This is one of the hardest lists that a person can try and compile. To say combat sports means that it will have to include all combat sports in the modern era.
This list will be confined to the last 135 years or roughly the year 1875 and the top 25 fighters can only be on the list if their respective sport has a world title.
It will include people that accomplished great things, changed the sports they competed in, inspired millions, but most importantly above all other things were the best in their sports in their time period. This list was difficult to conjure up and was even harder to number from 25 down to one.
Aerts is a K1 legend. He is thought by many to be the greatest kickboxer who has ever laced up a pair of gloves.
Peter “The Dutch Lumberjack” Aerts has been nothing short of amazing in his career. He is a three-time K1 world grand prix champion and a former world muay thai champion as well. He won his first world championship when was 19.
He won the K1 World Grand Prix in 1994, 1995 and 1998. In 1998, he won his final three bouts in a remarkable six minutes and 43 seconds. After competiting in his first K1 World Grand Prix, he has only not fought in the tournament once, and that was in 2009. He returned in 2010, making it to the finals before being overwhelmed by Alistair Overeem in the championship fight.
His record is 102-28-1. His many knockout losses push him down the list, but his total of 77 knockouts in 102 victories is a remarkable achievement.
This man continues to defy the odds and fight on at the age of 48 with quite a bit of success. I often worry that he may already be a bit punch drunk and needs to hang it up, but really he has gotten better after the awful years of 2001-2006 when he began to look worse and worse until the point where he was forced to sit out by the athletic commissions.
Evander started his boxing career started with a 169-11 record as an amateur. After that he won the silver medal in the 1983 Pan-American Games.
In 1984, Holyfield was highly favored to win the light heavyweight gold medal at the Olympic Games. After nearly knocking out his opponent in the second round, Holyfield was disqualified for allegedly hitting on the break and had to settle for a bronze medal.
During the ceremony he was cheered wildly and allowed to stand on the gold medal stand with the winner. Holyfield relied on his faith in God and his values of respect and perservearence to get him past his disappointments.
Shortly after turning pro he won the WBA cruiserweight world title. He then unified all of the major world titles and to this day he remains the only undefeated, undisputed cruiserweight boxing champion in history.
On Oct. 25, 1990, Holyfield became the undisputed heavyweight champion by dispatching James “Buster” Douglas in three rounds making him the first cruiserweight champion to win the heavyweight championship.
After the fight he thanked God and signed all of his autographs with Phil. 4:13 which states, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthened me.”
The most anticipated bout of all time was scheduled for Nov. 8, 1991, pitting Holyfield against former undisputed champion “Iron” Mike Tyson. Tyson injured his ribs and then ended up in prison, killing the dream bout. Years later Holyfield battered Tyson in their first bout and then got his ear bitten off in the strangest boxing bout in the history of the prize ring.
In 1994, he was taken to the hospital after his bout with Michael Moorer in which he lost his titles with a serious heart condition. It was determined that his heart ailment would not end his life, but he was told his career was over. His body was miraculously healed and Evander was allowed to return to the ring only a year later.
In 2000, Lennox Lewis was stripped of his WBA heavyweight title for failing to face John Ruiz. Holyfield was chosen to take on Ruiz instead. He won a unanimous decision and became the first man in history to win the heavyweight championship four times.
Amazingly he continues to box into his late forties like Larry Holmes before him. He fought a very over-the-hill Brian Nielson last night and won by TKO. He is one of the greatest boxers to ever lace up the gloves even if he badly needs to retire.
Hoost has the nickname “Mr. Perfect.”
He was the four-time K1 World Grand Prix kickboxing champion. He debuted at the K1 World Grand Prix in 1993 and retired after he competed in the tournament in 2006 at the age of 41. In 119 fights, he won 97, lost 21 and drew only once.
He was dominant at an elite level, and he did it for 14 years. He won the grand prix in 1997 by decision. In 1999, he won his second title by defeating Mirko Cro Cop by TKO in Round 3. In 2000, Hoost won his third and his fourth in 2002 at the advanced age of 38.
