MMA: The 25 Most Influential Fighters in MMA History

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 24, 2011

MMA: The 25 Most Influential Fighters in MMA History

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    PORTLAND, OR - AUGUST 28: UFC heavyweight fighter Randy Couture weighs in at the UFC 102: Couture vs. Nogueira Weigh-In at the Rose Garden Arena on August 28, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
    Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    This is an exciting time for mixed martial arts. The sport is still very new; it is growing and changing and congealing as we watch, like lava hardening to form a new island. We're on the ground floor, witnesses to the Babe Ruths and George Mikans and those on whose shoulders the more established sports still stand. 

    This is why it makes sense, in my opinion, to take a moment to rank the 25 fighters who have thus far exerted the most influence on the sport. These are the fighters on whose shoulders the next generations of MMA will stand.

    One reminder: This is not a list of the "best" fighters. It's the most influential, which can mean inside the cage, outside the cage, or both. So before you start wondering why-oh-God-why is so-and-so ranked below so-and-so when so-and-so clearly has the better record, just remember I said this.

    But having said that, please also remember that, while this list may look subjective, it isn't. It is set in stone. There can be NO DEBATE! 

    Just kidding...debate away. And please enjoy.

25. Charles "Mask" Lewis

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    Lewis doesn't have a professional record per se. The closest he came was training Royce Gracie for UFC 2.

    If you've never heard of Lewis, you're probably wondering why a person might cook up such thin soup to justify the inclusion of a non-professional fighter in a list like this, possibly at the expense of other, more substantial figures.

    Here's why. Lewis was an amateur fighter and a fight fan when he and two buddies founded a company called Tapout, which they operated out of their car. Tapout is now not only the leading MMA apparel company—$200 million in sales in 2009—but a fashion trendsetter. After all, Tapout helped start that fad involving T-shirts with stylized dragons and warriors and ivy and stuff on them (a style I like to refer to as "Jersey Shore goth puke.") Thank you, Tapout. Thank you.

    All kidding aside, though, through their clothing, their stable of signed fighters (with whom they are reportedly very generous), their reality show, and their fighter/superfan/comic-book-hero personas, Lewis and crew have substantially influenced mainstream America. Lewis himself, for want of a better phrase, had a life-affirming way about him, which made it all the more tragic when he died last year after a drunk driver struck his car. 

    Even so, Lewis' influence can still be felt. Among other things, you can now see his name emblazoned at the top of the Octagon during every UFC event.

24. Tank Abbott

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    If this list were ranking the best or most respected fighters, Jeremy Horn or a Nogueira brother might occupy this slot.  But it isn't, so they don't. 

    Instead, it is David "Tank" Abbott who gets the nod. Why, you ask? Go into the street and ask the first 20 people you see if they've ever heard of Jeremy Horn. Then ask about Tank Abbott. Oh yeah, that guy who fought Jon Favreau in "Friends," and did all that other showbiz and sideshow stuff?  And you will answer yes. The very same. 

    You can ask—fairly enough—about whether Tank's relatively high profile was good or bad for the sport. On the one hand, he did influence people by bringing his sport to the mainstream. But on the other hand, he also brought along his missing teeth, his flowing goatee and his nasty demeanor. And let's not forget the imposing physique that looks like someone waved a magic wand over his DNA and whispered "bar brawler."

    In response, let me just ask you one question: Am I the ultimate fighting champion?

23. Bas Rutten

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    Sebastiaan "Bas" Rutten was once known as one of the hardest hitters in combat sports. In fact, in hardcore circles, he's still known as such.

    Even though he led an impressive MMA career, which ended on a 22-fight winning streak, Rutten may now be best known for his work in the media. He was a regular broadcaster with Pride, and is a former co-host of Inside MMA on sports mogul Mark Cuban's HDNet cable channel.  These days, it seems like whenever a TV show of one stripe or another needs an MMA fighter to come in and hit a dummy so they can measure a punch's velocity or pounds-per-square-inch, Rutten is on the short list. And you know what? That's nothing to sneeze at.

