It’s hard to believe that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) as we know it today didn’t exist until 1993. The legendary fighters—and fights—who have materialized in such a short timeframe reflect a history that feels a century old, which is a testament to MMA’s all-action, all-the-time format. There’s no regular season, no playoffs; it’s just a never-ending parade of fight cards, week after week, month after month. Ratings don’t lie, and in this case, they confirm our love affair with MMA. According to Nielsen Sports DNA, it is the 3rd most popular sport in the world. While MMA is thriving in the here and now, its relative youth means we don’t have decades of history providing a template for what an elite career looks like. Fighter-resumes come in all shapes and sizes. Some pile up over 100 career fights, while others don’t make it to 20. Relying on total career fights to reveal anything differentiating is troublesome in its own right since opponents can range from a newcomer without a Wikipedia page to a world-class champion and anyone in between. Sure, Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anderson Silva, and Georges St. Pierre have resumes that would stand the test of time even if MMA dated back a thousand years. They are the exceptions rather than the rule. Much more common is a resume like that of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Cowboy piled up an impressive collection of victories and losses, leaving us to wonder whether he was a great fighter or merely an average one.
If we asked 100 MMA fans to rank the 100 greatest MMA fighters of all-time, we’d get 100 very different lists because—in a sport with little schedule uniformity and few peak vs peak confrontations—no consensus has emerged over what “greatest” actually means. Some choose to emphasize entertainment value, fight style, and perseverance. While these characteristics are articles one, two, and three on developing a strong fanbase, they don’t identify the fighters who have accomplished the most. Otherwise, Nate Diaz would be front and center in the GOAT discussion. Others choose to highlight career-peak and championships, but too much of an emphasis there gets us BJ Penn as a viable contender for GOAT.
If we want to separate the average from the good and the good from the great, we need a more nuanced approach that emphasizes results and the conditions under which those results occur. Resume evaluation needs to go deeper than simply concluding that Fighter A is superior to Fighter C because Fighter A beat Fighter B and Fighter B beat Fighter C. The transitive property can be an intoxicating mistress in the world of subjectivity. However, when it yields Roy Nelson and Dennis Hallman as all-time greats, its limitations become evident in a hurry. MMA resumes are littered with red herrings and logic traps that give us a license to conclude almost anything we want. We need to avoid these gambits and decode the data into a single, logically-supported narrative. To do this, we can lean on the following questions:
Who did the fighter beat?
We have to start here because winning percentage and career victories are meaningless measures without context. A win over an elite opponent is the currency of the MMA GOAT conversation. It is how fighters stand out from each other… or don’t. Takanori Gomi amassed an impressive 35-9 record before dropping six of his last seven fights. Of those 35 wins, none were against anyone in the top-100 or anyone even close to the top-100. Similarly, Yushin Okami amassed a 35-11 record before losing three of his last four fights. Of those 35 wins, one was against a fighter in the top-100 (DQ win over A. Silva not included) without any other wins being over anyone close to the top-100. Mark Coleman, on the other hand, posted a 16-10 career record but compiled four wins against the top-100. Despite having a worse winning percentage and fewer overall fights, Coleman’s elite victories make for a more impressive resume.
How did the fighter win?
All wins are good wins, but some are more revealing than others. Routinely winning fights via stoppage is the sign of a dominant fighter, and it should be a deciding factor when scrutinizing two elite resumes. Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre (GSP) are, without question, two of the greatest of all-time. Separating their resumes on merit is no easy task. However, when comparing Silva’s 76% finish-rate in victories to GSP’s 54% rate, it is clear that Silva won his fights much more convincingly. Cain Velasquez totaled an astounding 12 finishes in just 17 career fights. Frankie Edgar, on the other hand, won via stoppage in only 11 of 34 career fights. When comparing Edgar and Velasquez, who both have equally impressive resumes from very different weight classes, it is clear that Velasquez was the more dominant fighter. Just like winning via stoppage is superior to winning by decision, winning by unanimous decision is far more impressive than winning by a split decision unless, of course, Chris Lee is scoring the fight in which case they are the same.
