B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 15 Middleweights in Mixed Martial Arts

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 23, 2014

B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 15 Middleweights in Mixed Martial Arts

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Like at welterweight, a looming shadow has finally been lifted at middleweight. Anderson Silva's seven-year reign, one in which he amassed 14 stoppages and 10 title defenses, was particularly brutal. Not only did he terrorize every fighter in the world at 185 pounds, but he jumped up to light heavyweight to pick off two UFC Hall of Famers.

    Along the way he polarized fans with his cocky demeanor and trash-talking nonchalance in the cage. For years, despite his athletic excellence, he failed to wow at the box office. Only Chael Sonnen, the American wrestler who channeled his professional wrestling heroes, managed to make Silva a true star.

    His eventual conqueror, the milquetoast Chris Weidman, has shown great potential in the cage, if not on the microphone. Just 11 fights into his professional career, the 30-year-old champion is a work in progress. As funny as it sounds, the man who beat the man is still a bit of a mystery as a fighter. 

    Before catching an aging Silva with his hands down and clowning, Weidman's most impressive career accomplishments were wins over Mark Munoz and Demian Maia. Considering Munoz's subsequent career immolation and Maia's drop down to 170 pounds, those wins are hardly the stuff of legend. 

    In truth, Weidman is the least battle-tested champion in the UFC. It's unclear what to expect from him when the going gets tough and he's matched with someone who is his physical and mental equal. By next year, we'll know a lot more about his heart and will.

    Is he the next Silva? Or simply a stopgap until someone better comes along? We take a look here at both the UFC champion and the other 14 best fighters in the division.

    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 middleweight peers. We've scored each fighter on a 100-point scale based on his ability in four key categories. You can read more about how the ratings are determined here

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

15. Mark Munoz

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 36   Height: 6'0"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: Reign Training Center
    Record: 13-5 (6 knockouts, 1 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Gegard Mousasi (Sub), UFC Fight Night 41
    Lost to Lyoto Machida (KO), UFC Fight Night 30
    Def. Tim Boetsch (UD), UFC 162

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 2.49, Takedown Accuracy: 24%, Takedown Defense: 58%

    On paper, Mark Munoz is the best wrestler in the middleweight division. A former NCAA champion, he should be running game on a bunch of hapless opponents as a destructive dynamo whose soft smile belies the killer inside.

    Unfortunately, the UFC stages its bouts in a steel cage, not on paper—and Father Time has not treated Munoz kindly. Over the last two years, “The Filipino Wrecking Machine” has aged five times over, and he seems to be completely ineffectual against the rising tide of middleweight stars.

    Fellow wrestler Chris Weidman made him look terrible by taking him down at will and holding him there indefinitely. In Munoz's most recent bout, he went 0-of-6 on takedown attempts on Gegard Mousasi. When Mousasi, who is perhaps best known domestically for being taken down a whopping 11 times by "King" Mo Lawal, stuffs your shots with a yawn, it may be time to consider a new approach.

     

    Grappling

    15/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Demian Maia is regarded as one of the greatest Brazilian jiu-jitsu players in MMA. No matter how advantageous the position or how potent your top game is, he is capable of turning things around on you in a flash. Munoz, however, was able to sit in his guard, work him over for minutes on end and win a handy unanimous decision in a fight that was contested largely on the ground.

    That was an impressive feat and perhaps the high point of Munoz's professional career. There are real questions, however, regarding whether or not he would be able to accomplish something similar today. In two of his four most recent fights, he's looked helpless on the ground, utterly incapable of dealing with explosive opponents who can match him in technique.

     

    Striking

    13/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.26, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.22

    While Munoz's wrestling was truly great at one point, his striking has always been a work in progress. Now at age 36, it seems like progress has all but halted. He is the West Virginia Turnpike of fighting—constantly under construction but never quite finished.

    Without exaggeration, there isn't a single opponent with an average or better stand-up game who hasn't had some level of success against him. While the most obvious example is Weidman's skull-crushing elbow, it's hard to look past Maia lighting him up with punches and Matt Hamill knocking him out with a kick.

    He has some darn good ground-and-pound and clinch work, and that counts for something. However, even at his peak, he struggled at striking range, and it is hard to imagine age improving that.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    14/25

    Munoz was one of the best middleweights in MMA just a few years ago. He was an impressive physical specimen with a wrestling pedigree that took him nearly to the top.

    Then an injury came. And another. And another. Wrestling is a brutal sport, and those nicks and tears and creaks add up by the year until, one day, you just can't fight anymore.

    Alas, that is likely where Munoz is in his career. For all his skills and smarts, you simply can't win many fights when your elbows, feet and knees don't work.

     

    Overall

    60/100

14. Mamed Khalidov

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    Age: 33   Height: 6'0"   Reach: 75"
    Fight campArrachion MMA Fighters Team 
    Record: 29-4-2 (11 knockouts, 17 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Maiquel Falcao (Sub), KSW 27
    Def. Ryuta Sakurai (Sub), KSW 25
    Def. Melvin Manhoef (Sub), KSW 23

    Wrestling

    13/25

    Like so many other fighters on the European circuit, the bane of Mamed Khalidov's mixed martial arts existence is wrestling. If an opponent has any kind of takedown ability, the KSW champ will almost certainly find himself on the ground. Of course, as with so many other high-level submission artists, he is completely content with working from underneath an opponent.

    The bigger problem for him is his lack of an offensive wrestling game. Even against opponents with equally flimsy skills, he struggles to get them on their back. That deficiency has left him in troublesome positions in the past, most notably at KSW 23 where he was forced to contend with Melvin Manhoef standing because he wasn't able to take the veteran down with any consistency.

      

    Grappling

    20/25

    To borrow liberally from professional wrestling announcer Gordon Solie, fans who love a battle between two grappling masters are proponents of "human chess." The attack, anticipation of an opponent's defense and the following attempt to exploit that defense, of course, make that an apt comparison.

    Time and again, Khalidov has shown himself to be a human chess master, making even legitimate black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu look like they are playing checkers. He has a remarkable ingenuity, chaining together submission attempts in breathless fits of brilliance.

    Against Jesse Taylor, we saw him use a triangle choke to set up for a kneebar. Against Matt Lindland, he used a kneebar to lure out the Olympic wrestler's neck for a guillotine choke. This is exceptional grappling of the highest order.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    While 11 of Khalidov's wins have come via KO or TKO, fans have seen next to nothing from him in the striking department in recent years. Instead, he's decimated opponent after opponent on the ground.

