B/R MMA 125: Ranking the 125 Best Fighters in Mixed Martial Arts

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJune 27, 2014

B/R MMA 125: Ranking the 125 Best Fighters in Mixed Martial Arts

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    From its earliest days, determining the best MMA fighter in the world has never been a particularly easy task. Even as Royce Gracie dominated the initial UFC tournaments in 1993 and 1994, challengers to his throne emerged overseas, his own brother Rickson at the front of the pack.

    As the years have gone by and the sport has become more diverse—in size, technique and geography—winnowing a pool of hundreds down to one has become more and more difficult. How do you compare lightning-quick submission ace Rumina Sato with Ukrainian slugger Igor Vovchanchyn? Would Frank Shamrock's cardio and smarts outlast the creative flair of Japan's Kazushi Sakuraba?

    Separated by continents, weight classes and promotional affiliation, there was no definitive method of determining who stood alone atop the heap. Unlike team sports, time-tested metrics to discern an athlete's worth were virtually nonexistent. Even today, most MMA stats are quantitative.

    Fight Metric and others tally the number of strikes landed, submissions attempted or takedowns denied. But they do little to tell us which strikes really mattered or distinguish between failing to take down an Olympic medalist or failing to take down an overweight journeyman. 

    While statistics have their place—and we've used them in a supplemental role to establish baseline standards of quality—ultimately, rating fighters is a subjective process. Right now, numbers alone can't tell the tale. Our team, including Hunter Homistek, Steven Rondina and Bleacher Report MMA editor Brian Oswald, watched thousands of hours of fights to determine where each of the world's top fighters stood in four key categories: wrestling, grappling, striking and fight IQ/intangibles. You can read more about the process here.

    After breaking down each weight class, from the minuscule flyweights to the gargantuan heavyweights, we've now turned our attention to the grander picture. Many sites have a pound-for-pound top 10; ours now extends beyond 100 fighters.

    Presented for your consideration, here is the MMA 125—the 125 very best male fighters in mixed martial arts. 

    Disagree with any of our placements? Concerned by our calculations or the complete dearth of MMA math? Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments. 

Notable Omissions

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    Mixed martial arts can be a brutal business. The wear and tear on the body is almost impossible to comprehend; damage to the brain is staggering to contemplate. As you might imagine, it's a sport with plenty of turnover. A fighter can go from champion to also-ran in the blink of an eye.

    At any given moment, the disabled list is full of talented but incapacitated athletes. For our purposes, fighters who haven't competed in over a calendar year were eliminated from consideration. So, too, were athletes who have officially declared their retirement, even if we all know such things are fleeting in the world of combat sport. 

    That's left some familiar names missing from this list. Here are a few of the more prominent fighters who likely would have made the 125 (and certainly might make the next iteration).

    Dominick Cruz: The former bantamweight champion was finally stripped of his title and hasn't fought since 2011. While he still intends a return to the cage, at this point it's hard to even imagine where he'd stand in a very different 135-pound landscape.

    Nick Diaz: You scared, homie? The mesmerizingly zany Diaz is still a part of daily MMA conversation. Despite constant talk of retirement, he's been linked to any number of fights—but hasn't actually competed since losing in definitive fashion to the great Georges St-Pierre in March 2013.

    T.J. Grant: Grant won knockout of the night and a shot at UFC gold back at UFC 160 in May. Unfortunately, the lingering effects of a concussion have kept him from the cage. His return remains one of the sport's great unanswered questions.

    BJ Penn: Though scheduled for a featherweight bout with Frankie Edgar next month, the 35-year-old lightweight pioneer hasn't fought since 2012. Considering that bout was at welterweight, rating Penn's current skill set is nigh on impossible.

    Georges St-Pierre: After a close decision win over current champion Johny Hendricks, St-Pierre stepped away from the sport he's dominated for nearly a decade. One of the best fighters of all time, St-Pierre would have likely topped a list like this for many years—and might again, should he choose to return to the cage.

    Chael Sonnen: The voice of the sport on Fox Sports 1, Sonnen was caught up in a drug testing scandal this month and forced into retirement. The long-time middleweight challenger was making his presence felt at light heavyweight before announcing his departure from the sport, and we may see him again after he's better able to regulate a system thrown into chaos by testosterone replacement therapy.

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    125. Andrei Arlovski (Heavyweight)

    57/100

    It may look like Arlovski has found the fountain of youth, but appearances can be deceiving. He may not have aged a day on the outside, but he's far from the fighter he was in his championship prime. The underlying skills may still be lurking below the surface—but thanks to a questionable chin, Arlovski no longer has the ability or the courage to apply them.

     

    124. Diego Sanchez (Lightweight)

    59/100

    Sanchez is still the lovable weirdo we fell in love with during the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Besides that, literally everything has changed. The Nightmare has become The Dream, but it's a transformation that hasn't been pretty for Sanchez's fans or his brain cells. A grappler who once beat the great Nick Diaz at his own game has devolved into a mindless slugger sacrificing all for that one knockout blow. 

     

    123. Damian Grabowski (Heavyweight)

    59/100

    A 240-pound fish in a small pond, Grabowski is one of the best heavyweights competing outside the confines of the UFC's Octagon. As such, it's hard to say with any certainty how he matches up with the sport's best. Nothing about his game screams "once-in-a-lifetime talent," yet all he does is win. That has to mean something.

     

    122. Johnny Eduardo (Bantamweight)

    60/100

    His one-punch knockout win over Eddie Wineland put him on the map internationally, but hardcores have had their eye on Eduardo for years. Even at age 35, he's a formidable athlete and his long frame is perfectly formed to execute his muay thai arsenal. It's the rest of his game that gives us pause.

     

    121. Jimi Manuwa (Light Heavyweight)

    60/100

    Power cures many ills in the world of combat sports—and Manuwa has it in spades. He is remarkably smart with his stand-up, and his ability to analyze opponents' weaknesses on the fly is advanced beyond his experience level. Unfortunately, power striking alone isn't enough to climb the ladder all the way to the top.

     

    120. Mark Munoz (Middleweight)

    60/100

    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. Instead, a series of poor performances have left him teetering on the edge of relevance. And gravity yields to no man.

     

    119. Dennis Siver (Featherweight)

    60/100

    Siver is an odd duck—a 145-pound brute. He's a wonderful fighter when he can act like a bully, dominating smaller and physically overmatched foes. But once the tables are turned, you can see the fight being sucked out of him. 

     

    118. Brendan Schaub (Heavyweight)

    61/100

    An impressive athlete with a delicate jaw, Schaub seems to be on a one-man mission to keep the division's aging relics relevant. He has the tools to be a contender, but he's never put it all together long enough to make a real run at the top spot. 

     

    117. Gray Maynard (Lightweight)

    61/100

    It doesn't take long to become old news in the sport of MMA. Less than three years ago, Maynard fought for the UFC title in two stellar bouts with Frankie Edgar. Now he's fighting for his career, potentially one loss away from being cut from the UFC, proof positive that the MMA game travels on swift currents.

     

    116. Abel Trujillo (Lightweight)

    61/100

    If "looks scary" was one of our metrics, Trujillo might have earned the first perfect score. He's the "Ben Askren's wrestling" of scary-looking dudes. He's just as scary once the bell rings, proving that sometimes you can indeed judge a book by its cover.

     

    115. Edson Barboza (Lightweight)

    61/100

    Barboza is the kind of front-running fighter who excels against no-hopers and permanent fixtures of the prelims. When tested, he's been found wanting. But whatever happens with his MMA career, Barboza has been assured immortality thanks to his unbelievable spinning heel kick knockout of Terry Etim. Fighters fade in time; memories like that never do. 

     

    114. Ovince St. Preux (Light Heavyweight)

    62/100

    The former University of Tennessee football star has developed into a solid fighter. His power is mighty, he's quick and agile, and he showcases an improved all-around skill set every time we see him. Has his technique caught up with his unquestioned athleticism and toughness? Only a better class of opponent can possibly answer that question definitively.

     

    113. Nik Lentz (Featherweight)

    62/100

    Lentz is a grinder—a wrestle-first, one-dimensional fighter plucked from 2003 and planted in the modern-day UFC. And he still wins fights. That's the power of wrestling, the most valuable tool any fighter can possess. While he doesn't have the athletic prowess to compete with the best, he's darn sure going to make them work for a win.

     

    112. Mauricio Rua (Light Heavyweight)

    62/100

    It's hard to reconcile the young Rua, the man who dominated the Pride Fighting Championship middleweight division with his combination of absurd athleticism and reckless aggression, with this shambles of a man trotted out for the occasional UFC spectacle. Poor Rua. It's hard to see him like this, a reminder that all men are mortal.

     

    111. Josh Burkman (Welterweight)

    62/100

    A journeyman perhaps best known for dating UFC ring card technician Arianny Celeste during his run with that promotion, Burkman had seemingly settled into obscurity. He's come into our lives again after a 41-second submission win over Jon Fitch and shows renewed vigor for World Series of Fighting.

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    110. Dan Henderson (Light Heavyweight)

    62/100

    At 43, with the crutch of legal testosterone use yanked cruelly away, Henderson's career looks to be all but over. He looks slow, sad and ponderous, desperately trying to land his fight finishing "H-Bomb" before his gas tank hits "E." At one time there were serious debates about whether Henderson was the best American fighter in MMA history. That Henderson is a distant memory.

     

    109. John Lineker (Flyweight)

    62/100

    Lineker knows he owns devastating power in his hands, and he works to keep his fights standing in an effort to put leather on chin. It's a simple game plan, but it's one that has worked for him time and time again. His score here may be artificially low because he can make up for his shortcomings in the blink of an eye with fight-ending power.

     

    108. Muhammad Lawal (Light Heavyweight)

    62/100

    A world class wrestler once tantalizingly close to an Olympics berth, Lawal inexplicably fell in love with his hands for a time. That led to two embarrassing losses to Emanuel Newton in Bellator. Sanity, hower, reigns for now. He utilized a more sensible strategy against "Rampage" Jackson, nearly upsetting the former UFC champion on Bellator's first pay-per-view.

     

    107. Frank Mir (Heavyweight)

    63/10

    Mir has a truly dangerous submission game. That's "Plan A." If he can't get the fight to the mat and work his submission magic, however, he rarely has a Plan B queued up and ready to go. Which means that he becomes a human punching bag for as long as his noggin holds up to the punishment.

     

    106. Mamed Khalidov (Middleweight)

    63/100

    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.

     

    105. Vitaly Minakov (Heavyweight)

    63/100

    Minakov is the heavyweight king of Bellator. Being the king of Bellator, however, is kind of like winning the NIT tournament in college basketball. Sure, you've won a tournament, and that's a good thing, but everybody wants to know what you can do against the best of the best. In mixed martial arts, the best of the best heavyweights fight in the Octagon. 

     

    104. Iuri Alcantara (Bantamweight)

    63/100

    While he is at his best on the ground, most of Alcantara's highlights involve him knocking some poor sucker out. His knockouts have not come from combinations, changing levels, slippery footwork or any of that fancy-pants stuff that you'll see from other top fighters. He throws that left hand hard, and it ends the fight if it lands. Simple as that.

     

    103. Quinton Jackson (Light Heavyweight)

    63/100

    He can still get wins with his blend of pure talent, serviceable takedown defense and powerful hands, but Jackson just doesn't have the hunger to keep improving and adapting. For fighters like Jackson, guys clearly past their prime and on the physical decline, the biggest question is usually how much longer they can fight before the proverbial wheels come off. 

     

    102. Bryan Caraway (Bantamweight)

    64/100

    Caraway is not the strongest, quickest or most technically skilled guy inside the Octagon; he wins with guts and brains. There's something to be said for that type of success. Often ridiculed and made into a punch line because of his relationship with UFC women's bantamweight Miesha Tate, Caraway is all business on fight night, a finishing machine once the bout touches the ground.

     

    101. Mike Pyle (Welterweight)

    64/100

    Only a truly tough guy would dare wear that mullet. Mike Pyle is a truly tough guy, the classic cagey veteran and a legitimate threat to end a fight either by knockout or submission. That makes him a great gatekeeper for promising young fighters in the division—but he shouldn't be mistaken for a contender.

     

    100. Alex Caceres (Bantamweight)

    64/100

    There's a lot to love about Bruce Leeroy. He's a fun fighter with talent and the right build to beat folks in a variety of ways. He has remarkably good cardio, befitting a fighter with his style, and he can outpace almost anybody at 135 pounds.

     

    99. Thales Leites (Middleweight)

    64/100

    The new Leites is clearly better than the one who stumbled his way into a title shot against Anderson Silva back in 2009. He's shown vast improvements in both his striking and wrestling. Now it's time to put his new skills to the test against some of the better fighters in the division to see where he stands.

     

    98. John Moraga (Flyweight)

    65/100

    Less than five years into his career, he has his wrestling mode and his striking mode but hasn't quite meshed the two skill sets together yet. The tools are there for him to become a force, and he is with a camp, The MMA Lab, which has turned out a UFC champion in Benson Henderson. In a year or two, Moraga could wind up being a threat to some of the top flyweights in the division. 

     

    97. Takeya Mizugaki (Bantamweight)

    65/100

    Like other veteran striking specialists, Mizugaki is a guy who knows what he is good at and does a solid job of putting himself in position to pull it off. A solid chin keeps him going in the face of disaster, and serious cardio helps him continue churning out punches until the final bell.

     

    96. Chan Sung Jung (Featherweight)

    65/100

    How he responds to the Jose Aldo setback will be a clear statement about his intent. If he comes back throwing leather, trying to recapture the glory of his early appearances, we'll know he's content with being a Korean Chris Lytle—a fan favorite who knows he's nothing more than midcard entertainment, a fun fighter but not a world-class one. 

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    95. Eddie Wineland (Bantamweight)

    65/100

    Wineland is a smart fighter, something to be expected from a man 10 years deep into his MMA career. His fighting style, built around his long reach, is well honed and good enough to easily beat a sizable contingent of the bantamweight division.

     

    94. Dennis Bermudez (Featherweight)

    65/100

    Bermudez gets caught up in firefights, a dangerous game for fighters who are looking for any kind of longevity. When you look at how many times he's been rocked and hurt, it's incredible that he's 6-0 since leaving The Ultimate Fighter. He's on an improbable road, and time will tell just how long he can keep tires on the asphalt.

     

    93. Shinya Aoki (Featherweight)

    65/100

    Aoki is a throwback and the closest thing we have to the sport's formative days. More than any other top fighter, he's a one-trick pony. Aoki can finish anyone at any time if things go his way on the ground. But he also feels like an anachronism. When he retires, we will never see his like again. 

     

    92. Jeremy Stephens (Featherweight)

    65/100

    Stephens has truly atrocious striking strategy, throwing haymaker after haymaker with the blind hope that one will connect. Here's the thing: Sometimes one does. When that happens, it's lights out for his opponent. He throws punches the same way Tim Lincecum throws fastballs—full body, full effort and super hard.

