B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 20 Welterweights in Mixed Martial Arts

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 20, 2014

B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 20 Welterweights in Mixed Martial Arts

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    For the first time in years, the welterweight division is wide open. After almost a decade on top, Georges St-Pierre has finally relinquished his death grip on the weight class, leaving the sport and his championship belt in the wake of injury and discontent. 

    While we'll miss one of the sport's all-time greats, his departure allows a new crop of fighters to contend for UFC gold. Before his body betrayed him and his interest waned, St-Pierre was like MMA's David, the perfect prototype of what a professional fighter should be. 

    He was spectacular standing and tactically brilliant, with the best wrestling in the sport's short history and a bevy of slick submissions. His heirs, the men who are now contending for the top spot, lack his polish. They might equal or exceed him in certain areas, but no one is the total package the way the Canadian star was. 

    It's those flaws that make things so interesting. When St-Pierre was at his best, the result of a title fight was a foregone conclusion. Today you can see the title being passed around like a hot potato. Right now it's in Johny Hendricks' hands—but there are several guys who are more than capable of taking it away.

    Whether that resonates with the fans remains to be seen. The transcendent St-Pierre was MMA's best box-office attraction. The promise of compelling fights between lesser lights has, thus far, not proven up to the challenge economically. The first pay-per-view championship fight between his successors—UFC 171's showdown between Hendricks and veteran journeyman Robbie Lawlerwas a bust with the fans.

    Keep in mind that this list is not a ranking based on past performance. Instead, these ratings are a snapshot of where these athletes stand right now compared to their welterweight peers. We've scored each fighter on a 100-point scale based on their abilities in four key categories integral to MMA success. In the result of a tie, our team decided subjectively where to place a fighter in the rankings. You can read more about how the ratings are determined here

    Disagree with our order or analysis? Let us know about it in the comments.

20. Josh Burkman

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    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Age: 33  Height: 5'10"   Reach: 73.5"
    Fight camp: The Pit Elevated Fight Team
    Record: 27-10 (10 submissions, 7 knockouts) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Tyler Stinson (KO), WSOF 9 
    Lost to Steve Carl (Sub), WSOF 6
    Def. Jon Fitch (Sub), WSOF 3

    Wrestling

    18/25

    After placing second in the Utah state wrestling championships as a 171-pound high school senior, Burkman went off to college but chose football over wrestling, becoming a JUCO All-American running back as a sophomore at Dixie State College. How he would have done had he decided to pursue wrestling full time is anybody's guess, but the talent was there, and his natural athleticism continues to make him a fearsome wrestler in the realm of MMA.

    There isn't much subtlety in his game, though he has added some nifty trips and throws into his repertoire. His attack is all power—his double blast is ferocious, and he once slammed an opponent (subscription required), Sam Morgan, into unconsciousness at The Ultimate Fighter 2 finale.

    Now fighting under the World Series of Fighting banner, Burkman continues to rely on his wrestling to get the job done. While he's still prone to getting overaggressive on his feet and being countered with a takedown, wrestling won't be the reason he loses fights against anyone without the most cauliflowered of cauliflower ears.  

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Burkman's grappling game is odd, not because it's goofy or unconventional, but because it's wildly inconsistent for such a time-tested veteran of the sport. He can dominate guys on the ground with his smothering top game, pounding away with ground-and-pound and setting up guard passes, but he's also susceptible to submissions.

    It's strange to see, because he clearly understands the grappling game. He almost always defends multiple submissions before succumbing to the final hold, but the end result is the same: He taps out.

    Against Dustin Hazelett at The Ultimate Fighter 7 finale, Burkman successfully and marvelously defended an omoplata, two anaconda chokes and a guillotine choke before getting caught in one of the most beautiful armbars in UFC history. Burkman's grappling game is good, but it seems to break at inopportune times, giving opponents the submission after he had worked so hard to avoid it.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    From an analytical standpoint, Burkman's striking game offers little in the way of technical brilliance, but his power is fearsome, and that's enough to keep opponents cautious and reserved when they step into the cage with him.

    He possesses the classic "I'm really a wrestler" stand-up game. He throws everything with power and is constantly searching for the finish with haymakers, something that definitely works from time to time.

    During his UFC career, he ate more shots than he served, but he's never been knocked out in 37 career fights, which is proof of his solid chin.

    Overall, his striking is decidedly average. It's not flashy, but his hands are incredibly potent when they do collide with their target.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Burkman's inability to remain smart and cautious on the ground has single-handedly prevented him from becoming a fixture at the top of his division, as he's consistently halted his own momentum by getting submitted in fights that might have turned things around.

    Whether it's a mental block or he was simply playing beyond his potential is unclear, but there's no denying his penchant for developing a serious case of the hiccups on the big stage when the stakes are at their highest.

    Burkman represents a solid all-around fighter with his formidable wrestling and powerful hands. You're not going to beat him unless you're prepared for a grueling battle. He'll gladly go down swinging, and this kill-or-be-killed mentality makes him an entertaining and electric welterweight—one who is popular with fans and promoters alike.

     

    Overall

    62/100

19. Mike Pyle

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Age: 38  Height: 6'1"  Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Syndicate MMA
    Record: 26-9-1 (6 knockouts, 16 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. TJ Waldburger (KO), UFC 170
    Lost to Matt Brown (KO), UFC Fight Night 26
    Def. Rick Story (SD), UFC 160

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Takedown Average: 2.27, Takedown Accuracy: 37%, Takedown Defense: 71%

    A longtime MMA veteran with a Brazilian jiu-jitsu background, Mike Pyle has a wrestling game that is exactly what you would expect. He can easily and consistently exploit the inexperienced and inept, but will get soundly beaten by somebody with an actual collegiate background or an aptitude for the sport.

    This was on full display in two of his most recent fights. He dominated the decent (but just decent) TJ Waldburger in truly lopsided fashion, based largely on his ability to take him down four times. Meanwhile, Pyle nearly lost a split decision to Rick Story, who went after him with a wrestling-focused attack.

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 1.7

    Using video tapes and a dummy named Bob to teach himself grappling early on in his career, Pyle was able to get the better of regional tough guys with his decent Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills. An unsustainable 16 of his first 19 MMA wins came via submission, largely over forgotten relics of MMA's dark ages.

    In the years since, he has continued to be successful with his grappling but hasn't come close to imitating that kind of sustained dominance. Much like with his wrestling, he will make the bad look terrible but has proved to be vulnerable to high-level grapplers like Jake Shields.

     

    Striking

    16/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.84, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.72

    Explosive strikers have gotten the better of Pyle literally since Day 1. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rory Markham, Jake Ellenberger, Rory MacDonald and, most recently, Matt Brown have all beaten him with hard-punching, press-the-action approaches.

    Just when it seemed Pyle had stopped growing as a fighter, he suddenly found a well of power striking in him, scoring knockouts in four of his five most recent wins. His greatest tools are his knees and punches in the clinch, which he used to knock out Ricardo Funch and James Head in less than two minutes.

    On top of that, he showed suddenly scary ground-and-pound against Waldburger that simply didn't exist for the first 15 years of his career. This old dog, contrary to popular belief, has a bunch of new tricks.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    It's easy to look past Pyle. He's been a journeyman for so long that it's surprising to see he's still around every time he takes a bout of note. But he isn't just drifting; he's actually growing, both as a fighter and, remarkably, as an athlete.

    His inability to handle high-level competition at any given point in his career is the one thing that hasn't changed. Time and again, he falls into the game of his opponents. He got overexcited against Shields and was taken down and choked out in the first round in EliteXC. He was unable to escape from Ellenberger's wrestling. He let Matt Brown maul him.

    Pyle is the classic cagey veteran and is suddenly a legitimate threat to end a fight either by knockout or submission. That makes him a great gatekeeper for young fighters in the division—but he shouldn't be mistaken for a contender.

     

    Overall

    64/100

18. Jordan Mein

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 24  Height: 6'0"  Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: Canadian Martial Arts Centre
    Record: 28-9 (15 knockouts, 7 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Hernani Perpetuo (SD), UFC on Fox 11
    Lost to Matt Brown (TKO), UFC on Fox 7
    Def. Dan Miller (TKO), UFC 158

    Wrestling

    14/25

    Takedown Average: 0.89, Takedown Accuracy: 80%, Takedown Defense: 54%

    Jordan Mein is not a wrestling specialist. He doesn't boast any Division I wrestling accolades and will never be labeled as a "grinder."

