MMA: The Top 10 Greatest Tournament Fighters of All Time

Levi NileContributor IIIJanuary 15, 2014

MMA: The Top 10 Greatest Tournament Fighters of All Time

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    There’s something about the idea of fighting two or more times in one night that fits the world of MMA like a glove.

    Perhaps it’s because the tournament format introduced the sport to America. In the early days, fighters with one discipline had just one way to win; for those with the dominant style, seeing them fight just once didn’t feel like a proper test or reward for their dominance.

    There were bragging rights around the idea of defeating two, three, four or even five men in a single night. It spoke to a consistency and durability that you would associate with the best in the world.

    And even though the tournament format doesn’t always see the best fighters win (see UFC III as a prime example), it seemed like the winner had earned the accolades by just surviving.

    Tournaments can be grueling tests of endurance, and when the card is stacked with serious talent, the event takes on a near mythical aspect. When so many talented and dangerous fighters meet on one night and fight their way to the top—who could stay away from that?

    It’s like the ultimate pay-per-view card where many excellent bouts happen in one night.

    Take for instance the Pride 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix: On one night, you got to see Quinton “Rampage” Jackson take on Chuck Liddell and then Wanderlei Silva. When it works out right, a tournament can be magical.

    And so, we come to recognize the men who have proved themselves capable of conquering the beast, rising to the top and winning it all in a single night. The men who can do this are a rare breed who seem to thrive in the harshest environments.

    Many men could have been chosen for this list, had it been bigger. Fighters such as Randy Couture, Renzo Gracie and Marco Ruas have won tournaments with two or more fights in a single night.

    Ricardo Morais, for instance, won five fights in a single night at the IAFC: Absolute Fighting Championship 1 in Moscow, Russia in November 1995. I did not put him on this list due to the quality of opposition, but it is still a notable accomplishment.

    Then we have Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who won the Rings: King of Kings 2000 Tournament and made it all the way to the finals of the Pride 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix, only to see it all for naught when his bout with Fedor Emelianenko was ruled a no-contest.

    Nogueira did not make the list because his win at the Rings tournament was against less-than-notable competition and the Pride tournament was basically incomplete. However, he is clearly a good tournament fighter and deserves mention.

    Here it is: a list of fighters who are a step above all the rest, albeit sometimes just barely. But they are all veterans of that grueling format, presented to you in all their glory.

No. 10: Oleg Taktarov

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 1

    Tournaments Total: 3

    Total Tournament Record: 6-2

    Notable Opponents Defeated: David “Tank” Abbott

    Notable Tournament Victories: UFC 6 winner

    Known as “The Russian Bear,” Oleg Taktarov made his debut in America at UFC 5, and right away you could tell there was something different about him. He had a kind of distant, expressionless look, as if he were existing in a time and place few would ever know.

    We would soon learn that while his stand-up skills were mainly absent, he was as tough as they come and on the ground he could be quite dangerous.

    He lost to Dan Severn in his first tournament attempt via cuts at UFC 5. He came back for UFC 6 and won the tournament after a grueling bout in the finals with David “Tank” Abbott.

    He would make one more attempt at UFC tournament glory at the Ultimate Ultimate 1995. He defeated David Beneteau and then bested UFC 7 tournament winner Marco Ruas to make it into the finals for a rematch against Severn.

    Taktarov lost to Severn again via unanimous decision.

No. 9: Wanderlei Silva

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 1

    Tournaments Total: 4

    Total Tournament Record: 8-3

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Kazushi Sakuraba, Hidehiko Yoshida, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Kazuyuki Fujita

    Notable Tournament Victories: Pride 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix winner

    A tournament fighter who is better than his record suggests, Wanderlei Silva could be higher on this list were it not for his aggression-to-a-fault style. This may have cost him his first-ever tournament victory; in the finals of the IVC 2 tournament, the doctors stopped his bout due to a cut along his eye.

    His cut may have been more manageable were it not for Silva continuing to head-butt his opponent with that side of his head, ignoring the fact his cut was opening deeper and deeper each time.

    He also entered a tournament he had no business in—the Pride 2006 Openweight Grand Prix—where he was a middleweight against heavyweights.

    But he did win perhaps the greatest tournament ever: the Pride 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix. That was perhaps the best definition ever of a champion proving that he ruled over all dominions in his division.

    Yeah, it was incredible.

No. 8: Don Frye

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 2

    Tournaments Total: 3

    Total Tournament Record: 8-1

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Gary Goodridge, Brian Johnston, David “Tank” Abbott

    Notable Tournament Victories: UFC 8 winner, UFC Ultimate Ultimate 96 winner

    While many old-school fans know Don Frye from his early days, few newer fans know just how durable he was, aside from legendary tales about his mustache.

    Let’s make one thing clear: The ‘stache of Frye was and still is legendary. But the ‘stache chooses the man in the most epic cases, and that says most of what you need to know about him.

    If he had beaten Mark Coleman in their epic struggle at UFC 10, he would have been a perfect 3-0 in tournament attempts, which says a lot for one of the toughest men from the early days.

    And his bout with David “Tank” Abbott during the finals of the Ultimate Ultimate ’96 is still one of the greatest moments in UFC tournament history.

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

No. 7: Dan Severn

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 2

    Tournaments Total: 3       

    Total Tournament Record: 8-1

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Oleg Taktarov (twice), Paul Varelans, David “Tank” Abbott

    Notable Tournament Victories: UFC 5 winner, UFC Ultimate Ultimate 1995 winner

    Dan Severn beat Oleg Taktarov twice and shut down David “Tank” Abbott like he was nothing more than an alternate.