     

    91. Roy Nelson (Heavyweight)

    66/100

    Nelson rarely enters the cage with a game plan beyond hoping an overhand right lands hard. While he has a particularly good overhand right, he's incapable of making adjustments when he cannot land it. Once upon a time, he was a gifted grappler. Whether he remains as such is a question lost in his new knockout obsession.

     

    90. Clay Guida (Featherweight)

    66/100

    Guida's cardio is remarkable, the kind of nonstop motor that can rescue victory from the jaws of defeat in the UFC Octagon. Even though he is not always the technically superior fighter, he can win fights simply by having more energy to expend late in matches.

     

    89. Jordan Mein (Welterweight)

    66/100

    An MMA prodigy, the 24-year-old Mein is still evolving and improving every time we see him in the cage. There's no telling just how high his ceiling is. As it stands, he's already an incredible talent. If he can fix some deficiencies in his takedown and striking defenses, Mein could very well become a top-10 welterweight one day.

     

    88. Ricardo Lamas (Featherweight)

    66/100

    Lamas wins close decisions by doing just enough to trump opponents. He never winds up in a disadvantageous position without making an opponent pay for it, key to success with fickle MMA judges. This doesn't happen by chance. He has a feel for each round and makes sure he does enough to win. It's a surprising mental edge for a fighter with such scant big-fight experience.

     

    87. Alexander Shlemenko (Middleweight)

    66/100

    When a fighter has 10 years of experience and 58 fights under his belt, you'd expect him to be a well-honed machine. 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 has merely been polished with the passing time.

     

    86. Rousimar Palhares (Welterweight)

    66/100

    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. 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.

     

    85. Dustin Poirier (Featherweight)

    66/100

    Just when you think he's going to take that next step toward stardom, he falls short in a winnable fight. Even in his winning efforts, he tends to struggle down the stretch. That's a big problem in the featherweight division, where a fighter needs to be able to consistently muster up 15 (or 25) minutes of hustle to compete at the top level.

     

    84. Emanuel Newton (Light Heavyweight)

    67/100

    Newton is a guy who isn't particularly good at any one aspect of MMA but still finds a way to win far more often than not. Skill for skill, he simply doesn't compare with any other high-level light heavyweight in MMA. What he does have, however, is a huge heart and surprisingly good cardio. That goes a long way when more talented athletes falter.

     

    83. Michael Bisping (Middleweight)

    67/100

    You can tell Bisping really loves MMA. He's done everything in his power to become a star. 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.

     

    82. Ryan Bader (Light Heavyweight)

    67/100

    Sometimes Bader fancies himself a kickboxer. In those moments I can imagine coaches wanting to throttle him and find myself yelling at the screen "Hey buddy, you're really, really good at wrestling." Lately, though, Bader remembered where he came from. He's completed 10 takedowns in his past two fights, winning both by dominant decision. That's not a coincidence.

     

    81. Cub Swanson (Featherweight)

    67/100

    Chin? Check. Cardio? Check. All-around toughness? Check. Swanson has all the physical and mental tools to succeed at a very high level. Oh, and he has the Jackson-Winkeljohn coaching staff flanking him. That certainly doesn't hurt.

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    80. Justin Gaethje (Lightweight)

    68/100

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

     

    79. Kelvin Gastelum (Welterweight)

    68/100

    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. He's 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. 

     

    78. Tim Elliott (Flyweight)

    68/100

    To his credit, Elliott knows that he is a wrestler first, and his “shoot first, ask questions later” style is well suited to his skill set. Elliott's awkward style makes him impossibly difficult to prepare for, and no opponent has truly solved the puzzle thus far in his UFC career.

     

    77. Tarec Saffiedine (Welterweight)

    68/100

    Saffiedine is a savvy striker whose inherently low-risk, high-reward 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?

     

    76. Will Brooks (Lightweight)

    68/100

    Brooks' athleticism is evident. He made Michael Chandler look like a plodding plough horse with his fluid and quick movements. When you combine that kind of athleticism with a keen intellect, you have the makings of something special. The man is a competitor, and he places winning before entertainment, an intelligent, albeit sometimes boring, strategy.

     

    75. Demian Maia (Welterweight)

    68/100

    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 and how he can win, and he does everything he can to give himself that opportunity.

     

    74. Rustam Khabilov (Lightweight)

    68/100

    Khabilov has undeniable skills, but he is still in the developmental stage of his career. He's a work in progress—but one that seems to be coming along quickly. The fact that he was very competitive during his fight with Benson Henderson shows that he is already pretty darn good and getting better by the day.

     

    73. Dong-Hyun Kim (Welterweight)

    68/100

    At this point, it is unclear whether the aggressive style we've seen in the cage of late is designed to get fans excited and increase his chances of being noticed by the UFC brass, or if Dong-Hyun Kim actually believes he can consistently get wins by fighting like he is in a Walmart parking lot. If he thinks he can make that work against legitimate top-10 opponents, he will come to a rude awakening in the near future.

     

    72. Jake Ellenberger (Welterweight)

    68/100

    Two of Ellenberger's four UFC losses occurred after he 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. 

     

    71. Rafael dos Anjos (Lightweight)

    68/100

    Dos Anjos is not particularly gifted in any discipline, the classic jack of all trades, master of none. What has allowed him to transcend that status, to fight at a high level and beat some strong competition, is his ability to dictate when and where the fight takes place. That sort of savvy is enough to earn victories he probably shouldn't and has launched him into contender status. 

     

    70. Jake Shields (Welterweight)

    68/100

    The end is fast approaching for the 35-year-old Shields. 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. Perhaps a return to form is a mere fantasy—but for Shields and others on their last legs, it's a beautiful one.

     

    69. Michael Chandler (Lightweight)

    68/100

    After submitting Eddie Alvarez in 2011, Chandler was on the shortlist of the best fighters outside the UFC. His 12 consecutive wins (nine in the Bellator cage) today seem like a distant memory. While not everyone agreed with his two controversial decision losses, there isn't a lot of talk about how Chandler stacks up to potential UFC opponents anymore.

     

    68. Antonio Silva (Heavyweight)

    69/100

    Silva has all the weapons to succeed at the highest levels but doesn't always seem quite prepared to deliver them on target. Mentally, he's not to be trusted. However, there's no doubting his physical ability. He has the strength, skill and aggression to beat anyone on a given night.

     

    67. Mark Hunt (Heavyweight)

    69/100

    The Hunt we see in the Octagon barely resembles the fighter who won the K-1 World Grand Prix in 2001. In those days, he was pure aggression; today, Hunt sits back and waits for opponents to come to him, biding his time until he can slip the right hand over a lazy jab or nail a fighter with his vicious left hook.

     

    66. Jim Miller (Lightweight)

    69/100

    Being a high-caliber submission fighter is always an exercise in risk versus reward, and it is easy to look the fool. This is especially true when many of your opponents are more gifted and more fluid athletes. Miller, despite or because of his faults, is a smart fighter. But he's a professional athlete competing at the highest level. In that rarefied air, sometimes savvy alone just isn't enough.

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    65. Ian McCall (Flyweight)

    69/100

    At this point, you have to worry about his capacity to stay healthy long enough to make his mark in the division. He's managed just 17 fights in a career that started all the way back in 2002. Injuries, drug overdoses and the grind of training may have taken their toll on him just as opportunity beckons.  

      

    64. Donald Cerrone (Lightweight)

    69/100

    The best part about watching Cerrone fight is the suspense. The result often boils down to a single question: Can the man across the cage from him withstand his furious kicks? If the answer is yes and his foe can advance to boxing range, Cerrone may be in trouble. There, it's anyone's game. If the answer is no? The other guy's going to be walking with a limp for a little while.

     

    63. Phil Davis (Light Heavyweight)

    69/100

    Davis is super talented but lacks aggression and a killer instinct, especially when he's forced to fight defensively. Once things don't go his way in the Octagon, Davis disappears into a shell of passivity, and his offense evaporates. In layman's terms, he quits—on himself and his fans.

     

    62. Michael Johnson (Lightweight)

    69/100

    Every time Johnson steps into the cage, we see significant upgrades. That's a sign that things are going well with the Blackzilians down in Florida. While Johnson isn't exceptional in any area of the cage yet, his general progression since joining the UFC has been a treat to watch.

     

    61. Zach Makovsky (Flyweight)

    70/100

    Makovsky's composure and calm under fire is exceptional. He's levelheaded inside the cage and methodically works his way to victory, never rushing or exposing himself to any unnecessary punishment in the process. With his dominant wrestling base and serene, take-no-chances demeanor, he presents a problem for nearly every flyweight on the planet. 

      

    60. Tyron Woodley (Welterweight)

    70/100

    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. Training with an experienced pro like Din Thomas, he is in a good place to start his climb. We're just seeing what he's capable of as a professional fighter.

     

    59. Gegard Mousasi (Middleweight)

    70/100

    Despite a star-studded 41-fight resume, Mousasi is still just 28 years old, and he's currently enjoying his athletic prime. 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.  

     

    58. Gunnar Nelson (Welterweight)

    70/100

    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.

     

    57. Yoel Romero (Middleweight)

    70/100

    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.

     

    56. Nate Diaz (Lightweight)

    70/100

    The Diaz brothers' major flaws—wrestling and a vulnerability to leg kicks—seem ingrained at this point. There's a stubborn refusal to fight anything but their fight. And while that will be enough 75 percent of the time, truly elite fighters will solve their puzzles. The fighters who can adapt their game for particular opponents become champions; stubborn fighters like the Diaz brothers don't make it quite that far.

     

    55. Brad Pickett (Flyweight)

    71/100

    Pickett is a natural athlete, a former soccer player who has easily picked up any athletic pursuit he's attempted. It's been amazing to watch him develop into a great professional cage fighter, going from zero to 60 on the ground and becoming a well-rounded competitor at the highest level of the sport. 

     

    54. Tim Kennedy (Middleweight)

    71/100

    At 34 years old, 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, and we're going to see just how far Kennedy can ride his grappling-heavy attack. 

     

    53. Josh Barnett (Heavyweight)

    71/100

    Seventeen years into his MMA career, Barnett knows every trick in the book. He has been in the sport far longer than seems healthy for the human body, and the fact that he has remained a top heavyweight for nearly his entire career speaks volumes about how good he truly is.

     

    52. Ali Bagautinov (Flyweight)

    71/100

    Ali Bagautinov is an International Master of Sports in pankration, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling and sambo. He's also the Russian national champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. While it's unclear at times exactly what all those grand-sounding credentials really mean, suffice it to say, he is very good in the grappling department.

     

    51. Yushin Okami (Middleweight)

    71/100

    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.

50. Patricio Freire, Featherweight

7 of 56

    Age: 26 Height: 5'5" Reach: 71"
    Fight CampTeam Nogueira, Pitbull Brothers
    Record21-2 (9 knockouts, 7 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Justin Wilcox (TKO) Bellator 108 
    Def. Fabricio Guerreiro (Dec) Bellator 103 
    Def. Diego Nunes (KO) Bellator 99

     

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Patricio Freire is a fighter who got his start, like so many others, as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. That Freire, however, has never been seen in the Bellator cage. Instead, we've seen a bloodthirsty slugger who loves to stay at striking distance with opponents and unload huge, heavy punches. 

    That's not possible, of course, without solid takedown defense. In each of his matchups with formidable wrestlers (most notably Joe Warren and Daniel Straus), he was able to either completely neutralize their takedown attempts or at least make them work very hard for them. While Freire is by no means a defensive savant—Warren was eventually able to get him down and hold him there toward the end of their fight—he isn't an easy mark, either. 

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    We haven't seen it in a long time, but Freire is a solid grappler.

    Amazing? No. But solid.

    He has submissions and is good from top position, as one would expect. However, he also has a lethargic guard. When he does find himself underneath an opponent, he seems far too willing to stay there, eating punches and courting disaster.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Freire punches very, very hard. He can cover a great deal of distance and doesn't need much windup to generate fight-ending power. Those are very valuable tools that serve as a Band-Aid for festering bad technique just below the surface.

    Bellator's featherweight division doesn't have many particularly formidable strikers, and that lets him get away with a lot of things that he wouldn't be able to against elite competition. He can plow through most problems with raw power. But when Freire comes across a sophisticated, unintimidated striker like Pat Curran, he can be outboxed and out-thought.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    “Pitbull” is a shark in a fish tank. Bellator's featherweight division doesn't have many fighters who can match him. Neither, in all honesty, does the UFC. It's a shallow division, and he feasts on the little fish within.

    He owns a 21-2 record and has consistently dominated both the regional-level talent Bellator has put in front of him, as well as the mid-level veterans. The only losses on his record are close split decisions to Warren and Curran.

    Freire is very strong with a gas tank that few can match. He's a legitimate athlete and knows how to use his physicality against easily intimidated foes. On the flip side, he had trouble making adjustments in both his losses. When things didn't go his way, there was no Plan B. That's a problem if he wants to fulfill his potential as a fighter.

     

    Overall

    71/100

49. Joe Warren, Bantamweight

8 of 56

    Age: 37   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Team Quest/Team Rhino Sports
    Record: 11-3 (3 knockouts, 1 submission)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Rafael Silva (UD), Bellator 118
    Def. Travis Marx (TKO), Bellator 107
    Def. Nick Kirk (Sub), Bellator 101

    Wrestling

    21/25

    Takedown Accuracy: 70%

    On paper, there's no fighter in the division who can match Warren's wrestling. At 37 years old, however, some of that paper is showing signs of age. And so, it's to the video we go to see for ourselves.

    As you'd expect, the 2006 Greco Roman world champion is great out of the clinch. He's smart enough to know that his opponent knows this is a strength. So, rather than force the takedown from this position—which his foe has undoubtedly trained like a maniac to prevent—he mixes things up nicely. Knees and hard punches soften the other guy up. Then, should he desire it, the takedown comes.  

    Warren also has a strong shot, which he developed at the University of Michigan as an All-American in 2000. Combined with his undeniably world-class clinch work, it's one of the most multifaceted wrestling games in all of MMA.   

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Attempts: 0.55

    In his third professional fight, Warren ran into a buzzsaw named Bibiano Fernandes. Though Warren had beaten established stars in his first two bouts, Fernandes brought order to chaos. He also created a sense of caution where none previously existed. 

    For elite wrestlers, that kind of humbling loss is a rite of passage. Future champions like Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar both had to learn the dangers inherent in Brazilian jiu-jitsu before they could move forward into immortality. Warren, too, took his lesson to heart.

    Since that fight, a fully conscious Warren has never again allowed himself to be put in such a disadvantageous position on the ground. Yes, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire nearly sunk in a rear-naked choke, but only after knocking Warren silly with a right hand.

    Now five years into his career, Warren's submission defense is fully formed. He also has very good top control, allowing him to supplement his knockout power standing with a powerful ground-and-pound attack.  

     

    Striking

    16/25

    From his very first fight, Warren has had surprisingly good hands, going toe-to-toe with established fighters like Chase Beebe and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto and never looking out of place. That comes from his Greco Roman background. The footwork and posture necessary for success in that sport seem to translate easily into MMA.