    In the past he showed some modest pop in his right hand, alongside savvy ground-and-pound. But Khalidov is a grappler first, second and always. With his amazing submission skills, he ultimately doesn't even need to throw punches to secure wins. Why risk it?

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    While Khalidov is clearly one of the best fighters outside the UFC, there is no denying that his success partly stems from facing weak competition. KSW has done great work in terms of giving its top draw name-brand opponents like Melvin Manhoef, Jesse Taylor and James Irvin—but there is a reason you don't see any of them on this list.

    Khalidov, despite his elite-level grappling and serviceable striking, isn't a complete package yet. His lack of a wrestling game simply isn't going to cut it against top-level fighters in the middleweight division, and we have already seen opponents start catching on to that fact. 

    While he can still pull out a win over Manhoef with a leaping guillotine choke or catch Rodney Wallace with a big right hand, it's hard to imagine him beating almost any other fighter on this list. If he can improve his wrestling, he could easily become a top-10 middleweight. Until he does, it's hard to regard him as an elite-level talent.

     

    Overall

    63/100

13. Thales Leites

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 78"
    Fight camp: Nova Uniao
    Record: 23-4 (3 knockouts, 13 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Trevor Smith (KO), UFC Fight Night 39
    Def. Ed Herman (UD), UFC 167
    Def. Tom Watson (UD), UFC 163

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 2.77, Takedown Accuracy: 31%, Takedown Defense: 28%

    The Thales Leites of yesteryear was a stereotypical “BJJ specialist.” Not in a good way. In the “great grappling but no way to get opponents to the ground” way.

    Of late, however, he seems to have improved his wrestling significantly. Against Tom Watson and Ed Herman, he scored a combined eight takedowns and showed off an improved clinch game. Neither Watson nor Herman comes close to qualifying as a high-level wrestler, but both are solid professional fighters he was able to control.

    It's too early to declare Leites an above-average wrestler, and we haven't seen his takedown defense truly tested since 2008—for good reason. Still, there are positive signs here, and it appears he has never been better. Too bad it's more than five years too late to help him against the great Anderson Silva in what was likely his first and last title shot.

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 1.6

    While Leites is quite good here, he's not quite as advertised. His submission skills are wildly overhyped by UFC commentators. While he has excellent grappling skills, he feasts on the dregs. He has yet to submit a top fighter or anyone even resembling one during his UFC run (the pre-The Ultimate Fighter version of Tor Troeng is likely the best on his resume).

    No, what makes Leites such a formidable grappler is his ability to advance position when he gets an opponent down. It's classic Gracie jiu-jitsu in action—positional hierarchy in human form. Against Herman, at that point a 15-fight UFC veteran from a wrestling background, Leites managed to advance from guard to back control on three separate occasions.

    That level of activity alone is enough to completely dominate a fight, and there aren't many middleweights who would be able to neutralize those skills. Even if he can't finish a fight riding an opponent's back, he can certainly win it.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 1.92, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.58

    As with his wrestling, Leites has shown drastic improvements in his striking game in recent years. In every one of his recent UFC fights, he has been able to get the better of his opponent's standing. He even knocked out Trevor Smith in just 45 seconds.

    That isn't to suggest he'll be competing in Glory anytime soon—he is still perfectly average here—but perfectly average makes him far, far better than the Leites of years past.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    The new Leites is clearly better than the one who stumbled his way into a title shot against Silva in 2009. Granted, Leites wasn't exactly a standout even in the super-shallow middleweight division of yesteryear, but the improvements are many and profound for the Brazilian.

    What remains to be seen is if he has put those individual skills together into a complete package the way guys like Raphael Assuncao and Rafael dos Anjos have. We won't know for sure until he faces some stiffer competition.

     

    Overall

    64/100

12. Alexander Shlemenko

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 71"
    Fight camp: RusFighters Sport Club
    Record: 50-8 (29 knockouts, 8 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Tito Ortiz (Sub), Bellator 120
    Def. Brennan Ward (Sub), Bellator 114
    Def. Doug Marshall (KO), Bellator 109

    Wrestling

    15/25

    While much was made about Alexander Shlemenko's recent submission loss to Tito Ortiz, it wasn't all that shocking to anybody who has watched the Russian closely over the years. While he has some downright excellent striking, among the very best in the division, he is as average as they come in terms of takedown defense. Every fighter he has come across with solid wrestling has had at least a fair degree of success against him.

    Brett Cooper was able to push him to the brink of defeat at Bellator 98, and Brennan Ward outwrestled him at Bellator 114 before ultimately succumbing to a submission. The greatest example of his spotty takedown defense came in his first crack at Bellator gold opposite Hector Lombard. Against the Cuban Olympian, he was taken down early and often and physically dominated by a fighter who eventually dropped down to 170 pounds. 

    So while his loss to Ortiz was what really drew attention to them in the broader MMA world, Shlemenko's struggles with the takedown have always been there. At this point, there's no denying his wrestling deficiencies.

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Making matters worse for Shlemenko is his inability to escape when pinned on the mat. Should his wrestling defense fail him, as it seems to all too often, he has few tools to get back to his feet. Early takedowns, time and again, have led to him spending entire rounds flailing on his back.

    Sometimes, crafty Brazilian jiu-jitsu will get the job done against him, as we saw in his loss to Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Sometimes, it can be wrestling, as we saw against Ward. Sometimes, Lombard-style “I am bigger and stronger than you” bullying is all that is required.

    His submission defense is generally good enough to survive onslaughts on the ground. Surviving, however, is the only thing he can do. It's what separates him from the world-class fighters to follow.

     

    Striking

    23/25

    When a new technique is added to the MMA striking zeitgeist, a single fighter can often be pointed to as the one who made it en vogue. Think Anderson Silva and the front kick to the face. Think Jon Jones and the spinning elbow.

    While it would be inaccurate to say Shlemenko introduced the world to the body shot, he certainly reminded fans and fighters alike that it can be as devastating as a shot to the chin. He made a tough Maiquel Falcao curl into a fetal position from two left hooks to the liver and did the same to the hard-punching former WEC champion Doug Marshall. The Russian's absurd accuracy and technical brilliance allow him to floor bigger, stronger fighters with disturbing ease.

    He doesn't need to be at striking distance to beat an opponent up, either. Shlemenko is one of the few fighters in the middleweight class just as good at range as he is in the clinch, where he scores often with biting knees and strong, dirty boxing.

    Anytime, anywhere, if Shlemenko is standing, he is capable of ending a fight.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    14/25

    When somebody has 10 years of experience and 58 fights under his belt, you'd expect him to be a well-honed machine, immune to anything and anyone but the very best. Not so with Shlemenko.

