Probably the most complex part of mixed martial arts, ground fighting has the distinction of being what sets MMA apart from other combat sports, and at the same time what often turns off the casual fan.
It's an ironic distinction, at least to the MMA purist, because ground fighting, which encompasses takedowns, ground and pound, submissions, and submission defense, is often what sets the athlete apart from the true fighter. It's also what gives a world-class MMA fighter an edge against a world-class boxer in a fight that's allowed to hit the ground.
While anyone can throw up a haymaker and luck into a knockout, almost all takedowns, submissions, and sub defenses are created through intelligence and technique; the culmination of hours of training and application that take a fighter much farther than simply power and aim.
That's not to say a talented striker doesn't put in just as much gym time and require the match of brain and brawn that a grappler has, but while everyone has a "puncher's chance," under-trained and outmatched fighters don't get to rely on an "arm-locker's chance."
With that said, lets take a look at some of the most feared ground fighters in the sport today. The list includes fighters that do more than just submit their foes; this is a roster of fighters that have slick takedowns, dangerous ground and pound, and rarely—if ever—get submitted themselves. Quality of opponents finished will come into play as well.
There may seem to be some glaring omissions, however many talented athletes from other grappling sports have moved into MMA without living up the names they built prior. BJ Penn was the first American to win the Mundials (the World Championships in Brazilain Jiu-Jitsu), yet has a fairly pedestrian finishing rate as an MMA fighter. The same can be said for former sport BJJ superstar Matt Serra.
Of course, other omissions could simply be a slight on the part of the author—there are afterall a lot of dominant grapplers in MMA. So feel free to add to the list in the comments section.
(Fight statistics are courtesy of the Sherdog.com fight tracker)
10. Nathan Diaz
Perhaps the fastest rising BJJ-based fighter in MMA, Diaz has possibly the most dangerous triangle in the sport. A brown belt member of the Cesar Gracie Fight Team, where belt promotions are notoriously hard to come by, seven of Diaz' 10 wins have been by submission. His victims include Junior Assuncao and heralded jiu-jitsu black belt Kurt Pellegrino.
9. Matt Hughes
With 43 wins on his resume, Hughes has 18 wins by submission over the likes of Frank Trigg and Georges St. Pierre. Considering he has never been known to KO people on the feet, Hughes' other 15 stoppage victories are proof that his wrestling and ground and pound ability has been nothing short of devastating. He's slammed, pummeled and submitted his legacy as the greatest welterweight of all time.
8. Renato "Babalu" Sobral
Former Brazilian National wrestling champion "Babalu" Sobral, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion and a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt, has submitted 17 of his 32 overall victims—a list that includes Sokoudjou, Mike Van Arsdale, Chael Sonnen, and Murilo "Ninja" Rua. Complimenting his submissions are his relentless takedowns and ground and pound.
7. Jake Shields
Cesar Gracie black belt Shields is possibly the closest thing to a one-dimensional fighter there is in MMA's top-ten rankings. It's not that he isn't versed in striking, it's just that the former Division II wrestler makes no effort to disguise his gameplans: Takedown, ground and pound, submit.
While no one seems to fear his power on the feet, he now has two weight divisions fearing his world-class grappling skills, which have led him to victories over Nick Thompson, Mike Pyle, and most recently Robbie Lawler. Even when Shields isn't finishing fights, he is usually winning with superior takedowns and ground positioning.
6. Urijah Faber
Faber's wrestling credentials sometimes seem a little inflated (he fell short of All-American honors at UC-Davis), but his wrestling base has translated to MMA magnificently. Mainly a wrestler and ground and pound fighter early in his career, those skills carried him to various regional titles while he completed the rest of his MMA game.
Among his submission victims are Jens Pulver, Jeff Curran and Charlies Valencia; the list of those he has pounded out on the ground includes Cole Escovedo and Bibiano Fernandes.
Along with the offensive skills, Faber is also noted for his tremendous submission-defense.
5. Miguel Torres
Possibly the best pound-for-pound fighter in MMA, Torres built his reputation in the sport through his tremendous grappling skills. Out of 37 victories, 22 have been by submission.
The current WEC World Bantamweight champion and a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Torres is among the most well-rounded fighters in the world. His lone loss was a decision, which he later avenged—by way of submission.
4. Demian Maia
To the casual fan, Maia may not seem to have much more than solid submissions in his arsenal. To the BJJ enthusiast, he has some of the most impressive overall ground skills possibly in UFC history.
Good takedowns give Maia the ability to dictate the fight, and once on the ground, his control, guard passes and submissions are a thing of beauty. He has finished eight of his 10 opponents—including a who's who of the UFC middleweight roster—in seemingly effortless fashion, which has many believing he poses the biggest threat to Anderson Silva's title reign.
3. Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera
Possessing possibly the biggest heart in MMA history, former Pride World Heavyweight champion "Minotauro" brings the kind of submission threat into his fights normally seen in the lightweight division. The BJJ black belt counts 20 submissions among his 31 MMA victories.
Those who have tapped out to the skills of Noguiera includes Tim Sylvia, Dan Henderson, and Enson Inuoe; however, the best example of how dangerous he is on the ground is the 2003 barnburner Noguiera had with Mirko Cro-Cop. After taking a vicious beating both standing and on the ground for much of the fight, "Minotauro" pulled out one of the slickest armlock victories the heavyweight division has ever seen, escaping Cro Cop's onslaught to back control and a quick finish.
2. Shinya Aoki
Japanese grappling ace Aoki hold black belts in both BJJ and Judo, and both styles are always on display in his matches. His throwing prowess opens up quick submission opportunities in the standing-to-ground transition, and Aoki has one of the more diverse lists of submission victories in the sport—having won fights by armlock (standing and on the ground), triangle choke, heel hook, neck crank, rear naked choke, and the highlight reel finisher GoGo Plata (twice).
While Aoki has never been submitted in a fight, he has forced the tap from numerous top-level fighters, including Eddie Alvarez and Joachim Hansen.
Not only is he the overall baddest man on the planet, Fedor is probably the last guy anyone wants to wind up on the mat with. Even if he hasn't bothered employing his Judo skills to launch you to the floor, once he gets you there your fate is either a powerful submission or brutal ground and pound.
Officially, 16 of his 30 wins were by way of submission—a credit to Emelianenko's sambo background. Numerous other victories came by way of knockout on the ground. Not only does Fedor have the ability to inflict serious damage at a moments notice, but he has also withstood wrestling onslaughts from the likes of Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman en route to easy submissions.
Against Randleman, Emelianenko looked particularly invincible, absorbing one of the most impressive and high-flying suplexes in MMA history, then simply gaining top control and calmly finishing Randleman with a kimura.