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.
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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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
Def. Rafael Silva (UD), Bellator 118 Def. Travis Marx (TKO), Bellator 107 Def. Nick Kirk (Sub), Bellator 101
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.
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.
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
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.
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 defense—the name of the game in counter-wrestling. That's really what matters most for him, so he receives high marks here.
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.
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
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?"
Def. Anthony Leone (Sub), Bellator 111 Def. Marcos Galvao (KO), Bellator 89 Lost to Tyson Nam (KO), Shooto Brazil 33
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Def. Frank Mir (UD), UFC 169 Lost to Travis Browne (TKO), UFC Fight Night 26 Lost to Antonio Silva (TKO), UFC 156
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.
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.
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
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.
42. Douglas Lima, Welterweight
15 of 56
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
40. Matt Brown, Welterweight
17 of 56
USA TODAY Sports
Age: 33 Height: 6'0"Reach: 76" Fight camp: The 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Takedown Average 1.23, Takedown Accuracy: 66%, Takedown Defense: 57%
MichaelMcDonald 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
36. Luke Rockhold, Middleweight
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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
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.
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.
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 details—the 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Def. Daniel Straus (Sub) Bellator 112 Lost to Daniel Straus (Dec) Bellator 106 Def. Shahbulat Shamhalaev (Sub) Bellator 95
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.
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.
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
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.
Def. Travis Browne (UD), UFC on Fox 11 Def. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Sub), UFC on Fuel TV 10 Def. Mike Russow (TKO), UFC 147
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.
31. Eddie Alvarez, Lightweight
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Age: 30 Height: 5'8"Reach: 69" Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center Record: 25-3 (14 knockouts, 7 submissions)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 eve