Randy Couture made his UFC debut on Could 30, 1997, at UFC 13. UFC held the cardboard in entrance of simply greater than 5,000 individuals in Augusta, Georgia. There was no regulation for the occasion; the foundations modified from card to card to accommodate native combating commissions or keep away from political scorn.
It was a stark distinction to at the moment’s UFC, a glitzy, multibillion-dollar sports activities promotion that runs large occasions worldwide, airs on ESPN and is broadcast to hundreds of thousands of properties through tv and pay-per-view.
“I do not assume anyone in these stands knew who was on the cardboard,” Couture stated of his debut. “They simply needed to see fights. It was the tractor-pull crowd. It was a little bit bit completely different. There have been extra fights within the stands at UFC 13 than there have been within the cage. It was a completely completely different ambiance.”
Couture, a multitime UFC heavyweight and light-weight heavyweight champion and UFC Corridor of Famer, stated the UFC didn’t seem to be a sport again then. Now, it is a main league, world sports activities property that has risen in recognition — and professionalism — over the previous three many years. The early UFC playing cards have been form of an experiment. Most fighters have been specialists in only one martial arts self-discipline, and all the concept behind the UFC on the time was to determine which self-discipline was strongest. What everybody realized, Couture stated, was that realizing only one martial artwork was not sufficient in a sport that had been dubbed combined martial arts.
“I got here in on the cusp of the tip of that first technology of combined martial artists that have been out to show their combating model — no matter their background was — was the most effective combating model,” Couture stated. “I believe what we shortly realized was there was nobody combating model in martial arts that encompassed all the things you wanted to know. And all of us began cross-training.”
Couture, a former Olympic wrestler, was the one fighter to dominate three completely different years: 1997, 2000 and 2003. “The Pure” was the primary UFC fighter to win titles in two weight courses, profitable the heavyweight title thrice and the sunshine heavyweight belt twice.
“Combined martial artists are treating themselves like skilled athletes,” Daniel Cormier stated of at the moment’s stars. “They’re extra well-rounded and extra expert than their predecessors.”
Cormier, additionally a former UFC heavyweight and light-weight heavyweight champion, factors to how fighters are coaching. State-of-the-art services and elevated teaching like American High Staff, Sanford MMA and American Kickboxing Academy set the usual in at the moment’s sport. The UFC Efficiency Institute in Las Vegas “rivals something in sports activities” concerning power, conditioning and MMA coaching. The entry to assets and knowledge has made method for an ongoing evolution of what it takes to be the most effective on the planet.
Prematurely of UFC 276 on Saturday in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV), ESPN gathered a gaggle of consultants to vote and choose the most effective fighter for yearly for the reason that UFC launched in 1993. The evolution of combating types is seen all through the listing — from Royce Gracie’s indomitable jiu-jitsu to Chuck Liddell’s sprawl and brawl to Ronda Rousey’s judo to multifaceted athletes Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson.
Right here is the most effective MMA fighter on the planet for yearly, going again to 1993, when the UFC held its first-ever occasion in Denver. — Marc Raimondi
1993-94: Royce Gracie
The unique dominant power in MMA. Gracie impressed generations to take up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he showcased superbly in profitable the primary two UFC single-night tournaments ever at UFC 1 and UFC 2 — after which profitable once more at UFC 4. At UFC 1 on Nov. 12, 1993, Gracie choked out a boxer in Artwork Jimmerson, a well-muscled submission wrestler in Ken Shamrock and a karate grasp in Gerard Gordeau, firmly establishing Brazilian jiu-jitsu because the strongest martial artwork at the moment.
Gracie, who was routinely the smaller combatant, beat 4 males in a single evening to win UFC 2 in March 1994 and three extra males to win UFC 4 in December 1994. Gracie gained his solely battle at UFC 3 however withdrew due to damage earlier than the semifinals. In 1993 and 1994 mixed, the gi-cloaked Gracie went 11-0, ending each battle. — Raimondi
1995: Ken Shamrock
This was an early-career-defining 12 months for Shamrock. Two years after Gracie’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu caught him off guard at UFC 1, Shamrock fought Gracie to a close to 40-minute attract a rematch — which he seemingly would have gained, had there been MMA scoring on the time. At UFC 6 in July, he submitted former UFC match winner Dan Severn within the first spherical to win the UFC’s Superfight Championship, the primary non-tournament championship ever offered by the promotion.