    Unfortunately, that kind of early success breeds overconfidence. Warren was beaten to the punch early and often by Joe Soto and was saved from his lack of technique only by his own tremendous power. He wasn't so lucky against Alexis Vila or Pat Curran, both of whom finished him with a left hook and a flurry of strikes, respectively.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    15/25

    Warren has actually come a long way in just five years, especially considering his level of competition in the cage. It's been a trial by fire, but he's emerged as a very solid fighter. If he were 25 or even 30, there would be plenty of reason to be cautiously optimistic.

    Unfortunately, he can see 40 creeping up on him. It's a sad fact of life for many athletes. As his knowledge and skills grow, his body continues to decline. In fact, there's every reason to believe we've already seen the best of him.  

     

    Overall

    71/100

48. Marlon Moraes, Bantamweight

9 of 56

    Age: 26   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 66.5"
    Fight camp: Ricardo Almeida BJJ/Valor Martial Arts
    Record: 13-4-1 (5 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Josh Rettinghouse (UD), WSOF 9
    Def. Carson Beebe (KO), WSOF 6
    Def. Brandon Hempleman (UD), WSOF 4

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Wrestling is that thing you do whenever you need to seal a round on the judges' cards or on a whim. At least it is in Marlon Moraes' world.

    He isn't a traditional amateur wrestler. He'd never win an NCAA wrestling championship, but that doesn't stop his wrestling from being excellent in an MMA context. He avoids getting put on his back, and he dumps his opponent in turn when need be. Usually, these takedowns occur as a result of his stand-up throwing his opponents off balance and creating an easy opportunity for a trip or a double-leg shot. 

    Defensively, Moraes' wrestling is stellar. His strengths are rarely negated because of poor takedown defensethe name of the game in counter-wrestling. That's really what matters most for him, so he receives high marks here.  

     

    Grappling

    14/25

    Back in 2011, Moraes suffered back-to-back submission defeats. That's easy to forget in the wake of seven consecutive wins. But questions linger.

    Since those dark days, he's honed his skills under Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Ricardo Almeida. The results, when applicable, have been impressive too—just ask Miguel Torres.

    The problem with analyzing Moraes' grappling is rooted in his strengths. His striking has been so effective, and his wrestling defense so sophisticated, that he's rarely had to show where he stands on the mat.

    Taking into account his past failures and his recent track record, it's only fair to give him a modest rating in the grappling department until he definitively proves otherwise. 

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Moraes can straight-up sling leather. His combination of speed, accuracy and power is positively lethal. One quick flick of the hips can send an opponent into la-la land. Leg kicks, hooks, high kicks, straight punches, knees and elbows come from all angles, and his quickness and footwork make retaliation nearly impossible. For opponents, it's painful and frustrating. 

    Moraes began thai boxing at the age of seven. His output in the cage perfectly showcases what 20 years of training can do for a gifted fighter. His striking is effortless, mean and flat-out superior to anybody he might face in the World Series of Fighting.

    Guys like Renan Barao or TJ Dillashaw might be able to stand and strike with Moraes, but even then, the competition would be a close one. 

    For fans, it's beautiful. It's art. For opponents, it's something else—a problem that very few can solve.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    Moraes is composed to a fault inside the cage. The finishing instinct flashes at times, but other times he looks just a bit too nice inside the cage, which leaves some seemingly easy finishes hanging. 

    When he stuns an opponent, he will follow up for a quick kill, but if he doesn't immediately earn the referee stoppage, he'll back off, regroup and try again. 

    It's a minor flaw. Decision or knockout—either way, Moraes wins fights. For the better part of three years, though, he has looked untouchable, and he's slowly developing the Jose Aldo-like aura that makes you wonder, "How the heck is somebody going to beat this guy?" 

     

    Overall

    72/100

47. Eduardo Dantas, Bantamweight

10 of 56

    Age: 25   Height: 5'10"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Nova Uniao
    Record: 16-3 (4 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Anthony Leone (Sub), Bellator 111
    Def. Marcos Galvao (KO), Bellator 89
    Lost to Tyson Nam (KO), Shooto Brazil 33

     

    Wrestling

    16/25

    Eduardo Dantas' weakest area by a mile is his wrestling game. Every fighter with a modicum of wrestling talent he's faced, from Alexis Vila to Zach Makovsky to Anthony Leone, has been able to take him down and pound him—for a round.

    For whatever reason, every time Dantas fights a wrestler, he gets worked over on the ground in the first round but manages to pull it together as the fight goes on. Once he feels the other man's strength, Dantas has an amazing ability to adapt. He has a steady base and can plant himself like an immovable object against the cage.

    He may eventually go down, but he won't make it pleasant. He is still susceptible to high-level wrestlers, but he's not downright awful. He has the physical tools and experience to avoid being an easy lay-and-pray victim.

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    This may sound like hyperbolically high praise, but it is well deserved. Next to Bibiano Fernandes and Urijah Faber, Eduardo Dantas is the greatest submission threat in the bantamweight division. Nobody else is really close.

    Standing 5'10" with the long legs of a basketball player, he has a physique that allows him to attack opponents in ways that others simply cannot. Watch him control Alexis Vila in their Season 5 Bellator tournament bout or pull off his 20-second armbar against Samuel de Souza in Shooto Brazil. It's hard not to be impressed. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Wild submissions aren't the only thing Dantas can do with his game-changing lankiness. With his long arms and legs, he explodes into punches and kicks that opponents simply can't get close enough to counter.

    Still just 25, he hasn't quite mastered how to use these incredible physical tools. He relies heavily on power shots that, while damaging, are relatively easy to defend or counter. Compare this with Jon Jones and his dangerous front leg kick or Alexander Gustafsson's jab, and it shows that Dantas still has a lot of work to do.

    Some fighters with the gift of length never figure out how to utilize it. Whether Dantas can master his own gifts will decide how he's remembered. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/25

    Dantas is one of the best athletes in the bantamweight division. Not only that, but he has a wonderful home in the Nova Uniao gym, where he regularly trains with UFC stars Renan Barao and Jose Aldo, as well as a host of other formidable lighter-weight fighters.

    He has all the right tools and all the right people around him, and he's going to need them. Dantas gets excited in the cage and a little wild. More often than not, when he whiffs a flying knee or goes for that sloppy head kick, he gets away with it. Sometimes, however, he pays for it, the way he did against Tyson Nam.

    Despite his lofty status, Dantas is still one of the youngest fighters at the top of the division and is still developing. But, at this level, the time for transformation is over. It's time to deliver. Can Dantas? 

     

    Overall

    72/100

46. Glover Teixeira, Light Heavyweight

11 of 56

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 34   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: The Pit
    Record: 22-3 (13 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Jon Jones (Dec), UFC 172
    Def. Ryan Bader (KO), UFC Fight Night 28
    Def. James Te-Huna (Sub), UFC 160

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average: 2.87 Takedown Accuracy: 50% Takedown Defense: 75%

    While fans and UFC executives alike fell in love with Glover Teixeira for his punching power, his wrestling and grappling skills have always been just as good. A member of the Brazilian National Wrestling Team, we have seen him get the better of many opponents, not with his striking, but with his takedowns.

    His sophomore effort against Fabio Maldonado saw him beat the breaks off his fellow Brazilian using both standup and ground-and-pound. More impressively, he managed to take down Quinton “Rampage” Jackson five times in their three-round fight. While Jackson isn't the greatest at “wrestling in reverse” these days, he isn't an easy mark, either.

    Teixeira lacks the finesse of most high-level wrestlers, but his takedowns don't need to be pretty to be effective. If he can get his mitts around an opponent's leg, they are probably going to wind up on their back.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 1.0

    As with his wrestling, Teixeira's solid grappling chops were forgotten amidst all the hype surrounding his hands. However, Teixeira has popped up at many grappling tournaments, and has rolled with some of the best in the world.

    Those skills have served him well in the cage, and have translated into him owning a particularly good top-game, one that allows him to threaten with both submissions and ground-and-pound. It's the kind of variety that a pure wrestler like Ryan Bader lacks—and that makes Teixeira all the more dangerous on the mat.

    His greatest performance came against James Te-Huna. After nailing a single-leg takedown, he passed back and forth between half- and full-guard, softening up the New Zealander with punches for a few minutes. He maintained a front headlock when they returned to their feet and leaped onto a guillotine choke to secure an impressive submission win.

    It was a brilliant and multi-faceted performance making use of a skillset he should try to remember when his brain gets stuck in haymaker mode, which happens all too often.

     

    Striking

    17/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 5.00, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.77

    Have I mentioned that Glover Teixeira is heavy-handed yet? No? Ok then. Glover Teixeira is pretty easily the hardest puncher in the light heavyweight division today. His hands—they are heavy.

    Unfortunately, punching really hard isn't the only metric used to identify a good striker. Punching hard, and hitting nothing but air, is only effective as a deterrent, preventing opponents from approaching you without extreme caution.

    Teixeira has very little to offer standing beyond a big right hand. That right hand, of course, has been sharpened nicely over the years, and is more than enough to leave plenty of guys twitching on the mat. But as Jon Jones showed, one technique just isn't enough to beat a top-level striker, no matter how good it is.

    It's only when Glover finds a stellar left hook to go along with that right, or perfects shooting for a single leg off a miss, that he will ever truly have more than a puncher's chance against the best-of-the-best.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    As one of the few fighters at 205 pounds with above-average ratings in wrestling, grappling and striking, Glover Teixeira ranks among the most well-rounded in the division. While he isn't especially fearsome in any single category, he is a threat in every area of the cage. 

    Unfortunately, while he has “choice” skills in all areas, that leaves him susceptible to “prime” level fighters. Jones was the first to demonstrate this as he controlled every exchange and every scramble en route to a lopsided win.

    Worse, opponents now know what to expect from Teixeira. Like Dan Henderson, his fixation on his right hand makes him predictable. No matter how good the weapon, if an opponent knows it's coming, it becomes easy to avoid, and that fact was nearly exposed months earlier by a good-but-not-great Ryan Bader.

    In spite of that, it's hard to look past the fact Teixeira is capable of hanging tough anywhere the fight goes, even against top-level strikers, wrestlers and grapplers. While he's no Jon Jones in his diversity, he's still pretty darn good anywhere the fight might take him. That goes a long way in such a topsy turvy sport.

     

    Overall

    72/100

45. Stipe Miocic, Heavyweight

12 of 56

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 31   Height: 6'4"   Reach: 80"
    Record:
    12-1 (8 Knockouts, 1 Sub)
    Fight camp:
    Strong Style Fight Team

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Fabio Maldonado (TKO), TUF: Brazil 3 Finale 
    Def. Gabriel Gonzaga (UD), UFC on Fox 10 
    Def. Roy Nelson (UD), UFC 161

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average: 2.15, Takedown Accuracy: 42%, Takedown Defense: 77%

    Fans haven't seen it in a while, but Stipe Miocic is actually a very formidable wrestler. He was a high-ranked NCAA Division I wrestler way back in 2003 for Cleveland State. An NCAA qualifier in his first and only year, he hung up his singlet to pursue a career in baseball instead.

    Early in his UFC career, he looked the part of a ground-and-pound specialist, taking down small, less athletic heavyweights with ease and working them over on the ground.

    He has gotten away from that style of late and has generally avoided the ground against legitimate submission threats like Gabriel Gonzaga and Stefan Struve. There is no doubt, however, that Miocic owns wrestling skills on par with almost anybody in the division. 

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    Miocic, when he chooses to use it, has the wrestling chops he needs to succeed. That success, however, doesn't come in the submission game.

    He may be capable of wrestling an opponent to the mat, but he does not use it to set up submissions. Ever. He has attempted a grand total of zero submissions in his UFC career, and the one submission on his record came when Bobby Brents tapped to leg kicks in the NAAFS promotion.

    Instead, Miocic uses his solid grappling the way another Ohio-based wrestler, Mark Coleman, did. For a smart wrestler, this only makes sense. Why work on developing a submission offense when you can ground and pound an opponent to a pulp?

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 5.18, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.19

    Miocic's strikes landed per minute is an impressive stat, especially when one considers that his fights rarely end quickly. With his genuine athleticism, he is able to outpace basically any heavyweight who isn't a comparable physical specimen and wear them down as the fight goes on.

    Once he has an opponent heaving for breath, the end is approaching. Miocic can land destructive, high-volume combinations with scary precision.

    His striking game, however, isn't as diverse and dynamic as the very best in the world. He relies almost exclusively on quick, accurate punches from distance or efficient ground-and-pound from top position.

    He lacks any serious kicking game and doesn't have especially fearsome tools in the clinch (outside of his takedown). Unlike many wrestling specialists, he's yet to develop the knees and elbows that can make the over/under position a nightmare.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Miocic is an athlete. Not athletic relative to other fighters in MMA, mind you; he is an athlete compared to almost anyone.

    He is strong, he is fast, and he has cardio. While he lacks a particularly great camp, he has the smarts to stay out of trouble and keep the fight where he is at his best.

    Miocic is still relatively untested. There's a learning curve at the top of the division, and he may have a setback or two before breaking through. But the outlook for his career is very bright.

     

    Overall

    73/100

44. Travis Browne, Heavyweight

13 of 56

    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Age: 31   Height: 6'7"   Reach: 80"
    Record:
    16-2-1 (12 Knockouts, 2 Subs)
    Fight camp:
     Jackson's MMA, Alliance MMA

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Fabricio Werdum (UD), UFC on Fox 11
    Def. Josh Barnett (KO), UFC 168
    Def. Alistair Overeem (KO), UFC Fight Night 26

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.38, Takedown Accuracy: 70%, Takedown Defense: 85%

    Browne didn't enter the MMA universe's collective consciousness until he posted three genuinely scary knockouts in a row over Gabriel Gonzaga, Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett. That kind of raw power is sure to turn heads and create buzz.

    What many don't remember, however, is that his early success in the UFC came by way of his wrestling and grappling prowess. Against weaker opponents like Chad Griggs, Cheick Kongo and Rob Broughton, Browne demonstrated decent takedowns and a serviceable top game.  

    For comparison's sake, through his first five UFC fights, he successfully completed seven takedowns but has completed zero since. Of late, he has largely found success with his striking, including what may quite possibly be the best takedown deterrent in MMA: the Browne elbow.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.4

    Again, the last fighter Browne took down in the Octagon was Chad Griggs. He doesn't do much grappling anymore, and he doesn't need to. In the past, he was able to use his massive frame to successfully rough up weaker opponents on the ground. But that was years ago.

    In all likelihood, he still has a fair degree of skill on the mat, and he was able to survive five rounds with Fabricio Werdum. But at this stage of his career, it would be truly shocking to see him actively try and beat someone with his grappling. It's a defensive skill at this point. Nothing more, nothing less.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.76, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.67

    Don't let that stat line fool you. While Browne has absorbed far more strikes over the course of his UFC career than he's dished out, that merely serves as a testament to his ability to do with one shot what other fighters, even heavyweights, are incapable of doing with 10.

    We saw his raw power early in his UFC career when he floored Stefan Struve with one superman punch. In the years since, he has developed a toolbox that includes punches, kicks, knees and elbows, all of which are capable of ending a fight on the spot.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    While Browne has some fearsome striking, his all-around toughness is perhaps his greatest strength. His win over Overeem, which saw him survive a deluge of punches and knees, only to compose himself and deliver a devastating front-kick knockout, is among MMA's greatest comeback wins ever.