    He has spent almost his entire career facing regional-level cannon fodder. They say iron sharpens iron—if that's the case, Shlemenko's has merely been polished with the passing time.

    He is a big fish in a small pond, but the other fish are rapidly catching up in size, literally and figuratively. His frame is better suited for the welterweight division, and the regional-level jobbers are getting bigger and stronger by the year.

    Over the coming months, we will see him make the technical adjustments to remain a high-level middleweight, drop to welterweight or simply fall by the wayside as superior athletes render him obsolete.

     

    Overall

    66/100

11. Michael Bisping

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 35   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: Reign Training Center
    Record: 24-6 (14 knockouts, 4 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Tim Kennedy (UD), The Ultimate Fighter Nations Finale
    Def. Alan Belcher (UD), UFC 159
    Lost to Vitor Belfort (TKO), UFC on FX 7

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.63, Takedown Accuracy: 45%, Takedown Defense: 62%

    Michael Bisping's contentious relationship with amateur wrestling began during the filming of The Ultimate Fighter 3. There he met teammate/nemesis Matt Hamill, a standout wrestler whom Bisping believed got a disproportionate amount of coach Tito Ortiz's time and attention.

    When Hamill went on to beat Bisping in England on every scorecard save those of judges, the Brit had a decision to make. He could go on hating wrestling—or he could embrace it, learn it and tame it. The choice for Bispingfor any fighter worth caring about his MMA careerwas obvious. 

    Despite continued improvement, the Hamill fight had created a reputation for Bisping as a poor wrestler. It's been a tough label to shed—but as he showed against Chael Sonnen less than five years later, his takedown defense has come a long way since his early struggles. He made Sonnen work for his takedowns. Against a wrestler of that caliber, that's an unambiguous win.

    This will never be a strength for Bisping. Tim Kennedy showed that clearly, taking him down and manhandling him for 25 minutes. But, though he'll never be a truly great wrestler, Bisping is no longer an embarrassment here. That in itself is quite an accomplishment considering where he started.

     

    Grappling

    15/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    It's hard to get the Kennedy fight out of your head when you start thinking hard about where Bisping stands relative to his peers in the grappling department. It's been customary to think of him as solid here. After all, in more than eight years as a professional, we've never seen him submitted or truly dominated on the mat.

    His position on the subject is clear—a black belt becomes a white belt the minute you hit him in the face. And yet, there he was underneath Kennedy throughout his last bout. Not only did the former American soldier take him down five times, he passed his guard 11 times with disturbing ease.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Per Minute: 4.30, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.41

    Bisping's technical striking has always been a strength, providing him a comfort zone from which to learn the wrestling game on the fly. He's a volume puncher who makes up for a lack of natural power with quantity. 

    For him, every fight is a balancing act—literally. A disciplined fighter, he rarely overextends himself or puts himself at risk for an uncontested takedown. That has required some adjustment in how he throws his strikes and conceptualizes a perfect exchange.

    Power is in the hips—but they are also the key ingredient to an easy takedown when a wrestler drops levels. Bisping is forced to trade power for the proper positioning to fend off the shot. The result has been a "pillow hands" label. But a second-order effect is ever-improving defense where he's most vulnerable. For Bisping, keeping the fight standing is ultimately more valuable than risking a full-force attack.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Bisping has made the sacrifices necessary to maintain his position in the UFC's hierarchy. Feeling overmatched at light heavyweight, he committed to the lifestyle and training regimen needed to make middleweight. 

    Convinced he needed to improve his wrestling to make it big, he moved his camp to America. All in the name of greatness.

    That speaks to serious passion. But at some point, passion just isn't enough. Now 35, Bisping may soon have to face a hard truth—that he's peaked as an athlete, and a UFC title is not in the cards for him.

     

    Overall

    67/100

10. Gegard Mousasi

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: Red Devil International
    Record: 35-4-2 (18 knockouts, 12 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Mark Munoz (Sub), UFC Fight Night: Munoz vs. Mousasi
    Lost to Lyoto Machida (UD), UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Mousasi
    Def. Ilir Latifi (UD), UFC on Fuel TV 9

     

    Wrestling

    15/25

    Takedown Average: 1.52, Takedown Accuracy: 58%, Takedown Defense: 55%

    Gegard Mousasi has shown only one deficiency throughout his MMA career: wrestling. 

    In 41 professional fights, he has lost four times and fought to a draw twice, and each was a product of his inability to stuff the takedown. 

    Keith Jardine took him down six times, convincing the judges that he deserved a draw in the process. Akihiro Gono grounded "The Dreamcatcher" twice before slapping on a fight-ending armbar. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal took him down 11 times in 25 minutes under the Strikeforce banner. 

    While Mousasi's latest UFC effort, which saw him avoid six takedowns before submitting stud wrestler Mark Munoz, was impressive, the game plan for defeating Mousasi is clear—take him down and grind him out. 

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 1.5

    Mousasi's wrestling woes are not quite as crippling when one considers his flexible, deadly hips on the ground. 

    He's submitted 12 opponents throughout his MMA career with a variety of chokes and locks. He's squirmy and active from the bottom and smothering and technical from the top. He handled the grappling prowess of Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza at Dream 6 with grace before knocking the jiu-jiteiro out with an upkick, and he hasn't been submitted since the aforementioned 2006 bout with Gono. 

    Catching Mousasi off guard in the grappling department is tough work. He's seen everything and is generally a step ahead in this area of the game. Like any master of his craft, he combines years of experience with an inherent greatness, stifling and overwhelming opponents on the mat with a variety of sweeps, transitions and submissions.

    A strong, top-heavy wrestler can nullify his attack, but as he showed against Munoz, sometimes even that is not enough. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.52, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.08

    Mousasi's jab is a thing of beauty, which is unsurprising when you consider the Dutch fighter began boxing at the age of 15. 

    He keeps opponents at bay with this flicking ramrod, gauging distance and setting up more powerful, devastating strikes. His 1.08 strikes absorbed per minute is among the lowest in the middleweight class, and he's never been knocked out in professional action—largely a product of that precise, perfect jab. 

    While he is not overwhelming or superpowerful offensively, Mousasi brilliantly combines an active offensive game with a smart, tactical defensive approach in a way that rarely invites danger and always keeps him in the driver's seat. It's not always pretty or exciting, but it is effective. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Does Mousasi even care about fighting? You'd never know from observing his in-fight demeanor.