When did the fight take place?
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was a devastating fighter who knocked out Chuck Liddell twice, slammed Ricardo Arona through the floor, and turned Wanderlei Silva into a Slinky. When Wanderlei finished a 25-year-old Rampage who was entering his prime in 2003, it was an elite win. In 2008, when Forrest Griffin shocked Rampage, who had just unified the UFC/Pride 205-lb belts for the first time in history, it was an elite win. The same cannot be said for Chael Sonnen’s win over a bloated 39-year old Rampage in 2018 in a sad heavyweight affair. The same rule applies in the opposite direction. Conor McGregor’s victory over a green 21-year-old Max Holloway is not as meaningful as Alexander Volkanovski’s two victories (or 1.5?) over a 28-year-old Holloway firmly entrenched in his prime.
What weight class did the fight take place in?
Max “Blessed” Holloway stepped out of his natural weight class to unsuccessfully challenge Dustin Poirier for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship in 2019. Any win over Blessed is impressive, but weight classes exist for a reason. Poirier’s best weight class is lightweight, while Blessed’s is featherweight. Similarly, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Shogun Rua both defeated Alistair Overeem twice at light heavyweight. Overeem was a decent fighter at light heavyweight but became an elite fighter when he transitioned to
PEDs heavyweight. Nogueira and Shogun’s victories can’t be confused with wins over Overeem at his best weight-class. Additionally, Royce Gracie—a natural welterweight/middleweight—spent his career fighting much larger fighters. It’s not a stretch to say he would’ve feasted on a schedule that exclusively featured welterweight fighters.
Who did the fighter lose to?
It’s easy to view all losses the same, but there is a distinct difference between losing to an elite fighter and losing to a mediocre one. To revisit the Gomi/Coleman comparison above, of Gomi’s 16 career defeats, only three came against fighters inside the top-100, including zero against the top-50. Conversely, Coleman had ten career losses, including seven against the top-100 and six against the top-50. Coleman regularly challenged elite opponents, Gomi did not. Additionally, while Vitor Belfort had 14 career losses, all 14 came against the top-100. That not only speaks to Belfort’s ability to win the fights he was supposed to win but also his incredible strength-of-schedule.
What was the fighter’s strength of schedule?
Vitor Belfort fought 41 times in his professional career on his way to a 26-15 record. A staggering 22 of those contests came against fighters in the top-100. Belfort’s 8-14 record in those 22 fights might not look impressive on paper, but it turns out that it puts him in some pretty good company.
Although we only have one generation of fighters to analyze, it appears that just a ~40% winning percentage in elite fights is enough to keep getting elite fights, which is the key to putting together a top-100 resume.
On the other end of the spectrum is a fighter like Ben Askren, who fought just three top-100 opponents with zero coming against the top-75. Even giving credit to Askren for those fights is generous considering the average age of his three opponents was 37. Although Askren’s 19-2-1 record appears impressive at first glance, his schedule strength is at the extreme of the spectrum, and not in a good way. Fighters with a weak strength of schedule need to take advantage of their limited opportunities. Matt Hughes did not have the most stellar collection of opponents over his career. However, he won the fights he was supposed to win while picking up huge wins over GSP, BJ Penn, and Royce Gracie. He made the most of the schedule he was dealt securing his place in history.
More from the Cage
The Wall is inevitable but irrelevant.
Even the most dominant fighters can only handle so much wear-and-tear before losses start piling up at an increasing rate. We can call this The Wall. Some recognize it and retire in time to avoid tanking their winning percentage. Unfortunately, that’s the exception rather than the rule. GSP is an example of a fighter whose timely exit rewarded him with a well-preserved resume. His performance in a controversial win over Johny Hendricks was enough for him to walk away from the sport relatively unscathed. For every GSP, numerous fighters hang around searching for skills and reflexes that have long since eroded. This list includes Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Shogun Rua, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Chris Weidman, BJ Penn, Rashad Evans, Frank Mir, Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks, Renan Barao, Nate Marquardt, Big Nog, and Lil Nog.
