Most MMA enthusiasts are in agreement that some martial arts are more effective than others, both in the cage and on the streets. This is why you don’t see fighters with, say, a taekwondo background that just absolutely crushes the competition. Obviously, fighters have to cross-train and be adequate everywhere in modern MMA. However, most fighters have a base that’s their strong area and where they prefer to keep the fight. Which fighting style as a base is best for MMA and has produced the most dominant fighters whether they held the belt or not?
This list will include mainly UFC fighters but a few from other organizations as well. The fighters listed may or may not have been champion but are listed based on their dominance using their base style and/or their in-cage presence.
As UFC commentator Joe Rogan has often touted, wrestling is the best base for MMA. Judging by the number of fighters with a high-level wrestling background, he’s probably on to something. It makes sense that wrestling would be a dominant style since the goal is to control your opponent and get the fight where you want it (on the mat and on top).
Let’s have a look at a few notable standouts known for their double-leg takedowns, control on the mat, and ground-and-pound.
Kahbib retired undefeated at 29-0. His style, more specifically, is Russian sambo, and his takedowns and ground control are perhaps the most dominant in the history of the sport. Khabib grew up in Dagestan, a region known for producing a lot of grappling-dominant fighters. He also received notoriety after a video surfaced of a nine-year-old Khabib wrestling with a juvenile bear.
Georges St. Pierre
The interesting thing about GSP is that he didn’t come from a traditional wrestling background. He wasn’t a Division 1 champion or possessed similar wrestling pedigrees. However, due to sheer athleticism, his ability to get his opponents to the mat and stuff takedowns himself was nothing short of incredible. What’s even more astonishing is that he dominated on the ground against other wrestlers, notably Matt Hughes and Josh Koscheck, both of whom had extensive collegiate wrestling backgrounds.
Daniel Cormier represented the USA in wrestling in the 2008 Olympics. His history with Jon Jones will go down as one of the greatest rivalries in MMA. His trilogy fights with Stipe Miocic also warrant praise. It was his superb wrestling that has enabled him to avoid the dangerous strikes of heavy hitters like Derrick Lewis and Anthony Johnson.
Any greatest-of-all-time discussions have to include Jone Jones. With his superb wrestling and longest reach in the UFC, he had no trouble whether the fight was on the floor or standing. Though his legal issues outside the cage have marred his reputation, there’s no argument Jones’ as an athlete is one of the all-time greats.
The WWE superstar-turned-MMA fighter is truly an imposing figure with his Herculean size and anti-social behavior. Lesnar had mixed success in the cage but did secure the UFC Heavyweight title with just three previous MMA bouts. Many analysts have wondered how much more success he would have had if he got into the sport at an earlier age and didn’t have part of his career derailed due to a bout with diverticulitis.
Okay, admittingly, Chael Sonnen was never the best, nor did he have the best record to show for. However, he has made MMA entertaining with his WWE-like trash-talking and antics. He did have an impressive double-leg takedown that brought him some degree of success over his two bouts with Anderson Silva.
- Kamaru Usman – Perhaps the greatest UFC welterweight champion next to GSP
- Colby Covington – A rash trash talker who never held the welterweight belt, but was never far behind Kamaru Usman.
- Dan Severn – One of the pioneers of the sport that introduced wrestling into MMA
- Cain Velasquez – One of the most successful and intimidating UFC heavyweight champions known for his relentless pace and near-endless gas tank.
- Chris Weidman – The man to dethrone Anderson SIlva and use his wrestling to nullify dangerous strikers like Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort.
- Mark Coleman – Another early-era fighter that became known as the “father of ground-and-pound.”
- Diego Sanchez – The season 1 winner of the UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter. Sanchez used his dominant wrestling in an era when most fighters still weren’t fully cross-training.
Even by including an honorary mentions section, there are still too many fighters to list. Other noteworthy names include Frankie Edgar, Henry Cejudo, Tyron Woodley, Jon Fitch, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Phil Davis, Rashad Evans, Yoel Romero, and the list goes on.
It was Royce Gracie that introduced BJJ to the world and showed it was possible to be victorious against larger opponents. In the years since, many jiu-jitsu practitioners have made their way into the MMA realm.
Fabricio Werdum just might be the greatest heavyweight with a BJJ background. How can he not be after dominant submission victories over Fedor Emelianenko and Cain Velasquez, both of whom were considered the best heavyweights at the time of facing Werdum?
Demian Maia was practically a human backpack; if he takes your back, you’re in heaps of trouble. His multiple rear-naked-choke wins in the Octagon made him one of the most feared grapplers. To this day, he is regarded as one of the best BJJ practitioners, or BJJ purists, to transition to MMA.
BJ Penn’s reputation has been marred in recent years due to fighting way past his prime and his antics outside the cage. However, Penn in his prime was highly regarded as one of the best lightweights of his era. What made his BJJ so effective was his incredible dexterity that enabled him to move his limbs and secure positions from awkward angles.
