Josh Gross
Wednesday October 15th, 2008

Let's set aside all this talk of unskilled brawlers who may or may not deserve your attention. Instead, a shift in focus to the 10 best mixed martial artists should make for a nice palate cleanser.

At the very least, they've shown themselves capable of finishing a fight on the feet or the floor, with strikes or submissions. But more importantly, they come equipped with intangibles that separate the skilled from the truly great fighters.

If you're yearning for some high-level MMA, you won't have to search too hard -- each fighter listed has a bout lined up in the next three months.

Chalk up Silva's top spot to his dominance and activity. A pinpoint striker as dangerous on the ground as he is standing, Silva has been a destructive force since entering the Octagon in 2006. The current UFC middleweight champion, who began his career at 167 pounds, will make his fifth defense of the 185-pound title on Oct. 25 against Patrick Cote, three months after moving up to light heavyweight and knocking out James Irvin in 61 seconds.

A hiccup against Matt Serra is the only reason St. Pierre sits in the second spot. The world's No. 1 welterweight has used his athleticism, wrestling and aggressive striking to compile one of the best ledgers in the sport. St. Pierre redeemed himself against Serra as part of a winning streak that was pushed to four after an impressive five-round decision against Jon Fitch in August. The 27-year-old French Canadian is expected to return Jan. 31 for a super-fight rematch against B.J. Penn in Las Vegas.

Heavyweights rarely get love on pound-for-pound lists, but Emelianenko is no ordinary heavyweight. Considered by some -- including myself -- to be the best fighter in mixed martial arts history, the current WAMMA champion and former Pride king fell out of favor by facing sub-par opposition since 2005. A 36-second demolition of Tim Sylvia was a good start in erasing memories of bouts against overmatched foes. Emelianenko, 32, is rumored to meet another former UFC champ, Andrei Arlovski, as part of January's Affliction-Golden Boy promotion.

Inconsistency has hurt Penn as much as his desire to fight across all weight divisions. It's clear the gifted and skilled Hawaiian is best when fighting at lightweight, but unfortunately he seems bored there. For Penn, MMA is all about challenges, and if he doesn't feel pushed, things tend to go awry. He has lobbied for and apparently received a second shot at top welterweight St. Pierre. That bout is expected to take place in Las Vegas the Saturday prior to Super Bowl XLIII.

Owner of the WEC featherweight belt, Faber's success is directly related to an impressive work ethic, powerful grappling game and dedication to improving as a striker. Well established atop the 145-pound division, "The California Kid" returns Nov. 5 in Hollywood, Fla., where he will defend his belt against Mike Thomas Brown.

Were it not for Emelianenko, Nogueira would be regarded as the sport's best heavyweight. As it stands now, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu marvel is the UFC interim heavyweight champion, and if he gets past Frank Mir on Dec. 27, Nogueira has a chance to make the title whole against the winner between Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar.

Griffin rose from the ranks of The Ultimate Fighter reality series to become the show's first UFC champion. He captured the light heavyweight belt by out-pointing Quinton Jackson in July. The victory was his second consecutive upset, the first coming against Mauricio Rua, who at the time was thought of as a top-three pound-for-pound fighter. Griffin returns Dec. 27 to fight The Ultimate Fighter Season 2 winner, Rashad Evans.

The lightest fighter on the list also owns the group's best record. Toiling in obscurity before the WEC illuminated the lighter weight divisions, Torres has become a fan-favorite because of an attacking style that mixes a wide array of submissions with the reach that allows him to overwhelm smaller competition at 135 pounds. Torres returns to the cage Dec. 3 in Las Vegas against Manny Tapia.

With a flare for the dramatic, Jackson propelled himself among the best fighters in the world during a Stateside resurgence that resulted in victories over Matt Lindland, Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson. While Jackson doesn't utilize the varied attack offered by others on this list, his natural power is enough to make him dangerous in any situation. After losing the UFC light heavyweight belt to Griffin in July, Jackson made news outside the cage with an arrest following a police chase in Orange County, Calif. He hopes to remind fans of his fighting prowess on Dec. 27 against a man that has badly beaten him twice, Wanderlei Silva.

After a solid 2008 campaign, Alvarez squeaks on this list. A heavy-fisted, high-energy lightweight from Philadelphia, Alvarez moved down in weight after winning his first 10 fights at 170 pounds. It's at the 160-pound limit that Alvarez, 23, meets Nick Diaz for the vacant EliteXC lightweight belt Nov. 8 in Reno, Nev. Eyeing a rematch against Joachim Hansen, or an anticipated showdown against Shinya Aoki -- who could have been put in this spot had he not lost to Hansen in July -- Alvarez should face no shortage of tough challenges as his career matures.

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