Some fighters seem born to scrap. These fierce competitors, whether the product of nature or nurture, will do whatever it takes to win.
You know how some men talk about fighting anyone, anywhere? About letting a limb snap before giving an opponent the pleasure of seeing him tap? These are the guys who actually do it. Men who stand toe-to-toe until they, or hopefully their opponent, falls to the mat in either exhaustion or unconsciousness.
Some UFC champions are great athletes who just happen to be fighters. Those aren't the guys we are highlighting here.
These are the fighters who just happen to be pro athletes. The toughest of tough guys. The warrior class. Cycle through to salute MMA's true heart and soul.
Quitting never crossed Enson Inoue's during his decade-plus fighting career. The Hawaiian-born Japanese warrior captivated his native land by adopting a bushido code—Yamato Damashi. Inoue would rather die than quit in a fight and although it never came to that, he took courage and heart to the limit of human capacity.
"99 percent of the fighters will give up before they go to sleep," Inoue told Purebred USA. "Why? Because they’re anticipating the outcome, they’re anticipating the fear. They’re assuming that their arm is going to break and instead of doing that, why don’t you assume that you’re going to get out?
"The thinking is really different. It all depends on what your mind is focusing on. I’m focusing on finishing an opponent. If he hits me hard enough to wobble me, I’m focusing enough I hit him right back with the same kind of punch."
Penn is a guy who didn't have to fight. He doesn't do it out of economic necessity. He does it because fighting is trapped in his soul. It's the way he expresses himself to the world. Some people paint watercolors. Others paint canvases—in blood.
Another Hawaiian, Penn has done his homeland proud, twice winning the UFC championship. During his long career, he's fought from lightweight to heavyweight, never once backing down from an opponent.
There are a lot of great fighters, but just a handful of legends. B.J. Penn is a legend and it's not his record that sets him apart. It's a warrior spirit that shines through to everyone who has seen him compete in the cage.
The UFC spent a lot of time and effort convincing the world that cage fighters were just athletes. Nothing more, nothing less. Often college educated, the men who stepped into the Octagon could easily be your co-worker, best friend or neighbor.
Then the Diaz brothers came and shattered that myth in glorious fashion. They talk copious trash. They seem ill-suited for any conventional job or interaction. They aren't afraid to throw down outside the cage. If you bring your pops to corner you, like Nick's rival K.J. Noons did? He's gonna hear about it, too.
Forget about the Emelianenkos, the Nogueiras and the Shamrocks. The Diaz boys aren't just MMA's best brother team. The Diaz brothers are a bona fide American treasure.
Kazushi Sakuraba is so tough, he goes beyond admirable right into the realm of "scary." Whether he's having his ear knocked off, coming back from unconsciousness to somehow win a fight or simply being smashed in horrific style by Wanderlei Silva, Sakuraba takes his beatings like a man.
Should he have retired years ago?
Will he die in the ring?
Kazushi Sakuraba's fighting career is part triumph and part tragedy—and at this point tragedy has pulled way out in front and is running away with the race.
Why is Chael Sonnen on this list? Because when everyone else in Dana White's Rolodex said "no" to a short-notice fight with the great Jon Jones, Sonnen said "yes."
Although he didn't get a chance to face Jones at UFC 152, Sonnen was rewarded for his courage. White has helped Sonnen jump immediately to Go, skipping over the light heavyweight version of Marvin Gardens or that awful Luxury Tax on his way directly to a UFC title shot.
Urijah Faber doesn't look like one of the toughest guys in the sport. At just a smidgen over five feet and 135 pounds, Faber looks like the kind of mischievous scamp Eddie Haskell would have run with, like you should pull him over, give him a stern talking to, and tousle his hair.
He looks more like your 12-year-old cousin than a guy who once single-handedly faced down an Asian gang and lived to tell the tale.
Who, however, could ever forget Faber's courageous performance against WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown? Faber, with two broken hands, kept battling until the final bell rang. That's warrior spirit, ladies and gentlemen—even if it is trapped inside an extra-cute package.
While Urijah Faber is a tough guy in boy-band clothing, Dan Henderson was crafted from the same mold that pumped out Teddy Roosevelt, Chuck Norris and Ted Nugent. In other words, a classic American tough guy.
The fact that he's a middleweight who's also beaten the best in the world at both heavyweight and light heavyweight not enough for you?
How about this fantasy scenario:
When the "bar fight draft" finally goes down, and I'm advocating one right now to wash away the taste of the national election, I'd trade three picks to move up and select Henderson. He just has that look.
Like he's comfortable in a flannel shirt.
Like he drives a pickup with multiple gun racks.
Like he has a bridge to replace his front teeth—teeth that were knocked out of his mouth, in a wrestling match he won.
Is Dan Henderson really that guy? Who knows? If not, please don't tell me. I prefer this version of Henderson, one who lives up to the legend.
Everyone who steps into the UFC Octagon is a little crazy. Just think about it for a second—they are going into a steel cage in order to throw hands with another man who does nothing all day but think about and practice fist fighting.
Pretty crazy, huh?
Now consider this—these nutty cage fighters all think Renzo Gracie is off his rocker. He's a guy who literally allowed his arm to be broken by Kazushi Sakuraba rather than admit defeat. He stoically watched as his arm moved beyond the point of no return, refusing to yield to another man.
That's a warrior mindset.
Who better to end on than Captain America himself, the great Randy Couture?
Couture was a brilliant tactician, one who tried to minimize damage to his own body whenever possible. But when a fight demanded it, when it boiled down to a war of attrition, no one was going to out-tough Couture.
His UFC title defense against Pedro Rizzo all the way back at UFC 31 stands the test of time as perhaps the gutsiest performance in UFC history. Rizzo absolutely wrecked Couture's legs, taking advantage of the wrestler's inability to defend leg kicks.
Instead, Couture walked right through them. He was unable to walk normally for weeks after the bout. When it counted though, Couture was up to the challenge.