MMATorch Presents: The Top 100 Fighters of the Decade- #51
Nov 11, 2009 - 2:42:01 PM
By Matt Pelkey, MMATorch Columnist
With the end of the decade (assuming you count 2000-2009 as this decade, which, for the purpose of this feature, I do) rapidly approaching, I thought I'd put finger to keyboard and come up with a list of the top 100 fighters of the aughts, i.e. the fighters are only ranked based on what they accomplished this decade. Sorry Royce Gracie. Everyday between now and the end of the year, I'll be counting them down from 100 to 1. No scientific formulas here. Strictly subjective. Criteria include: record, big wins, periods of dominance, activity, and to a lesser extent, popularity. Popularity will mostly be used to break ties. If two guys have accomplished relatively the same in the last ten years, the bigger star will get the higher slot. Also, being good towards the end of the decade carried more weight for me than at the beginning. The pool of talent is so much deeper now than it was ten years ago, when MMA was still trying to break away from the wrestling dominated days of the late '90's. When listing a fighter's record, their career record is listed first, with their record between 2000-2009 in parentheses. Any questions or comments on the rankings can be directed towards firstname.lastname@example.org.
51. Evan Tanner
Record: 32-8 (12-6)
Notable Wins: David Terrell, Robbie Lawler, Phil Baroni (2), Elvis Sinosic, Travis Fulton
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: Tanner closes out the first half of our countdown, and let's call it a sentimental pick. His best work came in the 90's when he posted an astounding 20-2 record, but he was a UFC champion this decade. He was a self-taught fighter, relying on watching tapes to help him become a champion. He was never great at any one aspect, but he was a naturally strong wrestler and relied on breaking his opponent's will to win. And he was great at that. In his fight with David Terrell, where he won the UFC middleweight title, he took a more talented fighter down, smothered his offense, and pounded out a victory. It was inspiring.
He clearly wasn't the same fighter in his return to the UFC after a nearly two year absence, or perhaps he was the same fighter and the game had just passed him by, but he continues to be a UFC legend even after his untimely death.
52. Caol "Uno Shoten" Uno
Record: 25-12-4 (15-10-2)
Notable Wins: Dennis Hallman, Rumina Sato, Fabiano Iha, Yves Edwards, Din Thomas, Rich Clementi, Mitsuhiro Ishida
Bad Losses: Marcio Barbosa
The Skinny: What can I say? I love the underdogs. And that's exactly what Uno has been for basically his entire career. Most of his best work came in the beginning of the decade, including taking BJ Penn to a five round draw at UFC 41 in a fight that was supposed to decide a successor to Jens Pulver's title, but instead left the division without a champ for another three years. Uno has always been an annoyingly scrappy fighter (ask Spencer Fisher) who relied on his grappling to make up for his size and strength deficiencies.
He's only 3-4 in his last seven fights, but the fact that he's still competing at a high level (just being back in the UFC at this point in his career is a significant accomplishment) after all the wars he's been through over the last thirteen years is a testament to his grit as a fighter. At 34, its safe to assume his career will be winding down shortly. Time has never been on the side of the lighter fighters. Quickness and agility are the most important tools to their games, and also two of the first things to go with age. It doesn't matter though. Uno's place is safe. He's had successful careers in both the U.S. and Japan as one of the best lightweights of his time.
53. Yves Edwards
Record: 36-15-1 (27-12-1)
Notable Wins: Pete Spratt, Aaron Riley, Rich Clementi, Hermes Franca (2), Dokonjonosuke Mishima,
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: The resume may seem a little light for being this high, but once upon a time Yves Edwards was perhaps the best lightweight in the world, and he was considered the uncrowned UFC lightweight champ. Losses to Mark Hominick and Joe Stevenson in back-to-back UFC outings pretty much took him out of any "elite fighter" discussions, but that doesn't diminish what he was at the start of the decade. Go to Youtube and watch some Yves Edwards' highlights. He had slick jiu-jitsu, accurate and varied striking, and athleticism that was unmatched. His head-kick victory over Josh Thomson at UFC 49 is still replayed to this day. Of his 36 MMA victories, 29 have come by stoppage, with a near-even split of 14 TKO's and 15 submissions. At 33 and past the fifty fight mark in his career, its near certain Edwards will ever reach the lofty expectations placed on him over ten years ago, but that doesn't diminish the fact that he was one of the first truly great lightweight fighters of his time.
54. Nick Diaz
Record: 20-7, 1 NC (20-7, 1 NC)
Notable Wins: Chris Lytle, Robbie Lawler, Drew Fickett, Josh Neer, Gleison Tibau, Takanori Gomi (yeah, I count it), Frank Shamrock, Scott Smith
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: If this were a countdown of my top-100 favorite fighters, Diaz would sit comfortable at #1. Something about his attitude and complete lack of fear or respect for his opponent's fight game makes him so fun to watch. Alas, this is the best fighters of the decade and the fact remains that Diaz has never won a major title (despite EliteXC actually creating a fake weight class for Diaz to be the champ of, and then watching his scar tissue rear its ugly head against KJ Noons) and has always struggled with grapplers who are physically stronger than him.
