFC Fight Night 42
    Def. Jorge Masvidal (Dec), UFC Fight Night 31
    Def. Yancy Medeiros (TKO), UFC 159

    Wrestling

    21/25

    Takedown Average: 5.83, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 60%

    Rustam Khabilov first burst onto the UFC scene with his ridiculous suplex-fest against Vinc Pichel, where he got hold of the woefully outgunned newcomer and smashed him into the mat until he was unconscious. That performance let fans know right away that in spite of his youth, the young man from Dagestan is one of the best wrestlers in the division.

    He recently showed that his wrestling dominance isn't reserved for random freshmen. When he faced off with former lightweight champion Benson Henderson, he managed to complete six takedowns in 16 minutes of fighting. That exceeds the wrestling performances put forth against Bendo by the likes of Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson.

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Submission Average: 0.4

    While Khabilov has some amazing takedowns, his top game is not at all intimidating. He has struggled mightily at holding opponents down, something on full display as Henderson effortlessly neutralized all his offense on the ground.

    Even against random regional-level competition in M-1, he was unable to consistently hold down anyone but the true tomato cans. Sifting through the numbers, the four fighters Khabilov submitted in M-1 have a combined 9-21 record in professional MMA.

    Quite simply, while Khabilov is remarkable at putting fighters on their back, he can't do much once he's got them there. That cost him against Henderson, and unless he improves quickly, it will do so again against any other elite lightweights.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 1.83, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.89

    Like many of the Sambo practitioners emerging on the MMA scene, Khabilov's striking is at its best when he is either setting up clinch work or punishing opponents on the break. From a distance, however, he is obviously a work in progress.

    From striking range, he has decent head movement, which allows him to land some solid punches against sloppy competition. He's also more than willing to channel his inner street fighter and throw telegraphed haymakers and naked kicks. While that can work on the rare occasion he catches someone off guard, more often it ends up working in his opponent's favor.

    The good news is that his wrestling can cure many ills. It's hard to pursue him and make him pay for mistakes, because that approach often leads to a one-way ticket to the mat. But that is simply a Band-Aid that masks his flaws. What's needed is improvement—and he's found the right place for that in New Mexico.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Khabilov has undeniable skills, but he is still in the developmental stage of his career. He's a work in progress—but one that seems to be coming along quickly.

    The fact that he has beaten a solid veteran in Jorge Masvidal and was very competitive during his fight with Henderson shows that he is already pretty darn good and getting better by the day.

    The marriage of Khabilov and the Jackson-Winkeljohn crew was a match made in heaven. The potential is there for a run to the top—a run Jackson has helped multiple fighters make. Some screws need tightening, and some rough edges need sanding, but even coming off his recent loss, the sky is the limit for the “Tiger.”

     

    Overall

    68/100

13. Rafael dos Anjos

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 5'9"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Evolve MMA
    Record: 21-7 (3 knockouts, 8 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Jason High (TKO), UFC Fight Night 42
    Loss. Khabib Nurmagomedov (Dec), UFC on Fox 11
    Def. Donald Cerrone (Dec) UFC Fight Night 27

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 2.36, Takedown Accuracy: 37%, Takedown Defense: 64%

    Rafael dos Anjos is a rare specimen. While most veterans who lack a wrestling base focus their efforts primarily on simply defending takedowns, Dos Anjos has made himself into a respectable offensive wrestler, forcing opponents to consider what he's going to do, not just what they intend to accomplish.

    Dos Anjos has regularly gotten the better of fighters like Mark Bocek and Anthony Njokuani, using his striking to keep their backs to the cage and setting up takedowns and clinch work from there. He has always had that sort of well-rounded attack, which has only gotten better with time.

    Bocek and Njokuani, however, are not good wrestlers by any metric. When Dos Anjos does come across somebody with good clinch work, like Evan Dunham or Khabib Nurmagomedov, he tends to have serious trouble defending takedowns. 

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 1.0

    Dos Anjos looked the part of a submission wizard early on in his MMA career but has generally gotten away from that since joining the UFC. Over the last several years, his offensive grappling has looked mediocre, rarely threatening submissions and only occasionally advancing into legitimately dangerous positions.

    However, he clearly kept himself sharp on the mat. Dos Anjos has a marvelous active guard. He is particularly good at using legwork to keep opponents off balance, allowing him to explode out of danger or work his way to the cage to stand up. He was able to beat Jason High in almost every scramble between the two men in his last fight, leading to a TKO finish.

     

    Striking

    17/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.63, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.49

    With his lack of pizzazz and unremarkable power, it's easy not to be all that impressed with Dos Anjos' striking. Don't be fooled, though: Like his grappling, it's deceptively effective.

    With a southpaw stance and actual cage-cutting skills, exchanges almost always go down on his terms. He was able to beat a very formidable Donald Cerrone standing up by maintaining the center of the Octagon, avoiding the rangy punches and kicks of “Cowboy” and landing shots to the body and head.

    On top of that, he has solid head movement and accuracy on his punches, as we saw against High. In a bang-bang move from the clinch, Dos Anjos landed a big left square to his chin, setting up fight-ending punches as the “Kansas City Bandit” hung on for dear life. That's a typical exchange in any Dos Anjos fight.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Dos Anjos is not particularly gifted in any fighting discipline. He's the classic jack of all trades, master of none. What has allowed him to transcend that status, to fight at a high level and beat some strong competition, is his ability to dictate when and where the fight takes place.

    You will not see Dos Anjos charging into a counter right. You will not see him leaping into a submission attempt doomed to fail from the beginning. You will not see him staying underneath an opponent for longer than necessary.

    Instead you'll see a disciplined, tactical attack courtesy of the consummate professional fighter. That sort of savvy is enough to earn victories he probably shouldn't and has launched him into contender status. 

