Saturday, June 26, 2010
16. Kenzu Sakaraba – Be known for one thing, but be the best at that one thing. “Saku” was good at two things, being challenging to Wanderlai Silva when “The Axe Murderer” was at his deadliest, and defeating Gracie family members in decisively the ring. Sakuraba’s record against the clan is 4 and 2, although even those two defeats must seem disappointing to the Gracie’s as they were both decision victories against a TKO and a submission for the Japanese heavyweight. A definitive defeat of their nemesis would resolve a long-standing goal in the Gracie family history, which is to prove Gracie BJJ as superior to other fighting styles. Whereas a loss to Matt Hughes may be written off as a man beating another man, rather than a show of stylistic superiority (Hughes defeated Royce by utilizing a variety of techniques) Sakuraba remains the one fighter who continues to essentially fight the same catch-wrestling game year after year. So, despite a checkered won loss record (especially in recent years), Sakuraba continues to hold the unofficial title of “Gracie Hunter,” the mongoose to the Gracie’s cobra. The quality that makes Sakuraba such a problem for BJJ practioners (and something of an easy target for muay thai specialist like Wanderlai Silva) is his total lack of regard for his own safety. We could call it supreme courage, or we can call it recklessness, but there is nothing shy or withdrawing about his ring work. He loves nothing more than to have a skilled ground specialists, like Vitor Belfort, on his back and figure out ways of getting into his man’s guard. Watching Sakuraba parry, somersault, and sometimes slam his body onto his prone opponent, risking vicious up kicks and submission attempts, is like watching a man dive into fire. The Belfort fight is especially illustrative of this strategy. For the majority of the first round, Sakuraba had Belfort on his back, all the while standing over him, looking for opportunities to engage on the ground but being careful to avoid the powerful, and often game-ending up kicks from the much bigger and more powerful Brazilian. But he did much more than bide his time. Sakuraba continually punished Belfort’s legs with sharp, digging kicks to the side of the thigh. Within minutes, the leg took on a deep purple hue. Sakuraba was just starting work on the left leg when Belfort left his guard momentarily open. The somewhat lanky Japanese fighter immediately pounced on his man, delivering a sustained salvo of punches to the face before the round ended. The second round was more of the same initially with Belfort taking to the ground, but this time Sakuraba resented the posture and took his anger out on the already heavily damaged right thigh of Belfort. A flurry of kicks were launched in advance of the referee standing two fighters up. Then Sakuraba showed that he was more than a mere puroesu washout by overwhelming Belfort with two highly accurate spinning back kicks to the abdomen. You see, Saku had remembered that he had managed to get off to good downward punches to Belfort’s midsection earlier in round 1. The follow-up is always on Sakuraba’s mind: What damage can I inflict now? The leg, yes, but what about his belly? I haven’t paid a return visit yet. The rest of the round featured a totally clueless Belfort taking to his back on four occasions and Sakuraba, each time, finding more opportunities to torture him. (The usually polite and sedate Japanese crowd, actually booed these antics from Belfort!) As the round closed, Sakuraba, in an attempt to keep the energy level high, flung himself on two occasions, onto Belfort, trying to chop into his head with the heel of his foot. The decision was unanimous for Sakuraba. I am focusing on this early match because Vitor Belfort is one of the very best fighters of all time, and he could not solve the puzzle. By 2001, Sakuraba seemed to have become the fighter to embody the myth of the nearly unbeatable opponent. But the remarkable thing about mixed martial arts, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a totally complete fighter. Each individual discipline has its distinct learning curve and no fighter can realistically achieve mastery of more than a half-dozen during his or her professional career. Therefore, when confronting an experienced practitioner of a fighting style unknown or novel to him, a fighter will be vulnerable. Royce and the other Gracie’s who have met Sakuraba, had little practical experience with catch wrestling at the master level because in most parts of the world, the style is associated with professional wrestling and therefore used more for its theatricality than it’s martial purpose. However, in Japan, professional wrestling, despite its outcomes being predetermined, is taken seriously as a combat style. Thanks largely to the efforts of the legendary Antonio Inoki via the historical intervention of “the god of professional wrestling” Karl Gotch, pro wrestling in Japan has established itself as sport of two worlds, that of kabuki-like theater, and that of the legitimate athletic contest. Catch wrestling and shoot wrestling absorbs and modifies elements of what can be generically referred to as “grappling,” or submission styles of martial arts. The variations are numerous and include judo, traditional jujitsu, BJJ, Tae Kwon Do, and many others. It is wrong to assume that a practioner of one is able to adapt to any other style. Clearly, the problem confronting the Gracie family (as was the case as well with Royce’s match against Matt Hughes) is a degree of arrogance or over-confidence in their mono-style of fighting against a style that already incorporates other disciplines. On top of this, Sakuraba has routinely worked powerful kicks into his game and has enough Greco-Roman savvy to take most of his opponents down at will. Combined with his freakish athleticism, it is perhaps easy to see why he has been such a thorn in the side of the Gracie’s and so many other fighters. But Sakuraba has never fought outside of the closed-system of Japanese promotions. With the exception of handful of early matches against Wanderlai Silva, CroCop, and Rampage Jackson (he lost to all but Jackson, who was a very new fighter at the time) Saku has never really fought the modern elites of his sport. He shows no interest in the UFC (despite winning the promotion’s Japan tournament early in his career) and at the age of 40, it is clear that he is in the nadir of his active career. His loyalties to piroresu and his homeland may have made him a legend in some quarters, but he may ultimately be remembered exclusively by MMA fanatics.
