MMA may be in its infancy, yet a vast amount of the sport's pioneers have either retired or faded into oblivion. Fighters come and go, but for some fight fans, the retirement of a fighter can be heart-rending stuff.
Most fighters in any walk of sport are the last to know when to quit. When they do finally call time on their storied careers, it’s mostly due to the fact that they were on the receiving end of a one-sided beat-down.
UFC legends Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and, most recently, B.J. Penn have all been party to said thrashing, which subsequently were the catalysts in their decisions to wave goodbye to the Octagon and their stellar careers.
Sure, the aforementioned combatants will be sorely missed for their achievements, but there are a host of other mixed martial artists and pioneers of the sport who shall be missed in equal measure.
Let’s take a look at a generation of MMA fighters that fight fans will really miss.
Notable wins: Paul Varelans and Gary Goodridge
Notable losses: Oleg Taktarov and Maurice Smith (twice)
Marco Ruas was a skilled practitioner in striking, grappling and submissions—at the time his abilities were the prototype for the complete MMA fighter.
In his first foray into the UFC (September 1995), Ruas—also known as “The King of the Streets”—became the UFC 7 tournament champion after defeating three opponents (two via submission) on the same night, most notably 6’8” giant Paul Varelans via TKO.
The Ruas Vale Tudor mixed martial artist is one of a band of fighters who are credited with bringing MMA to the fore.
Notable wins: Kenichi Yamamoto, Mike Brown, Royler Gracie and Hiroyuku Takaya
Notable losses: Duane Ludwig and Norifumi Yamamoto
Even though Sudo had an unorthodox style of fighting, he was also an excellent jiu-jitsu practitioner, with 12 of 16 victories coming via submission.
During his career, Sudo had competed in several organizations, including the UFC and Pancrase.
Besides his fighting skills he was also known for his flamboyancy—his ring entrances were enough to put some of most ostentatious of WWE stars to shame.
With Sudo, what you saw is what you got, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in MMA who could emulate the glitzy flashiness of Neo-Samurai.
Notable wins: Kazushi Sakuraba, Gilbert Yvel, Valentijn Overeem and Heath Herring
Notable losses: Mark Coleman, Heath Herring, Quinton Jackson, Mirko Filipović and Alistair Overeem
Vovchanchyn was a KO artist if there ever was one—en route to the top he left a wake of broken combatants in his path.
“The Ukraine Freight Train” was an apt sobriquet.
He was no slouch in the submissions department either—when head-butting was legal in MMA, he’d use it efficaciously, resulting in several of his opponents tapping out.
Vovchanchyn also fought for various organizations, most notably Pride. He was a finalist at the Pride Grand Prix 2000 only to be submitted by Mark Coleman.
“Ice Cold” was definitely a force to be reckoned with, and for more than four years he went on a MMA wrecking spree—amassing a 37-fight unbeaten streak.
For some reason he could never quite mix it up with the upper-echelon fighters of the MMA world, otherwise he’d have been one of the greatest mixed martial artists.
Nevertheless, Vovchanchyn always gave the fans their money’s worth.
Notable wins: Gary Goodridge (twice), Tank Abbott, Gilbert Yves, Ken Shamrock and Yoshihiro Takayama
Notable losses: Mark Coleman (twice), Hidehiko Yoshida and Gary Goodridge
Don Frye became a fan favourite after he dispatched three opponents in under a minute and in one single night to win the UFC 8 tournament.
“The Predator” secured his second tournament win at the UFC’s Ultimate Ultimate 96 championship, submitting Abbott via rear-naked choke.
That was the last time that Frye would step into the Octagon.
Pride beckoned and Frye upped sticks to Japan.
At Pride 21, he put on one of his greatest performances—a non-stop punch-fest with Yoshihiro Takayama which lasted over six minutes, with Frye winning via TKO.
Notable wins: Tank Abbott, Marco Ruas and Mark Kerr
Notable losses: Dan Severn (twice), Renzo Gracie and Gary Goodridge
Oleg Taktarov was a solid practitioner in several disciplines—Sambo, judo and jiu-jitsu.
During fights he always exuded an exterior of calmness, much like his compatriot Fedor Emelianenko.
“The Russian Bear,” who won the UFC 6 tournament by defeating Tank Abbott, was also supremely athletic and acrobatic in his execution of Sambo takedowns.
During his MMA career, Taktarov was never submitted.
Save for his championship win at the UFC 6 tournament, the other defining moment in his career (one I’d think he rather forget) was a knockout loss to Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Renzo Gracie via an Anderson Silva-esque up-kick.
