Cris Cyborg, Ronda Rousey and the 10 Best Fighters in Women's MMA History
From its earliest days, determining the best women's MMA fighter in the world has been an almost impossible challenge. The top fighters were separated by time, distance and weight classes on parallel paths that almost never crossed.
For years, this was a debate for only the hardest of hardcore fans. Women's MMA was conducted in darkness, far from the bright lights of television that were making stars on the men's side household names. The UFC didn't feature women on their fight cards. Neither did its Japanese equivalent, Pride Fighting Championships.
To most fans, women's MMA might as well not have existed at all.
Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano changed all of that when they main-evented a Strikeforce card on Showtime in 2009. Ronda Rousey expedited the process, serving as the jet fuel that propelled women's MMA directly into the mainstream.
The result was a revolution, as casual fight fans discovered what obsessives had long known: These women can really go!
Comparing fighters from these two eras, before Rousey and after, is a tricky game. To do so, Bleacher Report writers Matthew Ryder and Jonathan Snowden leaned on Julie Kedzie, a former UFC fighter who, as a matchmaker, trainer and television announcer, has seen the sport from every angle. Her expertise and experience was integral in our decision-making process.
You won't find some of the greats here, from pioneers like Yuka Tsuji and Shayna Baszler to rising stars like Claudia Gadelha and Rose Namajunas. These weren't omissions on our part. We thought about it carefully and made some hard choices. We considered dominance, skill, longevity, quality of opponent and intangibles when devising this list. It became a challenge not of who to include but who we could stand to leave off.
10. Holly Holm
Longest Win Streak: 10
Debut: March 4, 2011
Matthew Ryder: Holm is basically here as a result of one great win.
Well, to call it great is unfair; it was utterly seismic, both that she beat Rousey and that she did it so effortlessly. It was the fight of her life, a performance you wouldn't find replicated in any of her pro boxing or kickboxing bouts and won't ever see again in her MMA career.
It made her a legend. That's not to be ignored.
Jonathan Snowden: It's hard to know what to make of Holly Holm. Of course, the Rousey win is her shining moment. How could it not be? It was arguably the most impressive knockout in MMA history.
No one saw it coming (ahem, almost no one), but her team in Albuquerque had created the perfect formula to defeat MMA's most dominant fighter.
But Holm isn't a one-fight wonder. The Rousey victory was her 10th in a row—and even in defeat against other top fighters on this list like Cris Cyborg, she's always more than held her own.
Holm, in time, will likely be pushed from this spot. Fighters will keep getting better and better as the products of the Rousey Revolution continue to grow. Already, young fighters like Namajunas are knocking on the door. Right now, however, Holm belongs right here with the greats who led women out of the darkness and into the bright lights.
I'm totally biased. I've known her for more than 10 years and used to train with her every single day. But that's not why I rank her so highly. She's a great fighter. And even in fights she lost, she always had a great performance.
Sometimes there is a lot of drama surrounding Holly's matchmaking. She would fight anyone in the world on a moment's notice. That's just who she is. But handling her career is management's job, and they did it very well.
Holly didn't always fight the way fans wanted her to. She was very careful in many of her fights. That may not have been popular, but it put her in the position she needed to be in to get the opportunity to dethrone the champ and biggest star in MMA.
9. Tara LaRosa
Longest Win Streak: 15
Debut: April 13, 2002
Matthew Ryder: LaRosa was the first female fighter I really remember watching and thinking "this woman is beating the tar of this other woman."
It's a shame what happened to her when she got her crack on The Ultimate Fighter, because she was aging out at that point and deserved for the world to see her when she was at her best.
One of the first true greats in the women's game, there was a solid decade where she was flat-out untouchable. No list would be complete without her.
Jonathan Snowden: The most important fight in LaRosa's career wasn't one of her 22 impressive victories against a who's who of women's MMA. It was, instead, her most convincing loss.
A left hook from Jennifer Howe sent her crashing to the mat back in 2003. When she got up, the fight was over, but her dominant streak of 15 consecutive wins was just about to begin.
The loss lit a fire under LaRosa. The result was one of the greatest runs the sport has ever seen.
She was on par with Megumi Fujii when it came to hero worship from other fighters when she was in her prime. Her winning streak in the early days was really impressive. She beat all the top fighters in the sport and in really impressive fashion.
Tara loved fighting. She's a fighter through and through. She just loved to scrap. And it showed in her fights.
If she couldn't hit you with her fist, she'd hit you with her elbow. If she couldn't hit you with her elbow, she'd hit you with her shoulder. She was going to find a way to hit you.