In 2002, he lost to Bob Sapp in the quarterfinals, but Sapp suffered broken ribs and was forced to withdraw. Hoost stepped back in and shocked the world. He lived up to his nickname well.
He is known by many nicknames. Some call him Ubereem, others call him simply the Reem. Any way you cut it this man is an amazing athlete.
He was once a promising young fighter under the Pride fighting banner, and now he is a multi-sport champion. Alistair now holds the titles of Strikeforce heavyweight champion, Dream interim heavyweight champion and the K1 kickboxing world grand prix champion.
He is the only man to ever do this yet he is often criticized and sold short by the mixed martial arts community.
Let’s break his career down in a logical way.
Overeem has been competing in mixed martial arts in 1999 at the tender age of 19. He had ups and downs for the first few years, winning out of his first seven matches. Then he began to realize his potential and develop as a fighter.
From December 2000 to February 2007 Alistair went 20-7 with 10 submissions and nine knockouts. Detractors say that he often lost the big fights, but he also won a lot of tough fights too. His achievements should not be ignored.
It is true that in that time span he had 10 big fights and lost six of them, however he did defeat former UFC champion Vitor Belfort twice, Igor Vovchanchyn and Sergei Kharitonov. That is still an awfully good record against that said competition.
In the last four years, Overeem has improved greatly, added a Superman-like physique and has truly become the Demolition Man. He has since gone won 10 out his last 12 bouts, with one loss and one no contest.
Three of those bouts stand out. In a bout with Mirko Cro Cop, it was ruled a no contest and Cro Cop was saved from a bad beating had the unfortunate low blow not landed.
In 2010, when Overeem finally decided to defend his Strikeforce heavyweight title, after nearly two-and-a-half years of inactivity, he entered the cage in St. Louis, Mo. and absolutely oblitherated Brett Rogers in under four minutes.
He then followed that up by winning the K1 world grand prix in early December and put the icing on the cake by knocking out Todd Duffee on New Years Eve to complete a trifecta that may never be repeated.
He had won three titles in one year in two different sports. It is hard to knock that, regardless of who exactly your competition may be.
Many people would have him way higher on this list, but it is a list of the greatest combat fighters of all time and not a list of the mostly influential. There is a distinct.
The best fighter is more of a numbers and strength of schedule game. And, of course, championships factor in.
In a pure wins, losses and tiles sense he had a good fighting record. He recorded three UFC tournament championships and also fought in a famous draw with Ken Shamrock at UFC 5 and an ironman match with Kazushi Sakuraba that he ended up losing due to exhaustion.
He defeated Ken Shamrock, Kimo and Dan Severn. He did so in spectacular fashion, but he did so with a distinct advantage of the discipline of jiu jitsu that the fighters had not been exposed to it. Since his last pre-Zuffa UFC, the rest of the world learned jiu jitsu, hit the gym hard and caught up.
Gracie was simply passed by as was evidence in his devastating loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 60.
Rickson was dominant, when he chose to fight in an MMA match. He only competed in MMA rules matches 11 times over a 20-year span.
He is the Gracie family champion and an eighth degree black and red belt in Gracie Brazilian jiu jitsu. He defeated Nobuhiko Takada by armbar twice, once in the main event of Pride Fighting Championships 1 and again at Pride 4.
His profound knowledge of Brazilian jiu jitsu and stature as the champion among all of the living Gracie family members is a high order and his perfect record in MMA is something that is next to impossible. It is more remarkable when you notice that all of his wins were by submission.
He could have been chosen by his brother Rorion to compete in UFC 1, but Royce was chosen instead because they thought Rickson would make it look too easy.
It is easy for the modern world to forget this all-time great. A Ken Burn’s documentary film, Unforgivable Blackness, has garnered more attention for the late Johnson, but he still seems to forever live in the boxing shadow of Joe Louis.