    While this means his fights are generally exciting for striking fanatics, it also means that high-level wrestlers will take him to the mat and pull him out of his comfort zone. We saw him fail to defend multiple takedowns against Tyron Woodley in Strikeforce, and Tyler Stinson and Dan Miller also planted him on his back with relative ease. 

    In his most recent UFC bout against Hernani Perpetuo, though, we saw the evolution of "Young Gun." The Canadian was able to take Perpetuo down four times in four attempts—with purpose. He used the takedowns to set up big ground-and-pound shots, bloodying and pummeling his foe in the process. 

    This fight showed that Mein's wrestling is improving, but until he shows that he can hang with an elite wrestler, it will remain a cause for concern.

     

    Grappling

    15/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    While Mein choked out quite a few opponents on the regional scene early in his professional MMA career, his grappling game is built on positional control and defending submissions. As he's grown as a fighter, he's become quite brilliant at the latter.

    In his UFC debut, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Dan Miller stepped over for a sneaky, lightning-quick armbar, and Mein escaped beautifully. In Mein's sophomore UFC appearance, Brown slapped on a tight triangle choke and a power guillotine, but Young Gun defended those in textbook fashion as well.

    Throw in Perpetuo's failed toe-hold attempt late in Mein's most recent Octagon appearance at UFC on Fox 11, and it's clear that while he does not look to finish an opponent with submissions, he won't let them end him, either. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.98, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.82

    Mein accepted his first kickboxing match at the age of 11, and this longtime devotion to the art of striking is apparent in his MMA bouts. This is where he enforces his will inside the cage.

    He works the body like few in the game today, and his elbows are a thing of beauty. Whether standing or on the ground, he unleashes ferocious elbows, such as the ones that ended both Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos and UFC veteran Forrest Petz in brutal fashion.

    Even in his darkest moments, Mein gives fans glimpses of a bright future. While he was tuned up and eventually stopped by Brown at UFC on Fox 7, he found success in that fight with his devastating body shots and all-around polished attack. 

    He is patient on the feet and rarely overpursues the finish, making him unusually disciplined for such a young fighter. He bides his time, getting a feel for his opponent's rhythm before striking with accuracy and power when the opening presents itself.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, what it takes to succeed at a very high level is not a secret. If you want to get really, really good at something, you start practicing at a young age. Think Tiger Woods. Think Mozart. Think Mein in the sport of MMA. 

    While my tongue is planted firmly in cheek, that's certainly the path the Mein family intended young Jordan to walk. Encouraged by his father, he began fighting in his youth, and he's developed into one of the best fighters on the planet at the ripe age of 24. 

    Whether he ends up being the next Tiger or Todd Marinovich remains to be seen. He's still evolving and improving every time we see him in the cage, and there's no telling just how high his ceiling is. As it stands, he's already an incredible talent, and if he can fix some deficiencies in his takedown and striking defenses, Mein could very well become a top-10 welterweight moving forward. 

     

    Overall

    66/100

17. Rousimar Palhares

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 34  Height: 5'8"  Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Team Nogueira
    Record: 16-6 (0 knockouts, 13 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Steve Carl (Sub), WSOF 9
    Def. Mike Pierce (Sub), UFC Fight Night 29
    Lost to Hector Lombard (KO), UFC on FX 6

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Takedown Average: 3.93, Takedown Accuracy: 45%, Takedown Defense: 0%

    Rousimar Palhares isn't a wrestler—not really. He has never sported the singlet, and there's never been a hint of him exploding into a single, turning the corner and driving to the finish.

    With his action figure-like body, however, he can freely push, pull and squeeze opponents in ways that will put them on their back. It isn't pretty, but it's effective.

    Worth noting is his zero percent takedown defense rate. He is so confident in his grappling that if anybody attempts to bring the fight to the ground, he will let them. That's not great wrestling defense, but it's pretty good chutzpah. 

     

    Grappling

    23/25

    Submission Average: 4.1

    While Palhares actually has a diverse submission game, he is all about the leglocks. When he gets hold of an opponent's ankle, that is almost certainly the end of the fight.

    He makes no secret of his intent. No one goes into a fight with him confused about what to expect. His opponents know exactly what he's going to do—they simply can't stop him from doing it. He is just that goodan old-fashioned Ken Shamrock-style leglock man.

    He has been able to force taps to kneebars and heel hooks in 10 of his 22 professional MMA bouts, including recent wins over solid ground fighters in Steve Carl and Mike Pierce.

    At this point, Palhares grabbing a leg is the most fearsome sight in all of mixed martial arts. The speed an opponent can go from "just fine" to "completely crippled" is truly scary.

     

    Striking

    12/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 1.75, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.04

    Palhares isn't the worst striker in the world, but he is definitely below average. Whenever he is forced to contend on his feet, he often looks the fool, and he has been beaten standing by almost every opponent who has managed to stay on his feet.

    All of his three most recent losses have come by way of knockout, and while there isn't much shame in being put to sleep by Hector Lombard or getting roughed up by Dan Henderson, he was also beaten standing by grappling specialist Dan Miller. That is a telling indictment if there ever was one.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Palhares has all the tools to succeed but remains his own worst enemy. While fighting is the hurt game, most professionals would prefer not to end anyone's career. He seemingly has no such qualms. He doesn't just torque a dangerous leglock until the referee intervenes; he holds on for a split second after the fight is over.

    With a leglock, that can be the difference between temporary pain and permanent surgery.

    Many have tried to make sense of his mild-mannered sadism in the cage—his failed drug test in 2012, his frequent rule-breaking, the allegations of injuring his training partners and the testimony that he is generally uncoachable.

    At this point, it's hardly worth the effort. It is, as they say, what it is. His behavior has cost him his UFC career already. While he's found a home in World Series of Fighting, additional incidents might make finding a willing opponent—or athletic commission—next to impossible.

     

    Overall

    66/100

16. Kelvin Gastelum

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 22  Height: 5'9"  Reach: 71.5"
    Fight camp: Yuma United MMA
    Record: 8-0 (3 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Rick Story (SD), UFC 171
    Def. Brian Melancon (Sub), UFC Fight Night 27
    Def. Uriah Hall (SD), TUF 17 Finale

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 2.31, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 50%

    On Season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, Kelvin Gastelum overwhelmed his housemates by taking them down and pounding them out or submitting them, earning a spot against Uriah Hall in the finale for his efforts.

    In that fight, he took Hall down a few times, but we saw for the first time a hole in his wrestling game. His takedown defense was not so hot against the larger, stronger, more natural middleweight. Although he is primarily a striker, Hall took Gastelum down twice in three attempts, nearly stealing the decision in the process. 

    After eking out a split-decision win in that fight to win the show, Gastelum dropped to welterweight and has not given up another takedown since.

    He loves initiating takedowns from the clinch, and his blast double is a thing of beauty. He was a state championship wrestler in high school, and his success inside the cage will continue to rely on his ability to take his opponents down. We don't have a huge sample size to work with at the moment, but so far, so good.

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    Gastelum is a purple belt in 10th Planet jiu-jitsu, a wacky system of Brazilian jiu-jitsu popularized by "Friend of Joe Rogan" Eddie Bravo. The young fighter fiercely searches for submissions, and he is an opportunist when a submission presents itself. Give up your neck for one second, and Gastelum is on it, squeezing until the referee saves you from unconsciousness.

    His grappling game was tested by an experienced grappler in his most recent bout against Rick Story, and the results were mixed. While the young welterweight ultimately won the ground battle against Story, "Horror" was able to reverse him and pass his guard on a few occasions, even threatening with a rear-naked choke at one point.

    At age 22, Gastelum is good on the ground, but he still has plenty to learn before he can be considered elite. 

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.21, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.96

    Story blasted him and dropped him to the canvas during their UFC 171 showdown, exposing the fact that Gastelum will need to tighten up his striking defense if he hopes to make a serious run in the division.

    The Ultimate Fighter winner gets hit. A lot. That's going to become a problem as he continues to move up the ladder on his way to welterweight title contention.

    Offensively, he packs some serious power. He knocked down Brian Melancon with vicious punches along the cage in his 170-pound debut, and he rocked Story with a head kick, proving that his power is perhaps more potent in his natural weight class.

    Yet, perhaps because of inexperience, he leaves a lot of holes open. He gets a little wide and loopy with his punches at times, giving his opponents plenty of space to crack him with an effective counter. He's still learning and evolving, but right now, his striking game can use some improvements. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Gastelum is better than the sum of his parts. While he's not overwhelming in any one area of the fight game, he blends it all together perfectly and maximizes his potential in every fight.

