In his breakdown of Saturday night's legacy fight, Jonathan Snowden described Dan Henderson as "arguably the ... best American fighter ever to lace up four-ounce gloves." It got me thinking, "Just who is the greatest American fighters?" After careful consideration (and placing the question to Twitter), and I've compiled a list of the top ten American-born fighters in MMA's short history.
But before we get to that list, here are the honorable mentions:
- Brock Lesnar (5-2) - If we're speaking on total influence on the sport, Lesnar has a case to be placed in the top three, if not number one overall. (In the same vein, Bob Sapp might have an argument in the top ten.) But I'm looking at results and performance in the cage, and Lesnar just doesn't have the credentials to deserve that. That said, despite only seven fights in a three-year career, Lesnar has beaten a legitimate run of heavyweights including wins over three former UFC heavyweight title holders (including interim titles). To compete at that level without a period of seasoning is impressive.
- Dan Severn (99-18-7) - One of the pioneers of the sport, Severn probably doesn't get the respect he deserves due to his barnstorming on the regional circuit over the last decade. He made his debut all the way back at UFC 4, giving Royce Gracie a hard fifteen minutes in the finals before ultimately succumbing to a triangle choke. He won the UFC Superfight Championship belt (a precursor to the current heavyweight strap) in a rematch against Ken Shamrock. At 53 years old, he's still chasing that 100th victory.
- Ken Shamrock (28-15-2) - Like Severn, Shamrock probably deserves more respect than he gets, but that's what happens when you admit to using steroids and the tail end of your career is an unfortunate punchline. Still, Shamrock was the first UFC titleholder, which probably deserves mention on a list like this just for the historical impact. He also beat Bas Rutten, split with Severn, subbed Kimo, and took Royce Gracie to a draw before anyone else had escaped the Octagon with anything other than a loss (UFC 3 forfeiture aside).
- Rich Franklin (28-6, 1NC) - Franklin is a guy I liken to Harold Baines -- a very good fighter over an extended period of time (June marked his twelfth year in the sport), but one who never had that extended run of dominance or a collection of enough quality wins to really push him into elite territory. If there's ever an independent MMA Hall of Fame, the question "Is he better than Rich Franklin?" might provide a solid baseline for consideration. Franklin defeated Evan Tanner for the UFC middleweight title in 2005, and defended it twice before running into Anderson Silva. Since then he's largely been a .500 fighter, though his level of competition plays into that.
- Frankie Edgar (13-1-1) / Gray Maynard (10-0-1, 1 NC) - Edgar's only loss is to Maynard. Maynard's only blemishes are a draw to Edgar in their rematch and knocking himself into a no contest against Rob Emerson. Edgar's back-to-back victories over B.J. Penn are one of the most impressive and improbable feats of the last few years. The victor of their October rubber match makes a serious play at the top ten.
- Jon Jones (13-1) / Cain Velasquez (9-0) - Both guys, so long as they stay healthy, will end up on this list. I'm more worried about Cain following rotator cuff surgery. He's in the middle of his athletic prime, however, and as long as he recovers close to 100%, has a good 3-4 years of peak performance to enjoy. Jones is only 24 years old, and has already talked about moving up to heavyweight in the future (and a Velasquez/Jones heavyweight title fight is already tantalizing). Should his career play out as hot as it started, he will end up on top of this list.