After Johnson was arrested, forced to live abroad for years to avoid being put in prison, challenged by any decent white boxers near his size, he was finally beaten in the ring. He served some hard time and after leaving, openly challenged the reigning heavyweight boxing champion, but Jack Dempsey chose to draw the infamous color line that had kept the prestigious title out of the hands of a black man before.
Johnson may have been able to become the first two-time heavyweight champion, but the world was robbed of that chance.
Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion in history. He held that title for nearly seven years, beating a series of “white hopes” before finally being beaten by Jess Willard on a miserable muggy day in Havana, Cuba in 1915. That bout has always been mired in controversy. No one really knows if Johnson threw the fight or not.
What people cannot debate is the fact that Johnson was dominant, unique and viscious in the prize ring. He has often been compared to Muhammad Ali for his elusive nature. Ali’s long time cornerman Bundini Brown could be heard in the corner from time to time saying, “Ghost in the house. Jack Johnson is here!”
No one will ever know how great he could have been due to the racist mentality of boxing during his era. He may very well have been good enough to have been heavyweight champion in 1901 or 1902 instead of 1908, but then champion Jim Jeffries constantly used the color line to avoid Johnson until he retired.
In 1910, Jeffries came out of retirement to try and wrest the belt away from Johnson. On July 4, 1910, Johnson and Jeffries squared off in Reno, Nev. in what was then known as the Battle of the Century.
Johnson toyed with the former champion and battered him until the fight was finally stopped.
Silva holds a career mark of 33-10-1 in mixed martial arts. He was a merciless force in the Pride ring. He is a relentless attacker who has an unmatched ability to sense when his opponent is in trouble and capitalizing upon it.
He was the former Pride middleweight champion. He went on an amazing streak of 18 wins, 13 coming by way of knockout. He went undefeated for five years.
He holds wins over Quinton Jackson (twice), Ricardo Arona, Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson to name a few.
Some people might have had him higher and some might have had him lower. Either way, his dominance through the 1980s and 1990s cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Tyson pretty much made boxing relevant as a major global sport from 1986 until 1996 with his flashy knockouts, bizarre behavior out of the prize ring and an aura & staredown that had men beaten before the bell had sounded for Round 1.
He was feared. He took the boxing world by storm and like a unrelenting thunderstorm his ferocity was really only felt for a short time. He dominated the sport for four years and left a huge impression, but his steep decline late in his career keeps him low on the list.
Tyson was an absolute destructor in his heyday. In 1981 and 1982 he won the Junior Olympic gold medal twice. He holds two records at those games with an eight second knockout win and by winning all of his bouts by knockout.
He twice lost to Henry Tillman by decision as an amateur. Tillman went on to become the gold medal winner at 1984 Summer Olympics. Tyson went a different route.
Tyson instead turned pro in 1985 when he was just 18. He won his first 28 bouts in row, and he won them all by knockout or technical knockout. And 16 of those had come in the first round.
His power and his crushing knockout blows were amazing considering he was a much smaller heavyweight than most of his competition. Iron Mike stands under 6-feet, and in his prime, he weighed about 212-220 pounds.
He won the WBC world heavyweight title in November 1986 by dispatching Trevor Berbick in less than two rounds. Mike won the most highly touted of the three world boxing titles first. He then unified those belts.
In March 1987, Tyson won the WBA title by defeating James “Bonecrusher” Smith by unanimous decision. He then defended his WBA and WBC titles once before winning the third of the major titles, a unanimous decision of Tony Tucker, to become the undisputed world heavyweight champion.
He went on to defend his undisputed championship six times before losing to James “Buster” Douglas in Japan in February 1990 in one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history. Douglas figured out that with Tyson you had to bully a bully. If you could survive his onslaught long enough to beat him back, he could be beaten.
On June 27, 1988, Iron Mike Tyson fought his most important bout against Michael Spinks. Spinks had defeated Larry Holmes in 1985 and had left the ring undefeated. He was still considered the best despite the unbelievable way Tyson was winning.
Mike shut all the mouths of his critics with a brutal first round knockout that took less time than Tyson took walking to the ring that night.
