The 20 Greatest UFC Fighters of the Pre Zuffa Era
When one mentions the UFC, images of greats like Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva immediately come to mind.
And why shouldn't they?
The men are legends, as are other well-known figures in MMA like Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.
However, many people forget that there was a generation of MMA before the current incarnation of the UFC—meaning before it was owned by Zuffa—and there were many fighters that were part of it.
While they may not hold a candle to the well-rounded fighters of today, here are the pre-Zuffa era's best.
20. Keith Hackney
While Keith Hackney only achieved a 2-2 record in the Octagon, he performed better than any other striker did against Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu's (or more specifically Gracie Jiu-Jitsu's) representative Royce Gracie.
He also provided two great highlight reel moments: Toppling a massive sumo wrestler that outweighed him by several hundred pounds and obliterating the poor genitalia of Joe Son.
19. Steve Jennum
Steve Jennum is one of the most dubious names in UFC history.
He managed to capture a spot in the UFC 3 tournament finals due to Gracie bowing out from exhaustion and Shamrock getting injured.
Jennum was pitted against Canadian Karate stylist Harold Howard. The fight wasn't competitive and Jennum won the tournament as an alternate that only had to fight once.
From that point alternates were made to fight one another to earn the alternate spot.
Jennum never went on to do anything of note in the Octagon again. He is only on this list because he did in fact win a championship, fortuitous circumstances notwithstanding.
18. David "Tank" Abbott
David "Tank" Abbott was brought in to show that a street brawler couldn't beat a true martial artist. In fact, that is where his "Tank" moniker came from, after the brawler character Tank Murdock of Every Which Way But Loose fame.
Abbott managed to defeat the opponents of lower skill (or none at all) and provided numerous highlight reel knockouts. He is what those uneducated about MMA think of when they hear "cagefighter."
17. Guy Mezger
Guy Mezger is one of the unsung heroes of MMA history. He has a 4-1 record in the UFC and managed to win the UFC 13 tournament, choking out Tito Ortiz in the process.
He went on to fight in Japan, but unfortunately lost most of his high profile fights. Perhaps that is why he as been unfairly forgotten?
Nevertheless, Mezger was one of the few fighters in the early days to be well rounded in all areas and he deserves to be remembered for it.
16. Pedro Rizzo
Pedro Rizzo was a feared Brazilian heavyweight striker in the late days of the pre Zuffa UFC.
He has an impressive highlight reel and a few impressive victories, but he ultimately fell short of the most important thing: A UFC championship belt.
15. Marco Ruas
Marco Ruas is another forgotten name in MMA.
He was a Brazilian known as "The King of the Streets." Ruas managed to win the UFC 7 tournament by chopping down the massive Paul Varelans with leg kicks in the 13th minutes of their bout.
He came up short in the Ultimate Ultimate 1995 semifinals to Oleg Taktarov and was never seen in the Octagon again.
14. Maurice Smith
Maurice Smith was one of the few UFC fighters in the early days to have substantial experience in mixed martial arts (although he had a losing record) before coming to the UFC.
He won the UFC heavyweight title from Mark Coleman, defended it against Tank Abbott, but eventually lost it to Randy Couture. He didn't do much else with his career afterwards and his record stands at 12-13
13. Tie Between Bas Rutten and Kevin Randleman
Although many may be upset with these fighters being so low, think about it. Bas Rutten and Kevin Randleman didn't really have much time or influence in the pre-Zuffa days.
Rutten and Randleman came too late in the game under the UFC's previous owners (Semaphore Entertainment Group) to have a meaningful impact. They weren't the true superstars and legends that those later on this list were.
This is not to say both these men have nothing to be proud of, quite the contrary. Both men were UFC heavyweight champions and for that they deserve a spot on the list. Since Rutten beat Randleman in a controversial split decision, it is a tossup as to who deserves to be ranked higher.
12. Oleg Taktarov
Oleg Taktarov was—along with many of the people on this list—one of the few people of the pre-Zuffa days (especially in the first 10 events or so) that had an advantage tantamount to bringing brass knuckles in the cage with you.
What was that advantage? Knowing how to grapple.
Taktarov won the UFC 6 tournament and contended for the first UFC Superfight championship. He fought in the finals of the Ultimate Ultimate 1996 tournament. He even fought against Ivan Drago but that was outside of the UFC.
