Since the inception of ultimate fighting, the sport has adored many gifted and talented fighting champions. Beginning with Royce Gracie's three championships during the advent of the UFC which revolutionized the sport of mixed martial arts and brought Brazilian jiu-jitsu to North America.
Following Royce's term as champion, Mark Coleman introduced the effectiveness of wrestling within the Octagon as he became the UFC's first heavyweight champion at UFC 12 in 1997.
Stylistically a polar opposite to Mark Coleman, Maurice Smith claimed the heavyweight title from the Hammer with a jaw rattling head kick at UFC 14 in 1997 proving the effectiveness of kick boxing within the cage.
Over the years, champions have come and gone. Few have been able to defend their titles with longevity and continually adapt their game to take on up and coming hungry fighters.
Of all the champions within the various promotions of mixed martial arts, I believe the following have had the greatest impact on the sport during their championship reigns.
A fighter's global influence, impact within the media, business, sales and marketing as well as effectiveness in defending their championship and overall elevation of the sport of mixed martial arts were the factors I used in determining who made my list and their placement within the ranks.
There is one notable exclusion, that being Brock Lesnar. Brock earned the UFC's heavyweight championship after his destruction of Frank Mir at UFC 100 in July of 2009.
He has had significant impact within the sport elevating ticket sales and setting pay-per-view buy records (please refer to my article, "Brock Lesnar's Financial Impact on the UFC," in which I discuss in detail the profitability of Brock as champion).
Whereas Lesnar has had a global influence financially, his long term success as champion was never solidified. Therefore, he did not make my list.
The following is my list of the 10 most influential and significant champions of mixed martial arts history based on the criteria I have established.
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UFC Welterweight Champion, Georges "Rush" St. Pierre
The No. 1 welterweight in the world and the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter by Sherdog.com, Georges "Rush" St. Pierre is my unanimous choice as the most influential and significant mixed martial artist on the planet.
A Quebec, Canada native, GSP's presence is not only confined to the United States, but his legendary status is equaled in his home country of Canada. A two time Canadian athlete of the year, Georges popularity within the Canadian borders as a sports icon rivals that of Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby.
A two-time UFC welterweight champion with four successful title defenses, GSP's overall MMA record is 20-2. The events in which Georges headlines have a significant pay-per-view buy record as well as very impressive gate sales. GSP's earning potential is a tremendous value to the UFC and the mixed martial arts community in general.
Honored with Fighter of the Year accolades in 2008 and 2009 by various publications, Georges balanced fight game has stifled number one contenders for years.
"Rush" has the ability to defend his championship by beating his opponents at their own game. Winning the ground game against fighters with prolific wrestling background, i.e. John Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Sean Sherk, or winning in the stand up game against fighters whose strength is on their feet, i.e. Dan Hardy and Thiago Alves, GSP continues to dominate and successfully defend his welterweight championship.
Regardless of the fighting style matched up against GSP, his amazing fighting ability has ensured victories against the world's best welterweights.
Outside of the Octagon, Georges reach is global. The first mixed martial artist to be signed to a lucrative, Forbes 50 corporate contract, GSP is a spokesman for both Under Armour clothing and Gatorade.
Additionally, St. Pierre's charm and charisma will be on display in a commercial for ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Starring in this commercial will enhance Georges presence as a worldwide phenomenon as well as lending credibility to the sport of mixed martial arts and significantly enhances the UFC brand.
Georges "Rush" St. Pierre is not only the No. 1 welterweight on the planet and the No. 2 pound for pound fighter, his performance within the octagon has created the GSP brand. His brand reaches millions of homes worldwide with his endorsement deals with heavy hitters within the corporate world including Under Armour and Gatorade.
Additionally, his humble attitude and overwhelming charisma have enabled Georges to air in various television and media outlets.
All combined, Georges St. Pierre is without a doubt the most influential and significant mixed martial artist in the world today and my No. 1 pick on this list.
Randy "The Natural" Couture
At 47 years old, Randy Couture has competed in mixed martial arts for nearly 14 years. A highly decorated collegiate and Olympic wrestler, Randy's Greco-Roman background is his foundation of talent within the octagon.
The first fighter to hold championships within two weight classes, "The Natural" has been a formidable threat within the UFC's heavyweight and light heavyweight division for nearly a decade.
A three-time heavyweight champion, a two-time light heavyweight champion, a UFC tournament winner and a Hall of Fame fighter, Randy Couture's resume within the Octagon speaks for itself.
In addition to these amazing accolades, Couture also possesses the most championship reigns in UFC history with six, most championship fights in UFC history with 15 as well as numerous fight and fighter of the year awards.