8. Miesha Tate
Longest Win Streak: 6
Debut: November 24, 2007
Matthew Ryder: Tate was very good for a very long time, fighting well across a couple of eras and always maintaining competitive relevance and extreme popularity. Her feud with Rousey made both of them stars of the highest magnitude, and her finally winning a UFC title against Holly Holm is the product of one of the most memorable desperation rounds in MMA history.
Her legacy is complex, though. She held belts in both Strikeforce and the UFC but never defended either. She had chances to beat the face of her generation in Rousey and lost convincingly both times. She left the sport on two losses and didn't seem to much care for it at all by the time she did.
She was an excellent fighter for a number of reasons but perhaps could have been more had she stuck around a little longer. She still deserves to be here, though.
Jonathan Snowden: If another minute and 30 seconds had ticked off the clock at UFC 196, Tate would not have made this list. That would have guaranteed another title loss, this time to Holly Holm, another failure to deliver when the stakes were as big as they get.
Instead, after four rounds of getting her butt handed to her, Tate delivered one of the great comebacks in women's MMA history, securing UFC gold and a place among the immortals. It was a brilliant moment that secured the legacy of a brilliant performer.
Athletics doesn't get much better than that.
Miesha Tate had to work hard for every single thing she accomplished. When she won her UFC belt, it was against my teammate Holly Holm. So, I wasn't cheering. But how do you not feel great for this person who had been in this sport for so long and got so close to that championship?
She had been dismantled twice by Rousey and really went through a lot on The Ultimate Fighter. To see her, at the end of her career, achieve her dream, is one of those great sports stories. Strikeforce champion, UFC champion—she absolutely belongs on this list.
7. Valentina Shevchenko
Longest Win Streak: 7
Debut: April 21, 2003
Matthew Ryder: This is a classic pick to illustrate just how young women's MMA is. Shevchenko is obviously an exceptional talent, but at 29 years old and having not held a UFC title, her greatness is still pretty tenuous.
This selection is about looking at her and knowing she's very good, then placing her on the prospect of her realizing greatness by evolving out of very-goodness at some point soon.
Based on her performances against Holly Holm, Amanda Nunes—in a weight class above where she should be fighting—and her kickboxing career, it's hard not to place her in the top 10 and believe she'll be a few spots higher if another list is comprised five years from now.
Jonathan Snowden: It's hard to know what to do with fighters like Shevchenko and Claudia Gadelha, another athlete who very narrowly missed the list. After all, they are still at the height of their powers, writing their stories every time they step into the cage.
Shevchenko's placement here, in part, is subconsciously motivated by a bright future we all see for her. One of the greatest female kickboxers of all time, she's shown all the tools needed to guarantee similar success in the UFC.
She's already displayed sublime skill and talent. And, now that the promotion has opened a flyweight division that seems perfectly suited to her, a title reign seems all but destined.
She has such a calmness about her. People are very emotional in the cage. Fighting is a very emotional thing. But she's cool, calm and collected no matter what is happening. She's unfazed by anything her opponent does, and that's very hard to pull off and often the sign of a great fighter.
Shevchenko also has beautiful footwork and angles. There's a precision to the way she fights. It's a little machine-like but very exciting to watch.
6. Marloes Coenen
Longest Win Streak: 8
Debut: November 22, 2000
Matthew Ryder: There was something great about Coenen that you knew even when you were watching her. She had this soft-spoken manner, she was so highly professional that it almost felt like MMA didn't deserve her for what it was at the time.
And when the cage door closed and the lights were on her? Man, she was nasty.
A good kickboxer and a slick grappler, it felt like she did everything you could imagine an athlete do. A true pioneer, everything you need to know about her comes from the fact that she endured four rounds of Cris Cyborg in their second fight, after she already knew the type of misery four rounds of Cyborg really was.
Jonathan Snowden: Contractual disputes between her team and the UFC kept her from ever competing inside the Octagon. But that shouldn't cloud what Coenen accomplished during her glorious career.
She was already a legend just two weeks into her professional career, shocking everyone in the sport by winning the ReMix World Cup at Budokan Hall in Japan. All the best fighters in the world were there, including gargantuans like Becky Levi and Svetlana Goundarenko.
But it was Coenen who walked away with an enormous trophy when the dust settled. In one night, she had become one of the most in-demand fighters in all of women's MMA. That never changed, right up until her retirement last year after a disappointing loss to Julia Budd in Bellator.
The way she fought was graceful, but it was her willingness to fight really stands out. She wanted to fight everyone, even Cyborg. Not once but twice.