17. Rich Franklin – Rich “Ace” Franklin recently ended the professional career of Chuck Liddell in a fast and furious match that for all intents and purposes was the equivalent of a “loser leaves town” retirement match. Franklin had gone 20 and 1 in his career before winning the UFC’s middleweight championship. He defended it twice and held the belt for 16 months before receiving one of the most savage beat-downs in MMA history at the hands (and feet) of Anderson Silva. The division being was it was (and remains) – lacking depth due to the heavy competition at welterweight and light-heavyweight – Franklin did not have to wait long for a rematch. Two victories later (including a hard-fought contest against the underrated Yushin Okami) and Franklin would meet Silva again. A year later, but the result was essentially the same. In fact, Franklin actually looked a little worse this time around. Since then, Franklin has been something of an oddity in the UFC. He is a solid, pure middleweight, and would probably be the champion in the division were it not for Anderson Silva. But he clearly can’t beat the man. Two devastating loses support this argument. But he can beat just about everyone else. Light heavyweight does not seem to suit him as well. He struggled with Matt Hamill before stopping him the third round of their match. And though competitive against Dan Henderson, he lost the decision. But still, Franklin is too good to simply take on a journeyman or “gatekeeper” status like Keith Jardine or Joe Stevenson. So what to do? The UFC’s matchmaker, Joe Silva had put Franklin in two “catchweight” matches, meaning that both fighters agreed to meet at a given weight. This was first done to accommodate Wanderlai Silva, who was dropping down to middleweight after an unsuccessful run at light heavyweight. Wanderlai tends to either destroy his opponents or bring out the best in them, and thus was the case with his match against Franklin. The two fought a three round war that saw Franklin taking the decision and the both of them winning “Fight of the Night” honors. Silva opted to return to the catchweight well once more with Franklin in his bought with the returning Vitor Belfort. This time, it seemed the spirit of “The Spider” ran through “The Phenom” as Belfort straight-up beat the hell out of him, taking a TKO victory. The Belfort match’s results aside, it did suggest that Franklin really was an all-around “go-to” fighter for non-title main event fights. He is an exciting, multi-layered fighter, good looking, and, in his own way, quietly charismatic. So what if he can’t beat Brazilians? (He’s 1 and 4 against that tribe. Lyoto Machida was his first loss.) He is still a viable commodity, and, perhaps more importantly, a loyal worker. Thus, when Tito Ortiz pulled out of the main event of UFC 115, and Dana White fired him from coaching duties on The Ultimate Fighter, White had one call to make, and that was his to his “ace” in the hole. It was a short temp position. Just two weeks with his team and then a month before his fight with Liddell. Win or lose, Liddell had the status of a legend and millions in the bank. For Franklin, the stakes were somewhat higher. He is a better, more well-rounded fighter than Liddell, but nowhere near as famous. Franklin still needed to fight competitively, even if it meant doing “odd jobs” for the UFC and biding his time before Anderson Silva loses his belt or retires so he can reclaim the middleweight title. A loss to Liddell may not have meant the end, but probably portended a return to the undercard. Thus, the night of the event, both fighters came out to fight, Liddell looking to win or die trying for the sake of glory, and Franklin to keep himself viable. Liddell broke Franklin’s arm early on in the first round, which meant that he may have had to concede the rest of the match unless he finished Liddell before the end of the round. The focused desperation paid off. Liddell was flat on his back and unconscious from a well-timed Franklin punch, a state Liddell has unfortunately become familiar with in recent years. Franklin, battered and broken, showed more than titles can change hands in the MMA cage.
18. Ken Shamrock – Ken Shamrock is a steroid apologist; a punchy has-been; a big-mouth shit talker who can’t cash the proverbial checks; a litigious cry-baby, and a fighter who in the past ten years has amassed a record of 4 and 8. His last victory was against a now-deceased, morbidly obese kid who went 6 and 10 in his own brief career. Yes, Shamrock is a man to pity, despise, and ridicule. But it is only half the story. Maybe it’s none of the story, really. Ken (aka “Wayne”) Shamrock was the face of mixed martial arts from 1993 to his main-even loss to Tito Oritz in 2002. He was arguably the sport’s biggest draw in America, perhaps largely due to his long stint in the WWF as “the World’s Most Dangerous Man.” It is undeniable that Shamrock was instrumental in attracting maturing pro wrestling fans to MMA, arguably the legitimate version of the sport. Indeed, Shamrock’s colorful interviews and active promotion of his MMA bouts looked much more like pro wrestling “heat” than true grudges. His skills in the ring tended to focus on the shoot-style, favoring excruciating leg, knee, and ankle locks. This approach made him a feared competitor in the Japanese Pancrase organization where striking was minimized in favor of catch-style techniques. He had less success in the UFC, especially in the mid-2000s as he faced a young group of fighters trained in Greco-roman wrestling and boxing. Ortiz never looked better as when he took Shamrock to school over the course of a rather sad, and excessive trilogy of matches. The decade in general wasn’t kind to Ken. It was a decade that saw him losing at a 50% rate and seldom looking competitive. Why he continues to carry on is a question only he can answer. There is a lot of darkness, abuse, and abandonment in his early life, and he have never gotten along with his brother, the more well-rounded and consistent fighter, Frank Shamrock. By this stage he has lost so many matches in Podunk venues that the “legend” status begins to look tarnished. But Ken Shamrock should not be forgotten, nor should his reputation be tarnished by his recent masochisms. He is one of a handful of individuals who can truly claim to have built a new sport from whole cloth.
19. Forrest Griffin - Where is Forrest Griffin now? Once the face of the new generation, the group of Ultimate Fighter alumni who would take over the world of MMA from the old guard represented by Liddell and Ortiz. His match with Stephan Bonnar is considered the greatest fight in the history of the sport. He won the light heavyweight title from a ferocious Quinton Jackson, and holds the distinction of putting “Shogun” Rua to sleep via rear-naked choke. All the while, Forrest maintained a self-effacing, “aw shucks” attitude almost totally unknown in the sport. (He shrugged in disbelief when Dana White strapped the belt to his waist after his decision victory over Jackson.) He’s never disparaged another fighter for the sake of heat, and, by all accounts, has no tattoos. And yet he was for several years, arguably be most popular fighter in the UFC after Chuck Liddell. He suffered a weirdly devastating loss to Keith Jardine – never a harbinger of good things to come – before his championship run. Being a title-holder was short lived. Given the stacked nature of the division (then and now) there wouldn’t be the “easy” defense. Half-a-year after beating Jackson, Forrest met fellow-TUF alum Rashad Evans. Evans, perhaps the best boxer/wrestler combo in the sport, got a TKO off of Forrest in the third round. Ordinarily, you might expect a defeated champion to take on someone sub-Top 5 in his division, but he agreed to a main event-status bout against middleweight champion, Anderson Silva, who was looking to further establish himself at light heavyweight. (Truth to be told, Griffin was originally slated to meet the dangerous but manageable Thiago Silva, but Dana White wanted to bring Anderson up after the middleweight champ essentially cleaned out his division.) Griffin was humiliated by Silva who simply out-classed him at every turn. After being knocked down three times in course of a single round, Griffin attempted to mount an offence by attacking Silva with a flurry of punches… none of which landed. While backing off, Griffin was floored by a right from Silva. The punch knocked Griffin out. Later, when he came to his senses, a distraught Griffin ran from the cage and left the building before the ring announcer made his announcement. Overnight, Forrest Griffin went from being the working-class hero of mixed martial arts, to being the avatar of scorn. It was questionable whether he could comeback after not only losing the title, but also his honor. Perhaps the only way to redeem his reputation was to put him in front of a fighter who is even more disliked, and who has disappointed more fight fans than Griffin himself. Thus was the premise of Griffin/Oritz II. Ortiz had taken a close decision from Griffin in their first bout in 2006. The second time around, Griffin out pointed Ortiz with superior striking and took the decision. The real story, though, is the crowd’s reaction to Griffin’s entrance. Wearing black and white trunks (shades of Rocky) and coming out to the strains of “Tubthumper” (“I get knocked down/But I get up again”), Griffin must have had a sense that symbols were important. This was humility wrapped up in determination. As he often says of himself “I’m just a dog.” An animal that can whimper one moment, then bite the neck of grizzly bear the next.
