The 25 Greatest Champions in MMA History
In the sport of mixed martial arts, being crowned champion is a distinct honor that every fighter aspires for.
Few combatants get the opportunity to win a title, even fewer are able to keep the belt.
But what really makes a champion a champion is not so much of the title as it is the journey that got them there and the manner in which they reigned.
Throughout the sport's history, many great athletes have taken the championship crown in their respective promotions, cementing their legacy as some of the top fighters to ever compete.
Here are the Top 25 greatest champions in the history of mixed martial arts.
25. Dominick Cruz
A relatively young champion, Dominick Cruz has already accrued two major titles—the WEC and UFC bantamweight belts—and he's only 25.
He may not have the lengthy record of others on the list, but Cruz has already defended his titles a combined three consecutive times against some pretty stiff competition.
His most notable title defense came at UFC 132, where he avenged his only career loss against Urijah Faber.
On his road to the title, Cruz defeated a host of talented bantamweights including Joseph Benavediez and then champion Brian Bowles.
If he can defeat his next opponent, Demetrious Johnson, this October, then he might have a case for being the best bantamweight fighter in the sport's history.
24. Cristiane Santos
Women have received less attention in the sport of mixed martial arts than many hardcore fans would like.
One female fighter who fans know is a legitimate warrior is none other than Cristiane Santos.
Also relatively young to the fight game, Santos has amassed an impressive 10-1 record while becoming the current Strikeforce Female Featherweight champion.
She took the inaugural belt by knocking out famed female fighter Gina Carano in 2009. Since then she has defended her title twice, finishing both former female bantamweight champion Marloes Coenen and Jan Finney.
Considering that all but two of her 10 wins have come via KO or TKO, Santos is by far the hardest-hitting woman in MMA history. If she can keep her belt going forward, there is no doubt that she will be remembered as the greatest female champion of all time.
23. Takanori Gomi
In Takanori Gomi's prime, he was considered the greatest lightweight in the sport.
Fighting in Shooto and Pride in Japan, Gomi took three impressive titles as he KO'd and submitted opponents left and right.
On his resume include the Shooto 154 lb. title, which he won in 2001 and defended successfully for over a year, as well as the Pride 2005 Lightweight Grand Prix and Pride World Lightweight Championships.
Although his success has not crossed over well now that he is fighting in the UFC, there is no doubt that in his prime, Gomi was one of the best lighter weight champions in Japan.
22. Nick Diaz
When Nick Diaz faces Georges St. Pierre for the UFC Welterweight belt in October, it will be the fifth major title he will be fighting for in his career.
Diaz recently vacated his Strikeforce Welterweight title, a belt he defended successfully three times most recently against Paul Daley and Cyborg Santos, in order for a shot at GSP.
He is also riding a 10-fight win streak after a failed shot at the EliteXC Welterweight championship.
Diaz is also a former WEC and IFC champion, the latter he won in 2002 by defeating Chris Lytle.
He also holds notable finishes over MMA legend Frank Shamrock and former EliteXC Middleweight champion Robbie Lawler.
The fact that Diaz has taken three major titles, successfully defended them a combined four times and has face such a varied set of opponents in almost every promotion is proof that he should be in the discussion when considering the sport's best champions.
21. Jose Aldo
The current UFC Featherweight champion and former WEC Featherweight champion is one of the most explosive fighters to ever enter the cage.
With an impressive 19-1 record, Jose Aldo has gone 9-0 since joining the Zuffa family and has had an amazing ascension into the upper echelon of the fight game.
Aldo took the WEC title in 2009 by viciously KOing Mike Brown in the second round.
He then faced former title holder Urijah Faber, who he fended off with relative ease. For all five rounds, Aldo dominated the fight, landing so many brutal leg kicks during the fight that Faber's corner had to carry him.
A perfect 4-0 in title fights, Aldo most recently defeated Mark Hominick, retaining his now UFC title. Aldo is set to defend his title against perennial contender Kenny Florian at UFC 136.
If Aldo can retain the belt for a few more fights, he might surpass Faber as the greatest featherweight champion in MMA.