The Wall sucks. The abruptness in which it arrives is cruel for both fighters and fans. Finding The Wall on a resume is as easy as scrolling to the section where the losses start piling up and then initiating sad-face. The Wall marks the definitive end to anything resembling peak ability. We have the power to ignore this section of a fighter’s career, and we should. We don’t penalize Jerry Rice for the final eight seasons of his career that he spent as a shell of his former self because they are useless data points. Performance after hitting The Wall is no different; it is a useless data point.
Ken Shamrock fought a remarkable 11 fights after hitting The Wall. Hanging on too long tanked both his winning percentage and his legacy. We can’t do much about the former, but we have control over the latter. Had he retired after finishing Kimo Leopoldo in 2004, his career record would’ve been an impressive 26-8-2. Instead, he pushed forward in the face of diminishing skills and paid for it with a 2-9 stretch to close out his career. Since Shamrock was well past his prime and the cake was already baked on his Hall-of-Fame career, those final 11 fights should be irrelevant when evaluating his resume. The same goes for late-career money grabs like Liddell-Ortiz III. There was nothing that could’ve happened in that fight to change the narrative for either fighter. Legacies should be defined by what happens before The Wall.
There are three distinct phases to an MMA career: green, prime, and twilight. While virtually all fighters go through these phases, the amount of time they spend in each varies significantly. Some take years to marinate before becoming elite (Stipe Miocic), while others are ready to compete right out of the gate (Vitor Belfort). Some fighters remain competitive against elite opponents into their 40s (Dan Henderson, Randy Couture), while others hit The Wall in their early 30s (Shogun Rua, Jose Aldo). The timeframe in which a fighter compiles elite wins is inconsequential as long as the body-of-work is there. It doesn’t matter if it all takes place over a dominant 3-year stretch or it’s sprinkled unevenly over a decade; the name of the game is winning and competing impressively against as many elite opponents as possible.
Champ-Champs and the Like
There is no doubt that a fighter who can compete at the highest level in multiple weight-classes is a rare breed. When putting together the list of top-100 fighters of all-time, we need to credit fighters who manage to accomplish this feat. Fighters who get a boost for posting big wins and/or title reigns in multiple weight classes include; Daniel Cormier, Dan Henderson, BJ Penn, Randy Couture, Conor McGregor, Henry Cejudo, Royce Gracie, Frank Shamrock, and Ryan Bader.
Winning the belt is the goal for any MMA fighter, but even more impressive than winning it is keeping it. MMA has had its share of fluky champs who connected with the right strike at the right time. Matt Serra scored the biggest upset in UFC history by shocking Georges St. Pierre but didn’t log even one successful defense before losing it back to GSP. Junior Dos Santos connected with a first-round shot that ended Cain Velasquez’s title reign but subsequently lost ten consecutive rounds to Velasquez in two brutally one-sided rematches. Michael Bisping was a massive +525 underdog at UFC 199 when he scored a first-round upset over Luke Rockhold. Bisping was disposed of two fights later by a temporarily unretired GSP, who was fighting in a weight class he’d never fought in before. While Serra, JDS, and Bisping deserve kudos for pulling the upsets, a resume does not solidify in one night. MMA has also had its share of vacated belts resulting in fighters winning a title without defeating the previous champion.
Belts can be won in all sorts of ways—some impressive, some not so much. Defending the belt, on the other hand, has no such variance. Champions are routinely fed the top contender making every successful title defense increasingly more impressive. In terms of fighter legacy, think of each title defense as having an accelerated multiplier attached to it. Jon Jones is the greatest MMA fighter of all-time because he defended the belt 11 times in the treacherous light heavyweight division. For comparison, Khabib Nurmagomedov—as dominant as he was—owns just three successful title defenses. For the same reason Jones is the GOAT, Anderson Silva is the GOAT runner-up. Silva’s 10-consecutive title defenses are second all-time to Demetrius Johnson (11) and seven more than any other middleweight in UFC history, which is why…
Anderson Silva did not ruin his legacy by hanging on too long.
