"Underrated" is a bit of a slippery term, especially in MMA.
Everything has a tinge of subjectivity, and that's part of the fun, but you have to try and define your boundaries a bit, too. That's what I've attempted to do here with this list of the most underrated stand-up fighters in MMA.
I'm taking a bit of a blended approach on this one. These are guys who fans—casual and serious alike—either may not know of intimately or don't typically think of as particularly dangerous stand-up fighters. It also contains a few well-known fighters who don't get enough credit for their stand-up skills.
This is not a prospect list, and all of these guys are at least reasonably established. After all, you can't really be underrated if no one has heard of you.
This is also not a hardcore technical breakdown. Good stand-up means you're using it to win fights, or at least hurt people.
Stats aren't everything, but one point of data that I'm including in this piece is each fighter's total number of wins by striking-related stoppage, which includes KO and TKO, as well as things like taps to strikes and retirements. For convenience I'm calling it SRS.
OK, enough ground rules. Here's the list.
SRS total: Five
Assuming Josh Thomson can regain his pre-injury form, the former Strikeforce champ has the diversity to be dangerous in the stand-up phase.
I wouldn't rate him among the upper crust of the UFC's 155-pound division in this category, but I have a feeling that most people would rate him under the level at which he belongs.
Ergo, he is underrated.
SRS total: Six
When comparing Saad Awad's performance in the latest Bellator welterweight tournament (two knockouts, lasting an average of 37 seconds) against fan and pundit expectations (there weren't any) you have to say that Awad has earned a little respect.
SRS total: Five
What does Mike Pyle have to do? Which UFC matchmaker's dog did Mike Pyle shoot?
Though mainly a grappler, Pyle's kickboxing is formidable. He's won six of his last seven bouts, and has a KO or TKO win in each of his last three. Most recently, Pyle used vicious strikes from the clinch to crumple James Head.
Looming for Pyle now, though, is a daunting grappling challenge in young gun Gunnar Nelson.
SRS total: Seven
Maximo Blanco was out-wrestled in his UFC (and featherweight) debut against Marcus Brimage last April. If he can get his arms and legs off, he has a good shot to change that next month against Sam Sicilia.
SRS total: Four
Brad Tavares is a wrestler, first and foremost, but he has legitimate knockout power. Tightening and expanding his striking game under the watch of kickboxing legend Ray Sefo certainly isn't hurting.
Tavares controlled his last fight—a decisioning of Riki Fukuda earlier this month—with an accurate jab and a big right hand.
Promotion: Vale Tudo Japan
SRS Total: 10
One of the best flyweights outside the UFC, Yamaguchi and his high-octane kickboxing game are slowing down a bit at age 35. But I will hear no disparaging of Mamoru Yamaguchi in my house. We respect the afro here. Savvy?
By the way, just so there's no confusion, this Mamoru Yamaguchi is not the same Mamoru Yamaguchi who teaches at the The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. I wonder how many of each other's emails they get each day! Mamoru Yamaguchi must be like "Bob Smith" in Japan.
Career SRS total: Seven
That SRS number includes Rivera's knockout on Roland Delorme, which became a no-contest after Rivera started a campfire with his urine stream.
That suspension came at a pretty poor moment for Rivera—it would have made him 2-0 in his second stint in the UFC. Luckily for Rivera, he didn't have too much trouble regrouping, notching a second-round TKO on Edwin Figueroa in his first fight back.
I know Michael McDonald is more famous and accomplished, but I don't think it's a no-brainer that McDonald has the best hands in the UFC bantamweight division as long as Francisco Rivera's around.
SRS total: 13
Tim Means doesn't just knock himself out in saunas; he knocks out real fighters in the cage. I am personally quite looking forward to his scrap with Jorge Masvidal (a pretty underrated striker in his own right) on April 20 at UFC on Fox 7.
SRS total: Three
It's a slippery slope sometimes in the big league.
Erik Koch was the next big thing one minute. Then he got a title shot that people didn't think he deserved (as if he was supposed to turn it down). Then he got injured. Then in his return, he lost to an outstanding fighter in Ricardo Lamas.
Now, he's completely invisible.
Yet I can still see Erik Koch, and others should, too. The Roufusport fighter is skilled, creative and very powerful. Oh, and he's still just 24. He'll be back.
SRS total: Eight
You know about new Bellator middleweight champ Alexander Shlemenko. You also probably know about Shlemenko's two-headed hell hawk protege, known in their separated human forms as Alexander Sarnavskiy and Andrey Koreshkov. You might also remember Rustam Khabilov, or the recent domination of Frodo Khasnbulaev.
Yes, there's a Russian incursion going on in MMA, and Bellator is at the epicenter. There are more on the way, too.
Shahbulat Shamhalaev isn't on as many radars as some of these other guys, but tthat might change if he takes Bellator's featherweight title from Pat Curran on April 4. A knockout would be the sixth-straight for Shamhalaev.
That's right, Shamhalaev and his crushing blend of Sanshou and Muay Thai just plowed quite a path through the most recent tournament.
Division: Light heavyweight
SRS total: Two
When you're a national champion college wrestler, everything else you do as an MMA fighter takes a back seat in the narrative.
But Davis is also dangerous, and surprisingly diverse, on his feet. He doesn't have gaudy career numbers, but he's a smart fighter who knows how to use his length and power to his striking advantage.
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
SRS total: 14
Andrei Arlovski's chin is letting him down in this final phase of his MMA career, and I think it will let him down again at WSOF 2 this Saturday against Anthony Johnson, who I fully expect to be a monster.
