The days of Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn are long gone. Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Matt Hughes and Mark Coleman are retired. Even the likes of Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre did some of their best work more than 10 years ago.
In the ever-evolving world of mixed martial arts, in which new techniques and strategies are adapted all the time, there were three male fighters who stood out above all the others from 2010 to 2019. They were dominant, were rarely (if ever) beaten and have staked their claim as some of the best fighters who have ever lived.
Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi take a look at the three best male MMA athletes of the decade.
Ariel Helwani doesn’t know if Khabib Nurmagomedov is the GOAT or best fighter in UFC history but is certain he is the most dominant. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc
UFC lightweight champ
14 wins by stoppage
Def. Conor McGregor via fourth-round submission to retain lightweight title (UFC 229, Oct. 6, 2018)
Def. Al Iaquinta via unanimous decision to win lightweight title (UFC 223, April 7, 2018)
Def. Dustin Poirier via third-round submission to retain lightweight title (UFC 229, Sept. 7, 2018)
Forget fighter-of-the-decade talk, Khabib Nurmagomedov is the most dominant fighter in UFC history.
Yes, I’m aware that’s a massive statement, but I feel entirely comfortable making it.
Nurmagomedov started the decade 7-0. At the time, he was a relatively unknown fighter competing on the local Russian circuit. Promotions such as Tsumada Fighting Championship, Golden Fist Russia and ProFC filled up his résumé. I cover MMA for a living and will admit I have never heard of these promotions.
He eventually made his UFC debut in January 2012 against Kamal Shalorus as a 16-0 prospect, but, if we’re being honest, he still wasn’t well-known to the casual MMA fan base. Over the next two years, Nurmagomedov climbed the ranks steadily. He was durable, he was dominant, he was solid. His detractors like to point to his win over Gleison Tibau as being questionable, but he still won it via unanimous decision, and all three judges scored the bout 30-27 in his favor.
Early on, his highest-profile victory came in April 2014 against future champion Rafael dos Anjos, who at the time had won five in a row. Nurmagomedov ran through RDA en route to another unanimous decision victory.
But then came the extreme bad luck. Luck so bad, many wondered if Nurmagomedov would end up being a sad tale about what might have been.
First came the knee injury that forced him out of the September 2014 Donald Cerrone fight. Then came another knee injury that forced him out of the September 2015 Cerrone fight. And then a rib injury that precluded his fighting Tony Ferguson in December 2015.
Three straight injuries. Three straight fight cancellations. Two years lost.
In fact, Nurmagomedov crashed the UFC 178 postfight news conference, while nursing that second knee injury, to call out then-champion Anthony Pettis.
Nurmagomedov rebounded nicely in 2016 with two solid wins, but then he failed to make weight prior to the highly anticipated Ferguson fight in March 2017, which, once again, left his future and his legacy very much in question.
Since then, though, Nurmagomedov has been unflappable. He has won four straight fights, improving his record to a perfect 28-0, and, perhaps more importantly, hasn’t pulled out of a fight again. He finally became lightweight champion in April 2018, and then reached worldwide, megastar status following his victory over Conor McGregor in October 2018.
Now, he is one of the most famous athletes on the planet and one of the most decorated MMA fighters ever. He’s also the most dominant. No fighter competing for a major promotion has ever started his or her career with a 28-0 record. He’s currently 12-0 in the UFC and has only lost one of the 36 rounds during his UFC tenure.
And he has showing no signs of slowing down.
Nurmagomedov often teases that he is going to retire soon. We all know how that kind of talk goes in combat sports, but he does seem like the kind of person who will just pick up and leave when he’s on top and never look back.
So, enjoy this while you can, because we might never see this kind of dominance again inside the Octagon.
Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Mark Raimondi discuss Jon Jones, whose status as the greatest ever is undermined by issues outside the octagon.
Two-time UFC light heavyweight champion
10 UFC title defenses
Youngest fighter to win UFC title (23 years, 242 days)
Def. Daniel Cormier to retain UFC light heavyweight title (UFC 182; Jan. 3, 2015)
No contest with Daniel Cormier in UFC light heavyweight title fight (UFC 214; July 29, 2017)
Simply put, there has been no one in MMA as consistent or dominant as Jon Jones over the past 10 years. He won the UFC light heavyweight title in 2011 — the youngest champion ever, at 23 years old — and has not lost a title fight title since then. Jones (25-1, 1 NC) has beaten five men who have held UFC gold during his 17-fight unbeaten streak. He has done it all in the spotlight, too. Each of his past 14 fights have been in a UFC pay-per-view main event.
Outside the cage, Jones has had ups and downs, but inside the Octagon, no one has been able to hold a candle to Jones’ accomplishments over the past decade — and perhaps ever.
Jones has never truly been beaten in MMA. His only loss came via disqualification against Matt Hamill on Dec. 5, 2009, and that was a controversial stoppage. Considering the date of that fight, Jones was undefeated over the course of the decade in nothing but high-profile fights against the toughest possible competition: former champions such as Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua, not to mention brilliant contemporaries such as Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson.
Few have been able to put together a run like Jones has since 2010. If there were an MMA version of Mount Rushmore, he’d be one of the first faces added. Only Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva have the kind of résumé in the UFC that can rival the one put together by Jones. And at 32 years old, he still seems to be in the prime of his career.
Former UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson defeats Yuya Wakamatsu via submission for his first ONE Championship victory.
Def. Joseph Benavidez via split decision to win UFC flyweight title (UFC 152, Sept. 22, 2012)
Def. Joseph Benavidez via first-round knockout to retain UFC flyweight title (UFC on FOX 9, Dec. 14, 2013)
Def. Henry Cejudo via first-round TKO to retain UFC flyweight title (UFC 197, April 23, 2016)
Since the start of 2010, Johnson has 22 wins, including a UFC-record 11 consecutive title defenses. As the UFC’s 125-pound flyweight champion, he fought against a variety of styles and was thoroughly dominant against them all.
His only losses in the UFC came against Dominick Cruz (arguably the greatest bantamweight in the history of the sport) and Henry Cejudo (until recently, a two-weight champion who managed to beat him by a very narrow split decision). During that title stretch, Johnson was the epitome of a well-rounded martial artist. He did everything — every aspect of MMA — at a world-class level. And he did it for a long time.
The only knock you’ll ever hear on Johnson is that he didn’t face the same level of competition as some of the other champions of the past decade. It’s not an unfair argument, although there’s certainly a chance it gets a little overblown. Joseph Benavidez is an elite fighter, and Johnson knocked him out inside of one round. Cejudo has proven to be one of the best of his generation, and Johnson knocked him out inside of one round. Johnson repeatedly set himself miles ahead of his competition. There is probably no such thing as a perfect fighter, but Johnson has tested that theory over the past 10 years.
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