These two fights have been the linchpins of Shamrock’s 12 months, however he fought eight occasions in 1995. He recorded wins in opposition to Severn and Bas Rutten, and a draw in opposition to one other UFC match winner, Oleg Taktarov. — Brett Okamoto
1996: Mark Coleman
Coleman did not make his MMA debut till July 1996, and by 12 months’s finish, he had fought on solely two nights. But it surely was something however an inactive 12 months. At UFC 10, Coleman competed for 21:17 — in three fights. Again then, the UFC ran one-night tournaments, and on this one evening, “The Hammer” nailed it repeatedly by beating up undefeated UFC 8 champ Don Frye within the remaining. Coleman’s of entirety? Headbutts, which have been authorized on the time. Two months later, Coleman gained UFC 11 with just a few extra maulings. Then, a month into 1997, he turned the primary UFC heavyweight champion.
A 1988 NCAA Division I wrestling champion and 1992 Olympian, Coleman got here to MMA straight out of the ’96 Olympic trials with no stand-up combating expertise in any way. The godfather of ground-and-pound did not want ’em. — Jeff Wagenheim
1997: Randy Couture
‘The Pure’ was 34 years outdated when he made his skilled MMA debut in 1997, and he didn’t take lengthy to make an impression. Couture gained the UFC 13 heavyweight match that first 12 months as a professional, placing him on a quick monitor to title rivalry. At UFC 15, he completed Vitor Belfort through TKO eight minutes in to earn a shot on the UFC heavyweight championship in simply his fourth professional battle.
That battle happened that December in Japan, in opposition to an skilled MMA fighter and kickboxer, Maurice Smith. Smith had gained the title earlier that 12 months by defeating Mark Coleman and defended it with a TKO victory over Tank Abbott. Nonetheless, Couture’s inexperience did not present as soon as the battle began, and he gained the title by majority determination — all throughout the first seven months of his professional profession. — Okamoto
1998: Frank Shamrock
Earlier than the likes of Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones, Frank Shamrock was one of many first multidimensional threats in MMA. He may strike, wrestle and grapple with proficiency. And 1998 was the most effective instance of that. Shamrock fought thrice within the UFC that 12 months, defending his UFC gentle heavyweight title with victories in every one. But it surely was how he did it that was most spectacular.
Shamrock knocked out Igor Zinoviev with a slam in March, submitted Jeremy Horn with a kneebar in Could and completed John Lober with punches in October. The latter matchup headlined the first-ever UFC card in Brazil. — Raimondi
1999: Kevin Randleman
Randleman, a two-time NCAA Division I champion, got here to MMA proper out of wrestling, similar to his mentor and Ohio State coach, Coleman. He did get his toes moist with some regional fights down in Brazil, however when he first set foot within the UFC cage in March 1999, Randleman was thrown proper into the deep finish of the expertise pool.
His debut at UFC 19 was in opposition to former heavyweight champion Smith, who additionally had gained a world title in kickboxing. Randleman gained by determination, and two fights later, he was the UFC heavyweight champ. Randleman died in 2016 of pneumonia at age 44. — Wagenheim
2000: Randy Couture
There have been loads of banner years within the profession of Couture, however the 12 months 2000 is arguably one which will get ignored. After pausing MMA to give attention to his novice wrestling profession, Couture did not make his first MMA look of 2000 till October — however he crammed loads into these remaining three months. He defeated UFC veteran Jeremy Horn and Ryushi Yanagisawa on the identical evening in a match in Japan.
