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B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 15 Light Heavyweights in Mixed Martial Arts

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJanuary 5, 2017

B/R MMA 125: Ranking the Top 15 Light Heavyweights in Mixed Martial Arts

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    USA TODAY Sports

    For years, light heavyweight has been the UFC's marquee division. While there is a certain cache in being the heavyweight champion of the world, with due respect to the likes of Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, this was the division that mattered most.

    Frank Shamrock got the stone rolling nicely with a memorable dark-ages reign. But it was Tito Ortiz who brought the sport into the light, dominating in the cage and becoming the first star of the Zuffa era. His were enormous shoes to fill, but Chuck Liddell managed nicely, both athletically and promotionally.

    "The Iceman" reinvented how wrestling could be used in the cage. His collegiate background was used primarily to keep the fight standing, enabling his crowd-pleasing knockouts. Liddell, half-Cro-Magnon, half-accountant, became the face of MMA—a role he still maintains in many ways to this day.

    Jon Jones is next in this evolutionary chain. In the cage, he's exceeded both Ortiz and Liddell. Outside of it, he's failed to capture the fans' emotions in quite the same way his predecessors did. The UFC has never seen his physical and athletic equal.

    The sport of the everyman is now ruled by the kind of uber-athlete we used to dream would one day step into the cage. Jones is the new breed. Hopefully, in time, fans will come to embrace that—and everything that comes with it.

    This list is not a ranking based on past performance. MMA math does not apply here. Instead, these ratings are a snapshot of where these athletes stand right now compared to their light heavyweight peers. We've scored each fighter on a 100-point scale based on his ability in four key categories. You can read more about how the ratings are determined here

    Disagree with our order or analysis? Furious about a notable omission? Let us know about it in the comments.

15. Jimi Manuwa

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    Age: 34   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 79.5"
    Fight camp: Keddle's Gym
    Record: 14-1 (13 knockouts, 1 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Alexander Gustafsson (TKO), UFC Fight Night 37
    Def. Ryan Jimmo (TKO), UFC Fight Night 30
    Def. Cyrille Diabate (TKO), UFC on Fuel TV 7

    Takedown Average: 1.45, Takedown Accuracy: 42%, Takedown Defense: 72%

    The sample size for Jimi Manuwa's wrestling is quite small, but what little we have seen hasn't been good. While he never had to worry about being taken down fighting jobbers on the European circuit, UFC opponents have exposed his wrestling as subpar.

    Alexander Gustafsson managed to take him down and rough him up with little difficulty, then finished him in the second with strikes in the clinch. In his UFC debut, Kyle Kingsbury was even more dominant as he took Manuwa down twice and kept him there for much of their fight.

    Neither Gustafsson nor Kingsbury rank among the best wrestlers in the light heavyweight division, but their less-than-brilliant takedowns were more than enough to put Manuwa on his back. While there is likely some sample bias, odds are that Manuwa's wrestling is well behind the 205-pound curve.

     

    Submission Average: 0.5

    Remember back in Pride how a legitimate tactic to get out from underneath an opponent was to tie him up long enough to force a referee stand-up? And you know how it doesn't really work in the UFC? Nobody seems to have told Manuwa that.

    Indeed, Manuwa is far, far too content to lie underneath an opponent, and both Gustafsson and Kingsbury were able to eat up minutes with unanswered top control. On top of that, the only thing he has shown from underneath is a power escape. While dynamic strikers with soft wrestling skills can get wins over high-level competition with the help of an active guard, Manuwa simply doesn't have any tools to handle being on the bottom.

    That will haunt him against any top-10 light heavyweight fighters and is something he absolutely needs to remedy if he wants to advance in the division.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.26, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.03

    The one area where Manuwa truly excels beyond his peers is his striking. The fact that he has fight-ending power in both hands is enough to differentiate him from most light heavyweights. He truly sets himself apart, however, with his ability to use them to set up equally devastating kicks and knees.

    He is remarkably smart with his stand-up, and his ability to analyze opponents' weaknesses on the fly is advanced beyond his experience level. Add to that his fluid, pinpoint-accurate combinations, and you have a truly lethal striker.

    Of his 14 career wins, a whopping 13 have come by knockout. If an opponent tries to contend with him standing, he will almost certainly fail.

     

    If you've seen Manuwa's UFC fights, you've no doubt heard Jon Anik and Joe Rogan discuss how the "Poster Boy” has just six years of martial arts experience. Not six years of competing in MMA, mind you. He has just six years' worth of training in any form of combat sports.

    To say he has come a long way in a short time would be a profound understatement. The question now is: How high is his ceiling?

    On his striking and physical tools alone, he can beat a staggering majority of the world's light heavyweights. His weaknesses, however, have shined through against UFC competition.

    While there's no doubt that he's already a solid fighter, he needs to put in more time against high-level competition before he can start climbing the ranks. Unfortunately, at age 34, the clock is working against him.

     

14. Ovince St. Preux

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 31   Height: 6'3"   Reach: 79"
    Fight camp: Knoxville MMA
    Record: 16-5 (7 knockouts, 5 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Ryan Jimmo (Sub), UFC 174
    Def. Nikita Krylov (Sub), UFC 171
    Def. Cody Donovan (KO), UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen

    Takedown Average: 1.94, Takedown Accuracy: 60%, Takedown Defense: 71%

    Lost in the constant discussion of his football prowess is the fact that former University of Tennessee linebacker Ovince St. Preux is more than an athlete who found combat sports interesting. St. Preux was once the Florida Class 1A runner-up in wrestling. 

    While this doesn't touch the Division I (and better) accolades of others in his division, St. Preux's wrestling chops are adequate. He's not starting from zero like other football-players-turned-fighters.

    St. Preux does his best work in scrambles and disadvantageous situations. Taking on Cody Donovan in his second UFC fight, St. Preux used a whizzer to reverse position after being taken down. Against Antwain Britt in Strikeforce, we saw a similarly spectacular display of defensive wrestling when St. Preux hit a switch in Round 3, securing a takedown and riding out the fight from top position, winning a decision in the process.

    Nobody's mistaking "OSP" for "GSP," but St. Preux's wrestling is solid, and he's used it to great effect inside the UFC Octagon.

     

    Submission Average: 1.1

    St. Preux's grappling game is a Jekyll-and-Hyde story of shining moments and utter failure. 

    When he's on the offensive, pressuring his opponent and going to town, St. Preux can hit some nasty submissions like calf slicers and Kimuras. Put him on his back and smother him, though, and St. Preux struggles to mount an attack of any significance. He doesn't explode into an escape or throw his legs up for a triangle attempt. In fact, he doesn't attempt much of anything—all too often, he just lays there. 

    Until he patches this hole in his skill set, he's going to be susceptible to powerful wrestlers with heavy top games. Bad news for him—the clock is ticking. He just signed to fight former All-American Ryan Bader on Aug. 16. 

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.94, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.86

    Right now, OSP is untested against a truly elite striker, but he generally looks relaxed and sharp on the feet, which is all we can ask of him against lesser competition. He looks just as comfortable kicking as he does punching, and he'll need all these tools as he continues his ascent up the light heavyweight ladder. 