    That's special. He's a shy dude outside the Octagon, but once the lights are on and the stage is set, he turns into a 5'9" wrecking machine who just doesn't slow down. He's drawn comparisons to UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, and you can see that in his demeanor and approach.

    Gastelum is all heart, guts and determination, and this attitude, combined with his ever-improving skill set, makes for a promising young fighter who looks primed to do big things in the welterweight division. 

     

    Overall

    68/100

15. Tarec Saffiedine

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    Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

    Age: 27  Height: 5'9"  Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Team Quest
    Record: 15-3 (1 knockout, 5 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Hyun-Gyu Lim (UD), UFC Fight Night 34
    Def. Nate Marquardt (UD), Strikeforce: Marquardt vs. Saffiedine
    Def. Roger Bowling (UD), Strikeforce: Rousey vs. Kaufman

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 0.46, Takedown Accuracy: 38%, Takedown Defense: 86%

    Tarec Saffiedine is at his best when he's standing up. You know it, I know it, and he knows it.

    You'll rarely see him go for a takedown. If he does, it's either a tactical move to seal up a close round or a way to conserve energy during a grueling fight. He can beat basically anybody when they're at arm's length, and he looks to keep them there—and no closer.

    His wrestling defense, of course, is the bigger question. He wants to keep things standing, and for the most part, he can shake off average fighters, even when they know their only prayer is to take him down.

    The one time, however, he fought a high-level wrestler—an up-and-comer (at the time) by the name of Tyron Woodleyhe was unable to deal with the clinch work and takedowns. That kind of flaw is often the difference between a journeyman and a contender in such a stacked division.

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

    Saffiedine scored five submission wins in the first seven fights of his career. Crazy, right? That might have been a lifetime's worth of grappling for him, as he has generally shown little to no ground game since.

    His top game is essentially that of a bull-rider. He is looking to hang on for as long as he can, nothing more, nothing less. His offense is rudimentary. The ground is not a safe place—and he knows it.

    When he is underneath, he pretends to have a dangerous, active guard. In reality, he can do little more than work his way to the cage and try to get up. In a division where almost all the top fighters come from a grappling background or own very good wrestling, his inability to keep opponents honest on the ground will haunt him once he starts facing top competition.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.35, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.86

    Few fighters have as crisp a striking game as Tarec Saffiedine. His signature move is his super-accurate leg kick, which he famously used to give Nate Marquardt a career-altering limp. His kicks are as powerful as they are precise, allowing him to savage an opponent's thigh with little difficulty and even less risk.

    Equally impressive is his pinpoint-accurate jab. He has brilliant mastery of range and remarkable timing, which allows him to consistently stifle and even drop fighters when they attempt any sort of offensive effort.

    On top of all that, he is one of the best in the division at volume striking. We have seen him land more than 100 significant strikes on three separate occasions, including the absurd performance he put on against Scott Smith in Strikeforce, where he landed 113 strikes in 15 minutes (which averages out to 7.53 strikes per minute).

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    Saffiedine is a savvy striker whose inherently low-risk, high-reward and low-effort, high-impact style translates well against almost any hypothetical opponent.

    While the big question for his in-cage performance going forward centers on the evolution of his ground game, the biggest question for the Belgian's overall career is simpler: Can he ever get healthy?

    Since Strikeforce's dissolution, he has fought just once, beating Hyun-Gyu Lim in January. Inactivity and injuries rarely shake out as a positive thing for a fighter's career—at age 27, however, he still has time to buck the trend.

    We won't see how good Sponge really is until he gets back into the cage and stays there. Here's hoping he can do it soon.

     

    Overall

    68/100

14. Demian Maia

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 36  Height: 6'0"  Reach: 72"
    Fight camp: Wand Fight Team
    Record: 19-6 (3 knockouts, 9 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Alexander Yakovlev (UD), The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 3 Finale
    Lost to Rory MacDonald (UD), UFC 170
    Lost to Jake Shields (SD), UFC Fight Night: Shields vs. Maia

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 3.05, Takedown Accuracy: 29%, Takedown Defense: 68%

    If at first he doesn't succeed in taking you down, Demian Maia will try, try again.

    Despite boasting just a 29 percent takedown accuracy, he averages 3.05 takedowns per 15 minutes, or roughly one per round in a three-round fight.

    Is that good? It's horribly inefficient, but it still results in him securing a dominant position on the ground, which is all that matters, because once there, he's as good as it gets.

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.2

    This is what Maia does best. It's practically all he does well, actually.

    There are Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and there are competition-worthy, top-shelf Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and he falls into the latter category. Even among great grapplers, he stands out, and that's just scary whenever you throw him in the cage against an opponent with novice grappling skills.

    He began his UFC career on a bonkers five-fight winning streak (all via submission) in the middleweight division. That streak was unsustainable—after all, every opponent would drill for weeks just to survive and do everything in his power to avoid trouble on the mat.

    And yet, despite this active avoidance, Maia's grappling excellence looms over every fight, even nearly seven years later. While he has not been submitting opponents with the same frequency as he did earlier in his career, there is no denying his potential to slap on a fight-ending choke at any moment. 

     

    Striking

    13/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 1.83, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.95

    When you watch Maia strike, he looks like a guy who practiced a sport that completely disallows striking of any kind. Which is exactly the case. Sometimes appearances aren't deceiving after all.

    His Brazilian jiu-jitsu game is so good that opponents will move heaven and earth not to do battle with him on the ground. That has forced him to develop a rudimentary striking game, but describing it that way is a disservice to other rudimentary strikers.

    His stand-up game is sloppy both offensively and defensively. He got knocked out by Nate Marquardt in 20 seconds, and he was beaten to the punch consistently by Jake Shields, who is practically the American Maia.

    Believe it or not, he's actually improved dramatically on his feet since his first UFC bout. But Maia is still one of the worst strikers in the division. At age 36, it's just too late to fix this area of his game. He has made his striking serviceable, and that's probably as good as it's going to get.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Since learning from Marquardt that training hard to improve his striking did not, in fact, make him a kickboxer, Maia became one of the best game-planners in MMA.

    His secret? Push for a takedown. If that first attempt fails? Shoot again. Still didn't get it? Eff it! Shoot again!

    He should probably just wear a gi to the cage—his strategy is that obvious. And when you're one of the best grapplers the sport has ever seen, why try anything else? He knows where he can win, and he does everything he can to give himself that opportunity.

     

    Overall

    68/100

13. Dong-Hyun Kim

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    Andre Penner/Associated Press

    Age: 32  Height: 6'1"  Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: Team MAD
    Record: 19-2-1 (1) (8 knockouts, 1 submission) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. John Hathaway (KO), TUF: China Finale
    Def. Erick Silva (KO), UFC Fight Night 29
    Def. Siyar Bahadurzada (UD), UFC on Fuel TV 8

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 3.13, Takedown Accuracy: 47%, Takedown Defense: 81%

    In America, Dong-Hyun Kim's nickname is “Stun Gun.” It's nice and straightforward and rhymes with Hyun. It has, as they say, a ring to it.

    In South Korea, however, he has two additional monikers.

    The first is “Cicada Kim.” He has, it seems, an ability to stick to his opponents the way a cicada sticks to a tree. The other is “Ant Hell Kim,” a reference to a form of torture where someone is buried underground up to their neck and left to be nibbled on by ants.

    Suffice it to say, when fans are coming up with multiple creative nicknames to describe your ability to dominate opponents with your wrestling game—you probably have pretty darn good wrestling.

    Coming from a judo background, Kim has takedowns for days and formidable takedown defense. He can hold onto opponents in a way that few others can and has beaten lots of good fighters with those skills.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.7

    When Kim gets an opponent to the ground, he is adept at keeping them there. Amir Sadollah, Siyar Bahadurzada, Paulo Thiago and many more have been put on their back and held there for minutes on end. 

    He doesn't do so with the constant threat of submission or any particularly crafty matwork. Instead, he physically dominates them, setting up savage ground-and-pound. 

    For some fans, this description is like a giant red flag. On the page he sounds like your classic lay-and-pray wrestler, content to ride out position for a decision win.

    But you can't call his attack from top position boring. From tying Sadollah's arm across his face to set up punches from side control to delivering Captain Kirk-style double hammerfists, he does plenty to keep things interesting for fans and downright depressing for foes.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.16, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.60

    Just as it seemed Kim had evolved into a moderately polished southpaw, some small successes have convinced him that his real future is as a wild-eyed slugger.

    While the results have been decidedly positive—he's had crushing knockouts of Erick Silva and John Hathaway—there is no doubt that this approach won't hold up against higher-level competition.

