Twenty-five years into the experiment that promised to determine the most effective martial art, the question is all but expired. Evolution has repeatedly proven that a melding of existing styles and a willingness toward adaptability will continually redefine the potent methods of the moment. It is always shifting, changing, developing; a living art form.
In that quarter-center, the UFC has welcomed thousands of fighters to the cage, all with the intent of rising to the top. A scant few have gotten there, able to call themselves a UFC champion. But an even smaller subset remain the best of the best; the most important fighters ever to step foot into the Octagon. While any list is subjective, in considering the measures necessary for inclusion, we focused on criteria including total body of work, strength of schedule, accomplishments, historical importance, and head-to-head results.
With the UFC celebrating its silver anniversary on Nov. 10, this multi-part series pays tributes to the key names that pushed the promotion’s rise.
For Part 1 featuring Nos. 25-16, click here.
15. Dan Henderson
Dan Henderson crossed eras, changed styles, authored moments of brilliance. An undersized wrestler by trade, the 5-foot-11 powerhouse began his career as “Decision” Dan for his heavy emphasis on wrestling and control. But by the time he was done a full two decades later, he had gained a reputation as one of the most thunderous strikers in the sport’s existence.
While most of Henderson’s career took place outside of the UFC, he took part in two of the most epic UFC sequences ever.
The first took place in July 2009, in what was at the time the most anticipated event in MMA history: UFC 100. Paired off with world-class antagonist Michael Bisping on The Ultimate Fighter, the two sniped at each other for months before getting a chance to settle their differences.
The finish was instantly legendary. With Bisping circling into Henderson’s power hand, Henderson baited him further left with an inside left kick, then threw an overhand right heat-seeker that found its mark. Bisping was unconscious before he hit the mat, but perhaps before recognizing his handiwork, Henderson went airborne with a flying punch that served as the capper. To this day, it is probably the most famous knockout in the promotion’s history.
Henderson was also a combatant in the fight that many longtime observers consider the best in the organization’s history. In November 2011, Henderson got together with Mauricio Rua and the two put on a classic battle of attrition that saw both men flirt with certain defeat, only to pull themselves back from the brink. Henderson ultimately won by decision.
During his three UFC tenures, Henderson notched career wins over former UFC champions including Rua (twice), Bisping, Rich Franklin, and Carlos Newton.
14. Matt Hughes
There may have been no UFC fighter more dominant in the aughts than Matt Hughes, whose two welterweight title reigns in the decade totaled 1,579 days, the equivalent of 4.32 years at the top.
Hughes built his reputation on a meat-and-potatoes fight style that emphasized his wrestling background and country-boy strength. Hughes was never a particularly slick or powerful striker, but overcame any standup shortcomings with a nearly unstoppable grappling attack. The compact powerhouse seldom wasted time finding his way inside with a low single, blast double, or a takedown from inside the clinch. On the ground, Hughes never boasted a formal jiu-jitsu belt ranking, but was a dual threat, alternating between pulverizing ground strikes and an outstanding submission game.
Hughes first captured the belt in November 2001 with a slam takedown KO of Carlos Newton that basically knocked himself out as well. That ending stoked a bit of controversy, but he quickly solidified his reign with a series of defenses, including a definitive stoppage of Newton in the rematch. But Hughes really wrote his legend against Frank Trigg at UFC 52.
Inadvertently hit with a low blow knee, Hughes briefly turned away from the action. Referee Mario Yamasaki missed the illegal strike and allowed the fight to continue. Trigg attacked with a hail of ground strikes and nearly sunk in a rear-naked choke. While seemingly at his most vulnerable, Hughes escaped from the choke, scooped up Trigg, ran him across the cage and slammed him down in a chills-inducing moment. He then returned the favor, smashing Trigg from the top before sinking in a fight-ending choke. The comeback win is still considered to be one of the most memorable moments in UFC history.
13. Stipe Miocic
Throughout the quarter-century of the UFC, no weight class has been more of a minefield than the heavyweight division. Its title was often passed around from fight to fight, something of a hot potato.