That willingness to put it all on the line, that desire to be the champion and prove she was the best, really defined what it means to be a fighter. She didn't pick and choose. She wanted to fight whoever was on top. That made her a role model for so many of us. You look at that and think "yeah, that's the kind of fighter I want to be."
5. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Longest Win Streak: 14
Debut: May 19, 2012
Matthew Ryder: The one they called Joanna Champion for so long breaches the top five and with good reason. She was the first great strawweight fighter the UFC employed, and her brisk and exciting style—coupled with a unique personality and penchant for head games—made her one of its most popular champions.
She was also one of the first iterations of an evolved female mixed martial artist, the type of talent that really showed where women's MMA was heading in its current form. She was a champion striker who learned wrestling and grappling to accent what she did well, working to keep the fight where she was strongest and could do the most damage.
Though she lost her title late in 2017, she'll have a chance to regain it at UFC 223 in a rematch with Namajumas. If she does that, she'll be the first woman to ever hold a belt multiple times in UFC history—another accomplishment to add to the list supporting her already sterling athletic reputation.
Jonathan Snowden: I'm, frankly, terrified about writing this essay. It's the kind of thing internet trolls 10 years from now might look back on with glee. Because there is a very real chance that everything we say here will be wrong.
That's the issue with ranking fighters historically in a sport so new. Is Joanna one of the best fighters in women's MMA history? If we'd been putting this list together six months ago, there would have been a real argument about whether she deserved to top it.
Now? Who can say?
We've seen a dominant fighter fall from scary heights and never manage to get beyond the first rung of the ladder again, let alone climb back to the top. Is Joanna another Rousey? Or is she a fighter in her prime who had one less-than-stellar night?
My instincts tell me there is a good reason she stumbled. That, in a few months, she'll have quietened the doubters. That she will reward our faith in her. But you can't say for certain. And that's what makes this discussion fun.
When you're a dominant champion and rise to those heights, there's a lot being thrown at you. Something has to slip a little. It could be mentally, it could be your training, it could be your relationships outside of fighting. But something has to give. It happens to the best.
I don't think losing the title to Namajunas is part of a slide or a sign of her slipping. She's a brilliant, brilliant fighter both technically and emotionally. She just had a bad day at work. Unfortunately for top fighters, unlike you and me, a bad day at work is a million-dollar bad day.
4. Ronda Rousey
Longest Win Streak: 12
Debut: March 27, 2011
Matthew Ryder: Possessing probably the most complicated legacy on this list, Rousey was as polarizing as any athlete in UFC history and owns a career as complex as any to have ever played out in the sport.
When it was going well, there was nothing like it. She would strut to the cage, burn through an opponent in less time than it took to complete the ring introductions, then walk off unscathed.
When it was going poorly, there was also nothing like it: She lashed out before the fights or simply disappeared from "before the fights" entirely. She showed up looking timid, overmatched and even scared. She was badly, badly scathed and left laying in a heap in consecutive losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes.
Some loved her, some surely didn't, but she never won a fight she didn't finish and she was never in a fight that went to the judges. She defended the women's bantamweight belt a record six times.
For better or worse, you knew what you were getting from her, and it was never, ever boring.
Jonathan Snowden: It's easy to make fun of what Rousey became. Her delusions of striking grandeur and complete public meltdowns after falling short in the cage made her the ultimate bad loser. Years after the fact, she still hasn't discussed her two one-sided whoopings in any substantive way.
Maybe she never will.
None of that changes the fact Rousey is the reason we are writing this article and the reason you see women up and down UFC fight cards on a weekly basis. Her ability to intimidate and decimate even the best competition wasn't completely unique. But the way she resonated with fans and her ability to cultivate an audience was. And it made the global expansion of women's MMA possible.
She really made her mark and changed this sport. I was still fighting during her rise, and I saw the momentum she generated for every woman who wanted to make her living as a fighter. It was amazing. In my mind, that makes her an all-time, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
She carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. And she accomplished so much in such a short period of time. F--k the people who say she never faced elite competition. The women she beat were the best in the world at the time.
3. Megumi Fujii
Longest Win Streak: 22
Debut: August 5, 2004
Matthew Ryder: A pioneer of the Japanese women's scene, for a long time people would have placed Fujii at the top of a list like this. She was unbeaten and unbeatable, terrorizing women with her grappling prowess and toughness across promotions like Shooto, Jewels and Smackgirl.
She jumped stateside in 2010 and almost won the inaugural Bellator strawweight championship tournament, suffering the first loss of her career to Zoila Frausto Gurgel in a narrow split decision. She was already 36 then, though, and time caught up to her over the next few years before she retired in late 2013.