    The Korean star hasn't been in the cage against any particularly formidable welterweights since getting knocked out by Carlos Condit in 2011. Should he try to Donkey Kong a good striker instead of the journeymen he's been feasting on, the results will almost certainly not be positive for him.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    It is very possible Kim might be one of the best welterweights in the world. It's hard to tell as he transitions between two very different styles.

    At this point, it is unclear whether or not the Dong-Hyun Rambo we've seen in the cage of late is just a tactical move to get fans excited and increase his chances of being noticed by the UFC brass, or if he actually does believe he can consistently get wins by fighting like he is in a Walmart parking lot.

    If he was just taking the opportunity to try some “spinning s--t” against a beatable fighter like Silva, then he deserves credit for making the most of his opportunities in the cage. If he thinks he can actually make that work against legitimate top-10 opponents, he will come to a rude awakening in the near future.

     

    Overall

    68/100

12. Jake Ellenberger

9 of 20

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29  Height: 6'0"  Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: Reign MMA
    Record: 29-8 (18 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Robbie Lawler (TKO), UFC 173
    Lost to Rory MacDonald (UD), UFC on Fox 8
    Def. Nate Marquardt (KO), UFC 158

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average: 2.65, Takedown Accuracy: 56%, Takedown Defense: 93%

    If Jake Ellenberger wants the fight on the ground, he'll be the one to take it there. Opponents might as well not even try. In fact, he has given up just one takedown in his UFC career, getting planted on his back by the powerhouse wrestling prodigy (sarcasm alert) that is Carlos Condit.

    Even then, Condit grabbed a single leg, and Ellenberger conceded the takedown in an effort to attempt a guillotine choke, so this sole slip-up carries an asterisk with it. A former Division II wrestler, Ellenberger's game is built around his strengths in this area, and he uses his powerful takedowns to dictate where his fights take place.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.4

    Ellenberger's grappling game is basic and extremely conservative. He rarely sacrifices position in an attempt to end the fight on the mat. Instead, like many wrestlers, he chooses to bide his time on top, landing punches where he can and concentrating mostly on control.

    Despite the long minutes on the mat after landing takedowns, he boasts just five submission victories on his resume. And two of those were due to punches rather than actual submission holds. A lost Gracie he is not.

    On the other hand, Ellenberger has been submitted just once in 37 professional outings despite spending a nice chunk of time inside the dangerous guard of submission experts such as Condit and Mike Pyle. In the case of a fighter with his skill set, I'll take that over a moderate submission game of his own any day.

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.44, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.31

    The Juggernaut's striking game is not sophisticated. It's not flashy. It's not overly technical.

    But it works.

    When he really connects, the result is unconsciousness. This natural power has twice earned him Knockout of the Night honors inside the Octagon and ended a fight in the first frame on three occasions.

    When fighters can weather his early rush, however, they might just be in business. A good striker can settle in and work a methodical, technical striking game; Ellenberger doesn't possess the necessary tools to counter effectively, and he will get picked apart and frustrated by superior stand-up artists.

    This was evident in his most recent outings against Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald. Throughout those fights, Ellenberger failed to move past his opponent's jab and front kicks, and he never found his range or mounted any kind of offense. In the process, Lawler beat him via TKO, while MacDonald won a unanimous decision.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    14/25

    If fights were just a single round, Ellenberger might be the second coming of Georges St-Pierre rather than a fighter on the fringe of contendership.

    While he is overwhelming early in fights, he fades badly in the second half of his bouts. Two of his four UFC losses—a decision loss to Condit and a TKO loss to Martin Kampmann—occurred after Ellenberger dominated the first round of action but left himself on "E" in the process. 

    You can go a long way with a shallow gas tank in MMA, but you can almost never climb all the way to the pinnacle with such a pervasive flaw. It's a problem without an easy solution, but one Ellenberger, and any other rising star, needs to tackle with alacrity.

     

    Overall

    68/100

11. Jake Shields

10 of 20

    Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

    Age: 35  Height: 6'0"  Reach: 72"
    Fight camp: Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu
    Record: 29-7-1 (1) (3 knockouts, 10 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Hector Lombard (UD), UFC 171
    Def. Demian Maia (SD), UFC Fight Night: Maia vs. Shields
    Def. Tyron Woodley (SD), UFC 161

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 2.83, Takedown Accuracy: 29%, Takedown Defense: 35%

    Shields is kind of the poor man's Ben Askren when it comes to MMA wrestling. A Division II All-American, he doesn't have the pure athleticism to impose himself upon his opponent—at least the first time.

    Instead, the key for Shields is attitude. He doesn't stop trying to take you down until you're down—or you've made him pay a steep price in the attempt. He doesn't know any other way.

    His takedown of choice is the single leg smack dab in the center of the Octagon. But if an opponent scurries to the cage in order to maintain balance, he's more than capable in the clinch, switching easily to a double in order to drag an opponent down. That is, after all, what he came to do. 

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.2

    In his prime, Shields was good enough on the ground to fancy himself worthy of his own grappling "brand." Called American jiu-jitsu, the premise is actually pretty great, at least for the purposes of winning mixed martial arts contests while preserving your own health and brain. Shields combined the aggression and top control of classic folkstyle wrestling with the submissions and fluidity of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

    The result was an art that is almost perfectly designed for control—and for winning decisions. Lots of decisions. 

    Shields is legitimately great at both passing guard and maintaining top control, perhaps best demonstrated by his complete shellacking of MMA legend Dan Henderson on the mat. Shields passed Henderson's guard a whopping 16 times. That's a video game number—if the computer AI is set to easy.

     

    Striking

    14/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 2.45, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.80

    It's impolite to say Shields has terrible stand-up. So, instead, let's simply speculate that he's spent so much time perfecting his grappling system that he just never had the time to develop in this area. 

    The truth is that sometimes people just don't have the aptitude for a certain skill set. I'm sure Shields has worked very hard on his stand-up game. But, more than a decade into his career, he still moves like a robot—and not one of those lifelike replicants from Blade Runner; he's a fistic C-3PO.

    Slow, deliberate and focused, he has only one avenue toward success on the feet: pressure. He moves forward, jab pumping, counters be damned. It's not enough to win, generally, but it's enough to keep his opponent honest, close the distance and go to work with his wrestling.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Shields may have paid a heavy price in his win against Henderson in Strikeforce, but the result was enough to boost his profile and earn him, eventually, a title shot against Georges St-Pierre in front of a rabid Canadian crowd. 

    Critics are mixed about whether it was a great performance for Shields or a horrible one for GSP. Either way, it was the high point of Shields' career, his one shot at true greatness. Though he didn't succeed in taking home gold, he did give it an honest go. You can't ask much more of a man than that.

    Now at age 35, the end is fast approaching. Cut by the UFC earlier this year, essentially because his style wasn't aesthetically pleasing, he's grabbed a desperate hold in the World Series of Fighting.

    Shields is looking to delay the inevitable and go out there a few more times like he's still in the flower of his youth. Perhaps a return to form is a mere fantasy—but for Shields and others on their last legs, it's a beautiful one.

     

    Overall

    68/100

10. Tyron Woodley

11 of 20

    Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    Age: 32  Height: 5'9"  Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: American Top Team
    Record: 13-3 (4 knockouts, 5 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Rory MacDonald (UD), UFC 174
    Def. Carlos Condit (TKO), UFC 171
    Def. Josh Koscheck (KO), UFC 167

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average: 2.16, Takedown Accuracy: 44%, Takedown Defense: 91%

    Captain of the University of Missouri wrestling team for three years. Two-time NCAA Division I All-American. USA Freestyle National Championship runner-up.

    Yes, Tyron Woodley is pretty good at wrestling, and the skill set has served him well in the cage thus far. 

    Early in his career, he dominated opponents with his takedowns and top control. Over the last two years, against increasingly difficult competition, he hasn't been quite as dominant or nearly so singularly focused.

    Like many great wrestlers confronted by the sheer complexity of MMA, Woodley now uses his wrestling as a solid fallback option while he develops his striking game. Against Jake Shields, he didn't attempt a single takedown while defending 18 successfully. He kept it standing against fellow wrestlers Josh Koscheck and Jay Hieron as well. 

    Five years into his career, wrestling is just one of several options. That's a good thing. That's progress.

     

    Grappling

    15/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Woodley's takedowns are well ahead of the curve, but his ability to maintain top position is somewhat suspect. While his raw muscle and athleticism afford him a bit of leeway against lesser opponents, technique still trumps size more often than not.

