It has been a fantastic decade for mixed martial arts, as the sport grew from a niche market to one of the most exciting games in town. It took some breakthrough stars to get us there, of course, and this list runs down the ten fighters most responsible for the sport’s success.
1. Chuck Liddell: It’s easy to forget, after Dancing with the Stars and two devastating knockout losses, that Chuck Liddell was once the most feared man in the sport. He was also the guy that took MMA to the next level. With his trademark mohawk, head tattoo, and nice guy persona, Liddell represented MMA to the world on Entourage, in ESPN: The Magazine, and most hilariously on the 300 movie junket.
2. Brock Lesnar: Brock Lesnar is not even the top fighter in his weight class. He has only four fights in the UFC. He remains, in many ways, untested. And yet, he had to be here. Because of his sheer size. Because of his hands, so big the UFC had to create a bigger size of gloves. And because he is already the biggest star in all of MMA.
3. Matt Hughes: Between posing for pictures with white power groups and writing a truly repellent autobiography, Hughes found time to kick the crap out of everyone the UFC put in front of him. He was their most successful fighter in the ring, and when The Ultimate Fighter 2 showed his true personality, he became a box office sensation too.
4. Bob Sapp: Sapp was the biggest foreign star in the history of Japan. Bigger than Hulk Hogan, bigger than the Beatles. Tens of millions of people watched him fight on television, sometime almost half the country. He appeared, often as a disturbing racial stereotype, on the Japanese equivalent of The Tonight Show on a routine basis. He’s the biggest star in all of MMA, and you have never heard of him. Fine, let’s move on.
5. Fedor Emelianenko: Simply the greatest fighter in the history of MMA. Fedor combined power punching, takedowns, and slick submissions better than anyone ever. A doughy Russian who looks nothing like your stereotypical Tapout, tattooed menace to society, Fedor is a credit to his race: the Russian race.
6. Tito Ortiz: Giant head. Has there ever been a head as enormous as Tito Ortiz’s? The thing, to steal from Mike Myers, is a virtual planetoid. Without it, how successful might he have been? How many punches clocked Tito that would have completely missed a normal size dome? The world will never know.
7. Georges St-Pierre: Redefines excellence with every fight. The truth is, minus a shocking loss to Matt Serra, St-Pierre has gotten better with every fight. It’s to the point that people are demanding he move up a weight class because no one at 170 pounds can touch him.
8. Anderson Silva: If St-Pierre isn’t the best pound for pound fighter of the decade, this guy just might be. So good that he often seems bored in the Octagon. Perennial contract disputes have created some awkwardly dull fights, but when he was on, he was on.
9. B.J. Penn: B.J. Penn is the most gifted fighter we’ve ever seen. He stepped up a weight class to beat the unbeatable Matt Hughes, and dominated lightweight challengers like Diego Sanchez with remarkable ease. Too bad he had his Buddha BJ moments, those fights in the middle of the decade where he put on weight to compete at middleweight and even heavyweight. If those lost years had been spent building a legacy in his proper weight class, he might have topped this list.
10. Kimbo Slice: Sure his most epic fights were on youtube. And maybe he isn’t, technically, any good at all. But there was something about Kimbo Slice that people wanted to see. They watched him on the computer. They watched him on CBS for Elite XC. And they watched him when hell froze over and he joined the motley cast of The Ultimate Fighter. Will they watch him on PPV? We will find out, but it will be next decade.