11. Vitor Belfort
Vitor Belfort was aptly nicknamed "The Phenom" in part for the phenomenal beatings he was putting on fighters in the early UFC events.
In the pre-Zuffa days he went 5-1 and won the UFC 13 heavyweight tournament.
10. Mark Kerr
"The Smashing Machine" was at one time considered one of the best fighters in the world.
He won back-to-back UFC tournaments (14 and 15) and is one of only three fighters on this list to have done so.
Unfortunately, Kerr's life hit hard times and his career was ultimately a disappointment; his record is now 15-11 after starting 12-0.
9. Don Frye
Don Frye was one of the toughest of the early UFC fighters—with a quite powerful mustache to boot!
He was another two tournament winner (UFC 8 and Ultimate Ultimate 96) and he made it to the finals at UFC 10.
8. Dan Severn
Dan Severn was the first fighter in the UFC to showcase wrestling's dominance as a combat sport.
He performed a series of neck-crushing suplexes against Anthony Macias and even stymied Royce Gracie for a significant amount of time before being submitted.
He won two tournaments (UFC 5 and Ultimate Ultimate 1995) and the UFC Superfight championship against Ken Shamrock in the infamous "Detroit Dance" at UFC 9.
Keep in mind that the list is getting to the point that each fighter, in terms of accomplishments and importance to the pre-Zuffa UFC, is very close to each other. They are all a hair's length away from one another so it is very difficult to separate them.
Don't be upset if you think someone should be higher since there isn't much difference between here and the subsequent ranks.
7. Tito Ortiz
I'm sure there will be a few angry comments about Tito Ortiz being lower than the next person on the list, but to be honest, while Ortiz was certainly big in the pre-Zuffa days, most of his title fights (and fights in general) were in the UFC under Zuffa's ownership.
Despite this, Ortiz still deserves a place on the list for going 5-2, capturing and defending the UFC light heavyweight title in the UFC while it was under the SEG umbrella.
6. Ken Shamrock
Ken Shamrock was another fighter in the early days that had significant "mixed fighting" experience outside of the UFC before he came to fight there.
With this knowledge, he was able to win the UFC Superfight championship against Dan Severn at UFC 6.
Although he was one of the superstars of the early SEG days, he did not accomplish quite as much as the next few fighters did. Also, try to keep in mind what was said earlier, all of these fighters are so close to the top that they could almost be tied at No. 1.
5. Pat Miletich
"The Croatian Sensation" was just that in the pre-Zuffa UFC.
Miletich already had 19 fights and a 17-1-1 record by the time he entered the UFC in 1998.
He won the lightweight tournament at UFC 16. Miletich then became the first ever UFC welterweight champion at UFC: Ultimate Brazil and had four successful title defenses—all of which took place while the UFC was owned by SEG.
Militech would lose his title to Carlos Newton on Zuffa's second UFC event, UFC 31.
4. Frank Shamrock
Another fighter with a wealth of experience before entering the UFC, he too made use of this knowledge to dominate the competition that was still trying to catch up.
He became the first UFC light heavyweight champion at UFC Japan, defended it four times and then dropped the belt due to lack of competition. Had he stuck with it, maybe he would have been even higher on the list.
3. Mark Coleman
Mark Coleman was one of the most dominant wrestlers the SEG owned UFC had seen. He was big, muscular, strong and vicious—a real animal.
He is often credited with being the first fighter to perfect and make "ground and pound" his primary strategy and is thus called "The Godfather of Ground and Pound" by many.
He is one of the other fighters on this list to have won back-to-back tournaments (UFC 10 and UFC 11) and he was the first ever UFC heavyweight champion. Although afterwards his career did briefly hit a rough point.
2. Randy Couture
Before Randy Couture was making money for Zuffa he was making it for SEG.
Couture won the UFC 13 heavyweight tournament and won the UFC heavyweight championship on two separate occasions in the SEG days.
1. Royce Gracie
Say what you will about the Gracies being overrated and not being able to keep up with the sport, (there is certainly something to those arguments) but the fact of the matter is that the Gracies—and their representative in the first few UFC events Royce Gracie–were more responsible for creating the UFC we have today than any other fighter.
This is what makes him the top fighter of the pre-Zuffa era, the fact that it was he and his clan that enabled the existence of the sport itself, even if this was not his or their intention.