Still, she is one of the top handful of women ever and that's not likely to change for a long, long time.
Jonathan Snowden: Before Megumi Fujii, when you thought about women's MMA, you pictured wild, undisciplined toughman-style affairs, two athletes off the street winging punches and hoping for the best.
Sure, there were some fantastic technicians. But those weren't the fighters featured on local MMA cards—if women were being featured at all.
Fujii changed all that. Trained by former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett in catch wrestling, and fluent in the techniques of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and sambo, Fujii was a technician beyond compare. Her dominant run, much like Rousey's, will likely never be matched.
We were on the same card for my second fight, and I totally fanned out. We were all in awe of her when I was a young fighter. I was standing there blathering away at her about how much I admired her until someone told me she didn't understand English. She was just smiling at me to be polite.
She was at a level above everyone else to the point no one could really compete with her when she was at her best. And, in some ways, that might have stifled her. Because competing with someone who can challenge you is how you really get good at this. And she didn't have that, through no fault of her own. It's unfortunate that most American fans only saw her decline, because she'd been fighting for so damn long before the sport really took off and women were fighting on TV.
2. Amanda Nunes
Longest Win Streak: 6 (two times)
Debut: March 8, 2008
Matthew Ryder: Early in her career, Nunes looked like a quality prospect who might get somewhere with hard work and a bit of polish. A decade in, she's done just that.
The UFC women's bantamweight champion has brought along a stand-up game that was once solely reliant on bludgeoning opponents into the dirt, and it has rounded her out in a way that took her from prospect to contender to elite champion. Her recent fights have truly shown a woman who has gone beyond very good to great.
She's the only woman alive to hold wins over icons Rousey and Tate and will look to defend her belt a third time against Raquel Pennington at UFC 224. If she does that, the legend only grows further.
Jonathan Snowden: The great things about Nunes is that she continues to develop as a fighter. It wasn't that long ago that she was getting outwrestled by Sarah D'Alelio and knocked silly by Alexis Davis. Cat Zingano exposed her lack of conditioning.
Nunes was a fighter with flaws.
It's hard to recognize that Nunes when she steps into the cage these days. Not only has she won six in a row, but all six of those wins came against women we considered for this list. That's pretty heady stuff—and she only seems to be getting better.
I honestly don't understand why they're not giving her millions of dollars. You've got this woman who is funny, generous and a fantastic fighter. She destroyed two of your top, most popular girls. What else can she do?
I don't know why they aren't making her into a star. Amanda Nunes has that gift. She has the potential to be special. You can sense it just talking to her. But they haven't figured out how to utilize it. That's marketing's job—to figure out how to share that with the world.
1. Cris Cyborg
Longest Win Streak: 20
Debut: May 17, 2005
Matthew Ryder: The best to ever do it.
While there are obvious questions about her strength of schedule, a failed PED test back in 2011 and her tendency to butt heads with her employer, Cyborg is an absolute machine come fight time.
Her excellence is on display not necessarily in the caliber of opponents she beats, but in how she does it: She wins how she's supposed to win. Give her any woman on Earth, and she'll blow through them like they're at an amateur tournament a week after they started training.
Plenty of fighters play down to opposition or may otherwise stagnate. Cyborg delivers poetry, blending beautiful skill and technique with brute strength and an evolving game that appears to have fewer holes than ever after 13 years' competing.
Forget about it. No one else is even close.
Jonathan Snowden: I found it very difficult to place Cyborg first on this list. The truth is, it's hard to really say how great she really was. She was very successful, no doubt. But what does that mean when you outweight most opponents by upwards of 50 pounds?
Greatness is the product of challenge, of being pushed beyond your limits and finding a way to succeed anyway. Cyborg has never had to do that.
There simply aren't enough women with her size and her experience in the sport. That means she's spent a decade beating up on refugees from other weight classes with the brass to face her. It's been an impressive rampage. But until Godzilla finds her Mothra, it all seems a bit rote doesn't it?
She goes out there and does her job every single time. She's incredibly confident and competent. Cyborg is a success story in a lot of ways. Just being in the UFC as a headliner, after all those years of them making fun of her, is an accomplishment in itself.
If there's a difference between the other top fighters and Cyborg, it's in their level of competition. No disrespect to Cris Cyborg, but it's hard to find people on her level at her size to fight her. Some of the other fighters have faced better opponents. Then again, it's not really up to Cyborg who she faces. She can only fight people in her weight class or others willing to fight her. If there's better competition for her, I'd like to see somebody find it.