Outside of the Octagon, Randy Couture's global mystique enabled a smooth transition onto the big screen. With film and television credits dating back to 2003, Randy's UFC dominance has made him a worldwide sensation for millions of adoring fans.
Randy Couture's trilogy of fights versus Chuck Liddell were monumental in drawing millions of new fans to the sport of mixed martial arts. In addition to capitalizing on enhancing the sport's popularity, the combination of Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell earned millions of dollars for the UFC in pay-per-view buys, ticket sales, merchandise as well as launching the UFC into American homes.
"The Natural's" success in the octagon spawned a variety of business opportunities for Randy. One such endeavor with a global impact is the licensing of the Xtreme Couture clothing line and fighting facilities.
Xtreme Couture clothing is sold worldwide and is one of the most popular MMA branded clothing lines. Additionally, his direct involvement with the advent of Xtreme Couture training facilities opened up the opportunity for millions of new fighters to be engaged in the sport.
Randy "The Natural" Couture, along with Chuck Liddell, are the pre-eminent names in the sport of mixed martial arts. The combination of these two fighter's success was the pivotal stage in America welcoming the UFC into their homes.
Individually, Randy's success and subsequent business ventures makes Randy's impact and influence worthy of being No. 2 on this list.
Emelianenko had been widely considered the best heavyweight fighter in the world for the last seven years. As of October 27, 2010, Sherdog.com ranks him as the No. 4 fighter in the heavyweight division.
He holds the distinction of having held five separate major championships including the Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight crown, a title he never lost.
Many analysts, as well as former and current fighters, consider Emelianenko to be the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
Until tapping to Fabricio Werdum on June 26, 2010 from a triangle choke, Fedor was considered undefeated with a 32-2 MMA record. The only previous loss of his career occurred after he had been illegally injured and subsequently eliminated from a tournament.
With victories over the biggest names in MMA history including Andre Arlovski, Mirko Crocop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mark Coleman, "The Last Emperor's" methodical and precision striking has dominated every opponent who has stepped foot in the ring.
A world champion judo and sambo specialist, Fedor's fight game is solid on his fight and on the ground. Deceptive in his appearance at just 6'0'' tall and 229 pounds, with a less than intimidating frame, Emelianenko's explosive striking and power has been to much for any opponent, outside of Werdum, to overcome.
So how does the arguably best fighter on the planet not be No. 1 on this list? That answer lies in the global marketability of Fedor Emelianenko. First, his management team, Red Devil Fight Club, has had combative discussions with Dana White and the UFC.
Because the two entities do not see eye to eye, Fedor has never fought for the UFC. The UFC is the top-ranked promotion in mixed martial arts worldwide and Fedor's absence from the UFC roster limits his exposure to the everyday fan.
Sure, Fedor Emelianenko is known to purists as the top fighter on the planet. But without a Hollywood appeal or television appearances here within the United States, "The Last Emperor's" media outlets are limited thus prohibiting the Fedor Emelianenko brand within the States.
His disagreements with Dana White and the UFC not only limit his marketability in America, but Fedor's choice of opponents is also diluted. The top heavyweights in MMA are all signed to UFC contracts including Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin and the current UFC heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez.
If Fedor Emelianenko continues to hold out from signing with the UFC, he will not face the top rated opponents and subsequently will diminish his value. "To be the best, you have to beat the best," as Ric Flair used to eloquently state. Therefore, the world's best fighter and most destructive force needs to become a part of the UFC roster for his legendary status to maintain past 2011.
Not enough can be said about "The Iceman" Chuck Liddell and his impact on MMA and more specifically, the UFC.
A collegiate wrestler and long term kempo practitioner, Liddell's thunderous strikes have knocked out many opponents over his illustrious career.
Possessing a 21-8 MMA record, Chuck was crowned the UFC light heavyweight champion at UFC 52 after a vicious knockout of fellow hall of fame fighter, Randy Couture.
Defending his title successfully on four separate occasions, "The Iceman" dominated the light heavyweight division for almost two years.
A long standing rivalry with former training partner and friend Tito Ortiz laid the foundation for an epic duo of battles within the octagon. Knocking out Tito in both fights, the world gravitated towards their hatred of one another and millions of new UFC fans were born. Their saga produced some of the highest pay-per-view buy records in UFC history.
Besides Chuck and Tito's rivalry, Liddell has decisive victories over some of the biggest names in mixed martial arts history including Vitor Belfort, Jeremy Horn and Wanderlei Silva.
Along with Randy Couture, Chuck is the entity that brought mixed martial arts to millions of homes in America.
Outside of the octagon, "The Iceman's" charisma and global presence transitioned to Hollywood. Acting in a variety of films including "Blade: The Series" as well as HBO's "Entourage," Chuck Liddell is a household name here in the United States and is synonymous with the sport of mixed martial arts.
