The Top 10 Most Influential UFC Fighters of All-Time
By Sean McClure
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
First, let me begin by saying that this is just my opinion and not a hall of fame piece. It is an opinion by a solid fan and someone who has watched almost every PPV the UFC has ever held. The reason for this column is that I was attempting to rationalize to a friend of mine at an MMA event I announced at this weekend why Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Tank Abbott had such an impact on the sport. He had only started watching the UFC at UFC 52 that featured the rematch between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. Another roadblock for me was that his first real exposure to a pay per view type atmosphere was the Ultimate Fighter Season 1 finale. As far as he knew, Forrest Griffin was the best fighter on the planet and Rich Franklin just annihilated the world’s most dangerous man, Ken Shamrock. Truth became subjective, if you will, for about a year in the UFC among all of the new faces and new champions. The old guard was out, the new guard was in, and the UFC had remodeled its “spectacle” image, turning it in to a more marketable, friendlier one.
Before the Griffins, the Franklins, and the St. Pierre’s there were guys who walked the long road from solo martial arts styles to the hybrids we see today. Guys who put their health and reputations on the line so that this sport could evolve and change according to and around their successes and mistakes. Without these 10 fighters, there would be no UFC today as we know it.
The criteria on this list taken in to consideration were Ambassadorship, when and from who a title was won, length of time in the UFC, and contributions to the sport overall. I also took in to consideration the effects mentioning their name had on people in today’s MMA scenes and the strength of the feelings their name invoked. Some of the names on this list made it because of the things they have done to elevate the UFC of today. Some made it because of one MMA changing moment that occurred inside th Octagon. Top ten lists are very subjective and are based strictly on opinion. That being said….here are mine.
10. “The Prodigy” BJ Penn
Newer fans may not see the value of BJ since they have only seen him fight twice and lose each time. The first was a split decision loss to Georges. St. Pierre and the second was a loss to Matt Hughes in a fight that he was dominating for the first two rounds. BJ apparently suffered a severe rib injury and came out in the third round looking like he was struggling to move around. Matt took advantage and scored a third round TKO victory, but that’s not what puts BJ on this list. What does is his record of accomplishment before this loss. BJ embarrassed Matt very badly in the Octagon and the clip of him submitting and then kissing Matt on the lips was replayed many times and talked about even more than that. BJ left the UFC due to contract disputes, but has since returned. In that short time, his presence has evoked so many emotions, both good and bad and has had people talking in the offices about the UFC. His fight with Matt was one of the most hotly debated of this year and the outcome forced even more discussion.
What makes Penn a shoe-in for this list is that he is one of the most talented fighters in the UFC and the world for that matter. He shook up the UFC’s welterweight division when he beat the unstoppable Matt Hughes decidedly. BJ is rumored to be a coach on the next season of the Ultimate Fighter reality show. If this is true then he will also face Jens Pulver at the end of the season in a rematch. BJ lost the first fight by majority decision at UFC 35 in a fight for the lightweight title.
9. David “Tank” Abbott
Like him or hate him, David Abbott is one of the reasons that fans tuned in to the UFC when it was getting its feet wet. Tank was the man who brutally knocked people out when there was this “skinny little Brazilian” submitting fighters by “laying on them for 15 minutes”. While the Brazilian comment was not very accurate, Abbott was the main reason for boxing fans to switch over and watch the UFC. He was the reason for wrestling fans to watch the UFC. He was one of the first fighters with a persona and character that marketed itself. He paved the way for today’s UFC stars including Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Brandon Vera. All of whom are known for being very vocal and have their own uniquely marketable personalities and characters. David Abbott helped attract and establish the first stable fan base for the UFC in his own unique way.
8. Dan “The Beast” Severn
This is likely to be another hot spot for criticism, but I will stand by it until the end. Dan Severn was the prototype for many fighters today. Josh Koscheck, Rashad Evans, Tito Ortiz, and many others are upgrades to “The Beast”. Severn was the poster boy for wrestlers who wished to test their durability in the growing hype that was the UFC. Dan really gathered a strong fan base when he won two tough fights at UFC 4 before losing to Royce Gracie in the finals. Dan was dominating Royce in his guard for almost 14 ½ minutes, but could not finish the legendary Brazilian. It was because of his weakness in striking that Gracie was able to steal the win, submitting Dan by triangle choke.