    On top of that, he has demonstrated legitimate cage savvy. While many fighters over the years have become drunk on their own knockout power and paid the price for it, Browne has remained smart, patient and technically sound.

    The one big flaw that was exposed in his bout with Werdum, however, was a legitimately questionable gas tank. Fights involving Browne rarely survive the first round, but when he was forced into a 25-minute affair with Werdum, he wilted terribly.

     

    Overall

    73/100

43. Alistair Overeem, Heavyweight

14 of 56

    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Age: 34   Height: 6'5"   Reach: 80"
    Record:
    37-13 (15 Knockouts, 9 Subs)
    Fight camp:
     Jackson's MMA (?)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Frank Mir (UD), UFC 169
    Lost to Travis Browne (TKO), UFC Fight Night 26
    Lost to Antonio Silva (TKO), UFC 156

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average 1.81, Takedown Accuracy: 73%, Takedown Defense: 76%

    Alistair Overeem once stood across the cage from the mighty Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion and the musclebound behemoth who took the UFC to new heights at the box office. More importantly—for this analysis, at least—Lesnar was also a man who had taken down every fighter he'd ever stepped into the Octagon against, including wrestling stalwarts Randy Couture, Shane Carwin and Cain Velasquez. 

    Overeem shrugged him off like it was nothing. That, as much as any statistic, says everything about his wrestling game. He can be taken to the mat, but it isn't going to be easy—no matter who you are.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 1.2

    Stereotyping fighters in the proto-MMA promotion RINGS was fairly easy. The Dutch were going to be stand-up specialists who were vulnerable the moment the fight hit the ground. The Russians, in the mold of their leader Volk Han, were most likely going to be Sambo specialists with deadly leglocks. The Japanese, in turn, had well-rounded games that made them the most versatile fighters in the promotion. 

    Enter Overeem. Then a skinny light heavyweight, he served notice that he was more than just a kickboxer in his very first fight, winning by submission. Eight more submission wins followed during the course of his career. Nothing, in fact, has changed. While submissions aren't his bread and butter, woe betide anyone caught in his deadly guillotine or effective armlock. 

    The Gracie family used to compare a boxer on the mat to a lion dragged into a shark tank. But watch out, grapplers—this lion has gills.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.75, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.60

    Punches and kicks are the glory hounds of striking. Most likely to end in a knockout, they are widely celebrated by casual and diehard fans. Knees? They are often forgotten, used by many simply to look busy against the cage and to annoy opponents into making a mistake.

    The knee is unsung and unloved.

    Except, that is, by Overeem, who has made it one of the deadliest weapons in the sport.

    It's a technique he has improved over time. Fifteen years (and 50 pounds) ago, the Reem was known for his wild flying knees. Failing as often as they worked, they were nevertheless a thrill a minute. That's great for fans. For fighters, that's a ticket toward becoming a journeyman.

    Over time, he has reined those wild tendencies in and learned to utilize the strike in several key situations. Today, in addition to deadly knees from the clinch, he uses a stepping knee from distance, distracting his opponent with his right hand and then moving quickly in with a left knee strike.

    Overeem is no one-trick pony, however. He has solid kicks and, while not a great boxer, has a fast, strong counter right hand. It's the kind of shot that makes any opponent hesitant to come too close. In the absence of any discernible defense, it also serves as Overeem's most effective deterrent against an opponent's strikes.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    Overeem went more than four years without losing a fight before running into Antonio Silva at UFC 156. There, a cocky Overeem refused to keep his hands up, significantly overrated his own mediocre boxing and gave away a fight he was winning handily.

    Newer fans were shocked. To old hands, it was nothing new—Overeem lost a similar fight to an overmatched Sergei Kharitonov when he forgot to put his hands up and got cracked by a big right hand.

    In fact, Overeem has made a career of inexplicably losing fights at the most inopportune times. When he gets tired, he gets lazy. That's when the game plan goes out the window and chaos reigns. That's not a good look for him—or any fighter.

    And then there's this to consider: After going 12 in a row without a loss, Overeem lost two in a row. The catch? They were the first two bouts after his return from a failed steroid test.

     

    Overall

    73/100

42. Douglas Lima, Welterweight

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    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

41. Bibiano Fernandes, Bantamweight

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    Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

    Age: 34   Height: 5'7"   Reach: N/A
    Fight camp: Revolution Gym/AMC Pankration
    Record: 16-3 (1 knockout, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Masakatsu Ueda (UD), ONE FC 15: Rise of Heroes
    Def. Soo-Chul Kim (UD), ONE FC 11: Total Domination
    Def. Koetsu Okazaki (UD), One FC 9: Rise to Power

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Level of competition, as with every other rating for Fernandes, skews how we think about the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace's wrestling game. He has never set foot in the Pride ring or the UFC Octagon. As a result, his success is questioned at every turn.

    Against the level of competition you'll find in Asia in the years after Pride, Fernandes has a functional double-leg takedown. It's not the fastest you'll see in the division, but it's technically sound and powerful. When he's able to lock his hands, more than likely someone is going down.

    His takedown defense is less clear-cut. Like many of the best jiu-jitsu players, Fernandes doesn't mind being on his back. He has an incredible guard, and only the most ridiculously cocky wrestler, like Joe Warren, would dare take him down.  

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    It's here that Fernandes truly excels. No, his jiu-jitsu world championships haven't translated to submission after submission against professional martial artists. But grappling is about much more than just submissions.

    You'll almost never see him lose a battle for position on the ground. His technical grappling is superb. More than that, he seems to have a knack for finding himself in certain advantageous positions, most notably on his opponent's back. His transition from takedown to back control is so seamless, a first-time viewer would think it was the result of every double-leg. It's not. Fernandes is just that good. 

     

    Striking

    15/25

    How you spin this category has everything to do with how you see the world. If you see the glass as half full, it's important to note that Fernandes' striking has improved dramatically since his time with MMA coaching icon Matt Hume. He has solid boxing, technique and power, and his jiu-jitsu game gives him the leeway to throw leg and body kicks without fear of the takedown.

    If you see the glass as half empty, things are a bit simpler. Fernandes, despite his improvement, would likely have a hard time matching his striking with many of the division's best fighters.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

    I was shocked to learn about Fernandes' tragic story in an interview last year. His mother died when he was just seven, and his father, unable to care for five children on his own, simply released them into the wild. Literally.

    Fernandes spent three years living mainly in the Brazilian rainforest, scavenging for food and learning to survive. That doesn't directly translate into the ring or cage. But when things get tough, always remember that Fernandes has seen tougher. That has to count for something.  

     

    Overall

    73/100

40. Matt Brown, Welterweight

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    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

39. Raphael Assuncao, Bantamweight

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Age: 31   Height: 5'5"   Reach: 67"
    Fight camp: Ascension MMA
    Record: 22-4 (3 knockouts, 10 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Pedro Munhoz (UD), UFC 170
    Def. TJ Dillashaw (UD), UFC Fight Night 29
    Def. Vaughan Lee (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 10

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.82, Takedown Accuracy: 36%, Takedown Defense: 77%

    Raphael Assuncao is not an especially formidable wrestler, but he separates himself from many Brazilian jiu-jitsu players by actually having something resembling a takedown game. He has shown singles, doubles and trips and is capable of getting green fighters to the ground with ease. Good wrestlers, though, seem immune to his powers.

    While he can stuff and work over guys with unrefined wrestling, both TJ Dillashaw and Urijah Faber were able to get him to the ground and keep him there (in Faber's case, it led to a rear-naked choke). He has enough skill to trump most of the division but is susceptible to being beaten at their own game by the division's best wrestlers. 

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

    Assuncao is an underrated Brazilian jiu-jitsu player who has been able to outgrapple some formidable ground-focused fighters. His strength is his positional control. He does not actively look for submissions like the very best grapplers, preferring to build up points with the judges.

    Despite his background, striking range is where he is most comfortable, and he tends to focus on keeping the fight there. As with his wrestling, his grappling isn't quite immaculate but is more than enough to get the job done against lesser bantamweights. 

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.30, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.82

    Assuncao is a very smart, technical boxer in the same mold as Demetrious Johnson. He is very good at staying at that perfect range where he can avoid an opponent's punches and counter effectively. 

    On top of that, he is capable of switching seamlessly between orthodox and southpaw stances, letting him box up opponents with little difficulty. He struggles a smidgen against rangy strikers, most obviously in a knockout loss to Erik Koch. He makes up for it by being very disciplined and has made even some solid strikers like Mike Easton look foolish standing up with him.

    Lack of power is all that stands in the way of Assuncao becoming an elite striker. His superior striking has carried him to plenty of decisions, but opponents with pop in their strikes are almost guaranteed a chance to deliver at some point. Assuncao has just one knockout in the last six years. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Fighters like Assuncao, who basically rack up wins entirely based on their ability to find and exploit weaknesses, can make a good living in the sport. He has the tools to work over basically any fighter who isn't on his level, and he has the chin, cardio and savvy to keep himself in a fight if things go south.

    He is smart and disciplined—he has to be. His lack of finishing prowess means he has to be perfect to win.

    Assuncao's style has turned him into an awkward gatekeeper for several years, but he finds himself in title contention with an impressive six-fight winning streak, including a win over current champion TJ Dillashaw. He will likely be fighting for the UFC bantamweight title in the near future, and it will be interesting to see how he fares in a return match with an ever-improving kingpin.

     

    Overall

    73/100

38. Michael McDonald, Bantamweight

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    Age: 23   Height: 5'8"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Oakdale MMA
    Record: 16-3 (9 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Urijah Faber (Sub), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Brad Pickett (Sub), UFC on Fight Night 26
    Lost to Renan Barao (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 7

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average 1.23, Takedown Accuracy: 66%, Takedown Defense: 57%

    Michael McDonald punches guys in the face until their brains enter survival mode. It's what he does for a living. He's not a wrestler and doesn't claim to be.

    On occasion, however, he does a fairly good impression of one. He's a natural athlete, and his strength and quickness allow him to make up for some technical deficiencies. But his striking-heavy attack leaves him overextended and vulnerable to takedowns at times, and he often finds himself on his back, fighting to regain a dominant position. 

    His wrestling is solid. But against the best of the best, solid just isn't going to cut it. It's a vulnerability that will likely continue to cost him against the bantamweight division's elite.  

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 1.2

    In some ways, "Mayday" is the anti-Chael Sonnen. Polite and unassuming, you just couldn't picture him talking trash and taking names. But that's not the real difference between the two men. It's that McDonald loves three-sided polygons every bit as much as Sonnen despises them.

    His submission game is defined by both arm and leg triangles, and he executes these techniques with a finesse rarely demonstrated by such a young fighter. A brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he's comfortable anywhere on the ground, often reversing unfavorable positions and catching his foes off guard with his savvy submission attack. 

    Despite this obvious fluidity on the ground, both of McDonald's UFC losses came via submission, one via Renan Barao's arm-triangle choke and one via Urijah Faber's guillotine. Those two foes might very well represent the top two grapplers in the division. But it's another reminder that he's not quite elite—not yet, at least. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.80, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.58

    McDonald's near 1-1 ratio of significant strikes landed to significant strikes absorbed communicates an inaccurate message. One McDonald punch, while equal from a numerical standpoint, is not equal to one punch from any other bantamweight fighter. 

    His power is frightening, and he's racked up nine knockout victories already in his young MMA career. He's speedy, quick and technically sound. He can eat eight punches to land one, and that one may be all he needs to end the fight. 

    Like any other human being, he can get caught and rocked, but it's generally safe to assume that McDonald holds the edge in a fight so long as both combatants are upright.   

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

    Already the No. 4-ranked bantamweight in the UFC, McDonald has accomplished a lot in his 23 years. He fought for the interim title against Renan Barao in February 2013, and he battled Urijah Faber to earn another chance at the 135-pound strap just 10 months later. 

    Yet both times McDonald received these opportunities, he failed. Both Barao and Faber finished him with submissions, which raises a few question marks.

    Does he possess a Michael Bisping-esque mental block that keeps him from performing at his peak potential when the stakes are at their highest?

    Or is he just a typical young fighter who is still finding his groove but doing it on the national stage?

    We don't know yet. But it will be fun finding out.

     

    Overall

    74/100

37. Ronaldo Souza, Middleweight

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    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

36. Luke Rockhold, Middleweight

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    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

35. Myles Jury, Lightweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

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

    Last Three Fights

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

    Wrestling

    17/25

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.5

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

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

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

     

    Striking

    18/25

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

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

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

    Johnson landed six.

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

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

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

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

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

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

    So far, so good.

     

    Overall

    75/100

34. Pat Curran, Featherweight

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    Age: 26   Height: 5'9"   Reach: 73"
    Fight Camp: Team Curran
    Record: 20-5 (5 knockouts, 7 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Daniel Straus (Sub) Bellator 112
    Lost to Daniel Straus (Dec) Bellator 106
    Def. Shahbulat Shamhalaev (Sub) Bellator 95

     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    You'd think a drop in weight classes would have improved Curran's already solid wrestling game. At 155 pounds, he repeatedly stuffed Eddie Alvarez's shots and bounced right back to his feet when Alvarez did manage to dump him on the mat. Offensively, Curran even took Alvarez down once in Round 5.

    After surviving that onslaught, surely men 10 pounds lighter would be a piece of cake?

    And, yet, like many before him, Curran hasn't been quite the same fighter against smaller men. Daniel Straus overwhelmed him in their last two fights. First, Straus defeated Curran at Bellator 106 with takedowns and top control. Curran had no answers.

    In the rematch, Curran's takedown defense was better, but it took a fight-saving rear-
    naked choke in the bout's dying seconds to regain the Bellator title. While Curran is not "bad" here by any means, Straus showed that if you want to beat the Bellator featherweight champion, you can start by planting him on his back. 

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Although not quite one of the Gracies, there's perhaps a genetic component to Curran's submission success. His cousin and trainer, journeyman Jeff Curran, was a mainstay on the international scene in the days before the little guys were a big deal.

    He was a master on the mat, and Pat is no different. Sure, there are some Brazilian jiu-jitsu standouts who might be too much for him once things go to the ground—but he's rarely outmatched once the fight hits the mat. 

    The Bellator featherweight champ boasts seven victories via submission on his resume, all via some form of choke (and one via the ultra-rare Peruvian necktie, which he hit on an actual Peruvian, Luis Palomino). He's ruthless in attacking his opponent's neck, and the finish is oftentimes born from a scramble rather than from an elaborate setup. 

    You rarely see Curran work from his guard, but Straus did a nice job of pinning him to the mat and nullifying his offense when he snatched the strap at Bellator 106, which was Curran's lone slip-up in his last eight fights.

    Because of this, you have to knock Curran a bit in the grappling department. He's great when he's on the offensive, but with a powerful grappler on top, he sometimes struggles to get back to his feet or to work a sweep or submission attempt.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Despite owning more submissions than knockouts, Curran's greatest threat to opponents is his technical striking game and brutal knockout power. 

