Olympians in MMA: Top 10 Fighters of Today Who Competed in the Olympic Games

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2017

Olympians in MMA: Top 10 Fighters of Today Who Competed in the Olympic Games

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    There have been superfights in boxing. There have been blockbuster stadium shows in MMA. But nothing comes close to the grandiosity and reach of the Olympic Games.

    In all of sports, the gold medal is the most identifiable, most iconic and greatest award an athlete can receive. It’s a lure that has attracted the best from the biggest sports in the world...and mixed martial arts is no different.

    Many of the greatest fighters in history competed in or strove to be a part of the Games at one point or another. Only a select few, however, have actually made a run for a medal and then made a serious splash in MMA. Today’s fans, though, are lucky enough to be able to see some of these competitors in action.

    So which fighters are among this lot? And how do they stack up against one another? Read on and find out.

Honorable Mention: Kayla Harrison

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    Sport: Judo
    Country Represented: United States
    Games: 2012 (Gold), 2016 (Gold)

    It may seem presumptuous to include Kayla Harrison on this list before she has even competed in MMA, but she deserves to be here on her pedigree alone. 

    In 2012, Harrison became the first American to win gold in judo with an impressive performance that saw her ippon her way to the gold-medal match and shut out hometown favorite Gemma Gibbons to seal the deal. Then in 2016, she grappled her way through the field to capture her second Olympic gold medal.

    She signed with World Series of Fighting in October and instantly became one of the hottest prospects in women's MMA. Her debut will likely come later this year, and it's a must-watch fight.

No. 10: Satoshi Ishii

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    Sport: Judo
    Country Represented: Japan
    Games: 2008 (Gold)

    It's kind of sad what has become of Satoshi Ishii's MMA career. He was once Japan's premier homegrown heavyweight, but things have gone sideways for him in recent years. 

    Back-to-back losses to Mirko Cro Cop in 2014 damaged his standing on the international stage in a big way. He returned to the win column in 2015 and made his way onto bigger stages with Rizin FF and Bellator, but has struggled under the spotlight, dropping three fights in a row as of this writing.

    While he's in dire straits career-wise, there's still reason to hold out hope for the judoka. Ishii has improved in recent years training under former Dream champion and current UFC contender Gegard Mousasi. What's more, he hasn't lost to any low-level opponents and continues to fight at heavyweight when he would likely be better served competing at light heavyweight or possibly even middleweight.

    At 30 years old, though, he has the time to turn things around. If he can, he can become a unique and interesting competitor in one of MMA's glamour divisions.

No. 9: Dan Kelly

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    Sport: Judo
    Country Represented: Australia
    Games: 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012

    Making the Olympics once is a feat. Judoka have to dedicate years of their life to training and traveling in order to qualify for an Olympic berth.

    A poorly timed injury? A frustrated governing body? A tainted supplement? Poof. All gone.

    Australia's Dan Kelly, though, has pulled it off a whopping four times. Competing in all four Olympics from 2000 and 2012 in judo, he picked up notable wins against former medalists Carlos Honorato and Jason Morris. Despite never reaching the podium, he remains one of the country's most decorated judoka.

    Those skills have served him well in the Octagon too. A product of The Ultimate Fighter: Nations, Kelly has racked up a solid 5-1 record in the UFC to this point, with his biggest win being a knockout of TUF: Brazil 3 winner Antonio Carlos Junior.

    While he hasn't been pulling off the dazzling throws or lightning-quick submissions people equate with judo, he has a deep arsenal of trips and sweeps that set him up to ply his strong top game. Add to that an absurd toughness and resiliency and you have a man who could make a Cinderella run to the title picture at nearly 40 years old.

No. 8: Hector Lombard

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    Sport: Judo
    Country Represented: Cuba
    Games: 2000

    That's right. Once upon a time, Hector Lombard was an Olympic judoka.

    That likely comes as a surprise to many MMA fans. The Cuban-Australian has more in common with wrestlers-turned-power-punchers like Johny Hendricks and John Dodson—racking up wins by smashing foes with his granite fists—rather than fellow judo converts like Rick Hawn and Yoshihiro Akiyama.

    Occasionally, though, Lombard's base will shine through with an osoto otoshi or deashi harai. And when that unicorn appears? It's easy to see how effective judo can be in the cage.

    Of course, Lombard finds his way to victory with brutal punches more often than not. Just keep a close eye on his next fight. You might just see his Olympic background shine through.

