10 best UFC fighters of all time

Is Khabib Nurmagomedov the greatest UFC fighter of all time?
Is Khabib Nurmagomedov the greatest UFC fighter of all time?
Scott Newman

The UFC has now been around for a long time – 27 years to be exact. Over that time, the promotion has seen some of the greatest fighters in history enter the Octagon to prove themselves. At this stage, well over 100 athletes have been able to call themselves a UFC champion.

But the question still remains – who is the greatest UFC fighter of all time? Given all of the changes in the sport of MMA and in the UFC over the years, it’s a hard task to nail down who is the greatest.

However, it is clear that a handful of names stand above the rest as the top UFC fighters in the promotion’s history. So without further ado, here are the ten best UFC fighters of all time, ranked from #10 to #1.

#10 Frank Shamrock

Frank Shamrock (right) became a legend in the early days of the UFC
Frank Shamrock (right) became a legend in the early days of the UFC

The name of Frank Shamrock might not ring too many bells with casual UFC fans these days. However, despite being persona non grata with president Dana White, there’s absolutely no disputing that ‘The Icon’ should be considered one of the promotion’s all-time greats.

Shamrock – the adopted brother of UFC legend Ken Shamrock – debuted in the UFC in 1997 following an extensive career in Japan’s Pancrase promotion, and made an immediate impact.

His Octagon debut saw him submit Olympic gold medallist Kevin Jackson with an armbar in just 16 seconds to become the UFC’s first-ever Middleweight champion.

His first title defense was equally devastating. Shamrock slammed top contender Igor Zinoviev onto his head in just 22 seconds, knocking him unconscious and ending his MMA career in one fell swoop.

Another two successful defenses against Jeremy Horn and John Lober followed, as Shamrock’s reputation as a pound-for-pound great grew.

But Shamrock’s defining moment in the UFC would come in 1999 at UFC 22. At the time, the UFC’s Middleweight division had a weight limit of 200lbs – and Shamrock weighed around 185lbs. At UFC 22, he was faced with top contender Tito Ortiz, a young, powerful fighter who outweighed the champion by around 30lbs come fight time.

The fight turned out to be a titanic struggle, as Ortiz took Shamrock down and beat on him for three rounds. However, what people didn’t realise was that the champ was actually playing his own version of ‘rope-a-dope’.

By the fourth round, Ortiz was exhausted – and Shamrock came alive, battering him until he was forced to submit to strikes with ten seconds of the round remaining.

The win would be Shamrock’s last fight inside the UFC. He decided to hang up his gloves with an undefeated UFC record of 5-0, after proving without a shadow of a doubt that he was the best fighter on the planet under 200lbs.

He’s not likely to be inducted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame any time soon, but in terms of greatness, you can’t argue with Frank Shamrock’s status.

#9 BJ Penn

BJ Penn was one of the UFC's first two-division champions
BJ Penn was one of the UFC's first two-division champions

At one point, it looked like BJ Penn would go down as a classic case of wasted potential. The native of Hilo, Hawaii made his debut in the UFC in 2001 with a reputation as one of the world’s best grapplers – but it was his unbelievable striking game that quickly set him apart.

Penn ran up a UFC record of 3-0 in just seven months to become the top contender at 155lbs, but his first UFC title shot ended in defeat, as champion Jens Pulver was able to outwork him. And his second opportunity at the belt ended in frustration too, as he drew with Caol Uno, leaving the title that Pulver gave up vacant.

‘The Prodigy’ then shocked the world, though, when he moved up to 170lbs and defeated Matt Hughes to win the UFC Welterweight title. The victory was one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, as Hughes had been thoroughly dominant up to that point, defending his title successfully on five occasions.

Penn would never defend his Welterweight crown, though. A contract dispute forced him out of the UFC in mid-2004, and he became somewhat of a nomad for two years, fighting all over the world and even moving up to Heavyweight at one point.

In 2006, though, Penn returned to the UFC. And when an attempt at regaining his UFC Welterweight crown failed, he decided to focus on dominating the Lightweight division. His old rival Pulver was his first victim, falling to a rear naked choke, and from there, ‘The Prodigy’ began to destroy everyone in his path.