20. Takanori Gomi – The past several years have not been kind to “The Fireball Kid.” Once considered the lightweight version of Fedor – in other words, an almost unstoppable champion – Gomi has gone from a ten year record of 23 wins, 3 losses, and 1 no-contest, to going 2 and 3 in his last five matches. His last loss, against Kenny Florian, must have been particularly frustrating for the 31 year old Japanese superstar. Despite being touted by some as a “dream match” between arguably the #3 and #4 lightweights in the world turned out to be a route for Florian who put on nothing short of a striking clinic for two rounds before choking Gomi out in the third. In other words, Florian out-Gomied Gomi. What happened? One issue may be the level of Gomi’s competition over time. He has not consistently fought elite, division-ranked fighters. In the world of the PRIDE promotion, matches were often made to either highlight a standout’s prowess, or to generate sensation. To some degree, the same charge has been made against Fedor, who also fought extensively in PRIDE and who, like Gomi, was a dominate champion. (Gomi was PRIDE’s first and last lightweight champion.) This critique does not stand up to scrutiny when it’s applied to Fedor. He has soundly defeated the toughest competition of the mid-2000s. But with Gomi, the slander may stick. He was five years into his MMA career before he fought a truly elite fighter in Joachim Hansen. Gomi lost that match, his first loss in the sport, as well as his next match against BJ Penn. He joined PRIDE at that point and thereafter went on a two year, ten-fight winning streak. Of those bouts, three can be described as “standouts” : his six-second knockout of Ralph Gracie via knee strike; his one-punch knockout of a prime Jens Pulver, and his winning of the PRIDE belt from “Mach” Sakurai. On the basis of those victories alone, Gomi should be remembered by MMA history. However, his subsequent career has been an inconsistent one, both in terms of the quality of his opponents, and his performances in the ring. By the time PRIDE had shuttered, many still believed Gomi to be the natural a #2 lightweight in the world behind BJ Penn, and assumed that with Zuffa’s purchase of PRIDE, a “dream” unification match would be forthcoming. But the match never materialized as Gomi carried on in Japan under the auspices of an upstart MMA organization known as World Victory Road. WVR follows much the same philosophy about matchmaking as PRIDE, the difference being that due to a dramatic fall off in the popularity of MMA in Japan in recent years, they cannot attract the biggest names in the sport. Thus, Gomi fought mid-level journeymen competitors, going 2 and 2 while neither advancing his career, nor developing his game. After one more bout for the SHOOTO organization, Gomi finally signed with the UFC. In interviews, “The Fireball Kid” sounded positively sanguine about his chances in the world’s most successful MMA promotion. He had his eyes squarely on BJ Penn and the Lightweight Championship, as though both were his by birthright. But then he met Florian, and was put through a major schooling. Next up is a bout with scrappy tough guy, Joe Stevenson, a gate-keeper of the sort that Gomi should blow through. But then what? A flood of WEC lightweights may be inundating the UFC in the next year as Zuffa consolidates the redundancies between the two promotions. Any one of that current crop of elite 155s would rival anyone Gomi has fought in the past five years. Still relatively young, there is much Gomi still to do in the sport. The question is, does the “kid” have the will to “grow up” and earn his spot at the top again?
Friday, June 25, 2010
11. Anderson Silva – Why only #11? Isn’t “The Spider” considered by many (Dana White) to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world? Is he not on a four year winning streak? Has he not won, held and defended the title during most of that time? Has he not also fought successfully in the light heavyweight division? All of this is true. Silva is an impressive fighter and athlete. He may be too good for the current crop in the UFC’s middleweight division, a division which, if the truth is to be told, has never been robust, being, as it is, a transitional division between the considerably more popular welterweight and light-heavyweight divisions. Since winning the belt from Rich Franklin - an amazing performance showing a virtuosity not seen before or since in the sport - Silva has seldom been properly challenged The one plausible challenger, Dan Henderson, who bolted the promotion last year to compete in Strikeforce, gave Silva his most crucial test in 2008 in a unification match with Hendo’s PRIDE welterweight title. The first round showed chinks in Silva’s armor. Henderson took him down and controlled the UFC champion. It was a bad round for Silva and one of the few he has lost. Then, Henderson gave up his back to Silva in the second round and tapped to a rear-naked choke. The rest of the ride for Silva at 185 has been an easy one. No one possesses Silva’s very specific skill set. A black belt in BJJ, Judo, and Taekwondo; a master of the Brazilian fighting style of capoeira; a professional-level muay thai kickboxer, and a technical Queensbury boxer, it is difficult to imagine a fighter with more formal training in so many diverse martial disciplines. The Henderson bout was to be his biggest test, theoretically, only because Silva lacks a wrestling base. There was danger in Silva being overwhelmed by Henderson’s power. Likewise, in Silva’s bout against Travis Lutter, Silva looked compromised by Lutter’s ability manage the Brazilian’s offense. (Lutter style is a rough-and-ready form of BJJ that integrates elements of muay thai and Greco-roman wrestling.) But these are the only times in recent memory that Silva has really been tested. Frankly, the UFC has not been able to locate a viable opponent for Silva and has had to allow former victims to climb the ladder to try again. Franklin lost the second time around, and now the trio of Nate Marquart, Chael Sonnen, and Demian Maia have elbowed each other for position. Marquart has beaten Maia, Sonnen has beaten Marquart. Maia has been Sonnen. Due to scheduling issues, Maia got first crack at Silva. He didn’t make much of it. Silva clowned with the BJJ master for five rounds before taking a decision. Indeed, Silva’s recent victories have been known more for his antics than this athleticism. The Thales Leites and Patrick Cote bouts were embarrassments ending with the crowd booing Silva’s bored performance, his shuck-and-jive dances, and his unwillingness to engage. His match against Maia raised UFC president Dana White ire enough to threaten to move his next champion defense to the undercard. The argument being that a champion has to perform as a champion. White is correct. If Silva really is that good; if he really is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, then he needs to come out and do what Fedor does every match, regardless of the level of competition he is given: he needs to win decisively. If he is bored of the fight, then end it early, if he can. Put the blame squarely on promotion. Make them find better opponents. He is clearly an artist when it comes to destructive offensive volleys. His two fights with Franklin prove this beyond doubt. And his dispatch of Henderson, one of the very best of all time, proves how well-rounded he is. But he needs to bring that level of intensity to every match. Until he does, he can never really be considered in the same league as Henderson, Fedor, or even GSP, the fighter whose name is chanted at the end of several of Silva’s recent fights.