And then came Stipe Miocic.
If you could build a heavyweight from scratch, it would look something like Miocic: A 6-foot-4, 240-pound NCAA Division I wrestler with Golden Gloves boxing experience, agile footwork, and endless stamina.
An Ohio native who moonlights as a firefighter, Miocic truly announced himself as a contender in July 2013, when he topped a streaking Roy Nelson in a lopsided decision. While his next fight resulted in a setback in a mildly controversial decision loss to Junior dos Santos, Miocic rebounded to smash Mark Hunt the next time out in an extended, one-sided TKO.
That victory set Miocic on a path toward gold, culminating in a shockingly easy first-round knockout of Fabricio Werdum in hostile territory before Werdum’s countrymen in Brazil. He went on to successfully defend the belt three times, a heavyweight UFC record, including knockouts of legends Alistair Overeem and dos Santos in a rematch of their 2014 encounter.
While he ultimately lost the belt to Daniel Cormier last July, Miocic remains the division’s No. 1 contender at press time, and has every intention of adding to his legacy.
12. Chuck Liddell
In the mid-2000s, as the UFC blossomed its way into mainstream attention, Chuck Liddell was its poster boy — a mohawked, tattooed, bone-rattler who both looked and played the part in a way anyone could quickly understand.
A quiet killer, Liddell would simply show up on fight night, glare a death stare at the man standing across the Octagon from him, and then, more often than not, club that man into unconsciousness.
A Division I collegiate wrestler, Liddell was one of the first to use that skill for its opposite goal, ensuring the fight remained in the striking realm. This was because as Liddell gained a reputation as a power puncher, opponents wanted to put him on his back. Liddell mostly refused to allow it, notching a career takedown defense rate of 81 percent. That allowed him to uncork his signature punch — a wide, looping overhand right that helped seal wins over stars including Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, Tito Ortiz, and Wanderlei Silva.
His long, long, longtime rivalry with Ortiz remains among the most important feuds in MMA history. While the two fought in 2004 to lukewarm general interest, the steam remained hot between them, catching fire just as the sport was getting its first real mainstream push through The Ultimate Fighter. It all peaked in December 2006. With major sports outlets curious to more closely examine the burgeoning MMA phenomenon, Liddell-Ortiz was a perfect on-ramp, with its built-in storyline, colorful characters, and incessant buzz.
The fight between them was a box-office bonanza, becoming the first UFC show to draw over 1 million pay-per-view buys, and cementing the idea that a fringe sport could generate substantial interest from the larger sports world.
11. Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor was practically a movement before he ever stepped foot in the UFC Octagon. Armed with a knife-blade wit, a smashing left hand, and the support of a nation ravenous for success on the worldwide fight stage, McGregor laid claim to the throne upon his arrival, and then accomplished every major goal he confidently set out before the world.
McGregor joined the UFC in April 2013 with a quick KO of Marcus Brimage, and his star power immediately exploded. The next time out, he was featured in Boston, and his appearance nearly blew the roof off the building. Win after win followed, and while McGregor repeatedly reminded fans that a championship was a certainty, critics charged that his rise had been carefully orchestrated by the UFC to minimize the risk of defeat. McGregor exploded that narrative when he took on powerhouse wrestler Chad Mendes on short notice and knocked him out in two rounds.
His matchup with Jose Aldo remains one of the epic buildups in MMA history, with the two criss-crossing the world and spewing invectives at each other, only to see McGregor win in a stunning 13-second knockout. That victory gave him the UFC featherweight championship and cemented his celebrity in pop culture.
Since then, he’s become the top draw in the sport’s history, routinely blasting past the 1 million pay-per-view mark at a time when that business has declined due to the abundance of entertainment choices. In a moment where options are limitless, McGregor is must-see television.
While his impact has been greatest on the business front, his athletic bona fides are also dazzling. He is the UFC’s first-ever simultaneous two-division champion, has wins over past and current UFC champs including Aldo, Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway, and still boasts what is perhaps the sport’s most profitable, still-simmering rivalry against Nate Diaz.