20. Jake Shields
Many fighters have won a title. Some have even won two.
For Jake Shields, he's had the opportunity to hold four different belts in two different weight classes over the course of his career.
Shields' titles include being a former Strikeforce Middleweight champion, a former Shooto Middleweight champion, a former EliteXC Welterweight champion and a former ROTR welterweight tournament winner.
In total, Shields has fought for six different belts, most recently looking to dethrone Georges St. Pierre in a failed run at the UFC welterweight belt.
While he was the Strikeforce champion, he weathered a barrage of strikes and came through with a big win over the legendary Dan Henderson. As EliteXC champion, he also submitted the hard-hitting Paul Daley with an armbar.
Although he technically only has two title defenses in his career, Shields has proven to be a very versatile champion, winning in bout tournament and standard formats. At the ROTR welterweight tournament, he defeated both Yushin Okami and Carlos Condit in the same night.
His myriad of titles and ability to dominate at two weight classes make him one of the most decorated champions in MMA history.
19. Jens Pulver
In the earlier days of the UFC, the lighter weight classes were not as prominent as they are today.
One of the pioneers of the early lightweight division was Jens Pulver, the first ever UFC Lightweight champion.
"Lil' Evil" won the title at UFC 30 in 2001, defeating Caol Uno for what was then known as the bantamweight belt. He would go on to successfully defend the title two consecutive times against one of the all-time greats in BJ Penn and long-time veteran Dennis Hallman.
Pulver was unforunately stripped of the title when he left the promotion due to contract disputes, but would go on to fight for the WEC Featherweight belt in 2008.
Pulver lost the decision to then champion Urijah Faber, but the fight was one of the biggest for the WEC and brought much needed attention to the lighter weight classes.
Although his stock has fallen since his famed bouts earlier in his career in the UFC, Pulver will forever be remembered as one of the best lightweight fighters of all time.
18. Rampage Jackson
Although Rampage Jackson's reign as champion was short lived, there is no doubt that he made a mark while holding onto the UFC gold.
Before emphatically knocking out Chuck Liddell for the light-heavyweight crown in 2007, Rampage barely missed taking Pride gold by losing to Wanderlei Silva twice for both the Pride Middleweight Championship and the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix Championship.
He would, however, avenge both his losses to Silva and his failed Pride title runs by unifying the Pride and UFC belts when he defeated then Pride Middleweight champion Dan Henderson in his first UFC title defense.
In a Fight of the Year performance, Rampage would lose the belt to Forrest Griffin in a fight that some think he won.
Now geared up for another title fight against current champion Jon Jones, Rampage has a shot to take the crown once again.
17. Urijah Faber
Looking back at the WEC, there is literally only one fighter who took the promotion to another level of popularity—Urijah Faber.
Defeating Cole Escovedo in a brutal TKO stoppage in 2006, Faber took the featherweight crown and did not relinquish the title for over five fights.
The longest reigning WEC Featherweight champion, Faber submitted all four of his opponents in his first four defenses, including Dominick Cruz.
His last defense against Jens Pulver was one of the biggest fights in WEC history.
While the WEC champion, Faber was also a King of the Cage Bantamweight champ, a title he also defended five times.
Although he's had less than stellar success in title fights since losing to Mike Brown in 2008, Faber will remain a pioneer for the featherweight and bantamweight divisions, a fighter who single-handedly brought attention and personality to the lighter weight classes.
16. Shogun Rua
When Shogun Rua was in Pride, he was one of the most explosive, young fighters out there.
When he took the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix title in 2005, he defeated both Rampage Jackson and Lil' Nog in the opening two rounds in impressive fashion.
That August, he KO'd both Ricardo Arona and Alistair Overeem on the same night.
Did I mention he was only 23 at the time?
Making his way to the UFC in 2007, Shogun had a bumpy road en route to the UFC Light Heavyweight title.
Rebounding from a loss to Forrest Griffin, Shogun TKO'd Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell in back to back fights before getting his first shot at then champion Lyoto Machida.
