Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC have come a long way since the days of no-holds-bar matches and the days where that skinny guy by the name of Royce Gracie was submitting every opponent he faced.
If there is one thing the MMA community has learned from those days, it is that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is an extremely effective martial art with regards to one on one fighting.
However in today’s modern MMA world, with rules favoring strikers (with the awkward stand ups by the ref during a fight) and wrestlers (with the misconception that the person on top is winning the fight) proving BJJ’s worth in the octagon or ring is getting much harder.
However, with that being said, there are still some MMA fighters who possess a BJJ background and remain at the top of the MMA game, while simultaneously proving the effectiveness of BJJ. With that being said, here is my list of the Top-10 BJJ fighters in MMA today.
10) RICARDO ARONA (13-5-0 )
This man is No. 10 on the list but has the potential to be No. 1. Not only is he a black belt in BJJ, but he is also a two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) submission wrestling winner in the absolute division.
Every grappler knows that winning the ADCC absolute division the highest grappling honor there is, and doing it twice is almost unthinkable. Although he only has two submission victories in his MMA career (a kneebar and a rear naked choke), he is regarded as a top level MMA fighter as he has beaten some of the best in today’s MMA world (Sakuraba, Horn, Ninja, Wandy etc…). Rumor has it he will be making his return in the UFC as a LHW; I, personally, am looking forward to that.
9) THALES LEITES (13-1-0)
This young MMA fighter may not be well known by the average “Kimbo” MMA fan, but hardcore fans and BJJ enthusiasts definitely know who he is. With 13 wins and only one loss, Thales Leites is doing very well for himself. Although his only loss came on his UFC debut to Kappman, since then, he has racked up four consecutive wins in the UFC (most recently his win over Nate Marquardt, who is a top contender). He’s a calm, cool, collected MMA fighter, and his next opponent needs to watch out for his submissions...especially his arm triangle.
8) RICARDO ALMEIDA (9-3-0)
One of the guys on this list that has competed in MMA and the UFC long before the Ultimate Fighter TV show and the blow up of the UFC’s popularity. He is a black belt in BJJ under Master Renzo Gracie, and he has competed in various Gi BJJ tournaments and the ADCC’s absolute division.
He left the MMA game in 2004 on a high note after his win in PRIDE over Ryo Chonan to focus on other things and his jiu-jitsu schools. However, due to MMA’s rising popularity, Almeida decided that he couldn’t just sit on the sidelines, and in February 2008, he made his comeback in the UFC and submitted Rob Yundt with a vicious guillotine choke.
Although he lost a tough split decision to Cotein his last fight, I’m sure he will bounce back and show the MMA world how amazing his BJJ really is.
7) GABRIEL GONZAGA (9-3-0)
When people think of Gonzaga, they are always taken back to his spectacular head kick knock-out win over Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. However, many fail to realize that Gonzaga’s BJJ is world class. Gonzaga is a former ADCC competitor and he has also competed in many Gi BJJ competitions with many of today’s top grapplers.
Although his BJJ is very well rounded, his top game is regarded as one of the most feared. The only worse than having a wrestler on top of you is having a heavy BJJ guy control top position on you...ask Gonzaga's victims.
Although he lost to Couture and Werdum back to back not too long ago, his recent steamrolling submission victory (in top position) over Just McCully definitely puts him back on track in MMA.
6) SHINYA AOKI (18-3-0)
In my opinion, Shinya Aoki is the best Asian submission grappler today. He has competed in various Gi BJJ tournaments and has also competed in the ADCC tournament in his weight class and the absolute weight division (despite the fact that everyone he grapples with in that division is bigger than he is).
However, what makes him remarkable is his ability to pull off his high-caliber submissions in MMA. He has 10 submission victories which have come by arm bar, gogoplata, neck crank, triangle etc...(his standing arm lock victory over Keith Wisniewski will make you cringe).
In addition, his leg locks are devastating in their own right (even though he hasn’t hit one in an MMA match yet). At just 25 years old, we will definitely be seeing him more in the near future.
5) PAULO FILHO (16-0-0)
Paulo Filho is ranked as the No. 2 best middleweight in all of MMA, according to Sherdog (just under Anderson Silva). He is currently WEC’s middleweight champion and as you can see, he is riding a 16-fight win streak. And if you're wondering if this guy got some easy wins in no-name organizations, think again, because his wins have come from PRIDE (seven of them), Pancrase, DEEP, and, of course, the WEC.
His BJJ is regarded as relentless and all of his submission victories have come by arm bar. Even though his opponents know an arm bar is coming they can’t seem do anything about it. I don’t see why the UFC keeps this guy in the WEC; he’s too damn good.