22. Don Frye

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    Ready to play Six Degrees of Don Frye?

    This mean mustache has plenty of connections to other fighters on this list. At Arizona State, Frye trained under Dan Severn. After transferring to Oklahoma State, he was a teammate of Randy Couture. He has fought Tank Abbott, Mark Coleman twice, and Ken Shamrock.

    But he's more than just a cheap parlor game. Frye won two UFC tournaments back in the early ages. With his combination of judo, American wrestling, submissions, and knockout power, he was one of the early adopters of a truly mixed method of fighting.

    Now that his fighting days are behind him, Frye relies on a suprisingly nimble sense of humor to win friends and influence people. He makes regular radio appearances, and has acted in commercials, film, and television. It is my understanding that he usually plays some kind of fighter.

21. Tito Ortiz

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    I hesitate to put him on this list because, frankly, I think he's overrated.

    But to give credit where it's due, Ortiz was one of the first fighters to bring showmanship into the Octagon, all the while subscribing to the theory that all press is good press. 

    Whatever he did, it worked, as he is now one of the UFC's most public faces. He even did a turn on NBC's "The Apprentice," where he outlasted seven other B-list celebrities before being fired. Ortiz chalked the termination up to a previously undisclosed brain injury.

20. Ken Shamrock

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    Photo Credit:  MMATKO
    Photo Credit: MMATKO

    To this day, the World's Most Dangerous Man gets heat for his stint in the WWE. But the hardcore MMA fans who would excommunicate him for the transgression of trying to make a decent living don't seem to take into account the massive influence Shamrock had on people.

    A UFC 1 participant, Shamrock was a trailblazer inside the cage for his physical brand of submission wrestling. But the impact he had for his willingness to bring the sport into the mainstream is literally incalculable. There is no way of knowing how many eyeballs he drew to his nascent sport, but it was a lot. A heck of a lot.

19. Dan Severn

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    The mustache. The barrel chest. The waist-high trunks.  Does it get any more old school than Dan "The Beast" Severn?  

    Seriously, he's like the bad guy out of an old spaghetti Western, or a bare-knuckle boxer who stumbled into a time machine.

    Actually, that second one isn't so far off. This three-time Olympic wrestling alternate fought long before the martial arts started to mix, but as a precursor to modern ground n' pound, Severn combined mat skills with striking so brutal and raw that you could barely call it striking. Who could forget the knee drops that opened the flood gates—or, should I say, the BLOOD gates—on a prone Oleg Taktarov in UFC 5?

    Even his record—98-16-7—resembles those of a bygone era, when combatants lacked the benefit of rules, regulations or "medical knowledge."  Now that's what I call fisticuffsmanship!

18. Igor Vovchanchyn

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    Some of the sport's deepest devotees believe Igor Vovchanchyn is the most underrated MMA fighter in history.

    From 1995-2005, the Ukranian ran up a 54-10-1 career record, with the highlight coming in 2000 when he was the runner-up in Pride's open-weight Grand Prix. He never fought in the UFC.

    What made Vovchanchyn, a kickboxer by background, so influential was his ability to neutralize grapplers and keep the fight standing. In other words, he created takedown defense. So while the Gracies of the world swung the advantage toward grapplers for a time, Vovchanchyn helped rebalance the scales. This not only paved the way for a truly mixed mixed martial arts, but saved us all from a lot of really boring fights. Thank you, Igor. I tip my cap to you.

17/16. Stephen Bonnar/Forrest Griffin

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    Whenever you're talking about influential fighters, you have to mention the two who were involved in the sport's most influential fight.

    The three-round slug-fest that capped the first season of The Ultimate Fighter drew big ratings and even bigger buzz. Like, water-cooler-type buzz. Almost six years later, Griffin-Bonnar 1 is still regarded as the most important match in MMA history and stands as proof positive that this revolution will, indeed, be televised. 