     

    Overall

    68/100

12. Michael Chandler

10 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Alliance MMA
    Record: 12-2 (5 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost. Will Brooks (Dec) Bellator 120
    Lost. Eddie Alvarez (Dec), Bellator 106
    Won. David Rickels (KO), Bellator 97

    Wrestling

    19/25

    As a former NCAA Division I wrestler out of the University of Missouri, it's not surprising that Michael Chandler is well above average in this category. Chandler almost immediately went from wearing a singlet to gloves, earning All-American status in spring 2009 and making his MMA debut that summer.

    He has been able to nail takedowns against every opponent he has faced in Bellator without exception. Perhaps his most impressive performance came against judo Olympian Rick Hawn, whom he took down with zero difficulty before submitting with a merciless rear-naked choke.

    His recent bout with Will Brooks, however, raised serious doubts about how Chandler's wrestling would stand up to a serious test. Brooks, with no wrestling pedigree to speak of, survived an early onslaught and eventually started putting Chandler on his back.

    By the end of the fight, you'd have never guessed it was Chandler and not Brooks who had been the All-American. That's not the sign of an elite MMA wrestler.

     

    Grappling

    15/25

    Top control is always key for wrestlers, and Chandler has shown himself to be a genius at times and a fool at others.

    The good? He has a brutal top game, an impressive array of chokes and has shown truly great submission defense thus far.

    The bad? His limited defensive arsenal has gotten him into trouble time and again. His losses to Brooks and Eddie Alvarez can both be tied directly to his reliance on explosive escapes rather than technical jiu-jitsu. Brooks in particular was able to take the wrestler's back with startling ease. Though he didn't pay the ultimate price, it did pinpoint a significant weakness in his grappling game.

     

    Striking

    16/25

    Chandler is a prototypical hard-punching wrestler. He throws some intense heat but will fall prey to technically superior strikers. In Bellator, mostly bereft of fighters who can challenge him athletically, this hasn't been a major problem—with one exception.

    Alvarez highlighted this shortcoming perfectly during their two fights in Bellator. While both bouts were competitive, Alvarez brutalized him standing and rocked him on numerous occasions. His inability to compete with the now-two-time lightweight champ at striking distance left Chandler a bruised, bloody mess after both fights.

    Similar challenges would await him in the UFC Octagon, calling Chandler's ability to survive the sport's deepest division into question. He has the raw tools to thrive, even in the striking category. Whether he can learn to use them to the fullest remains the real question surrounding Chandler as he continues his career.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    After submitting Alvarez in 2011, Chandler was on the shortlist of the “best fighters outside the UFC.” Emphatic stoppage victories over Akihiro Gono, Hawn and David Rickels only added to his legend.

    Those 12 consecutive wins, nine in the Bellator cage, today seem like a distant memory. While not everyone agreed with his two controversial decision losses, there isn't a lot of talk about how Chandler stacks up to potential UFC opponents anymore.

    In those two fights, a bright light was shined onto some of his now apparent weaknesses. Quite simply, he is still more wrestler than mixed martial artist. Alvarez (more or less) matched his wrestling and beat him striking. Brooks (more or less) matched his wrestling and beat him with his jiu-jitsu.

    Worse, Chandler looked slow and robotic at times. His strength was never in question, but you could certainly imagine the more fluid athletes in the division running circles around him.

    Chandler has a big challenge in front of him. This is the first obstacle in a sport that's all about hitting walls and learning to go around rather than through them. If he can learn to adapt, again, there's no reason Chandler can't emerge from this experience a better fighter and take back his mantle as the best fighter outside the Octagon.

     

    Overall

    68/100

11. Jim Miller

11 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: AMA Fight Club
    Record: 24-4 (3 knockouts, 14 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    TBD vs. Donald Cerrone, UFC Fight Night 45 (July 16)
    Def. Yancy Medeiros (Sub), UFC 172
    Def. Fabricio Camoes (Sub), UFC 168

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Takedown Average: 1.98, Takedown Accuracy: 46%, Takedown Defense: 39%

    Against smaller, greener fighters, Jim Miller is an absolute buzzsaw. He will take them down, he will rough them up and he will choke them out.

    When he comes up against a fighter with superior wrestling, however, it's a total Jekyll-and-Hyde situation. The longer an opponent's list of credentials, the more often he finds himself on his back.

    Pat Healy took him down five times, Benson Henderson took him down seven times and Mark Bocek and Gleison Tibau both scored four takedowns apiece. When he fought Gray Maynard, Miller went 0-for-8 on takedown attempts. Once Maynard was done roughing him up standing, he got taken down late to seal the fight.

    Miller is a classic overachiever. That makes him a good gatekeeper, but his lack of athletic talent prevents him from ever being a true title contender.

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 2.7

    Miller is always, always, always looking for submissions. Whether he's on top of an opponent or underneath him, he can attack with an impressive array of chokes and locks. That craftiness on the mat both leads him to wins over lesser opponents and gets him out from underneath the guys who can take him down.

    When Henderson took him down seven times, he countered with an impressive six submission attempts. Those threats of leg locks and armbars kept the eventual champ from ever getting particularly comfortable in top position.

    On the ground, there isn't a single lightweight he can't compete with. He's the modern version of Jeremy Horn, a brilliant technical grappler whose intelligence on the mat made up for some obvious athletic deficiencies. 

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.54, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.29

    Just like with his wrestling, Miller can look like a beast or a mark, all depending on whom he is up against. As a southpaw, he can trip up unseasoned opponents on that alone, and he has honed his game around presenting a different look.