No. 7: Sara McMann

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    Sport: Freestyle Wrestling
    Country Represented: United States
    Games: 2004 (Silver)

    Sara McMann's rise in the UFC was quick. And the dip and plateau that followed? Well, that was even quicker. 

    The 2004 Olympic silver medalist entered the UFC with a fair bit of fanfare due to her accomplishments in wrestling, and she quickly found herself fast-tracked to the top of the bantamweight division. That jump to the top, however, ultimately worked against her.

    Without ever having the opportunity to develop as a mixed martial artist, McMann found herself facing Ronda Rousey for the UFC title in just her second fight with the promotion in February 2014. From there, she was pitted against a murderers' row including former Invicta FC champion Lauren Murphy and future UFC champions Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes.

    After exploding out of the gate, McMann was on the brink of being sent back to the regional circuit. She received another opportunity and, following a 10-month layoff to hone her skills, made the most of it. 

    Facing Jessica Eye at UFC Fight Night 88 in May, McMann demonstrated improved clinch striking and a potent top game. Those new wrinkles continued to pay dividends when she posted the biggest win of her career over veteran Brazilian jiu-jitsu player Alexis Davis, submitting the submission whiz in the second round in December. 

    McMann is trending upward in a big way. While she may have been on the brink of a return to Invicta a year ago, today she is right back in the thick of title contention.

No. 6: Dan Henderson

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    Sport: Greco-Roman Wrestling
    Country Represented: United States
    Games: 1992, 1996

    MMA fans of all ages have seen Dan Henderson at one point or another. He's just been around that long. 

    With a career that dates back to 1997 and accolades in the UFC, Pride FC, Rings and Strikeforce, Henderson is one of the most enduring and most decorated fighters in MMA history. That, unfortunately, has made many forget that Hendo actually entered MMA after securing two Olympic berths in Greco-Roman wrestling.

    That's a shame too, because he was a highly accomplished wrestler in his time. Here's a brief list of his achievements, courtesy of Bloody Elbow's Michael Riordan:

    • 1992 and 1996 United States Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team member
    • 1988 USA Junior freestyle champion
    • 1988 USA Junior Greco-Roman champion
    • 3-time USA Senior Greco-Roman champion
    • 1990 USA FILA Junior World Greco-Roman champion
    • 1993-94 U.S. Nationals champion

    The list, in fact, goes on.

    Of course, a strong case could be made Henderson shouldn't appear on this list, given that he seems to be all in on retirement right now. It's hard to believe any fighter when he says he's done, though—never mind a fighter who challenged for the UFC title just a few months ago.

No. 5: Henry Cejudo

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    Sport: Freestyle Wrestling
    Country Represented: United States
    Games: 2008 (Gold)

    Before he joined the UFC, Henry Cejudo was shaping up to be a "what if" story. There was never any question about his talent, of course. His Olympic gold medal pretty much said everything that needed saying when it came to both his athleticism and his abilities on the mat. The trouble was what seemed to be a lack of commitment in MMA, with the reddest flag being repeated issues surrounding his weight cut down to 125 pounds.

    When he finally made it to the UFC, though, he did everything necessary to realize his potential.

    He debuted at UFC on Fox 13 in December 2014 as a bantamweight and posted a shockingly strong performance. In addition to his elite-level wrestling, he demonstrated a strong, confident and diverse striking game that was proficient well beyond what one would expect from a fighter who was less than two years into his career.

    He made his UFC flyweight debut at UFC 185 in March 2015 opposite former top contender Chris Cariaso and immediately cemented himself as a top-tier flyweight by taking a unanimous 30-27 decision win. He's been among that lot ever since, and despite coming off back-to-back losses as of this writing, Cejudo is here to stay.

No. 4: Ben Askren

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    Sport: Freestyle Wrestling
    Country Represented: United States
    Games: 2008

    Most MMA fans view Ben Askren as a standard-issue "boring grinder," a sentiment that UFC President Dana White has long expressed. Askren is One FC's answer to Jon Fitch. The modern day "Decision Dan" Henderson. In extreme cases, a regional-level fighter whose career has gotten out of hand.

    That's not the reality of Askren, though. The reality is that he is one of the single best grapplers in MMA. 

    Casual and less-educated fans can overlook the many intricacies of Askren's game: the way he chains takedown attempts, the way he advances position, the way he can isolate and control limbs. Ultimately, the results speak for themselves.