    He's ended one-third of his professional fights via knockout and is only getting better as he continues to learn the intricacies of the stand-up game. 

    On the ground, fists in the air, St. Preux is legitimately terrifying. He finished Donovan from his opponent's full guard, something that we rarely see these days. He's powerful, and his muscular frame allows him to generate incredible force with little windup or preparation. It just happens. And it's scary when it does. 

     

    St. Preux possesses the type of natural athleticism that can keep him in fights even if he's off his game that night. His power is mighty, he's quick and agile, and he showcases an improved all-around skill set every time we see him step into the UFC Octagon. 

    Unfortunately, he pursued a career as a professional football player after college and only turned to MMA after that dream failed to materialize. Because of this, he may have missed out on his athletic prime as a fighter and is only now receiving a top-10 fight in the UFC.

    While it's definitely not too late to make a run to the top, the sands are pouring, and St. Preux will watch the hourglass run dry if he slips up too many times along the way.  

     

13. Mauricio Rua

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 32   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: Universidade de Luta
    Record: 22-9 (19 knockouts, 1 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Dan Henderson (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Henderson II
    Def. James Te Huna (KO), UFC Fight Night: Hunt vs. Bigfoot
    Lost to Chael Sonnen (Sub), UFC Fight Night: Shogun vs. Sonnen

     

    Takedown Average: 2.28, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 44%

    Even when Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was in his prime, arguably the greatest light heavyweight alive, his wrestling represented a major deficiency in his game. 

    Any opponent with a decent wrestling arsenal could plant Rua on his back, nullifying his vicious stand-up attack. Worst of all, there was little Shogun could do about it.

    While the Brazilian muay thai artist could turn the tables on overmatched foes like Cyrille Diabate and Kazuhiro Nakamura and even score takedowns of his own, Shogun generally avoided a wrestling battle at all costs. 

    Now in the later stages of his career, Shogun is much the same, showing little improvement here. Give him Jon Jones or Alexander Gustafsson and he'll struggle; give him James Te Huna and he'll succeed. Unfortunately, that's not going to cut it at this point in his career, as the rest of his game continues to steeply decline.

     

    Submission Average: 1.0

    Shogun holds a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but he's submitted just one opponent in his 31-fight career. On the flip side, he's been submitted three times, so what gives? 

    For one, Shogun tires quickly in fights, and it's a lot harder to fend off submissions—mentally and physicallywhen you're exhausted. He's also knocked out 19 dudes in 22 victories, so he simply hasn't had to win via submission. 

    Watching Shogun roll for a kneebar is fun, but that's basically the extent of his grappling at this point. He doesn't look to win fights via submission; his game on the mat is solely defensive, honed to give him the best possible chance to pop back to his feet and work his striking attack. 

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.60, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.30

    It hurts to not rate Shogun as "elite" in the striking department. The skills are there—he just can't use them anymore on a regular basis. 

    He's one of few UFC light heavyweights to solve the puzzle that is Lyoto Machida's stand-up game, yet he was knocked out by the sluggish, haymakers-only, ancient version of Dan Henderson. 

    He knocked out James Te Huna with a ferocious left hook, yet Forrest Griffin lit him up and out-landed him, three-to-one, when the two fought at UFC 76. 

    Shogun boasts huge, game-changing knockout power, fluid movement and a bag full of tricks and techniques. And yet, he also has a propensity to engage in senseless, rock 'em, sock 'em battles inside the cage. His first fight with Henderson, as memorable a fight as we've ever seen, was unnecessarily difficult for Shogun, who seemed to feel he had something to prove by standing in the pocket.

    There's no denying his considerable offensive skills, but these defensive holes and ill-advised stand-up strategies prevent Shogun from joining the division's finest strikers. 

     

    Knockout power is the only thing working in Shogun's favor at this point in his career. 

    He's 32, but in fighting years, he's 20 years older. He's played the supporting actor in some of the craziest back-and-forth brawls in MMA history, and his brain is paying the price for our entertainment and enjoyment. 

    He doesn't fight smart, and his gas tank is atrocious. Years of injuries have basically prevented him from engaging in the kind of preparation and training an elite fighter should. The result is obvious in the cage. Shogun is gasping for air after one round of activity, and his days as a legitimate No. 1 contender are long gone. 

    Right now, the best we can hope for from the Brazilian legend are some more fun fights, maybe a knockout or two and a well-deserved retirement celebration. 

    He's earned it. 

     

12. Dan Henderson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 43   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Team Quest 
    Record: 30-12 (14 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Daniel Cormier (Sub), UFC 173
    Def. Mauricio Rua (KO), UFC Fight Night: Shogun v. Henderson 2
    Lost to Vitor Belfort (KO), UFC Fight Night: Belfort v. Henderson

     

    Takedown Average: 1.62, Takedown Accuracy: 54%, Takedown Defense: 58%

    Dan Henderson's mediocre wrestling game is one of the surprising truths revealed by our deep dive into the UFC video collection. Despite his many accolades, and they are numerous, Henderson is just not particularly adept here. 

    Listening to the UFC announcers, you'd never guess that to be the case. And, in their defense, two appearances in the Olympic games speak loudly and authoritatively in favor of Henderson's competence. But 1996 is ancient history, 1992 a lifetime ago.

    Perhaps more than two decades ago, Henderson was indeed a dynamo. But even then, he struggled outside the peculiar confines of the Greco-Roman rule set. Once you added in attacks to the legs, Henderson became astoundingly average.

    One year after representing the U.S in the Olympics, Henderson lost in the first round of the 1993 NCAA tournament. It was an omen. In the world of Greco, Henderson was the American king. With a more liberal set of rules, like those in folkstyle and MMA, he was and remains only marginal.

     

    Submission Average: 0.4

    Watching Henderson flop around on the mat against Daniel Cormier was particularly sad for longtime fans. Hendo was manhandled like a child, tossed like a sack of potatoes and had his guard passed 11 times. It was reminiscent, in a way, of an equally dreadful appearance against Jake Shields back in 2010.

    It's not all bad news in the grappling department, however, despite this rudimentary jiu-jitsu game. Perhaps because he has been on his back so frequently throughout his career, Henderson has actually been surprisingly good when forced to defend in such vulnerable positions. He's a survivor, pure and simple.

    And if he gets on top, lord help his opponent. He puts his full 190 pounds behind every punch. He can do serious damage, especially in the moments of chaos that follow a takedown or an attempt to get back to the feet. It's there that Hendo is especially deadly—just ask the great Fedor Emelianenko.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 2.38, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.55

    Ah, the famed Henderson H-Bomb. A brilliant piece of branding, sure. After all, who else has their own patented strike? 

    But, as a fighter, discovering thunder in his right hand may have been the worst thing to ever happen to Henderson. Sure, no one will ever call him "Decision Dan" ever again. But it's come at a heavy price.

    In recent years, especially since his famous knockout win over Michael Bisping at UFC 100, Henderson has become a headhunter. His game, once a well-rounded mix of Greco-Roman clinch work, swarming attacks on the feet, and, yes, the big right hand, has devolved to the point that it's almost exclusively focused on landing the big bomb.

