Just like picking the best knockouts of the year can be a thankless and grueling task filled with a lot more strong candidates than slots for them, choosing the top 15 strikers in UFC history is one that will likely result in more debates than in any other category.
The problem is clear: what criteria earns someone a place on this list? Do you include fighters like Mirko Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva who are clearly all-time greats but who did their best work outside the UFC? Do you go strictly by results, or do you also include those who have exciting styles but not the Octagon wins to back it up? And is it power or is it technique that makes someone a member of this exclusive club?
Or, you could just wing it and go with your gut…here’s one man’s picks for the top 15 strikers in UFC history (in alphabetical order).
Speed, power, technique. Jose Aldo has it all, but what may be most notable are the leg kicks that he has used to alter the outcome of fights ever since his days in the WEC, where he most notably battered Urijah Faber for five rounds in 2010. Add in his eight-second finish of Cub Swanson in 2009, and the Brazilian has quite the highlight reel for top-level striking.
Speaking of leg kicks, the current master of those fight-altering blows is Aldo’s Brazilian countryman Edson Barboza, who is the only fighter in UFC history to end two bouts with kicks to the leg. But that’s not all you have to worry about with the Muay Thai destroyer, as his kicks upstairs are responsible for nightmares as well, with his wheel kick knockout of Terry Etim holding a place as one of the best finishes of all-time.
The blazing hands said it all as the teenage Vitor Belfort tore through his opponents in early UFC action, beginning a storied career that continues today. And though it was his boxing attack that made headlines back then, he added kicks to his arsenal in recent years, taking out Michael Bisping, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson in the process.
Known initially for his black belt level jiu-jitsu game, Nick Diaz evolved into a striker as the years went by, and if you want to know how good he is on his feet, check in with an authority on the subject - former super middleweight world champion and pound-for-pound standout Andre Ward. “I've worked (sparred) with Nick and his brother Nate in the past. Both are extremely good boxers, and have a great feel for standup boxing. Nick specifically, is left handed, tough as nails and physically strong. That's why we work with him. I like Nick Diaz in an Octagon against anyone. I also feel he could compete in a boxing ring, if he so chooses.”
Before she even set foot in the Octagon, Holly Holm was likely to earn a place on this list, simply due to her world boxing titles in three weight classes and her rule of the pound-for-pound list for several years. But it was her knockout of Ronda Rousey last November that cemented her among the best strikers the UFC has ever seen, and that knockout was scored with a kick. Imagine what will happen when we see her let her hands go.
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The master of the walk off knockout, former K-1 Grand Prix champion Mark Hunt might have been one and done in the Octagon after a 63-second submission loss to Sean McCorkle in his UFC debut in 2010, but nearly six years later “The Super Samoan” is still here and still knocking people out, with Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Frank Mir his most recent victims. And yes, Hunt is 42 years old, proving that the punch is the last thing to go on a fighter.
A former world Muay Thai champion, UFC women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk is a step above when it comes to striking among the 115-pounders, and she seems to be getting better with each fight. Yet no matter what highlights she delivers from here on out, it will be hard to forget the Poland-native’s championship-winning effort against Carla Esparza in 2015, a standup clinic that was one of the most dominant title fight performances ever seen in the Octagon.
For true stopping power, look no further than Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, a prime example of the adage that knockout artists are born, not made. Why? Most fighters who begin at 170 pounds and are finishing opponents left and right wouldn’t be able to bring that power up 35 pounds to the light heavyweight division. Yet since returning to the UFC as a 205-pounder, “Rumble” has turned the lights out on Rogerio Nogueira, Alexander Gustafsson, Jimi Manuwa and Ryan Bader. That’s power.
Former Strikeforce champion Cung Le only had four fights in the UFC, but when two of them were a devastating knockout of Rich Franklin and an epic throwdown with Wanderlei Silva, that’s worth a spot here, especially since Le’s dynamic and unorthodox striking style made for compelling viewing every time he stepped into the Octagon. And hey, UFC FIGHT PASS has more than enough vintage Le footage from Strikeforce if you need more convincing.
“The Iceman.” No list like this would be complete without the inclusion of the former light heavyweight champion with perhaps the most potent right hand in MMA history. If Liddell caught you flush with his right, it was night-night. And how good was he? From 2004 to 2006, he went 7-0 against some of the best in the game, including Hall of Famers Randy Couture (twice) and Tito Ortiz (twice) and won each of those fights by knockout.
While still young in his UFC career, featherweight champion Conor McGregor hasn’t just compiled a series of impressive knockout victories over the likes of Dustin Poirier, Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo, but he has done so with a unique striking attack that has him proving to be a master of distance, timing, and placement with his punches. It will be fun to see how far he can take his striking in the coming years.
The K-1 World Grand Prix title says it all for Alistair Overeem’s striking credentials, and while he got off to a slow start in the Octagon, since 2014, he’s looked unstoppable, with disciplined performances against Stefan Struve and Roy Nelson followed up by emphatic knockouts of former UFC heavyweight champions Junior Dos Santos and Andrei Arlovski. Miocic vs. Overeem for the title at Madison Square Garden in November anyone?
Junior Dos Santos
If you forgot how good Junior Dos Santos was, his April win over Ben Rothwell likely reminded you that he is one of the sport’s elite strikers, and one of the best to ever do it in the UFC’s heavyweight division. Knockouts of Fabricio Werdum, Cain Velasquez, Mark Hunt and Frank Mir are his calling cards, but you can’t forget his punishing victories over Shane Carwin and newly-crowned heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic, both of which showed that if “Cigano” doesn’t knock you out, he has no problem beating you up for 15 or 25 minutes.
While 41-year-old Anderson Silva has not been in the win column since 2012, if you’re looking at the entire body of work of the iconic former middleweight champion, you will not just see one of the best fighters of all-time, but one of the best strikers. Whether it was his toying with Forrest Griffin before knocking him out, his brutal clinch assault against Rich Franklin, or his front kick to the face of Vitor Belfort, Silva’s arsenal of strikes are second to none, and considering that he did it all on the sport’s biggest stage, it’s just another testament to the greatness of “The Spider.”
Closing in on a shot at the UFC welterweight title, Stephen Thompson has settled in as a well-rounded mixed martial artist, but striking will always be his go-to in the Octagon, and he’s got plenty of tools in that toolbox if necessary. Seemingly a kickboxer since birth, “Wonderboy” may end up as the fighter with the most clips on UFC highlight reels when he retires, as he’s already off to a fast start thanks to his knockouts of Dan Stittgen, Jake Ellenberger and Johny Hendricks.
Honorable Mention – Anthony Pettis, Dominick Cruz, Maurice Smith, Mirko Cro Cop, Pedro Rizzo, Carlos Condit, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler, Frankie Edgar, Shane Carwin, Lyoto Machida