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Top 10 fighters of the decade

Selecting the 10 best fighters to emerge from thousands around the world who fought during the past decade is no easy process. If it was baseball, you could easily look at statistics to determine who led in home runs or WAR. If it was basketball, we might look at scoring averages, and if it was football, we’d start at Tom Brady and go from there.

In MMA, the sample sizes are small, even if a decade seems like an eternity while it’s happening. For example, the most active fighter to make the list competed 26 times. In baseball that’s barely a month of games.

Still, this collective group proved the building blocks of the last 10 years, finishing with a combined record of 168-15-1 with three no-contests — a .914 winning percentage. All but one held an undisputed major championship, and some did so for record lengths of time. There were two-division champions and global box office superstars.

While some exclusions may seem perplexing, it’s worth remembering the selections are based upon the last 10 years—no more, no less—and that simple consideration alone means they were among the decade’s most dominant.

Without further adieu, here is the list:

Honorable Mentions: Amanda Nunes (15-3), Max Holloway (21-5), Tyron Woodley (15-4-1), Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-3), Jose Aldo (12-4), Valentina Shevchenko (11-3), Patricio Freire (18-4), Ronda Rousey (12-2), Douglas Lima (18-3), Gegard Mousasi (18-5-1).

10. Tony Ferguson

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 17-1

In April 2020, if all goes right — no sure thing given the snakebitten history of the rivalry — Tony Ferguson will finally have a chance to win the UFC undisputed lightweight championship when he faces off with Khabib Nurmagomedov.

A victory would cap off Ferguson’s incredible run, during which he was one of the winningest fighters of the decade. Ferguson’s 17-1 mark during that stretch is particularly impressive given that he compiled most of it while fighting within the UFC lightweight division, historically one of the most competitive divisions in mixed martial arts (16 of his 18 fights during that time took place in the Octagon).

Known for an unorthodox and high-paced fighting style, Ferguson has a well-balanced game, as evidenced by his seven knockouts and six submissions during this time stretch. Beyond the sheer numbers, Ferguson is perhaps the most exciting fighter to make this list. Almost as a rule, action fighters do not sustain long stretches of success due to their willingness to shuck defensive fundamentals in search of offensive openings. Ferguson bucks that trend despite often competing at a near-frantic tempo. His success stems from his artful, creative striking game coupled with exceptional wrestling and an endless gas tank, traits that often complement each other to wear out the competition.

During his run, Ferguson has stopped stars like Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza and Anthony Pettis, and he’s outworked Rafael dos Anjos and Josh Thomson. His 12 consecutive Octagon wins are tied for the longest lightweight winning streak ever. The other record-holder? Nurmagomedov, which provides another reason why these two decadelong greats must finally meet.

9. Cris Cyborg

Cris Cyborg and Holly Holm Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 13-1, 1 NC

There have been few more dominant and intimidating forces in MMA than Cris Cyborg, a ferocious striker who ran roughshod through opposition for nearly the entirety of the decade.

During that 10-year stretch, she won championships in Strikeforce, Invicta and the UFC, becoming one of the rare fighters to pull off belts in three major organizations.

Cyborg was so feared that promoters sometimes struggled to find her opposition, but when they did, most likely the fight would be one-sided and quick. In her 13 victories during the decade, 11 of them came by finish, and six took less than one round.

Cyborg finally made it to the UFC in 2016 after company president Dana White finally relented on offering her a spot in the promotion. She tried a test cut to bantamweight that didn’t take, and eventually, the UFC created a featherweight division, largely so she could showcase her skills. Cyborg didn’t disappoint, stopping Tonya Evinger to capture the belt before successfully defending against Holly Holm and Yana Kunitskaya.

While Cyborg was upset by the excellent Amanda Nunes at UFC 232, she still finished the decade with the best winning percentage of any women’s MMA major champion.

8. Henry Cejudo

Henry Cejudo Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 15-2

When the decade began, Henry Cejudo was unsure about where his athletic future would lead. Already an Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist, he had debated whether to chase a second gold or to move on to new pursuits. For a time, he moved above an old gym in Phoenix and immersed himself in boxing, partly because he loved the sport and partly because he felt it was the only athletic pursuit in which he could make a living. But after attempting and failing to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, Cejudo threw a curveball, declaring he would move into MMA.

That fateful decision provided near-immediate dividends, as Cejudo began his career by ripping off 10 straight wins, propelling him into the world’s top-10 within less than four years of professional experience. From the beginning, Cejudo proved himself to be capable in all realms of fighting. But it was a lopsided TKO loss to Demetrious Johnson that seemed to force him to elevate his game.

