The Top 15 Brazilian Fighters in UFC and MMA History

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterSeptember 26, 2013

The Top 15 Brazilian Fighters in UFC and MMA History

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    (Photo by James Law/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    (Photo by James Law/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

    Though the roots of their fighting system, Gracie jiu jitsu, are buried deep in Japanese soil, there is no doubt that Brazil is the mother of the modern mixed martial arts movement. For decades the Gracies' art was a secret shared with a select few, a closed system quasi-famous on the streets of Brazil—but nowhere else.

    Rorion Gracie changed all that. In 1978, he came to America with $2,000 and a dream: to take his family's art worldwide.

    Three decades later, after helping create the UFC in 1993, it's clear he's succeeded.

    Now called Brazilian jiu jitsu, it's a ubiquitous mainstream presence, recognized around the globe as one of the most effective hand-to-hand combat systems ever created.

    While the Gracies took the lead, their countrymen soon followed. Brazil has been a spawning ground of top talent since the sport was created. Two Brazilians, Jose Aldo and Renan Barao, currently hold UFC gold, and there's never been a moment in the sport's history when Brazilians weren't near the pinnacle of greatness.

    What follows are the 15 greatest Brazilian fighters in MMA history. The list of candidates for this honor was long and distinguished—making disagreement almost inevitable. Think you see a shocking omission, like the great Renzo Gracie? Make your case in the comments.

15. Renan Barao

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    Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    31-1-1

     

    Greatest Moment

    Although Barao didn't get a chance to take the UFC bantamweight title from injured champion Dominick Cruz, beating fan favorite Urijah Faber for the interim belt in 2012 was the next-best thing.

     

    Analysis

    At 26, it may feel like it's too soon to put Barao in this esteemed company. But even if he retired today, his spectacular win streak (he's undefeated since losing his very first fight) and UFC title reign is enough to warrant his inclusion.

    Barao is for real.

14. Ricardo Arona

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    Record

    14-5

     

    Greatest Moment

    It wasn't the most thrilling bout, but then again, Ricardo Arona was never the most thrilling fighter. But beating Wanderlei Silva in 2005 mattered.

    Though he would go on to lose to Silva protege Mauricio Rua later that same night, Arona's mastery of the division's scariest fighter is a testament to his skill on the mat.

     

    Analysis

    No one is quite sure what has become of Arona. Although he will occasionally pop up and proclaim himself still interested in competing, he has only fought once since a 2007 upset loss to Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou.

    Still just 35, Arona's time in the cage isn't necessarily over. But the clock most definitely is ticking.

13. Pedro Rizzo

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    (Photo by Susumu Nagao/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    (Photo by Susumu Nagao/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

    Record

    19-11

     

    Greatest Moment

    Josh Barnett had the temerity to try to stand and trade with Rizzo at UFC 30. He paid a heavy price in the form of a devastating knockout.

    In his prime, Rizzo wasn't a man to be trifled with.

     

    Analysis

    Rizzo came tantalizingly close to winning UFC gold on several occasions. If you ask him, he still maintains he beat Randy Couture at UFC 31 and should have been champion. But, on the official record at least, he never quite climbed to the top of the mountain. That's the only think keeping him from being remembered among the all-time legends of the heavyweight division.

12. Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino

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    (Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)
    (Photo by Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images)

    Record

    14-1-1

     

    Greatest Moment

    She may not remember it with fondness, but I get a good chuckle every time I see Cyborg's fight with Shayna Baszler in Elite XC. Cyborg climbed the cage to celebrate after knocking Baszler down.

    The problem? The referee hadn't actually stopped the fight.

     

    Analysis

    After losing her first fight, Cyborg has dominated every opponent who's dared to step into the cage with her. No one has been close to competitive. Until someone beats her, in my opinion at least, she remains the top women's fighter in the sport.

11. Murilo Bustamante

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    (Photo by Susumu Nagao/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    (Photo by Susumu Nagao/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

    Record

    15-8-1

     

    Greatest Moment

    Bustamante, thanks to an error by referee "Big" John McCarthy, had to beat Matt Lindland twice at UFC 37. Luckily, the submission master was up to the task, securing first an armbar and later a guillotine to defend his UFC title.

     

    Analysis

    Bustamante, who vacated his UFC title after the Lindland fight to leave for Pride in Japan, has been erased from history. But those who saw him compete have little doubt he was one of the very best middleweights ever to grace the Octagon.

10. Junior dos Santos

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    16-2

     

    Greatest Moment

    After weeks of build-up, Junior dos Santos made short work of Cain Velasquez to win the UFC heavyweight title in the very first UFC fight broadcast on network television.

     

    Analysis

    Like his mentor Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, dos Santos may end being the second-best heavyweight of his generation. We'll find out at UFC 166 in Houston, as he and Velasquez battle for the third time for supremacy—and the UFC championship.

9. Lyoto Machida

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    Record

    19-4

     

    Greatest Moment

    Poor Rashad Evans. The "Machida era" was built on his knockout of the former champion. As if that indignity wasn't enough, his involuntary "knockout face" has spawned thousands of Internet memes.