4) ANTONIO RODRIGO NOGUEIRA (31-4-1)
The former UFC Interim Heavyweight champion, former PRIDE heavy weight champion, and the runner-up in the PRIDE 2004 Grand Prix. His list of MMA accomplishments is right up there with the greats. His BJJ is legendary, as 19 of his wins have come by all kinds of different submissions (crucifix, arm bar, guillotine, anaconda, triangle….etc).
In addition to these accomplishments, the most regarded, best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Anderson Silva was awarded his black belt from non other than Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. With all of those accomplishments, I still believe that he is underrated and casual fans probably don’t realize how great he is.
It was unfortunate that his UFC interim title was taken away due to Couture’s return, but on a brighter note, more casual fans are going to get to know him better through The Ultimate Fighter reality show.
3) DEMIAN MAIA (8-0-0)
If this were a top 10 list for the best BJJ practitioners (not just in MMA), the people on that list would differ from the people on this one, but Demian Maia would still hold a high ranking on that list. His BJJ is one of the best in the world, and he is, in my opinion, the best BJJ practitioner with a Gi on this list.
However, what ranks him so high on this list is the fact that he has been able to adapt his high level sport BJJ into the MMA world, which is no easy task (ask Alberto Crane and Marcello Garcia).
When you’re dealing with punches, it’s a whole different game, but Demian has been able to adapt and keep his cool which in turn has made him successful in MMA while simultaneously proving the effectiveness of BJJ (he took a small beating from Ed Herman but still won by submission).
His latest win over Jason Macdonald was very impressive and his next fight will be against Nathan Quarry. If Demian makes quick work of Quarry, as he did with Macdonald, then Anderson Silva shouldn’t think about retiring just yet...
2) NATHAN DIAZ (10-2-0)
Nathan Diaz (or just Nate Diaz) is probably my wild card on this whole list, and I probably got some people scratching their heads as to why he holds such a high ranking...I’ll be happy to explain.
Of his 10 wins, seven have been by submission, in which the Cesar Gracie product was only a purple belt for the majority of them. Ever since he won The Ultimate Fighter reality show (which he advanced through by submitting all of his opponents), he has been on a rampage and holds submissions over three of his last four opponents in the UFC.
In his last fight with Josh Neer, in which he won by decision, he showed some excellent BJJ and showed the world a unique type of step-over guard pass/back-take technique. He adopts a BJJ approach to MMA and constantly brings fresh and unique techniques from the BJJ gym into the octagon.
What gives him the No. 2 spot on this list, though, is his heart and perseverance. No matter how badly he is getting beat, he never quits and always has faith in his skills.
On the reality show, he was getting beat up, bad, by Gray Maynard in the semis, and to be honest, I thought it was going to be over for him. However, Nate proved me wrong by sweeping Gray Maynard and then submitting him with a drop guillotine in the second round.
More recently against Kurt Pellegrino, (who is a black belt in BJJ, while Nate is only a Brown Belt) Nate was getting beat up pretty bad and the fight was almost stopped; however, literally, out of nowhere, Nate managed to pull off a triangle choke, which ultimately then won him the match.
At only 23 years of age, he seems to understand BJJ really well and is applying it to MMA without a problem and because of that expect to see more of him in the future.
1) B.J. PENN (13-4-1)
B.J. Penn may not take first place on everyone’s best pound-for-pound MMA fighter list, but I would find it hard to argue not giving him this specific honor. B.J. was the first non-Brazilian to ever win the gold medal in the Mundial World Championship in Rio de Janeiro Brazilsa black belt, which is a huge accomplishment in itself.
His knowledge of BJJ is up there with the masters, but what makes him a one-of-a-kind is his flexibility and control. If B.J. Penn mounts his opponent or gets control of their back, you can almost bet your house that Penn is getting the submission.
I heard one person say, “Penn’s BJJ isn’t that good because all he does is rear naked chokes.” When I heard this, I cringed and had to leave the room. Being good at BJJ doesn’t mean going for a million different leg locks and fancy submissions; BJJ is about advancing your position and maintaining control while simultaneously looking for submissions.
You don’t see Penn going for leg locks and stuff in his fights because Penn will take you down, pass your guard, and then submit you with a “simple” submission (or beat you down from mount), and there is nothing anyone can do about it (watch the Penn vs. Duane Ludwig fight).
As the current UFC lightweight champ and former UFC welterweight champ, B.J. Penn, without a doubt, takes the No. 1 spot here.