After a brief domination by BJJ in the early days of MMA, wrestlers took over the sport violently and effectively. While every successful MMA fighter today must be well-rounded in all aspects of fighting, wrestling has produced more champions than any other fighting style.
Many successful wrestlers have managed to translate their formidable takedown skills, athleticism, and iron will into the cage. Today we will look at 10 of the best wrestlers in MMA.
Despite Ben Askren’s catastrophically bad late career, he did compile an MMA record of 19-0 entirely based on his wrestling. Where all other fighters on this list have had well-rounded skillsets, Funky won the Bellator and ONE FC welterweight belts solely as a wrestler.
His striking skills border on the comical for a fighter at this level. But his takedowns and ground control in MMA were at an elite level. He won all his fights by securing and holding dominant positions and overwhelming the best welterweights outside of the UFC.
Askren also has a very decorated wrestling career and participated in the 2008 Olympics after graduating as one of the most dominant NCAA champions.
Jon Jones is widely regarded as the greatest MMA fighter of all time, with only his questionable off-the-ring reputation and problems marring his record. In the cage, though, Jones is impeccable.
His wrestling was an essential element of his game, making him the youngest UFC champion. One of the most well-rounded athletes in the sport, “Bones,” can always decide where the fight is fought and fight where his opponent is lacking.
He sits second in the all-time takedown defense category with 95% and has spent just 41 seconds in the bottom position. His offensive wrestling is not less impressive, though, and has proven to be deadly both in the clinch and on top.
Henry Cejudo is the only Olympic and UFC champion in history. Not only that, but he captured the belts in two UFC divisions. This earned him the nickname “Triple C.” Cejudo, who won Olympic gold in 2008, wanted to compete for another medal in 2012 but did not make the USA team.
He decided to enter MMA in 2013, and just 5 years later, he dethroned Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title. He defeated Marlon Moraes for the bantamweight title a year later, becoming the fourth man to hold two titles simultaneously.
Cejudo did not rely on his elite wrestling skills as much as other fighters on this list. Still, the danger of the takedown and his excellent takedown defense allowed him to dictate the place and pace of his fights.
Mark Coleman may not have the statistics of the other wrestlers on this list. Still, he was the man who pioneered the style that would produce many UFC champions and is often referred to as the “Father of Ground and Pound,” both as a style and a term.
Coleman became the first UFC champion after he defeated Dan Severn at UFC 12. He then went on to win the 2000 Pride Grand Prix in dominating fashion, demolishing 3 men in one night.
As one of the first Olympic-level wrestlers to come to MMA, his opponents were often unprepared for the power and skills he had. He brutalized them when he took them to the ground. For most of his early UFC fights, headbutts were still legal, and Coleman made good use of them.
Matt Hughes represented the evolution of fighters in his era and was bigger, stronger, and had more endurance than anyone else. Which led to two UFC welterweight title runs. He was the consensus best welterweight on the planet between 2001 and 2006 before he passed the torch to GSP.
Matt was a takedown machine, with 47 successful ones in the cage and nearly 2 hours of top-control time. He was as dominant on the ground as anyone and is a prime example of the success wrestling has had in MMA.
Daniel Cormier is another double champion in the UFC with a wrestling background. Before fighting in MMA, DC was a decorated collegiate wrestler with numerous medals from U.S. National Championships, Pan American Championships, and NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
Cormier had a flawless run as a heavyweight in Strikeforce and then captured the UFC light heavyweight title without his nemesis, Jon Jones. He then returned to heavyweight and won the title there as well.
Most of his best work came in the clinch, where he landed more than 250 strikes, including the legendary punch that knocked out Stipe Miocic and made Cormier a double champion. DC has always relied heavily on his wrestling and will go down as one of the best MMA wrestlers of all time.
No other man has done more to glorify Greco-Roman wrestling in MMA than Randy Couture. The Natural still holds many UFC records, including being the first man to hold belts in two weight divisions (light-heavyweight and heavyweight in his case) and having fought in 16 title fights.
Randy is also an inspiration for older fighters, having become the oldest fighter to become a UFC champion and the oldest fighter to win a UFC bout at 47.
Randy was known for his top control and especially his clinch control game. He used a perfect combination of Greco-Roman skills and dirty boxing to overwhelm the opposition alongside the cage.
With an hour and 27 minutes of top control time on the ground, he did not make this time easy for opponents. Couture was very active and reigned down fire constantly, finishing 10 fights on the ground.
There is something special about welterweights and wrestling. 4 out of the 10 fighters on this list have competed at 170 lbs. The latest great is Kamaru Usman. The Nigerian Nightmare was the welterweight champion and looked unbeatable up until very recently.
Usman entered the UFC as an NCAA Division II wrestler and relied on his skills extensively early in his career. As Usman improved in the striking department, his defensive wrestling became a very strong point.
Until his latest fight, where he got taken down once, he had a 100% takedown defense.
Usman sets a relentless pace and keeps it throughout the fight, using his wrestling both standing and on the ground to dominate. A further testament to his grappling skills is that he took down Tyron Woodley.
Who had a 94% takedown defense at the time, at will, and stuffed every single takedown attempt from Colby Covington, who is also considered one of the top wrestlers in the division. Considering Usman is still active, he may end up at the top of this list in time.
Khabib Nurmagomedov brought a unique mix of wrestling, judo, and sambo to the cage, making him unbeatable and a nightmare to fight against.
One of the few champions to retire undefeated, the Dagestani hung up the gloves as the UFC’s lightweight champion with a record of 29-0 after three straight title defenses.
Khabib is perhaps the best offensive wrestler in the sport, averaging over five takedowns per 15 minutes of fighting. He even holds the record for most takedowns in a single fight with 21 against Abel Trujillo.
The agony does end when the fight gets on the ground, though. Nurmagomedov is a mauler and abuses his opponents tirelessly. His finishes have come on the ground, either by TKO or submission.
Khabib’s legacy in the UFC is unique, and he is one of the best grapplers to implement his ground skills into MMA.
The best MMA wrestler does not have a wrestling background, and his name is Georges St. Pierre. Despite never competing in wrestling, let alone winning medals, GSP has the most successful takedowns in the UFC with 90 and 462 significant ground strikes.
The impressive numbers don’t end there. GSP also has the longest top control time with 2:22:05 of dominance.
George St. Pierre is widely considered the best welterweight of all time. While he has a very well-rounded skillset, much of his success came from his wrestling, which only improved as his career progressed.
His statistics, accomplishments, and level of opposition deservedly place him as the best MMA wrestler of all time, despite not having a grappling background before his MMA career.
MMA has seen more excellent wrestlers than the ones on this list. Many others also deserve to be mentioned, many of whom were decorated in one of the oldest sports before entering MMA. But when we narrow it down to just 10 and pick those that used their wrestling to the best effect, few can argue that the fighters on this list are the most deserving.