The Most Effective Weapons of Each UFC Champion
While defining the best competitors of any sport is a troublesome and largely subjective process, the de facto pinnacle of MMA is populated by those wearing UFC gold around their waist.
While cases can be made that any number of fighters rank among the best, it's rather difficult to discount one at the top of his weight division, in the sport's premiere organization.
What puts UFC champions at the top of their respective classes is their skill sets, which typically encompass more, and/or sharper weapons than their divisional subjects.
Here, we'll take a glance at the three most effective weapons wielded by each UFC champion (interim champions not included), and examine how they have worked to set their handler above his competitors.
Heavyweight: Junior Dos Santos
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According to FightMetric, Dos Santos sports a significant striking accuracy of 49 percent as a UFC fighter. That's a healthy number, but not one that's going to knock your socks off.
Yet, Dos Santos' technical prowess can be identified in other ways, like how he consistently avoids counter damage, and his ability to maintain separation between himself and his opponent.
Besides, for many fighters, the striking accuracy number is padded with ground strikes. Dos Santos though, has fought his UFC career almost exclusively standing up, which helps to justify the ordinary stat.
While Dos Santos' boxing acumen cannot be overlooked, the power he possesses in his hands has also played a significant role in making him a champion.
He may not have an extensive highlight reel of one-punch knockouts, but you don't score six UFC (T)KOs while lacking punching power.
Dos Santos hasn't had to deal with many strong wrestlers since debuting in the UFC, and the one takedown threat he has faced—Cain Velasquez—did little to test him.
Still, when a guy with Dos Santos' reputation for striking avoids the ground for nine fights, it's difficult not to identify his ability to thwart takedowns as a strength.
Light Heavyweight: Jon Jones
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Jones' natural athleticism has not only permitted him to ascend the UFC ranks at a startling pace, it's since enabled him to continually widen the gap between he and the rest of the field.
Coming from a wrestling background, Jones has picked up striking as if he were learning how to add and subtract. Even his submission game has looked more like that of an experienced grappler than a youngster with limited MMA experience.
Hard work and repetition allows a fighter to reach his ceiling. Jones' natural talent means that his ceiling is virtually limitless.
While Jones may have happened into his record-breaking 84.5" reach by virtue of genetics and luck, it's only by considerable skill that he's been able to wield it so masterfully.
Many fighters frequently carry reach advantages, but a greater wingspan is hardly an advantage at all if you don't know what to do with it.
Few fighters can put their range to work as well as Jones can. Case in point, Jones vs. Belfort, Jones vs. Evans.
Jones is a physical specimen. If he hadn't walked down the path of MMA there's a pretty good chance he'd have found work as a professional athlete in another sport.
Because he's so physically gifted, and because he's shown a real acumen for learning quickly, Jones has very few holes in his game. At 25, he's already one of the most well-rounded fighters in the UFC, and as he continues to gain experience, he's only going to get better.
Middleweight: Anderson Silva
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Considered by many to be the greatest UFC striker of all time, Silva's standup game relies more on technique and accuracy than power, though he has that too.
Still, the majority of Silva's knockouts come from cumulative damage or a flurry of strikes, rather than a singular connection.
While Silva's flash knockout of Vitor Belfort may persist as an emblematic reference to striking legend, it's the 67 percent significant striking accuracy more so than the power that has hoisted him atop the MMA mountain.
Though Chael Sonnen has had considerable success putting Silva on his back, he's really the only fighter to have done so more than briefly during Silva's time as a UFC champion.
Though he's more well-known for his striking and jiu-jitsu, Silva's long frame, outstanding awareness and deceiving strength have allowed him to stay on his feet during the better part of his career.
Though "The Spider" is more lanky than bulky, he shows off his unheralded strength almost every time he competes.
Whether that means stuffing takedowns, man-handling opponents in the clinch or pushing off tie-ups against the fence, Silva's strength is both an important and underrated component of his game.
Welterweight: Georges St-Pierre
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Though these talents have been at the root of much of the criticism aimed at St-Pierre these past few years, GSP has continued to develop both, refining them to the point that they just might be the singular most dominant tools in the entire sport.
While power double-legs and a swarming top-game may not populate the highlight reels like flash knockouts do, they surely win as many fights, and winning is something GSP is pretty darn good at.
St-Pierre has relied more on boxing than any other striking technique of late, but he does have a diverse repertoire of weapons standing up, and he uses them very effectively.
Though he heavily relies on his wrestling, St-Pierre remains a high-level striker, capable of dominating opponents with his combination of speed and technical prowess.
He hasn't knocked anyone out on the feet since Matt Hughes in 2006, but St-Pierre remains a dangerous striker, even if that portion of his game is now largely used to set up his takedowns.
Few mixed martial artists are capable of generating as much speed and force in small spaces as St-Pierre is. His double-leg takedowns come from nowhere, his jab regularly lands flush and powerfully and he can put scrambling opponents in their place with seeming ease.
