It has only been in the last decade that mixed martial arts has shown face in mainstream media. In fact, it could be argued that it’s notoriety among the mainstream media has really only hit its peak in the last five years thanks to stars like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. With new ownership currently taking over the decision making of the UFC and the marketability of fighters taking precedence over their skills and fight IQ, it makes sense that MMA is now beginning to boom.
However, long before MMA were traditional martial arts from Judo to Boxing and much more. Across these combat sports came a variety of legends that we hardly hear a word about when discussing the founding fathers of this sport. Whether you are a long-time martial arts fan, new to the combat sports landscape or just getting into it, make sure you read up on these figures because their influence is everlasting despite their names being slightly unknown. Here are Sportskeeda’s 5 legendary fighters you’ve never heard of.
#5 Jack Johnson
The modern era of boxing is very much dominated by two marquee names: Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. But before these present stars stepped in a boxing ring, before their parents even gave birth to them and even before the legend of Muhammad Ali was built, there was Jack Johnson. Johnson is considered one of the ancestors of African American boxing mainly because he was the first ever black heavyweight champion of the world.
He made his professional debut in 1898 where he destroyed his opponent with a 15-second knockout. Johnson recorded a total of 104 fights spanning over the course of his 13-year career and left a legacy for up and coming African American boxers such as Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson to emulate down the road.
#4 Masakatsu Funaki
Funaki’s combat sports career is one of the most illustrious of his generation. The Japanese middleweight can be considered in many ways one of the first fathers of MMA thanks to his co-owner ship of the Pancrase promotion in 1993. Funaki also fought under his own banner where he challenged and beat both Shamrock brothers and many other vintage stars of the time.
He was considered the promotion’s biggest star and is widely considered one of the best mixed martial artists Japan has ever produced. In fact, Funaki was ranked the #1 middleweight in the world between 1996 and 1997 and also ranked within the top four of the pound-for-pound #1 list from 1993-1998. Outside of MMA, Funaki also boasts a long and active pro wrestling career for promotions like Wrestle-1 and Japan Pro Wrestling.
#3 Igor Vovchanchyn
If you are someone who drowns in their own excitement at the idea of vicious Eastern European fighters like Fedor Emelianenko or Mirco Cro Crop, you may have missed out on the third man worthy of this prestigious list. That man is Ukraine’s Igor Vovchanchyn. Vovchanchyn began his pro MMA career in 1995 with experience as a kickboxer. However, it was his feats as an MMA fighter that would later gain him his legendary status as one of the greatest of all time.
The Ukrainian amassed an impressive record of over 70 professional bouts with the second longest unbeaten streak in the sport of 37 victories. His career was littered with plenty of tournament victories (the stuff purists love!) including 9 tournaments where he emerged victoriously and 2 super fights such as his no contest against American wrestler Mark Kerr. Much of the mainstream MMA community have no idea who Vovchanchyn is, however his biggest comparison is to Cro Crop because of their vicious head kick KO’s.
If the idea of another Cro Crop gets you going, then make sure to dig up old footage of both men, compare their kickboxing abilities and decide for yourself. Either way, this Eastern European legend deserves a spot on this list and should be a household name for any MMA fan.
#2 Marco Ruas
Ruas deserved a lot more credit than what he has been given in the mainstream MMA world. The Brazilian first came onto the combat sports scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Brazil. His fighting style is perhaps one of the biggest gateways into how MMA has evolved into what it is now because he is the founding father of Ruas Vale Tudo, a hybrid sport that mixed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing.
Ruas featured at UFC 7 – one of two performances in the promotion over his long career – where he became the UFC 7 Tournament champion. His martial arts arsenal is filled to the brim with experience having earned his 1st degree black belt in BJJ, 7th degree black belt in Luta Livre (a Brazilian martial art rooted in judo and catch wrestling), 1st degree black belt in Judo, 1st degree black belt in taekwondo and finally a red/white cord in Capoeira.
His cross-training amongst martial arts made him one of the most dangerous and skilled fighters of his time and it’s a shame his legend doesn’t stand taller and more influential in the MMA community today.
#1 Harry Greb
The art of boxing has a long history, much longer than MMA and so it makes sense that it has produced a wide variety of legendary figures throughout eras. Greb is no different and in fact should be better known for the career he amassed in the early 1990’s. Greb was ranked #7 on Ring Magazine’s top boxers in the last 80 years list for good reason.
The “Pittsburgh Windmill” carries an incredibly impressive record for his generation of 299 fights over the course of 13 years - a time period where other athletes hardly fought any more than 45 times in their entire careers. He was known for his speed, durability, stamina and fluidity in movement.
The best part about this is, he had vision problems early on in his career, yet still continued to compete at a consistent rate successfully. Greb fought in 4 different weight classes over the course of his career becoming the American light heavyweight champion from 1922 to 1923 and world middleweight champion from 1923 to 1926.
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