    But, appearances to the contrary, MMA fighters are not dumb. 

    They saw quite clearly what Henderson was doing and adjusted. Once they figured out he was using a little leg kick to hold opponents in place for the H-Bomb, it was all over for Hendo. He's lost four of his last five, and unless he can find a better way to land his singular weapon, it's a streak that won't end anytime soon.

     

    At 43, and with the crutch of legal testosterone use yanked cruelly away, Henderson's career looks to be all but over. Cormier didn't just beat him handily—he embarrassed him. In his previous bout, a win over Mauricio Rua, Henderson looked downright terrible before his right hand rescued him from yet another loss. Henderson didn't just look old. He looked slow, sad and ponderous, desperately trying the only technique he now knows.

    At one time, there were serious debates about Henderson's place in MMA history. Was he the greatest American fighter ever? I think Jon Jones has closed the book on that discussion for good. But the fact Henderson's name was even mentioned speaks volumes.

    His prowess in his prime is unquestioned. Unfortunately, he peaked years ago, at a time when giants reigned in the light heavyweight class. Men like Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson stood in his way, preventing Henderson from ever ascending to the very top of his weight class, let alone the sport.

    The memories, however, are numerous. If only Henderson would walk away, allowing us to wallow in the past, without worrying about his health and well-being in the present.

     

11. Muhammed Lawal

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 33   Height: 6'0"   Reach: 78"
    Fight camp: American Top Team
    Record: 12-4 (1) (9 knockouts, 0 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Quinton Jackson (UD), Bellator 120
    Def. Mikhail Zayats (UD), Bellator 110
    Lost to Emanuel Newton (UD), Bellator 106

    Once upon a time, “King” Mo Lawal was one of the best wrestlers in the world. Not just in MMA, mind you. He was ranked as the best in his weight class and expected to go to the 2008 Olympic Games following a strong run on the national and international scene from 2005-2008.

    In the early going of his MMA career, he found great success with these skills. He turned a 6-0 run that included five ground-and-pound knockouts into a title shot with Strikeforce, then took the belt from Gegard Mousasi with his mighty single-leg takedown.

    Tragically, that was the last time fans ever saw “Mo Lawal: Ground-and-Pound Specialist.” From that point on, he was replaced by “Mo Lawal: Fanatically Mediocre Striker.”

    On occasion, the shadow of the Lawal of old will rise from the mists to score a convincing win. Alas, with age and injury, he simply doesn't compare to the man who tore apart the competition in Sengoku and Strikeforce.

     

    There is very little to say regarding Lawal's grappling skills. His ground game has never been particularly elegant, but it has been, in general, quite effective.

    He can do damage with punches from any position and is adept at advancing guard off his strikes. His submission offense is utterly nonexistent, but his submission defense has been good enough that he has rarely been threatened on the ground. He has yet to go to the mat with a truly elite grappler, however, so it is impossible to say how sharp his jiu-jitsu is at this point. 

    With the competition in Bellator being what it is, this may prove to be a non-issue in the days to come. If he does journey back to the UFC, however, it will be an interesting battle for some of the savvier grapplers in the division.

     

    Many a wrestler has followed boxing's Siren song into the loss column. Lawal, however, might be the one who fell for her trick the hardest.

    For reasons that remain mysterious, he left behind his fearsome top game the second he was matched against Rafael Cavalcante. Not coincidentally, he was knocked out that very fight. While a devastating loss usually serves as a wake-up call for wrestlers who have been led astray, not so with King Mo.

    Lawal has insisted on redefining himself as MMA's Floyd Mayweather, and the results have been, to put it lightly, pretty bad. Aside from the fact that Mayweather's style doesn't translate well to MMA, Lawal doesn't have the pure speed to pull it off. His stand-up game just won't cut it against above-average competition, and even though that fact has been proved time and again now, Lawal just hasn't caught on.

    He will occasionally show flashes of how good his ground-and-pound is (his diving, one-punch KO of Seth Petruzelli was one of 2013's best). However, watching him get beaten twice by a less-than-stellar Emanuel Newton is far more telling of how mediocre his striking is on the regular.

     

    At one point, Mo Lawal was a top-10 fighter. His strong wrestling and pure physical power consistently resulted in emphatic, impressive wins against some of the best light heavyweights outside the Zuffa umbrella. Even after he lost the Strikeforce belt, there was plenty to love about Lawal, and his inevitable UFC future seemed bright.

    Then, a staph infection following knee surgery nearly killed him.

    Lawal just hasn't been the same since, mentally or physically. He is considerably slower than he once was, and while he was previously capable of putting in five solid rounds, he struggles to get through three these days. The growing distance between who he was and who he is has resulted in some sloppy, ugly affairs of late.

    It's always sad to see an athlete's career change trajectory following an injury or illness. We want to believe time heals all wounds, but the difference is simply too profound to ignore. The Lawal of today just doesn't stack up to the Lawal of 2010.

     

10. Quinton Jackson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 36   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 73"
    Fight camp: Wolfslair Academy
    Record: 35-11 (16 knockouts, 7 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Muhammed Lawal (UD), Bellator 120
    Def. Christian M'Pumbu (KO), Bellator 110
    Def. Joey Beltran (TKO), Bellator 108

    Takedown Average: 1.58, Takedown Accuracy: 56%, Takedown Defense: 74%

    There was a time not all that long ago when Quinton “Rampage” Jackson's takedown defense was commonly ranked among the best in the division. Was it really ever that good? Maybe, maybe not. But more than his trademark slams, it defined him as a serious contender in the sport.

    Regardless, by the end of his tenure with the UFC, there was no debate about his wrestling: It stunk.

    In the final 10 rounds of his UFC career, fighting Jon Jones, Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira, he was taken down 11 times. While that lot represents three of the better fighters in the division, there's no looking past the success all three had against him.

    He might be turning the corner to some degree; he did a good job stuffing Mo Lawal at Bellator 120 but still spent considerable time on his back. Can he regain the form that allowed him to thwart former NCAA and UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman? Or is he destined to cut desultory promos after fights, begging opponents to stand and bang?

    Either way, however good his wrestling may have been in the past, he is decidedly average at best these days.

     

    Submission Average: 0.1

    Remember back when Rampage slammed Ricardo Arona with a powerbomb straight out of pro wrestling? We all agree that was totally awesome, right? It's also a microcosm of Rampage's entire grappling game.

    Sweeps? Hand fighting? Anything remotely technical? Those are just crutches for puny men who can't hulk their way out of every grappling attack. And for a very long time, pure power was all he needed to avoid getting worked over on the ground.

    Of course, as the years wore on, his opponents caught up to him in terms of strength—or at least approached his manly levels. Meanwhile, he got savvier and more adept on the ground. 

    It may not be clear how Rampage is defending himself on the ground. But whatever he's doing, it's working. Say what you will about Rampage—but numbers talk louder. He's been submitted just twice in a career that is in its 15th year, once by Jones and once by the great Kazushi Sakuraba.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.10, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 2.42

    After all that discussion of Jackson losing a step since his heyday, it is worth noting that his striking is actually on a bit of an upswing. While he is still a technically limited power puncher, he has regained a little bit of the pop he had back in his prime.