    An active guard can be kryptonite for wrestlers, and Woodley has been unable to assert himself properly against formidable Brazilian jiu-jitsu players. Whether intimidated by a potential submission or just not quite ready for the possibilities on the ground, he isn't as active or effective as he might be once he gets into position.

    The greatest example came against Nate Marquardt. Woodley badly hurt the former UFC contender with punches in the third round, but when he moved in for the kill, Marquardt was able to halt any follow-up with rudimentary body locking and wrist control, forcing a stand-up and eventually winning the fight. 

     

    Striking

    17/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.56, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.79

    Like your one button-mashing friend who exclusively throws Hadokens in Street Fighter, Woodley has just one reliable move in his striking arsenal: an explosive, distance-closing right hand.

    Granted, it's a really good attack. It's good enough that he has been able to land it against crafty veterans like Carlos Condit and Marquardt. It's also absurdly powerful, as Koscheck and Hieron learned firsthand.

    There's danger lurking here, a potential weakness behind this strength. We've seen on many occasions what happens when a fighter relies on a single weapon like this. Whether it's Glover Teixeira or Roy Nelson, a fighter with one mighty punch eventually learns that won't cut it against savvy strikers. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Woodley has all the tools to become an elite welterweight. He is a very good wrestler, owns one-punch knockout power and is amazingly strong. There are few fights you can't win using those three attributes.

    But The Chosen One is still very raw and not quite sure how to make full use of his talents and ability. He can get a fight to the ground but can't really do much once it's there. He has an absurd amount of punching power but is limited in terms of his ability to deliver it.

    Training with American Top Team and an experienced pro like Din Thomas, he is in a good place to start his climb toward the top. We're just seeing what he's capable of as a professional fighter. It's going to be a heck of a ride.

     

    Overall

    70/100

9. Gunnar Nelson

12 of 20

    Age: 25  Height: 5'11"   Reach: 72"
    Fight camp: Mjolnir/SBG Ireland
    Record: 12-0-1 (3 knockouts, 8 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Omari Akhmedov (Sub), UFC Fight Night 37
    Def. Jorge Santiago (UD), UFC on Fuel TV 7
    Def. DaMarques Johnson (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 5

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 2.59, Takedown Accuracy: 66%, Takedown Defense: 0%

    Let's explain this zero percent takedown defense first. It's simple—in Gunnar Nelson's three UFC fights, his opponents have attempted zero takedowns.

    So, it's not that he has atrocious takedown defense. He's just never had to show it.   

    When he's on the attack, Nelson possesses a powerful double-leg takedown, a technique he used against both DaMarques Johnson and Jorge Santiago with great success. He's tricky and technical in the clinch, and he is able to set up his takedowns well from this position just as easily as he can shoot from a distance.

    He'll face a good wrestler in Zak Cummings at UFC Fight Night 46, but for now we haven't really seen his wrestling tested enough to make an accurate prediction as to how he will do.

    Perhaps Cummings will get the upper hand. It may be hard to tell, as Nelson might not do too much to fight off a takedown anyway. With his kind of grappling skill, why would he? 

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.9

    Nelson, a black belt under Renzo Gracie, has racked up accolade after accolade in Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments, most notably taking home gold in both the gi and no-gi divisions at the 2009 International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) Pan American Championship. He's a menace on the ground, and his skills in BJJ competition have translated perfectly to the cage.

    Against Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt Johnson in his UFC debut, Nelson hit one of the sexiest transitions from side control to mount you will ever see in MMA. To borrow from Upworthy, here's what happened next.

    Against International Master of Sports in Sambo Omari Akhmedov in his third UFC appearance at UFC Fight Night 37, Nelson passed to side control, prompting Akhmedov to scramble. Nelson adjusted. Here's what happened next.

    Give Nelson the narrowest window of opportunity on the ground, and he's taking your neck home. The man is a truly world-class grappler, and there are few fighters in the world who can match his magnificence in this area of the game.

     

    Striking

    14/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.89, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.16

    When (or if) Nelson loses a fight, it will probably come as a result of his porous striking defense.

    A black belt in Goju-ryu karate, Nelson employs a traditional karate stance with his hands down and his base wide in the stand-up game. While this allows him to bounce around and confuse opponents, it also leaves his chin wide open for the smashing. Santiago landed a monstrous right hand in the very last second of their fight, and Nelson's chin ate it well, but "Gunni" does not want to make a habit of eating leather inside the Octagon.

    His karate background does lend itself to an accurate and diverse striking game, though. He throws a variety of kicks—some to the head, some to the body, some to the knees and shins—and he combines these with a vicious uppercut and precise jab that have so far overwhelmed and frustrated all of his UFC opponents.

    We haven't seen him score the highlight-reel, stone-cold knockout, but he throws with purpose and rarely takes a chance with a wild strike. He's calculated and methodical in this area of the game, but his hands-down approach is a bit worrisome as he moves on to higher-level opposition.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Nelson's calm and cool demeanor has literally inspired movie masterpieces.

    OK, so it's a short film. Still! He accepts being locked in a cage with another professional fighter with remarkable stoicism, and nothing seems to rattle the young Icelandic sensation.

    His background as both a standout karate practitioner and an elite grappler makes him one of the most promising two-way fighters in the UFC today, and if he reaches his full potential, we may very well be seeing a future champion.

    Nelson is a scary prospect, but with no experience against top-10 competition, his next few fights will prove informative and revealing for the youngster's overall game. Right now, he just needs to keep winning, making small adjustments to his game and getting those hands up.

    He's too much to handle on the ground, and if he patches the holes in his striking defense, there will be no clear-cut way for opponents to eliminate him.

     

    Overall

    70/100

8. Matt Brown

13 of 20

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Age: 33  Height: 6'0"  Reach: 76"
    Fight campThe JG MMA and Fitness Academy
    Record: 19-11 (12 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Erick Silva (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Brown vs. Silva
    Def. Mike Pyle (KO), UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen
    Def. Jordan Mein (TKO), UFC on Fox 7

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 2.09, Takedown Accuracy: 52%, Takedown Defense: 67%

    Against the least adept and most incompetent wrestlers in the UFC, Matt Brown can look like a modern-day Dan Gable—or, at the very least, like a cut-rate GSP. He put Stephen Thompson and Erick Silva down five times apiece. 

    Against anyone else, traditional wrestling, consisting mostly of a double leg against the cage, is almost nonexistent in Brown's MMA arsenal. It is perhaps the least sharp weapon in his collection.

    When he does take people to the mat, it's in unconventional fashion, part of a blend of violence that makes him such a fan favorite. He does his best work, in fact, out of the muay thai clinch, distracting his opponents with a barrage of strikes before eventually sneaking a trip in to dump them on their backside.

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 2.3

    It's hard to rate Brown easily in this category because he can range all the way from sublime to awful depending on the opponent and the moment. There's no doubt he's gifted on the mat offensively. He looked fluid and composed throwing up a triangle against Jordan Mein and even attempted an exotic calf slicer against Thompson at UFC 145. 

    But Brown is all about aggression. His fights are one-man chainsaw massacres—he rarely takes a step backward and is always on the attack. Aggression can cost you standing, allowing an opponent to counter with a smooth change of levels or a perfectly timed punch.

    The same idea holds true in the grappling phase. Brown can get going too fast, forget to protect his neck and end the night frustrated.

    Even at age 33 and 30 fights deep into his career, he is learning. His success has coincided with fewer mistakes of this nature. That's a trend that bodes well for the future.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.13, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.31

    Many think of Brown as an aggressive brawler, the sort of angry guy you could yank out of any redneck bar in America and turn loose on a Saturday night. That's insulting and trivializing, even if it comes from a place of love.

    He isn't just aggressive; he's good. His bravura brand of ultraviolence is carefully calculated and deceptively technical.

    While he can certainly throw his punches with reckless abandon and can appear wild when closing the distance, that's all just a means to an end. His strength is in the clinch. That's where he drops knowledge in a startling fashion. It's a never-ending cycle of violence so complete that some opponents wilt based on the volume of strikes alone. 

    Starting with hand control and clever entries, he proceeds to devastate opponents up against the cage. Woe be it upon any fighter who drops his hands to defend the nonstop knees. That's when the elbows come in, from all angles, designed to crack, not to cut.

    Brown forces foes to react to one technique and then deftly goes where they aren't. When he has them reeling, he can throw in a tactical trip as well, starting the process anew when a weary opponent scrambles up to his feet. It's mesmerizing and incredibly effective.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Less than three years ago, Brown had lost four of his last five fights, including a loss to the unheralded Seth Baczynski. His career as a UFC fighter seemed all but over—until matchmaker Joe Silva, perhaps remembering a string of three consecutive finishes before the slide, gave Brown one more chance.