    Early in fights, he uses leg kicks and feints to get a feel for his opponent's movement and timing, and when the opportunity to pounce presents itself, he does not delay. This game plan causes him to get picked apart early in fights on occasion, but losing the first round doesn't matter when you finish your opponent later, and Curran goes big with an assortment of head kicks, flying knees and punches. 

    On the flip side, if he doesn't secure the big knockout, he sometimes fails to find his rhythm for the bout's duration, and he lost his featherweight strap to Straus at Bellator 106 because of this. Straus used a smart, calculated approach on the feet, and Curran was never able to find his range and mount any significant attack. 

    Against the likes of Jose Aldo, this could present a major problem. But Curran's stand-up game is generally superior inside the Bellator cage, and he's never been finished via strikes. For a perfect summary of his game-changing power, check out his fight with Mike Ricci from Bellator 14 or his disgusting, Tekken-like combo to put away Joe Warren at Bellator 60. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    At 26 years old, Curran is now entering his athletic prime, and he's already accomplished more than most will in a lifetime. His 25-fight career is still young, and he has plenty of time to grow and evolve as a mixed martial artist. 

    As he continues to develop, we will probably see him rule the Bellator roost, knocking down contenders after they emerge victorious from the Bellator tournament finals or Bjorn Rebney decree.

    There are no holes in Curran's mental game. He doesn't overpursue the finish or become easily shaken or rattled when his opponent finds success. His killer instinct leads him to find the finish even when the odds are stacked against him (see the fifth round of his latest fight against Straus). His calculated brand of violence has led him to the top of the Bellator featherweight mountain. 

     

    Overall

    75/100 

33. Fabricio Werdum, Heavyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 36   Height: 6'4"   Reach: 77"
    Record:
    18-5-1 (5 Knockouts, 9 Subs)
    Fight camp:
    Kings MMA, Werdum Combat Team

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Travis Browne (UD), UFC on Fox 11
    Def. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 10
    Def. Mike Russow (TKO), UFC 147

     

    Wrestling

    14/25

    Takedown Average 1.89, Takedown Accuracy: 33%, Takedown Defense: 37%

    For much of his career, Werdum has been the prototypical jiu-jitsu specialist. His wizardry on the mat was his bread and butter. His wrestling and striking? Afterthoughts at best.

    While he has done plenty to improve his striking game over the years, his wrestling skill set is as abysmal as ever.

    When he tries to take an opponent down, he fails two of every three times. Conversely, should someone be foolish enough to try to take him to the mat, he's as apt to welcome it as he is to seriously attempt a defense. His grappling is just that good.

     

    Grappling

    23/25

    Submission Average: 1.4

    They don't make superlatives grand enough to describe Werdum's submission game. He's a multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion who is good enough that very few fighters are even willing to challenge him on the ground.

    While other so-called jiu-jitsu champions are mostly good at moving into and out of the guard or appear helpless without their beloved gi, nine of his 18 career wins have come by way of tapout, including, most famously, a 2010 triangle choke victory over the immortal Fedor Emelianenko.

     

    Striking

    19/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.05, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.92

    Werdum's big break in MMA was serving as the jiu-jitsu instructor and training partner for former kickboxing star Mirko "Cro Cop" Filopovic. It was a partnership that truly served both fighters.

    Cro Cop was able to develop the skills needed to compete with the sport's best, and Werdum was able to soak up enough knowledge to transform his stand-up game from downright embarrassing to merely bad.

    A lot has changed in the years since his debut. After working with Brazilian muay thai master Rafael Cordeiro, Werdum is now a sophisticated enough striker that he can rely on his stand-up to win fights against all but the best fighters.

    The key to his success is fearlessness. Werdum can throw kicks, high knees in the clinch and wild overhand rights, confident that his fearsome ground game will prevent anyone from taking him down.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Werdum's new strategy, accentuating his striking attack, is a curious one. His most significant weapons are all on the ground. Yet almost 12 years after his debut, he still has almost no mechanism for taking the fight there. That can lead to some cringe-worthy moments.

    Who can forget Werdum, near tears, pleading with Dutch kickboxer Alistair Overeem to join him on the mat?

    Of course, why argue with success? Werdum's ultra-aggressive striking approach, which includes throwing strikes in endless combinations and often ending a barrage with a high kick or a knee to the head, has paid dividends against opponents who are used to a more passive and careful approach.

    And in a way, it's his jiu-jitsu that makes it all possible. Werdum doesn't mind if his freewheeling striking leads to a takedown. He doesn't mind if he ends up knocked off balance in the midst of a wild spree of strikes. He welcomes it. After all, on the mat is where he wants to be the most.

     

    Overall

    75/100

32. Anthony Johnson, Light Heavyweight

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    Age: 30   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 78"
    Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center
    Record: 17-4 (11 knockouts, 0 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Phil Davis (Dec.), UFC 172
    Def. Mike Kyle (KO), WSOF 8
    Def. Andrei Arlovski (Dec.), WSOF 2

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average: 2.62 Takedown Accuracy: 57% Takedown Defense: 85%

    Anthony Johnson's wrestling pedigree is one of the many things forgotten in the blur of his one-of-a-kind career. While Johnson's days as a gargantuan welterweight are mostly remembered for devastating knockouts, eye pokes and Steve Mazzagatti wackiness, he occasionally showed himself to be a decent wrestler, most notably when he laid-and-prayed his way to victory over Dan Hardy.

    As time went on, his mediocre wrestling offense faded into memory. Johnson self-identified as a striker. Gone were dreams of securing a takedown. Emerging in their place ? A strong takedown defense, all the better to keep things in the stand and bang zone.

    The ultimate expression of Davis' shiny new takedown defense came in his most recent fight. In one of his toughest tests to date, he faced off with light heavyweight wrestler Phil Davis. Against a true light heavyweight contender, Johnson excelled, stuffing every single takedown attempts en route to a handy decision victory.

     

    Grappling

    15/25

    Submission Average: 0.9

    Even when Anthony Johnson was winning fights with his wrestling, nobody ever claimed he was a particularly good grappler. When he had an opponent on their back, he held them down not with Jiu-Jitsu or Judo or anything that requires technique or finesse. He got by on good ol' fashioned muscle.

    Defensively, there is very little to speak of one way or the other. He rarely engaged opponents on the ground as a welterweight, and has done so even less since moving up to light heavyweight. While all three of his legitimate losses have come via submission, those stumbles were more so due to his lacking cardio than any grappling deficiency. Fatigue makes cowards of us all and Johnson is no exception.

    It's unclear if he has added any nuance to his groundwork since he was booted from the UFC in 2012, and we likely won't see until somebody can actually get him to the ground or contend with him standing. And, if Davis couldn't do it, who can?

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.00, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.59

    Early on, Johnson wasn't necessarily a brilliant striker, but set himself apart from the pack by having fight-ending power in both hands and both feet. While he still lacks polish, he has added more and more technique to his arsenal over the years. Even more impressively, unlike many fighters who journey up and not down weight division, he still retains his knockout artist label even at light heavyweight.

    That, combined with his strong takedown defense, makes him a serious threat to everyone in the division. It will be interesting to see how the new Anthony Johnson holds up against some of the better strikers in the division.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Nobody has benefited from the founding of the Blackzilian camp more than Anthony Johnson. A gym ronin before the team formed in 2012, we have seen “Rumble” evolve from a middling welterweight to the hottest up-and-comer at 205 pounds.

    With an excellent stable of training partners and a strong, albeit oft-changing, coaching staff, his overall skillset has gotten sharper and sharper by the year. The move to light heavyweight has also seen his strength and cardio improve exponentially.

    There is a lot to love with the new Johnson. With his physical tools and hard-hitting style, he could very easily be in the thick of title contention with just one more win.

     

    Overall

    75/100

31. Eddie Alvarez, Lightweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

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

    Last Three Fights

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

    Wrestling

    17/25

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

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

     

    Grappling

    18/25

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

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

     

    Striking

    22/25

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

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

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

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    18/25

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

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

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

     

    Overall

    75/100

30. Rory MacDonald, Welterweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

29. Josh Thomson, Lightweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

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

    Last Three Fights

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

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

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

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

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

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

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 1.5

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

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

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

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

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed: 2.58, Significant Strikes Absorbed: 1.87

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

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

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

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    17/25

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

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

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

     

    Overall

    75/100

28. Robbie Lawler, Welterweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    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

27. Rashad Evans, Light Heavyweight

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Age: 34   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center
    Record: 19-3-1 (7 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Chael Sonnen (TKO), UFC 167
    Def. Dan Henderson(Dec.), UFC 161
    Lost to Antonio Rogerio Nogueria (Dec.), UFC 156

     

    Wrestling

    22/25

    Takedown Average: 3.34, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 66%

    Evans would be the first to admit he underachieved on the collegiate mat. A two-year starter at Michigan State after a junior college national championship, Evans failed to earn All American status despite having the athleticism and skill to go far. Twenty years ago he would have had to live with that failure, lacking an outlet to continue his athletic pursuits.

    The rise of MMA has created a paradigm shift in how we judge wrestling prowess. What you achieved in college matters—to a point. Like in every other athletic endeavor, though, few peak in their early twenties. Evans was a late bloomer, a man gifted a second chance at success.

    Today Evans is a great wrestler. His running blast double is one of the most effective takedowns in the sport's history.  And yet, on paper he had no chance against Phil Davis, a former NCAA champion who accomplished everything in college Evans had not. It seemed a given that Davis would have the edge.

    But neither man was 20 years old any longer. In the cage Evans wiped the mat with Davis, pedigrees be damned. Suddenly Evans' struggles in 2003 back in East Lansing didn't amount to much at all. It is 2014—and the 2014 version of Rashad Evans is pretty darn good.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    Evans holds two black belts normally only granted to the grappling art elite, one in Greg Jackson's Gaidojitsu and the other in Gracie Jiu Jitsu. What this means for Evans, exactly, is a mystery. We've never seen him attempt a single submission in the Octagon and the few times he's been on his back in a fight, displaying an active guard has been the last thing on his mind.

    What we do know is this—Evans has excellent top control, focussing mostly on peppering foes with little punches, bringing death with a thousand small cuts. He's also a threat to pass at will, easily escaping an opponent's guard when the need arises.

    When he finds himself on his back, he's comparably good at springing back to his feet. His preferred technique here is the wall walk and almost no one, not Tito Ortiz and not Davis, has been able to keep him down for long.

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 2.13,  Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.19

    While almost every Evans striking exchange starts with a lead left hand, it's his big overhand right that give opponents nightmares. Evans delivers this technique with the worst of intentions. When it lands cleanly, as it did against Chuck Liddell at UFC 88, the results are truly scary. 

    It's not hyperbole to say Liddell was never the same fighter again—and Evans came close to landing the same punch against another MMA icon at UFC 175, buzzing Jon Jones on occasion and keeping him honest.

    The key to Evans' success here is speed. His technique is indifferent, but the former 174-pounder has a clear advantage over bigger and stronger opponents in the quickness department. For years armchair critics have been calling for Evans to drop to 185 pounds—but the gains he made in size would likely be eclipsed by a diminished speed advantage.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    16/24

    Evans was one of the first wrestlers to really incorporate striking into his overall attack. Sure, others had developed a rudimentary standup game—but even today few superb wrestlers are able to making striking part of a holistic attack.

    Evans isn't in striking mode or grappling mode. At his best, like against Rampage Jackson, the two come together as one.

    Rashad clearly benefitted greatly from his time with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. Forced to move on after demanding the team choose between him and Jones, he's failed to capture the same dynamic with his new team. 

    Whether a product of aging, or a revolving door of coaches in his new camp, Evans is no longer the same guy, the one who landed stunning takedowns in part because of the threat of his right hand, You can see the wheels turning when Evans fights, the nagging doubt lingering.

    Unless he can return to seamlessly mixing his two strengths into one potent brew, Evans will continue to underperform as he did against both Rogerio Nogueria and Dan Henderson.  He has the ability to beat anyone in the game—here's hoping he gets one more chance to rise to the occasion.

     

    Overall

    75/100

26. Vitor Belfort, Middleweight

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    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

25. Carlos Condit, Welterweight

32 of 56

    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

24. Hector Lombard, Welterweight

33 of 56

    USA TODAY Sports

    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

23. Ben Askren, Welterweight

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    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

22. Junior Dos Santos, Heavyweight

35 of 56

    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 6'4"   Reach: 77"
    Record:
    16-3 (12 Knockouts, 2 Subs)
    Fight camp:
    Nova Uniao

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Cain Velasquez (TKO), UFC 166
    Def. Mark Hunt (KO), UFC 160
    Lost to Cain Velasquez (UD), UFC 155

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average 2.37, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 96%

    When MMA was still in its formative stages and strikers were just beginning to catch up with the grapplers who had dominated the sport in the early days, the consensus on MMA message boards was that any world-class striker could become an MMA champion after just six months—if only he could master the art of the sprawl.

    Of course, we've learned since that it's not quite that easy. Yes, a powerful striker like Dos Santos can indeed go far in the sport, but takedown defense is about much more than the sprawl. The key is spacing and distance.  

    Dos Santos is the master of both, using his speed to initiate attacks from outside a wrestler's comfort zone. He doesn't beat wrestlers at their own game; he keeps them from playing at all.

     

    Grappling

    16/25

    Submission Average: 0.8

    Dos Santos trains under Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who vouches for his protege's skill on the mat. We'll have to take his word for it. When not facing Cain Velasquez, Dos Santos has been all but impossible to take off his feet. His back has hit the mat only twice in his UFC bouts.

    When he has been forced to the ground, he has shown a real affinity for preventing his opponent from seizing control.

    For example, against Gabriel Gonzaga he was able to get to his knees and almost immediately return to his feet the one time he was taken down. That's a handy skill for a striker whose main goal is scoring a knockout.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.33, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.92

    Few fighters in UFC history have utilized the jab quite as well as Dos Santos. The key to success here, as it is in so much of his game, is speed.

    He's able to dart in and out with the quick feet of a much smaller man, delivering his jab before his opponent has even processed that he's in striking range. Not only does he use it to bust noses and even bellies, but it's also there to set up his all important power punches. 

    Once established, Dos Santos follows his snapping jabs with a lightning-fast left hook or fight-ending overhand right. Simple, effective and deadly.

    And opponents take note—long thought to be a one-trick pony, Dos Santos disabused the world of that notion in his fight with Mark Hunt, knocking the former kickboxing champ out with a spinning heel kick. That big finish proved that no one in the heavyweight division is more dangerous on his feet—or, perhaps, with them.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    There was a telling moment during his second fight with Cain Velasquez that says something about the level of coaching acumen that Dos Santos has in his corner. Faced with an unstoppable onslaught and an opponent who was beating him to the punch over and over again, Team Dos Santos had only a single instruction for their struggling champion: "jab, jab, jab, jab."

    Perhaps a single anecdote doesn't tell the entire tale. And, considering much of his team doesn't speak English, we may be missing some of the nuances that other trainers like Greg Jackson can share with the media to explain his pupils' success.