Penn claimed the UFC Lightweight title in 2008 by defeating Joe Stevenson, and then defended his belt against Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, becoming recognised as a pound-for-pound great in the process.

The Hawaiian’s time at the top of the UFC didn’t last all that long, as he was dethroned by Frankie Edgar in 2010, and then went on a slide, eventually retiring after a bad loss to Nick Diaz in 2011.

Penn would return from retirement on more than one occasion, and his record now stands at a disappointing 16-14-2. However, for his accomplishments in his prime, and his status as one of only a handful of fighters to win UFC titles in two separate weight divisions, he definitely belongs up there with the greats.

#8 Henry Cejudo

Henry Cejudo claimed both the UFC Flyweight and Bantamweight titles in his brief career
Henry Cejudo claimed both the UFC Flyweight and Bantamweight titles in his brief career

Henry Cejudo was pegged for greatness in MMA before he’d even made his UFC debut. An Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 games, ‘The Messenger’ made his MMA debut in 2013. He was subsequently signed by the UFC one year later after going 6-0 on the regional circuit.

It took Cejudo just four fights to claim his first UFC title shot, as he defeated Dustin Kimura, Chris Cariaso, Chico Camus and Jussier Formiga, but in reality, it was probably too early for him to face UFC Flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. And unsurprisingly, Cejudo fell to a first round TKO defeat.

He returned later in 2016 as a much-improved fighter, suddenly displaying an excellent striking game to go with his world-class wrestling. And after a controversial decision loss to Joseph Benavidez, he began to go on a tear, defeating Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis to earn another shot at Johnson.

This time, ‘The Messenger’ fought a much better fight, and ended up edging ‘Mighty Mouse’ by split decision, becoming the first man to defeat him since 2010 and claiming the UFC Flyweight title in the process.

It would be in the two years that followed that Cejudo really proved his greatness, though. Firstly, he was faced with reigning UFC Bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw to open 2019, as the 135lbs kingpin dropped to 125lbs to attempt to take Cejudo’s belt.

That would not happen, as ‘The Messenger’ destroyed Dillashaw like nobody had ever done before, TKOing him in just 32 seconds to retain his title. And when Dillashaw was then stripped of his title after testing positive for EPO, Cejudo decided to move up to 135lbs in an attempt to become a UFC double champion.

At UFC 238, he did just that – coming from behind to demolish highly ranked contender Marlon Moraes to become just the fourth fighter to hold two UFC titles simultaneously. And in 2020, Cejudo then added to his legend by becoming the first man to stop legendary former UFC Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz by TKO.

Cejudo decided to retire after that fight, and there’s an argument that he perhaps didn’t stick around for long enough to be considered an all-time great. That isn’t fair, though – Cejudo crammed more accomplishments into his short UFC career than most fighters do in decades, and his status as a retired two-weight champion earns him a spot on this list.

#7 Amanda Nunes

Amanda Nunes is the greatest female fighter in UFC history Daniel Cormier held the UFC's Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight titles simultaneously
Amanda Nunes is the greatest female fighter in UFC history Daniel Cormier held the UFC's Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight titles simultaneously

If this were a list purely consisting of female UFC fighters, Amanda Nunes would comfortably sit at the top of the pile as the greatest of all time. ‘The Lioness’ is one of just four UFC fighters to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes simultaneously, and she holds wins over a total of six former UFC champions.

The native of Brazil debuted in the UFC back in 2013 and defeated Sheila Gaff, and from there, put together a record of 5-1 to claim a shot at reigning UFC Bantamweight champion Miesha Tate at UFC 200. And in a one-sided fight, ‘The Lioness’ destroyed Tate to claim the title.

Successful defenses against former champion Ronda Rousey, future UFC Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko and top contender Raquel Pennington followed, before Nunes moved up to 145lbs to face off with reigning UFC Featherweight champion Cris Cyborg.

Cyborg had not lost a fight in 13 years – but Nunes simply ran over her in one-sided fashion, finishing her with a series of punches in just 51 seconds. It was a stunning victory that left no doubt as to who the greatest female fighter on the planet was.