    He's beyond cool, calm and collected, looking positively apathetic before, during and after fights. His tranquility is almost comical in that regard, and this poise allows him to step into the cage with the world's finest and still execute his game plan without hesitation.

    Despite a star-studded 41-fight resume, Mousasi is still just 28 years old, and he's currently enjoying his athletic prime. A fight with Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza looms on August 2 at UFC 176, and with a win, we may see Mousasi challenge for UFC gold.

    His well-rounded skill set has prepared him for this moment, and he's ready to seize the opportunity and showcase his full potential inside the Octagon.  

     

    Overall

    70/100

9. Yoel Romero

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Age: 37   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: American Top Team
    Record: 8-1 (7 knockouts, 0 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Brad Tavares (UD), UFC on Fox 11
    Def. Derek Brunson (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Rockhold v. Philippou
    Def. Ronny Markes (KO), UFC: Fight for the Troops 3

     

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average: 2.04, Takedown Accuracy: 29%, Takedown Defense: 60%

    Until we finally saw him unleash the full power of his wrestling attack against Brad Tavares, you would have been hard-pressed to identify Yoel Romero as a wrestler at all, let alone a 2000 Olympic silver medalist. Sure, fans heard UFC announcers tout his wrestling credentials and the fact that he defeated American wrestling legend Cael Sanderson on multiple occasions. But it's hard to take that kind of talk seriously when he's being taken down, easily, by the likes of Ronny Markes.

    In his fight with Derek Brunson, Romero looked like the second-best wrestler in the cage; his famous low ankle picks were nowhere to be seen. Brunson was able to stuff Romero's half-hearted takedowns and score three of his own. There were times you could see a flicker of what Romero could be—including a snap down that looked truly jarring. Those moments, however, were fleeting.

    The potential is there for him to dominate this phase of the game. But, to this point, he just hasn't bothered.

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    Romero's seeming disinterest in his MMA wrestling appears to extend to his grappling attack as well. Traditionally, this is holy ground for the converted amateur wrestlers who have dominated this sport for years.

    From Dan Severn forward, wrestlers have made their MMA mark on the mat. Even more diverse fighters like Randy Couture or Cain Velasquez still preferred to do their damage on the ground, pounding an opponent out. 

    Romero shows no signs of that mindset. As an Olympic-class wrestler, he certainly could make the ground his domain. We've seen him get up easily off his back—the same skill set could help him control top position as well. Instead, thanks to his trainers at American Top Team, he's content to avoid submissions and return to his feet. Good enough goals, maybe, but unusual for a wrestler of this caliber.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.48, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.89

    Romero's lackadaisical approach here is exceedingly deceptive. Bouncing around almost casually on his toes, seemingly barely even paying attention, he is like a big cat waiting to strike. His left hand comes out of this posture as a blur, too fast for an opponent to avoid, even if he knows it's coming. 

    It's an unconventional approach that throws off foes who are used to the rigid routine of most MMA fighters. Add in his flying knees and random spinning strikes that come out of no playbook known to man, and you have a very unpredictable and dangerous fighter.

    Romero has serious power. That much is obvious from the stats alone. Seven of his eight wins have come by way of knockout. Now imagine how well he would do if he married technique and strategy to his unquestionable athleticism. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    14/25

    The clock is ticking fast for the 37-year-old. He had a full and fulfilling international wrestling career before ever considering MMA, winning a world championship and competing successfully with the very best for nearly a decade. 

    He's starting his career late and, frankly, wasting a bit of time pretending to be Tyrone Spong and not spending enough time trying to become the next Chris Weidman. Romero needs to be on a fast track to contention. That means top-flight opponents. That means fighting to his strengths. As yet, it's not clear whether he's capable or interested in doing what it takes to be great.

     

    Overall

    70/100

8. Tim Kennedy

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 34   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA
    Record: 18-4 (6 knockouts, 8 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Michael Bisping (UD), The Ultimate Fighter: Nations Finale
    Def. Rafael Natal (KO), UFC Fight For the Troops 3
    Def. Roger Gracie (UD), UFC 162

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 2.69, Takedown Accuracy: 38%, Takedown Defense: 77%

    If Tim Kennedy can secure a takedown (or multiple takedowns) throughout a fight, he wins. It's that simple.

    If he cannot, it's not an automatic loss, but his chances of having his hand raised are greatly reduced. Luke Rockhold avoided 10 of his takedown attempts, and Kennedy was forced to stand and trade with a superior striker. It didn't work out well. Kennedy was picked apart and dropped a decision. 

    Lately, though, nobody has stopped him from doing what he wants to do—planting his opponent on his back. That's the goal, and he has multiple ways of accomplishing it. He works well from the clinch, and he has showcased a powerful shot as well.

    When he wants to take an opponent down, he's relentless. This stubborn attitude mixed with his physical strength is a recipe for success in the wrestling department. 

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.7

    Kennedy doesn't boast the grappling accolades of a Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza or a Roger Gracie, but he's spent time with these Brazilian jiu-jitsu studs on the ground inside the cage and looked incredibly comfortable doing so. He passed Gracie's guard once and reversed position on him another timetwo feats that much more decorated ground artists have failed to accomplish.

    The Jackson-Winkeljohn product refers to his ground game as the "anti-jiu-jitsu," and he employs a stifling top game that suffocates opponents and gives them no room to work any kind of offense. 

    That doesn't mean, however, that he can't submit an opponent. His resume is dotted with eight submission victories, and he's showcased some marvelous passes and transitions throughout his career.

    Against devastating striker Melvin Manhoef, Kennedy secured a takedown and moved from side control to mount to the back before flattening out his foe and slapping on the rear-naked choke. It was a beautiful example of small advancements adding up in a big way, displaying BJJ's positional hierarchy at its best.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.72, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.45

    Kennedy's striking is improving, but it's still by far his greatest weakness. 

    He notched a clean knockout over Rafael Natal at UFC Fight for the Troops 3, and he tagged the generally elusive Michael Bisping a few times at The Ultimate Fighter: Nations Finale, but Kennedy's attack generally relies on one loaded power shot, not combinations. 

    He's flat-footed and bullish on his feet, opting to look for the instant kill instead of peppering away and slowly damaging his opponent before turning out the lights.

    He was picked apart by Rockhold, and even the pedestrian striking of Souza gave him trouble, something that doesn't bode well for his chances against a truly elite striker in the future. 

    Luckily, Kennedy doesn't use his striking as a first plan of attack. He wings power punches to close the distance and clinch. There, he can do his finest work. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Everybody wants to brush off Kennedy's background in the U.S. Army as a selling point or an exaggeration, but the man was literally on the front lines of battle, slinging and ducking bullets. 

