A run down of the very best grapplers who are currently active in competition around the globe today. You will be surprised by the number 1 selection!
MMA history is entwined with the stories of many of the best grapplers of all time. The very foundations of the early years of the UFC, the promotion most synonymous with MMA, were built on the BJJ skills of Royce Gracie. The promotion has seen former Olympic medallists in Wrestling and Judo enter it famous octagon with grapplers from these disciplines also finding success fighting for other promotions too.
In recent years the skills of Khabib Nurmagomedov (a fighter who will definitely be on this list) has demonstrated to the world how Sambo, Judo and Wrestling can be combined to create a dominant grappling style. Using the grappling skills he developed Khabiv defeated one of the best strikers MMA has ever seen in Connor McGreggor.
Outside of this you will find fighters who have grappled in some lesser known styles but at present Wrestling, BJJ, Judo and Sambo are the big four of MMA.
In the modern era of MMA competition its vital that any grappler who stepping into the cage has refined their striking game. Whilst there are a few fighters who are very one dimensional still active it’s very difficult to find continued success without being well rounded.
When compiling this list, we have focused on fighters who have grappling backgrounds rather than fighters who rely purely on their grappling skills. This is about the top grapplers in MMA and not necessarily a list of the best grapplers who are also MMA fighters.
All fighters on this list will be currently active or at least not formally retired at the time of compiling. Events move fast and sports stars seem to be retiring and returning at a rate like never before, so expect this to be out of date about a day after its posted!
Settling on an initial cut of fighters for this list was challenging however each fighter has been hand picked for the outstanding achievements, championship winning performances, setting new records or raising the bar in MMA. We will endeavour to expand and update this list in the future.
#6 Demian Maia
In comparison to the gold medals available to those who compete in Wrestling and Judo the identification of the very best BJJ fighters can be a little harder to pin down. One event that has allowed BJJ grapplers to display their skills at the highest level is the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC).
At this elite level of competition Maia has twice finished in a medal winning position. Initially claiming silver in the ADCC World Championships in 2005 he went on to better this by claiming gold two years later. In between these success Maia became a Pan-American BJJ Champion in 2006.
Maia has a plethora of other less prestigious grappling titles to his name but more importantly he holds a 4th Dan Blackbelt in BJJ.
The wrong side of 40 and having failed to secure a title in the middleweight division and most recently the welterweight division despite challenging in each, on paper Maia might seem like a fighter who’s ready for retirement. Despite this he fights on at the highest level.
Sitting in 3rd place in the UFC all time submissions rankings Maia has built a long career around dominating opponents on the canvas. In his younger years Maia practiced Karate and Kung Fu before turning to BJJ, however he has just tree stoppage wins on his record by TKO two of which occurred in bizarre circumstances and the other coming in his first pro contest.
Watching Maia fight is like watching a throw back to a different era, he is incredibly reliant on securing the takedown and offers very little on the feet. In comparison to modern grapplers such a Brian Ortega who can throw hands as well as dominate on the ground Maia seems like a relic.
In spite of all of this Maia has been able to consistently perform at the highest level and stepped into the cage with the very best of his generation at middleweight and welterweight. Maia has shown that even though MMA has evolved a strong BJJ base when properly utilised can be as effective as it was in the early years of the UFC for Royce Gracie.
In his MMA career Maia has put together two impressive winning streaks. He was able to claim victory in his first 5 fights for the UFC promotion receiving 4 submission of the night bonuses along the way. His second winning run cumulated with a title fight with Tyron Woodley where Maia came up short.
Outside of the cage Maia had done little to cause controversy. The only lowlight of his career being has failure to win a title in either of his shots at a UFC Championship.
Maia has led the way in MMA for grapplers and BJJ fighters and has continued to do this into the latter part of his career. Although ultimately coming up short in his title shots Maia has fought some of the best Middleweights & Welterweights and proved that a BJJ base can still hang with the best in the modern era.
#5 Ben Askren
Ben Askren has a rock-solid grappling base, starting out as a folk-style Wrestler he transitioned over to Freestyle during his time at college. Twice losing in the NCAA championship match he came back to take the title in consecutive years in 2006 and 2007.
In 2006 and 2007 he also claimed the Dan Hodge Trophy awarded by Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine (W.I.N Magazine) to the most outstanding college Wrestler of the year. This was the highest accolade amongst many that Askren would claim during his two most successful years of Collegiate Wrestling.
