Since the inception of the UFC, the greatest athletes have graced the legendary Octagon. Possessing herculean strength, cat-like reflexes, awe-inspiring speed or the ability to contort their bodies into inhuman positions, ultimate fighters are the greatest athletes across all sports.
What defines an athlete?
According to the Random House College Dictionary, an athlete is "a person trained to compete in contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a trained competitor in a sport or exercise, or a game requiring physical skill."
As a former fighter and a college graduate with a degree in Exercise Physiology, I can state that ultimate fighting fulfills all the aspects of the definition of an athlete. I know first hand the physical demands placed on a fighter's body.
Competition inside the cage requires the maximum abilities of all the body's energy systems, metabolic pathways, strength and conditioning and mental acuity.
In short, to be a successful mixed martial artist at the highest level, the human body must be pushed beyond any inconceivable measure.
Only the greatest athletes in the world can achieve this level of conditioning and execute their physical skills effectively inside the cage.
Please allow me to introduce the 15 greatest athletes who have adorned the four ounce gloves for the UFC.
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Possessing unrivaled strength, Kevin Randleman was a force to be reckoned with inside the Octagon from 1999-2002.
In addition to his amazing strength, Randleman was known for his power and overall athleticism.
Reaching the pinnacle of the UFC in 1999, Kevin became the UFC heavyweight champion by defeating Pete Williams.
A former two-time Division 1 collegiate wrestling national champion, Randleman parlayed his abilities on the wrestling mat into a long and promising ultimate fighting career.
Though he was not the most skilled as an all-around fighter, his limitations in skill were made up for with his tremendous athleticism and wrestling background.
Truly one of the greatest athletes to compete for the UFC, Kevin Randleman introduces this list at No. 15.
The current Strikeforce welterweight champion, Nick Diaz, may come as a surprise to some as one of the greatest athletes of UFC history.
Lacking physical strength, overwhelming power and an enviable physique, Nick Diaz possesses the remaining tools necessary to define the current champion as an athlete.
With a bottomless cardiovascular tank, Nick Diaz cross-trains as a triathlete to keep his cardiovascular conditioning level at peak performance.
Boxing with an uncanny speed and foot work that enables the Stockton native to maneuver seamlessly around his opponents, Diaz's agility is accountable, in part, for his current championship run.
Combine these physical traits with his yoga-esque flexibility and Nick Diaz is deserving as the No. 14 greatest athlete to compete inside the famed Octagon.
For the MMA purist, "The Phenom" Vitor Belfort needs no introduction.
Storming onto the UFC scene in 1997 at UFC 12, Belfort's hand speed was on display for the world to witness.
Rightfully earning his nickname, "The Phenom," Belfort TKO'd his first three opponents all within the first round by delivering a combination of tactically precise, yet explosively fast punches.
A professional boxer and mixed martial artist who is gifted with tremendous hand speed, Vitor has integrated strength and stamina over the years to become an overall athlete.
Utilizing these newly trained physical traits, Belfort catapulted back up the UFC middleweight division, earning a title shot against Anderson Silva.
Looking to regain his momentum prior to his loss against Silva at UFC 126, Belfort's athleticism will provide the Brazilian with his foundation to continue to be a threat for the middleweight championship.
Aesthetically, B.J. Penn does not look like an athlete. He is not muscularly defined. He rarely displays overwhelming strength and power and would not be labeled the quintessential athlete.
What B.J. Penn lacks in physical appearance, though, he makes up for exponentially with his god-given athleticism.
Unassumingly quick, agile and gifted with tremendous footwork, Penn utilizes his ability to maximize angles in the stand-up striking department.
On the ground, B.J.'s wizardry of jiu-jitsu is elevated by his amazing flexibility. Known to contort his body into unduplicated positions, Penn manipulates opponents' limbs, securing submission holds unavailable to most practitioners.
The second fighter to win UFC titles in two different weight classes, B.J. Penn maximizes his athletic ability, coupled with his elite level skill set, to remain at the top of the UFC lightweight and welterweight divisions.