    But you do get the sense from the Velasquez fights that Dos Santos isn't especially adaptable or quick to find a solution when Plan A isn't getting the job done.

    Luckily for him, it usually does.

     

    Overall

    77/100

21. Khabib Nurmagomedov, Lightweight

36 of 56

    USA TODAY Sports

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

    Last Three Fights

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

     

    Wrestling 

    22/25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.6

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

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

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

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

     

    Striking

    16/25

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

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

    That's bonkers. 

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

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

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

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

     

    Overall

    78/100

20. Frankie Edgar, Featherweight

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    Age: 32   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 68"
    Fight Camp: Renzo Gracie Combat Team
    Record: 16-4 (4 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Charles Oliveira (Dec) UFC 162
    Lost to Jose Aldo (Dec) UFC 156
    Lost to Benson Henderson (Dec) UFC 150

     

    Wrestling

    20/25

    Takedown Average 2.54, Takedown Accuracy: 35%, Takedown Defense: 63%

    We're used to seeing fighters work off their jab. It's a staple of the sweet science, and even many MMA fighters are starting to see the utility of setting up their offense with a fast, distance-gauging blow. 

    But setting up a takedown with a jab? That's fairly unusual—unless your name is Frankie Edgar. For years the former lightweight champion has disguised his single-leg takedown with a punch, sneaking his right hand behind an opponent's knee while distracting them with a leaning left jab. 

    Over and over again, he's done it. And over and over again, it's worked. Of course, that's not his only effective takedown technique. He also changes levels quickly to pull off a strong double-leg takedown. Those tactics make him a very dangerous wrestler, even against much larger fighters. 

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.3

    Despite training for years with the great Renzo Gracie, Edgar has never shown any particular submission prowess. He has, however, learned how to defend well. He's never tapped out in a fight, despite spending a lot of time sharing the cage with great submission artists like B.J. Penn and Charles Oliveira. 

    In a scramble, he is both explosive and smart. He's rarely been trapped for long, despite almost always being the smallest man in the cage, even now as a featherweight. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.35, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.23

    Edgar's success standing is built primarily on speed. Like a shark, he's in constant motion, pacing back and forth and making opponents work hard to track him down.

    Almost always the shorter man, he should theoretically be at a disadvantage from a distance. But he moves so quickly, coming in behind powerful looping punches with both hands, that he closes in smartly against even the best strikers.

    Edgar's problem is a distinct lack of power. He's almost always more skilled than his opponent standing—but his lack of pop almost always guarantees the fight is going to a decision.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    UFC President Dana White has a mantra that longtime fans have heard over and over again. "Never," White tells anyone who will listen, "leave it in the hands of the judges."

    It's a plea that serves two purposes. First, it encourages aggression and legitimate attempts to finish fights. That's good for promoters who are looking to sell fans on an exciting show. It's also a piece of solid advice, especially considering the state of MMA judging.

    Edgar, in many ways, is a poster boy for the system's inefficiency.

    Seven times since 2010, he has gone the distance. He's been on both sides of close decisions, most recently against featherweight champion Jose Aldo, a fight Edgar thought he'd won.

    Without developing a go-to submission or a few additional tricks standing, this pattern is all too likely to continue. Edgar can only be as good as MMA's broken officiating. And that's a problem. 

     

    Overall

    78/100 

19. Gilbert Melendez, Lightweight

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

    Last Three Fights

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

     

    Wrestling

    20/25

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

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

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

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

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

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

     

    Striking

    21/25

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

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

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

     

    Overall

    78/100

18. Joseph Benavidez, Flyweight

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    Age: 29   Height: 5'4"   Reach: 65"
    Fight camp: Team Alpha Male
    Record: 20-4 (6 knockouts, 9 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Tim Elliott (Submission), UFC 172
    Lost to Demetrious Johnson (KO), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Jussier Formiga (TKO), UFC Fight Night 28
     

    Wrestling

    17/25

    Takedown Average: 1.22, Takedown Accuracy: 24%, Takedown Defense: 51%

    A former state wrestling champion at Las Cruces High School in New Mexico, Benavidez has long been considered one of the best wrestlers in the flyweight class.

    The FightMetric statistics, however, tell another story.

    The truth, as hack political pundits would surely tell us, lies somewhere in the middle. Benavidez does possess a strong wrestling base. Somewhere along the path to title contention, however, it's a skill set he's all but ignored. His focus these days is on landing the big right hand. He hasn't even attempted a takedown in his last three fights and was put on his back three times by Tim Elliott in his last bout.

    Wrestling may have been a strength for Benavidez. But those days are long past.  

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 1.1

    Like his wrestling game, grappling is no longer where Benavidez's bread is buttered. That doesn't mean "Joe Jitsu" is dead. Far from it.

    On defense, he's good in a scramble, prioritizing returning to his feet when an opponent manages to get him to the mat. But just because he doesn't always seek out a grappling match doesn't mean he won't snatch up found gold. The moment his opponent makes a mistake, he is fully capable of exploding for a quick tapout.

    He's finished three opponents this decade with his brutal guillotine choke, a specialty he and his Team Alpha Male compadres have mastered. Most recently, he out-grappled Elliott at UFC 172, finishing the bout with a guillotine from the high mount, trapping Elliott's arms and forcing him to tap out with his feet.

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.96, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.14

    There are good things to say about Benavidez's growing striking game. Primarily, his right hand is a devastating punch that can finish anyone in the division if he is able to slow them down long enough to deliver it.

    Success versus failure often comes down to his ability to do so.

    In his first fight against Demetrious Johnson, Benavidez was never quite able to maximize his strengths. Instead, all of his weaknesses came to the fore, most notably his penchant for leading with his face like Rocky Balboa and his inability to move laterally and cut off the cage against a clever opponent. Against Ian McCall in his very next fight, he mixed in hard kicks to the body and leg, setting up his power-punching game nicely.

    Unfortunately, it's never entirely clear which Benavidez will show up. While he's earned his place near the top of the division and will continue to run through lesser fighters, questions remain about how he will perform against a fleet-footed opponent with a clever striking game. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    The clock is ticking on Benavidez's title ambitions.

    I can hear your skepticism already. After all, he's not quite 30 years old, trains with one of the best teams in the world and is still making mincemeat of high-level prospects and anyone with a discernible weakness in his game.

    But the eighth anniversary of his first fight recently passed. And, if past is prologue, Benavidez will begin an inevitable decline as he approaches a decade in the sport. 

    Much is riding on whom Team Alpha Male brings in to replace departed coach Duane Ludwig. Benavidez improved markedly under Ludwig's tutelage, especially tactically. A new coach who can help him raise his game to Johnson's level may be the difference between retiring as a former UFC champion and eventually headlining a slideshow presentation of the best fighters never to capture UFC gold.

     

    Overall

    78/100

17. Johny Hendricks, Welterweight

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    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

16. Anderson Silva, Middleweight

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    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

15. Urijah Faber, Bantamweight

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    Age: 35   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 69"
    Fight camp: Team Alpha Male
    Record: 30-7 (7 knockouts, 17 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to Renan Barao (TKO), UFC 169
    Def. Michael McDonald (Sub), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Iuri Alcantara (UD), UFC Fight Night 26

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average 1.52, Takedown Accuracy: 35%, Takedown Defense: 58%

    The iconic chin is the same. So are the flowing locks and the occasional unfortunate cornrows. But beyond the physical, the WEC-era Urijah Faber has very little in common with today's vintage. 

    In those days, striking was a tool he used simply to close the distance. Fights were a constant battle for takedowns and scrambles for position. That was a lot of fun, for the viewer at least. For Faber, however, it was a bit of wasted energy. 

    Today, the takedown is there in his back pocket. When things get iffy, or when he finds an opponent who can't match him on the ground, it's a weapon he can always utilize. But, like many wrestlers who have fallen in love with striking, it's a tool he all too often leaves untouched for minutes or even rounds at a time. 

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.1

    Faber has always been great in this category. He's added no small amount of skill to his explosive athleticism, making him almost impossible to hold down or to submit. In fact, over the course of 37 career fights against mostly stellar competition, he has never been submitted.

    On offense, he's even better. Seventeen of his 30 career wins have come by way of submission. Seven of those were with his ever-improving guillotine choke, including a win over Michael McDonald in December. 

    For all his submission prowess, where he really shines is in top control. Only the most potent jiu-jitsu specialist should even consider working from his guard against him. His ground-and-pound is both aggressive and increasingly controlled. Elbows are his weapon of choice—the harder, the better. 

     

    Striking

    18/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.70, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.27

    Much was made of Faber's improvements under now departed coach Duane Ludwig, but much of that was heavy smoke without even a small fire. Faber is, for the most part, the same stand-up fighter he's always been.

    He has serviceable low kicks, a poor high kick and a left hook that seems incapable of doing much more than tickling a foe's chin. He does damage with the same techniques he's always relied on: a powerful overhand right and a deceptively speedy lead uppercut. 

    He utilizes lots of movement and switches stances frequently. That's mostly for show. When he comes, it's with the intent to land that right hand. In many ways, it's a limited approach.

    But, for now, it's the only one he has. Faber doesn't counter well. In fact, when striking at least, his mindset is either offensive or defensive. He doesn't flow easily between the two phases like the best strikers do. Until he can, his striking will never be as good as he needs it to be to beat the best strikers in the UFC at their own game. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    There's a lot to love about Faber's relentless positivity. He's created his own empire at Team Alpha Male, and his success speaks for itself.

    Unfortunately, his success may actually prevent him from taking the final steps he needs to regain his status as the sport's best lighter-weight fighter. He's been just good enough to avoid a major tactical restructuring, beating gatekeepers and journeymen with ease. That may stop him from thinking too hard about what's holding him back. 

     

    Overall

    78/100

14. Chris Weidman, Middleweight

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    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

13. Lyoto Machida, Middleweight

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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

12. Renan Barao, Bantamweight

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    TIM LARSEN/Associated Press

    Age: 27   Height: 5'7"   Reach: 70"
    Fight camp: Nova Uniao/Kimura
    Record: 32-2-1 (8 knockouts, 14 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Lost to TJ Dillashaw (TKO), UFC 173
    Def. Urijah Faber (TKO), UFC 169
    Def. Eddie Wineland (TKO) UFC 165

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average 1.31, Takedown Accuracy: 55%, Takedown Defense: 96%

    Considering his slick Brazilian jiu-jitsu game, it's a shame Barao doesn't focus more on improving his wrestling. His submissions are among the best in the division—but you have to take your opponent down to work your grappling, and at this point in his career, that doesn't seem to interest Barao much. 

    His game plan is built around a stiff jab and even stiffer kicks. To execute it, he has to stay on his feet. Luckily for him, his wrestling and fleet feet have been up to the challenge. Only Anthony Leone managed to take him down, a decision he soon regretted. Barao made him tap with an armbar in short order. 

     

    Grappling

    20/25

    Submission Average: 0.7

    Pay close attention when Barao starts sniffing out submissions on the mat. For the most part, it's a skill set he completely ignores. But when he does look to finish a fight—look out. So far in his Zuffa career, he's secured a submission win in every fight he's made an attempt to do so. 

    Like most Nova Uniao fighters, he's especially proficient with the arm triangle, as he showed against Michael McDonald last year. There's nothing innovative there. It's simply an old technique executed to perfection. That, more than flashy new techniques with funny names, is the key to success on the mat. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.55, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.02

    A lot of air has been wasted comparing Barao to his teammate, featherweight champion Jose Aldo. In truth, the two aren't very similar at all. Sure, both are jiu-jitsu wizards who prefer to spend their time trading strikes with opponents, but the way they go about winning those exchanges is quite different.

    Barao's striking game is built around a stiff and determined jab. He throws it out there, not just as a distraction or to set up a power shot, but as a significant weapon in its own right. He uses leg kicks in much the same way. While Aldo lands his leg kicks after a punching combination, a la kickboxing great Ernesto Hoost, Barao leads with his, treating it like a de facto jab. 

    While TJ Dillashaw showed that an equally quick opponent can beat Barao to the punch, for the most part you can't argue with success. Those single one-off strikes have worked very well for Barao; it's when he throws combinations that he courts trouble.

    Although he's cleaned up some of his technical flaws in recent fights, he's still prone to let things devolve into a brawl, dropping his defenses and swinging for the fences. At some point, a savvy opponent will simply cover up and wait, eventually catching the champion with his hands down.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Look to Barao's spinning back-kick finish against Eddie Wineland at UFC 165 if you have any questions about the bantamweight champion's athleticism and skill. But you can look to the first round of the same fight for the flaws that might stop him from becoming an all-time great. Wineland won a round he had no business winning because Barao doesn't always fight to his strengths.

    Luckily, he has one of the best coaches in the sport with UFC veteran Andre Pederneiras in his corner and some of the best fighters in the lighter-weight classes to help him continue improving. At 27, Barao is not yet a finished product. That, more than anything, has to be particularly frightening to those standing across from him. 

     

    Overall

    80/100

11. Alexander Gustafsson, Light Heavyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 6'4"   Reach: 81"
    Fight camp: Alliance MMA
    Record: 16-2 (10 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Jimi Manuwa (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Manuwa
    Lost to Jon Jones (Dec), UFC 165
    Def. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (Dec), UFC on Fox 5

     

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average: 2.00 Takedown Accuracy: 40% Takedown Defense: 86%

    Once upon a time, at UFC 112 in April 2010, wrestling looked to be the Achilles heel of the devastating Swedish striker they call Alexander Gustafsson. Matched against Phil Davis, Gustafsson gave up a takedown and then offered his neck for the taking, and "Mr. Wonderful" locked in an anaconda choke that forced "The Mauler" to tap out. 

    The story is a familiar one. Striker enters the shark pool with an American wrestler. Striker is mauled and left for dead.

    Fast forward to today, and things are no longer so dire for Gustafsson in the wrestling department. In fact, he's made his wrestling into a valuable asset. Gustafsson swallowed his pride and linked up with Davis and Alliance MMA shortly after their fight, and he's made incredible improvements in a short period of time. 

    Not only has his defense become nigh but impregnable, but he also became the first man to take 205-pound champ Jon Jones to the ground. In fact, he's notched at least one takedown in each of his last four fights.

    After watching Gustafsson masterfully defend 10 of Jones' 11 takedowns at UFC 165, it's clear that we can no longer point to the Swede's wrestling game as a weakness. He's not merely competent here—Gustafsson is good.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.8

    While his wrestling has been magically transformed, Gustafsson's grappling improvements are not quite so evident. 

    Sure he's choked out James Te Huna and controlled Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on the mat since losing to Davis, but he's supposed to. He's a superstar and they are a journeyman and a faded legend respectively.

    We haven't seen him spend too much time here against elite competition. Only Jones truly meets that description among Gustafsson foes, and he met that test nicely.

    Grappling is about control and Jones popped right back to his feet when Gus took him down at UFC 165. Since Gustafsson did the same when he found Jones on top of him late in their championship affair, however, we'll call it a wash.