It wasn’t too long ago that Anderson Silva was universally considered the greatest MMA fighter of all-time. Jon Jones has since eclipsed him, which should’ve dropped him to the second position, but something interesting has happened. It has become cliché to espouse the idea that Silva tarnished his legacy by sticking around too long. Gegard Mousasi said those words verbatim, and a quick Google search of “Anderson Silva tarnished legacy” reveals a cavalcade of similar sentiments. There is an argument to be made that Silva did tarnish his legacy, but that would be related to failed drug tests, not his performance in the octagon.
The idea that an MMA fighter can tarnish or ruin a legacy by hanging on too long is a misguided notion. Michael Jordan won six NBA Finals MVPs and was universally regarded as the greatest basketball player of all-time when he retired for the second time in 1998. Three years later, he returned to play two seasons for the Washington Wizards in which he was, unsurprisingly, a shell of his younger self. His points-per-game, field-goal percentage, and player efficiency rating (PER) all plummeted from his previous output, and the Wizards failed to make the playoffs both seasons. Despite his lackluster performance, when Jordan retired for the final time, his status as the GOAT was as strong as it had ever been. Superstar athletes are typically afforded the luxury of growing old, but there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to MMA fighters. This double-standard is a disservice to both the sport and its athletes. Despite the diminishing returns, Anderson Silva continued to fight after his prime because he liked the challenge. Jordan came back at 38 for the same reason.
Silva knew better than anyone that his skills had diminished, but he was under no obligation to anyone—not fans, critics, or historians—to retire for the sake of posterity. By continuing to fight, there wasn’t anything he could’ve done to undo what he had already done—and what he had already done was an unprecedented assault on the history books. His 16-fight winning streak is, by far, the longest in UFC history. He held the middleweight belt for 2,457 consecutive days, which is, by far, the most for any weight-class in UFC history. He had a 14-fight winning streak as champion, which is the most in UFC history. He had a 13-fight winning streak at middleweight, which is the most for any division in UFC history. He had nine finishes and seven knockouts in title bouts, both being the most in UFC history. He has the highest significant strike percentage in UFC history (min. 1,000 attempts). He’s second all-time in career UFC knockouts, third all-time in career UFC finishes, and has headlined the second most PPV main events in UFC history. That he still enjoyed competing after his prime doesn’t undo any of that.
Media coverage in the MMA industry has historically favored lighter fighters. In March 2015, ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings featured three welterweights, two bantamweights, a flyweight, and a featherweight in its top-10. In June 2018, five of the six lightest weight classes were represented in the top-10. The lightweight division alone had three representatives. Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic—two of the greatest fighters in MMA history—didn’t show up until #7 and #8, respectively. In October of 2020, nine of the 15 fighters who received votes in ESPN’s rankings weighed 155lbs or less. This trend has been pretty consistent ever since lighter divisions started to materialize in the early 2000s.
The problem with favoring these divisions is that it is progressively more difficult to succeed—and dominate—the heavier the weight class. According to fightmatrix.com, 46.3% of all MMA heavyweight fights have ended in (T)KO. That number drops with each weight class, bottoming out at just 27.9% in the flyweight division. In contrast, only 16.8% of all heavyweight fights have ended in a decision. That number rises with each weight class, topping out at 36.7% in the flyweight division. The one-punch knockout threat of MMA’s heaviest and most dangerous divisions prevents long winning streaks and successful title defenses, making what Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, and Stipe Miocic have accomplished all the more impressive.