    Anyone who knows how to handle a lefty, though, has beaten him standing. Maynard, Henderson and Healy all out-landed him. Nate Diaz exposed his weaknesses best, as he played matador to Miller's bull and was barely even touched at striking distance during exchanges.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Being a high-caliber submission fighter is always an exercise in risk versus reward, and it is easy to look the fool against a guy like Henderson when he kicks out of a kneebar, then punches you in the face for good measure. This is especially true when many of your opponents are more gifted and more fluid athletes.

    Miller, despite or because of his faults, is a smart fighter. His brain, toughness, cardio and chin have never been called into question. But he's a professional athlete competing at the highest level. In that rarefied air, sometimes savvy alone just isn't enough.

     

    Overall

    69/100

10. Donald Cerrone

12 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 31 Height: 6'0"   Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: Jackson/Winkeljohn MMA
    Record: 23-6-1 (3 knockouts, 15 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    TBD v. Jim Miller, UFC Fight Night 45 (July 16)
    Def. Edson Barboza (Sub), UFC on Fox: Werdum v. Browne 
    Def. Adriano Martins (KO), UFC on Fox: Henderson v. Thomson

     

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 1.59, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 64%

    The current state of Donald Cerrone's wrestling defense is a mystery, best determined by his 2013 fight with Evan Dunham. It's an area that, previous to that, hadn't really been tested after Benson Henderson dominated "Cowboy" with a whopping eight takedowns in a 2009 fight.

    Through clever matchmaking, the popular Cerrone had been matched mostly with fellow strikers or people terrified of his submission game. For the most part, his wrestling prowess was a complete non-factor.

    Dunham was different. He was looking for the takedown. Twice in the first round and twice again in the second he tried. All four times he failed. And while Dunham is no Olympic medalist, he's a solid enough wrestler to show that Cerrone has made some serious progress staying upright.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 2.1

    Of Cerrone's 23 professional wins, an amazing 15 have come via submission. Based on the hard work of my trusty calculator, that's 65 percent—not bad at all for a fighter most would identify as a striker.

    Numbers, of course, can be deceptive. Some of Cerrone's finishes are technically submissions, but more accurately, they are the coups de grace after demolishing someone standing. Don't discount his active guard and clever escapes, however—some opponents have done that to their detriment.

    In fact, it's this grappling prowess that helps make Cerrone's striking so special. He's not afraid to let his kicks fly, knowing that taking him down as a counter is the kind of thing that gives most fighters nightmares.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed: 3.81, Significant Strikes Absorbed: 3.69

    The best part about watching Cerrone fight is the suspense. The result often boils down to a single question: Can the man across the cage from him withstand his furious kicks? 

    If the answer is yes and his foe can advance to boxing range, Cerrone may be in trouble. There, it's anyone's game.

    If the answer is no? The other guy's going to be walking with a limp for a little while. Few in the sport throw a harder, more accurate leg kick.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    Cerrone is a little bit nuts. I say that with love and the acknowledgement that some of the best soldiers and fighters I've ever spent time with also fit that bill.

    There's a lot of talk in the world of sport about distractions. Most of the time that's just a nonsense media narrative. But you get the sense sometimes that Cerrone's mind does wander—to jet skis and rock climbing and big, loud guns.

    He's a thrill-seeker. The cage is just one of his outlets. And while that may make him a more interesting person, the lack of single-minded focus may prevent him from being truly great.

     

    Overall

    69/100

9. Michael Johnson

13 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28 Height: 5'11"   Reach: 73.5"
    Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center
    Record: 15-8 (7 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    TBD v. Josh Thomson, UFC on Fox 12 (July 26)
    Def. Melvin Guillard (Dec), UFC Fight Night 37
    Def. Gleison Tibau (KO), UFC 168

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 0.62, Takedown Accuracy: 45%, Takedown Defense: 77%

    Many are under the mistaken impression that Michael Johnson is a high-level MMA wrestler based on his success on The Ultimate Fighter. He is not. While Johnson comes from a wrestling background, we have seen him beaten by other wrestlers time and again.

    He lost the TUF 12 final bout when now-flyweight Jonathan Brookins utterly smothered him. Reza Madadi took him down four times before finishing him with a D'Arce choke. Myles Jury got the better of him with a wrestling-focused effort.

    Johnson can get the better of opponents who lack takedown defense (which is how he advanced through The Ultimate Fighter), but his wrestling does not stack up against any top lightweights—offensively.

    If you switch lenses, however, a different picture emerges. The new Johnson who has emerged in the Octagon is not a fighter who relies on wrestling to win fights. It's there simply to keep him standing, where his developing striking game gives opponents fits. 

     

    Grappling

    12/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    Formidable wrestlers aren't the only guys who give Johnson fits. High-level BJJ players do, too.

    Of Johnson's eight career losses, six have come via submission. In the UFC, both Paul Sass and Madadi exposed Johnson's grappling as substandard when they forced him to tap after utterly outclassing him.

    That lack of submission defense seriously limits his top game as well. Even the hint of a triangle choke or sweep forces him into a lay-and-pray shell. The fact that he has zero submission attempts and zero guard passes through 11 career UFC fights is telling.

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.49, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.61

    While he tends to have trouble on the mat, Johnson is quickly turning into one of the most electrifying strikers in the lightweight division. While we've seen many wrestlers join the UFC and become fearsome power punchers, The Menace is one of the few who has legitimately good form to go along with it.

    For Johnson, it all starts with his footwork. While even well-regarded MMA boxers like Nate Diaz tend to thoughtlessly plod forward, Johnson is truly great at always keeping his feet underneath him, allowing him to deliver powerful, accurate punches through the smallest of openings.

