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.”