The Top Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Players in MMA Today
In the ever-shifting landscape of MMA, with games constantly evolving and refining and fighters retiring and debuting, "best of" lists are also in a perpetual state of flux. Joined by Zane Simon of Bloody Elbow, and in an effort to keep Bleacher Report readers in the know, we present the top seven Brazilian jiu-jitsu players in MMA today.
As the driving force behind present-day MMA, Brazilian jiu-jitsu presents a formidable challenge to those with lesser grappling games, despite the optimization of MMA training over the last 20-plus years. It's a comprehensive style of grappling, utilizing the legs to control and attack much more than sambo or wrestling, and if a fighter doesn't know how to counter it, he or she is lost at sea—as early UFC events illustrated. Even today, when virtually every MMA fighter has some grappling in his or her repertoire, a masterful jiujiteiro presents an undeniable and unrelenting threat.
Our top seven is determined by several factors: how effectively Brazilian jiu-jitsu is incorporated into the fighter's game, victories earned either by submission or in a jiu-jitsu-heavy fight, the caliber of the opposition and the fighter's dominance in his or her division.
Before we start our top seven, we would be remiss not to mention Brazilian jiu-jitsu experts who have recently signed their lives away to the MMA gods.
Kron Gracie: The grandson of Carlos Gracie made his MMA debut in January 2015, submitting his opponent Hyung Soo Kim by armbar early in the first round.
Ryan Hall: After taking MMA fights sporadically, the multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion is currently appearing on The Ultimate Fighter. Having submitted both Johnny Nunez in the opening elimination bout and Frantz Slioa in the first preliminary fight via heel hook, Hall has used his BJJ to guarantee a slot in the quarterfinals.
Gabi Garcia: The 6'2" world champion has twice been set to make her MMA debut, and both times it didn't happen. Maybe the third time will stick: According to GNP TV 1 (h/t BJJEE.com), Garcia is scheduled to fight an as-yet-unnamed Chinese judoka on New Year's Eve in Nobuyuki Sakakibara's new promotion.
Rodolfo Vieira: With BJJ wins over former UFC champ Benson Henderson and well-known grapplers such as Andre Galvao and Xande Ribeiro, the 10-time world champion's tentative 2016 MMA debut will be highly anticipated.
Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida: One of the few to beat Vieira, Almeida has 87 victories in grappling tournaments including 50(!) submissions. He submitted Kron Gracie with a leglock and has been training at American Kickboxing Academy, home to UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. Per MMAFighting.com, he says he intends to fight in MMA, although it may not be for a while.
Garry Tonon: Tonon has been racking up prestigious grappling titles, especially in no-gi jiu-jitsu—including a decision win over UFC lightweight Beneil Dariush in 2013. In September, Tonon announced his intention to take his first MMA fight within a year.
Nick Diaz: Eight of the Cesar Gracie black belt's 26 wins are by submission, and Diaz submitted Takanori Gomi at Pride 33 with a gogoplata back in 2007. Currently under a specious five-year suspension for failing a post-fight drug test after facing Anderson Silva in January 2015, Diaz has no fight scheduled.
Charles Oliveira: Oliveira's jiu-jitsu is beautiful, and his ability to surf on his opponents as they flail beneath him makes him a formidable monkey on their backs. His effortless sweeps from guard allow him to deploy nasty ground-and-pound on defenseless opponents. Oliveira's proficiency resulted in the first and so far only submission loss for Hatsu Hioki, via modified anaconda in June 2014.
Renan Barao: The former UFC bantamweight champ trains at the prestigious Nova Uniao—home to Jose Aldo—and has an admirable 15 submission wins out of 33 total. While his jiu-jitsu is stunning, his proficiency in muay thai has been the primary skill he employs to dominate in his fights.
Marcin Held: The Bellator fighter became the youngest person in Poland to receive a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu at age 21. With a wicked leglock game, Held has hit several toeholds and heel hooks in his 21 wins—12 of which were by submission. After losing his Bellator debut via decision, Held is on a six-fight win streak going into his bout against Will Brooks on November 6.
Joe Lauzon: With 18 of his 25 victories coming via submission, Lauzon has long displayed a strong jiu-jitsu game. While he hasn't submitted anyone since Jamie Varner in 2012, Lauzon also hasn't been subbed in almost five years. He next faces Evan Dunham at The Ultimate Fighter 22 finale on December 11.
Jim Miller: Miller holds submission wins over Duane Ludwig and Charles Oliveira, with more than half of his 25 wins from submissions (mostly chokes). His last submission was a guillotine on Yancy Medeiros at UFC 172. Miller fights Michael Chiesa on December 10 at UFC Fight Night: VanZant vs. Calderwood.