    He isn't perfect—he still has a few rookie flaws he needs to get over—but he is already quite good and clearly getting better.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    21/25

    Every time Johnson steps into the cage, we see significant upgrades. That's a sign that things are going well with the Blackzilians down in Florida. While Johnson isn't exceptional in any area of the cage yet, his general progression since joining the UFC has been a treat to watch. Early on, he was a mediocre lay-and-pray threat. In the years since, he has become a dynamic striker.

    He isn't a complete package yet, but luckily for him, he happens to be training at the Jaco Hybrid Training Center, a gym basically built for fighters with his skill set. He finds himself in the middle of the lightweight pack right now. In a year, though? He could potentially be fighting for UFC gold.

     

    Overall

    69/100

8. Nate Diaz

14 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29 Height: 6'0"   Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu
    Record: 17-9 (4 knockouts, 11 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Gray Maynard (TKO) The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale
    Lost. Josh Thomson (TKO) UFC on Fox: Henderson v. Melendez
    Lost. Benson Henderson (Dec) UFC on Fox: Henderson v. Diaz

     

    Wrestling

    13/25

    Takedown Average: 1.38, Takedown Accuracy: 30%, Takedown Defense: 45%

    The Diaz brothers are the closest things the sport has to superheroes—ultra-confident violence machines who talk it just as well as they walk it. But every superhero has a weakness—and the Diaz kryptonite is wrestling.

    Standing and grappling, the brothers are a match for most. But against Benson Henderson and Rory MacDonald, what was already clear became crystal: A good wrestler is too much for Nate Diaz to handle.

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.7

    Playing the Diaz brothers' games on the ground can be deadly—and more than a little humiliating. Who can forget a helpless Kurt Pellegrino trapped in a triangle choke while Diaz shot him, and the world, the double bird?

    But it's not just journeymen like Pellegrino who need beware. Diaz can catch even fellow submission aces like Jim Miller if they try to match him hold-for-hold.

    He's a truly formidable force on the mat, winning eight of his 20 bouts under the Zuffa umbrella by way of submission. Considering the fact he rang up that impressive statistic against an ever-increasing level of competition, you have to rank Diaz among the best submission fighters in the sport.  

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed 4.13, Significant Strikes Absorbed 2.92

    Nate, like his brother Nick, has a fairly unusual style of standing. In a sport that allows fighters an almost infinite number of striking combinations, he's all about throwing punches. 

    Lots of punches. 

    That volume is the key to his success. No, the punches aren't all thrown with knockout force, but they keep coming in waves and waves, to the body and to the head. Even good strikers like Donald Cerrone are befuddled by this approach. Nate beat him to the punch consistently, coming inside Cerrone's looping blows with his own straight punches.

    It was a clinic—but Cerrone need feel no shame. Eventually an opponent's brain simply can't handle the onslaught. The input is too much, the hopelessness setting in as they realize this fistic assault is not going to stop.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    The Diaz brothers' major flaws—wrestling and a vulnerability to leg kicks—seem ingrained at this point. There's a stubborn refusal to fight anything but their fight.

    And while that will be enough 75 percent of the time, truly elite fighters will solve their puzzles. The fighters who can adapt their game for particular opponents become champions. Stubborn fighters like the Diaz brothers don't make it quite that far. Unless there's a drastic change in approach, Nate Diaz has likely gone as far as he'll ever go in the sport. 

     

    Overall

    70/100

7. Myles Jury

15 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 25   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: Alliance MMA
    Record: 14-0 (6 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Diego Sanchez (Dec), UFC 171
    Def. Mike Ricci (Dec), UFC 165
    Def. Ramsey Nijem (KO), UFC on Fox 7

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 3.27, Takedown Accuracy: 70%, Takedown Defense: 0%

    No, Myles Jury's takedown-defense percentage is not missing a digit in front of that zero.

    Don't let that stat fool you, though: His five UFC opponents have attempted a combined two takedowns, and Jury gave up both, securing a fight-ending guillotine choke against Chris Saunders on the first and giving up a body-lock takedown against the cage to Ramsey Nijem before knocking him out in Round 2. 

    Offensively, Jury is fantastic at mixing in strikes with his takedowns, effortlessly transitioning from striking to wrestling and catching his opponents by surprise with his powerful double-leg shot. After his guillotine win over Saunders, Jury took his next four opponents down at least once, scoring more takedowns than he conceded in each instance.

    Jury is comfortable in this department, and he rarely overextends himself in an effort to secure the takedown. Instead, he shoots in the natural flow of the fight, something MMA-wrestling phenoms like Georges St-Pierre and Chris Weidman have mastered.

    While Jury might not quite be at that level yet, he's getting there, and the tools are ever-sharpening.  

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    "Fury" is the real thing on the mat. He earned his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in December 2013, and his overall record in grappling competitions is 64-4, taking home gold on multiple occasions. He's excellent off his back or from top position, and his guard passes are lightning quick and beautifully executed.

    Jury passed Michael Johnson's guard seven times at UFC 155, frustrating his opponent and completely owning the ground battle throughout the fight.

    While we haven't seen Jury notch a signature submission victory over a top opponent, his history in grappling competitions and inside the cage suggests the ability is there—it's just a matter of time before he senses the moment is right and catches his opponent off guard by slapping on a fight-ending choke or arm lock.  

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.56, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.23

    While Jury possesses huge knockout power, he's more of a tactician in the stand-up game, cutting angles and picking his shots, always staying just beyond harm's way in the process.

    He successfully defends 76 percent of strikes tossed his way, and he's never been knocked down by strikes inside the UFC Octagon. Against Johnson, who is currently the No. 9-ranked lightweight in the UFC, Jury landed 56 significant strikes over the course of three rounds.

    Johnson landed six.