These two victories earned Couture a visit to the match finals in February the next 12 months. Nonetheless, within the meantime, Couture squeezed in a UFC heavyweight title battle in opposition to two-time NCAA wrestling champion Randleman. Couture knocked out Randleman with strikes on the bottom at UFC 28 to win his second UFC heavyweight title. — Okamoto
2001: Tito Ortiz
If you consider dominance in a division, I look again at 2001 because the 12 months of the “Huntington Seaside Unhealthy Boy.” Ortiz’s reign was nothing wanting perfection. The high-paced cardio that allowed him to dictate the narrative of the battle and impose his will along with his wrestling made Ortiz distinctive on the time. The 12 months 2001 began along with his battle in opposition to the well-rounded Evan Tanner. Ortiz made fast work of the veteran with a win through KO slam within the first spherical.
Oritz would return in June of that very same 12 months to face Elvis Sinosic. Completely different opponent, comparable end result as Ortiz used his wrestling to get the battle to the ground the place he completed it through TKO with strikes and elbows. As if that wasn’t sufficient, Ortiz signed on for his third battle of the 12 months, in opposition to Vladimir Matyushenko. On this battle, Tito confirmed the world his relentless cardio and dominance in wrestling that received him the win through unanimous determination. — Ian Parker
2002: Matt Hughes
Hughes turned a UFC champion primarily as an act of revenge. He fought Carlos Newton in November 2001, six months after Newton had dethroned Hughes’ coach and buddy, Pat Miletich. As soon as Hughes knocked out Newton (and knocked out himself, truly) with a slam to the mat to win the welterweight title, he went on to defend the belt 5 occasions in his preliminary reign, then gained again the vacant title in a battle in opposition to an upstart St-Pierre.
Hughes’ 2002 was significantly dominant, with three TKO victories fueled by his unstoppable wrestling. That component of his sport was demoralizing for opponents, as Hughes liked to select them up, carry them to the middle of the cage and slam them violently to the mat. Hughes was an alpha male amongst alphas. — Wagenheim
2003: Randy Couture
Couture’s 2003 was arguably one of the crucial well-known calendar years ever put collectively by a combined martial artist. All indicators pointed to a friends-turned-rivals UFC title battle between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. When Ortiz initially refused to defend his championship in opposition to Liddell, the UFC introduced in Couture as a foe for Liddell. The corporate booked an interim title battle between Liddell and Couture in June, with the seemingly presumption Liddell would win and additional arrange a grudge match in opposition to Ortiz.
The 40-year-old Couture spoiled these plans. He upset Liddell at UFC 43 in Las Vegas after which unified his interim gentle heavyweight title by defeating Ortiz in a five-round determination in September. In doing so, he turned the primary fighter to win UFC titles in a number of weight courses. — Okamoto
2004: BJ Penn
It was a wild 12 months in 2004 for Penn. “The Prodigy” signed with Japan’s Ok-1 promotion whereas nonetheless being the UFC welterweight champion as a result of he thought the UFC did not have sufficient competitors for him then. Throughout this era, there was as a lot expertise competing in MMA over in Japan as there was stateside.
In January, Penn stopped Hughes, then thought of the most effective welterweight ever, through first-round submission to win the UFC’s 170-pound title. When Penn signed with Ok-1, the UFC stripped him of the belt. Penn went on to complete Duane Ludwig through first-round submission in Could after which moved as much as 185 kilos for a win in opposition to Rodrigo Gracie in Penn’s beloved dwelling state of Hawaii that November. — Raimondi
2005-06: Chuck Liddell
The mohawk and Fu Manchu made for a fearsome look, and Liddell lived as much as it each time he set foot within the Octagon.
He started his 2005 with an April knockout of rugged Couture to grow to be UFC gentle heavyweight champion. And by the tip of ’06, “The Iceman,” with flames on his shorts, had recorded 4 extra knockouts. The final of these was in opposition to heated rival Ortiz at UFC 66, the promotion’s largest pay-per-view up to now. It attracted practically 1,000,000 prospects and made Liddell a star transcending the cage. He appeared in movies and TV reveals that wanted to fill a troublesome man position as a result of Liddell appeared — and earned — the half. — Wagenheim
2007: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
After being one of many largest stars in Japan’s Pleasure FC, the charismatic and heavy-handed Jackson returned to the US in 2006 and signed with WFA. The UFC needed “Rampage” within the Octagon a lot that it was one of many causes the promotion purchased out the WFA promotion and the contracts of its fighters.