    During the final 18 months of his UFC career, he was disappointingly, uncharacteristically tentative. A fighter like Teixeira was custom-made for Rampage, an elite counterpuncher who decimated Glover's longtime training partner, Chuck Liddell, with a carefully timed punch. But for whatever reason, against a completely predictable opponent, he just couldn't pull the trigger.

    Since joining Bellator, however, he has gotten back to his hard-swinging, caution-to-the-wind style. If nothing else, that has once again made him one of the better knockout artists in the division—and one of the most exciting to watch.

     

    For fighters like Jackson, guys clearly past their prime and on the physical decline, the biggest question is usually how much longer they can fight before the proverbial wheels fall off. To Jackson's credit, he still seems to have some gas left in the tank. His chin has held up remarkably well for somebody whose career has been defined by his striking, and he is still an impressive physical specimen.

    The knock on Jackson, however, has never been a lack of physical supremacy. His weakness is and always has been mental. There are times, more and more of them as the years go by, when he doesn't seem to care very much about fighting anymore.

    That is his prerogative, of course. His fortune is made, and if he wants to make a career out of dreadful reality shows or C-level movies instead of destroying his body in the cage, then more power to him.

    But that indifference toward MMA has a pretty obvious negative impact on his ability to compete in it. While he can still compile wins with his blend of pure talent, serviceable takedown defense and powerful hands, he just doesn't have the hunger to keep advancing and keep improving. That's not speculation, either. He pretty much said so himself.

     

9. Emanuel Newton

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 6'1"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: Reign Training Center
    Record: 23-7-1 (3 knockouts, 8 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Attila Vegh (SD), Bellator 113
    Def. Muhammed Lawal (UD), Bellator 106
    Def. Mikhail Zayats (UD), Bellator 94

    Emanuel Newton may have started his combat sports career as a wrestler, but that doesn't mean he cares for that "embrace the grind" nonsense people have started throwing around lately. Sure, you might see "The Hardcore Kid" go for a power double to seal up a round. Maybe, when the stars align just so, you might see him clinch up an opponent after whiffing on a cross-counter—but that's about it.

    His modest wrestling skills generally pop up in the form of serviceable takedown defense. He can keep things at a comfortable distance when facing mid-tier Europeans who make up the bulk of Bellator's light heavyweight division. When he found himself in a marathon-type fight against a serious wrestler, however, those skills failed him.

    Mo Lawal, an accomplished freestyle wrestler, was able to take Newton down with ease in the early going of their second fight. Even as he faded in the championship rounds, Lawal didn't encounter much resistance when trying to get things to the ground.

     

    With the exception of a strong rear-naked choke, Newton is the most average grappler you will find in his weight class. That's damning with faint praise, sure. But at least we didn't call him "bad."

    His top game can inconvenience an opponent but isn't good enough to dictate the pace of a fight. His submission skills are passable, allowing him to escape from most attacks, but you will rarely see him threaten a finish with his grappling.

    Ultimately, though, since Newton is a fighter who prefers to keep things standing, his grappling qualifies as "good enough" based solely on his solid escape skills.  

     

    There are two Emanuel Newtons when it comes to striking. 

    Mentally, he is crafty and analytic. He can apply pressure, find a weakness and exploit it in ways that would usually suggest a high-level kickboxer. Whether it's getting Mikhail Zayats to drop his hands to set up for a big right or landing a spinning backfist on Lawal after spotting his low guard, Newton has shown that he knows how to get things done standing.

    Technically, however, he makes Keith Jardine look as graceful as a ballerina. With his floppy kicks and flailing punches, it is sometimes difficult to tell if he is in a fight or tumbling down an escalator. Worse yet, in a division chock-full of veterans who get by entirely on knockout power, Newton has a perplexing inability to put opponents away.

    Despite these flaws, Newton still manages to consistently beat opponents with his striking. While it may not be pretty, there isn't a greater barometer for success than that.

     

    Like Forrest Griffin before him, Newton is a guy who isn't particularly good at any one aspect of MMA but still finds a way to win far more often than not. He's a curious case, for sure. Skill-for-skill, he simply doesn't compare with any other high-level light heavyweight in MMA. 

    What he does have, however, is a huge heart and surprisingly good cardio. While it is hard to imagine him beating anybody ranked ahead of him on this list, it was equally hard to imagine him beating Mo Lawal, and he has done that twice now. 

    Newton is just too scrappy to ignore and, much to the chagrin of the promotion's brass, he has shown himself to be too obstinate for anybody in Bellator. He might not have the prettiest style to watch, but it's hard not to root for him as he guts his way to victory fight after fight.

     

8. Ryan Bader

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 31   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 74"
    Fight camp: Power MMA Team
    Record: 17-4 (6 knockouts, 4 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Rafael Cavalcante (UD), UFC 174
    Def. Anthony Perosh (UD), UFC Fight Night: Hunt vs. Bigfoot
    Lost to Glover Teixeira (TKO), UFC Fight Night: Teixeira vs. Bader

     

    Takedown Average: 3.54, Takedown Accuracy: 44%, Takedown Defense: 66%

    A three-time Pac-10 champion and two-time Division I All-American at Arizona State University, Ryan Bader represents the classic case of a standout wrestler who needed something to do after his college career came to an end. 

    MMA blew up at the right time, he found himself on Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter and suddenly we saw the emergence of the powerful, shredded wrestler with cinder-block hands and a sweet phoenix tattoo. 

    He destroyed the competition on the reality show thanks to his powerful wrestling base, and he continues to overwhelm opponents with big takedowns and slams. Against all but the very best wrestlers in the division (see: Jones, Jon), Bader will enjoy the upper hand in this facet of the game.  

     

    Submission Average: 0.5

    Like most wrestling converts, Bader's grappling game isn't predicated on a BJJ-style attack. He's very good at passing his opponent's guard, but once he does, he has trouble doing anything but landing ground-and-pound shots.

    He doesn't set up submissions, and the threat of a choke or arm lock is almost nonexistent when Bader goes to work from the top. In some ways, this is the safest way to the play the game. But it also allows his opponent to open up a bit and force a scramble, knowing that the TUF winner won't transition to an armbar or Kimura in the process. It makes him predictable—and that's another way of saying "beatable."

    Put him on his back, and things are even worse. Jones made Bader look like a Day 1 white belt at UFC 126, and his ground game from the bottom consists of little more than some squirming and awkward defense. Thankfully for Bader and his fans, not too many guys can plant him on his back to take advantage of this flaw.  

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.95, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.40

    "Powerful in his striking is Ryan Bader, Joe." 

    Yoda or Mike Goldberg? You decide.

    Jokes aside, like other former collegiate wrestlers such as Josh Koscheck and Johny Hendricks, Bader has developed a monstrous power punch that gives his opponents something else to think about besides the threat of the takedown.

    His overhand right is ferocious. He's ended six fights via knockout and hurt former 205-pound title contender Glover Teixeira before getting clipped with a counter against the cage, spelling his own doom in a fight he was winning.