His worldwide impact on the sport is priceless. Tremendous revenue earned by the UFC for pay-per-view, gate and merchandise sales as well as global exposure are all a result of Liddell's hall of fame career within the octagon.
He is truly an ultimate fighting phenomenon influencing not only the sport of mixed martial arts, but the residual business and entertainment avenues spawned from his success.
Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell is a deserving choice at No. 4 on my list of most influential and significant champions of mixed martial arts history.
The pound-for-pound top fighter in the world by Sherdog.com, Anderson "The Spider" Silva has dominated the UFC middleweight division since he won the title in 2006 at UFC 64.
With an undefeated UFC record and all overall 27-4 MMA record, "The Spider" has been injecting fear into the hearts of his opponents through his unorthodox, yet highly effective, striking since 2000.
With 13 consecutive wins in the UFC, Silva holds the longest winning streak specific to UFC sanctioned promotions. Defeating high-caliber fighters including Rich Franklin, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen and Forrest Griffin, Anderson also holds the record for most consecutive title defenses in UFC history with seven.
The recipient of numerous Knockout of the Night, Fight of the Night and Submission of the Night awards, "The Spider's" fight game is extremely dynamic and until recently with a comeback victory over wrestling sensation, Chael Sonnen, was not tested in the octagon.
Every fight fan knows the name Anderson Silva. The path of destruction he has laid is undeniable. He is truly the most decorated middleweight champion in UFC history.
His championship reign lacks global impact, however. Whereas Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Bas Rutten have parlayed their octagon success into film careers which reaches millions of new fans, Silva's Hollywood appeal has not been realized.
Additionally, Anderson's lackluster approach to his recent title defenses have many experts wondering if Silva remains motivated and focused on his MMA career. This change in his fighting style has alienated many fans and has left the UFC management questioning his heart and drive to compete.
Because of Silva's lack of global appeal as well as his change to the ordinary in his fighting technique, I did not place him higher on this list.
However, even though he does not possess the worldwide exposure of other fellow fighters, he is still known globally as a destructive force within the cage and is rightfully the No. 5 most influential fighter in MMA history.
"The Prodigy" BJ Penn may not be No. 6 on some people's lists. With an enigmatic career within the Octagon, BJ has illustrated periods of dominance with flashes of inconsistency, laziness and a lack of mental acuity.
Even with a roller coaster of a fighting career, there is no debate that Penn is one of the most influential champions in MMA history.
With respect to the jiu-jitsu community, BJ Penn became the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
This accomplishment is monumental because he was the fastest to earn a black belt ever as well as the first non native Brazilian to be crowned champion.
Comparatively speaking to American sports icons, BJ's accomplishments within jiu-jitsu would compare to a non Canadian being the highest decorated hockey player on Canadian soil.
Inside the Octagon, "The Prodigy" holds an average 16-7 MMA record. However, he has won championship belts within the welterweight and lightweight divisions. He is only the second person to win a championship belt in two different weight classes. Randy Couture being the other.
His enigmatic approach to his fights confuse experts constantly. Naturally gifted, full of ego and brash, heavy handed with dynamite striking, a solid chin, an amazing ground game; BJ Penn is the total package.
Extremely popular with the fans, "The Prodigy" has a solid backing of support and consistently draws pay-per-view numbers as well as ticket sales.
I believe his up and down career has benefited BJ more than hindered his opportunities. Which Penn will show up? That is the question that dominates conversations before each one of BJ's fights. And publicity, even bad press, is notoriety for BJ and the UFC.
The debate as to BJ Penn's place in mixed martial arts history will rage on. Some say that he does not live up to his talents. While others state that BJ is his own man and will continue to leave experts confused and without words from time to time.
Whatever the popular opinion regarding this two time champion, BJ's global presence is recognizable and his influence within the sport can not be denied.
For over 14 years, Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva has fought one way; aggressive, balls to the wall, unrelenting and without fear or remorse for the opposition.
Combining street brawling, with muay thai, kick boxing and jiu-jitsu, Wanderlei's aggressive style has earned him a reputation fitting of his nickname as well as various championships over the years.
Pride Middleweight Champion from 2001-06, "The Axe Murderer" successfully defended his title in some of the greatest mixed martial art battles of all time. Rivalries with Kazushi Sakuraba and Quinton Jackson would fill the 42,000 seat Tokyo Dome to capacity.
In addition to his accolades within Pride Fighting Championships, Wanderlei's legendary match up with former UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell earned the duo the Fight of the Year award for their clash on December 29, 2007.
Also, Silva's knockout of Keith Jardine on May 24, 2008 earned Wanderlei the Knockout of the Year award.
