Now, I'm about to rank my selections as the best 20 fighters in history, and that's a decidedly more difficult task. The reason is simple: The UFC has two decidedly different eras. The first, which ran from the inaugural show on Nov. 12, 1993, until roughly 1996, when there were no weight classes and when the rules were sparse.
But more importantly, in that era, fighters weren't skilled in multiple disciplines, as they are today. Now, most fighters who compete in the UFC have training in boxing, kick boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai boxing and jiu-jitsu. Others incorporate judo or karate or several other forms of striking.
One could even say that there was a third era, when the fighters were developing into multi-dimensional talents.
Clearly, the fighters of today are better than the fighters who competed in UFC 1 in 1993. Royce Gracie, who was the biggest star in the UFC's early days and who remains an idol to many of today's fighters, was simply a jiu-jitsu fighter. He would have had no defense against the well-rounded fighters competing today.
So as not to make this list simply a ranking of the great of the current fighters, I am going to use the following criteria when judging the fighters:
• Dominance during the fighter's prime years.
• Achievements, such as titles won and number of victories over elite peers.
• Longevity. Fighters who were successful over a longer period of time will be considered more favorably.
• UFC fighters only. I am only considering fighters for what they did in the UFC and fighter who did not fight in the UFC were not eligible.
When I was torn between fighters from different eras for a given spot, I gave the preference to the more recent fighter, whose victories came over theoretically tougher opposition.
Finally, this list is not meant to be a definitive ranking and is not to suggest that I'm saying that the higher-ranked fighter would always beat the lower-rated one. This is my personal list, and as such, there is no right or wrong answer.
With that, this is my ranking of the Top 20 fighters in the UFC's first 20 years:
20. Lyoto Machida, UFC record 12-4, light heavyweight champion 2009-2010 -- A karate fighter, Machida is one of the most elusive fighters in the world. He knocked out Rashad Evans to win the light heavyweight title and has notable wins over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Dan Henderson, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture.
19. Rashad Evans, UFC record 12-3-1, TUF 2 heavyweight winner, light heavyweight champion 2008-2009 -- A wrestler at Michigan State, Evans is an athletic and heavy handed fighter who has been one of the best of his era. He has elite wins over Michael Bisping, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis.
18. Evan Tanner, UFC record 11-6, middleweight champion 2005 -- One of the most popular fighters of his era, Tanner opened his UFC career by winning 10 of his first 12 matches. He defeated Dave Terrell to win the middleweight title, but lost it in his first defense to Rich Franklin. He died tragically in 2008 at just 37 of heatstroke.
16. Rich Franklin, UFC record 14-6, middleweight champion 2005-2006 -- Franklin was a well-conditioned fighter who met all of the top stars of his era, both at middleweight and light heavyweight. He was a good striker who possessed submission skills.
15. Dan Severn, UFC record 9-4, UFC 5 tournament winner, Ultimate Ultimate 95 tournament winner -- Severn was a powerful wrestler with good submission skills. He was one of the elite of the early days and has notable wins over Ken Shamrock and Oleg Taktarov.
14. Jose Aldo, UFC record 5-0, UFC featherweight champion 2011-current -- Aldo is one of the best fighters in the sport's history, but because the UFC didn't add featherweights until 2011, most of his work was outside of the UFC. Still, he's won all of his UFC fights. Every fight he has had in the UFC has been a championship match.
13. Vitor Belfort, UFC record 13-6, UFC 12 tournament winner, UFC light heavyweight champion 2004 -- Belfort was known as "The Phenom" when he won the UFC 12 tournament title as a 19-year-old in 1997. He won the light heavyweight title when he cut Randy Couture in the opening seconds of a 2004 bout. Couture won the belt back in the rematch. Belfort was knocked out in a middleweight title fight by Anderson Silva in 2011 and submitted by Jon Jones in a light heavyweight title fight in 2012.
11. Cain Velasquez, UFC record 11-1, heavyweight champion 2010-2011, 2012-current -- One of the most magnificently conditioned big men in the sport's history, Velasquez is a dangerous puncher as well as an elite wrestler. He's scored two wins over Junior dos Santos and dominated Brock Lesnar.
10. Ken Shamrock, UFC record 7-6-2 -- Known as the world's most dangerous man, Shamrock was one of the key figures in the UFC's early days. He developed a strong rivalry with Royce Gracie and later had one with Tito Ortiz. He also scored a win over Dan Severn.
9. Tito Ortiz, UFC record 15-11-1, light heavyweight champion 2000-2003 -- Ortiz faded badly at the end of his career and left on a negative 1-7-1, which may have overlooked the great work he did early on. He held the record for most consecutive title defenses, at five, until Jon Jones surpassed the mark this year. He had big rivalries with Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock and Randy Couture.
8. B.J. Penn, UFC record 12-8-2, welterweight champion 2004, lightweight champion 2008-2010 -- One of the most physically gifted fighters ever in the UFC, Penn became only the second man to win a title in two divisions when he beat Joe Stevenson to claim the lightweight belt. He'd submitted Matt Hughes to win the welterweight crown in a major upset.
7. Chuck Liddell, UFC record 16-7, light heavyweight champion 2005-2007 -- One of the UFC's biggest draws ever, Liddell was a hugely popular slugger who had great rivalries with Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. His battle with Wanderlei Silva in 2007 remains one of the best fights in UFC history.
5. Randy Couture, UFC record 15-8, UFC 13 tournament winner, three-time heavyweight champion, two-time light heavyweight champion -- Couture began his UFC career in 1997 and won the UFC 13 tournament title in his first outing. He had memorable rivalries with Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Pedro Rizzo and was considered the best game-planner of his day.
4. Matt Hughes, UFC record 18-7, welterweight champion, 2001-2004 and 2004-2006 -- A college wrestler, Hughes' strength and power were off the charts. His 18 wins are tired with Georges St-Pierre for most in UFC history and he had wins over a slew of UFC greats, including St-Pierre, B.J. Penn, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk and Gracie.
2. Royce Gracie, UFC record 11-1-1, tournament winner at UFC 1, 2 and 4 -- He scored wins over the best fighters of his era, such as Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn and Kimo Leopoldo. His performance at UFC 1 inspired many to give MMA a try.
1. Anderson Silva, UFC record 16-1, middleweight champion 2006-2013, 10 successful title defenses -- The greatest MMA fighter of all-time, Silva holds a slew of records. His 10 title defenses are the most in UFC history. His 16 consecutive victories are a record. He's won a UFC-record 12 fight night bonuses.
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