    And that's just it with Bader's striking game: He owns a powerful, game-changing punch but lacks variety and technique to go with it, leaving plenty of holes for opponents to sneak in counters. 

    Even his submission loss to Tito Ortiz was set up by a huge right hand that clipped Bader and led to his demise. If you're getting clobbered by Ortiz on the feet in the modern UFC, suffice to say, you have some work to do.  

     

    Three fights ago, when Bader decided to stand in the pocket and trade with Teixeira, this score was much lower. 

    Sometimes, Bader fancies himself a kickboxer and insists upon a finish on the feet, leaving his chin wide open. In those moments, I can imagine coaches wanting to throttle him and find myself yelling at the screen, "Hey buddy, you're really, really good at wrestling." 

    Lately, though, Bader has remembered where he came from. He's completed 10 takedowns in his past two fights, winning both by dominant decision. That's not a coincidence.

    As long as he continues to employ this wrestling-centric attack in future bouts, Bader will continue to climb the ladder in turn. Guys like Jones, Rashad Evans and Daniel Cormier will probably nullify this and send Bader packing, but there's no shame in losing to the division's elite. 

    While Bader is very good, this is a club to which he hasn't gained entry, and likely never will. 

     

7. Phil Davis

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 29   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 79"
    Fight camp: Alliance MMA
    Record: 12-2 (1) (2 knockouts, 4 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Anthony Johnson (UD), UFC 172
    Def. Lyoto Machida (UD), UFC 163
    Def. Vinny Magalhaes (UD), UFC 159

     

    Takedown Average: 2.38, Takedown Accuracy: 36%, Takedown Defense: 73%

    A four-time Division I All-American wrestler and one-time national champion, Phil Davis looked destined for greatness when he entered the UFC in 2010. His wrestling was absolutely fearsome. He racked up 13 takedowns in his first five fights inside the UFC Octagon, winning each bout thanks to his ability to put his opponents on their backs and go to work, either with submissions or ground-and-pound. 

    But then Davis fought another wrestling stud in Rashad Evans at UFC on Fox 2, and something changed. The wrecking machine from Penn State succumbed to three of Evans' four takedown attempts and was thoroughly outclassed in this facet of the game. 

    More recently, Davis whiffed on all eight of his takedown attempts against Anthony Johnson at UFC 172. It appears Davis' wrestling isn't quite as dominant as we originally thought. While he can take down lesser foes with ease, he struggles mightily to work this area of his game against top competition, and that's just not going to cut it if he wants to challenge for the title.  

     

    Submission Average: 0.6

    Like his wrestling, Davis' grappling is sensational—when he is matched against low-level opposition. 

    He introduced the world to the "Mr. Wonderful," an altered Kimura that he unleashed against the undersized Tim Boetsch at UFC 123, and the MMA world shook with excitement. This was the wrestler of our dreams, the one who finally used his powerful top control to finish fights on the ground, not just to rack up points and ride time.

    And then Davis fought Mr. Evans, and we saw that in addition to struggling with a strong MMA wrestler, he also really has no bottom game to speak of. When he isn't on top, he's practically a grappling dummy. Evans is far from the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in the division, but he passed Davis' guard six times and reversed him once. It was boy versus man, and that battle rarely goes well for the boy. 

    Since then, we haven't seen too much of Davis' grappling against elite competition. He did pass Lyoto Machida's guard once at UFC 163, but he couldn't capitalize on the position, and "The Dragon" promptly worked back to his feet. 

    Until he shows us a little more here, Davis will stay in the "good but not great" range. His early promise, once so intriguing, appears like it will remain tragically unfulfilled.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 2.89, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.36

    A knockout artist Davis is not. His striking consists of a lot of kicks and jabs, shots to keep his opponents at a distance until he decides to look for a takedown. He's long and rangy, and he's developed these tools nicely under the tutelage of Eric Del Fierro and Co. at Alliance MMA. 

    Unfortunately, pitter-patter shots are not enough against the top dogs at 205. 

    Johnson didn't respect Davis' striking at UFC 172, and "Rumble" moved forward at will, blasting his foe with power shots and completely controlling the stand-up game. That in turn helped him control the distance and the wrestling game as well. Until Davis shows that he can hurt somebody standing, expect to see similar results as he continues to face the division's elite.

    In MMA, these elements tend to blend together, especially with the better fighters. For Davis, all too often, they feel distinct. He's striking, then he's grappling. One rarely transitions seamlessly to the other. Until they do, he's going to struggle making any of them truly work.

     

    Davis lacks aggression and a killer instinct, especially when he's forced to fight defensively. 

    We saw this mental block first against Evans, but we chalked that one up to inexperience. Davis was new to the sport, and Evans was a former champion who had already proved himself against the world's best. 

    But we saw it again at UFC 172 against Johnson. Once he realized that he couldn't take Johnson down, Davis disappeared into a shell of passivity, and his offense evaporated. In layman's terms, he quit—on himself and his fans.

    Dana White said that he didn't think Davis had the spirit of a champion, and for once, it seems the UFC president was spot-on with his analysis. 

     

6. Glover Teixeira

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 34   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 76"
    Fight camp: The Pit
    Record: 22-3 (13 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Lost to Jon Jones (UD), UFC 172
    Def. Ryan Bader (TKO), UFC Fight Night 28
    Def. James Te Huna (Sub), UFC 160

    Takedown Average: 2.87, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 75%

    While fans and UFC executives alike fell in love with Glover Teixeira for his punching power, his wrestling and grappling skills have always been just as good. A former member of the Brazilian national wrestling team, we have seen him get the better of many opponents, not with his striking, but with his takedowns.

    His sophomore UFC effort against Fabio Maldonado saw him beat the breaks off his fellow Brazilian using both stand-up and ground-and-pound. More impressively, he managed to take down Quinton “Rampage” Jackson five times in their three-round fight. While Jackson isn't the greatest at “wrestling in reverse” these days, he isn't an easy mark, either.

    Teixeira lacks the finesse of most high-level wrestlers, but his takedowns don't need to be pretty to be effective. If he can get his mitts around an opponent's leg, they are probably going to wind up on their back.

     

    Submission Average: 1.0

    As with his wrestling, Teixeira's solid grappling chops were forgotten amid all the hype surrounding his hands. However, Teixeira has popped up at many grappling tournaments and rolled with some of the best in the world.

    Those skills have served him well in the cage and translated into his ownership of a particularly good top game, one that allows him to threaten with both submissions and ground-and-pound. It's the kind of variety that a pure wrestler like Ryan Bader lacks—and that makes Teixeira all the more dangerous on the mat.

    His greatest performance came against James Te Huna. After nailing a single-leg takedown, he passed back and forth between half- and full-guard, softening up the New Zealander with punches for a few minutes. He maintained a front headlock when they returned to their feet and leaped onto a guillotine choke to secure an impressive submission win.

    It was a brilliant and multifaceted performance making use of a skill set he should hearken back to when his brain gets stuck in haymaker mode, which happens all too often.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 5.00, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.77

    Have I mentioned that Teixeira is heavy-handed yet? No? OK, then. Teixeira is pretty easily the hardest puncher in the light heavyweight division today. His hands—they are heavy.