15. Wanderlei Silva

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    Photo credit:  MMAWeekly
    Photo credit: MMAWeekly

    Quick quiz: who has beaten Dan Henderson, Kazuyuki Fujita, Michael Bisping, Rampage Jackson twice and Kazushi Sakuraba three times?

    The answer, in the unlikely event you didn't notice either the title or the photo, is Wanderlei Silva.

    His long tenure in Pride meant he didn't make it to American soil until he was past his prime. And that's a shame, because what a prime it was.

    Silva didn't cut his teeth on a wrestling mat or a karate gi. No, Wandy came up in the streets, street fighting. He eventually learned jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, but it almost seemed designed just to give his aggression the veneer of law and order.

    Not so much emulated as admired, Silva likely influenced fans and fighters the world over, and certainly helped to strengthen MMA's popularity in Japan and his native Brazil.

14. Matt Hughes

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    Two different runs as the UFC welterweight champion. A record seven title defenses. Forty-five MMA wins in his professional career.

    His physical submission wrestling helped advance MMA grappling to the next level.

    What else can you say? His sustained excellence over a period of years is, to this point, literally unparalleled.

13. Dan Henderson

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    The only MMA fighter to simultaneously hold championship belts in two different weight classes.

    A wrestler's wrestler, the former Olympian and current Strikeforce light heavyweight champ helped show how far Greco-Roman can take you.

12. B.J. Penn

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    Photo credit:  Sherdog
    Photo credit: Sherdog

    Whenever I get frustrated with B.J. Penn's motivation or conditioning or whatever, I remember that he stepped up to challenge Matt Hughes at a time when Hughes was literally considered unbeatable.

    Penn didn't have much of a name for himself at the time.

    Oh, and he was in a lower weight class.

    Oh, and he had been out of the UFC for more than a year.

    Then he beat Hughes for the welterweight title.

    It's a fitting allegory for the Hawaiian's career. Just when it seems like Penn is making the world the butt of some kind of unfunny joke, he does the equivalent of beating Matt Hughes (or just literally beats Matt Hughes again).

    It says a lot about the esteem people hold for Penn that a career including UFC titles in two different weight classes is viewed by some as disappointing.

11. Kazushi Sakuraba

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    Most American MMA fans have never heard of Kazushi Sakuraba. But ask any close observer, and they'll tell you a list of influential fighters without Sakuraba is like a list of influential golfers without a guy named Eldrick.

    Sakuraba formed one half of what was the longest and arguably greatest MMA fight of all time, a 90-minute(!) battle with Royce Gracie. Sakuraba came out on top.

    Sakuraba would fight anyone, anywhere, including fighters 20 or 30 pounds heavier. A great wrestler, in his prime he was known as The Gracie Hunter because, along with Royce, he defeated Renzo, Ryan and Royler. And this was when the family was at the height of its powers.

10. Rickson Gracie

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    Though it was Royce who climbed in the cage at UFC 1, most people in a position to know claim that Rickson was the best jiu-jitsu fighter in the Gracie family.  A lot of observers and colleagues take it even further, freely crowning him the best of all time.

    Rickson, now 52, never fought much in MMA (he was 37 at the time of UFC 1). Then again, he never lost in 11 professional contests. Despite the fact that he has largely remained behind the curtain, all Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners are quick to acknowledge Rickson Gracie's major influence on, and total mastery of, their discipline.

9. Mirko Cro Cop

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    "Right leg: hospital. Left leg: cemetery."

    The owner of the best quote in MMA history is also the owner of some of its best highlights. Some of his best knockouts from K-1 and Pride (where he won the 2006 Grand Prix) have a similar effect as great music -- you can't help but shout out loud, or stand up and cheer. That's why those moments, and Cro Cop himself, will live on in YouTube immortality.

    In his native Croatia, Cro Cop (a former anti-terrorist commando) is a hero and a former member of Parliament. It seems as if the sun is setting on his fight career, but other opportunities could be afoot. No pun intended. 

8. Pat Miletich

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    Talk about being ahead of the curve.