12. Urijah Faber - The mainstreaming of MMA has necessitated a degree of pop sensationalism in the United States. The marketing end of the business, specifically in the Zuffa-owned properties of the UFC and WEC, has seen fit to push a handful of fighters as “heartthrobs.” George St. Pierre’s wild popularity is not simply a function of his remarkable athleticism, but also his clean-cut, model-caliber good looks, as evidenced by his beefcake appearances on the covers of magazines like Men’s Fitness. Likewise, Urijah Faber, the longtime “face” of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) has similarly been promoted for his “fer shur, dude,” surfer-boy exoticness. To be sure, the guy has the looks and charisma to make help make the WEC a viable player in MMA world. Faber entered the WEC, winning the promotion’s featherweight title in 2006. He held that belt for over two-and-a-half years. Crucial years for the Northern California-based WEC as Zuffa began to establish its new acquisition as an elite bastion of lighter-weight fighters. (WEC dissolved its divisions above Lightweight.) The reconciliation thinned the ranks enough that already popular fighters could truly shine out. Faber was one of these personalities. It is also interesting to note that at the time of his winning the WEC belt, Faber held title belts in two other promotions, King of the Cage, and Gladiator’s Challenge. Retaining the belts may have been a shrewd hedging of bets for young Faber. After all, with PRIDE no longer a contender, and the UFC not recognizing fighters lighter than BJ Penn, the road to MMA success for an ambitious, 145 pound fighter is less than certain, especially amidst the turbulence of the sport’s development. The Zuffa purchase must have made the choice of dropping the other two belts and concentrating on his WEC duties a great deal easier. The gamble, so far, has paid off. Faber was the WEC longest reigning featherweight champion and arguably the face of the promotion then and now. But beyond simply being a pretty face, Faber is a standout athlete in a weight division known for long, fast-paced, matches. While preferring to stand and strike, Faber is a highly decorated wrestler and he packs every inch of his 5’6” frame with thick, stocky muscle, making him the biggest and perhaps strongest man in his division. Though quick and aggressive and obviously successful, Faber’s game is fairly straightforward. He likes to soften up his opponent with kicks and punches and then move in for a choke submission, the rear-naked choke being his preferred means of dispatch. This has meant a lot of shooting in, a lot of takedowns, and a lot of contact. Thus, when both Mike Brown and Jose Aldo defeated Faber, they did so by keeping their distance, at least initially. In the case of his loss to Aldo, over the course of five rounds, the Brazilian stayed just on Faber periphery, launching frequent leg strikes against Faber’s left thigh, resulting in a near-mutilation of Faber’s leg, and thus undermining his ability to shoot in or to kick. This loss, coupled with his two losses to Mike Brown, generated a sense of Faber as a fighter who had reached his plateau. Faber/Brown I demonstrated that Faber was vulnerable. Then, after a what amounted to a warm-up match against Faber’s favorite punching bag, Jens Pulver, “The Kid” returned to face Brown again. This time the two went the distance. The former champion left the ring with two broken hands. The heart of the still-young surfer boy was never in doubt. But what remains unknown is whether or not Faber, who has averaged nearly four fights a year since starting his professional career in 2003, can adjust his now-predictable fight plan and become a fighter who can really compete against the new elite in Mike Brown and Jose Aldo. His recent announcement of returning to bantamweight suggests new horizons, but it also signals a retreat of sorts. The current champion, Domick Cruz, is someone Faber has fought and defeated in the past. The possibility of starting a new run in familiar territory may feel like a sure bet for Faber, but whether the new title comes with the adoption of new skills remains to be seen. But Faber is assured a future hall of fame induction. For the better part of the first decade of the 21st century, he was the face of the WEC, and therefore the face of sub-lightweight MMA.
13. Mirko Filipovic – A career that never quite lived up to its potential, that is the unfortunate story of Mirko “CroCop.” But it isn’t the only story. The heavyweight kickboxer made a seemingly seamless transition into MMA in 2001 and quickly ran through the competition, essentially bludgeoning his way into PRIDE title contention with strikes and his famous, highlight reel head kicks. By 2003, PRIDE was touting CroCop as their uncrowned champion, even making a rather embarrassing plea for anyone to step up and challenge the big Croatian. A match with luncha libre legend, Dos Caras, Jr. ended in 45 seconds with the masked wrestler falling to CroCop’s mighty left kick. Afterward, it was “Big Nog” for the PRIDE heavyweight belt. Nogueira was, at the time, already a ring veteran, having held the belt before being defeated by Fedor the previous year. It was a highly anticipated bout and one that nearly ended in the first round. After controlling the bout on the feet, CroCop landed a glancing head kick. A shot which, had it come earlier in the round, would have meant the end of the match. But in the second round, “Minotauro” regained control of the action and submitted CroCop with an arm bar. He would go 9 and 1 in his next ten matches, losing to Kevin Randleman and then avenging the loss a few month later with a guillotine choke in a rare show of his submission skills. He eventually worked his way into title contention again, this time in a dream match with Fedor. CroCop found success early in the match, breaking Fedor’s nose and delivering devastating kicks to the body. However, after weathering the initial onslaught, the Russian took his man to the ground and peppered him with brutal body shots. Fedor ended up taking the decision, though it was hardly the blowout of the year that fans were hoping for. A subsequent loss to fellow K-1 fighter Mark Hunt must have been dejecting, and indeed, a “now or never” fever seemed to come over the former Croatian anti-terrorism specialist. He entered a brutal, four-month long open-weight tournament which culminated in a one-night elimination putting him up against two of PRIDE premier fighters, PRIDE middleweight champion, Wanderlai Silva, and King of Pancrase champion, Josh Barnett. The two opponents were essentially unintentional “gifts” for CroCop. Silva, who was subbing for an injured Fedor, had just come off of a hard-fought victory against Kazyuki Fujita. The smaller Silva, visibly tired and banged up from the Fujita bout, was laid out by a CroCop kick just a few minutes into the first round. Meanwhile, Josh Barnett had gone the distance for a split decision victory over Nogueira. The much fresher CroCop, who had already defeated Barnett twice before, beat down “The Baby-Faced Assassin” to win the TKO and the first and (thus far) only MMA title of his career. Of course, it is a tournament championship, not a contested belt, and it was a long time ago. But it was his win, and obviously spurred him along to seek a bigger prize. And with PRIDE closing down, the biggest prize in MMA became the UFC heavyweight title. In 2006, Dana White announced the signing of CroCop to a six fight deal, obviously with an eye towards the dream title fight with then-champion, Randy Couture. But these ambitions were derailed by, of all things, a monster kick from newcomer Gabriel Gonzaga. The young Brazilian sent CroCop to the ground, rendering him unconscious. To add insult to injury, the collapse also damaged his ankle and detached ligaments in CroCop’s knee. The loss was followed by a decision defeat to another young fighter, Cheick Kongo. The lackluster performance seemed an indication that something was essentially wrong with former PRIDE headliner. Speculation was rampant. Maybe he was having a hard time adjusting to the cage environment (PRIDE and K-1 matches are in conventional boxing rings). Maybe his skills had not evolved beyond his potent striking abilities. Maybe he was too arrogant, taking his opponents too lightly. Maybe he was distracted by his government duties back home. Maybe his training camp was to blame. Maybe he really wasn’t that great of a fighter after all. It was during this time that other former PRIDE fighters were also struggling in their new UFC home. Dan Henderson lost both of his title unification matches and Wanderlai Silva also went on a losing streak. But the CroCop situation was particularly confusing to fans who remember the dynamic excitement he brought to his PRIDE fights. He left the UFC for a year to retool his game and to earn some money in Japan. He fought two matches for DREAM, including a sadly anti-climatic bout against Alistair Overeem that ended with the Dutch fighter being disqualified for delivering repeated knees to CroCop’s groin. His return to the UFC the next year resulted in a very mixed bag of results. He defeated journeyman Mustapha Al Turq but had nearly blinded him by poking him in his eyes. He was brutalized by Junior Dos Santos before verbally submitting to strikes in the third round. Recently he fought novice Australian fighter, Anthony Perosh who had signed on to meet CroCop after the original opponent, ring veteran and former IFL champion Ben Rothwell had to withdraw. CroCop dominated the young Aussie and ended the fight in the second round via TKO. In June of 2010 he fought Pat Berry in a touch-and-go match where he got pasted in the first round but rallied back in the second and third rounds before submitting Berry with a choke. His first submission victory since the PRIDE days. He looked like the Mirko of old to some, but he has a long way to go before he can truly call himself a contender again.
