I have wanted to have a crack at this list for some time, mainly because readers keep asking me who I rate as the best strikers in MMA history. Unfortunately, I feel that this question is greatly oversimplified. Yes, you'll see the expected fighters—Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, etc.—but every single fighter on this list makes mistakes and has weaknesses.
In attempting to demonstrate the reasons for my choices, I shall talk about both a fighter's strengths, and the weaknesses and flaws which hold him back. Nobody is flawless, and as much as we love to pretend that Fedor Emelianenko or Anderson Silva are, understanding their shortcomings and how they hide them ultimately lead us to respect them even more as fighters.
This list is not even really ranked in order of greatness, because it is almost impossible to compare two fighters' striking skill sets completely—let alone seven. They are simply in the order I have written them, and they are included for what I personally admire about their games.
In fact, a better title for this piece would be "Jack Slack's 7 Favourite Strikers from a Purely Technical Standpoint."
Eddie Alvarez is a fighter who has always been known for hitting hard and loving a scrap, but in recent years, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who has made such a commitment to improving and ultimately becoming known for their boxing technique.
Alvarez relies heavily on level changes throughout his fights, just as his teammate Frankie Edgar does. Where Edgar has the threat of the takedown to force a reaction from his opponent, Alvarez often numbs his opponent to his level changes by not being an active threat with the takedown.
Unfortunately, Alvarez is the epitome of a slow starter—getting dropped in the early going of almost every fight he has, because he seemingly can't react in time. Once Alvarez wakes up, however, he is an entirely different kind of animal. It is a shame that many viewers get distracted by his tendency to get caught early and miss out on the beautiful angles and looks that he sets up later in a bout.
It is very easy for those who didn't see Cro Cop at his best in PRIDE and in his early career with K-1 to not understand why he is so highly touted as a striker. By the end of his UFC career. Cro Cop seemed to be nothing more than Cheick Kongo—an accomplished striker on paper used to hype up heavyweight prospects.
Unlike Kongo, however, Cro Cop's striking was legitimately terrifying in an MMA context. When he was at his best, Cro Cop rarely threw combinations in excess of two strikes—but the two strikes that he had mastered worked so well together that it wasn't even necessary.
Cro Cop's southpaw straight was among the best to grace our sport or kickboxing, and he threw it with such pace and power that it forced an overreaction from his opponents. Even experienced opponents such as Igor Vovchanchyn got drawn into using their right hand to parry Cro Cop's left straight.
This was tactical suicide because against Cro Cop, a fighter's right forearm should have always been in position to brace against the murderous left high kick. That was the catch 22 of fighting Cro Cop on the feet—if you committed to defending the high kick, Filipovic's left straight would shoot inside your elevated right forearm and bloody your nose. If you parried his straight or worse, attempted to slip it as Mark Hunt did, you ate the force of his legendary high kick.
Add in the savage body kicks (still rare to see done well in MMA) and it is easy to understand why Cro Cop was never the best heavyweight on the planet, but for a long time was the most feared.
To learn more about Cro Cop's methods, such as his sidestep left straight, I highly recommend checking out this article I wrote last year.
Lyoto Machida is a brilliant technician in a totally different way to many of the others on this list. His boxing and kickboxing techniques are terrible, and his punch variety is almost non-existent.
What Machida has mastered are the intangible elements of striking technique—timing and the so-called initiatives. Machida's genius is to use exceptionally basic techniques with elite-level timing. This he does by performing false retreats—running straight back almost every time an opponent comes toward him.
On the fourth or fifth time that Machida does this, his opponent will have almost completely forgotten about defending himself and will be running straight after Machida. This is when Machida stops in his tracks and dives in with his own punch or knee strike.
You don't need to understand much about fighting to know that a collision—where both fighters are moving in—will do a lot more damage than chasing an opponent with strikes. Lyoto isn't the Quinton Jackson/Chuck Liddell-breed of power-puncher, but by getting his opponents to chase him and then intercepting them, Lyoto can produce stunning results.
The obvious flaw in Machida's game is his constant dropping of his non-punching hand to his hip. This means that when he is drawn into an exchange, he can eat a hard punch because he has no guard on his non-punching side. Jon Jones was able to knock Machida down by baiting him to counter a faked kick and then superman punching him on his unguarded side.
To learn more about Lyoto's striking, check out this piece I wrote back in the day.
Junior dos Santos is on this list almost entirely for his punch variety. Cigano has never been a great combination puncher in excess of two punches and has no kicks to speak of, but his pot-shotting power-punches and the intelligence with which he uses them are more than enough to compensate for that.
One of the reasons for dos Santos' remarkable effectiveness on the feet is his use of a powerful body jab. The body jab is not even used much in MMA because it is not typically a hurting punch. Consequently when dos Santos starts hurting his opponents with a punch which shouldn't hurt, they start overreacting.
There isn't a good defense for the body jab because it shouldn't really need defending. Most professional boxers opt to condition themselves to take it and immediately fire a counterpunch or simply move when they see it coming. When a fighter starts trying to parry or block it, they leave themselves in a horribly open position, and that is when Cigano comes back upstairs with his vaunted left hook or an overhand right.
In terms of flaws, dos Santos' lack of a kicking game is a pretty large drawback.