In 2008 became the US National Champion and represented the US at the Olympic Games. However, he was too come up short in Beijing losing in the round of 8 and failing to progress. Askren was able to find further success in 2009 at the FILA Grappling World Championships when he took home the gold medal in the hybrid combat grappling non-striking event (it sounds confusing and disbanded in 2013!).
Shortly after returning from the Olympics Askren set his sights on a move into MMA joining the standout academy at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida. Fighting three times in 2009 he got the call to join the Welterweight Division in Bellator the following year.
By the end of 2010 Askren had won the Season Two Welterweight Tournament Final and gone on to defeat the incumbent Champion Lyman Good. He would defend the title on four separate occasions utilising his ability to control opponents on the ground with his Wrestling and deliver vicious ground and pound strikes.
Askren eventually vacated the title at Bellator and left to join ONE Championship where he would again go on to claim the Welterweight Championship in just his second fight with the promotion. A title he would again defend on four occasions claiming victories by submission and TKO whilst demonstrating his dominance on the ground.
In his time at ONE Championship Askren has not faced the same level of competition had he chosen to remain at Bellator or moved over to the UFC. Whilst he has defeated the challengers in front of him, they have been of a lesser calibre than others on this list have been facing.
This situation should be soon rectified as Askren will have the opportunity to display his skills in the UFC having been transferred over to the promotion in a deal that saw former Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson move in the other direction.
Former Welterweight Champion in two promotions with an undefeated record, wins coming by way of submission KO and decision in almost equal measure. It’s hard trying to pick one standout moment, but that’s why he’s so highly rated as a martial artist.
The only stain on Askren’s perfect record came by way of an eye poke and subsequent no contest which whilst disappointing is unfortunately part of the game. What makes this worse is the fact Askren was being pushed by his opponent and coming off second best in many of the exchanges. Unfortunately, a rematch was never made. Fight below.
Whilst never quite reaching his potential as a grappler Askren has won titles in two different promotions and defending those belts on numerous occasions.
He never fought in the premier promotion the UFC, not that I want to bang that drum too much, but it is the MMA promotion with the majority of the top fighters in the world. All fans would love to see all the best fighters facing each other in their prime without the politics and complexity but at the end of the day the fight game is business and I’m sure Askren has done the right thing by looking after his.
It just leaves a lingering doubt about Askren’s real abilities.
#4 Charles Oliveira
Oliveira grappling credentials are lighter than you would expect to find from a man who has won half of his pro MMA fights by submission. Whilst he does hold a blackbelt in BJJ Oliveira has very little else to his name in terms of titles and championships. In his teens Oliveira was an active competitor on the regional BJJ circuit in Brazil but since turning his focus to MMA he has not collected any noteworthy grappling only victories.
That’s not to say gaining a blackbelt in BJJ is not an impressive feat but there’s nothing about Oliveira’s grappling background that would mark him out as the man to secure the most submission finishes in UFC history. At 29 years of age you would expect Oliveira to widen the gap between himself and his nearest active rivals.
Obviously, its Oliveira’s excellent submission success that ensures he makes this list, you can’t consider the best grapplers in MMA and leave out the fighter with the most submission victories in the foremost promotion in MMA.
Starting out back in 2008 Oliveira was able to finish his first pro fight via RNC in what would become the first in a long list of submission victories. Reviewing his submission record it is striking the variety of finishes Oliveira has applied. Everything from classic MMA submissions such as Arm Bars and RNC’s are accompanied by complex and technical submissions such as an inverted triangle armbar in his early years and reverse calf slicer against Eric Wisely in the UFC.
When it comes to finishing fights on the ground Oliveira is the undisputed king of the submission. Whilst it’s not uncommon to find strikers with a high percentage of KO wins on their resume even the top grapplers find it difficult to consistently secure victory via tap out. If this was a list of the best submission artists of all time you would be a fool not to include Oliveira in that debate. The only blemish on his MMA grappling record being 3 submission losses of his own.
As an MMA competitor Oliveira has yet to reach his full potential and in an era where grapplers have been dominant, he could yet find himself fighting for a title in the future. If he is to achieve this goal, he may need to work a bit harder on not getting finished with 7 of his 8 defeats coming inside the distance.
With plenty of time ahead of him we could see Oliveira retire as one of the all-time great grapplers in MMA but on the other hand a few more swift losses and he could become the anomaly who stretches the record for most submission wins in the UFC without ever reaching the top echelons of the sport.
