The Greatest Fighter of Each Era in the UFC and PRIDE
Randy Couture/ Scott Petersen for MMAWeekly.com
The sport of mixed martial arts has been largely cultivated and dictated by two organizations: the UFC and the now-defunct Pride Fighting Championships.
In the height of their popularity, Pride housed some of the best fighters in the world, which have since found both success and residence inside the Octagon.
In the early days of each respective organization, combatants emerged as the front-runners, while slowly over the years, we have now bared witness to a changing of the guard.
Here, we look back at some of the best fighters of their respective eras in the sport.
Randy Couture/ Scott Petersen for MMAWeekly.com
Royce Gracie, Pre-Zuffa
Royce Gracie/ Ken Pishna for MMAWeekly.com
Royce Gracie is regarded as the man who first introduced the world to his family's style of jiu-jitsu—at least on a mainstream level.
Solely using his submission prowess, Royce managed to win the organization's first two events while throwing himself into the fray of the tournament format.
Victories over Patrick Smith and Ken Shamrock anchored the young resume of Royce, who eventually had his sternest test in the form of world-class wrestler Dan Severn at UFC 4, where the two battled it out for the organization's tourney title.
Severn dominated Royce early with his stifling top-game; however, the Gracie fighter created enough space to cinch in the triangle choke, submitting the then-undefeated fighter to claim the tourney.
With the victory, Royce ascended into legendary status, as he became a man who had dominated three of the organization's first four events ever held. Some years later, Royce was inducted into the UFC's Hall of Fame, and rightfully so.
Randy Couture, Post-Zuffa
Couture/ Scott Petersen for MMAWeekly.com
It's relatively unheard of nowadays that a man well into his 30s will decide to take up mixed martial arts.
However, such was the case with Randy Couture, who made his first foray into the MMA world in 1997, making his professional debut at UFC 13.
In just his first two bouts as a pro, Couture had already earned a tournament title, which later parlayed into a heavyweight title eliminator against then-undefeated prospect Vitor Belfort, who many pegged as the uncrowned king of the division.
Couture deftly defeated the heavy-hitting Brazilian, using his clinch work and dirty boxing to wilt Belfort early on, eventually securing the TKO victory in a thrilling upset performance. We would all soon come to find out that defying the odds would become Couture's signature.
Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva, Early Pride
Fedor Emelianenoko/ Ken Pishna for MMAWeekly.com
When you think of dominant and imposing figures who have taken the sport by storm since their inception, both Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva would likely be on that shortlist of fighters.
Emelianenko went undefeated under the Pride, making his way to the ring in 2002 with a decision win over future K-1 champion Semmy Schilt. The Russian next battled Heath Herring before vying for the promotion's heavyweight crown against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
In a rousing performance, Emelianenko dominated every facet of the fight both on the feet and on the ground, taking home the decision win, as well as the Pride heavyweight title in the process, where his grasp of the belt never wavered.
Silva was immediately endeared by fans, thanks to his whirlwind dervish-style of fighting, which witnessed the Brazilian recklessly throw himself into the fray, wading powerful hooks at his opponents, hoping that something would connect.
His relentless pace and aggression became a cornerstone of his career, bringing him all the way to a shot at the vacant middleweight belt, where a knockout victory over rival Kazushi Sakuraba secured him the strap.
Not only did "The Axe Murderer" cinch the organization's title then, however, Silva also tried his hand at the Pride 2003 middleweight Grand Prix, where a batch of world-renowned fighters would compete.
Victories over Sakuraba (again) and Hidehiko Yoshida eventually led to an encounter with the always tough Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Though he was floored early, Silva came storming back with a vicious muay thai clinch, blasting Jackson with knees to the face, which wilted the fighter to the canvas, earning Silva the GP belt to add to his mantle and long list of accolades.
Mauricio Rua, Late Pride
Mauricio Rua (center)/ Scott Petersen for MMAWeekly.com
Mauricio Rua entered the Pride circuit in 2003 with a humble 4-1 record at just 21 years old.
Despite being regarded as one of the younger prospects, Rua quickly solidified himself as one of the best fighters in his class, while setting himself apart from any other fighter before him.
A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Rua also wielded a devastating clinch, coupled with powerful punches, kicks and stomps to grounded opponents, which became a trademark of his.
Victories over Akira Shoji, Akihiro Gono, Yasuhito Namekawa and Hiromitsu Kanehara eventually led "Shogun" into the 2005 Pride middleweight Grand Prix—one of, if not the most prestigious event in mixed martial arts history, with the heaviest roster of talent to enter a tournament.
The 16-man field looked to be tough and arduous, though Rua seemingly breezed through formidable competitors with style. In the opening round, Quinton Jackson fell to the wily Rua, succumbing to soccer kicks in the first round.
Next, a fan friendly see-saw battle with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira commenced. Both men dropped each other in the first frame, though Rua's conditioning eventually led him to victory, as he took the decision win over his fellow countryman.
In the semi-finals, Rua took on the towering Alistair Overeem—a future K-1 and Strikeforce champion—stopping the Dutchman with strikes from the mount.
Finally, a pivotal battle between Rua and Ricardo Arona ensued. The submission whiz in Arona had just come off of an upset victory over then-middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva—who was a close friend and teammate of Rua's.
In an electrifying performance, Rua blasted through Arona, staving off takedown attempts and finishing off the Brazilian Top Team fighter with a grazing stomp to the face followed up by hammer fists, which left Arona out cold from the blows.
In less than two years time, Rua went from a relative unknown to arguably the best fighter in his division, a feat that mirrors that of current UFC champion Jon Jones.