7. Shinya Aoki
Promotion: ONE FC
Weight Class: Lightweight
In addition to his grappling, the ONE FC lightweight champion is known for his ebullient spats and flipping off his opponents, sometimes after breaking their arms. Aoki is one of the few grapplers who have translated their jiu-jitsu to the ring exceptionally well, although major portions of his skill set have never really evolved.
He's not a great striker or amazing wrestler, but once he gets an opponent to the ground, it's only a matter of time until the submission. And his mastery of grappling have so far compensated for those shortcomings. Of his 38 wins, 25 of them have been via submission, including a rare twister on Yuki Yamamoto in December 2014.
There’s no part of Aoki’s grappling game that isn’t dangerous; he has a fantastic, tricky guard and a terrific back-take game and masterfully delivers punishment from the mount to open up submissions. If he can isolate a limb, he has the patience to wait and progress his position incrementally until he forces the sub or his opponent makes a mistake he can capitalize on.
Of his six losses, none of them came by submission.
He's a black belt under Yuki Nakai.
Notable wins: Eddie Alvarez, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Vitor Ribeiro, Joachim Hansen, Mizuto Hirota, Gesias Cavalcante, Caol Uno
6. Jake Shields
Weight Class: Welterweight
Jake Shields built a solid MMA career on his exemplary Brazilian jiu-jitsu; he's defeated stiff competition and has fought in some of the best promotions in the world.
Is he an undeniable force or immovable object? Shields has a weird inevitability to him. Stay safe and consistent, and he’ll just grind you out with constant activity and stifling control. Get wild and try to hurt him, and he’ll catch you, whether it be with his guillotine game or his great back-take ability.
However, his game is somewhat one-dimensional; his striking is non-threatening, his stand-up isn't a strong point, and his tendency toward conservative jiu-jitsu—the grinding and stifling— means he has more decision wins than submissions. Still, many of those decisions were over top-level competition, including Dan Henderson in a dominant performance in 2010. Despite describing his style as "American jiu-jitsu," a blend of wrestling and jiu-jitsu, his BJJ is accomplished enough to award him the No. 6 slot.
He's a black belt under Cesar Gracie.
Notable Wins: Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Robbie Lawler, Mike Pyle, Carlos Condit
Slick Subs: Lawler, Pyle
5. Demian Maia
Weight Class: Welterweight
Demian Maia is a fourth-degree black belt whose jiu-jitsu prowess is so renowned that Frank Mir hired him to train for his second fight against Brock Lesnar. Maia's highlight reel is full of takedowns, sweeps and reversals in a seamless blend of jiu-jitsu, as well as striking to create openings for more jiu-jitsu. In grappling, Maia has beaten many phenomenal competitors, including Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Rafael Lovato and Flavio Almeida.
The keys to Maia’s BJJ game in MMA have always been centered on stifling control. He has a crushing top game and is great at applying body pressure to his opponents to drown them round after round. Early in his career, when fighters weren’t aware of this, he got a lot more submissions. As fighters have adjusted, he has won via submission less frequently, but he still wins.
Mostly, he likes to cut through the guard into mount and force opponents to roll to their stomach. Then he snatches the rear-naked choke, which accounts for half of his submission wins. Most recently, he used a rear-naked choke on Neil Magny in August 2015, marking his 10th submission win.
Maia next fights Gunnar Nelson at UFC 194 on December 12.
He is a black belt under Fabio Gurgel.
Notable wins: Chael Sonnen, Dong Hyung Kim, Ed Herman
Slick Subs: Sonnen, Rick Story, Herman
4. Rousimar Palhares
Weight Class: Welterweight
Rousimar Palhares, who is infamous for appearing to hold onto submissions well after the referee has intervened, has such a mastery over the deployment of brutal leglocks that they seem to become an eventuality rather than a possibility. As the Ronda Rousey of leglocks, he can snag a leg from nearly any position.
Palhares' last decision win was in 2011, and his five victories since have all been submissions. For someone so stocky, he has remarkable hip mobility, among the best in MMA, and great suplexes.
He has one primary attack and 100 ways to get there. No matter how well prepared fighters are for his leglocks, most of them still get caught. In part, it’s because he has created an aura of fear around his game. You know if he grabs your leg that he’s going to hurt you badly enough to potentially ruin your career, so fighters try to tap as quickly as possible to avoid the injury.
He may not have the amazing credentials that many others on this list do, but for MMA he’s as vicious a submission artist as they come. Of his 15 submission wins, only four of them weren't leglocks.
Palhares has never been submitted. Following his kimura submission of Jake Shields, he is suspended indefinitely.