Surviving at heavyweight—and doing so fight-after-fight—is the most arduous task in the sport. Like the first 90 seconds vs. Iron Mike in Mike Tyson’s Punch-out!!!, the threat of a knockout is palpable in every big-boy fight. Routinely avoiding the KO requires elite conditioning, outstanding work in the clinch, effective top control, and elite takedown defense. Those skills are transferable to all weight classes, but they take on a whole new level of importance in the heavyweight division. Francis Ngannou—as explosive and impressive as he has been—was exposed by Stipe for not having these skills. Cormier amassed a 22-3 career-record in MMA’s two most dangerous weight classes by excelling in them.
Additionally, light heavyweight is the equivalent of two weight classes (205 and 195) and heavyweight is the equivalent of six weight classes (265, 255, 245, 235, 225, and 215), making the talent pool much deeper than what exists in the lighter weight classes. Jon Jones has defeated 11 probable future Hall-of-Famers, while Stipe is at eight and counting. In stark contrast, Demetrius Johnson and Henry Cejudo are stuck at three. Given there is a larger talent pool in the heavier divisions and it’s harder to consistently win, we need to buck the trend of giving favor to the lightest divisions and start giving the heaviest weight classes a degree-of-difficulty bump.
“Who would win?” is not the question.
“Who would win in a fight?” has been the intro to many animated conversations since cavemen were eating forbidden fruit and running from the dinosaurs. While that question is always a gateway to compelling banter, this list does not directly address that query. Instead, it is a ranking of the greatest fighters in MMA history judged by strength-of-resume. The distinction might seem nuanced, but one is hypothetical about a future event, and the other is about what has already happened.
Let’s use Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir to highlight the distinction between what this list is and isn’t. If MMA fans were asked to predict the winner of a Lesnar/Mir fight to take place next week, Lesnar would win in a landslide. The oddsmakers in Vegas would undoubtedly agree. As we know, Lesnar and Mir did fight, twice actually. The first fight was Lesnar’s first action against an experienced UFC heavyweight—and it was against a former champion, no less. Lesnar dominated the opening 90 seconds until he got caught with a savvy kneebar by a reeling Mir. The rematch would see Lesnar cruise to victory. Mir was fortunate to come away with a win in the first fight and, after the second fight, it was clear that Lesnar was the superior fighter.
So, who would win between Lesnar and Mir? Well, that’s an easy one; the answer is Lesnar. Who has the better MMA resume and should be ranked higher on the all-time list? That’s an easy one, too; it’s Mir. Mir’s 16 wins in the UFC heavyweight division are second-most all-time. Lesnar recorded just four wins in the UFC, including one with a 45-lb weight advantage against a 43-year old Randy Couture. In Lesnar’s brief eight-fight career, he was finished in the first round against his two most difficult opponents (Velasquez and Overeem) and should’ve been finished in the first round against Shane Carwin in what is arguably the most lopsided round in MMA history.
The absolute best thing that we can say about Lesnar’s resume is that he has a victory over Mir. On the other hand, Mir has better things on his resume than his victory over Lesnar. While Lesnar might be the better fighter, Mir had a better career.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is likely the most dominant fighter in MMA history. Not only did he win all 29 of his professional fights, he never came close to losing. In 60-career rounds, he lost just two—one to Justin Gaethje which was dubious at best, and one to Conor McGregory. Jon Jones, on the other hand, lost two rounds in three fights. Of Khabib’s 60 career rounds inside the cage, 19 resulted in a finish for an astounding 32% round-finish rate. By comparison, Jon Jones finished an opponent in 17 of 82 career rounds for a 21% round-finish rate. Khabib-fights were different than those of other elite fighters in the sense that we knew Khabib’s opponent had no chance. Even in a sport where everyone has expertise in self-defense, his assaults bordered on bullying.
So, it is a bit disappointing that he doesn’t lay claim to the title of GOAT. As dominant as Khabib was, his fight-frequency was frustratingly low and that, unfortunately, precludes him from GOAT status. In nine years in the UFC, Khabib fought just 13 times. In Jones’s first 12 years in the UFC, he managed to fight 22 times despite repeated interruptions from suspensions and legal trouble.