Losing a controversial decision in the first bout, Shogun wasted no time in their rematch, knocking out the karate master for the first time in his career.
Although Shogun would go on to lose the belt to up-and-coming phenom Jon Jones, his vicious strikes and impressive record will cement his legacy as one of the greatest strikers to fight in both Pride and the UFC.
15. Mark Coleman
The first UFC Heavyweight champion was an evolution stemming from the promotion's earlier tournament format.
Winning both UFC 10 and 11 in a total of five fights —all won by submission or TKO—Mark Coleman was destined to be a champion.
Taking on the legendary Dan Severn at UFC 12, Coleman looked to take out the Superfight Champion, which is just what he did.
In the first round, Coleman was able to sink what looked like an arm triangle to win the first ever UFC Heavyweight Championship, unifying the title with the Superfight Championship.
Although he would go on to lose the belt in his next bout, he would regain his champion status in 2000 by winning the Pride Openweight Grand Prix.
The first heavyweight champion definitely left a mark on both the UFC and MMA as a whole with his vicious submission wrestling.
14. Pat Miletich
The UFC's welterweight title has a history of long reigning champions.
The first was one of MMA's pioneers, Pat Miletich.
Winning the first ever 170 lb. belt at UFC Brazil in 1998, Miletich defeated Mikey Burnett in a 21-minute long first-round affair.
After gaining the title, Miletich would successfully defend it a total of four times, most notably against John Alessio at UFC 26.
One of the groundbreaking fighters going into to the modern UFC era, Miletich also proved to he could win in the earlier tournament format, taking the UFC 16 lightweight crown in 1998.
Although he would eventually lose the welterweight belt to Carlos Newton in 2001, Miletich will forever be remembered as one of the UFC's earliest and greatest champions.
13. Tito Ortiz
Say what you will about Tito Ortiz, but during his reign as the UFC Light-Heavyweight champion, there was nobody better.
Winning the title in 2000 by defeating Wanderlei Silva, he defended his title a total of five consecutive times, including stoppages of Ken Shamrock and a huge KO slam of Evan Tanner.
He would eventually lose his title to Randy Couture, but would go on a five-fight win streak before getting another crack at the belt.
During that streak, he finished Ken Shamrock two times in a row and also defeated Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin.
He was never able to regain his belt, losing to Chuck Liddell in brutal fashion, and looked to be headed to retirement after going win less for nearly five years.
But after submitting Ryan Bader and having a great showing against Rashad Evans, it seems that Ortiz is back.
He may never get the belt back again, but his reign as champion will never be forgotten.
12. Royce Gracie
He may never have had a chance to wear a UFC belt, but that's because they didn't have them back then.
The first ever UFC champion, Royce Gracie was not only a pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but the sport of MMA as a whole.
Winning UFC 1, 2 and 4, every one of Royce Gracie's wins in the Octagon were by submission, a UFC record.
Royce caught the attention of millions of fans when he choked out guys twice his size, guys like Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock.
A Hall of Famer as well, there's no doubt that his impact on the sport was and still remains immense.
11. Minotauro Nogueira
Minotauro Nogueira was one of the most dominating heavyweights of all time.
Sporting a 32-6-1 (1) record, all six of his losses are to current or former champions.
In Pride, Big Nog became the first heavyweight champion, defeating Heath Herring at Pride 17. The win came only a few months after winning the 2000 King of Kings tournament.
Minotauro lost his Pride title to Fedor Emelianenko in 2003, but regained an interim belt by submitting Mirko Cro Cop later that year.
In 2007, he won the UFC interim belt by submitting Tim Sylvia. However, his reign as a UFC champ was short lived as he was defeated by Frank Mir at UFC 92.
With wins over some of the greatest legends in MMA including Randy Couture, Dan Henderson as well as Cro Cop, Nogueira is definitely one of the all-time great heavyweight champions.
10. BJ Penn
One of only two UFC fighters to hold a title in two different weight classes, BJ Penn is a legend of the sport.
Initially losing his first bid at the lightweight belt, Penn rebounded when he moved up to welterweight, submitting then champion Matt Hughes via rear naked choke.