He is a black belt under Murilo Bustamante.
Notable wins: Jake Shields, Jon Fitch
3. Gunnar Nelson
Weight Class: Welterweight
Gunnar Nelson is a threat on all fronts; he's aggressive and powerful and has adapted his jiu-jitsu flawlessly to MMA. While he doesn't have the same grappling tournament accolades as some of our other entries, Nelson's inescapable jiu-jitsu in the cage propels him to the No. 3 spot.
The confluence of his skills makes him so dangerous that nine of his 15 victories are by chokes and armbars. Something of a snaky grappler, Nelson is patient almost to a fault in getting the fight to the ground. But the moment he does, he usually cuts straight through the guard and starts landing shots in order to open up the submission.
And Nelson is methodical in setting up those submissions rather than going for them and hoping for the best—a common approach that tends to result in attempts rather than success.
Nelson has strong takedowns and used unrelenting mount and rear mount in three of the four fights he ended with striking to immobilize his opponent. He's also adept at seizing a newly felled fighter for submissions, often favoring the body triangle and rear-naked choke combo. As he's established his considerable ability, the caliber of his opponents has risen rapidly.
Nelson has never been submitted and next faces Demian Maia at UFC 194 on December 12.
He is a black belt under Renzo Gracie.
Notable wins: Zak Cummings, Brandon Thatch, Omari Akhmedov
2. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza
Weight Class: Middleweight
While apparently Souza's nickname "Jacare," which is Portuguese for "alligator," is born from both his gym's symbol and that he spent so much time there, certain elements of his game are reminiscent of a gator, too. Once Jacare is on an opponent, escape is nearly impossible. His jiu-jitsu is so second-nature that his control looks like an alligator in a death roll. And he is great at surfing on his opponents—maintaining position or transitioning effortlessly as they try to advance beneath him—and his grappling proficiency makes him threatening from most positions.
Jacare came from rough and humble beginnings and has said he would take fights with enough money for a one-way ticket to the fight, relying on win money to get home. His fighting started similarly, as he used to be really clunky grappler who worked tirelessly for takedowns. But as we have seen, he has evolved a patient boxing/wrestling game to get inside, get in on shots and get opponents on their back.
He has excellent control and is powerful and dangerous from any offensive grappling position. While 35 is getting up there for a mixed martial arts fighter, Jacare's career is going on 12 years, and he shows no signs of slowing.
Jacare has never been submitted in MMA. Though he doesn't compete often in grappling tournaments anymore, he is a multiple-time world champion and has wins over several BJJ legends, including Braulio Estima, Roger Gracie and Marcelo Garcia.
Jacare fights Yoel Romero next at UFC 194 on December 12.
He is a black belt under Henrique Machado.
Notable wins: Gegard Mousasi, Francis Carmont, Matt Lindland, Derek Brunson, Robbie Lawler, Tim Kennedy, Yushin Okami
Slick subs: Zelg Galesic, Chris Camozzi (arm triangle), Lindland
1. Fabricio Werdum
Weight Class: Heavyweight
The Werdum troll face was made possible in large part by Werdum's killer Brazilian jiu-jitsu, responsible for both 10 submission wins and his recent unification of the UFC's heavyweight titles after submitting Cain Velasquez with a guillotine.
Werdum formerly had a reputation as a guard-puller and a fighter with disconnected grappling tendencies, but he has improved consistently over the years. With limbs like an Alaskan king crab, Werdum presents a considerable obstacle with striking as well.
As he has integrated and rounded out other aspects of his game to become a more dangerous fighter, he has displayed a tendency to force fighters to try to take him to the ground to beat him. In fact, he seems to employ the MMA equivalent of playing dumb, pretending to be rocked by strikes and going down easily (see: Fedor), only to pull unwitting opponents into his sticky jiu-jitsu web. His fight against Velasquez looked like a reverse psychology version of cat and mouse, culminating in Velasquez running headfirst into losing his belt in an exhausted, sloppy takedown attempt.
Perennially underestimated, Werdum handed Fedor Emelianenko his first decisive loss with a triangle, schooled Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira via armbar and submitted Alistair Overeem with a kimura. Werdum is the rare heavyweight with a really good triangle-and-armbar game to supplement the more typical chokes and strong-man subs.
Werdum has never been submitted. After winning the interim belt in November 2014 and taking Velasquez's belt in June of this year, he does not currently have a fight scheduled.
He is a black belt under Sylvio Behring.
Notable wins: Cain Velasquez, Mark Hunt, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Roy Nelson, Fedor Emelianenko, Aleksander Emelianenko, Antonio Silva, Brandon Vera
Slick subs: Aleksander Emelianenko, Velasquez, Overeem