    The outcome has been nothing short of remarkable. He has reeled off seven wins, six of them by knockout or TKO. Fans believe. More importantly, Brown believes.

    That kind of positive mental energy goes a long way in bouts between fighters who are evenly matched in physical skill and technique. It's carried him within one fight of a UFC title shot, which was unthinkable a few years ago.

     

    Overall

    73/100

7. Douglas Lima

14 of 20

    Age: 26  Height: 6'1"  Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: American Top Team Atlanta
    Record: 26-5 (12 knockouts, 11 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Rick Hawn (TKO), Bellator 117
    Def. Ben Saunders (KO), Bellator 100
    Def. Bryan Baker (KO), Bellator 90

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Douglas Lima's wrestling may be the only thing separating him from the top five welterweights in the world. That's a bold statement, I realize, for a fighter who is competing in Bellator and thus isolated from the world's very best. But the statement rings true to anyone who has seen him fight.

    Now, he is not particularly savvy in this department. His only loss in his past 15 fights came against Ben Askren, a standout wrestler who focuses his efforts entirely into taking and holding down his opponents.

    While getting pinned to the canvas by Askren is nothing to be ashamed of, Lima's inability to fend off his opponent's takedowns proved to be his undoing in back-to-back losses to Charles Blanchard and Eric Dahlberg earlier in his career as well. If you skip to almost any point in the Blanchard fight in particular, you'll see Lima on his back as a result of his lackluster takedown defense.

    Lima has improved in this area since those defeats, but his wrestling remains his biggest weakness by far inside the cage. It's no longer a debilitating weakness. But it's there, lurking, waiting to let its presence be felt the next time he finds himself face-to-face with a wrestling standout.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    There was a time when some considered Lima's Brazilian jiu-jitsu to be his greatest weapon (and that still may very well be the case). Lately, though, he has become fascinated with the stand-up game, leaving us with little recent footage to work with in this department.

    Looking to his past, though, he has submission victories via armbar, rear-naked choke, triangle choke, triangle armbar—you get the idea. He knows his submissions and can unleash them in a flash from his back or from top position. 

    While he struggles to submit skilled wrestlers with heavy, conservative top games, he only needs a small opening to strike. When he does, he rarely misfires.

    Trained by sixth-degree Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Roberto Traven and American Top Team Atlanta's Roan Carneiro, Lima's ground game remains a fight-changing asset inside the cage—whether he chooses to utilize it or not.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Lima loves his low kicks. He started chopping away at his opponents' legs in his professional debut back in 2006 and hasn't stopped since. He's even defied the myopic world view of judge Cecil Peoples and produced a few technical knockouts with his leg kicks under the Bellator banner.

    While low kicks are not individually devastating, over time Lima batters his foes and leaves them helpless to defend his follow-up high kicks and punches. It's a recipe for success, and he's knocked out seven of his last eight opponents by utilizing this game plan.  

    Just look at what he did to former UFC welterweight Ben Saunders—twice.

    Ouch.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    It feels weird to call a low kick an "intangible" since it can be measured and evaluated, but the effect that Lima's crushing leg kicks have on his opponents is truly immeasurable.

    How do you quantify the mental and physical anguish caused by these cutting shots to the thigh? The terror he inspires before and during a fight?

    You don't.

    You just understand that he sets the tone for his fights from the opening bell with low kicks, and he continues to chuck them throughout the bout until his opponent can't walk, or until Lima lands something else that ends the night.

    It's brutal to watch, and it's made Lima the most feared welterweight on the Bellator roster. As long as he's not being smothered by a superior wrestler, he is an absolute beast who can end a fight from anywhere at any time.

    Even scarier, Lima rarely overextends himself while looking for the finish. He stays cool and relaxed, pursuing his kill with a veteran's composure. Everything is there for him to become one of the greatest 170-pound fighters today—coaching, instinct and physical tools. He's just in the wrong promotion to definitively prove it.

     

    Overall

    73/100

6. Rory MacDonald

15 of 20

    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Age: 24  Height: 5'11"  Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: Tristar Gym
    Record: 17-2 (6 knockouts, 6 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Tyron Woodley (UD), UFC 174
    Def. Demian Maia (UD), UFC 170
    Lost to Robbie Lawler (SD), UFC 167

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 2.49, Takedown Accuracy: 57%, Takedown Defense: 88%

    Like his teammate and mentor Georges St-Pierre, Rory MacDonald doesn't come from a formal wrestling background. That hasn't stopped him, however, from carving out a career that requires significant wrestling prowess.

    While he lacks a conventional single- or double-leg takedown, he has great throws and trips in the clinch. His best wrestling efforts came very early in his UFC career, nearly beating Carlos Condit in his second UFC fight and ragdolling Nate Diaz with suplexes in his third.

    Defensively, we haven't seen him actively attacked by any high-level wrestlers, but he's shown himself to be very hard to put on the mat. While his takedown defense is quite good (best shown by his 88 percent takedown defense rate), it isn't impenetrable. Solid grapplers like Demian Maia and Mike Pyle have been able to get him to the ground in the past.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Submission skills? He has them. A solid top game where he can threaten with strikes, passes and locks? He has that, too. A very good guard from underneath? Oh, yes.

    MacDonald has it all, in one form or another, and he has been able to get work done against some very formidable competition. He was able to stay on top of Condit despite his impressive active guard and was able to defend himself from a scary submission wizard in Maia. He was able to escape from Pyle's “quicksand” and knock him out.

    Those impressive feats speak volumes about the strength of his grappling game. But MacDonald is no submission savant. In fact, he spent significant time on the ground against Diaz and Condit without attempting a single submission. His statistical success came on the Canadian independent circuit against overmatched opponents early in his career. Only one of his six career submissions occurred in the UFC Octagon. 

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.92, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.30

    Rory MacDonald is solid on the ground, but he is even more at home standing up. The name of the game is boxing, and he's been able to batter some of the best fighters in the welterweight division, demonstrating a savvy that eludes fighters with twice his experience.

    He used his stiff jab and mastery of angles to freeze Jake Ellenberger in place for a full 15 minutes. He sent BJ Penn into a brief retirement with his skillful body work. He used accurate yet powerful punches to keep Maia at a manageable distance for most of their fight. On top of all that, he can throw an impressively high volume for a welterweight without tiring himself out.

    He is remarkably good as is, and tired as it may sound, he is only getting better. When Robbie Lawler, a veteran southpaw, threw him some wrinkles he hadn't seen before, that wasn't just a controversial loss; it was a learning experience. And MMA's Lawlers are few and far between. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    It was obvious from the get-go that MacDonald was something special. He tore apart the entire regional scene in western Canada before he could even buy a pack of cigarettes. He's already one of the best in the sport at age 24, and a championship reign has always felt inevitable.

    His development from superprospect to elite-level welterweight has happened, in large part, because of how smart and coachable he is. Under the tutelage of Firas Zahabi and the rest of the Tristar staff, he has become a methodical, strategic machine capable of exploiting any weakness in an opponent's attack. Much like Georges St-Pierre, he is a perfect vessel for exercising a coach's tactical brilliance.

    There is danger, of course, in taking that side of his personality to the extreme. There is a difference between a disciplined fighter and one who becomes frozen and tentative at the first signs of a game plan gone astray.

    In recent fights it's appeared MacDonald has been edging toward the right in this careful balancing act. It will be important for Zahabi to introduce some freedom into his young fighter's game. He looked more comfortable against Tyron Woodley in a recent win, loosening up and engaging more than he did against Lawler.

    MMA can call for instant and raw reactions. A robot, no matter how well trained, isn't capable of processing this wild sport quickly enough to beat the very best of the best consistently.

     

    Overall

    75/100

5. Robbie Lawler

16 of 20

    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Age: 32  Height: 5'11"  Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: American Top Team
    Record: 23-10 (1) (19 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Jake Ellenberger (TKO), UFC 173
    Lost to Johny Hendricks (UD), UFC 171
    Def. Rory MacDonald (SD), UFC 167

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.05, Takedown Accuracy: 65%, Takedown Defense: 63%

    Lawler was a high school wrestling standout when he first met Pat Miletich, who was then the UFC world welterweight champion. At the time, as it arguably still is today, wrestling was the sport's best and most effective base. But Lawler never relied on it.

    Perhaps his early experience of getting tossed like a ragdoll in practice by future Hall of Famer Matt Hughes taught him from a young age that he could never truly dominate on the mat. Or, perhaps, he just loved the thrill of slinging leather just a little too much. 