Further to this, his lead-leg-turned-in, long and narrow boxing stance often leaves his lead leg exposed to knee buckling low kicks. In fact, dos Santos often opts to take kicks and attempt to land a hook or straight in counter, rather than actually checking the kick.
Also, dos Santos' want to counterpunch at all times can get him into trouble. When he was being overwhelmed by Cain Velasquez's aggression in their bout, he was knocked down as a result of reaching to land a jab while he was backpedaling and not respecting the heavier right hand which was coming after it from his opponent.
To learn more about Junior dos Santos, check out my "Fight Like dos Santos" series.
Georges St-Pierre has easily the best jab in MMA. It is also the most versatile, as he can use it against orthodox fighters, southpaw fighters, left-hook specialists and right-straight fanatics. St. Pierre has also mastered what is termed "the safety lead"—that is, a jab that is thrown while circling to one's left.
Try it yourself, seems pretty easy right?
Unfortunately, it also circles you directly into the opponent's right hand. If you don't learn to do it right, it's an extremely dangerous method (just ask Michael Bisping). GSP is masterful at ducking his head to his right and below the line of his lead shoulder as he jabs to the left.
This keeps him safe from right hands, and his use of this technique non-stop against Josh Koscheck, who (aside from eye pokes) almost exclusively uses his right hand to attack, should serve as ample evidence to St-Pierre's brilliance with the safety lead.
I am sure that you are all aware of what I would call GSP's greatest flaw as a striker: a complete reluctance to throw his right hand.
It is like GSP doesn't know how severely he is beating his opponents and is holding out just a little longer to start laying in with combinations, but then the fight is over and he has thrown maybe 10 right hands against his opponent in the full 25 minutes.
Against Jake Shields, as St-Pierre began throwing his right hand at the massively overmatched American, it almost looked as though he had forgotten how to throw his right hand altogether. The swinging, uncoordinated strike which he threw against Shields was nothing like the piston-like straight of his early UFC career.
Hopefully, St. Pierre will recommit to his right hand soon.
You knew he would be turning up on this list, and here he is: Anderson Silva.
Silva's counterstriking mastery has captured the minds of MMA fans over the past few years as he has put together an incredible streak of victories in the Octagon. In the same way as his training partner, Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva benefits enormously from fighting in a cage with no significant corners to get trapped in.
Silva backpedals for much of a fight, waiting for an opponent to over-commit and charge him, then Silva does his best work with back-stepping counterpunches,
Silva's greatest flaw is his flat-out refusal to engage first much of the time. If an opponent doesn't lead, Silva won't make anything happen, he will simply dance around and land non-committal side kicks to the knee. This leads to tedious fights on occasion.
By far one of the best counterpunchers in MMA history, a decent kicker, and great at landing strikes from the clinch—Anderson also excels in areas of the fight in which most fighters on this list don't even know exist.
Silva's deliberate bouncing of Stephan Bonnar off of the fence and meeting him with a switch knee just shows Silva's ring-craft brilliance in action.
In a great many of Silva's fights, the fence plays an integral part of his game—whether he's trapping opponents along it (as he did to Nate Marquardt), or using it to prop himself up (as he did against Yushin Okami while he hunted for a double-collar tie). Anderson Silva is arguably the defining fighter of the caged generation.
I have referred previously to Anderson Silva's fights as "technique porn," and I hope that this will give you some clue of just how highly this man's skill is to be rated. To read more of my gushings on Anderson click here. Or here for that matter.
I have opted to include a much more back-and-forth highlight of two of my top strikers going at it rather than simply a highlight of Emelianenko waling on normal fighters. Watch out for the counterpunching and body strikes.
Emelianenko is easily my favorite striker from a technical standpoint in MMA. I don't want readers to confuse my inclusion of him at the top of my list as pretending that he was perfect. No, even at his best, Emelianenko was pretty ugly from a fundamental technical standpoint.
No, the reason that I rate Emelianenko so highly is that he epitomizes what good striking is. It is not about throwing technique perfectly and expecting it to get through—there are plenty of fighters with great fundamental form who can't even land their strikes. Striking is about using a bag of tricks to land strikes on an opponent who is hell-bent on not letting you.
Where Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida are almost exclusively counterfighters who use long kicks to irritate when they don't want to lead, Emelianenko had one of the most well-rounded striking games in MMA at his best. By merit of his excellent grappling pedigree, Fedor could walk forward without having to worry, as today's best strikers do.
Now, of course, from about 2007 Emelianenko degenerated into simply swinging at an opponent, but from 2000 to 2006 you would be hard-pressed to find a better all-around MMA striker than The Russian Experiment.
His hand traps and right-hand leads served as brilliant offensive weapons where opponents simply expected a jab, and Fedor's counterpunching salvos were fantastic.
Fedor's rear-hand parries to lead hooks in answer to the legendary Cro Cop left straight mentioned earlier are some of the finest counterpunches you will see in MMA, and his body work in that match was also years ahead of the rest of the MMA world, which is still reluctant to do anything but swing for the head.
Fedor exemplifies something which can be learned but can't be taught and which separates the good from the great. Understand that the technically perfect way is very rarely the best way, and that the best way is what counts.