    Fighters oftentimes say they're "ready for war." Well, Kennedy has actually been to war. Real war. Punches, kicks and submissions cannot intimidate this man, not after what he's been through and seen. 

    At 34 years old, though, he isn't making his title run at the perfect time. He tends to gas in the later stages of fights, and while he's flashed some big knockout power recently, there's no reason to think he's much of a threat in a technical stand-up fight. 

    He's one-dimensional, but he's very good at that dimension, and it's got him where he is today. In an MMA landscape filled with increasingly well-rounded fighters, we're going to see just how far Kennedy can ride his wrestle-heavy attack. 

     

    Overall

    71/100

7. Yushin Okami

9 of 15

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: Wajutsu Keishukai
    Record: 30-8 (10 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Svetlozar Savov (Sub), WSOF 9
    Lost to Ronaldo Souza (KO), UFC Fight Night 28
    Def. Hector Lombard (SD), UFC on Fuel TV 8

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average: 1.88, Takedown Accuracy: 47%, Takedown Defense: 84%

    When we consider the concept of the "grinder," it evokes a certain image. You can picture him in your head—a half-shaved, athletically challenged wrestler from the American Midwest. A Fitchian fighter making the most of his limited abilities, holding better and more skilled fighters down with the power of will and a sprinkling of grit.

    Your mind doesn't immediately drift to hulking Asians—but Yushin Okami holds the distinction of being one of the few effective grinders in the sport born and raised outside the States. With a nigh-inescapable clinch attack, nonstop takedown attempts and unusual physical power, he is capable of smothering almost any fighter in the middleweight division.

    This applies to inexperienced cans like Buddy Roberts and Lucio Linhares, whom Okami finished without incident, and skilled veterans like Evan Tanner, Mark Munoz and Hector Lombard alike. Okami is relentless and without peer in the sheer grindiness of his attack. 

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    As a prototypical ground-and-pounder, Okami's grappling success is largely defined by his ability to maintain top position. He's quite good at that, of course, and it allows him to deliver unanswered punches time and again.  

    His submission offense is relatively lacking, however. While he can slap an arm-triangle choke onto a wounded opponent, you won't see any killer Kimuras or crafty calf slicers out of him. His submission defense is contrastingly impressive and affords him the opportunity to fearlessly roll even with strong submission artists.

    That alone is significant. Okami's game is predicated on imposing his will. If he was too afraid to meet a submission specialist where he lives, that would be all but impossible.

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.23, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.20

    There are two distinct kinds of a Yushin Okami fight: the kind where he mercilessly bullies his opponent for 15 minutes and the kind where he suffers a spectacular knockout loss. There is little in the way of an in-between. That is never a positive sign when evaluating a fighter's striking skills.

    Indeed, all three of Okami's most recent losses (to Ronaldo Souza, Anderson Silva and Tim Boetsch) have come by knockout. Even in winning efforts against guys like Hector Lombard and Nate Marquardt, he found himself on rubbery legs after taking stiff shots to the kisser. His only striking tool, a decent southpaw jab, won't fool anybody but the most inexperienced strikers.

    Against most fighters, this lack of skill won't hinder Okami. He's a long, strong southpaw with very good wrestling, and many fighters are incapable of making him pay for his sloppy striking. He's too exotic and scary on the ground for anyone but the most confident fighter to really challenge him.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Okami is among the best grapplers and sloppiest strikers in the middleweight division. The good news? He knows it and fights accordingly.

    Unfortunately, despite his legitimate grappling prowess and not-as-bad-as-they-claim chin, his efforts against elite-level competition have consistently fallen short. Why? His inability to make adjustments.

    Some would call him a choker, given the fact that his shortcomings tend to be most obvious whenever he has a clear path to a title. Some would just point out that his conquerors, men like Chael Sonnen, Rich Franklin and Anderson Silva, are all just pretty darn good at MMA. It's ultimately irrelevant for this list, because flaccidity outside his comfort zone will spell doom at a high level one way or another.

     

    Overall

    71/100

6. Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza

10 of 15

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 34   Height: 6'0"   Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: X-Gym
    Record: 20-3 (1) (2 knockouts, 14 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Francis Carmont (UD), UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Mousasi
    Def. Yushin Okami (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Bader
    Def. Chris Camozzi (Sub), UFC on FX 8

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 3.64, Takedown Accuracy: 47%, Takedown Defense: 54%

    Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza is a truly underappreciated takedown artist. Everybody wants to talk about the former Strikeforce middleweight champ's Brazilian jiu-jitsu and improving striking (as they should), but he is also a black belt in judo who owns a variety of tricky trips and throws once he ties up in the clinch. 

    From a distance, he doesn't unleash a powerful shot like some collegiate-athletes-turned-MMA-stars, but once he clinches you, chances are he'll find a way to take you down. 

    Defensively, he's harder to judge. He gave up takedowns to solid wrestlers such as Jason "Mayhem" Miller, Tim Kennedy and Matt Lindland during his career, but he also boasts one of the best ground games in all of MMA, so he doesn't exactly fight them off with all his might. 

     

    Grappling

    24/25

    Submission Average: 2.2

    When discussing the best ground games in mixed martial arts, Souza's name will pop up early and often. He's a multiple-time World Jiu-Jitsu Championship and Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship gold and silver medalist, and he was one-half of what some jiu-jiteiros consider the greatest grappling match of all time

    Against low-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu players, the battle isn't even fair. He'll choke them out or snap an arm, and it won't even be a challenge. Heck, even black belts have a hard time dealing with Souza's ground game, as shown by his overflowing mantle of grappling achievements. 

    A rating of 25 would infer that Souza submits everybody who touches the ground with him, which just isn't true. What is true, however, is that he is one of the finest grapplers in MMA today. If you want to beat him, you're best off avoiding this facet of the sport altogether. 

     

    Striking

    15/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.20, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.94

    After Souza knocked out Yushin Okami at UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Bader, the MMA world buzzed about his "improved, deadly striking." The stand-up game always represented his weakest area, and he looked like an absolute beast on the feet that evening. 

    That evening wasn't quite a lie, but it was a fib. 

    In truth, Souza owns a powerful left hook, a clubbing, devastating overhand right and not much else. Both of his knockout victories came in his last five fights, as it appears he's honed the ability to channel his power into his strikes with decent success of late, so that's something.

    Still, he gets picked apart by technical, well-rounded strikers. Luke Rockhold beat him with this strategy, and Francis Carmont outstruck him when the two fought at UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Mousasi in February. 