Since then, Nunes has continued to defend both her UFC Bantamweight and Featherweight crowns, beating two other former UFC champions in Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie.

While it’s hard to rank her any higher on this list due to the fact that she competes in two relatively thin divisions in comparison to some of her counterparts, you also cannot argue at all with Nunes’ accomplishments.

Simply put, she’s an all-time UFC legend.

#6 Daniel Cormier

Daniel Cormier held the UFC's Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight titles simultaneously
Daniel Cormier held the UFC's Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight titles simultaneously

Another one of the four fighters to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes simultaneously, Daniel Cormier hung up his gloves earlier in 2020 after putting together a truly phenomenal record. ‘DC’ ended his career with 22 wins and four losses, with two of those defeats being highly disputed.

Cormier’s MMA career began in 2009, and came off the back of a highly successful career as a freestyle wrestler which had culminated in spots in the US national team at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

Cormier entered the UFC in 2013 as the reigning StrikeForce Heavyweight champion, a title he’d won by defeating highly ranked opponents Antonio Silva and Josh Barnett. An undersized Heavyweight, ‘DC’ comfortably defeated Frank Mir and Roy Nelson in the UFC before deciding to make the drop to 205lbs in order to go after Jon Jones’ UFC Light Heavyweight title.

Wins over Patrick Cummins and Dan Henderson put him in line for a title shot, but he came up short against Jones, only to find himself fighting for the vacant title just months later when Jones was stripped following personal issues outside of the UFC.

Cormier claimed his first UFC Light-Heavyweight title by beating Anthony Johnson at UFC 187, and then defended it against Alexander Gustafsson and Johnson in a rematch. His old rival Jones then returned to dethrone him – but a positive test for PEDs saw the title handed back to Cormier and the result of the fight turned into a No Contest.

After a third successful defense of the UFC Light-Heavyweight crown, Cormier set his sights on becoming a double champion – and moved back to Heavyweight to face off with UFC champ Stipe Miocic. And at UFC 226, he realised that dream, knocking out Miocic to become the UFC’s latest double champion.

‘DC’ defended that title against Derrick Lewis, only to drop it back to Miocic in a rematch. A third fight also saw him defeated by Miocic, but by that point, Cormier was already 41 years old, and his legacy had already been established.

‘DC’ may not have been able to beat Jones, but his spot as one of the true greats cannot be questioned.

#5 Demetrious Johnson

Demetrious Johnson ruled the UFC Flyweight division for years
Demetrious Johnson ruled the UFC Flyweight division for years

The UFC’s Flyweight kingpin from 2012 to 2018, Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson was recognised throughout his UFC tenure as a pound-for-pound great. Currently fighting in Singapore’s ONE FC promotion, Johnson still holds the record for the most number of successful UFC title defenses with 11, and ended his UFC career with a record of 15-2-1.

Johnson debuted in the UFC in 2011 as a Bantamweight, and defeated Japanese legend ‘Kid’ Yamamoto and former WEC champion Miguel Torres before falling short in a title challenge against the much larger Dominick Cruz.

That loss was the catalyst for ‘Mighty Mouse’ to drop to a more natural 125lbs, and after defeating Ian McCall and Joseph Benavidez, Johnson became the UFC’s inaugural Flyweight champion. From there, ‘Mighty Mouse’ was essentially unstoppable.

Initially criticised for being somewhat of a dull fighter despite his wins, Johnson soon quietened the critics when he began to finish the majority of his opponents. He knocked out Henry Cejudo and Benavidez in a rematch, and submitted the likes of Ray Borg, Wilson Reis and Kyoji Horiguchi – the latter being the latest submission in UFC history, as Horiguchi was forced to tap with just a second remaining in the fifth round.

Johnson was eventually dethroned in a rematch with Cejudo in 2018, although it was a close fight that could easily have gone either way. Following the loss, ‘Mighty Mouse’ was surprisingly traded to ONE FC in a deal that took their Welterweight champ Ben Askren to the UFC.