The No. 11 greatest athlete honor goes to "The Natural" Randy Couture.
A three-time former heavyweight champion and two-time former light heavyweight champion, Randy Couture is the first UFC competitor to hold two titles in two separate divisions.
At the age of 43, Couture successfully defended his UFC heavyweight championship against Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74.
With an Olympic wrestling foundation, "The Natural" has relied on his overwhelming athleticism to remain relevant within the UFC title picture for more than a decade.
Not the most gifted striker, Couture has only knocked out seven opponents in 29 fights. Additionally, "The Natural" has secured only four victories via submission.
So how does Randy Couture continue to remain within the title picture?
The combination of his work ethic, unbelievable conditioning level, and his gifted athleticism has provided Randy Couture the recipe for his success within the UFC since 1997.
Truly a physical specimen with an abundance of strength and power and dynamite in his fists, "The Young Assassin" Melvin Guillard is an exceptional athlete in the UFC lightweight division.
Compiling an impressive overall MMA record of 27-8 at only 28 years old, Guillard's Achillies heel has been his arrogance and ego. Now fighting out of the Jackson Submission Fighting camp, Melvin's mental focus is back on track and his performance inside the Octagon is testament to this clarity.
An exceptional athlete blessed with not only explosiveness and power, but graceful movements and incredible speed, "The Young Assassin" will continue to threaten the other lightweight competitors for the chance to compete for the title.
UFC Middleweight Champion, Anderson "The Spider" Silva
The greatest striker to grace the famed Octagon, Anderson Silva combines unrelenting movement, tactically precise strikes, with the power and knockout ability of a heavyweight to dominate opponent after opponent inside the cage.
The best Muay-Thai striker, Silva's athleticism is a marvel to admire as a fan. Working meticulous angles and delivering strikes from all planes with all body parts, "The Spider's" stand-up striking abilities create stories for fans to witness and counterparts to admire.
Anderson "The Spider" Silva's ability to make No. 1 contenders look amateur is a testament to not only his tremendous skill-set, but his athleticism as a mixed martial artist.
Combining the individual qualities of the definition athlete, Ben Henderson has been able to brand his nickname "Smooth" into his athletic ability.
Watching Henderson fight is an enormous joy. Possessing raw strength and power, Henderson's gracefulness and ease of movement make his strikes look effortless.
With a tremendous skill-set and high level athleticism, "Smooth" has earned Fight of the Year honors in 2009 by Sherdog for his contest against Donald Cerrone.
Additionally, this former WEC lightweight champion has earned two Fight of the Night and one Submission of the Night honors during his short MMA career.
Blessed with athleticism and driven to succeed, Ben Henderson will once again challenge for the lightweight championship during his tenure in the UFC.
Ranked the No.2 lightweight in the world behind the UFC lightweight champion, Frankie Edgar, by Sherdog.com, "El Nino" Gilbert Melendez is a tremendous MMA competitor.
With an overall record of 18-2, Melendez has avenged his only two losses with two definitive wins.
Most recently, Gilbert man-handled the Japanese sensation, Shinya Aoki, at Strikeforce: Nashville in April of 2010.
Scheduled to compete against Tatsuya Kawajiri this weekend at Strikeforce: Diaz vs Daley, Melendez will continue to rely on his tremendous athletic ability as he executes a championship caliber gameplan.
Rising to the level of teen pop star status on YouTube with his "Showtime kick" at WEC 53, Anthony Pettis sprung off of the cage and delivered a powerful right high kick to Ben Henderson's head, knocking down the former champion and ultimately earning Pettis the final WEC lightweight championship.
Breakthrough Fighter of the Year award winner by Sherdog.com, Anthony Pettis combines the rare ability of speed, movement, strength, power and agility into one electrifying ultimate fighter.
Scheduled to fight the elusive and always game Clay Guida at The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale on June 4th of this year, Pettis will be able to display his athleticism for the masses on the sport's biggest stage.
As if being maneuvered by an Xbox controller, "The California Kid" Urijah Faber is an awe-inspiring athlete inside the Octagon.