Disputes with the UFC led to his title being stripped, but when Penn returned to the lightweight division in 2007, the Prodigy showed why he's one of the most dangerous fighters in the world.
Penn went on a brutal tear when he rejoined the UFC's lightweight division, submitting Jens Pulver then destroying Joe Stevenson in a submission win to take the title.
Defending his title three straight times, Penn finished each one of his opponents, TKOing Sean Sherk and Diego Sanchez and choking out Kenny Florian.
Known as a finisher, Penn has been a mainstay of the sport since he first fought in the UFC in 2001.
Penn truly embodies the heart of a champion.
9. Frank Shamrock
There's a reason why Frank Shamrock is considered a legend by analysts and fans alike—and it's not all due to his nickname.
Shamrock has held five different championship belts between two different weight classes, something that's just unheard of.
He's most notably the first UFC Light-Heavyweight champion, winning the title by submitting Kevin Jackson at UFC Japan. A true mixed martial artist, Shamrock used both his slick submission skills and powerful punches to defend his title a total of four times.
His last UFC title defense was a beatdown of Tito Ortiz where he forced Ortiz to submit due to strikes.
Vacating the belt due to retirement, Shamrock wasn't gone for long, winning the first WEC Light-Heavyweight belt in 2003.
His career slowed down though, fighting sporadically until taking the first ever Strikeforce Middleweight title by choking out Phil Baroni in 2007.
After losing the title to Cung Le, Shamrock lost a non-title fight to Nick Diaz before retiring for good.
Looking back at his career, the man considered to be the first fighter to truly integrate all the arts is by far one of the greatest champions in MMA history.
8. Wanderlei Silva
During his Pride days, Wanderlei Silva was by far the most feared middleweight in the world.
Winning the first Pride Middleweight title by stopping the legendary Sakuraba in 2001, Silva successfully defended his title four times.
He also won the 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix, defeating Rampage Jackson and Sakuraba again in the process.
Career wins include multiple victories over Jackson and Sakuraba as well as wins over Ricardo Arona and Dan Henderson.
He may not have mirrored his success since coming to the UFC, but there's no doubt that the Axe Murder was one of the most dominating fighters during his time with Pride.
7. Fedor Emelianenko
Despite his recent slump of three straight losses, you cannot deny that Fedor was one of the greatest in his prime.
In 2002, Fedor won his first title when he took the RINGS Absolute Class Tournament, The next year he took the Pride Heavyweight title by defeating Big Nog.
For almost a decade, Fedor went undefeated, beating anyone in his path and taking a myriad of accolades on the way.
In 2004, he defeated Big Nog again to unify the Pride Heavyweight title with the Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix belt. Fedor would go on to defend the title twice against both Mirko Cro Cop and Mark Hunt.
There's no denying Fedor's dominance during the prime of his career.
6. Chuck Liddell
Truly a legend, the Iceman became the UFC Light-Heavyweight champion in 2005 when he stopped Randy Couture via knockout.
Not only did Chuck Liddell win a nice, golden belt but he also became the face of the UFC.
His trademarked Mohawk, brawler style and vicious overhand right made him an instant celebrity. He drew in millions of fans and brought MMA to a new level of popularity.
During this time, he also defended his title four straight times, knocking out Randy Couture again and putting away Tito Ortiz.
His resume also sports KO wins over Alistair Overeem, Renato Sobral and Jeremy Horn.
There's a reason why this guy is in the Hall of Fame.
5. Dan Henderson
A champion in five different promotions, Dan Henderson is one of the most decorated champions in MMA history.
At 40 years of age, Hendo is currently the Strikeforce Light-Heavyweight champion, the oldest fighter to win a title in the promotion's history.
Also on his resume include both the Pride Middleweight and Welterweight belts, as well as the 2005 Welterweight Grand Prix title.
Earlier in his career, Hendo also won the 1999 King of Kings Tournament as well as the UFC 17 tournament.
With wins over everyone from Wanderlei Silva to Fedor Emelianenko, he's faced nearly everyone.