14. Bas Rutten – Rutten is the nicest, most violent man you will ever want to meet. Unlike most “hard” men, Rutten isn’t “intense” or melodramatic. In interviews he is funny, self-effacing, and happy to be the life of the party. In the cage, or more characteristically for his career, the ring, “El Guapo” is fully invested in causing focused, throbbing, devastating pain. Like the pro wrestlers of old, he is known for a single finishing move, the liver strike. A life-time of teetotaling and clean living will not prepare the organ for the battering it will take after Rutten’s fist or foot finds its way there. The move has gone on to become a favorite among fighters as diverse as Rich Franklin and Cung Le. But the big Dutchman is also just as happy to choke, grab a joint hold, or otherwise bludgeon his way to a TKO his way to victory. He was never one to leave it in the hands of the judges. Of his 33 career matches, only four ever went to a decision. It is a testament to his focus and his willingness to do what needs to be done to finish. Of course, many new MMA fans will not know Bas Rutten the fighter. If they know him at all, it is from his long career as color commentator for PRIDE events; more recently, as a coach and commentator for the short-lived International Fight League, as well as the current host of the excellent MMA Insider program on HDNet. Other than a brief return to game in 2006 to make quick work of journeyman Ruben Villareal, Rutten has been retired from MMA since 1999. His final match was a decision victory over Kevin Randleman for the UFC heavyweight title. Afterward, his ambitions not quite satisfied, Butten dropped down to the UFC’s middleweight (now lightweight) division to contest for that title as well. But then everything went wrong: a blown-out ACL, torn biceps, and injured neck, all suffered during training. The injuries were so bad that Rutten was ordered to retire from the sport altogether. The imagination staggers to imagine what the UFC, and mixed martial arts in general, would have looked like in the US had this dynamic , charismatic, and skilled fighter been able to follow through with his plans. His presence may have provided the catalyst to launch MMA into the mainstream years before it would. Instead, it remained for Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Forrest Griffin to come along later to begin the process. It is a shame that so much of Rutten’s career is obscured by poor promotion of the Pancrase product outside of Japan. (A “best of” show currently rotates a single episode on the ImaginAsia cable channel is, sadly, short on Rutten footage.) Rutten was the most dominate of the foreign competitors in Japan at the time, and though the style of fighting was more ground-based, (looking more like Japanese “strong style” pro wrestling), “El Guapo’s” presence in the promotion represents a vital link between two eras of MMA. Sadly, now that the sport’s popularity is waning in Japan, it is unlikely that anything like a UFC-style DVD retrospective will ever see the light of day. Thus it remains for curious fight fans to seek out grainy footage on-line if they want to see one of the great transitional fighters in MMA history in his prime.
15. Royce Gracie – Far beyond the “no list of this sort would be complete without…” sentiment, including Royce Gracie in a list of the best mixed martial artists of all time is simply a recognition of the contributions his family in general, and Royce in particular, have made to the sport. Indeed, it is fair to say that without the Gracie’s efforts in establishing the UFC as a going concern, there would not be an MMA scene as we know it today. The pre-history of MMA, of course, is long, having its ancient origins in Greek pankration matches, and a more modern birthing in Brazils famous vale tudo (no-holds bared) events. The semi-religious, cult-like appeal of specific forms of martial arts has naturally led to rivalries which inevitably led to “style-versus-style” matches. In Brazil, the jujitsu practiced by the Gracie clan dominated over more indigenous styles like Capioera and luta livre. But these bouts, usually occurring in clandestine circles, seldom received the mass viewership and respect that the family so desired. It wasn’t just a point of pride for them, however. Gracie jujitsu had become a burgeoning franchise in the United States where it had to compete alongside more recognized styles like karate, kung fu, and Queensbury boxing. The UFC presented the Gracie’s an opportunity to forward BJJ on a national stage. And, indeed, the Gracie name shined very brightly for several years as the pay-per view buy rates increased, and ranks at the Gracie schools expanded, thanks in large part to the in-cage efforts of Royce. This early success is attributed to several factors. For one, many of Royce’s early opponents had little or no experience dealing with ground fighting techniques of any sort. In the west (then as now) the stand-up game is valued over the ground game. Energy is put into strikes. Greco-Roman wrestling, at least in the early days of the UFC, tended to focus on getting the man down in order to batter him (so-called “ground-and-pound”). Wrestlers by their nature are loath to be on their back, whereas a BJJ practioner prefers the guard. From there, he has a variety of options for applying painful submission locks and eye-closing chokes. It is no wonder, then, that Royce’s first matches in the UFC were against fighters from stand-up disciplines (with a young Ken Shamrock, a shoot-wrestler, being a notable exception). He dispatched these opponents methodically, and helped to create an aura invincibility for BJJ in general and Royce in particular. With the exception of a loss due to a no-show during a tournament, and a draw with Shamrock after a 36 minute, non-judged match, Royce was essentially undefeated in the UFC. At this point, Royce took a five-year break from competition, returning in 2000 to fight for PRIDE in Japan. In a return to the old rivalry between jujitsu and wrestling (specifically, catch wrestling, a submission-based fighting system), the Gracie family targeted Kazushi Sakuraba, a Japanese fighter who had taken out several BJJ practioners, including Vitor Belfort and Royler Gracie, Royce’s brother. The new rivalry culminated in a tournament that saw Royce winning a decision against “Saku’s” stablemate, Takada before taking on the man himself in a grueling, 90 minute bout. (Royce had negotiated special rules for his match with Sakuraba: unlimited rounds, and wins only from knockout or submission.) The now-famous match was an epic and highly entertaining affair that saw the two men essentially stage the equivalent of a “real” professional wrestling bout. Kicks, punches, tumbles, slams, and submissions attempt flew at a pace seldom seen in any match, then or now. However, in the end, Sakuraba prevented most of the ground challenges from Royce and instead concentrated on breaking down the Brazilian’s body