Long gone are the days of one-dimensional fighters finding noteworthy success within the UFC’s Octagon. These days, to showcase a level of incompetence or deficiency in any single facet of physical combat is practically a guaranteed career death sentence. To compete on the grandest stage requires a sound understanding of wrestling, the submission game and the ever crowd-pleasing art of striking. Miss a beat, and you’re behind the curve.
Keep in mind that being subpar in any one area doesn’t automatically condemn a fighter to inevitable failure. It does, however, drastically decrease the chances of reaching the upper echelon of the sport. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule; Jon Fitch, while a competent striker, has never displayed an overtly fluent or impressive pugilistic arsenal, but his wrestling has enabled him to amass an impressive 14-2-1 record inside the Octagon. But exceptions are just that, exceptions: Guys like Jon Fitch are anything but typical.
Once panned as the thinnest division in mixed martial arts, the heavyweight category has developed quite well over the last half decade. The big men are learning to strike, and they’re learning to do so with a precision that comes with countless hours of work.
There was a time when labeling 10 truly refined strikers north of 205 pounds was a daunting task, particularly within the ranks of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Those days, however, have all but disappeared. There are a wealth of solid strikers signed to the world’s largest MMA promotion, and while not every man to prove lethal with his extremities from a vertical position is a star wrestler or feared submission specialist, the big boys have established the fact that their fists, feet, knees and elbows are weapons to be feared.
Barry’s kickboxing background has taken him further than his overall skill set should have ever permitted. Still seemingly years behind an elite grappling standard, Barry utilizes combinations and striking trickery to unleash some amazing high kicks (his fake hook to lead-foot high kick is a thing of beauty), powerful low kicks and crisp punches.
Having earned six of his seven professional victories by way of strikes, Barry’s established himself as a formidable foe when tangling on the feet. Unfortunately, his fight IQ can rightfully be called into question as he often allows his emotions to get the better of him; it's a habit that tends to lead to “HD” plodding directly into big strikes or allowing himself to be taken down and submitted.
When Kongo opts to utilize his alarmingly straight punches and rangy kicks, he’s a fighter to be feared. With power in every limb, Cheick has the ability to finish a fight at any time and test the toughest of chins (remember that he landed some memorable shots on durable opponents like Cain Velasquez and a not-quite-yet-past-his-prime Mirko Filipovic). However, Cheick’s oft-faltering footwork prevents him from earning a higher placement on this list.
When pressured and forced against the cage, Kongo is a target that doesn’t exactly qualify as elusive, and that’s been a detriment to his career. When staggered, the Frenchman has a tendency to freeze, which has enabled foes like Frank Mir, Mark Hunt and Cain Velasquez to successfully implement their game plans.
Whether you’re a Frank Mir fan or not, to question his striking development is nothing short of foolish. To question his consistency and training practice, however, doesn’t seem so outlandish. That said, we’re discussing striking here, not overall offensive ability.
It’s interesting to note that one of the division’s finest submission practitioners finds himself on a “best of” striking list, but that simply harkens back to my introduction: Today, one must be well rounded to reach his (or her) full potential and, subsequently, top divisional rankings. Frank’s managed to polish his Muay Thai quite well over the years. In fact, as absurd as it sounds, Mir’s combinations are amongst the division's most unpredictable and varied.
It’s unfortunate that “Big Nog” has spent the better portion of a half decade battling injuries and confronting health issues. In his prime, Nogueira was unquestionably one of the most well-rounded fighters in the game. While Father Time has begun to catch the former Pride heavyweight ace, his hands still look crisp and efficient.
Minotauro earned his reputation on the mat, but the Brazilian legend’s boxing is still an underrated attribute. A precision striker with the smarts to apply pressure in crucial moments, Nogueira has worked his boxing with serious success. Antonio utilizes his boxing to align submission finishes, and though it may be the tap that most remember, it’s clearly the fists that often enable the finishing hold to be applied.
Shane Carwin is an interesting product. The man lumbers into the cage to wage war, and he traditionally looks a bit awkward doing so. Carwin lacks fluid movement, isn’t remarkably quick and has shown some issues with head movement in the past.
What Shane lacks in technique however, he makes up for with a cement-filled noggin, tremendous resilience and two sledgehammers for fists. Seeing Carwin “broken” inside the cage has yet to happen (I’m excluding the cardio issue witnessed in the second round of his losing affair with Brock Lesnar), as he simply refuses to roll over for anyone. Having noted that, seeing him knock heads into the third row of stadiums across the globe is something fans have become accustomed to.