    Either way, offensive wrestling was never Lawler's route to fame and fortune. Today, his wrestling is almost completely defensive in nature. He has no interest in going to the mat and has developed some solid techniques to avoid it, most notably an old-fashioned knee to the gut.

     

    Grappling 

    15/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    In the course of their careers, most fighters dabble in the grappling arts. After all, it's the fascinating ground game, introduced to armchair fans and future fighters alike by the Gracie family, that makes MMA such an incredibly diverse and interesting sport.

    Not to Lawler. 

    In his 24 fights for major domestic fight promotions, he has never attempted a single submission. Not one. Like his wrestling, his grappling is purely defensive in nature. His goal is to avoid submissions and get back to his feet. 

    As a middleweight, that wasn't always easy. Tim Kennedy, for example, was able to take him down and keep him there on his way to a clear decision win.

    As a welterweight, Lawler has had better luck. He was able to stifle Jake Ellenberger on the ground nicely, and against Josh Koscheck, one of the division's best wrestlers, Lawler was able to use a butterfly guard to create distance and return to his feet—and eventually do what he does best.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.41, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.21

    Lawler learned the hard way that power and speed alone aren't enough to carry you to the top of the sport. Nick Diaz, 170 pounds of mouth, taught him that valuable lesson at the dawn of time, before The Ultimate Fighter catapulted us all into the mainstream.

    For Lawler, that was just one of many such learning experiences during the course of a 13-year professional career. The fighter who steps into the cage today barely resembles that snarling, angry young man at all. 

    Gone are the lunging punches, flying kicks and inexhaustible rage. In their place are feints and a slow, methodical approach to cutting off the cage. He isn't a slugger anymore; he's a smart, sophisticated fighter.

    Watch him put his right hook right over Rory MacDonald's jab, removing the Canadian star's best weapon. Watch him sneak a left kick to the body against a helpless victim who, moments earlier, made the mistake of thinking he was out of range. Most of all, marvel at his sledgehammer left hand and remember—as much as things change, the classics never go out of style.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    21/25

    While many are quick to credit a return to welterweight for Lawler's revival, there's another compelling reason. 

    After the implosion of the Miletich team, Lawler had spent years without a permanent fighting home, training with an aging Matt Hughes or Jeremy Horn, if he was training at all. That kind of comfort zone can lead to stagnation—and for years it seemed like Lawler was running in place.

    Now fully entrenched with American Top Team in Florida and working regularly with top trainers and sparring partners, Lawler has seen a dramatic return to form. 

     

    Overall

    75/100

4. Carlos Condit

17 of 20

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30  Height: 6'2"  Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA
    Record: 29-8 (14 knockouts, 13 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Tyron Woodley (TKO), UFC 171
    Def. Martin Kampmann (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2
    Lost to Johny Hendricks (UD), UFC 158

    Wrestling

    13/25

    Takedown Average: 0.54, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 39%

    Check out those numbers. Pretty bad, right?

    Let's put it another way: Dating back to a January 2007 bout with Kyle Jensen at WEC 25—a stretch that encompasses 15 fights—Condit has not secured more takedowns than his opponent in a fight. Ever.

    Sometimes it's a 3-2 split, as was the case against Hiromitsu Miura at WEC 35, and other times it's a 12-0 blowout, as it was against Johny Hendricks at UFC 158.

    Condit is a fantastic fighter, but his inability to piece together his wrestling game directly cost him the victory in all four of his UFC losses and almost all of his losses before hitting the big time too. It's a weakness he's addressed only by sharpening his grappling to a razor's edge—but that's not enough to consistently beat skilled top-control bruisers.

     

    Grappling

    21/25

    Submission Average: 1.4

    Condit might not be able to hang with the best wrestlers inside the cage, but he's developed a reliable counter in his lethal guard. It's helped him to rack up 13 submission victories over his 37-fight career.

    Because of his wrestling deficiencies, we rarely see Condit work from the top. But his bottom game is phenomenal. Unless a wrestler is really slick (See: Hendricks, Johny; St-Pierre, Georges), Condit will threaten a submission and either get it or use it as a sweep to get back to his feet.

    Condit is plain nasty off his back and presents a real submission threat at any point during a fight. You might be able to take him down, but once you do, you might just regret that decision.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.19, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.23

    It's a pleasure to watch Condit go to work on the feet.

    He's smooth and graceful, and his lanky, thin frame packs a deceptively powerful wallop when it connects. He can finish a fight with knees, punches, kicks and even stomps. (No, seriously...he has a victory via stomps in Japan's Pancrase). On top of that, he's never been knocked out in his professional career.

    As devastating as he can be on his feet, though, he is also a methodical, relaxed stand-up artist. He showed off a pick-you-apart game plan against Diaz and rarely overextends himself in an effort to find the finish. He was content to wreck Diaz with his mobility and hard, accurate leg kicks. That showed a rare maturity and a fighter who was willing to let the bout come to him.

    When the time is right, however, few men contain the explosive violence Condit stores just beneath the surface. It just emerges naturally within the context of the fight, and the finish is often quick and brutal, a reminder of just how savage a human can be inside the cage.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Cerebral fighter? Check.

    Well-balanced grappling and striking skills? Check.

    Killer instinct? Indeed. In 29 victories, Condit has been to a decision twice.

    A UFC championship? Nope. And his few faults may be enough to keep him from the top spot.

    After suffering a serious knee injury against Tyron Woodley in his last fight, Condit probably will never reach the top of the UFC's welterweight mountain. He's had his chances, though, fighting for the belt against GSP at UFC 154 and dropping a decision in a title eliminator against Hendricks at UFC 158.

    Unfortunately, one weakness—wrestling, in this case—can keep an otherwise elite fighter from reaching the top in today's world of MMA. Condit represents perhaps the finest example of this unfortunate fact.

     

    Overall

    76/100

3. Hector Lombard

18 of 20

    Chris Hyde/Getty Images

    Age: 36  Height: 5'9"  Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: American Top Team
    Record: 34-4-1 (1) (19 knockouts, 7 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Jake Shields (UD), UFC 171
    Def. Nate Marquardt (KO), UFC 166
    Lost to Yushin Okami (SD), UFC on Fuel TV 8

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average: 1.86, Takedown Accuracy: 55%, Takedown Defense: 82%

    Hector Lombard has so much raw punching power that he was able to make everyone forget that he's not a striker at all. In fact, he comes from a judo base. And not just any judo base, either. He represented Cuba, which consistently fields one of the best teams in the world—in the 2000 Olympic Games and ranked among the best in his country from 1997 to 2002.

    While he didn't show it much for a sizable portion of his career, he has some fearsome takedowns, and he wouldn't have succeeded in judo if he was easy to put on his back. While longtime middleweight contender Yushin Okami used his size advantage to beat Lombard wrestling, it is unlikely any welterweight will be able to do the same.

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Lombard does not care for those silly "submission" things. That seems counterintuitive to fans who have been introduced to judo by the fights of Ronda Rousey, but she is the exception. For the most part, competitive judo is a sport of throws and pins.

    Lombard's complete dismissal of submissions is, traditionally, in keeping with a high-level athlete in his sport. He has yet to attempt one under the Zuffa umbrella. Of course, that doesn't mean he's unfamiliar with the ground. While eschewed in actual competition, submissions are still a vital part of the traditional judo curriculum. He knows this game and can defend any opponent who grabs hold of a limb.

    What he does care about, though, is maintaining top position for his scary ground-and-pound. And he's quite good at that.

    He has made solid fighters like Brian Ebersole and Alexander Shlemenko look downright amateurish by tossing them around, holding them there and beating the hell out of them. The 2014 model of Lombard isn't quite as beastly as the 2009 model, but he was still more than good enough to smother super-savvy grappler Jake Shields for 15 minutes.

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.25, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.24

    From striking range, Lombard is completely unremarkable. He can punch super-duper hard, but he looks utterly bewildered by technically superior strikers and even comparably skilled strikers who own a speed or reach advantage on him.

    While he lacks potency from a distance, he is a threshing machine up close in the MMA trenches. In the clinch and against the cage, he can generate crazy power on short punches in ways reminiscent of former heavyweight contender Shane Carwin. On the ground, too, he owns murderous punches that are capable of ending a fight in a flash.