    Early in his career, Miletich decided to improve his game by pursuing black belts in jiu-jitsu and karate, which would complement his Iowa wrestling background.

    That was 1995.

    When he opened Miletich Fighting Systems in 1997, Miletich once again proved the visionary, this time in terms of MMA training. MFS was one of the first MMA supercamps, if not the very first. The big gyms of today—Greg Jackson, Wolfslair, take your pick—would probably not exist in the same form if not for the blueprint MFS provided.

    By the way, the camp also produced some pretty successful fighters, including Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Jeremy Horn, Spencer Fisher and Tim Sylvia.

7. Anderson Silva

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    Photo credit:  MMA Convert
    Photo credit: MMA Convert

    Despite his electrifying dominance in the middleweight division, the language barrier and a reputation for cockiness may be preventing The Spider from winning hearts and minds in American living rooms.

    And yet, he remains highly influential. Fans know him as a nearly unstoppable fighter. His great blend of striking and submissions is lighting the way toward a new fighting discipline—true mixed martial arts.

    He may not be a household name today, but hopefully he will be one day. It would be a shame for arguably the greatest fighter in the sport's history to be a relative footnote in the public consciousness.

6. Fedor Emlelianenko

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    Photo credit: Cage Religion
    Photo credit: Cage Religion

    The Last Emperor.

    I'm not going to go over his well-documented career, except to say that, sadly, there is circumstantial evidence the Emelianenko machine may be losing steam just as the UFC finally wraps its fingers around his contract. 

    When Fedor enters retirement—at a time that should be entirely of his own choosing, by the way—he will thankfully leave behind a heap of footage and a swath of cold-blooded destruction that should deliver timeless enjoyment to MMA fans the world over. 

    And timeless is the right word. To date, the sport has produced only a handful of icons whose skill and dominance will transcend their own eras. One of those icons is Fedor Emelianenko.

5. Georges St-Pierre

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    Credit:  MMA Valor
    Credit: MMA Valor

    Georges St-Pierre is putting it all together.

    And I'm talking about more than just the seamless way he is combining every phase of mixed martial arts to help create a new, hybridized form of fighting. 

    I'm also talking about the marketability. I'm talking about the accountability to bosses and media and fans both in and out of the cage. I'm talking about the deep desire not only to be a great champion, but to help grow and represent the sport in a positive and meaningful way. 

    St-Pierre is also doing all of this in an MMA context. He's not jumping out of helicopters with Jason Statham. He's not bragging about his conquests on Howard Stern. He's not doing cameos on "Two and a Half Men." 

    Truly, St-Pierre is a rare species in the MMA world: a fighter famous for fighting. Here's hoping others can follow that example.  

4. Randy Couture

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    PORTLAND, OR - AUGUST 28: UFC heavyweight fighter Randy Couture weighs in at the UFC 102: Couture vs. Nogueira Weigh-In at the Rose Garden Arena on August 28, 2009 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
    Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

    The Brett Favre of the Octagon. Or, at least before Favre turned into Diana Ross and discovered cell phone technology.

    The only man to win five UFC titles, the soft-spoken Couture is probably the most popular fighter in history among the sport's bigger fans. Go ahead...say something disparaging about him next time you're watching a pay-per-view at the bar. I double-dog dare you. 

    Couture also appears to be something of a guardian of the sport's culture, which values humility and respect. I almost get the feeling no one wants to be disrespectful, lest they wind up on the business end of a very public spanking from Uncle Randy. And if you don't believe me, ask Tito Ortiz about it sometime.

    Couture is a great wrestler, but his biggest asset is his impeccable preparation and strategy. Still plugging along at 47, The Natural continues to show anyone willing to look that a fighter's biggest weapon is that five pounds between his ears.

3. Mark Coleman

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    Photo credit: ESPN
    Photo credit: ESPN

    The inventor of ground n' pound. What else needs to be said?