with leg kicks and punches from standing position. Then Royler, with ascent from his brother, threw in the towel at the “sixth” round, giving Royce the first real loss of his career. His next match was with Hidehiko Yoshida, a gold medalist in Judo. The bout was again a “special rules” match wherein the participants would only use their respective disciplines. Yoshida won a controversial victory by “gi-choke” which prompted Royce’s abandonment of the uniform in his future MMA bouts. (A subsequent rematch with Yoshida ended in a time-limit draw.) After a spectacle match against the 400 pound former sumo wrestler Akebono (Royce won via omoplata) Royce took one more match in Japan - another draw – before returning to the UFC for a special catch-weight match against Matt Hughes. Hughes, then in his prime as the UFC’s welterweight champion, represented the “new breed” of mixed martial artist. Hughes, though a dynamic Greco-roman wrestler, possesses one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the sport. The match itself was something of an embarrassment for the Gracie clan. Royce was never any threat to Hughes who used his power, his wrestling, and yes, his own jujitsu, to manhandle the smaller fighter. While it is often said that a smaller man can beat a bigger, stronger opponent, the fact is that Hughes was not just the bigger guy, he was also the better fighter. At one point, Royce’s arm was in a deep armbar and very close to breaking. But Hughes, knowing that Gracies never tap, opted to switch to an offensive stance that would take the choice out of his hands: he mounted and bludgeoned Royce with a volley of strikes to the head. The referee had no choice but to stop the carnage. Afterward, Royce, though disappointed, did make a good point. Hughes had had to integrate BJJ into his training, whether as a weapon or to defend against a ground attack. It may have been a kind of spiritual victory, but the fact of the matter is that the game had changed, and no amount of last-minute muay thai training was going to help Royce measure up to Hughes or anyone else of his class. - Despite winning a controversial decision in a 2007 rematch with an also-aging Sakuraba, Royce is essentially retired at this point. But the Gracie family seems to have enough fecundity to produce generation after generation of new fighters. His nephew, Roger Gracie, has gone on a three-fight win streak, recently submitting former UFC champion, Kevin Randleman.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
6. Matt Hughes - People either hate or love Matt Hughes. He is the proverbial jock from high school. Captain of the football team. He dated the girl-next door. He never smoked or drank, probably went to nice Lutheran church, and got high grades. He was nice to you but there was always a swaggering air about him. Everything seems to come easy. High excellence, long term success. Even when he has lost in the cage, Hughes still looks like he had it all planned somehow. He rarely looks bad. And when he looks good, which is often, the non-flashy ease of his moves makes even experienced fighters look like they are sparing with their coach. Learning to appreciate Hughes as a fighter is a rite of passage for the MMA fan. His pale, oatmeal-like complexion, squat musculature, and relaxed continence combine with his “get the job done” style of fighting (heavy on take downs, jabs, and a handful of BJJ moves) to deliver a factory-made octagon performance suggestive more of a combat machine than a fighter. His nearly five year reign as UFC’s welterweight champion - interrupted only briefly by a defeat to BJ Penn who almost immediately bolted the promotion thereafter, leaving the belt up for grabs – defined an era of welterweights. Since losing the belt, Hughes has been content to take the matches as they come, perhaps feeling that after a 1-2 series against George St. Pierre, and being TKO’d by contender Thiago Alves, he may no longer be in the chase. Hughes has also become something of a Stateside Sakuraba or “Gracie-hunter,” taking down two of the Gracie family’s elite. He dominated both Royce and Renzo Gracie at two distinct periods of his career. There are of course other Gracies to fight, and there may even be more title contentions, but Hughes has carved an indelible space for himself in MMA history, as a true craftsman of the sport. A standard-barer for a true mixing of disciplines.
7. Wanderlei Silva – Has there ever been a fighter who really struck terror into his opponents the way Wanderlei “The Ax Murder” Silva did? Silva’s muay thai was so vicious that it destroyed Quinton Jackson twice. His knee strikes are like the kicks of Mirko CroCop… left leg: hospital, right leg: morgue. Few possesse his killer instincts or his ring cunning. He is expert at feigning injury to draw his man into his strike zone. But what really sets Silva apart is his athleticism. He is a pure cardio animal, able to motor through a match whether it is PRIDE style ten minute round or a UFC fiver. The guy does not exhaust. He bleeds, he suffers, but he does not gas. Silva dominated the middleweight division of PRIDE for five years, defending the championship belt against strong (mostly Japanese) opponents. (That being said, true title matches were actually rather occasional as Silva also participated in PRIDE’s many “grand prix” tournaments. ) Over the years, he has been willing to fight open-weight and catch-weight matches, including against much heavier Fujita, who he defeated by TKO. Silva lost his belt to Dan Henderson just as the promotion was beginning to dissolve. Less than ten months later, he was back in the UFC after seven years to finally meet Chuck Liddell. The match lived up to its hype, but it added to an on-going losing streak that surely had to make the once dominating cage warrior re-think his career. A “sure thing” win over Keith Jardine was only a small reprieve on the way to a devastating knock-out loss to bitter rival, “Rampage” Jackson, and a disappointing judge’s decision against Rich Franklin. However, he has recently entered into what might be the dawn of a new era for the 33 year old, and new developments may scatter this seemingly dark four year trend of inconsistent performances. His reserved, but still aggressive ring control spelled victory for Silva over the always game Michael Bisping in early 2010. It was easy to note a couple of new qualities in the Brazillian. One, Silva seemed more confident, his energy more focused. And second, he had a transformed face. Years of taking hard punishment had essentially destroyed Silva’s nose. Reconstructive surgery gave him a new face and a dramatically improved ability to take in oxygen, an athlete’s greatest ally. This new Wanderlei was to test his resolve against master judoka, Yoshihiro Akiyama, one of the few Japanese imports who has actually managed to make an impact in the UFC. Sadly, a case of cracked ribs has sidelined Silva and he may not return to action until the end of the year.