Whether leaping for a knee strike while defending a single leg take-down, rolling out of submissions, diving into advantageous positions or driving a spinning back elbow into the face of his opponent, Faber utilizes his gifted abilities seamlessly with his training-acquired skills.
Fighting at an unrelenting pace, adjusting planes and angles, and incorporating a level of creativity that was not witnessed until the introduction of Jon Jones to the UFC fans, "The California Kid" will continue to force fans to pick up their jaws from the floor in amazement and adoration as they envy his level of athleticism.
The legendary status of the current UFC light heavyweight champion, Jon "Bones" Jones, continues to grow daily.
Jones's highlight tape includes a suplay of Stephan Bonnar, a spinning back elbow delivered to Jake O'Brien and the devastation of former UFC light heavyweight champion Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
Creatively, Jones possesses a style all to his own. Never knowing where a strike will be delivered from,or the means in which it will be executed, opponents have yet to figure out the stand-up methodology of the current UFC light heavyweight champion.
Before Jon Jones retires, his athleticism inside the Octagon will rival that of any champion in any sport.
Possessing the most well-rounded skill-set in the UFC, Georges "Rush" St-Pierre is the current UFC welterweight champion for good reason.
The No. 1 welterweight fighter and No. 1 pound-for-pound mixed martial artist by Sherdog.com, St-Pierre's list of accolades also includes being the Canadian Athlete of the Year by Rogers Sportsnet in 2008 and 2009, as well as being the 2009 Fighter of the Year award winner by World MMA Awards.
With an overall MMA record of 21-2 and defending his championship belt on five successful attempts, St-Pierre utilizes his amazing athletic ability inside the Octagon to dominate his opponents.
Outside of Anderson Silva, GSP is blessed with unrivaled movement. The ability to keep his opponent off balance through his footwork and usage of striking angles is unmatched within the UFC welterweight division.
Constantly moving inside the Octagon, Georges can attack with explosive power in a fraction of a second. Driving opponents to the mat through powerful double leg take-downs, "Rush's" strength and power allow him to deliver devastating ground-and-pound.
Tremendous footwork, crisp angles, elusive movement and unmatched strength and power within the welterweight division has enabled the Canadian superstar to remain at the top of the UFC welterweight division for over three years.
There is no denying that the former UFC heavyweight champion, Brock Lesnar, is a freak of nature.
This former WWE heavyweight champion could be seen weekly flying off of the corner turnbuckles or delivering massive power bombs to his opponents.
The last cut on the Minnesota Vikings football team, Brock attempted to transition into professional football prior to his arrival in the UFC.
At 6'4" 280 pounds of ferocious muscle, Lesnar was recorded to run the 40 yard dash in 4.7 seconds, jump 10 feet in the standing broad jump, and possess a 35" vertical jump.
Gifted with brute strength, tenacious power, incredible explosiveness and an all-around athleticism not witnessed by men of nearly 300 pounds, Brock Lesnar is truly an athletic marvel.
Lightening fast, razor sharp strikes, elusive movement, tremendous quickness, a bottomless cardiovascular conditioning tank and dynamite for strikes, the current UFC featherweight champion, Jose Aldo, is rightfully the greatest athlete to proudly represent the UFC banner.
Aldo is currently the No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, with a combined MMA record of 18-1.
Executing a wide variety of strikes from all angles and all levels at the blink of an eye, there is not a striking position or a defensive maneuver that Jose Aldo cannot perform.
Not only is Jose Aldo the No. 1 featherweight on the planet and a tremendously gifted fighter, this Brazilian superstar was drafted as a professional soccer player prior to his commitment to ultimate fighting.
Performing for the first time as part of the UFC on April 30th in Toronto, Aldo will have his chance to display his athleticism on the grandest of stages against Mark Hominick.
It is rare to have an athlete of Jose Aldo's caliber entertain the millions of MMA fans. Combine Jose Aldo with the likes of Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar, Georges St-Pierre, Urijah Faber and the remaining athletes on this list and we are blessed as fans to witness the athletic abilities of these superstar fighters.