In 1995, Severn proved he was as good as people were saying by winning the Ultimate Ultimate ’95 tournament. The tournament featured fighters like Marco Ruas, Tank Abbott, Keith Hackney, and Oleg Taktarov. Severn would beat the favored Taktarov in the finals by unanimous decision after 30 minutes of fighting. It was a show of heart and courage and because of accomplishments like these; Dan is number 8 on my list. He is still actively winning fights in MMA today and now has a current record of 70-13-7.
7. Pat "The Croatian Sensation" Miletich
Pat Miletich is by far one of the most respected fighters on the planet. Not so much for his fighting, but for his intense and effective training methods. Miletich Fighting Systems Elite (MFS) is now a legendary fight stable in the United States and many young fighters have set a goal to train there some day. MFS holds claim to two titles in the UFC at this time. Matt Hughes wears the welterweight championship and Tim Sylvia wears the heavyweight….apparently everywhere he goes, but that is irrelevant. As a fighter, Pat was just as successful as he was a coach. He won the first lightweight tournament at UFC 16 (under 200 pounds) by defeating Chris Brennan. Then, at UFC Brazil in 1998, Pat beat TUF 4 star Mikey Burnett by split decision after 21 minutes of fighting to become the UFC’s under 200 pounds champion.
After the UFC re-classed the weight divisions to the current ones, Miletich lost to Carlos Newton in the new welterweight division. He had defended his title several times before that and despite this loss; his career was far from over. At UFC 32 Pat knocked out another TUF 4 star, Shonie Carter. After some encouragement from the UFC’s management, Miletich moved up to the middleweight division because his good friend and student Matt Hughes had just won the welterweight title from Carlos Newton. He lost to Matt Lindland in his first fight at the higher weight then took time off to recover from some nagging injuries. Pat has established himself as one of the most respected coaches on the planet and his fight record is just as impressive.
6. Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell
Everyone who follows MMA today knows who Chuck Liddell is and what he is capable of inside the Octagon. He is the only man to knockout Randy Couture and he did it twice. He has bested Tito Ortiz, Jeremy Horn, Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman, and many other great UFC fighters. Chuck started his UFC career back at UFC 17, but his stock did not truly rise until he knocked out Kevin Randleman at UFC 31. Chuck’s involvement as a coach on the first Ultimate Fighter season 1 made his already marketable look and personality more available to newer fans and it paid off for the UFC big time. His face is now on television more than any other UFC fighter is now that Xyience sponsors him. It’s hard to watch anything on Spike TV dealing with the UFC without seeing his name or likeness. He has done more by being an ambassador for this sport and attracted more fans than almost all other fighters on the roster attract.
He was and is a striker in what is traditionally a division full of wrestlers/grapplers and that makes him even more likeable to some. Liddell’s decimation of his opponents by his crushing right hand is his calling card and what people pay $39.95 to see on their television sets when he is scheduled to appear on a pay per view. Chuck is also considered the best 205 pound fighter in the world by a large percentage of MMA media rankings and most hardcore fans have him in their top spot at that weight.
Chuck has also helped coin the term, “sprawl and brawl” meaning that he prefers to win by striking and accomplishes this by doing whatever it takes to keep it from going to the ground.
5. Matt Hughes
Matt’s speaking may not make him the most influential of people, but his actions inside the Octagon do. Hughes has only really become vocal as of late with his upcoming fight against top contender Georges St. Pierre. Win or lose, Matt is a hall of famer for sure and right now is the most dominant champion in UFC history. His bragging rights are earned, but he doesn’t exercise them and it’s okay because his record of accomplishment speaks for itself. Hayato Sakurai, Gil Castillo, Frank Trigg x2, Georges St. Pierre, and his now famous win over BJ Penn. He has beaten Carlos Newton twice with the first being the start of his championship reign. Although he lost it to Penn at UFC 46, Hughes regained it shortly after and his waist has been golden ever since. Matt is a completely different person inside the cage than he is outside. He is all business and will fight anyone the UFC places in front of him. Matt has established himself as the man to beat at 170 pounds in the MMA world. He helped bring credibility to the UFC’s welterweight division and establish it as a marketable division. Like I said before, win or lose at UFC 65, Matt Hughes is going to be remembered as one of the best fighters to ever step inside the Octagon long after he retires.