Oliveira has stepped in the cage with some of the biggest names in MMA during the prime taking on Donald Cerrone in 2011, Frankie Edgar in 2013 and Max Holloway in 2015, however he walked away from each of these bouts defeated.
At the time of writing Oliveira is riding a winning streak the first time since 2015 he has been able to consistently put together wins. But the highlight of his career must be becoming the all-time submission wins leader in the UFC.
Coming up short in each of his opportunities to defeat a ‘big name’ has become a defining characteristic of Oliveira’s career. It will certainly be one that he wishes to eradicate in the near future should the opportunity come.
For Oliveira to be ranked here it’s all about the submission finishes. Ending half his fights by making his opponent tap and leading the UFC in all time submissions he has a great submission pedigree.
Still yet to put it all together and climb the ranks there’s something uniquely satisfying watching a fighter who has a wealth of submission attacks and finishes.
#3 Henry Cejudo
If Henry Cejudo had retired from wrestling and never stepped inside a cage, he would have left behind an impressive sporting legacy. A freestyle wrestler Cejudo claimed three gold medals at the Pan American Championships (2006-08), Gold at the Pan American Games (2007), Bronze at the Wrestling World Cup and the crowning glory or his wresting career gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As a wrestler Cejudo enjoyed a first-rate career.
Beginning his pro MMA career in 2013 Cejudo racked up 5 fights in his first year and in his 7th bout took place under the UFC promotion. After several steady victories Cejudo fought Demetrius Johnson for the Flyweight title losing by TKO. This proved to be the first of back to back defeats for Cejudo as he lost in the Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions Finale to Joseph Benavidez.
After returning with two victories Cejudo became the guy who beat “the guy” in 2018 when he defeated Mighty Mouse Demetrius Johnson by split decision. During this standout performance Cejudo utilised his wrestling and his stand up to dethrone the most dominant champion in UFC history.
What happened in January 2019 served only to propel him further up the UFC rankings after he defeated a man considered to be one of the best fighters currently active in any promotion. His KO victory over TJ Dillashaw was a truly awesome feat.
Beating the man who dominated the Flyweight division and avenging his TKO loss two years prior must be considered the finest moment in Cejudo’s MMA career. Beating TJ was special, but Might Mouse had almost brought the Flyweight division in the UFC to a close with his dominance.
Losing a split decision to Joseph Benavidez after being deducted a point in the first round for repeated low blows probably hurt a lot more than the title challenge against Demetrius Johnson. It’s not a reason any fighter wants to walk away without their hand being raised.
Maybe it’s been over egged a little to put Cejudo at number three on this list but his performances against both Johnson and Dillashaw were phenomenal. Taking on two of the hottest MMA fighters both ranked in the top 10 in the UFC pound for pound rankings and coming out on top is quite the feat.
Add this to an Olympic Gold medal (I know I shouldn’t count it) and you have a truly elite athlete. Watch him competing below at the Pan Am Finals.
#2 Khabib Nurmagomedov
Its official and it has been for a long time Khabib is a beast. When you consider the level of opponents the other fighters on this this grappled with, Olympic champions, regional and national champions, none of them have grappled with a bear. A real life bear! And he did this as a child.
Outside of grappling with one of the most dangerous predators on the planet Khabib has been exposed to a variety of styles including wrestling, Judo and Sambo. Its is the latter that Khabib is most commonly associated, often citing Sambo as helping him to victory after his fights.
Khabib has mastered Combat Sambo to a high level having won gold in at the World Championships in 2009 and 2010.
The great variety of grppling skills Khabib has been able to master have allowed him to become one of the most dominant ground fighters of his generation, capable of finishing a fight with ground and pound or via submission.
Currently undefeated and sitting atop the UFC Lightweight division Khabib has enjoyed great success as a fighter since turning pro in 2008. Initially fighting in Russia and eastern Europe he amassed a record of 17-0 before getting the call to join the UFC.
In 2014 he defeated Rafael dos Anjos in his last fight before a series of injuries would keep him out of the Octagon for almost two years. In that time RDA would go on to claim the Lightweight title.
After his layoff Khabib’s first significant fight was a victory over Edson Barboza which set up a super-fight showdown with Tony Ferguson. Unfortunately, Ferguson pulled out of the bout which became the latest in a failed string of attempts to match the two fighters.
The event went ahead with Al Iaquinta stepping in late to replace Ferguson and the fight largely kept to the script with Khabib ending the night as the new UFC Lightweight Champion, although dominating the fight he was unable to finish Al Iaquinta and claimed another decision victory.