Wanderlei Silva's aggressive fighting approach and subsequent success within mixed martial arts laid the foundation for a highly skilled and extremely tenacious style of fighting that was the groundwork for the Chute Boxe Academy in Brazil.
Subsequent fighters who spawned from Wanderlei's style include Gabriel Gonzaga, Thiago Silva and current UFC light heavyweight champion, Mauricio Rua.
Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva not only brought an unrelenting, extremely aggressive and highly skilled fighting style to MMA, but he also was a heralded fighting champion for many years within Pride.
Additionally, his original school, The Chute Boxe Academy in Brazil, spawned some of today's best ultimate fighters.
Wanderlei's reach is global and he recently brought his unique style of fighting here to the United States opening up a MMA facility in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Silva's individual accomplishments coupled with the multitude of fighters who followed in his footsteps is why "The Axe Murderer" is No. 7 on my list.
With an 18-1 overall mixed martial arts, Jose Aldo is the proud holder of the UFC's featherweight title. A Brazilian muay thai fighter possessing dynamite kicks and thunderous punches, Jose mixes his knock out strikes with a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Ranked the No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter on Sherdog.com, Aldo continues to demolish opposition one fight at a time.
Defeating former title holder Urijah Faber to claim the WEC's featherweight championship in 2010, which is now the UFC featherweight title, Jose also possesses Fighter of the Year accolades for 2009.
Jose Aldo's placement as the No. 8 most influential fighter is strictly due to potential. An unbelievable athlete, Jose was heavily touted as a professional soccer player in Brazil. Evolving his athleticism into a mixed martial arts wrecking machine, Aldo's potential is limitless within the Octagon.
The fame and notoriety of the UFC itself coupled with Jose's fighting ability and future potential will be the launching pad for those who are not familiar with this current featherweight champion to be exposed to his talents.
There is no ceiling to what Jose Aldo can accomplish. He will be the 145-pound sensation that will capitalize on a whole new fan base introducing the UFC and its featherweight division to millions of new MMA followers.
Mark my words, the name Jose Aldo will become more famous than that of Urijah Faber. He will possess an even greater global influence than that of the "California Kid" in 2011.
Prior to the acquisition of the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) by the UFC in October of 2008, everyday fans of mixed martial arts may not be familiar with my No. 9 choice of most influential champions.
At 5'6" 145 pounds, this WEC champion dominated the featherweight division for more than four years.
With a 24-4 overall record, Faber holds the record for most consecutive title defenses within the WEC with five.
A collegiate wrestler with an aggressive stand up game, Urijah would lay it all out on the line within the octagon. Always an exciting and unorthodox fighter, Faber's high level pace during his fights would leave fans speechless and wanting more of the "California Kid."
Because of his success and dominance at 145 pounds, Urijah created a fan following that could not go unnoticed by the WEC and now the UFC.
His refusal to compete at 155 pounds forced MMA to establish a featherweight class, opening the door for many talented fighters including the current champion, Jose Aldo.
In addition to his success within the octagon, Faber is a marketing gem. Good looking, athletic, charismatic and a very gifted ultimate fighter, Urijah's fame and influence has provided him with a variety of large corporate sponsorships including AMP Energy drink and most recently, K Swiss.
Even with his recent defeat to current champion Jose Aldo, Urijah Faber was monumental in introducing the sport of mixed martial arts to the featherweight division.
Without his success at 145 pounds, fighters such as Mike Brown, Jens Pulver and Mark Hominick may not be so widely known.
Combining his influence within the octagon with his marketability and fan following outside of the cage, Urijah Faber has proven himself to be an influential champion and worthy of his No. 9 ranking.
Bas "El Guapo" Rutten is a Thai boxing sensation from the Netherlands. With lightening fast hands and explosive kicks, Bas integrated wrestling and submissions into his advanced stand up game to even out his arsenal of attacks.
Noted for his tremendous flexibility, jumping ability and overall athleticism, Rutten was a hybrid of all fighting disciplines introducing the United States to what is now referred to as mixed martial arts, or MMA.
Essentially, Bas Rutten was the grandfather of the sport we now dearly love and admire.
With two King of Pancrase titles and one UFC heavyweight championship to his record, "El Guapo" has defeated various MMA legends including Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock and Maurice Smith.
Retiring from fighting in 1999, Bas focused on his acting career opening up the door for many future MMA fighters to be seen on the big screen.
Additionally, Rutten's background as a fighter could be heard in his play by play commentary for Pride Fighting Championships and currently a host on Inside MMA on HDNet.
Not only did Bas Rutten revolutionize mixed martial arts and introduce the world to MMA, he also has been the trail blazer for fighters to transition into acting as well as color commentary after their career within the cage has concluded.
He truly is one of the most influential fighters to ever step foot within the octagon.