Despite his shortcomings, Diaz does own three wins over fighters who have appeared/will appear on this countdown (again, the Gomi win counts. He was high, not roided up) and that means something. He's flirted with the lightweight and middleweight divisions, although has never had an official fight in either, but he's a natural welterweight. He should stay there. A fight with recent Strikeforce signee Marius Zaromskis would be a blast.
Diaz may seem like he's been around forever, but he's still only 26, and his style and personality are perfectly suited to have a promotion built around. He's won five fights in a row since the cut loss to Noons two years ago, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. He's my pick for current most-underrated fighter in the world, and if he can pick a weight class and stay there, there's no reason he can't be one of MMA's biggest stars and best fighters for the next ten years.
55. Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine
Record: 15-6-1 (15-6-1)
Notable Wins: Mike Whitehead, Wilson Gouveia, Forrest Griffin, Chuck Liddell, Brandon Vera
Bad Losses: None (although Houston Alexander is darn close)
The Skinny: I honestly think I'm overcompensating a little having Jardine this high because I don't like him. Despite his big wins, he's just never struck me as an elite fighter. But those wins, well they're pretty damn impressive. The wins over Whitehead and Gouveia look better now than they did when they happened. The win over Griffin put him on the map and the Liddell win solidified him as a top-10 light-heavyweight. The problem is, even with all those great wins Jardine is only 6-4 in the UFC and has never won more than two in a row inside the Octagon. Maybe that's because his level of competition has been quite high (although Mike Goldberg's claim that he's fought eight top-10 fighters in a row is one of the dumber things he's ever said, and that's saying something), but its also due to his unusually unreliable chin. He's 2-4 in his last six fights and he's been knocked unconscious by Houston Alexander, Wanderlei Silva, and Thiago Silva in that span. At 34, Jardine's skills are likely to erode from here and his chin will only get worse. In other words, his best days are behind him. Regardless, he's stamped his spot on this list with wins over great fighters in their respective primes.
56. Demian Maia
Record: 11-1 (11-1)
Notable Wins: Ed Herman, Jason MacDonald, Nate Quarry, Chael Sonnen
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: Demian Maia might not have won any titles or beaten any elite fighters or even had a long enough of a career to be called a truly great fighter, but before his win streak ended abruptly at the hands (hand?) of Nate Marquardt, he was on one of the most dominant runs we'd ever seen. He started his career 11-0, the last five of those coming inside the Octagon, with eight of those victories coming by submission. His 5-1 mark in the UFC includes four (four!) Submission of the Night awards. And its not like he was doing it against total slouches. His four "notable" wins all came in a row before the Marquardt fight. Clearly the loss to Marquardt showed that Maia needs to work diligently on his striking if he ever hopes to be a champion, but he's just as good on the ground as Anderson Silva is on the feet and that's saying something. He had a relatively late start in his career, making the transition from jiu-jitsu competitions to MMA, and at 32, time isn't on his side. The bright side is that he's done a marvelous job of avoiding damage in his fights thus far, and if that trend can continue, there won't be much stopping him from adding at least another four Submission of the Night awards to his mantle.
57. "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler
Record: 16-5 (16-5)
Notable Wins: Aaron Riley, Chris Lytle, Falaniko Vitale (2), Joey Villasenor, Frank Trigg, Murilo Rua, Scott Smith
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: The lack of any really good wins makes me think I might have Lawler a bit high, but you have to like a guy who's fought (successfully) for basically every major organization of the decade. He has wins in the UFC, Pride, King of the Cage, Icon Sport, the IFL, and EliteXC. He fights for Strikeforce now, and while he lost his first fight for the organization, it'll only be a matter of time before he gets in the win column there too. Once upon a time he was one of the hottest welterweight prospects in the UFC. Back to back losses to Nick Diaz and Evan Tanner (at middleweight) took some of the shine off, but the permanent move to middleweight proved to be a good one.
After leaving the UFC, Lawler won both the Icon Sport and EliteXC middleweight titles and had his eyes on the same Strikeforce belt before being upset by Jake Shields. Now 27, Lawler is a well-seasoned veteran who could still have a ten year career ahead of him. His ground game remains suspect, but if he ever decides to go to a more well-rounded gym, he just might live up to the potential he showed years ago in the UFC.