Frank Mir is another heavyweight known for incredible submissions. His win over another BJJ standout in Antonio Nogueira via kimura is perhaps one of the craziest submission wins in UFC history. His other notable victories include his kneebar submission of Brock Lesnar and shoulder lock submission from guard (the first and only time in UFC) over Pete Williams.
Brian Ortega just might be one of the greatest BJJ practitioners in modern MMA. His ability to snatch submission holds out of the blue is absolutely insane. He also holds submission wins over multiple BJJ black belts, including Renato Moicano, Cub Swanson, and Diego Brandao.
Modern MMA has produced fighters that prefer to keep the fight standing and using predominantly their hands. Here are some fighters with boxing-heavy arsenal.
Francis is unquestionably the most terrifying fighter in MMA history. Who can erase the uppercut knockout of Alistair Overeem from memory? The heavyweight champion isn’t the most technical fighter, but he doesn’t have to be with his power being an equalizer. This has allowed him to emerge victorious over more technical strikers like Stipe Miocic and Jair Rozenstruik.
Conor McGregor is perhaps the UFC’s biggest ever cash cow. Prime Conor had perhaps one of the most accurate and precise striking. This was on display with his 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo and complete striking clinic of Eddie Alvarez. To paraphrase McGregor, precision beats speed and power.
Nick and Nate Diaz
The Diaz brothers are known for their high-volume striking. They also happen to be long-time sparring partners of Andre Ward. Both are also BJJ black belts, but they tend to prefer their striking arsenal, only using their BJJ if they get taken to the mat.
Holly Holm is the only UFC champion to also hold a world boxing title. Despite her boxing pedigree, the world will always remember her for the head kick dethroning of Ronda Rousey.
Gaethje is not the most technical striker, but he’s renowned for his ability to march forward and stand and bang while taking a shot or two to land his own. He has an incredible ability for absorbing punishment, evident in his fight-of-the-night bouts against Dustin Poirer, Eddie Alvarez, and Michael Chandler.
Kickboxers, provided they were able to develop a decent ground defense game, have had a good degree of success. Some of the all-time greats that graced the Octagon are dominant strikers.
It was Anderson Silva’s crisp muay Thai that carried him to a record-breaking 12-fight title defense as the UFC Middleweight Champion. His ability to land clean shots while dodging and parrying makes him one of the MMA GOATs.
Izzy is the modern incarnation of Anderson SIlva with an uncanny ability to move and cut angles, making him exceptionally difficult for his opponents to figure out. Prior to his MMA stint, he was a kickboxer with 75 wins on his resume.
Cyborg is a fearsome and punishing striker. Even with her dethroning at the hands of Amanda Nunes, Cybrog is still regarded as one of the greatest female mixed martial artists of all time.
Chuck was the face of MMA alongside Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture during the sport’s golden days in the early 2000s. A combination of his striking prowess and takedown defense has led to two knockout wins each of both Ortiz and Couture.
In the post-Ronda Rousey era, Shevchenko has always been ranked as the number one or two pound-for-pound female fighter in MMA. Shevchenko’s prior career as a kickboxer was an impressive one that included three victories over fellow kickboxer-turned-MMA fighter Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Hunt transitioned to MMA as a K-1 kickboxer. While his lack of a ground game kept him out of arm’s reach of the title, he was known for his walk-off knockouts. He brutally KOs his opponent and walks away before the referee steps in and officially waves off the fight.
Most grappling-based fighters come from either wrestling or BJJ. However, there are a few notables that dominated inside the cage with a judo background.
Ronda Rousey is probably the most famous female fighter of all time and a pioneer of women’s MMA. Her excel at judo comes from her mother, a judoka champion. It was her judo that enabled her to dominate fellow grappler Miesha Tate twice before finishing the fight with her famous armbar.
Kayla Harrison mirrors Ronda Rousey in many ways with her judo pedigree and ground dominance. As of the date of this post, Harrison is still largely untested. However, she’s receiving plenty of well-deserved hype as the potential next big female star.
More casual fans of modern MMA may not be familiar with Karo Parisyan, but he was an early 2000s welterweight prospect with a judo-based style. He is most well known for his wars with Nick Diaz and Diego Sanchez.
Karate isn’t exactly a dominant style in MMA, but several fighters have had illustrious careers using karate as a base.
Lyoto Machida became the UFC light heavyweight champion in 2009. His karate style was unusual for its time, and it was the first time the MMA community looked at karate as a viable base. Machida had a very elusive style with effective countering.
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is another exceptional fighter with a strong karate base. Unfortunately, he did struggle in the latter part of his career against opponents that were able to out-grapple him. Nevertheless, his movement and accurate striking consistently kept him in the top five rankings.
Which Style Is Supreme?
Grappling as a base tends to be better for MMA, though strikers able to develop a good ground and takedown defense can also become dominant in the sport. When it comes to the numbers, though, wrestling appears to be the style that produces the most winning athletes. It’s the grittiness and in-your-face style of wrestling that enables wrestlers to control their opponent and therefore control the fight.
On a final note, there are so many other fighters worthy of mention that were left out. MMA has been around for nearly three decades, and there are too many fighters, past and present, to list. Feel free to add any additional fighters in the comments below.