    Unfortunately, punching really hard isn't the only metric used to identify a good striker. Punching hard and hitting nothing but air is only effective as a deterrent, preventing opponents from approaching you without extreme caution.

    Teixeira has very little to offer standing beyond a big right hand. That right hand, of course, has been sharpened nicely over the years and is more than enough to leave plenty of guys twitching on the mat. But as Jon Jones showed, one technique just isn't enough to beat a top-level striker, no matter how good it is.

    It's only when Glover finds a stellar left hook to go along with that right or perfects shooting for a single leg off a miss that he will ever truly have more than a puncher's chance against the best of the best.

     

    As one of the few fighters at 205 pounds with above-average ratings in wrestling, grappling and striking, Teixeira ranks among the most well-rounded in the division. While he isn't especially fearsome in any single category, he is a threat in every area of the cage. 

    Unfortunately, while he has “choice” skills in all areas, that leaves him susceptible to “prime”-level fighters. Jones was the first to demonstrate this, as he controlled every exchange and every scramble en route to a lopsided win.

    Worse, opponents now know what to expect from Teixeira. Like Dan Henderson, his fixation on his right hand makes him predictable. No matter how good the weapon, if an opponent knows it's coming, it becomes easy to avoid, a fact that was nearly exposed months earlier by a good-but-not-great Ryan Bader.

    In spite of that, it's hard to look past the fact Teixeira is capable of hanging tough anywhere the fight goes, even against superior strikers, wrestlers and grapplers. While he's no Jon Jones in his diversity, he's still pretty darn good anywhere the fight might take him. That goes a long way in such a topsy-turvy sport.

     

5. Anthony Johnson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 30   Height: 6'2"   Reach: 78"
    Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center
    Record: 17-4 (11 knockouts, 0 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Phil Davis (UD), UFC 172
    Def. Mike Kyle (KO), WSOF 8
    Def. Andrei Arlovski (UD), WSOF 2

    Takedown Average: 2.62, Takedown Accuracy: 57%, Takedown Defense: 85%

    Anthony Johnson's wrestling pedigree is one of the many things forgotten in the blur of his one-of-a-kind career. While Johnson's days as a gargantuan welterweight are mostly remembered for devastating knockouts, eye pokes and Steve Mazzagatti wackiness, he occasionally showed himself to be a decent wrestler, most notably when he laid-and-prayed his way to victory over Dan Hardy.

    As time went on, his mediocre wrestling offense faded into memory. Johnson self-identified as a striker. Gone were dreams of securing a takedown. Emerging in their place? A strong takedown defense, all the better to keep things in the stand-and-bang zone.

    The ultimate expression of Johnson's shiny, new takedown defense came in his most recent fight. In one of his toughest tests to date, he faced off with light heavyweight wrestler Phil Davis. Against a true light heavyweight contender, Johnson excelled, stuffing every single takedown attempt en route to a handy decision victory.

     

    Submission Average: 0.9

    Even when Johnson was winning fights with his wrestling, nobody ever claimed he was a particularly good grappler. When he had an opponent on his back, he held him down not with jiu-jitsu or judo or anything that requires technique or finesse. He got by on good old-fashioned muscle.

    Defensively, there is very little to speak of one way or the other. He rarely engaged opponents on the ground as a welterweight and has done so even less since moving up to light heavyweight. While all three of his legitimate losses have come via submission, those stumbles were mostly due to his poor conditioning than any grappling deficiency. Fatigue makes cowards of us all, and Johnson is no exception.

    It's unclear if he has added any nuance to his groundwork since he was booted from the UFC in 2012, and we likely won't see until somebody can actually get him to the ground or contend with him standing. And if Davis couldn't do it, who can?

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 3.00, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 1.59

    Early on, Johnson wasn't necessarily a brilliant striker but set himself apart from the pack by possessing fight-ending power in both hands and both feet. While he still lacks polish, he has added more and more technique to his arsenal over the years. Even more impressively, unlike many fighters who journey up and not down a weight division, he still retains his knockout-artist label even at light heavyweight.

    That, combined with his strong takedown defense, makes him a serious threat to everyone in the division. It will be interesting to see how the new Anthony Johnson holds up against some of the better strikers in his weight class.

     

    Nobody has benefited from the founding of the Blackzilian camp more than Johnson. A gym ronin before the team formed in 2011, we have seen “Rumble” evolve from a middling welterweight to the hottest up-and-comer at 205 pounds.

    With an excellent stable of training partners and a strong, albeit oft-changing, coaching staff, his overall skill set has gotten sharper and sharper by the year. The move to light heavyweight has also seen his strength and cardio improve exponentially.

    There is a lot to love about the new Johnson. With his physical tools and hard-hitting style, he could very easily be in the thick of title contention with just one more win.

     

4. Rashad Evans

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Age: 34   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 75"
    Fight camp: Jaco Hybrid Training Center
    Record: 19-3-1 (7 knockouts, 2 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Chael Sonnen (TKO), UFC 167
    Def. Dan Henderson (SD), UFC 161
    Lost to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (UD), UFC 156

     

    Takedown average: 3.34, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 66%

    Evans would be the first to admit he underachieved on the collegiate mat. A two-year starter at Michigan State after a junior college national championship, Evans failed to earn All-American status despite having the athleticism and skill to go far. Twenty years ago he would have had to live with that failure, lacking an outlet to continue his athletic pursuits.

    The rise of MMA has created a paradigm shift in how we judge wrestling prowess. What you achieved in college matters—to a point. Like in every other athletic endeavor, though, few peak in their early 20s. Evans was a late bloomer, a man gifted a second chance at success.

    Today, Evans is a great wrestler. His running blast double is one of the most effective takedowns in the sport's history. And yet on paper he had no chance against Phil Davis, a former NCAA champion who accomplished everything in college Evans had not. It seemed a given that Davis would have the edge.

    But neither man was 20 years old any longer. In the cage Evans wiped the mat with Davis, pedigrees be damned. Suddenly Evans' struggles in 2003 back in East Lansing didn't amount to much at all. It is 2014—and the 2014 version of Rashad Evans is pretty darn good.

     

    Submission Average: 0.0

    Evans holds two black belts normally only granted to the grappling elite, one in Greg Jackson's Gaidojutsu and the other in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. What this means for Evans, exactly, is a mystery. We've never seen him attempt a single submission in the Octagon, and in the few times he's been on his back in a fight, displaying an active guard has been the last thing on his mind.

    What we do know is this: Evans has excellent top control, focusing mostly on peppering foes with little punches, bringing death with a thousand small cuts. He's also a threat to pass at will, easily escaping an opponent's guard when the need arises.

    When he finds himself on his back, he's comparably good at springing back to his feet. His preferred technique here is the wall walk, and almost no one, not Tito Ortiz and not Davis, has been able to keep him down for long.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 2.13,  Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 2.19

    While almost every Evans striking exchange starts with a lead left hand, it's his big overhand right that give opponents nightmares. Evans delivers this technique with the worst of intentions. When it lands cleanly, as it did against Chuck Liddell at UFC 88, the results are truly scary. 