58. Vitor "The Phenom" Belfort
Record: 19-8 (13-6)
Notable Wins: Gilbert Yvel, Bobby Southworth, Heath Herring, Marvin Eastman, Randy Couture, Terry Martin, Matt Lindland, Rich Franklin
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: It may seem a bit surprising to see Vitor Belfort so low on this list, especially considering he's probably one of the top-20 "names" in MMA history, but if if wasn't for his recent resurgence, he might not have made it at all. For longtime fans, our fondest memories were of Vitor bursting on the scene in the early days of the UFC, dominating his opponents with his hands in a way we'd never seen before. His boxing prowess combined with his natural athletic ability and solid ground game made him probably the first well-rounded mixed martial artist we'd ever seen. The only problem with those memories is that they came in the 90's and this list is all about accomplishments in the 2000's.
By the time 2000 rolled around, Belfort had already lost to Randy Couture in the UFC, then moved onto his first stint in Pride, where he lost his debut to Sakuraba. In other words, he had already begun his alarming trend of not living up to his potential. Its something that has haunted him for the vast majority of his career. Its not like he loses to inferior opponents though. Far from it. Instead, he seems to wilt when he's pressured by the best. In addition to his 90's losses to Sakuraba and Couture, his losses have been to Chuck Liddel, Couture again, Tito Ortiz, Alistair Overeem twice, and most recently to Dan Henderson.
Its really his recent five fight win streak that has us believing Belfort finally might be living up to all that potential. He's 32 now and has 27 professional fights, but they've been spread out over a twelve year career, so there's no reason to think his body still has a few great years left in it. If he looks as good in his next five fights as he has in his previous five, Belfort just might finally take his rightful place with the rest of MMA's greats.
59. Josh "Kos" Koscheck
Record: 13-4 (13-4)
Notable Wins: Dave Menne, Diego Sanchez, Dustin Hazelett, Chris Lytle, Yoshiyuki Yoshida, Frank Trigg
Bad Losses: None
The Skinny: Did you know Josh Koscheck is one of the winning-est UFC fighters in history? Its true. He's 11-4 inside the Octagon. Only a handful of fighters can claim double-digit UFC victories. Its also been amazing to watch his progression as a mixed martial artist. With a record of 2-0, he was cast on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. At the time he was simply a wrestler in the most basic sense. In his first fight on the show, he blanketed veteran and favorite to win the show Chris Leben en route to a decision victory and a spot in the semi-finals. He lost his next fight in a razor close decision to Diego Sanchez, a fight he would later avenge.
After the show, he burst onto the scene with impressive stoppages over Chris Sanford and Pete Spratt before suffering his first defeat at the hands (well mostly the feet. The fight technically ended by rear naked choke, but it was a high kick that did the damage) of Drew Fickett. Following the loss, Koscheck rattled off five straight victories, but in the process earned himself a reputation as a boring wrestler and a natural heel. After losing a closer-than-people-remember decision to GSP, Koscheck made a concerted effort to keep his fights on the feet and win with his hands and feet. It worked. Since the St. Pierre fight, Koscheck has become one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, win or lose. He's been firmly entrenched in the top-10 welterweight rankings for the last two and a half years, and doesn't appear to be going anywhere. Despite a late start in the sport, Koscheck is an elite athlete with natural power. He'll turn 32 later this month, but he should just be entering his prime. If he stays dedicated he might just have the best chance of dethroning St. Pierre among all current UFC welterweights.
60. Heath "The Texas Crazy Horse" Herring
Record: 28-14, 1 NC (16-10, 1 NC)
Notable Wins: Tom Erikson, Enson Inoue, Mark Kerr, Igor Vovchanchyn, Gan McGee, Gary Goodridge, Cheick Kongo
Bad Losses: None (cuts and injuries don't count)
The Skinny: Forget the Heath Herring you know from the UFC. Actually, forget the Heath Herring you know from the middle of the decade in Pride as well. Before some guys named Mirko Filipovic, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Fedor Emelianenko came to Pride and knocked Herring down to #4 in their heavyweight pecking order, Heath Herring was the best heavyweight Pride had to offer. If fact, he and Mark Coleman were probably the two best heavyweights of the first third of the decade. Just as wrestlers dominated the sport in the late 90's by introducing the concept of ground-n-pound, Herring was one of the first to use the "wrestling in reverse" strategy, where he used his wrestling skills to keep the fight standing in order to win it with his boxing. In that regard, he's a pioneer.
He beat some of the day's best heavyweights in Erikson, Inoue, and Kerr. It wasn't until Pride brought in the holy trinity of heavyweights a couple years later that people realized Herring wasn't at the top of the heap, and even then he still beat everyone who wasn't the best of the best. He went 12-5 during his time in Pride with his losses coming to Nogueira (twice), Fedor, Cro Cop, and Vitor Belfort.
People who have been disappointed with his run in the UFC need to realize that while he's only 31, he's been fighting since he was 19. His days on top have long since passed, but amazingly he's still a tough, durable fighter. A big reason for me compiling this list was to give a little love to the 10-20 great fighters from the beginning of the decade who deserved their due. Herring is one of them.
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