    Until he adds some combinations to his game and shows off more than just big power, Souza's striking should still be considered decent, not great. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    At 34 years old with 23 professional fights and numerous grappling tournaments under his belt, nothing surprises Souza inside the cage. He broke his arm against Roger Gracie and still finished the match at the 2004 Mundials, so needless to say, the dude is tough. Gracie tough.

    He's at ease in the realm of combat and possesses the kind of vicious killer instinct in both the stand-up and ground games that makes him a scary opponent for anybody in the world. If he beats Gegard Mousasi at UFC 176 in August, we will undoubtedly see Souza challenge for the UFC middleweight title by late 2014 or early 2015. Time is of the essence, as his window is closing quickly. It's now or never for Souza—and he knows it. 

     

    Overall

    74/100

5. Luke Rockhold

11 of 15

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 6'3"   Reach: 77"
    Fight camp: American Kickboxing Academy
    Record: 12-2 (3 knockouts, 7 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Tim Boetsch (Sub), UFC 172
    Def. Costas Philippou (KO), UFC Fight Night 35
    Lost to Vitor Belfort (KO), UFC on FX 8

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 0.21, Takedown Accuracy: 20%, Takedown Defense: 70%

    Offensively, Luke Rockhold has very little wrestling to speak of. The fact that he averages just one-fifth of a takedown over a 15-minute span spells that out pretty clearly.

    It's a bit disappointing, given his strong submission game, and a bit odd, given the fact that he trains at American Kickboxing Academy, which has spawned Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez. With the square jaw and broad shoulders of an American wrestling champion and Cormier so often by his side, it feels like Rockhold should be something special here—but he just isn't.

    Defensively, he has yet to be seriously tested in the UFC. In Strikeforce, he successfully survived the attacks of two underappreciated wrestlers in Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Tim Kennedy. Both got him down, but he created enough of a roadblock to guarantee himself opportunities on his feet and a chance to win the fight. For Rockhold, that's a wrestling win.

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 1.3

    Jiu-jitsu culture was a good fit for the California-raised surfer dude and eventually led him into the wild world of mixed martial arts. This is his base, and while Rockhold doesn't actively look to fight on the ground, his grappling skills are strong across the board. 

    His top game is incredibly troublesome for opponents, particularly in terms of his ability to advance position. He showed this off brilliantly during his run in Strikeforce: Challengers, where he once racked up four first-round rear-naked-choke submissions in a row. Those skills haven't faded, either, as we saw when he used an inverted triangle choke to set up a Kimura on Tim Boetsch at UFC 172.

    Defensively, he is great at using his “Legitsu” to avoid submissions, and put himself into positions where he can explode and escape. He has never been submitted in his career and has never been held down for any length of time. 

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.62, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.79

    Rockhold has always looked the part of a deadly striker. He's fluid, which in MMA is practically the same as being "K-1 level." Even back when all his wins were coming by submission, and he frankly wasn't very good standing, he still demonstrated some lethal counterpunching skills and athletic kicks.

    In the time since, he has added more and more layers to his stand-up game. In addition to his deadly kicks, he has a solid jab and a nice left straight. His right hook is a work in progress but coming along, and he finished Costas Philippou with a few hard shots to the body. He has also shown potent knees, the most obvious example being when he knocked out Paul Bradley in the first round of their 2010 bout.

    In MMA, that's the total package. He isn't an elite striker quite yet. His combinations are rudimentary and predictable, and he has a tendency to chase opponents who aren't active enough to keep his interest. That's a dangerous game against a clever counterstriker.  

    But those are the detailsthe nuances that come with time and repetition. He has the broad brush strokes down, and his diverse arsenal is enough to give anybody in the division fits.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Physically and athletically, Rockhold is one of the best at 185 pounds. There are very few in the division he doesn't match or exceed when it comes to cardio, reach and sheer physical strength. Mentally, however, there is a little room for doubt.

    The former Strikeforce champ looks unstoppable while dictating the pace of a fight. When he is in the driver's seat, his all-over-the-cage skills and high-octane pace allow him to run through quality opponents. He has been able to impose his will and handily beat every opponent he has come across, save for one.

    That one, of course, was Vitor Belfort, whom he fought at UFC on FX 8. It was the first time he'd faced another truly elite athlete, and Rockhold was utterly lost when Belfort was the conductor. The American was left stumbling as he tried to dance to another's tune. That led to him making rookie mistakes, which in turn led to a particularly brutal knockout loss.

    One fight isn't enough to make any sweeping judgments on his in-cage psyche. However, it showed that as good as Rockhold can be, he's not quite at a championship level. At least not yet.

     

    Overall

    74/100

4. Vitor Belfort

12 of 15

    Andre Penner/Associated Press

    Age: 37   Height: 6'0"   Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Blackzilians
    Record: 24-10 (17 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Dan Henderson (KO), UFC Fight Night: Belfort v. Henderson
    Def. Luke Rockhold (KO), UFC on FX 8
    Def. Michael Bisping (TKO), UFC on FX 7

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.26, Takedown Accuracy: 60%, Takedown Defense: 51% 

    While Randy Couture was the first to beat Vitor Belfort back when the Brazilian was still a phenom, it was Japan's Kazushi Sakuraba who may have discovered the secret to taking his heart. The longer Belfort lay with his back on the mat, the more drained he became. As the seconds turned to minutes in their 1999 fight, you could practically see Belfort's will breaking.

    Later in their careers, Couture would employ the same trick. Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson and Jon Jones also used the takedown to good effect, wearing Belfort down with heavy top control. 

    But, wrestler beware: Taking Belfort down is not exactly foolproof. His defense is solid, and once you get him on the mat, his grappling game takes front and center—not always a good thing for the caliber of wrestler who is capable of taking Belfort down.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average 0.8

    Fans have been hearing about Belfort's grappling prowess since he burst onto the scene, straight-up blitzing Jon Hess in Hawaii back in 1996. It was a thing widely discussed but rarely seen. Cynics suggested it didn't exist at all.

    Yet, Carlson Gracie wanted to gift Belfort his iconic family name. Surely, that spoke volumes about Belfort's ability, didn't it?

    Success at a grappling tournament in Abu Dhabi in 2001 quelled some concerns, but a grappling contest, no matter how prestigious, is not MMA. Finally, after years of debate, Jones inadvertently gave us all an answer when he was a bit too casual with his arm during their UFC 152 fight.

    Belfort's quick armbar, while not ultimately successful, spoke of speed and craft—and gave future foes yet one more thing to worry about as they faced an already all but certain doom.