    It's not hyperbole to say Liddell was never the same fighter again—and Evans came close to landing the same punch against another MMA icon at UFC 175, buzzing Jon Jones on occasion and keeping him honest.

    The key to Evans' success here is speed. His technique is indifferent, but the former 174-pounder has a clear advantage over bigger and stronger opponents in the quickness department. For years armchair critics have been calling for Evans to drop to 185 pounds—but the gains he made in size would likely be eclipsed by a diminished speed advantage.

     

    Evans was one of the first wrestlers to really incorporate striking into his overall attack. Sure, others had developed a rudimentary stand-up game, but even today few superb wrestlers are able to make striking part of a holistic attack.

    Evans isn't in striking mode or grappling mode. At his best, like against Rampage Jackson, the two come together as one.

    Rashad clearly benefitted greatly from his time with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. Forced to move on after demanding the team choose between him and Jones, he's failed to capture the same dynamic with his new team. 

    Whether a product of aging or a revolving door of coaches in his new camp, Evans is no longer the same guy, the one who landed stunning takedowns in part because of the threat of his right hand. You can see the wheels turning when Evans fights, the nagging doubt lingering.

    Unless he can return to seamlessly mixing his two strengths into one potent brew, Evans will continue to underperform as he did against both Rogerio Nogueira and Dan Henderson.  He has the ability to beat anyone in the game—here's hoping he gets one more chance to rise to the occasion.

3. Alexander Gustafsson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27   Height: 6'5"   Reach: 81"
    Fight camp: Alliance MMA
    Record: 16-2 (10 knockouts, 3 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Jimi Manuwa (TKO), UFC Fight Night 37: Gustafsson vs. Manuwa
    Lost to Jon Jones (UD), UFC 165
    Def. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (UD), UFC on Fox 5

     

    Takedown Average: 2.00, Takedown Accuracy: 40% Takedown Defense: 86%

    Once upon a time, at UFC 112 in April 2010, wrestling looked to be the Achilles' heel of the devastating Swedish striker they call Alexander Gustafsson. Matched against Phil Davis, Gustafsson gave up a takedown and then offered his neck for the taking, and "Mr. Wonderful" locked in an anaconda choke that forced "The Mauler" to tap out. 

    The story is a familiar one. Striker enters the shark pool with an American wrestler. Striker is mauled and left for dead.

    Fast-forward to today, and things are no longer so dire for Gustafsson in the wrestling department. In fact, he's made his wrestling into a valuable asset. Gustafsson swallowed his pride and linked up with Davis and Alliance MMA shortly after their fight and has made incredible improvements in a short period of time. 

    Not only has his defense become nearly impregnable, but he also became the first man to take 205-pound champ Jon Jones to the ground. In fact, he's notched at least one takedown in each of his last four fights.

    After watching Gustafsson masterfully defend 10 of Jones' 11 takedowns at UFC 165, it's clear that we can no longer point to the Swede's wrestling game as a weakness. He's not merely competent here—Gustafsson is good.

     

    Submission Average: 0.8

    While his wrestling has been transformed, Gustafsson's grappling improvements are not quite so evident. 

    Sure, he's choked out James Te Huna and controlled Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on the mat since losing to Davis, but he's supposed to. He's a superstar, and they are a journeyman and a faded legend, respectively.

    We haven't seen him spend too much time here against elite competition. Only Jones truly meets that description among Gustafsson's foes, and he met that test nicely.

    Grappling is about control, and Jones popped right back to his feet when Gus took him down at UFC 165. Since Gustafsson did the same when he found Jones on top of him late in their championship affair, however, we'll call it a wash.

    And, frankly, that's all he wants. Gustafsson's striking is arguably the best in the division, so there's no need to step outside his comfort zone just to prove how well-rounded he's become. When on his back he wants to get up to his feet. So, far, so good.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed per Minute: 4.05, Significant Strikes Absorbed per Minute: 3.13

    This is where the Swede separates himself from the pack. He strikes with tremendous power and accuracy, and he's earned 10 knockouts in 16 professional victories, most recently flattening Manuwa with a crushing knee and some uppercuts. There isn't a technique he can't execute with grace, and he's incredibly relaxed and fluid standing. 

    Defensively, he leaves a little to be desired. Jones found great success with left high kicks and elbows, and even an exhausted Shogun got his shots in when the two fought at UFC on Fox 5. Gustafsson will take one to give one. Normally that's an exchange he ends up winning—even if it costs some brain cells in the process.

    Still, despite the champion's success, Gustafsson generally enjoys the upper hand if somebody wants to test his stand-up skills. I mean, you saw Jones' face after he fought Gustafsson, right? That's not a peanut allergy, friends. That's the result of standing and trading with this Swedish monster for five rounds.

     

    When the UFC hyped Gustafsson as Jones' biggest challenge before their UFC 165 showdown because of his height and reach, the MMA community let out a collective groan.

    "Really? That's how they're selling us on this guy?" 

    As it turns out, being 6'5" with an 81-inch reach is an incredibly valuable asset in the UFC's light heavyweight division. He troubled Jones on the feet, something nobody had done before (or since). Of course, the reach is just the start. It's knowing how to use it that's key—and Gustafsson is well-versed in the striking arts and attacks from all distances.

    On top of this, Gustafsson has shown the ability to improve on his weaknesses with rapid efficiency. When he found out that his wrestling was broken he fixed it. He fixed it. It sounds simple, but it's anything but.

    And best of all, he's just now entering his athletic prime. While he failed during his first bid for the title last September, Gustafsson is a polished, poised fighter. It looks like he'll be, at the very worst, a top-five competitor and title contender for years to come. 

     

2. Daniel Cormier

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Age: 35   Height: 5'11"   Reach: 72.5"
    Fight camp: American Kickboxing Academy
    Record: 15-0 (6 knockouts, 4 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Dan Henderson (Sub), UFC 173
    Def. Patrick Cummins (TKO), UFC 170
    Def. Roy Nelson (UD), UFC 166

     

    Takedown Average: 2.17, Takedown Accuracy: 48%, Takedown Defense: 100%

    It was supposed to be his year, the year Daniel Comier finally made his mark on international wrestling history. In 2004 he had finished a respectable fourth in the Olympic Games. In 2007 he had taken bronze at the World Championships.

    By 2008 he was seasoned and ready. They were to be his Games—but it wasn't meant to be. Instead of taking home the gold, Cormier watched from the sidelines, a weight cut costing him both kidney function and opportunity. 

    Of course, there's no shame in failure at that level. Just getting there is an enormous accomplishment. For five years Cormier was the best American wrestler at 213 pounds. That's a significant achievement.

    Is it any wonder, then, that his dominance has extended to the cage? With his low center of gravity and deceptive strength, Cormier is almost impossible to take down. On the wrestling mats this was both offense and defense—the simple go-behind was his go-to move.

    In MMA, where few would be foolish enough to engage him in a wrestling contest, Cormier has been forced to create his own offense. While that's never been his forte, against people who aren't the best wrestlers in the world, Cormier's collection of trips and upper-body throws have been more than enough to get the job done.