    The one area where he excels beyond his peers, however, is within trapping range. While breaking from the clinch or after defending a blitz, he is remarkably good at landing tight, accurate, dynamite punches. While many fighters are awkward at that medium distance, he is unusually comfortable and effective there.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    You might be confused by all this talk of “Hector Lombard: Ground-and-Pound Master,” and that's understandable. In the UFC, he has looked the part of a standard brawler, taking emphatic knockout wins over Rousimar Palhares and Nate Marquardt while losing ugly decisions to Yushin Okami and Tim Boetsch.

    While he got back to his grappling roots in his most recent fight against Shields, the proceedings were mired by Lombard gassing very early and casually lying atop Shields en route to an uninspired, albeit convincing, unanimous-decision win. His cardio has never been particularly good, but it's potentially terrible now that he's at welterweight and dealing with a significant weight cut as well as an arduous fight.

    That is a major cause for concern. In fact, should he ever wind up in a title fight or main event, it is unclear if he would even be able to answer the bell for the championship rounds, at least with his hands held high.

     

    Overall

    76/100

2. Ben Askren

19 of 20

    Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

    Age: 29  Height: 5'10"  Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Roufusport
    Record: 13-0 (3 knockouts, 4 submissions) 

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Bakhtiyar Abbasov (Sub), One FC: Honor and Glory
    Def. Andrey Koreshkov (TKO), Bellator 97
    Def. Karl Amoussou (TKO), Bellator 86

     

    Wrestling

    24/25

    With the exception of some flash-in-the-pan Olympic gold medalists—guys like Kenny Monday and Kevin Jackson—there's never been a wrestler in mixed martial arts with Ben Askren's wrestling pedigree. The numbers speak for themselves: two NCAA championships, two Dan Hodge Awards, 93 pinfalls and an overall collegiate record of 153-8.

    But Askren's ability goes beyond the numbers. He's a true genius, a master of body mechanics and the physics of human motion. Fearless in college, as demonstrated by a willingness to expose his back to the mat for an eventual advantage, Askren has actually been much more controlled as a professional.

    The takedown, of both the single- and double-leg variety, has become his raison d'etre. He's taken every opponent he's faced to the mat—and if there's a man who can stop him, he's not likely to be found in One FC.

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    You don't set an NCAA record for pinfalls without amazing control on the ground—and, if anything, MMA rules have made Askren even better at manipulating opponents. 

    He's a very sophisticated grappler and a very smart man. There's rarely an advantage to be had risking position for an uncertain submission hold. The same holds true for haymakers, even those that are part of a classic ground-and-pound offense.

    Rising up means losing leverage. And losing leverage can mean losing control. That's not part of his modus operandi. 

    Askren knows the odds of winning are better if he simply maintains control and punishes his opponents with dozens of tiny nibbles rather than a single big bite.

     

    Striking

    11/25

    When former Olympian Dan Henderson took his first MMA fight, he was a pure wrestler. Striking was something he thought he could learn on the fly. 

    In 1996, when the sport was still in its infancy and filled with one-dimensional, one-art talents, that almost made sense. Everyone was making it up as they went. 

    When Askren started his MMA career in a gym that didn't even have a striking coach, that was just plain lunacy. Luckily, he learned his lesson. Today he trains with the best—Duke Roufus, best known as the brains behind UFC champion Anthony Pettis' dynamic and unpredictable striking attack. 

    You can certainly see how the unconventional approach—the kickboxing equivalent to Askren's wrestling "funk"would appeal to the offbeat wrestler. And though he's been able to succeed without being forced to showcase his stand-up skills, Askren insists he's been working and improving his skills diligently.

    Still, seeing is believing. And for now, at least, his striking is merely a myth. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    While it's good to see One FC giving it a go in the Asian market, bereft of big league MMA since Pride self-destructed, it's a shame we didn't get to see Askren in the UFC. The fighters in Asia, unfortunately, aren't in his class.

    In the last few years, the UFC has cornered the market on the world's best fighters. Askren is the one who got away, the one fighter who can truly make a case for being the top fighter in his weight class. He has the athletic background and grappling prowess to give anyone a fight—despite this, likely because of his grappling-heavy style, the promotion had no interest.

    It's difficult to have a complete feel for how Askren matches up against the best fighters in his weight class. While he's dominated the competition in Bellator, there's no indication he would do the same in the Octagon. How he'd fare against the well-rounded strikers in the UFC is anyone's guess. I, for one, would like to see it. 

     

    Overall

    76/100

1. Johny Hendricks

20 of 20

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30  Height: 5'9"  Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Team Takedown
    Record: 16-2 (8 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Robbie Lawler (UD), UFC 171
    Lost to Georges St-Pierre (SD), UFC 167
    Def. Carlos Condit (UD), UFC 158

     

    Wrestling

    22/25

    Takedown Average: 4.25, Takedown Accuracy: 47%, Takedown Defense: 61%

    Johny Hendricks' wrestling credentials are beyond dispute. He is one of the 20 best high school wrestlers of the modern era, and his three state championships and two wins at the Fargo Juniors were just a prelude to an equally stellar college career. At Oklahoma State he competed for the national championship three times at 165 pounds, winning twice. Those accomplishments speak to his gifts on the mat—loudly.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that his wrestling in the MMA cage continues to be superlative. While much of the focus has turned to his powerful left hand, it's wrestling that allows his undisciplined striking to thrive.

    Despite often wild and reckless standing attacks, he is able to keep himself mostly upright. Even the best wrestlers in the division, such as Josh Koscheck and Georges St-Pierre, had trouble getting Hendricks off his feet, completing just half of their takedown attempts against him. 

    Offensively, wrestling is of secondary import for Hendricks. But, while he's constantly fantasizing about that big left hand, he's not afraid to deploy his wrestling attack as a change of pace, especially if an opponent has no answer for it. Carlos Condit hit the mat 12 times in their fight, and T.J. Grant was tossed eight times when Hendricks sniffed out a weakness.

    Make no mistakes—while his training might focus on different areas, if he's on his game, Hendricks is one of the very best wrestlers in MMA. How would he match up with Ben Askren in this department? Hendricks beat him in both his junior and senior year of high school and certainly has the tools to compete with the sport's best wrestler.

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Submission Average: 0.4

    In 2009, before Hendricks had discovered his identity as a fighter, he followed standard operating procedure in the cage. When Ricardo Funch gave him the opportunity to try a guillotine choke at UFC 107, he took it. When Funch gave up his back, Hendricks looked for the rear-naked choke. This was MMA, after all, and that's what MMA fighters do.

    That's notable, because soon after he would reinvent himself as a different kind of fighter. In his ensuing 11 fights, he would attempt just a single submission, a halfhearted guillotine against Rick Story that was mostly designed to get him back to his feet after a takedown. 

    Today, that's mostly the extent of Hendricks' grappling game. When he finds himself on his back, he's quick to get back to his feet. Nothing more, nothing less. On the flip side, although he took Condit down 12 times, "Bigg Rigg" couldn't hold him there or manage much damage. 

    It's a weakness that should actually give future opponents solace—but it should also give them pause. One day Hendricks might actually show up in the cage with a solid grappling game to go along with his other gifts. What then, welterweights of the world?

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.61, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.62

    Once Hendricks discovered the dynamite in his left hand, he was like a kid at Christmas. This new toy was his favorite—and he used it to the exclusion of all others.

    The result wasn't always pretty. He literally leaped into every punch, throwing himself off-balance, dropping his hands and hoping the fear he inspired would take care of the rest. Sometimes, it worked wonders, like when he took Martin Kampmann's head from his shoulders. Against resilient tough guys like Rick Story and Mike Pierce, however, the limitations of this approach became clear. 

    Today, the power in Hendricks' hands remains, but he now realizes that with great power comes great responsibility. He's more judicious now, more willing to combine his left hand with his other tools, like a wrestling collar tie, to double its effectiveness. 

    In every fight, he seems to discover a new weapon, like the step-knee he used to give St-Pierre grief and knees to the thigh in the clinch that will continue to give foes fits. The result is a fighter who is not only among the most dangerous in the sport but also one who is improving as well.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    21/25

    Ted Ehrhardt took a risk, as all visionaries do, when he signed a crop of wrestlers to join his new Team Takedown. Rather than sign Hendricks and a collection of other collegiate stalwarts to standard management contracts, Ehrhardt decided to do things differently. 

    Instead, he invested in success. Hendricks was never a struggling young fighter who had to worry about making his monthly bills and his rent like so many others. He had a stipend, a place to live and the kind of training that is usually reserved for superstars.

    The result was the freedom to grow as a fighter without having the financial pressure that requires short cuts or bad decision making. Hendricks only had to worry about winning—and a championship eventually followed. 

     

    Overall

    78/100