After his MMA career was over Taktarov turned to acting, and has appeared in over 20 films.
Notable wins: Ken Shamrock, Kimo Leopoldo, Dan Severn and Kazushi Sakuraba
Notable losses: Kazushi Sakuraba and Matt Hughes
Younger brother of Rickson Gracie, Royce Gracie is regarded as the most significant mixed martial artist in the history of the sport.
Gracie competed in and won the UFC’s inaugural event—UFC 1 in 1993. He was also victorious in the following UFC 2 tournament.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu wizard acquired 11 submissions in his tenure with the UFC, a record which still stands today.
Like Rickson, Gracie fought fewer than 20 times professionally, but will always be remembered for his execution of some truly exquisite submission moves.
Gracie wanted to make a comeback at UFC 134, in his native Brazil, however his request was turned down by Dana White.
As of now, Gracie has not competed on the professional circuit since June of 2007.
Gracie will forever be remembered as being one of the founding fathers of the today’s modern MMA, as well as the reason for the sport reaching a global audience.
Notable wins: Chris Brennan, Mikey Burnett, Andre Pederneiras, John Alessio and Kenichi Yamamoto
Notable losses: Jose Landi-Jons, Carlos Newton, Matt Lindland and Renzo Gracie
At 27, Pat Miletich was a late starter in regards to his professional MMA career.
Nevertheless, “The Croatian Sensation” would go on to win the UFC lightweight tournament as well as capture the UFC Welterweight Championship at UFC Brazil.
As a fighter, Miletich was one of those species of combatants that wore their hearts on their sleeves—the punishment he dished out, he sometimes received in equal measures.
The Croatian-born American has been credited with training the likes of former UFC champions Tim Sylvia, Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver to name but a few.
Notable wins: Bas Rutten, Minoru Suzuki (twice), Masakatsu Funaki, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Kevin Jackson, Jeremy Horn, Tito Ortiz and Phil Baroni
Notable losses: Bas Rutten (twice), Cung Le and Nick Diaz
“The Legend” was the first-ever UFC light heavyweight champion and successful defended the title four times, only equalled by Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and surpassed by Tito “The Huntington Bad Boy” Ortiz.
He was also the first WEC light heavyweight champion as well as the first Strikeforce middleweight champion.
The adopted younger brother of Ken Shamrock was a sublime submission artist.
He was also as entertaining as he was ruthless—Baroni and Ortiz are testaments to how clinical an operator The Legend could be.
As his moniker implies, Frank Shamrock is truly a legendary figure of the mixed martial arts world.
Notable wins: Rei Zulu (twice), Nobuhiko Takada (twice) and Masakatsu Funaki.
Rickson Gracie makes the No. 2 cut, well, because he’s Rickson Gracie of the famed Gracie family and one of the pioneers of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
His 11 sanctioned MMA fights and second-placing might not do justice to the other retired combatants, but Gracie was master of his art and had also been fighting since 1980.
An accomplished practitioner in BJJ, judo and aikido, his 11 recognized wins all came by way of submission—rear-naked choke (seven times), armbar (twice) and punches (twice).
If Rickson were active today (20 years younger, that is), it would’ve been intriguing to see how he’d fare against the current crop of evolving mixed martial artists.
Notable wins: Frank Shamrock, Maurice Smith, Minoru Suzuki, Masakatsu Funaki, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and Kevin Randleman
Notable losses: Masakatsu Funaki, Ken Shamrock (twice) and Frank Shamrock
Bas “El Guapo” Rutten was one of the pioneers of MMA.
He went on to become a three-time King of Pancrase world champion and was also the UFC world heavyweight champion.
His favourite execution move was the liver shot, which he used to great effect in nullifying Randleman to win the UFC heavyweight belt.
Amongst many MMA purists and analyst today, El Guapo—“The Handsome One”—is rated as being one of the greatest mixed martial artists to have ever stepped inside a ring or the Octagon.
He exuded confidence and the brutality he exhibited in some of his fights was often par for the course.
His 1996 rematch with the legendary Masakatsu Funaki has been regarded as being one of the greatest fights in Pancrase history.
Funaki, who had defeated Rutten almost three years earlier via submission, was literally taken to the cleaners—Rutten put a clinic on him.
Rutten would later state the reasons behind his GBH-esque assault on Funaki:
"Before the fight when he came to me, he made that thumb over the neck, throat slashing motion like I was going to go down. I turned to my manager and said, 'Okay, now I'm going to kill this guy, you watch.'"
That was a fight for the ages and one that’ll be etched in the memories of those who witnessed Rutten at one of his most violent best.