10. Royce Gracie
While it feels somewhat blasphemous to put the pioneer of the UFC on the periphery of the top 10, Royce Gracie will always come to the forefront of any conversation about the most influential mixed martial artists of all-time.
As a fighter, Gracie’s key contributions came during a two-year window starting in November 1993. At UFC 1, after being selected by his family to represent Gracie jiu-jitsu in a showcase of the art form against more traditional combat styles, the slight and wiry Brazilian proceeded to slice through the tournament field by beating three opponents in 299 combined seconds. In less than the time it takes to complete one full round in today’s UFC, Gracie shook the martial arts world to its core, and helped redefine combat sports forever.
Within months, jiu-jitsu gyms began to pop up in locations around the world, arming the next generation of fighters with ground attacks past simple ground strikes.
Gracie followed up his inaugural event by returning four months later for UFC 2 and one-upping himself by defeating four opponents in a single night, capturing the tournament title as well.
All told, he won his first 11 UFC bouts, a record for consecutive wins that stood for 16 years, until being broken by Anderson Silva.
Gracie also took part in one of MMA’s first great rivalries, which co-starred fellow pioneer Ken Shamrock. After Gracie emerged with a win against Shamrock in the UFC 1 finals, Shamrock was hellbent on avenging the defeat. At UFC 5, the two were paired off in a “superfight,” the first time the UFC set aside its tournament format to pair off two individuals. The two fought for over 36 minutes before the fight was declared a draw. While neither man emerged with a win, the fight was a major success at the box office, drawing what at the time was a record 260,000 pay-per-view buys.
9. Randy Couture
The window of athletic prime is sometimes little more than a sliver. Fighters come and go, young and promising one day, old and slow the next. And then there was Randy Couture, the ageless wonder who didn’t join the UFC until just shy of his 34th birthday, a time that for most athletes is well past their career peaks.
For the next decade-plus, Couture managed to build a legacy of success in two divisions while simultaneously shocking us with his unprecedented longevity.
While Couture became the UFC heavyweight champion for the first time in 1997, it was his move to the more competitive light heavyweight division that set up the matchups that would make Couture a legend. Most significantly, his rivalry with Chuck Liddell was a key one in UFC history, as it took place during a time when the UFC was making great strides in building a fan base. With his clean-cut appearance and “Captain America” moniker, Couture made a perfect foil for the mohawked “Iceman,” Liddell.
In the first fight between them, Couture stopped Liddell with punches to become the first fighter ever to win UFC titles in two weight classes. While Liddell eventually won the rivalry, stopping Couture in the 2006 rubber match via knockout, the setback ultimately led to a golden opportunity for Couture. After a brief “retirement,” he returned a year later, moving back up to heavyweight to chase that belt against Tim Sylvia.
In a “David vs. Goliath” moment, Couture knocked Sylvia down with his first punch of the fight, and smashed Sylvia to win the belt. Couture, 43 years and 255 days old at the time, still holds the record as the old champion in UFC history.
Far from done, Couture won five of his final eight UFC bouts, triumphant for the last time at UFC 118, aged 47 years old — another UFC record.
8. B.J. Penn
Many of the sport’s insiders affirm that when it comes to UFC combat, no one arrived equipped with the tools of B.J. Penn, a ferocious competitor with one of the first fully developed, all-around skill sets mixed martial arts had ever seen.
Penn arrived in the Octagon in 2001 without ever having competed as a pro. That alone makes him an outlier, but he quickly proved his wunderkind status, authoring three consecutive first-round knockouts. Those stoppages came as revelations for the fight community, which incorrectly assumed that given Penn’s reputation as a jij-jitsu prodigy — he earned his black belt in a blazing fast three years — he would be a ground fighter. Instead, what they found is he had powerful hands, lightning quick reflexes, and fantastic takedown defense.