This attribute registers as something of an intangible, but it's a hallmark of GSP's game, one that has greatly contributed to his success as a dominant UFC champion.
Lightweight: Ben Henderson
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Maybe Henderson's imposing stature has been exaggerated since playing Goliath to Frankie Edgar's David, but the champ is still a big guy for 155 pounds.
His next fight will come against Nate Diaz, who has significant height and reach advantages over Henderson, though Henderson is still likely to be the stronger, bulkier competitor in that match.
But in spite of his build, Henderson is a very quick mixed martial artist. Just look at how he was able to keep up with Edgar in his last two fights.
Though his pair of fights against Edgar were largely standup matches, a large portion of Henderson's game is ground-oriented.
His penchant for taking the action to the mat has seen him roll with some pretty slick submission specialists—guys like Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, Jim Miller and Mark Bocek—and emerge unscathed.
He has some pretty good submissions of his own, but it's Henderson's submission defense—particularly his choke defense—that makes him a special grappler.
Setting a Hard Pace
Lots of mixed martial artists have good cardio, but Henderson's is exceptional. More than that, he knows how to use it.
Though Edgar was able to lull Henderson into something of a methodical kickboxing match, "Smooth" can be an absolute pest to opponents, staying active on the feet and completely swarming on the mat.
Henderson's refusal to let opponents take a breath has proved overwhelming in the past, and is a strategy he'll hopefully resume as a champion.
Featherweight: Jose Aldo
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Aldo hits like a ton of bricks.
Though he favors quick, technical strikes to looping hay-makers, he is able to generate the type of power you don't often see in the featherweight division.
This attribute has allowed him to defeat scores of tough opponents, and has made him a highlight reel mainstay.
Though he works with a diverse set of strikes, Aldo's leg kicks have become one of the most feared weapons in all of MMA.
Rather than building my own case for this assertion, I'll refer you to former WEC champion Urijah Faber, a man who has first-hand experience absorbing some of Aldo's leg kicks.
Much like Anderson Silva and Junior Dos Santos, Aldo is only able to use his primary weapon—his striking—because he consistently thwarts the takedown attempts of his opponents.
That he has been able to spend so little time on his back as a WEC and UFC fighter speaks to the effectiveness of his sprawl, and when you consider that every opponent he faces desperately wants to take him down, his success seems all the more remarkable.
As a WEC and UFC fighter, Aldo sports a near-immaculate 95 percent takedown defense rate.
Bantamweight: Dominick Cruz
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If no-one's officially put a name to Cruz's fight style, I'd like to propose "Waterbug Martial Arts." But whatever you call it, it's worked pretty well so far.
Cruz's constant feints, rapid advances and retreats and generally unorthodox striking has been giving top-tier opponents both headaches and losses with impressive regularity these past four years.
Until someone figures out how to neutralize Cruz's style it will remain one of his greatest assets.
There are two obvious prerequisites for implementing the style that Cruz does. The first is speed.
If Cruz didn't appear to be moving in fast-motion whenever he entered the Octagon, he'd almost look ridiculous, jumping around and moving back and forth the way he does.
Luckily, he is fast. Very fast. I'm talking handle Demetrious Johnson fast.
The second necessity Cruz must possess in order to effectively implement Waterbug Martial Arts is outstanding cardio.
No one in average shape—average shape for a UFC fighter—could do for two rounds what Cruz does for five. His ability to keep a torrid pace keeps opponents stuck in the weathering the storm phase of the fight, never allowing them to transition to counter-offensive.
While many fighters have great cardio, few put it to as good a use as Cruz does.
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson
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Demetrious Johnson is fast.
In other news, the sky is blue, UFC pay-per-views should be cheaper and the Earth is round.
While it's difficult not to be mesmerized by Johnson's limbs flashing toward and away from his opponent's face, it's hard to completely overlook his impressive wrestling abilities.
Johnson's capacity to foil the takedowns played a key role in securing him the first ever UFC flyweight championship title, and will be a determining factor in how long he holds on to that accolade.
Offensively, Johnson possesses some strong takedowns of his own, the effectiveness of which are only multiplied by his ungodly speed.
While many fighters enter bouts with solid strategies in hand, Johnson's diminutive size forces him to fight smart, keep alert and adjust on the fly. This attribute is not something that can be seen or measured, but it can be exemplified in the two matches Johnson recently had against Ian McCall.
The first bout between the two was ruled a draw, though McCall was the one coming on strong at the end. But by the time the rematch rolled around, Johnson knew what adjustments to make, and when McCall attempted to readjust on the fly as he had done in the previous match, Johnson stifled him and cruised to victory.
Likewise, Johnson was able to keep Joseph Benavidez off balance for the better part of their five-round affair, mixing up his attacks, avoiding predictability.