Tyson also recovered from his first loss with back to back knockouts, one of Henry Tillman. In 1996, Tyson easily dispatched both the WBC and WBA champions to regain two-thirds of the undisputed crown he had lost.
He would go on to lose twice to Evander Holyfield and in a 2002 fight with Lennox Lewis, never having climbed to the top of the heap again.
Chuck was an awesome man to watch in the first few years of the 21st century. He delivered knockouts to just about everybody he fought and his all-out style of throwing kickboxing combinations in the UFC’s Octagon is the stuff of legend.
From 2002 until 2007, the Iceman had an overall MMA record of 12-4 against world class oppostition. In that span, he recorded nine knockout victories, won the UFC light heavyweight title and defended it a record four times for the 205 pound class in UFC.
Liddell was the biggest MMA name in the world when the sport really gained mainstream appeal in the years of 2005-2007.
In those formative years Chuck was knocking people into next week with the skill and precision of a sculptor molding his masterpiece. He holds victories over the likes of Alistair Overeem, Tito Ortiz (twice), Jeremy Horn, Renato “Babablu” Sobral (twice), Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort.
His three knockout losses to end his career were both gruesome and unfortunate. They have gotten him placed further down on this list.
Most people have never heard of Henry Armstrong. That is most likely because he fought in the first half of the 20th century. Armstrong was born in 1912 and began to box in 1931, just before his 20th birthday.
Armstrong lost by knockout, but his career would prove to be a spectacular one. He would go on to hold three world boxing titles simulataneosly.
Armstrong held the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles at same time. He is the only boxer in the history of the sport to have done so.
Henry also defended the welterweight title more times than any other man in boxing ever has.
In 1937, Ring Magazine awarded him with the Fighter of the Year award. In 2007, the same magazine rated Henry Armstrong the second greatest boxer in the last 80 years.
His final career mark was 149-21-10 with 101 wins by knockout! In a time when a man could not hide behind a boxing commission or a contract clause, Armstrong was one of the best ever. He even won the Ring Magazine award in an era that was completely obsessed with the heavyweight division in boxing.
Joe Louis was turned into a kind of propaganda hero and proxy warrior for freedom in his two bouts with German Max Schmeling. It’s amazing that Armstrong’s legacy has survived so intact. It has because of his dominance.
He is the five division boxing champion who is 41-0. He has a knack for never going for the kill in a big fight which he may be remembered for the most.
That and for having a big mouth and not really backing up his claims. If he doesn’t fight Manny Pacquiao combat sports fans will never forget it. On a side note, changing his name to “Money” from “Pretty Boy” Floyd was a bad move.
The later was a great nickname. He is undefeated though, and that is nearly impossible to do against his high level of competition in his career.
Dan was the only multi-division champion in Pride. He held both the middleweight and welterweight titles.
Earlier this year, Hendo knocked out Raphael Cavalcante to become the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion. He has been a force to be reckoned with his entire career.
Hughes has been a dominant MMA fighter since he began his career. He has had two win streaks of over 10 fights. He is considered by many to be the greatest MMA welterweight fighter of all time.
He defended his title a record seven times. He has defeated such world class fighters as B.J. Penn, Royce Gracie, Hayato Sakurai, Frank Trigg, Matt Serra and Sean Sherk.
He dominated with country boy strength and power wrestling skills.
A person could talk about the Natural all day long. He is the former three-time UFC heavyweight champion and a former two time UFC light heavyweight champion.
He fought in 30 career bouts and 16 were for world titles. He fought until the amazing age of 47, losing last month to Lyoto Machida in what he has said will be his last.
The man who defied father time is a UFC hall of famer and beloved by fans all around the world. He deserves this spot.
B.J. “The Prodigy” Penn is the former UFC lightweight and welterweight champion. He has defeated the likes of Matt Hughes (twice), Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez, Jens Pulver, Sean Sherk and Matt Serra.
He has always been relevant in the UFC since he first entered the Octagon, and he is a future Hall of Famer.