    In his most recent outing against Diego Sanchez, Jury practically doubled his opponent's output, and Sanchez is famous for his "punches in bunches" fighting style. Jury is just too quick, too calculated and too smart to get suckered into a slugfest, and while his technical style may not always please the fans, it pleases his fight record and his brain, and that's ultimately what matters most.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    We often hear about the "new breed" of mixed martial artist who has trained all disciplines of the game—wrestling, striking and grappling—from day one.

    Myles Jury represents a shining example of this fighter of the future. He was a high school wrestling standout who started training Brazilian jiu-jitsu at the age of 13 and was competing in full-fledged MMA action by 15. Jury literally grew up fighting, and his results in the cage have reflected this lifelong devotion to the art of combat.

    He's relaxed wherever a fight may go, and he never puts himself at risk to find the finish. His offense comes in the flow of the fight, and he seizes his opportunities as they arise. Add in his excellent camp at Alliance MMA, which houses studs like Phil Davis, Dominick Cruz and Alexander Gustafsson, and it's clear that Jury's UFC rise is nowhere near its peak.

    For the 25-year-old combatant, all the potential is there. He just needs to keep learning and growing, knocking down opponents as the UFC lines them up.

    So far, so good.

     

    Overall

    75/100

6. Eddie Alvarez

16 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center
    Record: 25-3 (14 knockouts, 7 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Michael Chandler (Dec) Bellator 106
    Def. Patricky Freire (KO), Bellator 76
    Def. Shinya Aoki (TKO), Bellator 66

    Wrestling

    17/25

    As a high school wrestler that transitioned directly into MMA, Eddie Alvarez has never truly fallen prey to strong wrestlers and has consistently gotten the better of inexperienced or otherwise subpar foes. In his early efforts in Bellator, he regularly found success with his wrestling, with his most impressive effort coming opposite on-again-off-again UFC fighter Josh Neer, whom he took down repeatedly before finishing with a standing rear-naked choke.

    Of course, that all came well before he faced Michael Chandler. While Alvarez stuffed many of Chandler's takedowns, he still found himself on his back often, which proved him to be good, but not necessarily great, when it comes to wrestling.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    For better or worse, Alvarez is an absolute gunslinger on the ground. He expertly uses his crafty submission attack and ground-and-pound to set up guard passes. You will be hard-pressed to find fights that hit the mat where he doesn't end up perched on an opponent's chest or hanging off his back.

    That aggression can, at times, work against him. While he has the savvy to get away with it more often than not, against particularly formidable grapplers like Shinya Aoki, his recklessness has cost him a couple of fights.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Alvarez is probably the single most underrated striker in MMA. His fast, accurate hands challenge assumptions about MMA's lack of boxing fluidity and grace, putting the sweet in a science often described as brutal business.

    From his footwork to his head movement to his working angles to his manipulation of distance, if opponents opt to try to fight at striking range, they will almost certainly lose. We saw him rearrange the hard-swinging Michael Chandler's face in both their fights, and he absolutely flummoxed formidable counter-puncher Pat Curran with masterful level-changing and near-flawless use of angles.

    In 10 years, against a wide range of opponents and techniques, he's never faltered on his feet. That's pretty impressive. Alvarez has such a smart, methodical attack that he is nearly unhittable when he is free to move—which is good because his chin has turned brittle as his career has progressed. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    The good and the bad go hand in hand with Alvarez.

    His malleable chin has become something of a running joke in Bellator broadcasts, but the grittiness and mental toughness that allow him to come back from danger is a thing of beauty. His killer instinct makes him genuinely dangerous, but he sometimes goes too hard after opponents, putting himself in a disadvantageous position if they survive.

    With Alvarez's skills, experience and cajones, those double-edged swords work out just fine. Alvarez gets nicks and cuts when he's not careful, but most likely, it's his opponent who emerges with the gaping wounds. While he could certainly fight smarter, he would lose too much in the transformation. He succeeds because he's Eddie Alvarez, not in spite of it. 

     

    Overall

    75/100

5. Josh Thomson

17 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 35   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: American Kickboxing Academy
    Record: 20-6 (5 knockouts, 9 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    TBD v. Michael Johnson, UFC on Fox 12 (July 26)
    Lost. Benson Henderson (Dec), UFC on Fox 10: Henderson v. Thomson
    Def. Nate Diaz (TKO), UFC on Fox 7: Henderson v. Melendez

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 1.92, Takedown Accuracy: 41%, Takedown Defense: 51%

    It's funny to think of the baby-faced Josh Thomson as a grizzled OG. But it's a status he's earned after more than a decade fighting at a very high level. 

    Thomson is a mainstay at the famed American Kickboxing Academy. Despite its striking-centric name, the gym is home to a collection of excellent wrestlers. And, as his array of trips and throws grows, you may soon want to add Thomson to that list.

    Coached by Olympian Daniel Cormier, Thomson is well prepared for whatever might come in the cage. The result of their partnership has been a notable improvement in Thomson. The fighter who was taken down repeatedly by Clay Guida and Tatsuya Kawajiri is no more, replaced by a fighter capable of holding his own with a beast like Benson Henderson. 

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 1.5

    For some fighters, every movement in the cage is labored, the connection between thought and action delayed, ever so slightly, creating a robotic like appearance. Thomson is different. A natural athlete, everything he does is rhythmic. A Thomson fight is more than an athletic contest. It's a dance.

    Although the two parted ways, acrimoniously, years and years ago, you can still see former UFC champion Frank Shamrock's influence on Thomson's game, particularly his grappling. He's dynamic both offensively and defensively.

    In a fight game still dominated by limited athletes, this gives Thomson enormous flexibility tactically. Against strong strikers without good grappling, he can focus his intent here. Conversely, against a strong grappler, like Gesias Cavalcante, Thomson has the wherewithal to defend himself and fire right back with submissions of his own.