     

    Analysis

    So, that Machida era? It didn't quite happen. But that doesn't mean he's not one of the best Brazilian fighters in UFC history.

8. Vitor Belfort

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    Record

    23-10

     

    Greatest Moment

    No matter what Vitor Belfort does with the rest of his life, his dogged pursuit of a fleeing Wanderlei Silva in 1998, punches flying like pistons, will remain the crowning moment of his career.

     

    Analysis

    Belfort is among the last of his kind. He's a rare creature in today's UFC—a fighter who predates the Zuffa era.

    Even more amazing? At 36, he's shown no signs of slowing down. Since 2007 he has only two losses on his resume—to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. That's a pretty impressive second wind.

7. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua

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    Record

    21-8

     

    Greatest Moment

    Pride Fighting Championships was a different beast. The Japanese promotion had a different rule set than the UFC, one which led to some pretty stark moments. Rua took advantage of the rules better than most, utilizing the soccer kick to the face to decimate his foes, most notably Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in a 2005 match.

     

    Analysis

    Rua seemed well on his way to the top of this list. By the time he was just 23, the Wanderlei Silva protege was already recognized as one of the very best fighters in the world. But persistent injuries have slowed Rua significantly. Barely able to train, he gets by these days mostly on warrior heart.

6. Rickson Gracie

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    Record

    11-0

     

    Greatest Moment

    Masakatsu Funaki, the submission ace who trained Ken Shamrock among a host of others, was widely considered the top fighter in Japan. When Gracie didn't just beat him but dominated him, it was a clear sign that the man, quite possibly, lived up to the legend.

     

    Analysis

    It's a shame we never got to see Rickson compete with a top modern-era fighter. By the time he fought Funaki, however, he was already 41 years old.

    Rickson, considered by his own brothers to be the best fighter in the family, simply missed the MMA boom his family helped create.

5. Jose Aldo

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    Jason da Silva-USA TODAY Sports

    Record

    23-1

     

    Greatest Moment

    Urijah Faber, long the standard bearer for the WEC, was supposed to lead the little guys to box office glory. Instead, over the course of five increasingly brutal rounds, Jose Aldo rewrote history, casting himself as the hero of the featherweight division.

     

    Analysis

    Aldo's signature leg kicks have become one of the sport's great weapons, right up there with Dan Henderson's right hand and Anderson Silva's front kick. He strikes fear into the heart of anyone brave enough, or foolish enough, to face him in the cage.

4. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

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    Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    Record

    34-8-1

     

    Greatest Moment

    At Pride 17, all the way back in 2001, Big Nog stood in the pocket and traded punch for punch with perennial contender Heath Herring.

    We already knew that Nogueira was brilliant on the ground. His thrilling performance against Herring showed he was more than able, and willing, to mix it up standing as well.

     

    Analysis

    Had Fedor Emelianenko made the Russian judo team, instead of trying his hand at the developing sport of mixed martial arts, Nogueira would very likely be considered the top heavyweight of all time. He beat the greats of his era and has transitioned to the next, providing an interesting test for a number of young heavyweights.

3. Wanderlei Silva

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    Record

    35-12-1

     

    Greatest Moment

    My favorite Silva moment came after his prime when he proved, even as a fading fighter, he still had the heart and will to match blows with the great Chuck Liddell. Silva's fierce determination in their legendary fight at UFC 79, even in the face of his own mortality, was truly special.

     

    Analysis

    For four years Wanderlei Silva terrorized the island nation of Japan, a Brazilian Godzilla with tattoos on his head and anger in his heart. Silva didn't just come to fight. He came to annihilate anything in his path. A whirling dervish of punches, kicks and knees, he is one of the sport's true living legends.

2. Royce Gracie

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    Photo by Markus Boesch via Getty Images
    Photo by Markus Boesch via Getty Images

    Record

    14-2-3

     

    Greatest Moment

    When Gracie methodically sunk in a rear-naked choke against Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau in 1993, he ushered in a new era of martial arts. Gone were the ineffective Asian arts that dotted the American landscape teaching techniques.

    The world of martial arts finally had a proving ground. It was no longer enough to say your fighting style was real. You had to put up or shut up in the cage.

     

    Analysis

    Gracie is one of the most important figures in modern martial arts history. In the last century, only Bruce Lee and Jigoro Kano come close to matching his reach and influence.  While he was eventually surpassed by a new breed of fighter, no one who beat him could do so without carefully studying his family's art of Brazilian jiu jitsu. That was a win, in and of itself, for the Gracie family.

1. Anderson Silva

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    Record

    33-5

     

    Greatest Moment

    His entire career feels like an iconic moment. But if I had to pick just one, Silva's come-from-behind final-round submission win over Chael Sonnen at UFC 117 stands alone as the most amazing thing I've ever seen in the UFC Octagon.

     

    Analysis

    For more than six years, Anderson Silva was the top middleweight in the entire sport. He won 16 consecutive bouts between 2006 and 2013. But it wasn't just the string of wins that impressed. He didn't just win fights; he won fights with a style and flair unlike anyone else we've ever seen.