Oh, and he's an Olympic veteran.
4. Matt Hughes
Matt Hughes' reign as the UFC Welterweight champion was one of the most prolific title holds in MMA history.
Hughes won the title in 2001 with a huge KO slam of Carlos Newton, a fight where many thought Hughes was unconscious from Newton's choke hold.
However, once he got the belt, he just did not want to give it up.
Hughes defended his title five straight times, submitting Frank Trigg in his last defense before BJ Penn took the belt.
He wasn't done with the belt yet, however, as he fired back in the spotlight by taking back the title at UFC 50, submitting Georges St. Pierre with an armbar. Hughes then went on to defend his title two more times, beating Frank Trigg again and avenging his loss to BJ Penn with a TKO win.
With wins over Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Matt Serra, GSP, Penn, Carlos Newton and Ricardo Almeida, Hughes was one of the most dominant welterweights in history.
Set to face Diego Sanchez in September, Matt Hughes remains in the sport to cement his legacy and have fun—nothing more we can ask of this UFC Hall of Famer.
3. Randy Couture
Five UFC titles in two weight classes, an interim belt, a tournament win and a Hall of Fame plaque. Randy Couture accomplished so much throughout his long and illustrious career.
The oldest fighter to win a UFC belt, Couture is a three-time UFC Heavyweight champion and a two-time Light-Heavyweight champion.
Owning huge wins over Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell, Pedro Rizzo, Mark Coleman and Tito Ortiz, Couture proved that he is a legend.
Utilizing his famous dirty boxing and superb wrestling, Couture would grind down his opponents usually to a submission or TKO win.
Able to fight into his late forties, Couture truly embodied the heart of a warrior and proved why he is one of the greatest fighters of all time.
2. Georges St. Pierre
Is it surprising that Georges St. Pierre is in the top two?
Although criticized for not being able to finish his last few opponents, there's no doubt that GSP is on another level than his competition.
The current UFC Welterweight champion has successfully defended his crown six times, most recently against Jake Shields.
But to be a great champion doesn't mean just wearing a belt, it's the journey as well.
GSP first fought for the title against Matt Hughes in 2004. Surrounded by a lot of hype entering the fight, he came up short, submitted via armbar in the first round.
Rather than mull over his defeat, GSP came back better than ever. He went 5-0 leading up to his second title shot, defeating BJ Penn, Sean Sherk and Frank Trigg on the way.
In impressive fashion, GSP TKO'd Hughes with a head kick to take the title of welterweight champ.
But the story did not end there. GSP would lose the title to Matt Serra in his first title defense, TKO'd
himself by the fellow Renzo Gracie black belt.
Humbled, he would take a year-long road back to the belt, taking the rubber match against Matt Hughes via arm bar to take the interim belt.
In his rematch with Serra, it was clear that GSP was the better fighter, stopping Serra with knees to the body.
GSP has proven himself to be the most well-rounded fighter in MMA history. His poise and ability to out think his opponents is what has led to him being such a dominant champion.
1. Anderson Silva
Eight straight UFC title defenses - UFC record.
Thirteen straight UFC wins - UFC record.
1760 day reign as UFC champion - UFC record.
There is no doubt that Anderson Silva is the greatest MMA champion of all time. Combining his UFC, Cage Rage and Shooto titles, he has three total titles with 11 total defenses.
He's blown past nearly all of his competition, viciously knocking out Vitor Belfort with a front kick and choking out former Olympic wrestler Dan Henderson to unify the UFC and Pride belts.
He dominated Rich Franklin, broke the iron jaw of Chris Leben and leveled Forrest Griffn.
Able to control any fighter in two weight classes, it should have been expected that a fighter would challenge him one day.
When Silva faced Chael Sonnen last August, no one thought that Sonnen would dominate Silva for five whole rounds.
But there is a reason Anderson Silva is the champion and through his heart and will he was able to pull off a last minute triangle to keep his title.
Proving that he can battle through adversity to keep his reign intact, there is no other fighter who even comes close to Anderson Silva's caliber as a champion.