    And, frankly, that's all he wants. Gustafsson's striking is arguably the best in the division, so there's no need to step outside his comfort zone just to prove how well rounded he's become. When on his back he wants to get up to his feet. So, far, so good.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.05, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.13

    This is where the Swede separates himself from the pack. He strikes with tremendous power and accuracy, and he's earned 10 knockouts in 16 professional victories, most recently flattening Manuwa with a crushing knee and some uppercuts. There isn't a technique he can't execute with grace, and he's incredibly relaxed and fluid standing. 

    Defensively, he leaves a little to be desired. Jones found great success with left high kicks and elbows, and even an exhausted Shogun got his shots in when the two fought at UFC on Fox 5. Gustafsson will take one to give one. Normally that's an exchange he ends up winning—even if it costs some brain cells in the process.

    Still, despite the champion's success, Gustafsson generally enjoys the upper hand if somebody wants to test his stand-up skills. I mean, you saw Jones' face after he fought Gustafsson, right? That's not a peanut allergy, friends. That's the result of standing and trading with this Swedish monster for five rounds.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    22/25

    When the UFC hyped Gustafsson as Jones' biggest challenge before their UFC 165 showdown because of his height and reach, the MMA community let out a collective groan.

    "Really? That's how they're selling us on this guy?" 

    As it turns out, being 6'5" with an 81 inch reach is an incredibly valuable asset in the UFC's light heavyweight division. He troubled Jones on the feet, something nobody had done before (or since). Of course, the reach is just the start. It's knowing how to use it that's key—and Gustafsson is well versed in the striking arts and attacks from all distances.

    On top of this, Gustafsson has shown the ability to improve on his weaknesses with rapid efficiency. When he found out that his wrestling was broken he fixed it. He fixed it. It sounds simple, but it's anything but.

    And, best of all, he's just now entering his athletic prime. While he failed during his first bid for the title last September, Gustafsson is a polished, poised fighter. It looks like he'll be, at the very worst a top-5 competitor and a title contender for years to come. 

     

    Overall

    80/100

10. Benson Henderson, Lightweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

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

    Last Three Fights

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

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

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

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

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

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

     

    Grappling

    21/25

    Submission Average: 0.9

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

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

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

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

     

    Striking

    20/25

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

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

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

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

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    21/25

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

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

     

    Overall

    80/100

9. Chad Mendes, Featherweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 66"
    Fight Camp: Team Alpha Male
    Record: 16-1 (6 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Nik Lentz (Dec) UFC on Fox 9
    Def. Clay Guida (TKO) UFC 164
    Def. Darren Elkins (KO) UFC on Fox 7

     

    Wrestling

    22/25

    Takedown Average 4.99, Takedown Accuracy: 59%, Takedown Defense: 100%

    In 2008, Mendes came within three points of winning the NCAA wrestling championship at 141 pounds. That speaks volumes about his wrestling prowess.

    So too does his success in the Octagon. With the exception of fights that ended in the very first round, he has taken every opponent to the mat. Some, including solid wrestlers like Nik Lentz, ended up on their back over and over again. Only champion Jose Aldo has truly stymied him, avoiding seven shots before ending Mendes' night with a knee to the head in the clinch.

    When not in the cage with Aldo, those takedowns add up, in the record books and on the judges' scorecards. Mendes averages almost five takedowns for every 15 minutes of fighting. That's not just good—it's the highest average in WEC/UFC featherweight history.  

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.4

    It should come as no surprise that the one submission win in Mendes' Zuffa career came by way of the guillotine choke. It's the house special for fighters from Team Alpha Male, and Mendes has likely spent plenty of time both defending and executing one of MMA's most versatile chokes.

    But while submissions aren't key to his game, grappling is. After all, he needs to do something with all those takedowns to win points and rounds.

    He has good top control and solid ground-and-pound, and like most skilled fighters, he tends to win in the scramble when a careful plan turns into complete chaos. He's even managed to throw a few wrinkles into his game—including a really cool flipping guard pass that has to be seen to be believed.  

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.42, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.42

    Mendes and his coaches have done a remarkable job turning a pure wrestler into a multifaceted and powerful striker. He's a great natural athlete and must have a brain like a sponge, allowing him to master techniques in a variety of sports in mere months.

    He has great movement, punches in combination and has the kind of God-given power that easily corrects for any technical errors he might make. The prototypical wrestler-turned-striker fights more like Clay Guida, charging wildly and hoping for the best. Mendes made Guida look absolutely foolish, moving away from his wild punches with textbook footwork and making him pay with counter right hands.

    It was a masterful performance—the difference between a good fighter and a great one. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    22/25

    Mendes is everything you could want in a fighter from a wrestling base. He has kept his wrestling strong, added very sophisticated striking and shown an ability to avoid trouble on the ground. Best of all, he mixes his striking and wrestling well, moving easily from one to the other without having to trip a mental switch like some fighters who seem to keep each skill set in a separate box.

    In truth, he has everything he needs to succeed. He just happens to be unlucky enough to enter the MMA scene at the same time as Jose Aldo, one of the most gifted fighters in UFC history.

     

    Overall

    81/100 

8. TJ Dillashaw, Bantamweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 28   Height: 5'6"   Reach: 68"
    Fight camp:  Team Alpha Male
    Record: 10-2 (4 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Renan Barao (TKO), UFC 173
    Def. Mike Easton (UD), UFC Fight Night 35
    Lost to Raphael Assuncao (SD), UFC Fight Night 29

     

    Wrestling

    21/25

    Takedown Average: 2.20, Takedown Accuracy: 42%, Takedown Defense: 100%

    Before he ever stepped into an MMA cage, TJ Dillashaw had spent his whole life wrestling, receiving a full ride to California State University-Fullerton to work his magic on the mats. While that experience doesn't always translate to the Octagon, it's certainly a very real head start. As a result, it's no surprise that his MMA wrestling is very good. 

    Most impressive about his wrestling statistics is the context in which they are earned. Despite facing standout grapplers like Raphael Assuncao and Mike Easton during his time inside the Octagon, Dillashaw has never been taken down, and he's landed at least one takedown in each of his wins except for his most recent masterpiece against Renan Barao at UFC 173.

    He boasts an excellent single-leg takedown and a powerful blast double, and even when he is unable to complete an attempt, he'll regroup and try again, usually with great success.

    Training with the wrestle-first beasts of Team Alpha Male, Dillashaw's wrestling talents will likely never dull completely, even as he continues to grow as a complete martial artist.   

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 2.0

    Dillashaw hasn't yet flashed the patented guillotine inside the Octagon, but he's unmistakably a product of Team Alpha Male. Like his camp mates, he has built his grappling game upon power and aggression. 

    Once he takes an opponent down, he is relentless in search of the finish, particularly in looking to take his foe's back. He's not flashy with submission attempts, but his grappling is undeniably effective. All three of his career submissions came from back mount, and once "The Viper" secures this position, it's tough work getting out.

    Dillashaw is also solid defensively on the ground, which he showcased during his fight with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Assuncao. The Brazilian locked in a deep anaconda choke in Round 2, but Dillashaw remained calm and gradually worked his way out of danger. 

     

    Striking

    21/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 5.23, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.33

    Dillashaw completely outstruck Renan Barao, the man whom many previously considered to be the best striker in the bantamweight division. It was a star-making performance, one that provides a nice launching point to discuss Dillashaw's evolving stand-up game.

    In the biggest fight of his life, he showcased incredible footwork and crisp, powerful punches, knocking Barao down in Round 1 with a huge right hand and eventually finishing the job in Round 5 after almost 22 minutes of demolition.

    He landed 140 significant strikes to Barao's 64, a phenomenal output that was no fluke—it approximates his career average of 5-2. Before meeting Dillashaw, Barao had never been outstruck in the UFC, let alone dominated in that fashion.  

    While Dillashaw's striking looked better than ever against Barao, it's worth learning a lesson from the hyperbole that attached itself to the former champion. Dillashaw is no more "unstoppable" than Barao was. In fact, he was knocked out by current flyweight John Dodson in his UFC debut, and his striking defense still has holes for a savvy foe to exploit.  

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

    Dillashaw is a system fighter—in the best way. He buys completely into the Team Alpha Male ethos and style, applying everything he's learned on fight night when it counts most. While the team's foundations all had significant bad habits to unlearn, Dillashaw was a tabula rasa of sorts, the perfect clay for coaches to mold into a champion. 

    He's ultra-aggressive and looks to punish his opponents from the onset, setting the tone and putting them in a hole before they can mount any significant offense. His conditioning is top-notch, and he can follow a game plan without deviating.  

    Mentally, he appeared unfazed by the hype surrounding Barao at UFC 173. He worked his game to perfection, becoming the UFC bantamweight champion and positioning himself as one of the UFC's breakout fighters of 2014 in the process.

    Right now, times are sweet for Dillashaw, and there's no telling just how far he'll ride this wave of success. Everything is in place; now, he just needs to stay focused and knock down challengers as they emerge from the pack. 

     

    Overall

    81/100

7. John Dodson, Flyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 5'3"   Reach: 66"
    Fight camp: Jackson's MMA
    Record: 16-6 (8 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    TBD vs. John Moraga, UFC Fight Night 42
    Def. Darrell Montague (KO), UFC 166
    Lost to Demetrious Johnson (Decision), UFC on Fox 6

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

    Takedown Average: 0.81, Takedown Accuracy: 27%, Takedown Defense: 80%

    Dodson, twice a state wrestling champion in high school, approaches the sport of kings the same way he does everything else—with indefatigable positivity and startling athleticism. Early in his career, however, he was forced to compete at bantamweight and even featherweight, resulting in a significant size differential between him and his opponents.

    The result was an attack that relied little on wrestling. After all, 20 pounds is a lot of weight to give up in a game of human chess. On occasion, especially when an opponent gets into a comfortable rhythm, he'll drop levels for a beautiful double-leg takedown like he did against Tim Elliott in a 2012 fight.  

    And, as you can see by the numbers, Dodson's defensive wrestling is still as sharp as ever. His takedown defense is nearly impenetrable. When he does end up on the mat, it's most often the result of a flying attack gone wrong. Straightforward wrestling is rarely enough to put him down. 

     

    Grappling

    19/25

    Submission Average: 0.0

    Dodson won his first fight, all the way back in 2004, by rear-naked choke. It's an experience he's only repeated once since. In fact, in his six-fight UFC tenure, he's never even attempted a submission.

    Of course, there's much more to grappling than just finishing. Dodson, for example, has excellent submission awareness. Sure, he's never won another fight by submission—but he's never lost one, either.

    Just as importantly, he is a truly impressive grappler when the fight does go to the ground. Matwork is not a key to his success, and so he avoids it at all costs. That in itself is a significant skill. He explodes out of trouble and back to his feet as well as any fighter in the game. Considering that's the best-case scenario for him, you might call that mission accomplished.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.68, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 4.08

    People who say numbers never lie have never seen Dodson's FightMetric striking statistics. They say he gets hit more than he hits—and that's entirely misleading.

    Those numbers are calculated in the aggregate and are skewed by one fight—Dodson's title challenge against Demetrious Johnson. "Mighty Mouse" out-landed Dodson at a two-to-one clip. More human opponents have not been so lucky.

    Dodson is an explosive southpaw who is at his best when he's allowed to set his feet and really let fly with a dangerous left hand. Jussier Formiga, thought by many to be the best flyweight in the world, was only one victim. Eight of Dodson's 16 wins have come by way of knockout, fairly unusual for a fighter of his size.

    Worse for opponents, his fight-ending left hand is far from the extent of his striking prowess. Even more impressive are his knees. He steps in nicely to meet pursuers with hard shots and isn't afraid to go flying in himself, launching all 63 inches into the air fearlessly. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    22/25

    The combination of powerful boxing and unpredictability makes Dodson one of the toughest fighters in the world to game-plan for. While fight fans often make gentle fun of UFC announcer Mike Goldberg's propensity to call any African-American fighter "explosive," in Dodson's case, it truly fits the bill.

    Even among his flyweight peers, his speed and quickness are notable. Combine that native athleticism with coaching from Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, the most successful trainers in the sport's history, and you have a future champion in the making.  
     

    Overall

    81/100

6. Anthony Pettis, Lightweight

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

    Last Three Fights

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

     

    Wrestling

    18/25

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

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

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

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 1.7

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

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

     

    Striking

    23/25

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

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

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

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

      

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    20/25

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

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

     

    Overall

    83/100

5. Daniel Cormier, Light Heavyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 35   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 72.5"
    Fight camp: American Kickboxing Academy
    Record: 15-0 (6 knockouts, 4 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Dan Henderson (Sub.), UFC 173
    Def. Patrick Cummins (TKO), UFC 170
    Def. Roy Nelson (Dec.), UFC 166

     

    Wrestling

    24/25

    Takedown Average: 2.17, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 100%

    It was supposed to be his year, the year Daniel Comier finally made his mark on international wrestling history. In 2004 he had finished a respectable fifth in the Olympic Games. In 2007 he had taken bronze at the world championships.

    By 2008 he was seasoned and ready. They were to be his Games—but it wasn't meant to be. Instead of taking home the gold, Cormier watched from the sidelines, a weight cut costing him both kidney function and opportunity. 

    Of course there's no shame in failure at that level. Just getting there is an enormous accomplishment. For five years Cormier was the best American wrestler at 213 pounds. That's a significant achievement.

    Is it any wonder, then, that his dominance has extended to the cage? With his low center of gravity and deceptive strength, Cormier is almost impossible to takedown. On the wrestling mats this was both offense and defense—the simple go-behind was his go-to move.

    In MMA, where few would be foolish enough to engage him in a wrestling contest, Cormier has been forced to create his own offense. While that's never been his forte, against people who aren't the best wrestlers in the world, Cormier's collection of trips and upper body throws have been more than enough to get the job done.

    Cormier's wrestling chops are not just theoretical. His beautiful single leg against Roy Nelson and his high crotch slam against Josh Barnett are proof positive of his potential to dominate this realm of combat.

     

    Grappling

    18/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

    In some ways it may not matter much how good Cormier is on the ground. It's unlikely, in a perfect world, that he'll ever be there except on his own terms.

    But we don't live in a perfect world. You never know what might happen in a fight—a slip or a strike may put him down and, suddenly his amateur wrestling credentials will be out the window. The mat is the realm of submission. Without a grounding in that part of the game Cormier would be lost. He, of course, knows that as well as anyone.

    He trains weekly with Checkmat's Leandro Viera, and training must be going well. Well enough that Vieira created some controversy in his world by promoting Cormier from white to brown belt in one fell swoop, skipping blue and purple entirely. Those voices lost some of their timbre, however, when Cormier made mincemeat of Dan Henderson on the ground, suddenly making his advancement reasonable in retrospect.

    Beyond the mat, Cormier is brilliant in the clinch, controlling his opponent with one underhook while letting him have it to the body with his free hand. When he locks his hands watch out—a hard knee to the body is sure to follow. Or maybe it will be an upper body throw?

    That's the beauty, Cormier has discovered, of being a well rounded fighter. The opponent has to defend and prepare for so much, but no man can defend every conceivable attack.