    The result is a fighter with options—a truly dangerous pairing.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed: 2.58, Significant Strikes Absorbed: 1.87

    Unfortunately for Thomson, his most embarrassing moment as a professional fighter has been immortalized by the UFC, a permanent fixture in its hype video that precedes the main card in arenas around the country. But, while Yves Edwards' head kick may be hard to forget, forget it you must when considering Thomson's striking prowess.

    In the ensuing years, Thomson has become a very diverse and dangerous striker. Sophisticated even. He switches stances fluidly, throws punches in combinations and can astound with speedy kicks. 

    These are his real bread and butter. He throws kicks with dazzling speed and increasing variety. He has the quickness to get away with a one-off leg kick, but more often throws them as part of a combination of strikes, disguising his intent nicely. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    If a fighter, of all people, is talking about retirement, the end of the road is usually near. Often, they are the last to know, insisting that everything is fine, even as the wheels fall off and the odometer creeps ever upward. So there has to be some concern that Thomson sees the day he'll hang them up so clearly.

    It's a shame, because he's really never been better. His is a career that was quite clearly defined by human frailty. Thomson has battled injuries for years. Perhaps a pain-free moment or two is a worthy reward for a life in the fight game. If that's what he seeks, who could blame him?

    Yet the siren song of UFC gold is quite compelling. If he wants to continue fighting, and his body can hold up to the strain, he's perfectly positioned to do so. He's a gifted athlete, well coached and very smart in the cage. He has the skills to beat any fighter in the division on any given night.

     

    Overall

    75/100

4. Khabib Nurmagomedov

18 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 25   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Red Fury Fight Team/American Kickboxing Academy
    Record: 22-0 (7 knockouts, 7 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Rafael dos Anjos (Dec), UFC on Fox 11
    Def. Pat Healy (Dec), UFC 165
    Def. Abel Trujillo (Dec), UFC 160

     

    Wrestling 

    22/25

    Takedown Average: 7.09, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 83%

    Khabib Nurmagomedov has blitzed the UFC's lightweight division, overwhelming opponents with his remarkable wrestling attack.

    In his UFC debut against Kamal Shalorus, Nurmagomedov took the decorated Iranian wrestler and grappler down three times over the course of three rounds, giving up zero takedowns in return before finally sinking in a fight-ending rear-naked choke.  

    From there, things only became crazier and even more lopsided.

    In his next five UFC fights, Nurmagomedov landed 32 takedowns and gave up just two, one to Gleison Tibau (who weighs 181 pounds on fight night) and one to Abel Trujillo, both solid wrestlers in their own right. And while Trujillo earned a fancy feather for his cap in taking "The Golden Eagle" down, he got absolutely destroyed in the process. 

    Nurmagomedov secured a UFC-record 21 takedowns in 15 minutes against "Killa," shattering the previous mark of 16 takedowns set by Sean Sherk in a five-round fight against Hermes Franca at UFC 73 in July 2007. 

    As a two-time combat Sambo world champion and a black belt in Judo, the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) product utilizes a variety of suplexes, trips and throws that are simply too polished, aggressive and powerful for any 155-pounder to stop, and he is a master of tossing his foes to the mat and pinning them there for the bout's duration. 

    Despite fighting in a division littered with standout wrestlers, it's hard to imagine anyone dominating Nurmagomedov in this facet of the game as he advances his stellar MMA career. 

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Nurmagomedov's notched just one victory via submission in his UFC career, meaning his grappling is not quite as outstanding as his wrestling. But he's also faced three Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts in his six fights, so the chances to force a tapout were few and far between.

    While he hasn't tapped anybody since his UFC debut against Shalorus, Nurmagomedov has showcased a smothering top game and some smooth guard passes, getting past Rafael dos Anjos' defensive guard six times at UFC on Fox 11 and repeatedly establishing dominant positions against Pat Healy at UFC 165.

    Nurmagomedov is relentless and dynamic in his grappling just as he is in his wrestling, and his opponents are generally too busy fending off his guard passes and ground-and-pound to mount any significant offense of their own.

    The undefeated sensation has never been reversed on the ground, and he's never been in real danger of being submitted. The 2012 North American Grappling Association world champion, Nurmagomedov imposes his will inside the cage, dismantling his foes on the ground and leaving them broken and defeated.

     

    Striking

    16/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.63, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.59

    If Nurmagomedov has shown any weakness so far in his UFC run, it's in his striking game, where he remains raw and unpolished. He gets wild and loose with his stand-up, inadvisably leaping forward with strikes and leaving his defense wide open in the process.

    No fighter has been able to clip him mid-flurry yet, but as he continues to face better and better competition, the risk will heighten, and we may see Nurmagomedov sent to the canvas courtesy of a well-timed counter shot in the near future. 

    Once on the ground, however, Nurmagomedov's striking is absolutely terrifying. After dropping Thiago Tavares with a lunging left uppercut, Nurmagomedov jumped into the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt's guard, quickly passing to half guard and raining down savage elbows and hammerfists until the referee intervened. 

    It was quick and brutal, and it showcased just how devastating Nurmagomedov's power can be once he puts all the pieces together and learns how to harness this natural force into a refined, finished product. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Nurmagomedov knows where he's best, and he works tirelessly in pursuit of the takedown, attempting 72 takedowns in six UFC contests, an average of 12 per fight and four per round. 

    That's bonkers. 

    Making the situation worse for his opponents, Nurmagomedov is excellent at completing these attempts. He's not just spamming takedowns in hopes of actually landing one. He throws opponents around like grappling dummies and, so far, nobody has found a solution for this straightforward, power-based approach. 