     

    Striking

    23/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 1.49, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.16

    For years, Belfort was known for his fast, powerful hands. Once those fists started moving at full speed, few could stand in front of him for long—a lesson Wanderlei Silva learned in just 44 seconds back in 1998.

    The last 16 years have seen quite a change in Belfort's game. Increasingly conservative with his hands, furious flurries like the kind that dropped Silva are a thing of the distant past.  

    He now opens up only when an opening actually exists, rather than trying to bull his way in with force and speed alone. And he finds those openings with a new weapon—his feet, winning his last three fights with highlight-reel knockout kicks.

    In fact, he has finished every opponent in his six victories since returning to the Octagon in 2009 against Rich Franklin. Statistically, he's actually been outstruck by his opponents in that span, but that just highlights a flaw in the system. There are the average fighter's significant strikes, and then there are Belfort's significant strikes. The two are far from equal.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Everything he throws is capable of finishing a fight. After years of being the butt of "Old Vitor" jokes, the aging legend has come full circle. He is once again the most feared striker in the sport.

    But there's no ducking the issue—Belfort has seen a clear career resurgence at an age that sees most fighters fade. And, perhaps tellingly, he's done much of his best work fueled by the now banned testosterone replacement therapy.

    He is 37. Can he survive a new breed of fighter without a chemical boost? We're likely soon to find out. Like most older fighters, Belfort is technically a better and smarter athlete than he's ever been. If his body can hold up without chemical assistance, and that's a big if, there's every reason to think he can make another run at the title.

     

    Overall

    75/100

3. Anderson Silva

13 of 15

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 39   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 77"
    Fight camp: Black House
    Record: 33-6 (20 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Chris Weidman (TKO), UFC 168
    Lost to Chris Weidman (KO), UFC 162
    Def. Stephan Bonnar (TKO), UFC 153

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 0.69, Takedown Accuracy: 77%, Takedown Defense: 69%

    Among the message-board ranks, Anderson Silva's poor takedown defense is glaring. Critics cite it often in any conversation about the best fighters of all time. It's the albatross tarnishing the former middleweight kingpin's career, albeit one that sure didn't seem to hold him back too much.

    The problem? Statistically, it's just not true. Sure, years ago, there was a solid case to be made. In 2004, Jeremy Horn, the brilliant journeyman grappler, took him down four times, turning what should have been an easy win into a dogfight. In 2002, Alexander Otsuka, a pro wrestler of little note, put Silva on his back over and over again as well. Even Shooto lightweight Tetsuji Kato got the better of a young Silva.

    Over the years, however, Silva's footwork, clever grappling and competent sprawl have come a long way. His use of a counter-clinch when trapped against the fence is a brilliant deterrent to an opponent's takedown attempts. But, mostly, Silva avoids the takedown by maintaining movement and distance. During his middleweight reign, only Chael Sonnen and Travis Lutter really manhandled him in the wrestling phase of the fight—and both paid the price once the fight hit the mat.

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 1.1

    Silva has become so good at avoiding the ground that he's rarely had the chance to display his submission game in the Octagon. It's not where he wants to be, and he usually has opponents so flustered on their feet that getting the bout to the ground takes a back seat to survival.

    But, if forced to his back, Silva has an active and competent guard. His long limbs make triangle chokes his best weapon. He pulled victory from the jaws of defeat with a final-round triangle against Sonnen back in 2010 and forced Lutter to concede all the way back at UFC 67.

     

    Striking

    23/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 3.11, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.47

    Silva's exploits in the cage are so legendary it's hard to pinpoint his greatest moment. Is it the Matrix impression he pulled off against poor Forrest Griffin, making the former light heavyweight champion appear to be moving in slow motion? Was it his astounding front kick to Vitor Belfort's grill? His brutal muay thai plumb that left Rich Franklin scrambling for a weight class to call his own?

    Silva made the amazing so routine that it was easy to take him for granted. We just expected he would come to the cage and do something that made our jaws drop and made us proud to call this sport our own.

    Time, however, yields to no man, not even the great Silva. Like his idol, boxer Roy Jones, Silva relied on his ludicrous reflexes and speed to drop his hands and bait opponents in. That's when he unleashed the counters they never saw coming.

    At age 35, incredibly, that style was still working for Silva. As 40 loomed, his style continued to yield highlight-reel results—but for his opponent. When he dropped his hands against Chris Weidman, Silva paid a heavy price, staring blankly at the ceiling after a Weidman left hook sent his eyes rolling back into his head.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Can Silva return from a brutal leg break that he suffered in a rematch with Weidman? More importantly, if he does, will he be able to fix the flaws in his style that Weidman brought to the fore?

    Older athletes often struggle with becoming just a split second slower to react. They still know what to do, but their body just doesn't cooperate with them anymore. Silva was showing signs of this fatal malady even before the Weidman fight. Now, the ravages of Father Time are clear.

    Will he make the changes he needs to continue to thrive? He's a very stubborn fighter, a trait we've seen over and over again throughout his career. He only knows one way to fight—and he doesn't seem like the kind of old dog interested in new tricks. 

     

    Overall

    78/100

2. Chris Weidman

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Age: 30   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 78"
    Fight camp: Serra-Longo Fight Team
    Record: 11-0 (5 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Anderson Silva (TKO), UFC 168
    Def. Anderson Silva (KO), UFC 162
    Def. Mark Munoz (KO), UFC on Fuel TV 4

     

    Wrestling

    23/25

    Takedown Average: 4.00, Takedown Accuracy: 68%, Takedown Defense: 100%

    Few collegiate wrestlers have adapted their skills to the cage quite as well as Chris Weidman has. A two-time Division I All-American at Hofstra University, he has unquestionably elite wrestling, and it's been even better in the context of an MMA fight.

    He transitions from striking to wrestling with ease, never telegraphing a shot or giving his opponent a chance to breathe or adjust. Just when a foe feels comfortable on the feet, Weidman shoots, and to the ground the fight goes.

    Defensively, he's never given up a takedown, and so far, it doesn't look like anybody in the division has the skills sufficient to plant him on his back. The UFC middleweight champion is an incredible talent all around, but his wrestling is his greatest strength. 

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 1.9

    "Prodigious" is a good word to use when describing Weidman's grappling game. 

    "Unbelievable" is better. 

    No, Weidman is not the best grappler in MMA. He's not even the best grappler in the 185-pound division (thanks for nothing, Jacare!). But the speed with which he's picked up the intricacies of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is astounding.