His next time out, Cejudo faced the always dangerous Joseph Benavidez, and though he lost in a controversial split-decision, it was clear his striking had sharpened and his fight IQ had spiked. After knocking off consecutive contenders, Cejudo rematched with Johnson and pulled off a stunning upset by outworking the champion to end his lengthy reign. A few months later, Cejudo defended the belt by knocking out bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw in just 32 seconds. Then, to cap off his decade, he made history by capturing a second belt by knocking out the explosive Marlon Moraes.

With the late surge of excellence, Cejudo cemented his place as one of the decade’s best.

7. Stipe Miocic

Junior dos Santos and Stipe Miocic Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 19-3

Stipe Miocic’s hit list reads like a Who’s Who of heavyweight terrors. Daniel Cormier, Francis Ngannou, Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Andrei Arlovski, Mark Hunt. The list goes on.

That resume is its own argument for inclusion on the list, but Miocic’s bona fides go on. Among his most notable accomplishments is holding the record of most consecutive UFC heavyweight title defenses with three. While champions in other divisions have far exceeded that total, the heavyweight division has always been fraught with peril given the large size of the men and the small size of the gloves they are wearing. Given the power going back and forth, it is often the first good punch that lands that leads to a finish. Yet Miocic has been remarkably strong and consistent, utilizing a mixture of power striking and aggressive wrestling to neutralize foes.

Miocic’s activity is stellar for a heavyweight. In fact, his 361 strikes landed against Hunt in their 2015 bout remains the record for most landed in a match. Also worth lauding is his ability to overcome adversity. While his first title reign ended by knockout at the hands of Cormier, Miocic demanded a rematch and returned the favor, recapturing the championship while taking out a fellow all-timer in the process.

6. Georges St-Pierre

Georges St-Pierre, Michael Bisping Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 7-0

Despite the fact that Georges St-Pierre has the least fights of anyone on the list, his inclusion as one of the top fighters of the decade was surprisingly easy.

Even though his body of work was small, it was significant in helping to define the decade. For example, during that time, in every single one of his fights, a UFC championship was at stake. In every single one of his fights, he competed in the main event. No one else can say that. Not Conor McGregor, not Jon Jones. St-Pierre may have faced more pressure than anyone else in MMA during this time, and yet, he won them all.

He overcame a head kick knockdown to Carlos Condit and won. He withstood Johny Hendricks’ crushing power and though just barely, he won. He took four years off, returned to fight at middleweight against champ Michael Bisping and won.

While St-Pierre faced criticism in the latter part of his career for a more conservative style than his early, dynamic “Rush” phase, he found a way to minimize risk while maximizing his chances of victory, and that kind of cage generalship was a brilliance all its own.

A two-division champion and a generational talent, St-Pierre stands not just as one of the decade’s top 10, but as one of the best ever to do it.

5. Conor McGregor

Conor McGregor won his second UFC title at UFC 205 on Saturday night.
Conor McGregor won his second UFC title at UFC 205 on Saturday night.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 18-3

With just one fight in the last three years—and a loss at that—along with troubling recent outside-the-cage issues including multiple arrests and two sexual assault investigations, revisionist historians have attempted to recast McGregor as an overrated flash in the pan. While his behavior has undoubtedly cast a pall over everything he’s built, any criticisms of his athletic achievements are misguided. For two-thirds of the decade, McGregor was one of the most exciting, active and successful fighters in the sport.

His rise to the top of the UFC was one of the great storylines in the MMA history. Once an aimless recipient of social welfare in his native Ireland, McGregor rededicated himself to his professional goals just before the start of the decade to great effect. As he rampaged through the London-based Cage Warriors promotion, whispers about the charismatic Irishman began to circulate in wider circles, and by the time he made his UFC debut in April 2013, there was a full-on outbreak of McGregor-mania. Almost from the beginning, he told anyone who’d listen that he was bound for the top, often successfully predicting the results of his matches and earning himself the nickname “Mystic Mac.”

In July 2015, McGregor earned his first real chance to silence skeptics who wondered how he would fare against a sturdy wrestler when he took a short-notice interim UFC featherweight championship pairing against Chad Mendes. Turns out, pretty well, as he knocked Mendes out inside of two rounds. That set up a unification bout with lineal champ Jose Aldo. The anticipation for the fight, built up by an international press tour, reached a craze, and somehow, McGregor surpassed anyone’s wildest exceptions when he knocked out Aldo in just 13 seconds, stunningly ending the Brazilian’s nine-year win streak. McGregor went on to begin a crackling rivalry with Nate Diaz, and though he went 2-2 in his last four bouts to end the decade, he also finished it as the biggest box office star in MMA history.

4. Demetrious Johnson

Gallery Photo: Demetrious Johnson Photos

Decade Record: 22-3-1

Even before Zuffa decided to establish a flyweight division in the UFC, Demetrious Johnson had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with. But it was when he was finally able to move to his true weight class that he could truly illustrate his brilliance.