    Fighting is in his blood, and Nurmagomedov has competed and excelled at a high level for more than half of his life, sometimes enlisting the help of non-human training partners to hone his skills. In the UFC, he skated past top-level competition in Dos Anjos with ease, but now the real test for Nurmagomedov begins.

    How will he perform against the Benson Hendersons and the Gilbert Melendezes of the sport—truly elite lightweights who are never lost wherever a fight may go? 

    That's the only remaining question mark lingering above Nurmagomedov's head at this point. If he proves he can eliminate an opponent at that level, it seems inevitable that he will become the UFC lightweight champion in short order. 

     

    Overall

    78/100

3. Gilbert Melendez

19 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32   Height: 5'9"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu/El Nino Sports
    Record: 22-3 (11 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Diego Sanchez (Dec) UFC 166
    Lost. Benson Henderson (Dec), UFC on Fox 7: Henderson v. Melendez
    Def. Josh Thomson (Dec) Strikeforce: Barnett v. Cormier

     

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average 1.94, Takedown Accuracy:48%, Takedown Defense: 72%

    It was adapt or die for former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez. Once known for his relentless pace, hard-charging takedowns and brutal ground-and-pound, today, only the pace remains. The evolving nature of the sport, including an influx of wrestlers with even better pedigrees than his own, forced a change in the way he did business. Takedowns no longer came easy. Defense was more sophisticated, the cost of failure more dramatic. Wrestling became an afterthought—for Melendez and many others who skirted the Zuffa and pre-Zuffa eras.

    That's not to say Melendez doesn't have the ability to put someone on the mat. Occasionally, he'll surprise us all with a double-leg along the fence. More often, however, he puts his opponent down after catching a kick to the leg or body, something at which he's become quite adept. Most importantly, his takedown defense is such that he can mostly dictate where the fight will take place. At the highest levels of MMA, that's incredibly valuable. 

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

    Last year, Melendez was awarded his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu by Cesar Gracie, the culmination of years on the mat with some of the best submission fighters in the entire sport—men like Nick and Nate Diaz and Jake Shields. It's a skill set you'd never guess he possessed if you'd only seen his MMA fights. 

    On the ground, Melendez turns his focus to his very dangerous ground-and-pound, including hard punches and slashing elbows. Submissions are no afterthought for Melendez—that would be overstating their value to his arsenal. He's only attempted a single one this entire decade, a half-hearted guillotine choke against Jorge Masvidal at the end of the first round of their Strikeforce bout in 2011. Instead, where his grappling prowess comes into play is on the defensive. He's never been submitted in an MMA fight, despite battling with superb ground fighters like Shinya Aoki and Rumina Sato.    

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.68, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.06

    Melendez has one of the most basic striking attacks in all of mixed martial arts. For 15 or 25 minutes, you'll rarely see more than three techniques—a powerful jab, a right hand and a low leg kick to keep people honest. That's it. And yet, despite the complete and utter predictability, it's an attack that wins him fight after fight. Like the power running game in football, it's one thing to know it's coming. It's quite another to stop it.

    For Melendez, it all begins and ends with his jab. He leans much of his weight forward, making it a particularly compelling punch. In fact, because Melendez is so far forward, it takes something off of the right hand that's going to follow it like day follows night. He can't sit back and put all he has into the right hand, which prevents it from being a true fight-ender. But the trade-off seems to work for him. His right hand still packs quite a wallop and his jab is the best in the lightweight division.

    It's an approach, however, that's not without its faults. Most notably, Melendez can be knocked out of rhythm by leg kicks. Josh Thomson, in particular, had great success with this, stopping a surging Melendez with kicks that forced him to reset and start all over. 

    Melendez also frequently drops his right hand to waist level before lunging forward with it. Sometimes, this is to throw a sneaky uppercut from a distance. Other times, it's to put just a little something extra on his right straight. In either scenario, it's a vulnerability waiting to be exploited—and one that may keep him from ever ascending to the top of the lightweight ladder.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Melendez has departed his old home with the Cesar Gracie team to open his own gym in San Francisco. But, at heart, a Cesar Gracie disciple he'll remain. In some ways, that's a great thing. Although hardly mirror images, he and the Diaz brothers have ridden their solid boxing games to the mountain's summit. All have competed for UFC gold. All have fallen short.

    Is there something fundamentally flawed about their approach? Would they be better served mixing in more kicks, attempting more takedowns, surprising someone once in a while? Melendez remains the team's best hope to earn the sport's ultimate prize. But, nearly 12 years into his career, the clock is ticking. Not just on his own legacy—but on his entire team's.  

     

    Overall

    78/100

2. Benson Henderson

20 of 21

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 5'9"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: MMA Lab
    Record: 21-3 (2 knockouts, 9 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Rustam Khabilov (Sub) UFC Fight Night: Henderson v. Khabilov
    Def. Josh Thomson (Dec), UFC on Fox: Henderson v. Thomson
    Lost. Anthony Pettis (Sub), UFC 164

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average 2.62 Takedown Accuracy: 48% Takedown Defense: 61%

    Benson Henderson finished fifth in the 2006 NAIA wrestling championships at 157 pounds, part of a Dana College team that won it all that year. That's not a bad wrestling accomplishment—but compared to others in the sport, including a handful of NCAA champions and Olympians, it's a bit on the paltry side. 

    But just like the occasional sixth-round draft pick goes on to become Hall of Famer Tom Brady, some wrestlers don't peak until well after their last fraternity kegger. Henderson is one of those guys.

    Inside the Octagon, he's fearsome. Taking advantage of his size and tree-trunk legs, he likes to push his opponents into the cage. From there, he has a solid Greco-Roman game, softening opponents with a variety of strikes before depositing them on their backsides with a sneaky foot trip or quick double-leg takedown.  