While Johnson never really captured the imagination of the casual fans – the cards he headlined never really sold well on pay-per-view – there’s simply no disputing his greatness overall. In fact, the only thing keeping ‘Mighty Mouse’ from being higher on this list is the fact that the Flyweight division was not quite as packed with talent as some of the UFC’s other weight classes.

#4 Anderson Silva

Anderson Silva held the UFC Middleweight crown from 2006 to 2013
Anderson Silva held the UFC Middleweight crown from 2006 to 2013

If an article like this was put out back in 2010, there’s almost no disputing the fact that Anderson Silva would’ve been ranked as the greatest UFC fighter of all time.

When his UFC Middleweight title reign finally ended in 2013 at the hands of Chris Weidman, not only had Silva held the belt for nearly seven years, but he’d also made ten successful title defenses – and had won an incredible 16 UFC fights in a row.

The Brazilian debuted in the UFC in 2006 after a successful career in Japan and the UK, and immediately made waves by becoming the first man in the UFC to stop the tough Chris Leben. That was enough to net him a shot at the UFC Middleweight title, and he destroyed champion Rich Franklin to claim the crown before his first year in the promotion was out.

From there, Silva continued to run roughshod over the entire 185lbs division. Tricky contenders like Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen were dispatched with ease – often in unique, inventive ways – and it was hard to argue against the Brazilian’s position as the best fighter on the planet.

Even temporary moves up to 205lbs couldn’t slow him down, as he easily defeated James Irvin before embarrassing former UFC Light-Heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin, knocking him out at UFC 101 in 2009.

However, he would eventually meet his downfall at the hands of Weidman – who knocked him out in July 2013 and then finished him in a rematch five months later.

That rematch saw Silva suffer a horrific broken leg, and from there, in hindsight, he should perhaps have hung his gloves up. Instead, he returned to fight the likes of Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping and Israel Adesanya – losing five of his last six fights.

A string of late-career losses wouldn’t normally mean a lot, but in a discussion like this about overall greatness, those losses – as well as two positive drug tests – must be taken into account. Therefore, ‘The Spider’ remains within the top five greatest fighters in UFC history, but can no longer be considered the greatest.

#3 Jon Jones

Jon Jones is the most dominant Light-Heavyweight in UFC history
Jon Jones is the most dominant Light-Heavyweight in UFC history

In a world without USADA and drug testing, there’d definitely be a fair claim for Jon Jones to be at the top of this list. After all, he’s been with the UFC for well over a decade, has only ever lost a fight via disqualification, and has beaten a laundry list of legends in devastating fashion throughout his time with the promotion.

However, it’s safe to say that his positive drug tests – three if you count his 2015 positive for cocaine and four if you count the weird ‘pulsing’ incident prior to UFC 232 – put a dampener on his entire run. He’s still a great, but it’s hard to rank him higher than this.

Still though, ‘Bones’ has had a truly incredible career with the UFC. He debuted in the promotion as a hot prospect in 2008 and quickly blew through all of his early opponents to be recognised as a title contender in the latter part of 2010. And when he picked up his sixth UFC win over Ryan Bader in February 2011, it was clear that he was ready for a run at the top.

Jones’ next fight saw him dismantle UFC Light-Heavyweight champion ‘Shogun’ Rua to claim the gold, and from there, he continued to dismantle practically every other top 205lber on the planet. The likes of ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida all fell to ‘Bones’, and he even passed trickier tests like Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier largely unscathed.

However, since 2015, Jones’ UFC career has taken a strange turn to say the least. The first five years of his tenure with the promotion saw him win 12 fights, but the five years that have followed 2015 have seen him fight on just six occasions.

And while he’s won all of those fights handily, his most recent victories haven’t been quite as impressive as his past ones were. And of course, spending the best part of 2017 and 2018 suspended for his positive drug tests hasn’t helped matters.

‘Bones’ could still rise higher on this list if his mooted move to Heavyweight turns out to be a success, but despite his greatness, it’s just hard to overlook such a chequered past with PEDs.