Carwin’s stunning knockout victories over Frank Mir, Gabriel Gonzaga and Christian Wellisch are all reminders that sometimes (very nearly so in the first round of his meeting with Lesnar, might I add) brute force works wonders. Few want to trade punches with Shane, and there’s good reason for that.
Perhaps the only man who can go from looking like a timid boy refusing to engage Alistair Overeem to a kickboxing juggernaut using Roy Nelson’s head as a makeshift punching bag, Werdum has improved immeasurably inside the last year.
It’s no secret that Fabricio is the owner of one of the best, if not the best, offensive guards in the heavyweight division. The man moves like a serpent on the mat, but his technical striking is evolving at a staggering rate. Executing powerful punches in bunches and some of the division’s most brutal knees, Werdum looks to be hitting his prime and sealing up the few holes to be found in his skill set.
Just how far Fabricio has truly come remains to be seen. Beating up on Roy Nelson and Mike Russow are solid accomplishments, but we’ll likely be given a far better barometer the next time Werdum meets a top five-ranked opponent.
Talk about late bloomers. Mark Hunt enjoyed a storied career as a K-1 competitor, but experienced a rocky transition to MMA. After picking up five victories against a single loss in his first six outings, Hunt went on a six-fight skid. Since his most recent loss to Sean McCorkle, Hunt’s pieced together three consecutive victories over Chris Tuchscherer, Ben Rothwell and Cheick Kongo.
Certainly a fighter with weaknesses to be exploited, Hunt has one area that opponents are unlikely to dominate him in: striking. Beautiful technique, one of the sturdiest chins in the game, a wealth of kickboxing experience and a sheer passion for combat make him a professional athlete to fear. Even at 38 years old, the New Zealander is showing improvement, which is a frightening thought when you really consider the power in his fists.
Here’s where we separate the champions from the contenders. Cain Velasquez doesn’t snag the top spot on this list, and I’m certain that will be met with some hostility from loyal fans. But there’s a reason Cain slides in at number three rather than two, or even one: singular attack methods.
Cain is becoming a fantastic boxer, of this there is no doubt. That said, his combinations are predictable, he’s not the fastest heavyweight fighting for the promotion, and he often seems to forget that utilizing his lower extremities as weapons is a-okay according to the unified rules. Some guys can get away with playing loyal to pugilism alone, but Cain, despite his impressive record, isn’t actually one of those guys.
Velasquez’s greatest moments typically come when stringing together biting punches with an aggressive wrestling attack. Make no mistake, Cain can end a fight with his fists, but he’s best when working a top-heavy game to follow up his punches. In a pure striking contest, I consider two heavyweights to be superior.
It almost feels like blasphemy not positioning JDS at number one. The man has proven that his boxing is just about unparalleled in the heavyweight division, and he’s also showcased an extremely respectable ability to absorb whatever his opponents throw at him. The man is tough as nails (both mentally and physically), plain and simple.
However, much like Cain, Junior doesn’t do the best job of mixing up his attack. His timing is incredible, and his mobility is paramount to his success, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there’s essentially one element to dos Santos’ game to worry over: his boxing. Rarely will you see Junior unleash vicious kicks, knees or elbows. I shouldn’t fault the man for relying on his boxing (nearly) exclusively, but in my opinion, it takes a very diverse attack to earn the top spot on this list.
Many will claim that Overeem hasn’t faced much in the way of stiff competition since 2007, but I consider Mark Hunt, Mirco Filipovic, Fabricio Werdum and Brock Lesnar to be respectable opposition. It’s a known fact that Overeem’s striking wasn’t the deciding factor in each of those specific fights, but I’m certain Brock Lesnar and Mirco Filipovic won’t argue about the potency of “The Reem”'s standup skills.
When it comes to variety, Alistair definitely brings it from an upright stance. Crippling knees, effective low and high kicks and some precision punching ultimately earn Overeem the number one slot on this list.
While I believe both Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez to be superior, and more durable fighters, it’s difficult to label their pure striking abilities greater. When fighting Alistair, there are a wealth of attacks to consider (including a menacing standing guillotine choke, but that’s outside this particular realm of discussion). The man can end a fight with any strike in the book, unlike dos Santos and Velasquez, who, as noted, tend to rely on their fists exclusively.
In a K-1 bout, Overeem would serve as an obvious favorite over both Junior and Cain. When talking MMA, as mentioned previously, there are a few men ahead in the pecking order. In the case of this article, that pecking order is nearly irrelevant: Alistair Overeem is the best pure striker taking up space in the UFC’s heavyweight division, and he earns that title on the strength of diversity.