Jackson made his UFC debut in February 2007, a second-round knockout of Marvin Eastman. That put “Rampage” proper in a UFC gentle heavyweight title battle with Liddell, the UFC’s largest mainstream title, at UFC 71 in Could. Jackson knocked Liddell out within the first spherical to win the belt. In September of that 12 months, “Rampage” beat Dan Henderson through unanimous determination to retain the UFC gentle heavyweight title and unify it with the Pleasure FC middleweight belt. — Raimondi
2008: Anderson Silva
Silva started 2008 by defending each his middleweight title and the UFC itself. His challenger at UFC 82 was Henderson, the reigning champ within the Pleasure Preventing Championship, previously the UFC’s largest rival however now a soon-to-be-defunct group throughout the Zuffa guardian firm. Silva gained the cross-promotion battle by submission, detoured as much as gentle heavyweight for a knockout win, then closed his 12 months again at 185 kilos with one other KO.
It was a part of a 16-fight UFC profitable streak, a report that also stands (though Kamaru Usman is coming after it arduous, only one from a tie). And that does not even account for the copious model factors gathered by “The Spider,” whose elastic motion whereas within the line of fireplace was mesmerizing. — Wagenheim
2009: Lyoto Machida
Within the 12 months 2009, a brand new contender entered the title image. That man was Lyoto Machida. His Karate-based model was a puzzle that could not be solved nd hadn’t been seen within the UFC. Ending off 2008 with a win over Ortiz, Machida was launched to the MMA world in an enormous method and was primed for a profitable profession. His first opponent in 2009 was a really harmful knockout artist in Thiago Silva. To say Machida handed that litmus check is an understatement. He knocked out Silva within the first spherical. Just a few months later, Machida welcomed TUF winner and former LHW champ Rashad Evans. Many thought the wrestling of Evans may neutralize the placing of Machida. However once more, Machida ran via his opponent and completed Evans within the second spherical. In his third and remaining battle of the 12 months, Machida fought Mauricio Shogun Rua and gained by unanimous determination.
The dominance of Machida was one-of-a-kind. Between his karate-based model, counterstriking and talent to be unpredictable, 2009 was the 12 months of “The Dragon.” — Parker
2010: Frankie Edgar
UFC 112 on Apr. 10, 2010, was the promotion’s first journey to the Center East and kickstarted a robust relationship with the federal government of Abu Dhabi. Within the co-main occasion of that card, Edgar shocked Penn, one of many UFC’s largest stars and thought of one of many high pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, through an in depth unanimous determination to win the UFC light-weight title. The flashy Penn was an enormous favourite over Edgar, a workmanlike fighter with basic boxing and wrestling and god-tier toughness.
Many felt the judges’ determination was a poor one. So, the UFC booked the rematch for August that 12 months — and Edgar beat Penn once more through unanimous determination. The second time round, Edgar dominated and did not lose a single spherical. “The Reply” was now not only a sturdy, thrilling fighter — he was top-of-the-line on the planet. — Raimondi
2011: Jon Jones
Jones started 2011 as an understudy however shortly seized the highlight. As he stood contained in the cage instantly following a February victory that continued his rise via the sunshine heavyweight ranks, Jones was informed that his coaching associate, Evans, was injured and needed to pull out of a title problem scheduled for a month later. The UFC was granting Jones the shot. The remaining is historical past — the 23-year-old turned the youngest UFC champion ever.
Earlier than the 12 months was out, Jones had defeated — and completed — two extra former champs. It was shortly changing into obvious that nobody in MMA may cease “Bones” — besides Jones himself. However the continual misdeeds would come later. In 2011, when Jones made information exterior the cage, it was from monitoring down a robber on the road simply hours earlier than he gained his belt. — Wagenheim
2012: Benson Henderson
It often takes two victories to actually dethrone a dominant champion in MMA, and that is what Henderson achieved in 2012. He went up in opposition to arguably the best light-weight of all time (on the time) in Edgar and beat him in back-to-back five-round wars in February and August. Edgar was thought of top-of-the-line pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, however Henderson bested him as soon as by unanimous determination after which by break up determination in a extremely anticipated rematch.
