Emelianenko, Silva lead list of decade's best MMA fighters
2000s: Top 10 MMA Fighters
By Josh Gross, SI.com
Having fought the totality of his mixed martial arts career in the 2000s, Emelianenko (31-1, 1 NC overall and in 2000s) fittingly ranks as the decade's top fighter. He debuted May 21, 2000, and competed five times that year, finishing with the lone blemish (a dismissed cut stoppage he brutally avenged) on his outstanding ledger. Emelianenko is 26-0 (with one No Contest) since, and seems perpetually linked to the No. 1 ranking at heavyweight after defeating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in 2003 to capture the Pride belt. The 33-year-old Russian has used his speed, power and smarts to stay at or near the top of MMA's pound-for-pound rankings for the same length of time.
"The Spider" (25-4 overall and in 2000s) began his professional MMA career six days after Emelianenko. Though he fell short in his debut, Silva, now 34, rebounded within five fights to capture the highly regarded Shooto Championship at 167 pounds. Over the next nine years, the Brazilian had his share of missteps (bad losses marred '03 and '04), but in the latter half of the decade, the lanky, accurate striker with matching ground skills turned dominant. The reigning UFC middleweight champion holds records for longest active win streak in the UFC and longest win streak in the promotion's history at 10.
The two-time UFC welterweight champion may have slowed in recent years, but his body of work prior to surrendering his 170-pound title is worth highlighting. Born in Hillsboro, Ill., Hughes (43-7 overall; 30-6 in 2000s) defended the belt a record seven times inside the Octagon, owns a 9-3 record in championship fights and tallied 15 UFC wins in the 2000s -- tops for the decade. A protégé of Pat Miletich, MMA's first great welterweight, Hughes mixed submissions with powerful wrestling to become one of the sport?s first dominant fighters.
Starting the decade off right by winning three fights in one night to capture the prestigious RINGS King of Kings tournament, Henderson (25-7 overall; 19-7 in 2000s) would go on to become the first and only fighter to hold major titles (Pride) at the same time in separate weight divisions (183 and 205 pounds). He eventually matriculated to the UFC, where he competed for but fell short on attempts to win titles at 185 and 205. A long-time favorite on pound-for-pound lists because of his propensity to take on all comers and regularly cross weight divisions, Henderson, from Temecula, Calif., is still fighting at 39, and just made news by leaving the UFC for Strikeforce.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Were it not for Emelianenko, "Minotauro" (32-5-1, 1 NC overall; 28-5-1, 1 NC in 2000s) would easily rank atop this list. Despite surrendering his position as the world's best heavyweight in 2003, Nogueira continued to use expert submission skills to befuddle, neutralize and defeat heavyweight opposition, compiling a 17-3 record in Japan. After moving to the UFC following the collapse of Pride in 2007, the 33-year-old from Rio de Janeiro became the only fighter to hold belts in both organizations. Famous for his ability to endure punishment, Nogueira will be thought of as one of the decade?s great warriors.
In an extremely violent sport, "The Axe Murderer" (32-10-1, 1 NC overall; 22-8-1, 1 NC in 2000s) will go down as one of its most vicious. While the 33-year-old Brazilian is immediately thought of for his iconic Pride fights, where he reigned as champion from 2001-07, a bout against Tito Ortiz for the UFC light heavyweight title in April 2000 could have changed the trajectory of his career. Instead, the decision loss propelled him back to Japan, where he won 18 straight fights, excluding a No Contest and draw, through 2004. Despite losing five of six over the past three years, Silva belongs on the list.
Closely associated with the rise of the UFC and mixed martial arts in the U.S., the former UFC light heavyweight champion from San Luis Obispo, Calif., did most of his damage in the middle of the decade. Though the 40-year-old (21-7 overall; 17-6 in 2000s) fought several major fights in Japan, including a war against Quinton Jackson in 2003, he was at his best in America from 2004-06 when he went 7-0 and defended the UFC title four times. His trilogy with Randy Couture and two wins over Tito Ortiz stand out among many highlights for the knockout-loving "Iceman."
Georges St. Pierre
The current UFC welterweight champion, from Montreal, Quebec, is regarded as one of three best pound-for-pound fighters in the world going into 2010. While St. Pierre (19-2 overall and in 2000s) clocks in at No. 8 on this list, his talent, work ethic and intelligence suggest he could attain his goal of being regarded as the greatest of all time. St. Pierre's only two losses ? a submission defeat against a prime Matt Hughes in 2004, and a technical knockout at the hands of Matt Serra in 2007 ? were both avenged, the former for the UFC title. Though the losses keep him out of the top five this decade, "Rush," 28, stands alone in an area crucial to the sport's continued growth: He's the first North American fighter to land major endorsement deals outside of MMA.
The 47-year-old from Las Vegas is the king of big fights. Couture's win-loss tally (17-10 overall; 13-8 in 2000s) might not indicate "The Natural" is one of the best of the decade (or all time), but his ability to deliver when it counts, combined with capturing the UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight championships twice each in the 2000s, gives his performances weight. Wars against many of MMA's biggest names, as well as an 18-month standoff with the UFC over his contract, define his effort this decade.
There weren't many fighters over the past 10 years who earned the distinction of making their professional fighting debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Penn (15-5-1 overall, same in 2000s) did in 2001. And in just his fourth fight, the Hawaiian headlined an event for the lightweight title -- the first time a bout at 155 carried a UFC card. Penn, 31, was no stranger to distractions (an obsession with fighting up in weight), setbacks (poor training) or controversy (the infamous "Grease-gate" in 2009 following a loss to St. Pierre, and his decision to relinquish a championship belt and leave the UFC for a year). Yet, as shown with his final bout of the decade, a fifth-round TKO of Diego Sanchez, few were better than "The Prodigy" when his focus was fighting.
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