For over six years, Johnson was one of the most dominant and innovative fighters in the world. During that time, he won 13 straight fights in the UFC, tied for the second-longest in organizational history. In that stretch, Johnson beat every contender that rose to meet him, including Joseph Benavidez (twice), John Dodson (twice), Kyoji Horiguchi and Henry Cejudo. While he was often criticized for an inability to draw huge audiences, Johnson was an imaginative talent who innovated both in the gym and in the midst of action. His most memorable example would be his October 2017 finish against Ray Borg, during which he somehow transitioned a suplex into a flying armbar to get the tapout. To add to the drama of the moment, that stoppage marked his 11th consecutive successful UFC title defense, breaking the record held by the legendary Anderson Silva.

Even though Johnson lost the title in his next match to Cejudo, it came by the slimmest of margins in a split-decision, and after that, he moved to ONE Championship, finishing out the decade with three consecutive victories.

3. Daniel Cormier

Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 21-2, 1 NC

Preceded by his success as an international amateur wrestling star and U.S. Olympian, Cormier arrived on the major MMA scene with big hopes and substantial pressure to perform. Suffice it to say, he surpassed all expectations.

Standing just 5-foot-11, the undersized Cormier competed as a heavyweight for most of the decade, going 14-1 against men who nearly always outsized him, such as Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, and Derrick Lewis.

His move to light-heavyweight was equally as fruitful, with victories over Dan Henderson, Anthony Johnson, Anderson Silva and Alexander Gustafsson.

In 2015, he captured the UFC light-heavyweight championship, stopping Johnson with a submission. He went on to defend the belt twice before losing it to Jon Jones in a bout that was later overruled to a no contest following Jones’ positive drug test. After being reinstated as the champ, Cormier defended it again, this time against Volkan Oezedemir. That set up Cormier to move up to heavyweight in a high-stakes champion vs. champion matchup against Stipe Miocic. Cormier scored a first-round knockout, becoming only the second man in UFC history to simultaneously hold two championships.

With two UFC belts to go with a Strikeforce Grand Prix victory and countless wins over major names, Cormier’s resume is sterling and unassailable.

2. Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib Nurmagomedov, Edson Barboza Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 21-0

Armed with a dominant and punishing grappling game, Nurmagomedov entered the UFC in 2012 and rapidly proved that his gifts would translate on the international stage. While his rise to the UFC lightweight championship took six years, it was filled with one commanding win after another. Whether his opponent was a grizzled veteran like Rafael dos Anjos, a powerful striker like Edson Barboza or a hybrid like Michael Johnson, Nurmagomedov manhandled the competition, at one point winning 31 straight rounds in the UFC, a streak that ranks second all-time behind St-Pierre’s 33.

Nurmagomedov captured the vacant title in April 2018, setting up a mega-fight with McGregor. If there was any concern Nurmagomedov would buckle under the pressure of the sports world spotlight, it was quickly allayed by his fast start, as he nearly finished McGregor in the second round before eventually submitting him in the fourth.

The fight did gangbusters business, breaking an MMA record with 2.4 million pay-per-view buys, solidifying Nurmagomedov as a draw. In September, he stopped Dustin Poirier to retain his belt. In the process, he set up a highly anticipated match with Ferguson, and guaranteed he would end the decade the same way he started it: undefeated.

1. Jon Jones

Jon Jones Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Decade Record: 16-0, 1 NC

By the time the decade began, most of the fight world had already taken notice of Jones’ brilliant potential. He was tall and rangy, dynamic and fearless. He spoke about destiny and setting out to achieve greatness. Ten years later, we can confidently say that Jones is a generational talent, having reigned as the top light heavyweight in the world for most of the decade.

Jones has been so good, so dominant, that during this entire time, few men have ever risen through the division to be seen as any true threat to him. The first, Alexander Gustafsson, came by way of surprise. Gustafsson took an unfocused Jones to the limit back at UFC 165, only to see Jones roar back in the final minutes of the fight to retain his belt (Jones also won the rematch, this time by dominant TKO). The second is his one true rival during this time: Cormier. Yet even that feud was fairly lopsided. Jones clearly outpointed Cormier in their first fight, and in the rematch, knocked out Cormier in the third round.

That return bout’s result was eventually overturned to a no contest due to a Jones’ positive drug test, fueling criticism related to Jones’ outside-the-cage issues. He has twice tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and has been arrested twice.

Still, if we’re going on achievements, Jones’ athletic accomplishments are stunning. He spent the entire decade in the world’s top fight promotion and never lost. He once defeated five consecutive former UFC champions (Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort). From the beginning of the decade to the end, he was simply unmatched as the best fighter MMA had to offer.

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