#2 Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from MMA with his unbeaten record intact
Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from MMA with his unbeaten record intact

Very few fighters – if any – manage to negotiate the shark-filled waters of the UFC and remain unbeaten. Even fewer manage to ascend all the way to a UFC title without suffering a loss. Realistically, there are very few who’ve done that, and one of them is Khabib Nurmagomedov.

The former UFC Lightweight champion might’ve hung up his gloves after defeating Justin Gaethje this October, but his shadow still looms large over the UFC’s 155lbs division. It’s likely that until he’s been gone for at least a couple of years, whoever claims the vacant title won’t feel quite like the ‘real’ champion.

If anything, that’s a simple mark of Khabib’s greatness. ‘The Eagle’ debuted in the UFC in 2012, already carrying a gaudy record of 16-0, and by the end of 2013 he’d increased that to 21-0 and was beginning to look like a title contender.

Injuries restricted him through the next couple of years – he fought just four times between 2014 and 2017 – but he still continued to win, even against top-ranked foes like Rafael Dos Anjos and Michael Johnson.

By 2018, it was clear that he’d earned a title shot, and when fellow top contender Tony Ferguson picked up an injury, ‘The Eagle’ defeated Al Iaquinta to claim the UFC Lightweight crown. Later that year though came his biggest victory yet.

Conor McGregor – who’d given up the UFC Lightweight title to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather – was back in town, and his rivalry with Khabib grew to the point where the pay-per-view they headlined – UFC 229 – broke buyrate records. But it was Khabib who came out on top, submitting the Irishman with a fourth-round neck crank.

Even at that point, the legend of ‘The Eagle’ was written in stone, but since then he’s added his accomplishments with major wins over Dustin Poirier and most recently, Gaethje. At this stage there’s simply no question that he’s the greatest Lightweight in UFC history, and the fact that he’s retired at 29-0 without losing his UFC title makes him the UFC’s second-greatest fighter, too.

#1 Georges St. Pierre

Georges St. Pierre still stands as the UFC's greatest fighter of all time
Georges St. Pierre still stands as the UFC's greatest fighter of all time

Khabib Nurmagomedov has a better record, Jon Jones and Anderson Silva both finished some of their opponents in more entertaining fashion, and Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes and Henry Cejudo held two UFC titles simultaneously. Despite this, none of these greats can stand up to the legendary Georges St. Pierre as the greatest UFC fighter of all time.

St. Pierre was simply the most dominant athlete in not just UFC history, but MMA history, period. Over his initial decade-long career with the UFC, ‘Rush’ picked up a total of 20 victories, all over the very best that the Welterweight division had to offer.

Sure, he also suffered two bitter defeats, one to Matt Hughes and one to Matt Serra – but both times, he bounced back from his losses as a better fighter and avenged the defeats in rematches.

St. Pierre’s first title shot came in 2004, when the Canadian was only 2-0 in the UFC and just 23 years old. He was clearly overawed by Hughes – already a UFC legend in his own right – and lost by first round armbar. But that only set off the first dominant run for ‘GSP’.

Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk and BJ Penn – all great fighters – fell to the Canadian, who followed that up by knocking out Hughes to win his first UFC Welterweight title. The upset loss to Serra followed, but again, St. Pierre bounced back.

He reclaimed his title from Serra in early 2008, and then went on one of the most dominant runs in UFC history, defending his title nine times, each defense coming against a genuinely world-class foe. And most impressively, St. Pierre whitewashed them all, barely looking threatened before a close fight with Johny Hendricks in 2013.

That would be the last time we’d see ‘GSP’ in the Octagon for four years – and to tell the truth, had he never come back, he’d probably still be top of this list. But he did return, moving up to Middleweight to dethrone UFC champion Michael Bisping, becoming a rare two-division champion in the process.

St. Pierre dominated fighters that for the most part, nobody else was able to dominate in the same way. From 2004 through to 2013, he defeated every top Welterweight there was to beat, and he did it all with class and style. The competition for the spot as the UFC’s greatest-ever fighter is tight, but nobody beats St. Pierre.

Edited by aditya.rangarajan


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