Yesterday I proposed the idea that, at any given time, one man will stand above all his peers as the definitive top fighter in the sport. He'll have a track record of success, superlative skillset, and that special something that just lights up the room (aura, presence, charisma, whatever you call it, you know it when you see it). Let's call this fighter "The Kingpin." He's more than a champion-he's the cock of the walk-and in the 17 year history of mixed martial arts, only a handful of athletes can claim this prize.
Royce Gracie (11/93-4/95): No one ever stood on pedestal above his fellow fighters quite the way Royce Gracie did. Sure, he had some advantages: his family owned the UFC, they invented Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and he had been fighting his entire life. There were some significant disadvantages too. In an open weight contest, Royce's weight topped out at around 180 pounds. He wasn't anything special athletically. If you compared him to an NFL player, his metrics would match up with the kickers. One of the scrawny ones who only pretends to try to make a tackle on a kickoff return.
Yet, there he was, laying waste to oversized steroid-fueled specimens like Kimo Leopoldo and Ken Shamrock. From the day the sport started in Colorado at UFC 1 until the day he left it all behind when his brother sold his share of the company to SEG after UFC 5, Royce Gracie was, without a single question, the best in the business.
Ken Shamrock (7/95-5/96): Shamrock stepped into a vacuum with Royce's unexpected departure from the sport. It wasn't quite the same, as everyone had seen Royce make him tap in the semifinals of UFC 1. The aura of invincibility wasn't there. But, he had the physical qualities and the presence to seize the Kingpin mantle. A win over UFC tournament champion Dan Severn at UFC 6 gave him legitimacy-and a title belt to call his own, the UFC Superfight Title which he defended twice before falling to Severn in a rematch at UFC 9.
Honorable Mention: Rickson Gracie
Mark Coleman (7/96-7/97): It's hard to explain to people who weren't there the effect Mark Coleman had on the sport of MMA. He was like nothing we had ever seen. Imagine the body of Ken Shamrock, the wrestling skill of Dan Severn, all attached to the instincts of a pitbull. Coleman flashed across the cage like a dart, double legging anyone in his path, and then rained down punches and headbutts until someone made him stop. Maurice Smith proved he was human at UFC 14, but before that we had our doubts.
Honorable Mention: Bas Rutten
Cross Trained Era:
Frank Shamrock (04/97-09/99): For the first time since Gracie, the sport had a worthy Kingpin when Frank Juarez Shamrock took the throne from an exhausted Coleman. Shamrock had the star power and look of his adopted brother Ken, but added to the mix a level of fighting prowess that left all others in his wake. Shamrock was one of the earliest cross trained fighters, adding kickboxing and guard work to his already lethal catch wrestling submissions. The end result was the best fighter the sport had yet seen, unbeaten in the UFC when he decided to retire after his UFC 22 title defense over Tito Ortiz.
Honorable Mention: Mark Kerr, Igor Vovchancyn
Who followed Shamrock as the top fighter in the industry? Find out after the jump.
Kazushi Sakuraba (11/99-03/01): Kazushi Sakuraba barrelled into the opening provided by Shamrock's retirement like a freight train. At a little over 180 pounds, Sakuraba was too much for light heavyweights and even heavyweights to handle. His fight with Royce Gracie at the 2000 Pride Grand Prix was a historic moment: two Kingpins did battle in the ring for the first time. After 90 grueling minutes, the towel came flying in from Gracie's side and the sport had a new and definitive top dog.
Honorable Mention: Tito Ortiz
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (03/01-03/03): Sakuraba's loss to Brazilian Wanderlei Silva threw the Kingpin system into disarray. As dominant as Silva looked, he couldn't assume the crown: the memory of his loss to Tito Ortiz was too fresh in fan's minds to allow Silva to take the Kingpin mantle. Into the void came another Brazilian, heavyweight sensation Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Nogueira was the best submission artist, perhaps in the history of MMA, but that wasn't what made him a star. It was a tireless spirit and a will to win that saw him overcome all obstacles-except one. Fedor Emelianenko.
Honorable Mention: Matt Hughes
Wanderlei Silva (03/03-12/04): Nogueria's loss didn't immediately propel Fedor into the top spot. In fact, at the time most favored the Brazilian in a rematch. Instead, it was time for Silva to ascend to the pinnacle. Enough time had passed to erase memories of the embarrassing loss to Ortiz. There was also the matter of 16 wins and zero losses in the 2000s to validate Silva's claim. On December 31, 2004, everything changed. Silva fell to kickboxer Mark Hunt while Fedor beat Nogueira in the third fight of a stunning trilogy.
Honorable Mention: Fedor Emelianenko, B.J. Penn
Fedor Emelianenko (12/04-06/10): What can be said that hasn't already been uttered? Ten wins, four against championship level fighters. Skill at a level unmatched, not just among heavyweights, but by fighters generally. For five and a half years one man stood above all others as the Kingpin of MMA. That era is over.
Honorable Mention: Chuck Liddell
Georges St. Pierre (06/10-????): St. Pierre is the first third generation fighter to sit atop the entire industry. All of his significant wins come in the post The Ultimate Fighter era. He's taken the template Frank Shamrock and Don Frye created, the mold of the cross trained fighter, and shattered it. St. Pierre is a level above his predecessors in every metric: popularity, athleticism, skill. And that's the way it should be. In five years a new generation will enter the sport who have trained specifically for MMA their entire lives. Their role model will be Georges St. Pierre, the Kingpin of Mixed Martial Arts.
Honorable Mention: Anderson Silva