Nevertheless, Arlovski will always be a formidable stand-up fighter—even with a chin of fine bone porcelain—and he is far from the bum a lot of people seem to think of him as. It wasn't so terribly long ago that Arlovski knocked out Roy Nelson—Junior dos Santos couldn't do that.
And not long after Nelson, Arlovski literally had Fedor Emelianenko on the ropes, and might have pulled a stunning knockout if not for the most unfortunate flying knee attempt in the history of MMA.
SRS total: Eight
The former pro boxer is woefully underrated in this area. He has some of the best standup in the entire sport, but nobody really knows who he is outside serious fan circles.
And even among the hardcore set, the 30-year-old Noons has been forgotten for newer, better-smelling models. That is certainly understandable, given that he's lost two straight.
But he'll have a chance to bang his way back to the sunny side of the tracks when he meets a Mr. Donald Cerrone at UFC 160. And you know what? I might just give the early edge to Noons.
SRS total: 13
It is tough to imagine an objective analysis revealing anything other than Lima as one of the very best stand-up fighters among all welterweights. Only the human asbestos blanket that is Ben Askren is draped between Lima and Bellator gold.
Before sustaining an unfortunate injury, Lima earned a kind of knockout triple crown. In November, he felled Jacob Ortiz with a head kick and then finished with ground strikes. In January, he blew Mikhail Tsarev's ACL with one final, brutal shot to the knee that earned him a rare TKO by way of leg kick. Then, in February, he knocked out Bryan Baker with one punch to reach the tourney finals.
I guess we'll pick it up there after Lima returns. He'll face a teammate and another great stand-up fighter in Ben Saunders.
Promotion: Glory Road (kickboxing)
SRS total: 11
Big exit stage left for Sergei Kharitonov in September 2011, when Josh Barnett fully controlled him in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix semifinals. He has since moved on to kickboxing, where he's 2-2 since the Barnett loss.
But he successfully re-entered the MMA sphere last June. He has beaten the likes of Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum before, and I don't see why he couldn't again. He's still only 32.
A trip to, say, the UFC assumes that Zuffa has moved on from their feud with Golden Glory, Kharitonov's management team. Hopefully, that shouldn't be a major sticking point, given that Kharitonov was the only Golden Glory fighter under Zuffa contract at that time that was not released following the spat.
SRS total: Five
Hey, speaking of Werdum...
He's famous for his jiu-jitsu, but he has been tearing through everyone on the feet lately—just ask Roy Nelson who he thinks put a better beating on him between Werdum and Junior dos Santos.
I'd guess he'd say Werdum. Those knees were going up his nose.
Division: Light Heavyweight
They know what he can do, but how often does he come up in conversation when discussing the sport's best strikers or stand-up fighters?
According to this recent and terrific statistical analysis from the website Inside MMA, Diabate has both the most accurate jab and most accurate power punching attack in the game.
SRS total: Eight
What I'd like to try to do right now is try to gin up some different opinions about Georges St-Pierre.
Maybe that's an uphill battle in this age where no one has any opinions or means to express them, but even so, I believe GSP has an extremely underrated stand-up attack. Don't trouble yourself about his strategic approach or his ground game. When he decides to stand, he still wins.
He gave Nick Diaz a sporting chance at UFC 158. And what did Diaz do with that chance?
Nothing. He did nothing.
Why did he do nothing? Well, if you listen to Diaz, GSP was on steroids, and was tipped off to Nick's game plan. Also, GSP broke into Nick's hotel room and changed the time zone, and he also told Nick not to train.
So you tell me, bro. But aside from that, Diaz also did nothing major in the stand-up because he was facing a better stand-up fighter; that stand-up fighter being Georges St-Pierre.
But hey, don't take my word for it, take a look at these results from FightMetric.
SRS total: Nine
How in the world can The Baddest Man on the Planet be underrated by any combat metric? I don't know, but he is.
According to FightMetric, Cain Velasquez is the UFC's all-time leader in significant strikes landed per minute with 6.4 and strike differential with 4.76. He's also sixth all-time in significant strike accuracy.
Sure, Cain's bread and butter is wrestling, and a lot of his strikes don't land during the stand-up phase, but his stand-up game is plenty potent. If you need any more proof, recall his knockouts of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Silva, or his punishment of Junior dos Santos. A lot of those happened during the vertical portions of the action.
Also, look at the way he mixes things up, constantly pushes forward and attacks with absolutely tremendous power. Remember that of his 11 pro victories, nine have come by knockout.
The heavyweight stand-up love typically goes to dos Santos, Alistair Overeem and guys like Mark Hunt. They're deserving, sure,but the champ deserves some praise, too.
Promotions: ONE FC/KSW/Dream
SRS total: 25
And now for the easiest call of the entire list.
Melvin Manhoef is, to me, the most dangerous stand-up knockout artist in the sport. Until he's universally recognized as such, he's underrated.
Go ahead. Take a straw poll of sports fans who have watched MMA at one time. Ask them who the scariest stand-up striker is, and Manhoef's name probably won't even come up.
For various reasons, Manhoef isn't even in the conversation with a Dos Santos or an Anderson Silva. If you agree with that, and you think he at least belongs in that conversation, then he is at the top of this list. This is especially true when you consider that he has had precious few chances of late to measure himself against his contemporaries.
By the way, he has a huge fight with Mamed Khalidov in Poland this June. I'm hoping that if he can win that as the capper of a five-fight win streak, the Bat Phone will finally ring.
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