Many fighters achieve brilliance on a single night. Far fewer achieve a few years of greatness. And an elite group can point to a five or 10 year stretch at the top of the mountain when they fought the best and almost always won. Here are my picks for the top 10 fighters of the last decade.
10. Georges St-Pierre, 19-2
UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre claims his spot on the list from Matt Hughes’ misfortunes. The French-Canadian stopped Hughes with strikes to avenge his first career loss—a 2004 armbar defeat to the future UFC Hall of Famer—at UFC 65 and forced him to verbally submit in their third fight—an embarrassing moment for “the most dominant welterweight of all-time.” He cleaned his improbable loss to Matt Serra off his slate too and goes into the next decade as one of the sport’s most unstoppable and popular (see: Gatorade endorsement) champions.
9. Chuck Liddell, 21-7
Chuck Liddell is the greatest light heavyweight of all-time. Two wins a piece over former UFC Light Heavyweight Champions Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture added to a UFC 79 win over parallel divisional king Wanderlei Silva proves it. His inability to defeat Quinton Jackson in two bouts as well as demoralizing losses to Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua hurt the UFC Hall of Famers reputation nearing retirement but appearances on The Simpsons, Entourage, and Dancing with the Stars cemented “The Iceman”‘s place as MMA’s pop culture embassador.
8. Matt Hughes, 43-7
A strong grappler, Hughes successfully added submissions to his top control and steady ground and pound with the weapon that pushed him into his greatest moments—his will to win. Until Georges St. Pierre passed him by, Hughes’ two-time seizing of the title and record seven title defenses rendered him the greatest welterweight to date.
7. Randy “The Natural” Couture, 17-10
The first champion to win titles in two different weight classes, Randy Couture’s consummate underdog breakthroughs shaped the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions for the majority of the decade. An ambassador of the sport, Couture is one of the sport’s best draws, only appearing in four non-title fights in 20 UFC bouts (not counting a two-fight UFC 13 tournament win).
6. Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva, 32-10-1
Wanderlei Silva reigned as PRIDE’s Middleweight (205 pounds) Champion from 2001-2007 with the kind of violence that makes megastars in Japan. His relentless, murderous strikes saw him put together 16 wins over four years until a decision loss at heavyweight began slowing the Brazilian, who is 5-6 since but maintains his killer aura.
5. Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira
Antonio Rodridgo Nogueira is synonymous with heart in mixed martial arts. An underdog in life and in fighting, Nogueira survived being run over by a truck at nine-years-old to become the only man to win titles in PRIDE and the UFC. His humility is as revered as his classic comeback victories and the ability to preserve through sometimes unworldly beatings. A win over UFC Hall of Famer and fellow legend Randy Couture at UFC 102 cemented his place as the second best heavyweight of all-time behind Fedor Emelianenko, who he lost two twice in classic battles.
4. “The Prodigy” BJ Penn, 15-5-1
BJ Penn’s first outings were glimpses into one of the world’s best talent. Then the Hawaiian lost a majority decision to Jens Pulver at UFC 35, coming up short of the lightweight strap. It was the last lightweight fight he lost. Seven years later, Penn would become the second fighter to hold a title in two different weight classes (155 and 170-pounds). Penn has key wins over Matt Hughes and Renzo Gracie at higher weights and even competed at heavyweight versus future UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida.
While his stock dipped from the divisional journey, he only lost to Machida and the two greatest welterweights of all-time in Hughes and St. Pierre, all the while developing lightweight into one of the sport’s best divisions and becoming a top draw in the process. His prodigious skill set often draws Penn praise from his peers as being the world’s pound-for-pound best alongside Fedor Emelianenko.
3. Dan Henderson, 25-7
The former Olympian is the only fighter to hold two divisional titles simultaneously. The Team Quest pioneer won the prestigious Rings “King of Kings” tournament in 1999 at an open-weight before crafting a Hall of Fame career at 183/85 and 205-pounds. He helped close PRIDE out by blasting Wanderlei Silva to achieve the unique positioning of ruling two different mountains at once, furthering his reputation as a heavy-handed world class fighter—a reputation he carried through a return to the UFC and now into Strikeforce.
2. Anderson “The Spider” Silva, 25-4
Anderson Silva has successfully eliminated world champions in three different weight classes with landmark wins over Hayato Sakurai at welterweight, Dan Henderson at middleweight and Forrest Griffin at light heavyweight. The Brazilian’s striking offense and defense coupled with underappreciated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills and playful yet scary swagger have carried him to the UFC’s longest win streak with 10 in a row.
Silva tied Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz’s shared record of five title defenses and has a chance to break it in 2010.
1. “The Last Emperor” Fedor Emelianenko, 31-1-1
Fedor Emelianenko’s record is unparalled. The Russian suffered a dubious TKO from a cut in 2000 and won 27 consecutive bouts over the nine years since. The longest and last reigning PRIDE Heavyweight Champion, the stoic Russian bested Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on two separate occasions to become the world’s best heavyweight.
His skills have elevated him to an untouchable myth of sorts. “The Last Emperor” defeated five UFC Heavyweight Champions and two PRIDE champions in a run that will likely stand the test of time.
FIGHT! Fans: Did we get it right? Would you shuffle the order, take a fighter out or put one in? Tell us what you think!