8. Dan Henderson – “Hollywood” Henderson has been the “solution” to many a problem in MMA. Specifically, how does the late-middle generation of American fighters, steeped in Greco-roman wrestling and western boxing deal with the Brazilian threat? Brazilian jujitsu is more dangerous and more threatening than its antecedent because it presents opportunities for danger and pain at nearly every interval of the match. A black belt in BJJ can snatch an arm from a standing position, apply massive pressure to the knee in ankle from a seemingly in a bad spot on the ground, and choke a man out while being slammed from the cage. A BJJ practitioner only really has to “defend” against other holds. Every movement is an chance to attack, and patience is a more important skill than muscular strength. For awhile, there seemed no solution for the non-BJJ proficient opponent. A lucky punch, a lucky kick, or a lucky flurry of ground-and-pound was the best fighters could hope for. But Henderson’s wrestling is so strong, and his boxing so crisp, he has managed to out flank BJJ through shear will power. His career in RINGs and PRIDE, though not without defeats, was one of dominance. As graceful as a brick wall, and with all the finesse of a human cannonball, Henderson was for ten years, the iron face of American fighting in the east. His list of accomplishments are daunting, but one accolade truly underscores his talents. He is the only man to have simultaneously held championship belts in two weight divisions (welterweight and middleweight) in the PRIDE organization. He confidently carried both belts into the UFC and fought the only unification matches in the promotions history. He lost both contest to Anderson Silva and Quinton Jackson respectively Since those defeats, Henderson has gone on to win his next three bouts, easily shifting between weight divisions. His Stateside cache expanded in a big way after coaching on the UFC’s flagship program, The Ultimate Fighter. There, despite showing all the charisma and personality of PE instructor, Henderson provide a sober counterpoint to rival coach Michael Bisping who ruthlessly taunted the Yank week after week. “Hendo” got his John Wayne moment, however, when he delivered the fast-talking Brit to the canvas with a shattering right hook. A controversial follow-up punch to the unconscious “Count” aside, Henderson looked to be back with a vengeance. A rematch with middleweight champion, Anderson Silva seemed in the offing. However, with his UFC contract up, Henderson bolted the UFC for the upstart Strikeforce organization, hoping to become a shark in the fish tank of developing fighters. He was immediately given a title shot against middleweight champion Jake Shields. A Henderson victory was essentially assured, and probably hoped for. Strikeforce clearly wants to clear out the “riff-raff” of their promotion and replace their champions with “faces.” Unfortunately for Henderson, someone forgot to send Shields that memo. After nearly winning the match in the first minutes of the first round, Henderson seemed to lose all interest in the fight. Shields had his own answers. He is a world-class wrester, and a black belt in… BJJ. An unusual, but powerful combination. The defeat may have put Henderon’s lofty goals on hold for the moment (he wanted to fight in three divisions in Strikeforce. He wants to fight Mousassi, Fedor, win all the belts, etc.) but don’t look for him to coast for the foreseeable future either. He may have new answers, as well as a few questions of his own for future opponents. UPDATE: With Jake Shields rumored to be leaving Strikeforce for the greener pastures of the UFC, the middleweight belt may yet become a going concern for Henderson. A vacant title would mean a multi-event tournament (a format that Henderson, coming from PRIDE, would be familiar with), which could make for several interesting combinations of fights for Hendo, including matches against Cung Le, Gegard Moussai, and possibly Nick Diaz.
9. George St. Pierre – There aren’t many athletes in mixed martial arts who are genuine sportsmen, which is to say a person who represents values beyond personal excellence in competition; someone who represents the sport as a good-will ambassador. So much of the MMA game is about hype, heat, and trash talk, that when someone turns up in the ranks who is humble, self-depreciating, and… well, nice, it is like a revelation. George St. Pierre is a freakishly gifted athlete with a command of an arsenal of fighting styles, including karate, boxing, BJJ, and wrestling, a discipline he essentially learned from the ground up. He wins his matches in a variety of ways. He can submit his opponent (he likes armbars and chokes), pummel effectively with his fists and feet (see his masterful KO of Matt Hughes in November of 2006), and he is more than willing to see a match to its conclusion, confident that his skills are enough to impress the judges. Indeed, four of his last seven victories have gone to the judges. Thus, one can easily see “GSP” as the model mixed martial artist. Three years into his second reign as the UFC’s welterweight champion, St. Pierre has defended approximately every six months, and always against high-caliber fighters. He even deigned to a rematch with lightweight champion, BJ Penn, a dangerous prospect given Penn’s status as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. St. Pierre/Penn II was a watershed moment for GSP’s career. It marked his shift from simply being a great athlete with combat skills, to being a totally complete fighter. Usually, Penn’s opponents have to work around his uncanny takedown defense, which means they will try to trade strikes, a strategy for disaster (see Penn’s match with Joe Stevenson or Diego Sanchez), or they will play the BJJ game with him, thinking that their skills are on par with his. (Kenny Florian, a black belt in two forms of jujitsu, never got his ground game going with Penn, who choked him out in the fourth round.) But in their match, GSP took Penn down at will, bullying him, making Penn play his game. This dominance, which ended with Penn’s corner throwing in the towel in the fourth round, silenced any doubt about St. Pierre’s ability to grow and develop as a fighter. Subsequent title defenses against Thaigo Alves and Dan Hardy suggest that St. Pierre may be close to hitting the UFC’s floor of legitimate contenders. Outspoken and controversial “bad boy,” Josh Koschek will be testing that conclusion sometime later in 2010, but there are whispers of greater glory in store for the young French-Canadian. A possible challenge for the middleweight championship, currently held by Anderson Silva, has been widely speculated for 2011. Dan White’s current antipathy for Silva (“he doesn’t deserve to fight GSP”) may put the kibosh on that dream match. GSP himself has communicated some desire to wrestle for Canada at the 2012 Olympic games (he has since come down from that lofty notion). Many in the lightweight division are looking to move up in weight, and the Zuffa-owned WEC, rumored to be scrapping its lightweight division, may see its one-fifty fives bulking up to meet the welterweight mark. Unlike many in the top ten of this list, GSP has more of his career ahead of him than behind him. His options may be limited by his size, but his ambition to be the greatest mixed martial artist in history suggest a giant in the making
10. Vitor Belfort – Belfort was fixture of the developmental years of both the UFC and PRIDE. To say that he has fought “everybody” in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions would be an exaggeration, but name any elite fighter of those weight classes from the period of 1996 to 2006 and you stand a good chance of seeing Belfort on the other side of that match. Like his long-time rival, Couture, Belfort fought almost exclusively elite fighters for nearly fifteen years. Many of those bouts were championship fights. And like Couture, he has lost a bunch. He has a 42% loss rate, slightly higher than “The Naturals.” But those losses suggest a fighter who is ambitious and willing to test himself at all stages of his career. And one more comparison to Couture, “The Phenom” has continued to develop his style. Although always a dangerous striker, in recent years, Belfort has increased his punching power (perhaps through his association with the Xtreme Couture camp?) to such devastating effect that five of his last nine bouts have ended by knock-out. A major difference between him and Couture is age. Belfort is just 33, having begun fighting professionally when he was only 19. He was unusual in those days because unlike other BJJ practioners at the time (Belfort is also a black belt in judo and a blue belt in karate), he tended to prefer to win via strikes. One might therefore view the Brazilian as a turbo-charged version of his countryman, Wanderlai Silva, who, despite being a BJJ black belt, has scored all of his wins via strikes, kicks, or judge’s decision. But Belfort is comfortable on the ground, and transitions well between styles. In fact, his muay thai and jujitsu complement one another. In an early match with Tank Abbott, Belfort used standing leverage, hooking arms and blocking escapes, in order to fire off his punches. This occurs simultaneously and seamlessly Abbott had nowhere to go and could not retaliate effectively. Belfort can therefore be on the offence and the defense at the same time. But after all this, there is one factor which makes Belfort unique, and that his capacity for focused, and devastating violence. When he wants to attack, he throws everything at you. It is terrifyingly unambiguous and honest. No fighter, save perhaps Fedor or Chuck Liddell in his prime, could come close to his focused intensity. Many fighters who “explode” early in a match gas themselves out in the first two minutes (Phil Baroni comes to mind), but Belfort’s athleticism allows him to sustain the attack through two, three, even four rounds. He is the model for a type of Brazilian fighter who has truly evolved violence into an art form. Befort, Wanderlai Silva, Anderson Silva, and “Shogun” Rua are not brawlers in the conventional sense. They are efficient machines for inflicting injury. Indeed, Belfort may be the king of them all.