Always willing to fight the best available opponent, Penn bolted the UFC after a 5-1-1 start to his career, only to return a year later, in January 2004, in an attempt to end Matt Hughes’ first welterweight title reign. At the time, the assignment seemed ill-advised, as Penn had spent the majority of his career at lightweight while Hughes was the longest-reigning champ in UFC history. Yet Penn dominated the action, ending up on top in a first-round scramble and eventually sinking in a fight-ending rear naked choke.
After leaving the promotion again to chase other opportunities, Penn returned once more in 2006. After two failed attempts to reclaim the welterweight belt, Penn returned to the division that was his longtime home, capturing the lightweight title. He defended the belt successfully three times, stopping Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez in successive fashion.
All along the way, Penn has remained one of the most popular and respected names in MMA.
One of the greatest lighter-weight fighters of all-time, Frankie Edgar has excelled throughout his lengthy career despite consistently being the smaller man in the cage.
Known for an incredible resilience and a versatile game, Edgar built his legend through his 2010 and 2011 matches (and rematches) with B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard. The first Penn match, which took place in April 2010, was expected to be a Penn blowout. While Edgar had impressively defeated Sean Sherk a year prior, Penn was already a legend. With lopsided betting lines and expectations stacked against him, Edgar shocked Penn in a close but unanimous decision. When fans objected to the judges’ call, the UFC set up an immediate rematch, only to see Edgar blow out Penn in a rout.
His next time out, Edgar faced Gray Maynard, who at the time was undefeated. Maynard got off to a blazing start, dropping Edgar early in the first, then doing it again, and again. Somehow, Edgar survived all three knockdowns, collected himself, and reclaimed control of the fight. Digging his way out of a unanimous 10-8 first round, Edgar rebounded to force a draw. That set up an immediate rematch that began similarly, with Maynard scoring an early knockdown and looking to finish. Again, Edgar held on. Again, Edgar established control. But this time, he left no doubt about the winner, knocking Maynard out with a blistering series of right hooks in the fourth round.
Over a career that has now spanned almost 12 years, Edgar has won 17 times while almost exclusively fighting men that were bigger than him. Never in his 24 bouts has he faced an opponent while having a height advantage. Yet still, he holds career wins over Penn, Sherk, Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes, and Cub Swanson.
With a legendary streak of courage and a heavy dose of polished professionalism, Edgar serves as a reminder that greatness can be reached no matter the size or approach.
6. Jose Aldo
A quiet and proud professional who entered the UFC in 2011 with the featherweight championship already in tow, Aldo has upheld a legacy of major MMA excellence that began years before in the organization’s sister promotion, the WEC.
Aldo resume is bulletproof; he reigned as the divisional champion for 1,848 consecutive days (fourth all-time) and through seven title defenses (fifth all-time).
Throughout his career, Aldo has been capable of creating electrifying moments. His UFC 142 knockout win over Chad Mendes comes to mind. In that fight, Mendes was holding his own deep into the first round. As the clock wound down, Mendes looked for a final takedown, but Aldo broke his group, whirled around and starched Aldo with a left knee for a knockout. Overwhelmed with emotion by his success before his countrymen, Aldo slipped out of the cage, ran into the stands and celebrated among the exuberant fans.
Man after man stepped up to face Aldo, from strikers like Mark Hominick to jiu-jitsu stylists like Kenny Florian to wrestlers like Mendes, and Aldo handled all of the challenges utilizing his fully rounded game.
Featuring an offense of powerful hands, punishing kicks, and deceptive wrestling, Aldo quickly forged a reputation as a fighter who could do it all.
His lengthy reign finally came to a conclusion in December 2015, at the hands of Conor McGregor in a fight that drew a massive worldwide audience. Despite that stinging defeat, Aldo returned to defeat the legendary Frankie Edgar in a fight that returned Aldo to the top as the featherweight champion for a second time.
Still fighting at a high level a full decade into his major MMA career, Aldo remains ranked second in the division and is a threat to add to his résumé with another title reign.