     

    Grappling

    21/25

    Submission Average: 0.9

    Henderson is  a notable submission artist in his own right, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a lineage tracing back to Royce Gracie himself. But that's not truly where he excels. It's only when things are at their worst that Henderson is at his best.   

    He's able to escape what should be certain doom, over and over again, with the combined power of athleticism and technique. It's a formidable tandem.

    His flexibility and balance are astounding, allowing him to weather extreme danger, like Anthony Pettis hanging on his back for much of a round in his final fight in the dearly departed WEC. Likewise, he managed to fend off attempts from Clay Guida and Jim Miller as well, always reacting to danger with the perfect counter. If getting into trouble is a weakness, it's one he mitigates with his uncanny survival instincts. 

    A similar skill set helps him return to his feet when he ends up on the mat. Fights are often won and lost in the several seconds of chaos that follow a failed submission or takedown. And no one is better in a scramble than Ben Henderson. 

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.71  Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.46

    UFC announcer Mike Goldberg once compared Henderson's legs to those of an NFL running back. For once, Goldberg wasn't exaggerating in the slightest. 

    In a sport dictated by weight cutting, all superfluous muscle has to go. The result is typically large upper bodies on top of chicken legs. Henderson, with his gargantuan stems, is defying convention—and really kicking the heck out of people. These two things may not be unrelated.

    His kicks give Henderson an advantage at distance. In the clinch, he scores well with strong knees and elbows. The trick is cornering him and engaging in the no-man's land where neither technique works well. With his back against the cage and the leather flying, Henderson's survival instincts kick in. Almost every fight features at least one wild exchange. With hands best described as mediocre, they're battles Henderson doesn't always win. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    21/25

    Henderson has found a real comfort zone at the MMA Lab in Arizona. The fighters and coaches he's surrounded himself with seem more like family than a collection of mercenaries. That's a good thing. 

    Coach John Crouch, a training partner of Royce Gracie's in years gone by, is as old-school as they come. But that doesn't mean he's inflexible or living in the distant past. Instead, the team is a fount of ingenuity. Take Henderson's jab to the leg against Nate Diaz in 2012, for example. Henderson is constantly adding new wrinkles and techniques. It's an approach that should keep him viable for years to come. 

     

    Overall

    80/100

1. Anthony Pettis

21 of 21

    David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 72"
    Fight camp: Roufusport
    Record: 17-2 (8 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Benson Henderson (Sub), UFC 164
    Def. Donald Cerrone (TKO), UFC on Fox 6: Johnson v. Dodson
    Def. Joe Lauzon (KO), UFC 144

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 1.44, Takedown Accuracy: 76%, Takedown Defense: 66%

    It appeared, at least momentarily, like his wrestling game would prove Anthony Pettis' undoing when swimming with the sharks in the UFC. It worked well enough for him in the smaller WEC. But when he lost his very first fight in the Octagon to perennial gatekeeper Clay Guida after being taken down five times in a three-round fight, well, alarm bells sounded. 

    And then, remarkably, the universe intervened on his behalf. Wrestling sensation Ben Askren joined Pettis and the Duke Roufus team in Milwaukee. It's a move that has paid dividends for both. When he won the UFC title two years later against Benson Henderson, Pettis stuffed all three of his rival's takedowns. Wrestling may never be a strength for Pettis. But it no longer appears it will be his undoing. 

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.7

    It's almost unfair that a fighter as gifted on his feet as Pettis would also have this good of a guard. Because his striking is so sophisticated, most opponents will be looking to take him down. While that seems, on the surface, to be the lesser of two evils, it's a decision that can have immediate consequences.  

    When the fight does hit the mat, Pettis is not fooling around. He has no intention of holding on for a referee stand-up. Instead, Pettis is in constant pursuit of submission. His hips are fluid and fast, and he has a very effective triangle choke. His fight-finishing armbar against Henderson confirmed what his coaches had been telling the world for years—Pettis is dangerous wherever the fight takes him.   

     

    Striking

    23/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.02  Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.45

    Pettis is a striker always in pursuit of the spectacular. By that, I don't just mean the truly jaw-dropping moves like his iconic "Showtime" kick against Henderson or his amazing capoeira styling on Shane Roller. That stuff is special. But even a typical Pettis fight involves a relentless pursuit of the big knockout. 

    Pettis is a headhunter, plain and simple. With respect to the great Mirko Cro Cop, Pettis has the most dangerous left head kick in MMA history. Everyone who steps into the cage with him must have it on their mind constantly. If not, their night will end in a flash—just ask Joe Lauzon. That's not to suggest Pettis is a one-trick Nick. He smartly uses his opponent's focus on the head kick to open up opportunities to attack the body. 

    Defensively, he's very smart and patient. His footwork is multifaceted. Against a grappler, he uses it smartly to avoid the takedown. Against an aggressive striker, Pettis uses his fleet feet to keep at a distance, baiting them into his speedy counter-punching combinations and, of course, his head kick. The result of this science and speed is one of the most formidable strikers in all of MMA.  

      

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    At this point, you have to be a little concerned about Pettis' injury history. He missed most of 2012 with a variety of ailments and has now pulled out of several fights with knee injuries. I've yet to see it bleed over into his in-cage performance. But eventually, those physical ailments will add up, perhaps costing him the superlative athleticism that makes much of his exciting style possible. That would be a real shame.

    Right now, however, Pettis is right where he needs to be. At just 27, he's in the conversation when discussing the best fighters in the sport. His coach, Duke Roufus, seems to be able to get the best out of him. He is both prepared for his individual opponents and improving his basic skills and techniques. That's a pretty sturdy foundation for continued growth as a martial artist.  

     

    Overall

    83/100

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