Khabib’s opportunity to star in a super-fight finally came together in October 2018 when he defeated fierce rival and former two weight UFC Champion Connor Mcgregor. The fight marked Khabib’s 11th consecutive win in the UFC and 27th successive win of his career.
Although proud of his Sambo back ground and double gold medal winning performances the highlight of Khabib’s career is defeating Connor McGregor in his first title defence at Lightweight.
Not only the most lucrative fight of his career the bout against McGregor was Khabib’s chance to prove himself a worthy champion after winning a vacant title in a fight against a lower-class opponent (no disrespect intended to Al Iaquinta).
Add into this the toxic atmosphere that surrounded this fight. Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s camps were practically at war with events coming to a head with that infamous McGregor rampage, victory at UFC 229 must have tasted a little sweeter for Khabib.
Neither of Khabib’s two major low points are the result of defeat in the Octagon. The first happened moments after defeating Connor, jumping the cage to physically confront McGregor’s corner and in particular Dillon Danis wasn’t a scene anyone wanted to witness. As a result of the fracas Khabib was handed a 9-month suspension.
The other major low in Khabib’s career is the failed weight cut prior to his scheduled fight at UFC 209 against Tony Ferguson. Falling ill during his weight cut and ending up in hospital meant the fight was cancelled and Khabib and his team were roundly criticised for failing to properly manage his weight cut.
Khabib has in many ways redefined what it means to be a dominant grappler in the modern era. Combining a number of different styles to create a system no fighter has yet been able to find the answer too.
Competing at the highest level and maintaining a perfect record on the way to claiming the title in the UFC Lightweight division makes him one of the most exciting fighters of his era. He dominants with a brutality to his ground and pound that makes him an exciting fighter to watch even for the casual fan.
He sure to be around for a long time to come and who would be against him going on to claim a second title in another division.
#1 Daniel Cormier
Whilst not managing to reach the heights of some of the other contenders on this list Daniel Cormier was an accomplished grappler when he moved over to professional MMA in 2009.
Cormier was twice selected to the US Olympic Freestyle Wrestling team with his best result being a 4th place finish at the 2004 games in Athens. Despite coming up short in the Olympics Cormier did claim a bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships held in Baku, the highlight of a career that also included gold medal performances at the Pan American Games and the Pan American Championships.
On a national level Cormier dominated winning every Senior US National Championship between 2003 and 2008.
Cormier turned pro in 2009 initially fighting at Heavyweight he won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix final in 2012 with a decision victory over Josh Barnett. By 2014 Cormier had signed with the UFC and after several notable wins moved down to Light heavyweight.
After suffering the only loss of his career in 2015 (officially the other one doesn’t count on his record!) in a title fight against Jon Jones, Cormier was able to secure the title by defeating Anthony Johnson in his very next fight. Cormier was able to neutralise his heavy-handed opponent and finish him on the canvas via RNC a feat he was able to repeat a round earlier two years later.
After several defences of his title Cormier lost again to Jon Jones in 2017 in a bout that was eventually expunged from his record after Jones returned a positive drug test. With Jones proving a bridge to far for Cormier once again even if it was added by PED’s after defending the Light-heavyweight once more he moved back up to Heavyweight.
In 2018 Cormier became a two weight UFC Champion when he KO’d Stipe Miocic in the first round. Later the same year he successfully defended the title against Derrek Lewis overcoming another heavy-hitter via RNC.
Stepping up to Heavyweight and claiming the title to become a two division UFC Champion and thus cementing his places as one of the best fighters of the modern era and rising to the top of the UFC as the pound for pound number 1 fighter. Pretty big highlight!
With only one loss on his record it would be easy to identify this as the lowest point of Cormier’s MMA career however getting KO’d by Jones only to find his opponent had tested positive must have been tough to take. Being the ultimate competitor Cormier would surely like the opportunity to avenge his only defeat on a level playing field.
Like many wrestlers who have transitioned into MMA Cormier has had to learn to solve problems on his feet as well as on the mat. His ability to dominate on the ground opens opportunities on the feet and this is part of the reason he has amassed 10 KO victories in his MMA career.
Far from moving from his wrestling back ground Cormier has been able to utilise this finishing heavy handed opponents Anthony Johnson and Derrick Lewis on the ground. In total Cormier has amassed 5 submission victories all by RNC.