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
3. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: “Big Nog” is in many ways, the consummate mixed-martial artist. A life-long judoka, a highly regarded BJJ practitioner, a world-class boxer, and a decorated world champion in submission wrestling, “Minotauro” is, next to Wandrelai Silva and Royce Gracie, the most recognized Brazilian fighter in the sport’s history. He is also the most accomplished. He was the first PRIDE champion, a UFC interim world champion (the first to hold titles in both promotions), and one of the few fighters ever to take Fedor the distance…. twice! His recent career in the UFC has been somewhat more spotty, however. After an initial spark leading to his winning the interim-heavyweight championship belt (do you need to guess from whom? Tim Sylvia, naturally!), Nogueria was dropped by Frank Mir and demolished by Cain Velsaquez. In between, he fought (and won) a memorable “dream match” with Randy Couture that came pretty close to living up to expectations. But the future looks fuzzy for “Big Nog.” His unique ability to absorb punishment and find opportunities for success in the ring or cage has recently been called into question, especially after the Velasquez match. After having never been knocked out in his career, (he had only ever lost be judge’s decision in the past), Nogueira has been sent to the canvas twice in his five matches with the UFC. Nonetheless, even if he is in the nadir of his career, “Minotauro” has already secured his place among the very best the sport has produced.
4. BJ Penn: Being a laid-back Hawaiian, marinated by a lifetime of wealth and leisure, are not the typical background of a rough and tumble fighter, much less the greatest lightweight in the history of the sport. But BJ Penn is full of surprises. An affable, unpretentious, slightly soft, slightly dopey-looking Penn possesses not only the most dynamic BJJ skill set in MMA (he earned his black belt in under two years before becoming the world jujitsu champion in 2000), he has developed a devastating striking arsenal that has on at least two occasions, torn open the heads of his opponents like a can opener, leading to bloody climaxes. He is only the second fighter (after Couture) to hold UFC championships in two divisions, lightweight and welterweight. He has fought and beaten nearly every major lightweight contender in the UFC, and beaten them soundly. Even his recent title loss to upstart Frankie Edgar was more about Penn’s not winning that Edgar “beating” Penn in the cage. His major weak spot seems to be his hubris. After winning the welterweight belt from Matt Hughes in 2004 via choke submission, Penn bolted the promotion, citing a lack of legitimate competition. He was promptly stripped of the title, having never defended it. Hughes, though dominate in the sport, is vulnerable to submissions, especially chokes (both Carlos Newton and Frank Trigg nearly ended Hughes with rear-naked chokes in their contests). Also, it is often said, and well remembered, that a champion is not really a champion until he defends the title. Penn never defended the welterweight belt. And when he has campaigned for the belt in recent years, he has lost. For whatever reason, the higher weight division is a “wall” for him. That being said, it is very possible that no one will ever dominate a single division the way Penn has in the UFC’s lightweight division. His surgical destruction of Sean Sherk in 2008 was a bellwether for all that was to come. No one has come close, and the conventional wisdom has him regaining the belt later this year in his rematch with Edgar. Penn’s fighting toolbox is simply too well stocked, his chin too strong, and his ambitions remain intact. At just 31 years old, Penn may still have layers of talent yet to surface. Perhaps he will bring more leg strikes into his game. Perhaps he will become a merciless ground and pounder. Whatever the future holds for Penn, he has a glorious past to access for inspiration.
5. Chuck Liddell – When I first began watching MMA, I confess that I did not appreciate the talents of Chuck Liddell. He was too ubiquitous. At the time, he was the poster boy, quite literally, of the UFC. His biker-chic mug appeared on billboards announcing his upcoming bouts with hated rival Tito Ortiz or fellow perennial champion, Randy Couture. “The Iceman” was seemingly everywhere - in Movies, in TV interviews, on magazine covers. For the better part of four years, from roughly 2004 when he returned from a season with PRIDE, to 2008 when he defeated Wanderlai Silva in one of the most anticipated matches in MMA history, Liddell WAS mixed martial arts. Then, after suffering back-to-back losses against Rashad Evans and Shogun Rua, Liddell hesitantly went into a restless retirement. Despite the decisive victory over Silva, Chuck was one and four since 2006. After losing the light heavyweight title to Rampage Jackson via a devastating TKO, he subsequently lost to Keith Jardine, a journeyman who has a habit of beating former champions. Dana White, his boss and long-time friend, essentially forced retirement on Liddell, making confirming statements before the man himself did. Liddell’s hedging is understandable; the four losses make crises of palookaville more legitimate. There is nothing so tragic as a former champion trying and failing to keep up with the competition. Perhaps even worse than the health issues is the harm it does to the legacy of a champion. In the case of Chuck Liddell, this would be very sad indeed. Aside from his natural charisma, there is also the fact that Liddell is no one-trick pony when it comes to MMA . Although he is famous for his one-punch knockout prowess (61% of his 21 wins are by KO or TKO), Liddell has a take-down defense rivaled only by BJ Penn. His ability to sprawl and get off the ground once there, is a testament to his Division I wrestling days. During his famous bout with Silva, Liddell put on a virtual martial arts clinic, essentially doing whatever he wanted within his long-time PRIDE rival, from simple take downs, to low kicks, to spinning back fists. Perhaps his most valuable weapon in the cage, however, is his instinct for attack and his relentless follow-through once there is blood in the water. Liddell’s eyes are like targeting sensors, constantly triangulating and feeding opponent information back to him. Notice that Liddell seldom “dances” in the ring. His movements are deliberated, slightly flat-footed, but elusive. Whether or not these skills remain as sharp as they were pre-Rampage Jackson is up for discussion. The match with Silva may not have been the best test of his powers given that “Ax Murderer” himself has looked less than dominating in the intervening years. The real moral panic with “The Iceman’s” victory over Silva is that it may suggest to some that MMA has a “senior” league of fighters not good enough to contend, but good enough to fight each other. This would be legacy-death by degrees. Now that he has lost a competitive match to Rich Franklin (he broke Franklin’s arm before being laid out by a rather weak left jab), there can be little doubt about his retirement…. except, perhaps, in the mind of “The Iceman.”