These two wins would have certified for a implausible 12 months on their very own, however the former WEC champion squeezed in one other title protection in December, when he dominated Nate Diaz all through 5 rounds in Seattle. — Okamoto
2013: Chris Weidman
After profitable 5 fights in a row and remaining undefeated in his MMA profession, Chris Weidman was a prospect to look at. Weidman, an all-American wrestler with unbelievable submission expertise, was on his technique to being an issue within the middleweight division. In 2013, Weidman did the unthinkable as he dethroned Anderson Silva after which defended his title in a rematch. Silva, arguably the best MMA fighter of all time, had met his match in Weidman.
Weidman’s wrestling and submission expertise have been feared by many, as two extra title defenses in opposition to legends Machida and Belfort got here in 2014 and 2015. That four-year run from 2011 to ’15 places Weidman’s title close to the highest of the all-time nice middleweights listing. — Parker
2014: Ronda Rousey
A 12 months after primarily introducing ladies’s MMA to the UFC, Rousey opened 2014 with an Olympian showdown, because the 2008 judo bronze medalist confronted 2004 silver-medal-winning wrestler Sara McMann. This one was not aggressive, like practically all of Rousey’s fights throughout her heyday, as Rousey dropped McMann with a knee to the physique simply over a minute in.
5 months later, Rousey wanted simply 16 seconds to knock out Alexis Davis. This stunner started a stretch of three fights during which “Rowdy Ronda” completed opponents in just half a minute. It was as dominant a run as any fighter has produced in MMA historical past. — Wagenheim
2015: Conor McGregor
5 years later, relive the buildup and knockout that helped propel Conor McGregor to superstardom at UFC 194.
This was the “mission achieved” 12 months of Conor McGregor’s profession. McGregor’s rise to the most important star in MMA historical past was all the time firmly linked to his quest to dethrone the good Jose Aldo, which occurred in a 13-second knockout at UFC 194 in December 2015. That 12 months simply had the feeling of future for McGregor. All the things from his demolition of Dennis Siver in January, after which he confronted Aldo within the stands, to his interim title win in opposition to Chad Mendes in July, to the ultimate exclamation level of defeating Aldo in Las Vegas. It was all magic.
After all, some would say the next 12 months was the most important of McGregor’s profession. In 2016, he fought Nate Diaz twice in two immediate classics earlier than ending it up because the UFC’s first “champ champ” at Madison Sq. Backyard. That was an unbelievable 12 months in MMA historical past, however when you think about McGregor’s profession as an entire, it is arduous to say anybody calendar 12 months was extra memorable than 2015. — Okamoto
2016: Amanda Nunes
Relive the most effective highlights of Amanda Nunes’ profession, which has earned her gold in two weight courses.
Nunes was not solely the most effective fighter on the planet in 2016, she had arguably the best 12 months in ladies’s MMA historical past. In March, the Brazilian slugger beat Valentina Shevchenko through unanimous determination. That was solely Shevchenko’s second UFC battle, however we all know now she’s among the many greatest ladies’s fighters ever. Nunes turned the No. 1 contender for the UFC ladies’s bantamweight title with that victory and, courtesy of a Jones drug check failure, was moved to the primary occasion of UFC 200 in July in opposition to then-champion Miesha Tate.
“Leoa” destroyed Tate, knocking her down and choking her out within the first spherical. After which, to cap the 12 months in December, Nunes obliterated Rousey, the most important star in ladies’s MMA historical past, in 48 seconds through TKO. It does not get significantly better than that. — Raimondi
2017: Demetrious Johnson
“The Mighty Mouse” nickname is a dimension reference, in fact, however the “Mighty” half signified one thing important about Johnson: He might need been within the weight class for the UFC’s smallest combating males, however that was no measure of the battle inside this man. Johnson was quick ahead and nonstop. Again in 2015, Johnson had pulled off a submission at 4:59 of Spherical 5 — one second earlier than the battle would have ended with the judges’ determination prone to go his method. However that wasn’t ok for him. This man’s foot by no means leaves the fuel pedal.
