There have been any number of great fighters in the relatively young history of MMA. Many of them have competed in the UFC, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in November 2023.
To commemorate the milestone, many experts took the opportunity to look back at the history of MMA’s most popular promotion company. Among the topics of debate is the best fighter to ever compete in the UFC.
With 30 years’ worth of athletes to choose from, there’s no shortage of names. However, a few consistently stand out. While no single list could ever be definitive, here’s a look (in alphabetical order) at five male UFC fighters who have a legitimate claim at being called the greatest of all time.
“Mighty Mouse” joined the UFC in 2011, winning a unanimous decision over Norifumi Yamamoto in February of that year. The 5-foot-5 fighter got his first UFC title in the fall, but came up short against Dominick Cruz.
Johnson dropped to flyweight when the UFC created the division in 2012, and the move down in weight paid dividends. After becoming the promotion’s inaugural flyweight titleholder in 2011, he ran off a remarkable 11 defenses, tied for the most ever. His reign saw him establish the viability of the division while showcasing unparalleled creativity in the Octagon, with the majority of his wins coming via stoppage.
Despite his skill and success, Johnson never built a much of a fan following while with the UFC. After he suffered a controversial split-decision loss to Henry Cejudo in 2018, the UFC let him go. He’s since gone on to become the flyweight champion in ONE Championship and in May 2023 completed a trilogy with Adriano Morales, over whom he scored a unanimous decision in their third fight.
Failed drug tests, car crashes, arrests, stripped titles—Jon Jones has seen more than his fair share of controversy over his 15 years competing in the UFC. It’s perhaps a testament to his greatness inside the Octagon that, despite his self-inflicted setbacks, he’s still considered one of the very best of all time.
Jones captured the light heavyweight crown in 2011, when he stopped Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the third round. At 23, he became the youngest title holder in UFC history. He hasn’t lost since, racking up 11 consecutive title defenses.
In 2023, “Bones” began another chapter in his career when he moved up to heavyweight to challenge Ciryl Gane. Jones easily felled the champion, winning by submission in the first round. The victory added another remarkable achievement to the 36-year-old’s already-storied UFC legacy.
“The Eagle” compiled a 16-0 record before joining the UFC in 2013. He continued his success with the promotion company, running off nine straight wins before finally getting a title shot in 2018.
Nurmagomedov proved up to the challenge, defeating Al Iaquinto by unanimous decision. He followed the win by dominating Connor McGregor in what is perhaps the signature victory of his career, then successfully defended his title over Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje.
After the pandemic-related issues forced the cancellation of a long-anticipated matchup with Justin Ferguson, the Russian lightweight retired. While most experts place him behind the other fighters on the list, his career record of 29-0 has still earned him a spot among the greatest to ever step into the Octagon.
For some MMA fans—particularly those who are younger—it might be difficult to think of Anderson Silva without recalling his final few years in the sport. After breaking his fibula and tibia at UFC 162 in 2013, he was never the same fighter, winning only one of his final seven contests.
By this point, however, the “Spider” had nothing left to prove. The Brazilian first captured the middleweight title in 2006, then went on to spend 2,457 days as champion. It is the still the longest UFC title reign ever. During Silva’s peak from 2006 to 2013, he did seemingly whatever he wanted in the Octagon, running through his opponents with an ahead-of-its-time striking style that no one in the sport seemed able to get around.
Spider even moved up to light heavyweight during his title reign, where he went 3-0, with each win coming by knockout. He was the best fighter in the world in his prime, and he continues to rank among the best ever today.
Georges St-Pierre’s accomplishments at welterweight made him the greatest in the history of the division. He won the welterweight belt twice and ran off nine successful defenses, many of which came against extremely high-level contenders.
Over his time in the UFC, St-Pierre became known for outclassing his opponents at their own strengths. He lost only twice, to Matt Serra and to fellow all-time great Matt Hughes, but avenged each defeat with emphatic rematch wins. He retired at the top of his game in 2013, still holding his welterweight title.
In 2017, St-Pierre made a comeback when he challenged Michael Bisping for the UFC middleweight championship. Despite not having fought for four years, St-Pierre won, submitting his opponent in the third round. He then retired again, having once again exited the sport on top.