4. Randy “The Natural” Couture
Randy’s record is 14-8-0. Of those 14 wins, he holds of victories over Vitor Belfort, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Pedro Rizzo x2, Maurice Smith, and Jeremy Horn. His bouts with Rizzo are legendary as was his rivalry with Chuck Liddell. Randy is the reason that Chuck can say, “I am a completely different fighter”. After he dominated Liddell at UFC 43, he embarrassed Tito at UFC 44. He didn’t do a lot of damage to Tito, but he was able to beat him at his own game and secure himself the light heavyweight title by doing so. Randy has and always will be one of the best ambassadors for the sport. As Matt Hughes brought credibility to the welterweight division so has Randy brought it to the UFC in general. Randy was one of the first fighter respected for being an athlete and not just an MMA fighter. He was extremely likeable and marketable. He was one of the few fighters to make no excuses even if there was one to make. He showed legions of younger fighters how to win and how to lose with dignity.
He was a coach on the Ultimate Fighter season 1 and part of the reason it was so popular. He represented the sport and gave it a friendly face when it needed it the most. As the UFC’s popularity rose, so did its criticism. With Randy as the biggest name in the UFC and possibly mixed martial arts at the time, the naysayers had a hard time finding something to nitpick about him. As I said before, Randy was an incredible ambassador for the sport.
When Randy retired, it was a sad day for MMA and for me personally. I wrote a very emotional tribute piece for MaXfighting that is thankfully permanently displayed on his website. It may be read here: The Natural.tv - Randy Couture Leaves a Legacy For MMA
That pretty much sums up why Randy to me had such an impact on the UFC and the MMA world in general.
3. Ken Shamrock
Yes, the same Ken Shamrock that was beaten handily by Tito Ortiz three times and the same one that lost to Sakuraba, and Rich Franklin. It’s not really Ken’s MMA credentials that put him so high on this list. Of course, he was a pioneer and was a UFC champion and that counts for a lot, but Ken did something that no other MMA legend has been able to do. Shamrock became bigger than the sport.
Even though some MMA fans may not want to acknowledge the significance of his accomplishments with the WWE they have to be recognized. When Ken needed some time away from the UFC and MMA he took his persona and chiseled physique to where the money was. He signed a contract with Vince McMahon to wrestle for the WWE and smartly at a time when WWE wrestling was in its “Attitude’ era and at an all time high. Not only was Ken successful, but he was accepted almost instantly. His credentials as a UFC fighter made him an easy fit for the WWE and an easy sell to the fans of wrestling. Does this have anything to do with MMA? Nope, but Ken did something here that no one else had been able to do. He was making lots of money, lots of it from his experience in the UFC. He made being in MMA seem cool to millions of people who probably could have cared less about it before then. He helped introduce the persona of an MMA fighter, over the top as his portrayal was. Shamrock is slammed a lot by hardcore fans for his jump to the WWE, but they should applaud him for it. Many other fighters had doors opened up to them because of his marketability and how much the WWE made from his appearances. His “Worlds” Most Dangerous Man” moniker embedded itself in the minds of millions of television viewers and he was ready for a return to the UFC.
When Ken returned to MMA, he participated in what is now considered the biggest rivalry in all of MMA. Shamrock’s hatred for Tito Ortiz brought him out of UFC retirement and got him back in fighting shape. It was the highest grossing pay per view of all time when it aired, and is still number 10 on the all time list of shows held in Las Vegas. It has been overtaken because of the incredible number of new fans watching the UFC today and buying their pay per views each month. It still stands as a reminder to what Ken’s rise in popularity with the WWE was able to do to bring in new viewers.