    In 2009, with just one year of formal jiu-jitsu training, Weidman won the East Coast trials for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship before losing a quarterfinal matchup on points to Andre Galvao, a third-degree black belt who had been training and competing in BJJ tournaments for almost 10 years at that point. 

    That just doesn't happen. Weidman is a grappling savant, and with three submission victories in his 11-fight MMA career, it's clear that he knows how to apply these skills inside the Octagon. Check out his defense of Anderson Silva's de la Riva hook at UFC 162 for a perfect example of Weidman's instinctive, high-level grappling game. That's some beautiful stuff. 

    Souza aside, it doesn't look like any middleweight in the world has the combined wrestling and grappling chops to trouble Weidman on the ground. 

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.15, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.90

    "All-American" twice knocked out the greatest stand-up artist in UFC history, so that has to count for something, right? 

    While factual, that statement comes with a lot of what-ifs and asterisks. We know Silva clowned around in the first fight, and we know that the second fight ended after Weidman expertly checked a leg kick from "The Spider." 

    Good for Weidman. He did what he needed to do to win the fights, and he was the better man those nights, fair and square.

    But don't think for a second that he's a better all-around striker than Silva. That's just silly.

    Yes, Weidman has big-time knockout power, and, yes, he can game-plan to counter one of his opponent's attacks. Still, he's slow and a little sloppy on the feet, and he's mostly a boxer, rarely throwing kicks to diversify his arsenal.

    Demian Maia held his own with Weidman on the feet, and the champ faces a monstrous test in karate expert Lyoto Machida at UFC 175 on July 5. 

    If Weidman can handle or best Machida in the striking department, this score can skyrocket, but for now, let's dampen our praise—and our expectations. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    Debuting as a pro in 2009, Weidman is young to the sport of MMA, but he's 30 years old and plagued by injuries, meaning that his time as a top-shelf combatant may be short-lived. 

    While he is a sensational wrestler and grappler with huge knockout power, he lacks the "it" factor, that inexplicable athleticism and power that made Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre such dominant forces for years. 

    There's no denying that Weidman's ability to piece together the individual parts of MMA into an effective package is impressive, and his fight camp is top-notch, but with his injury history, age and the increasing strength of the middleweight division, it's hard to imagine him coming close to matching Silva's previous reign. 

    And that's OK. Silva was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and we'd be greedy and irrational to expect such dominance from every 185-pound champ who comes along. 

    On the plus side, Weidman's mental fortitude and fearlessness won him the UFC championship. Whereas other contenders fell into Silva's web and became intimidated and frightened by his antics, Weidman stepped forward and delivered a left hook to the Brazilian's jaw, ending the most impressive championship run in MMA history. 

     

    Overall

    79/100

1. Lyoto Machida

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 36   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Black House/Kings MMA
    Record: 21-4 (8 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Gegard Mousasi (UD), UFC Fight Night: Machida v. Mousasi
    Def. Mark Munoz (KO)UFC Fight Night: Machida v. Munoz
    Lost to Phil Davis (UD), UFC 163

     

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average: 1.54, Takedown Accuracy: 65%, Takedown Defense: 80%

    Lyoto Machida's martial arts resume is quite diverse—karate, sumo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu all mingle together to create one of the most interesting fighters in UFC history. What's missing from his CV is traditional amateur wrestling, the backbone of many of the sport's greatest champions.

    His array of foot sweeps, clinch takedowns and other throws spring from a completely different martial well. That lack of pedigree, however, doesn't make him an easy mark. As the statistics show, even the best wrestlers have struggled to get him to the mat.

    Phil Davis, a former NCAA champion, only completed 2-of 10 attempts. Randy Couture, twice an NCAA runner-up, missed all of his before catching a foot in the face—and both of those men were light heavyweights to boot.

    Now at middleweight, taking Machida down should be an even bigger challenge—champion Chris Weidman, arguably the finest wrestler in the division, will put him to the test at UFC 175.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    Machida's game is all about using his unusual stand-up attack to confuse and ultimately finish his opponents. Grappling, while definitely in his tool belt, isn't an instrument he pulls out too often. The last time he legitimately attempted a submission was 2011, an armbar he completely abandoned when it looked like Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was about to turn him into Ricardo Arona 2.0. 

    We suspect, based on his training partners and nation of origin, that Machida has solid grappling. But we don't know it for sure. The moments on the mat that stand out in his career—Tito Ortiz nearly pulling off a miracle win and Jon Jones dropping his unconscious carcass to the ground after a guillotine choke—were both on the negative side of the ledger.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 2.64, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.39

    For years, the traditional martial arts were the laughingstock of the MMA world. The Gracie family built their legacy by showing how flawed the Asian striking arts became the moment kata became conflict.

    Karate was fine if you were fighting a board or a brick. If your beef was with a live a human being, however, you were out of luck.

    But just as the mystical arts, once celebrated on film and screen, reached their nadir as jiu-jitsu ace Eddie Bravo mocked them live on UFC pay-per-view, a sleeping dragon was beginning to emerge. 

    Karate didn't survive the centuries because it was valueless nonsense, fit only to fill an hour in a kid's after-school schedule. At their core, with the right warrior at the wheel, these arts worked. It took Machida to remind us of that.

    When you watch him fight, it's obvious right away that you aren't seeing traditional, MMA-style muay thai in play that is simply called karate as a marketing tool or a tribute to his ancestors. Machida is different. His timing, angles, accuracy and mesmerizing movement are his own.

    His genius lies in controlling distance. He demands his opponents come to him, his upper body tilted backward to make reaching him just a little bit harder. Using feints, leg kicks and his opponent's impatience, Machida lures his foes right into the path of his powerful left hand, just waiting to deliver the counter.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Machida's style is beautiful in its simplicity, a lifetime of training distilled into a moment or two that define the fight. His goals are far from a secret. He wants his opponents to chase him, making them vulnerable to his best techniques like the straight left and the stepping knee. 

    It's really no more complex than that. But like a pure running team in football, it's a strategy that requires complete commitment to stop. And then there's this—most opponents have never seen anyone like Machida standing across from them. His style of fighting is completely unfamiliar to most. Machida, in contrast, has been utilizing these techniques and this strategy his whole life.

    Advantage: Machida.

    Now 36, his upcoming bout with Weidman may be his last shot at another world championship. Outsized his whole career at 205 pounds, Machida nevertheless ascended the ladder all the way to the very top. Finally fighting men his own size, another title seems tantalizingly within reach. It's a win that would catapult him into rarefied air alongside the best to ever step into the cage. 

     

    Overall

    79/100