“Marvelous” Marvin Hagler was just that.
He was the longtime middleweight champion of the world in the 1980s. He is remembered best for his war with Thomas Hearns in 1985 in which he won by knockout.
He was a dominant heavyweight champion in the 1930s and 1940s. The Brown Bomber was known for his flashy knockouts and his ability to put his opponents away when they were in trouble.
He defended his crown many times. From January 1939 to May 1941, he defended his title 13 times, sparking the famous phrase the “Bum of the Month” club. He defended his title 25 times before losing the heavyweight boxing crown in 1948.
GSP is the reigning welterweight champion of the UFC. He is agile, athletic, dominant and very well-rounded.
He is an example of what a great MMA fighter has become, an extremely well-versed, well-rounded super athlete.
He just defended his welterweight title April 30 for the sixth time in a row. GSP is the new face of the UFC and is the type of ambassador that MMA needs to compete with other mainstream sports.
Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao is the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer on the planet today.
He just defeated Shane Mosely mere days ago.
He has held world titles in eight divisions and ten different times. He is the only man to ever do that. His pro record is 53-3-2.
He is known as the Last Emperor. Fedor was undefeated for a decade before his recent setbacks against Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva.
Fedor was the long time Pride heavyweight champion and the organization ended with him as its champion. He is considered by many to be the greastest MMA fighter of all time.
He is known for being an undersized heavyweight and for having an aura similar to that of Mike Tyson in the late 1980s. Fedor fights like a machine, but recently, he has looked very human.
Ray Robinson should have been the one and only Sugar. He boxed for over 20 years and was considered by many to be the greatest of all time.
He was 85-0 as an amateur with 69 victories by knockout! In the first 11 years of his career, his record was 128-1-2 with 84 knockouts. He finished with a mark of 173-19-6-2 with 108 career knockouts.
He won world titles five different times at welterweight and middleweight. He held the welterweight title for five years. He was incredible in the ring. He fought like he was born to do nothing else.
Roy Jones Jr. is arguably the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time. He has won titles from Junior Middleweight to Heavyweight and fought from 1989 to the present.
From 1989 until 2003, he lost only one bout amassing an unbelievable record that has never been matched. The reason that he is ranked so high is that he went unbeaten (besides the one DQ loss) for 15 years, and he was very dominant in nearly all of those fights.
His only loss occurred in a controversial way and Jones quickly won a rematch by first round knockout months later. His career speaks for itself.
Muhammad Ali needs no introduction.
He may have been No. 1 on this list had he not been stripped of his title for refusing draft into the Vietnam War. Despite this, he was the champion three times. He won the heavyweight boxing world title three times, in 1964, 1974 and 1978.
He was probably the fasted and most elusive boxer of all time. He won the Olympic gold medal in the light heavyweight division in 1960 as well.
Ali is best known for his trio of bouts with Joe Frazier and the “Rumble in the Jungle” in which he beat George Foreman in Zaire to become heavyweight champion for a second time.
Not much else needs to be said about the “Greatest.”
Anderson Silva is considered by many to be the greatest MMA fighter of all time, and he is consistently been ranked as the sports top pound-for-pound fighter over the last few years.
He has accomplished something that no other UFC fighter has done by winning all of his UFC bouts. He has won every fight since he first entered the Octagon in 2006 for a grand total of 13 in a row.
His most recent, a February 2011 knockout of Vitor Belfort may have been his most impressive yet. He landed an amazing front kick to the chin that was timed perfectly. Silva is a master of Brazilian jiu jitsu and muay thai.
He can finish a fight off his back by submission, as he did to Chael Sonnen and Travis Lutter. He can also knock people out at will it seems. His knockout of Forrest Griffin at UFC 101 was one of the most impressive knockouts of all time.
Silva is the reigning UFC middleweight champion, and he had defended the belt eight times in a row. Many people will rant and say how can anyone be better than the great Ali?
No one can remain the greatest forever. Silva has proved that he deserves to be No. 1. All lists are meant to be criticized, and this is no different.