Ken’s “Lion’s Den” is one of the most famous of all fight stables and for a time in the UFC they were the top of the food chain. They had Vernon White, Guy Mezger, Mikey Burnett, Jerry Bohlander, Tra Telligman, Pete Williams, Trevor Prangley, and Ken himself. It was also one of the first big fight teams in MMA. Yet again, Ken was at the front end of something big. He will be remembered as one of the greatest and even Tito had to verbally recognize that when Ken announced his retirement from MMA after their third encounter this year and Ken’s third loss to the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy”. Ken Shamrock was a pioneer and deserving of number 3 on the top 10 list. Oh, but he will hate number 2.
2. “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz
I could have just said his name and been done with it. There is no other name, NONE that can bring out emotions like Tito’s does. Fans boo him when he comes to the cage, chant his name while he is in it, and then boo him when he wins. He was at the top of the MMA world and then the bottom. He was the most respected and marketable champion and one of the reasons that Zuffa was able to take the UFC out of the debt that had built up. At UFC 40, Tito Ortiz cemented himself as one of the most popular and best-known fighters of all times. He ushered in the new era of the UFC with a three round beating of Ken Shamrock that was stopped by the Lion’s Den founder’s corner due to excessive punishment. Tito has been in the MMA spotlight ever since.
If you look up the number of top MMA pay per views by the UFC before the Ultimate Fighter season 1 and UFC 52 occurred, you will see that he has headlined 4 of the top 10 money grossing pay per. Tito was the UFC’s first real star power and one of the reasons that they were able to keep going after running in to a stagnant time for American MMA.
Tito’s ties with Punishment Athletics made the clothing line a prominent one and soon other clothing lines were signing other top stars to represent them. This was not a new practice, but due to the effect Tito wearing Punishment Athletics had on their sales, there was a burst in clothing sales and fighter sponsorships.
Tito has stage presence, plain and simple. People pay attention to him whether it is to hear what he has to say or to say, “Here we go again”. Ortiz is never at a loss for words and when he returned to the UFC, it didn’t take long for him to call out the current champion.
Truthfully, the Tito of today is much different from the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” that lost to Couture and Liddell. Tito has matured and reformed the once defunct Team Punishment. The days of Tito, Ricco Rodriguez, Quentin Jackson, and others have faded and a new breed of fighters has emerged. Due to his excellent coaching on the Ultimate Fighter Season 3 reality show, Tito is in demand for his abilities to make others better through his teaching methods and cardio training. Kendall Grove, Matt Hamill, and a host of newer faces have been taken under his wing and are now successful. Tito’s legacy will live on no matter what happens on December 30th.
At UFC 66, Tito is scheduled to fight in a rematch against Chuck Liddell.
1. Royce Gracie
Was there even a doubt? A question? Royce Gracie is the reason that Brazilian jiu jitsu is what it is today. He showed the world that size doesn’t matter even when the fight goes to the ground. Royce was a “skinny little Brazilian guy” who was beating bigger fighters. He was the real life David to the status quo Goliaths. Royce would relentlessly pursue submission after submission while his opponents would scramble just to survive. Because of the value of jiu jitsu as displayed by Royce’s dominance MMA fighters adopted it in to their every day training. Without Royce, we would be a lot further back in mixed martial arts evolution then we are today.
That’s not saying that Royce was invulnerable. It took a lot of time for him to submit some fighters and time limits were introduced into the sport in 1995. Ken Shamrock would become the first fighter to survive Royce Gracie's submission assault and earn himself a draw. The match lasted for 30 minutes and a 5-minute overtime. Fans have been calling for a rematch ever since.
Royce Gracie won UFC 1, UFC 2, and UFC 4. He was slated to fight in the finals of UFC 3, but due to dehydration and excessive fatigue in his famous victory over Kimo Leopoldo, his corner answered the bell and threw in the towel. Royce was recovering in the locker rooms and suffered his only loss in the Octagon without ever really losing.
That last statement is true until you bring up Matt Hughes’s names. Royce returned to the Octagon to face the current middleweight champion. Although, Royce looked like a shell of his former self and was beaten handily, he still had a large fan base that showed up to support him. Royce announced that he would be back in the UFC after the fight was over and I really hope so. He is easily one of the most recognizable and discussed names in MMA.
People at MMA events still ask me…………..” When is Royce Gracie fighting again”?
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