    That alone puts him ahead of Don Frye, and that is saying a great deal about one of the greatest old-school fighters in UFC tournament history.

    No wonder Royce Gracie never seemed that interested in a rematch.

No. 6: Mark Kerr

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 3

    Tournaments Total: 4

    Total Tournament Record: 8-1

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Paul Varelans, Fabio Gurgel, Enson Inoue

    Notable Tournament Victories: World Vale Tudo Championship 3 winner, UFC 14 Heavyweight Tournament winner, UFC 15 Heavyweight Tournament winner

    After Mark Coleman dominated his opposition in the UFC 10 tournament, he assembled a fight team (Hammer House) composed of some very strong wrestlers; chief among them were Olympic Gold medalist Kevin Jackson and powerhouse Mark Kerr.

    Kerr earned his moniker “The Smashing Machine” after his first night of fights at the World Vale Tudo Championship 3 event in Brazil. He mauled his way to the finals and ground out a unanimous decision over the lighter Fabio Gurgel, who was a big name in the jiu-jitsu communities in Brazil.

    Kerr used this to springboard into the UFC, where he won two heavyweight tournaments at UFC 14 and UFC 15.

    While he may be best known for the HBO documentary that told his tragic story, he was a monster in his time. When he was focused and free of distraction, he was one of the best around.

No. 5: Renato 'Babalu' Sobral

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 3

    Tournaments Total: 5

    Total Tournament Record: 14-2

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Kiyoshi Tamura, Trevor Prangley, Jeremy Horn, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua

    Notable Tournament Victories: IFC: Global Domination

    Perhaps one of the bigger surprises on this list, Renato “Babalu” Sobral is the tournament fighter whom few know about.

    Winning three out of five tournaments, he had his best night at IFC: Global Domination. On a single night, he spent more than 43 minutes total besting Trevor Prangley by decision, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua via guillotine choke and then Jeremy Horn by decision.

    That’s a tough night's work for anyone.

No. 4: Royce Gracie

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 3

    Tournaments Total: 5

    Total Tournament Record: 12-1

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Ken Shamrock, Kimo, Dan Severn

    Notable Tournament Victories: UFC 1 winner, UFC 2 winner, UFC 4 winner

    Perhaps the most well-known tournament fighter in MMA, Royce Gracie was the man in the cage who helped start the Brazilian jiu-jitsu movement in America. Along the way, he became an icon in the sport.

    His early tournament victories in the UFC launched his name into the pantheon of martial arts legends. Even though he was defeated by Kazushi Sakuraba during the second round of the Pride Grand Prix 2000 (in the longest fight ever in MMA), his stature was not diminished in the least.

    When most fans talk about the early UFC and Gracie jiu-jitsu, his name is the one that most people recognize.

No. 3: Mark Coleman

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 3

    Tournaments Total: 3

    Total Tournament Record: 9-0

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Don Frye, Gary Goodridge, Igor Vovchanchyn

    Notable Tournament Victories: UFC 10 winner, UFC 11 winner, Pride Grand Prix 2000 winner

    The godfather of ground-and-pound, Mark Coleman took the UFC by storm at UFC 10, and after that single victory it looked like no one could beat him. He gave Don Frye a serious pounding and made the claiming of the belt look easy.

    He would hit a slump in his career that began with his shocking loss to Maurice Smith, but he would mount a comeback in Japan, winning one of the biggest tournaments ever—the Pride Grand Prix 2000.

No. 2: Dan Henderson

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    Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

    Total Tournament Victories: 4

    Tournaments Total: 5

    Total Tournament Record: 12-1

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Allan Goes, Carlos Newton, Gilbert Yvel, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Murilo Bustamante

    Notable Tournament Victories: UFC 17 Middleweight Tournament winner, Rings: King of Kings 1999 Tournament winner, Pride 2005 Welterweight Grand Prix winner

    While it is true that Dan Henderson is in the worst slump of his career, in the early days he was a force to be reckoned with.

    His victory in the middleweight tournament at UFC 17 saw him sorely tested in two fights (against Allan Goes and Carlos Newton), which saw him kicked, slammed and punched loopy. Next, he won the Rings: King of Kings tournament in 1999, proving that his stamina and will to win were among the greatest in the sport.

    He went on to win the Pride 2005 Welterweight Grand Prix tournament and from there would make history when he defeated Wanderlei Silva. That victory made him the only fighter to ever hold two belts at the same time in a large promotion.

No. 1: Igor Vovchanchyn

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    Sherdog.com

    Total Tournament Victories: 9

    Tournaments Total: 12

    Total Tournament Record: 33-3

    Notable Opponents Defeated: Kazushi Sakuraba, Gary Goodridge, Nick Nutter, Paul Varelans, Addison Lima

    Notable Tournament Victories: WVC 5 winner, IAFC: Absolute Fighting Championship III winner

    Amid all of the most famous tournament fighters alive, Igor Vovchanchyn stands atop the heap, hands down. His landing in the top spot is mainly a testimony to quantity over quality of opposition, but it is deeper than that.

    Fighting at a time when the sport was still new and every opponent was dangerous because he was unknown, Vovchanchyn carved a name for himself early on as the iron man of MMA. From October 1995 to February 1998, he fought in 10 tournaments, clocking in as much as 66 minutes of fight time in a single night. In 1996, he fought 13 times, 12 of them in tournament format—a staggering accomplishment of consistency.

    His three losses in tournament competition all came in the finals, which only adds to his proven ability to endure.

    Although perhaps known best by the tournament he did not win—the Pride Grand Prix 2000—Vovchanchyn is still the greatest tournament fighter in the recorded history of MMA.