The unfortunate byproduct of not fighting often is a correspondingly low number of fights against marquee opponents. In 29 career fights, Khabib fought just three fighters in the top-100. Jones is at 12 and counting; Anderson Silva and GSP are at 16 and 9, respectively. In a comparison between dominant fighters, the nod has to go to those who fought more often and did so against a considerably more impressive collection of opponents. To the chagrin of MMA aficionados everywhere, Khabib simply didn’t fight enough.
Like a sudoku puzzle, there are some clues locked in place before we even begin to compare resumes. Here are some examples:
Wanderlei Silva > Sakuraba (3 fights, 3 wins for Wanderlei)
Cain Velasquez > JDS (11 total rounds, Cain dominated for 10)
Rampage > Liddell (2 fights, 2 finishes for Rampage)
Liddell > Tito (2 fights in prime, 2 finishes for Liddell)
Frankie Edgar > BJ Penn (3 fights, 3 wins for Edgar)
Jose Aldo > Frankie Edgar (2 fights, 2 similarly decisive wins for Aldo)
Tito > Ken Shamrock (3 fights, 3 finishes for Tito)
Jeremy Horn > Chael Sonnen (3 fights, 3 finishes for Horn)
Renan Barao > Faber (2 fights, 2 wins for Barao including finish and 50-45)
TJ Dillashaw > Renan Barao (2 fights, 2 finishes for Dillashaw)
TJ Dillashaw > Cody Garbrandt (2 fights, 2 finishes for Dillashaw)
Cro Cop > Josh Barnett (3 fights, 3 wins for Cro Cop)
MMA has been plagued by controversial judging decisions since its inception. The all-too-familiar 30-27, 30-27, 27-30 split-decision is real, and it’s not spectacular. Even Paul Felder—who stood to gain from judging malfeasance—rolled his eyes when the result of his lopsided split-decision loss to Rafael dos Anjos was announced. Fortunately for dos Anjos, the other two judges saw the fight for what it was, and he was able to walk away with a well-earned victory. Other fighters haven’t been as lucky. Much more common than total judging malpractice is a razor-close split-decision that leaves the MMA community divided. As much as we want it to be—and try to make it be—MMA is not a zero-sum sport. Some fights have clear winners and losers; others don’t. Fortunately, all fights give us information. Going the distance with an elite opponent without definitively losing enhances a resume regardless of the scorecards. In controversial or razor-close decisions, the loser on the scorecards should receive more credit than simply a loss, while the winner on the scorecards should receive less credit than a win. This isn’t practical in actual MMA judging, but we can make these adjustments when evaluating careers. Fights that make more sense scored closer to a draw than the initial result include:
Royce Gracie- Sakuraba 2 (win for Gracie)
GSP-Hendricks (win for GSP)
Machida-P. Davis (loss for Machida)
Machida-Rampage (loss for Machida)
Machida-Rua (win for Machida)
Almost all Benson Henderson fights
Lawler-Condit (win for Lawler)
Machida-Shogun 1 (win for Machida)
Dillashaw-Cruz (win for Cruz)
BJ Penn-GSP 1 (win for GSP)
BJ Penn-Edgar 1 (win for Edgar)
Big Nog-Ricco Rodriguez (win for Big Nog)
Randleman-Rutten (win for Rutten)
Couture-Rizzo 1 (win for Couture)
Holloway-Volkanovski 2 (win for Volkanovski)
Jon Jones-Gustafsson 1 (win for Jones)
Cormier-Gustafsson (win for Cormier)
Wonderboy-Till (win for Till)
Couture-Vera (win for Couture)
Rampage-Murilo Rua (win for Rampage)
Nick Diaz-Carlos Condit (win for Condit)
Shields-Woodley (win for Shields)
Lawler-Hendricks 2 (win for Lawler)
Whittaker-Romero 2 (win for Whittaker)
Bader-P. Davis 1 (win for Bader)
Bader-P. Davis 2 (win for Bader)