    To continue the sports-pioneer analogy I started in the introduction, in a generation or two, this will be like saying you were the inventor of the jump shot (a distinction apparently reserved for one Ken Sailors...thanks, Internet!). In the long run, it won't make you a household name, but your invention will become so interwoven with the fabric of your sport that the action will begin to lose its distinction.

    In other words, it's not a "jump shot"'s just a shot.  And ground n' pound is already losing's just a part of grappling. So in a nutshell, then, Mark Coleman definitively changed his sport. That, to me, is the very definition of influential.

2. Chuck Liddell

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    The sport's first superstar and modern folk hero, Chuck Liddell and his legendary battles with Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and others helped make the UFC a viable foil to boxing in the all-important pay-per-view arena and elsewhere.

    Of course, Liddell became a poster boy for more than his incredible punching power and championship run at light heavyweight. It was his distinctive mohawk, his mustache and tattoos. Ditto the quiet intensity he naturally blended with a naturally calm demeanor. He was a cool customer...The Iceman. Get it? Great.

    Back to the power, though. Liddell had a few highlight-reel knockouts, but they were seldom of the one-punch variety. But in a way, that made them all the more compelling. Once there was blood in the water, the frenzy began. Even if you were blocking the punches, you weren't really blocking them. It was a thing to watch.

    When you're talking influence, few fighters had it in and out of the cage the way Liddell did. And like Michael Jordan, Liddell remains extremely popular even after retirement. He will likely continue to be an ambassador for the sport, and for that, the sport should count itself lucky.

1. Royce Gracie

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    Let's take a trip down memory lane.

    An undisclosed number of years ago, when I was but a young lad, I remember taking part in a conversation one day around the lunch table in our school cafeteria.

    That conversation went something like this:

    Dude I was talking to:  "Dude, we rented this video the other day? It was, like, this no-rules fighting. You can punch and kick and stab and pull out people's eyes. And kill people! In the ring! It's called UFC."

    Me: "Oh yeah?"

    Dude: "Yeah. And the winner of the whole thing was this guy, right, who was, like, a lot smaller than all the other guys? But he knew jiu-jitsu?  And he broke everybody's arms."

    Me:  "Sounds gross."

    Dude:  "Sounds AWESOME, is what it sounds like."

    Me:  "You make a good counterpoint."

    Not long after, I found myself watching Dan Severn destroy Oleg Taktarov on a fuzzy copy of UFC 5. I wonder how many other conversations just like that one took place in classrooms and cafeterias and dorm rooms and barrooms and press rooms during those early days of the sport alllll the way back in the mid-1990s.

    The Gracie family conceived the UFC in part as a way of selling their style of submission fighting to a generation of Karate Kid devotees who realized (in some cases, maybe too late) that tae kwon do, great martial art form though it was and is, wasn't ideally suited to helping them on the playground after school. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, on the other hand, was The Great Equalizer.  Suddenly, it didn't matter (at least in theory) how big you were or how hard you punched. Suddenly, it was more about what you knew than what you benched. 

    In doing all of this, the Gracies also introduced the concept of pitting different fighting styles against each other. "Bloodsport" come to life.  A "mix" of martial arts, if you will. 

    So with these two things taken together, Royce Gracie and his family didn't just make the UFC. They made the UFC possible.

    In recent years, Royce Gracie's star has faded, as the perception spreads that his brand of jiu-jitsu is outmoded. Detractors point to the gi he wore in the cage, wagging their fingers in the air and opining that Gracie would never have been so effective without it. 

    That might all be true, but it might all miss the point. 

    You don't diminish Bill Russell because he couldn't have posted up Shaq, or Walter Johnson because he couldn't strike out modern hitters, or Knute Rockne because that forward pass of his is just so yesterday

    When you get right down to it, when you talk about standing on the shoulders of those who came before you, it's not hard to make the case that MMA really stands on just one set of shoulders, which belong to Royce Gracie. He's not an influence. He's the influence.

    And all these years after that conversation in the cafeteria, I still wouldn't want to fight him.

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