    Askren is undefeated in his MMA career to this point, sitting at 15-0 (1), with the sole blemish being a no-contest stemming from an eye poke. Along the way, he has beaten many of the best welterweights outside of the UFC.

    And note, he has beaten them. He didn't just win an athletic contest. Andrey Koreshkov, the former Bellator champion who thrashed Benson Henderson last year, landed just three strikes to Askren's 247. Current Bellator champion Douglas Lima didn't fare much better.

    Askren has been somewhat overlooked in recent years due to his light schedule in One FC. Still, he remains one of the best welterweights in the world until someone proves otherwise.

No. 3: Ronda Rousey

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    Sport: Judo
    Nation Represented: United States

    Games: 2004, 2008 (Bronze)

    Since losing to Amanda Nunes at UFC 207, Ronda Rousey has had her entire career called into question. She's been labeled as everything from a hype job to a "Great White Hope" to a "rig job" produced by the "liberal agenda."

    While many have struggled to separate Rousey as a fighter from the UFC's oft-absurd hyperbole, there is  no room for doubt about whether she is a legitimate combat athlete. Rousey is the real deal, and one needs to look no further than her judo career for proof.

    Rousey began competing at the international level at age 14 when she took gold at the 2001 Coupe Canada Senior Cup. By age 17, she had already qualified for her first Olympic Games with a trophy shelf that included 11 medals from major events. While she walked out of the Athens Games empty-handed, she quickly rebounded from that disappointing outing with an incredible tear from 2005 to 2008 that saw her capture three Pan American Judo Championship medals, a gold medal from the Pan American Games and, eventually, a second Olympic Games berth.

    Contrary to the narrative that's been spun of late, Rousey suffered a disappointing loss to Edith Bosch in the quarterfinals and rallied back with a vengeance, winning three more matches that day to capture the bronze medal in 2008.

    While MMA fans mistakenly view UFC gold as the be-all, end-all of combat sports, the reality is that success in judo is significantly more difficult. The level of athleticism is higher. The competition is stiffer. The qualification process is more difficult. And still, Rousey was successful enough to the point where she won an Olympic medal.

    From a legacy standpoint, that trumps any adversity she's faced in her MMA career.

No. 2: Yoel Romero

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    Sport: Freestyle Wrestling
    Country Represented: Cuba
    Games: 2000 (Silver)

    It may sound lazy to label Yoel Romero as "athletic" and "explosive," but frankly, no other adjectives better describe his style, whether that's in the cage or on the mat. In the blink of an eye, Romero can go from a disadvantageous or neutral position to dominating an opponent both physically and psychologically.

    MMA fans have seen GIFs of Romero's absurd feats of speed and strength over the years. Sometimes, he's scoring a double-leg takedown while on all fours. Sometimes, he's grabbing another man by the ankle and turning him upside down. Sometimes, he's just swinging someone around by the waist for fun. 

    In the cage, he's proved to be equally physical, and more importantly he has shown that those tools can translate into wins over top-tier competition.

    With a title shot in his pocket and names like Chris Weidman, Lyoto Machida and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza on his resume, Romero is positioned for big things in 2017. It will be fun to see if he can add yet another knockout to his highlight reel and a UFC belt to his trophy case.

No. 1: Daniel Cormier

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    Sport: Freestyle Wrestling
    Country Represented: United States
    Games: 2004

    It probably comes as little surprise that Daniel Cormier sits atop this list. From the beginning of his rise in Strikeforce, to his settling in as a contender in the UFC, to his eventual seizure of the light heavyweight title, DC's background as an Olympic freestyle wrestler has been integral to both his success as a mixed martial artist and his identity as a competitor. 

    Cormier is a regular sight at wrestling events in the United States and runs his own youth wrestling program out of the American Kickboxing Academy gym. He also maintains close ties to USA Wrestling, working alongside Olympic hopefuls and often finding himself being recognized for his achievements on Team USA from 2001 to 2008.

    Of course, those accolades have translated into big-time success in MMA as well. Since his debut in 2009, Cormier has faced stiff competition on a regular basis and nobody save Jon Jones has been able to stop his wrestling game. He owns a near-flawless 18-1 record and has absorbed few significant strikes along the way. Just as importantly, when things go sideways, he has demonstrated the ability to dig deep and will his way to victory in the late stages of fights.

    While many still gripe about how he became UFC light heavyweight champion, that's ultimately irrelevant. No matter what factors are in play outside his control, Cormier is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in MMA, and he is the best Olympic convert in the sport today.