    Cormier's wrestling chops are not just theoretical. His beautiful single leg against Roy Nelson and his high crotch slam against Josh Barnett are proof positive of his potential to dominate this realm of combat.

     

    Submission Average: 0.2

    In some ways it may not matter much how good Cormier is on the ground. In a perfect world, it's unlikely that he would ever be there except on his own terms.

    But we don't live in a perfect world. You never know what might happen in a fight—a slip or a strike may put him down, and suddenly his wrestling credentials will be out the window. The mat is the realm of submission. Without a grounding in that part of the game Cormier would be lost. He, of course, knows that as well as anyone.

    He trains weekly with Checkmat's Leandro Vieira, and training must be going well. Vieira created some controversy in his world by promoting Cormier from white to brown belt in one fell swoop, skipping blue and purple entirely. But dissenting voices lost some of their timbre, however, when Cormier made mincemeat of Dan Henderson on the ground, suddenly making his advancement reasonable in retrospect.

    Beyond the mat, Cormier is brilliant in the clinch, controlling his opponent with one underhook while letting him have it to the body with his free hand. When he locks his hands, watch out—a hard knee to the body is sure to follow. Or maybe it will be an upper-body throw?

    That's the beauty, Cormier has discovered, of being a well-rounded fighter. The opponent has to defend and prepare for so much, but no man can defend every conceivable attack.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.08, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.30

    Watching Daniel Cormier compete, it would be easy to forget he's only been doing this for five years. His striking technique is so fluid, so diverse, that I'm confident saying no amateur wrestling crossover has ever done it better in the UFC Octagon—including that of Cormier's teammate, heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. 

    Early in his career Cormier earned the nickname "Black Fedor," a flattering comparison to Fedor Emelianenko, the best heavyweight fighter of his era. At the time it was a tribute (albeit a politically incorrect one), a testament to the amazing way he mixed his striking and grappling together (though the two men's doughy, roly-poly physiques may have also played a role).

    In 2014, it's almost an insult. Fedor, as great as he was, didn't have Cormier's fast and effective head kicks or his brilliant attack in the clinch. Cormier, if anything, is Fedor 2.0. He's the complete package: a striker with the ultimate trump card. 

    When across from a man capable of ending his night with a single strike like Henderson, Cormier can simply decide to move the fight to the mat. That's an enormous advantage, an ace in the hole that might allow Cormier to one day strap UFC gold around his waist.

     

    Tactically, the best thing about Cormier is his refusal to bend to the will of promoters and fans. He's going to do what it takes to win. If that means push an opponent up against the fence for 15 minutes—so be it. If that means taking him down and controlling him until the bell rings—so be it. There's no room in Cormier's world for anything but winning.

    If he wasn't 35 years old it would be almost a given that he would one day hold a UFC title. But he is 35, with a lifetime of wrestling grind wearing on his body. That means the window is half-closed already—and every opponent is looking to slam it shut. 

    Cormier is finally in the right weight class. He's at the right gym for his skill set. He's ready for the best in the world. He's ready for Jon Jones.

     

1. Jon Jones

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 26   Height: 6'4"   Reach: 84"
    Fight camp: Jackson's MMA
    Record: 20-1 (9 knockouts, 6 submissions)

    Last Three Fights
    Def. Glover Teixeira (UD), UFC 172
    Def. Alexander Gustafsson (UD), UFC 165
    Def. Chael Sonnen (TKO), UFC 159

     

    Takedown Average: 2.37, Takedown Accuracy: 50%, Takedown Defense: 96%

    It's easy to overlook Jones' wrestling game because he lacks a fancy pedigree. After all, there's a world of difference between a national junior college championship, something Jones won in 2006, and an NCAA title.

    The gulf, however, is not nearly as large in some cases as it is in team sports. The national JUCO football champions would be demolished by the University of Alabama. But Brock Lesnar competed for an NCAA wrestling title the year after his JUCO reign—and Jones might have done the same. 

    Wrestling is an individual sport, a test of wills. What's written on paper next to your name means about as much as the color of your belt once you step into the cage—and Jones is as effective of a wrestler as there is in the division when he wants to be.

    He has a vast array of trips and throws from the clinch, and his use of distance and his years of wrestling experience make him nearly impossible to take down. Only one man has managed it during his UFC career: Swedish striker Alexander Gustafsson, who likely took Jones by surprise in the daring attempt.

     

    Submission Average: 0.8

    It's almost unfair how good Jones is on the ground. A fighter with his gifts standing and such strong wrestling should have a weakness. But if that's true of Jones, no one has done a very good job locating it. 

    Perhaps Jones is vulnerable off his back? It's hard to say, as we've never really seen him there for any length of time. We do know this: From the top position he's an absolute monster.

    The history of MMA is in part the history of ground fighting's evolution over time, from the Gracie's mount to Mark Coleman's ground-and-pound to Fedor Emelianenko's unprecedented melding of the two. Jones has taken Fedor to the next level, mixing skull-crushing elbows into the equation alongside punches and an arsenal of submission holds. 

    Worse still, at least for future opponents, Vitor Belfort opened Jones' eyes to the danger inherent in a good guard. Belfort had the chance to catch Jones off guard—and missed. One of the smartest fighters in the sport, Jones is unlikely to make the same mistake again.

     

    Significant Strikes Landed Per Minute: 4.33, Significant Strikes Absorbed Per Minute: 1.92

    There's a growing movement in MMA metrics, an attempt to use statistics to quantify what's happening in the cage and why. Height, it turns out, isn't particularly important. Reach is—and Jon Jones has a reach unlike any we've ever seen in the UFC. His 84-inch wingspan dwarfs that of just about anyone he'll step into the cage with. That's a huge advantage, but only if he knows how to use it.

    We've all seen tall and rangy fighters who had no idea how to maintain and use distance or keep an opponent away. Think of the enormous Stefan Struve letting human bowling ball Mark Hunt into range without repercussions. 

    Jones, by contrast, uses his physical advantages brilliantly. Kicks are the key—leg kicks, front kicks and even controversial oblique kicks to the knee. All are part of Jones' commitment to keep his opponents at bay.

    When someone does close the distance or runs out of real estate while retreating, he's still far from helpless. Jones is great at creating just a smidgen of room then unleashing his now-trademark elbows, spinning and otherwise.

    That's just one of Jones' many breathtaking techniques—and he seems to add to his arsenal with every fight. As the best in the world, there's no reason for him to be constantly tinkering and improving. But perhaps he's the best in the world for just this reason.

     

    Jones may be the best fighter the sport of MMA has ever seen. But that doesn't make him perfect. No one is. Gustafsson tested him mightily, and Daniel Cormier will likely take him deeper into wrestling waters than he's ever been before.

    But Jones rises to meet every challenge. He's made a career of it. His coaches, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, are among the best in the sport. They've somehow managed to keep Jones focused despite his unprecedented dominance. That's no easy task, as success so often breeds complacency. 

    Jones, however, is not just physically gifted—he's a cerebral fighter, a film addict obsessed with becoming the best martial artist he can be. He's special. And he's only getting better.

     

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