Johnson pulled off one other fifth-round submission in October 2017, and this one was spectacular, as “Mighty Mouse” transitioned from a suplex into an armbar. The win over Ray Borg was Johnson’s eleventh profitable title protection, a UFC report. It was each historic and a factor of magnificence. — Wagenheim
2018: Daniel Cormier
Daniel Cormier is taken into account one of many best UFC heavyweights of all time. Study his journey to stardom right here.
Cormier was already one of the crucial recognizable names on the UFC’s roster by 2018, however this was the 12 months that actually despatched him excessive. It was additionally when he fully distanced himself from an attachment to Jones. Cormier was the sunshine heavyweight champion on the time, and it was a legit title. However bear in mind, he by no means took the belt from Jones, who beat him twice and misplaced the belt throughout that point solely due to points exterior the cage.
Due to that, Cormier’s success was all the time considerably linked to the absence of Jones within the division. That modified in 2018, when he moved as much as heavyweight and knocked out arguably the best heavyweight of all time in Stipe Miocic to assert a second championship. That was one factor Jones had by no means completed, and it separated Cormier’s legacy in a method he most likely by no means would have been in a position to at gentle heavyweight. Cormier went 3-0 in 2018, together with title defenses in Boston and New York. — Okamoto
2019: Israel Adesanya
Israel Adesanya’s gorgeous rise to middleweight champion of the world was accomplished in 2019 in opposition to Robert Whittaker in entrance of a UFC-record 56,214 screaming followers at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. Adesanya had earlier within the 12 months defeated his idol, Silva, at UFC 234 in February. Then, he gained the interim title in a bruising five-round encounter with Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236 in April whereas the champion, Whittaker, was on the mend on account of damage.
Adesanya’s second-round knockout of Whittaker at UFC 243 marked his arrival as top-of-the-line pound-for-pound fighters within the sport, a place he retains at the moment. From the prefight dance routine, the dual floorings of Whittaker after which his postfight celebration, it was clear the UFC had discovered its subsequent massive star. — Sam Bruce
2020: Deiveson Figueiredo
In 2020, whenever you consider dominance, one title involves thoughts. That title is Deiveson Figueiredo. This was a fighter who had developed right into a championship contender as his pace, energy and submission capacity had come into full bloom. Sure, he weighed 125 kilos, however he fought and walked round like he was the world’s heavyweight champion.
He began his 12 months with a TKO win over Joseph Benavidez for the flyweight title in February, however a rematch would happen later within the 12 months on account of Figueiredo’s lacking weight as he could not declare the belt. In July, Figueiredo made weight and completed Benavidez, this time by submission. The newly topped champ returned to the cage in opposition to Alex Perez, and Figueiredo made him faucet within the first spherical. In a surprising twist, Figueiredo would put his title on the road simply three weeks later in opposition to Brandon Moreno, with the 2 fighters placing up a battle for the ages. Figueiredo and Moreno’s match led to a draw, however “Figgy Smalls” definitively gained the 12 months. — Parker
2021: Kamaru Usman
Joe Rogan, Jon Anik and Daniel Cormier all have unbelievable reactions to Kamaru Usman’s big-time knockout of Jorge Masvidal.
Coming off a 12 months that was outlined by a pandemic, Usman promised to be energetic in 2021. And he definitely lived as much as that promise. He defended the UFC welterweight championship thrice in 2021, and every protection got here with a narrative. He knocked out his former teammate and buddy Gilbert Burns in February. He demolished a celebrity in Jorge Masvidal in a rematch of a lackluster battle from 2020. And he capped off the 12 months by defeating his most heated rival in Colby Covington, contained in the historic confines of Madison Sq. Backyard.
It isn’t straightforward to defend a UFC championship thrice in a single calendar 12 months in fashionable MMA, however Usman made it look straightforward, in opposition to legit competitors. In doing so, he moved to a near-consensus choose because the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet and nearer to upending the good St-Pierre as the best welterweight of all time. This was not only a career-defining 12 months for Usman. It was a legacy-defining one. — Okamoto