MMA started out as a battle of styles. Could a karate master beat a judo player? Could a kung fu fighter trash a street-hardened warrior? Could anyone beat a member of the Gracie family?
Eventually, athletes who combined the best of several disciplines began to emerge. These cross-trained fighters were able to utilize standup and grappling techniques, creating a very dangerous class of human being.
Most fighters, despite these varied skills, were still primarily either grapplers or strikers. They started in wrestling, jiu jitsu or kickboxing, and while they possessed skills in the other disciplines, they knew where their bread was buttered.
That meant, on occasion, a fight would be booked that matched one of the best grapplers with one of the best fighters. When that happened, intrigue was amped up and fans sat at the edge of their seats.
It was the best of both worlds: The great athletes of modern MMA combined with the battle of styles that made early UFC shows so compelling. And these were 10 of the very best—it's grappler versus striker as only Bleacher Report can do it.
The first time Royce Gracie stepped into the cage, many expected a massacre. Across the cage was a professional boxer. Surely the skinny kid in his pajamas didn't stand a chance against a piston-like jab and a strong cross? Even wearing a single boxing glove, Art Jimmerson looked more capable than the young Brazilian.
Two minutes and 18 seconds later, it was all over. Gracie had reinvented fighting in front of Colorado and the world. Grappling stood alone at the top of the martial arts pecking order.
Grappling: 1 Striking: 0
Bas Rutten would go on to become one of the most formidable fighters in MMA history. But in his first fight with Ken Shamrock, the Dutch striker was hopelessly over-matched. Shamrock knew how to apply submissions on the ground; Rutten was clueless.
A second fight between the two men proved little different. Rutten would have to master the ground before he stood a shot at MMA supremacy. Luckily for us, he had the will power and the desire to learn, going on to become Pancrase and UFC champion.
Grappling: 2 Striking: 0
Although Severn would eventually compete in more than 100 MMA fights, his first bout would prove his most iconic. If you've seen it, you remember it well. Severn, the Olympic-class wrestler, picking up poor Anthony Macias like a rag doll and tossing him overhead, not once, but multiple times with a perfect German suplex.
Severn didn't have the submission skills that Shamrock and Gracie possessed. But his win over Macias showed there was more than one way to skin a cat. The era of ground-and-pound grappling was about to begin.
Grappling: 3 Striking: 0
Mark Coleman had looked unstoppable before his fight with Smith. He had run over everyone who dared to face him in the Octagon. And that's not hyperbole. At UFC 11, neither his opponent nor the alternate would come out and fight. Instead of a final tournament bout, he and his teammate, Kevin Randleman, engaged in a wrestling demonstration for angry fans. That's how scary Mark Coleman was.
Maurice Smith didn't know how to feel fear. That was all the difference. Working with Frank Shamrock and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Smith developed a strategy to beat the wrestling great. Using hand control and a devastating elbow-heavy counter attack off his back, Smith stymied Coleman, wore him out, then abused him standing.
In the end, he was crowned UFC champion. Strikers were finally figuring this MMA thing out.
Grappling: 3 Striking: 1
Mark Kerr was an MMA wrestler like no other. Despite his NCAA pedigree, he wasn't content to get by on takedowns alone. Unlike his former training partner, Coleman, wrestling was just part of his skill set. Kerr had also worked diligently on his submission game and showed an aptitude for striking as well. Physically, he may have been the ultimate Ultimate Fighter.
Igor Vovchancyn, by contrast, was the most feared striker in the game. His power punches would drop a bull elephant. Hyperbole? Maybe. I have no record of that actually happening, but I'm confident it could have.
What would happen when the best heavyweight grappler collided with the best heavyweight striker? If you guessed Kerr unconscious on the mat while Japanese fans looked on in shocked befuddlement, you were probably alone in that prediction. We were trained to pick the grappler over the striker.
Vovchancyn, more specifically his knees, ended the Kerr myth. The fight was later ruled a no contest. The knees in question were apparently illegal. But that changed little. When Vovchancyn also won the rematch the next year, it clearly established the Russian was the better man.
Grappling: 3 Striking: 2
Although Matt Hughes would go on to become one of the most dominant fighters in UFC history, striking many a blow in favor of his beloved wrestling, first he had to learn some humility. First he had to be a victim.
Hughes, like all great athletes, never imagined he would be on the losing end of his bout with Pele. It was supposed to be glorious revenge, a chance to teach Pele some manners after the Brazilian upset his mentor, Pat Miletich, a year earlier, then talked trash to Pat and his corner.
Instead, Pele clocked Hughes, too, knocking him silly and scoring another blow for strikers everywhere.
Grappling: 3 Striking: 3
Victories over four Gracies, including Royce in a 90-minute classic, had made Sakuraba a star in Japan. A catch wrestling protege of Nobuhiko Takada and Billy Robinson, SAKU's game seemed perfect to stop Wanderlei Silva in his tracks.
Unfortunately for Sakuraba's long-term prospects, Silva had a fire burning inside that would not be quenched. Using his size to his advantage, the Brazilian striker overwhelmed Sakuraba, brutalizing him with knees and soccer kicks to the head, finishing him in less than two minutes. A new star was on the horizon and Silva would shine bright, dominating Japanese MMA for years.
Grappling: 3 Striking: 4
This is perhaps the most overlooked fight in UFC history. It's an amazing five-round war between an Olympic-class wrestler and a striker with concrete for hands. A brutal contest that left Couture barely able to walk weeks later, it was a battle of will as much as skill.
Couture refused to quit, although Rizzo gave him plenty of opportunities to bow out gracefully. The wrestler had no idea how to check a leg kick and paid a steep price for his ignorance. To Couture, that was a concern for after the fight. In the cage, only survival was on his mind.
Ultimately, wrestling prevailed. Score one for the grapplers.
Grappling: 4 Striking: 4
Mirko Cro Cop was a scary, scary man. He sent opponent after opponent to the hospital with his pinpoint accurate head kicks, including Fedor Emelianenko's brother, Aleks. Fedor was not amused. The personal animus just added additional fuel to the fire for the most anticipated heavyweight fight in MMA history.
Emelianenko was a Russian judoka and sambo specialist who combined vicious ground-and-pound with amazing submission prowess. The consensus wisdom called for him to take Cro Cop down as soon as possible and deal with him on the mat.
The problem with that game plan was Mirko's vaunted takedown defense. Adjusting in the ring after his first attempt at a clinch failed, Emelianenko took the fight right to the kickboxer. Cro Cop was forced to back pedal as the Russian pushed the attack, looping quick and powerful punches past the Croatian's guard.
For two rounds, Fedor surprised everyone by controlling the action standing. Then, as Cro Cop tired, he was able to take him to the mat over and over again in the third and final round to ice the fight. It was an incredible display. Fedor wore his foe out with his standup and then utilized his grappling to secure the win. It was one of the greatest performances in MMA history.
Grapplers: 5 Strikers: 4
For four-and-a-half rounds, Chael Sonnen proved the primacy of wrestling. Matched against the sport's top striker, Sonnen was dominating, taking the champion, Anderson Silva, down at will and controlling the action with his relentless ground-and-pound.
Remarkably, in the final minutes of a 25-minute fight, Silva pulled off a miracle. Wrapping his legs around Sonnen's neck, he choked him until the former All-American had to quit. This was a win for the striker, but it was accomplished with his own grappling skills. I'll count it, but with an asterisk.
Grappling: 5 Striking: 5*