     

    Striking

    22/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.08, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.30

    Watching Daniel Cormier compete, it would be easy to forget he's only been doing this for five years. His striking technique is so fluid, so diverse, that I'm confident saying no amateur wrestling crossover has ever done it better in the UFC Octagon—including Cormier's teammate, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. 

    Early in his career Cormier earned the nickname "Black Fedor," a flattering comparison to Fedor Emelianenko, the best heavyweight fighter of his era.  At the time it was a tribute, albeit a politically incorrect one, a testament to the amazing way he mixed his striking and grappling together (though the two mens doughy, roly poly physiques may have also played a role).

    In 2014, it's almost an insult. Fedor, as great as he was, didn't have Cormier's fast and effective headkicks or his brilliant attack in the clinch. Cormier, if anything is Fedor 2.0. He's the complete package—a striker with the ultimate trump card. 

    When across from a man like Henderson, capable if ending his night with a single strike, Cormier can simply decide to remove the fight to the mat. That's an enormous advantage, an ace in the hole that might allow Cormier to one day strap UFC gold around his waist.

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    19/25

    Tactically, the best thing about Cormier is his refusal to bend to the will of promoters and fans. He's going to do what it takes to win. If that means push an opponent up against the fence for 15 minutes—so be it. If that means taking him down and controlling him until the bell rings—so be it. There's no room in Cormier's world for anything but winning.

    If he wasn't 35 years old, it would be almost a given that he would one day hold a UFC title. But he is 35, with a lifetime of wrestling grind wearing on his body. That means the window is half-closed already—and every opponent is looking to slam it shut. 

    Cormier is finally in the right weight class. He's at the right gym for his skillset. He's ready for the best in the world. He's ready for Jon Jones.

     

    Overall

    83/100

4. Cain Velasquez, Heavyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 31   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 77"
    Record:
    13-1 (11 Knockouts)
    Fight camp: 
    American Kickboxing Academy

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Junior Dos Santos (TKO), UFC 166
    Def. Antonio Silva (TKO), UFC 160
    Def. Junior Dos Santos (UD), UFC 155

     

    Wrestling

    23/25

    Takedown Average 2.37, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 96%

    Cain Velasquez's wrestling is terrifying. As a young fighter, his wrestling pedigree made it almost impossible for manager Bob Cook to find him a fight. Fellow heavyweights wanted no part of the former All-American collegian.  

    As a professional he's shown those cowards were wise in a way. His FightMetric statistics are almost comically good. The apex? Taking down then-UFC champion Junior Dos Santos 11 times in their second fight. If Velasquez wants you on the mat, it's to the mat you go.

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.8

    It's hard to say exactly what Velasquez offers on the ground. In his entire 14-fight career, he's only attempted a paltry three submissions. For the risk averse, that's actually a smart strategy. Submissions can end bouts, true, but they are also a good way to give up the advantage—and that's a good way to lose fights.

    For the most part, when Velasquez gets an opponent down, he's content to work ground-and-pound, passing into half-guard and side control regardless of the opponent. Control doesn't seem to be a problem. When he gets an opponent down, even a persistent one like Dos Santos, he is generally able to keep him there long enough to do solid work. 

     

    Striking

    20/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.33, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.92

    Considering Velasquez started as a pure wrestler, his striking is nothing short of remarkable. In fact, no fighter in UFC history has landed more strikes per minute. He has crisp technique and, because of his strong wrestling pedigree and takedown defense, isn't afraid to mix some kicks in, confident he can get back to his feet if he somehow ends up on his back.

    The major flaw in his game is his lack of stopping power. That might seem a strange flaw to pinpoint, especially considering his 11 wins by TKO, but those are mostly finishes due to accumulation. A tough opponent like Dos Santos can take the champ's best shots and drag a fight out. In a heavyweight fight, that's potentially a major disadvantage.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    23/25

    Before Velasquez had his first UFC fight, he was already widely discussed as a future champion. Some of that has to do with his superb athleticism and wrestling pedigree—those assets alone almost guarantee MMA success.

    But what separated him from the wrestlers who have come before and since are his peerless cardiovascular training and work ethic. No one works harder, and the results show in the cage.

    Most heavyweights are out of steam after a round or two; Velasquez can fight hard from bell to bell. That's the difference between a talented fighter and a champion.

     

    Overall

    83/100

3. Demetrious Johnson, Flyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 5'3"   Reach: 66"
    Record:
    19-2-1 (4 knockouts, 7 submissions)
    Fight camp:
    AMC Pankration

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Joseph Benavidez (KO), UFC on Fox 9
    Def. John Moraga (Submission), UFC on Fox 8
    Def. John Dodson (Decision), UFC on Fox 6

    Wrestling

    19/25

    Takedown Average: 3.69, Takedown Accuracy: 55%, Takedown Defense: 61%

    Despite a beautiful double-leg takedown, wrestling is not Johnson's strong suit. He was grounded by Ian McCall in their first fight, and bantamweight kingpin Dominick Cruz once took Johnson down 10 times in a single bout. Cruz, of course, dominated even the best fighters, making that poor performance almost explainable.

    But Brad Pickett? He, too, put Johnson on the mat over and over again in a WEC fight.

    The move to flyweight, however, has done much to improve Johnson's performance in the sport of kings. No longer completely dwarfed by opponents, he's better able to fend off takedowns. Just as importantly, he rarely stays still long enough for anyone to give the old college try.  

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.3

    Very risk averse on the ground, Johnson almost never even considers attempting a submission. For him to give it a shot, success almost has to be a sure thing. In fact, in his Zuffa career, he finished the fight every time he attempted a finishing hold in a bout. If he sees a vulnerability in a foe, it's because it's there, not because he imagined it. 

    Training with Matt Hume, a submission ace from the earliest days of the sport, you have to assume that Johnson knows his business on the ground. But he's also one of the smartest fighters in the game. Trading position for a failed submission is a tactical fail—the kind of mistake he just doesn't make.

    His modus operandi when the fight hits the mat is control. If grappling is not your game, he's not afraid to punish you there. Witness the 13 guard passes he pulled off against an overmatched John Moraga. 

     

    Striking

    23/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.32, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.90

    There's something special about Johnson's stand-up game. His footwork is the best in MMA, as he switches effortlessly between southpaw and orthodox stances to cause his opponents mental fits and to set up his own potent techniques.

    Fighting is about angles, and Johnson always finds them. More than that, he's the best fighter in the world at baiting his opponents into making mistakes. He knows what the other guy wants to do and sets traps to make him pay for following his instincts.

    He let Joseph Benavidez chase him for five rounds in their first fight, offering tantalizing chances for the power puncher to corner him before countering smartly with a stiff right hand and then scurrying away or into the clinch. It was Johnson's true masterwork.

    His striking game, however, is not quite perfect. He's good at moving around the cage and avoiding his opponents, but when someone manages to track him down, he's right there to be hit. John Dodson cracked him with several hard shots in their fight last year, giving future foes hope that it isn't all for naught.

    Johnson's lack of punching power, exacerbated by his refusal to sit down on his punches, also allows fights to continue long past the point he's established dominance. And every extra second in the cage is a second that could lead to an upset, especially against opponents with the power that Johnson lacks. 

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    24/25

    Johnson is a brilliant fighter. No one is better prepared to take away his opponent's strengths. Even better, when things don't go as planned, he has shown a willingness to switch gears mid-fight, doing what it takes to win. It helps that his unrivaled gas tank allows him to continue fighting at an unbelievable pace for all 25 minutes.

    While some of this success can be attributed to physical calculus, a feel for pacing and timing that comes easily to the greatest technicians, some credit is due to coach Hume. The guiding force behind many other successful fighters in their best years, including Rich Franklin and Josh Barnett, Hume is the most underrated trainer in the game. 

     

    Overall

    83/100

2. Jose Aldo, Featherweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 5'7"   Reach: 70"
    Fight Camp: Nova Uniao
    Record: 24-1 (14 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Ricardo Lamas (Dec) UFC 169
    Def. Chan Sung Jung (TKO) UFC 163
    Def. Frankie Edgar (Dec) UFC 156

     

    Wrestling

    22/25

    Takedown Average 1.05, Takedown Accuracy: 72%, Takedown Defense: 91%

    If any questions lingered about Aldo's wrestling game, especially after he was taken down by Canadian kickboxer Mark Hominick they were answered definitively against Frankie Edgar and Chad Mendes.

    In the Edgar fight especially, Aldo's takedown defense shined. Edgar is great at mixing takedowns in with his lightning-fast punches, but Aldo was more than ready. He defended Edgar's deadly knee pick deftly and moved at an inhuman speed to fend off a double-leg takedown that would have felled even the most seasoned wrestler.

    It's clear at this point that Aldo has spent endless hours making sure he can keep the fight exactly where he wants it—on his feet.  

     

    Grappling

    17/25

    Submission Average: 0.2

    Like Vitor Belfort before him, Aldo's grappling game is a bit of a mystery. Both men came from the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigrees. Both prefer, however, to stand and bang. 

    In time, Belfort would reveal good hips and a solid grounding in submissions. Aldo, so adept at staying on his feet, hasn't really had the chance to do so—yet.

    As a young fighter, he showed some jiu-jitsu prowess in Brazil, winning titles as both a purple and brown belt. But you'd never guess he has a grappling background at all as a professional. He's focused primarily on his stand-up game. 

     

    Striking

    24/25

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.18, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.79

    It's here that Aldo really shines. While most MMA fighters are either slick stylists or powerful brutes, Aldo manages to combine the best of both worlds. As a technician, he's mostly superb. He has a stiff jab, a tricky uppercut and a decent counter right straight or stepping knee ready for anyone foolish enough to charge at him recklessly.

    But when you think of Aldo, what come to mind, more than any boxing techniques, are his powerful and persistent leg kicks. He famously wrecked Urijah Faber's leg with a series of kicks, but Faber is hardly alone. Very few can avoid them for long.

    That, of course, is by design. Many MMA fighters use leg kicks almost like a jab, as single strikes to throw their opponent's off balance and distractions that aren't really central to the fight. Aldo mixes his in with his other wide-ranging techniques, often combining a right straight, left to the body and right leg kick in devastating combination.

    And, if that's not enough, he can also explode with a fury when he thinks the time is right. He's no mere stylist—he can crack. Nine of his fights in the WEC and UFC have ended by knockout, including a spectacular flying knee that dropped Cub Swanson eight seconds into their fight.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    24/25

    At age 16 Aldo left home to pursue two dreams—to see the ocean and to become a professional fighter. He accomplished both in Rio de Janeiro when legendary coach Andre Pederneiras from Nova Uniao took the struggling teen under his wing.

    He gave Aldo a room in the gym, rescuing him from the streets, and has seen him grow into a man and champion. That's a powerful bond—and the kind of life experience that won't let fame and success go to his head.

    Most remarkable about Aldo's rise is his constant improvement. UFC Fight Pass allows fans to watch all of Aldo's UFC and WEC fights. While he was good from the get-go, his improvement is incredible.

    He's not yet perfect. Inside his kicking range, a good boxer can outpunch him. On the ground, he might be tested. But those weaknesses aren't easy to take advantage of. It will take a great and disciplined fighter to beat him.   

     

    Overall

    87/100 

1. Jon Jones, Light Heavyweight

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 26   Height: 6'4"   Reach: 84.5"
    Fight camp: Jackson's MMA
    Record: 20-1 (9 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights

    Def. Glover Teixeira (Dec.), UFC 172
    Def. Alexander Gustafsson (Dec), UFC 165
    Def. Chael Sonnen (TKO), UFC 159

     

    Wrestling

    22/25

    Takedown Average: 2.37, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 96%

    It's easy to overlook Jones' wrestling game because he lacks a fancy pedigree. After all, there's a world of difference between a national junior college championship, something Jones won in 2006, and an NCAA title.

    The gulf, however, is not nearly as large in some cases as it is in team sports. The national JUCO football champions would be demolished by the University of Alabama. But Brock Lesnar competed for an NCAA wrestling title the year after his JUCO reign—and Jones might have done the same. 

    Wrestling is an individual sport, a test of wills. What's written on paper next to your name means about as much as the color of your belt once you step into the cage—and Jones is as effective a wrestler as there is in the division when he wants to be.

    He has a vast array of trips and throws from the clinch and his use of distance, combined with his years of wrestling experience makes him next to impossible to take down. Only one man has managed it during his UFC career, Swedish striker Alexander Gustafsson who likely took Jones by surprise in the daring attempt.

     

    Grappling

    22/25

    Submission Average: 0.8

    It's almost unfair how good Jones is on the ground. A fighter with his gifts standing and such strong wrestling should have a weakness. But if that's true of Jones, no one has done a very good job locating it. 

    Perhaps Jones is vulnerable off his back? It's hard to say as we've never really seen him there for any length of time. We do know this—from the top position he's an absolute monster.

    The history of MMA is, in part, the history of ground fighting's evolution over time, from the Gracie's mount, to Mark Coieman's ground and pound, to Fedor Emelianenko's unprecedented melding of the two. Jones has taken Fedor to the next level, mixing skull crushing elbows into the equation alongside punches and an arsenal of submission holds. 

    Worse still, at least for future opponents, Vitor Belfort opened Jones' eyes to the danger inherent in a good guard. Belfort had the chance to catch Jones off guard—and missed. One of the smartest fighters in the sport, Jones is unlikely to make the same mistake again.

     

    Striking

    23/25

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.33, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.92

    There's a growing movement of MMA metrics, an attempt to use statistics to quantify what's happening in he cage and why. Height, it turns out, isn't particularly important. Reach is—and Jon Jones has a reach unlike any we've ever seen in the UFC. His 84.5 inch wingspan dwarfs just about anyone's he'll step into the cage with. That's a huge advantage, but only if he knows how to use it.

    We've all seen tall and rangy fighters who had no idea how to maintain and use distance or keep an opponent away. Think of the enormous Stefan Struve here, letting human bowling ball Mark Hunt into range without repercussions. 

    Jones, by contrast, uses his physical advantages brilliantly. Kicks are the key—leg kicks, front kicks and even controversial oblique kicks to the knee. All are part of Jones' commitment to keep his opponents at bay.

    When someone does close the distance, or runs out of real estate while retreating, he's still far from helpless. Jones is great at creating just a smidgen of room, then unleashing his now trademark elbows, spinning and otherwise.

    That's just one of Jones' many breath taking techniques—and he seems to add to his arsenal with every fight. As the best in the world there's not reason for him to be constantly tinkering and improving. But, perhaps, he's the best in the world for just this reason.

     

    Fight IQ and Intangibles

    24/25

    Jones may be the best fighter the sport of MMA has ever seen. But that doesn't make him perfect. No one is. Alexander Gustafsson tested him mightily and Daniel Cormier will likely take him deeper into wrestling waters than he's ever been before.

    But Jones rises to meet every challenge. He's made a career of it. His coaches, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, are among the best in the sport. They've somehow managed to keep Jones focused despite his unprecedented dominance. That's no easy task as success so often breeds complacency. 

    Jones, however, is not just physically gifted—he's a cerebral fighter, a film addict obsessed with becoming the best martial artist he can be. He's special. And he's only getting better.

     

    Overall

    91/100