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  1. UFC

UFC: Top 10 UFC champions

As part of our Top 10 series, we’re looking at the Top 10 UFC champions.

Regarding eligibility, we’ve excluded active fighters, meaning the likes of Demetrious Johnson and Amanda Nunes are omitted.

Let’s get started.

10 – Tito Ortiz

After the inaugural champion Frank Shamrock hung up the gloves, Tito Ortiz stepped into the void. Ortiz lost to Shamrock, despite controlling much of the fight, and it would prove to be his final defeats in the Octagon for four years.

To this day, only seven men have made five consecutive UFC title defences, and Ortiz was the first. The Huntington Beach Bad Boy made his name as a captivating talker and an even better grappler. A champion for more than three years, Ortiz won six straight title fights, even securing a KO win with a slam against Evan Tanner.

But for his inability to conquer his biggest rival in Chuck Liddell (at their respective peaks, at least), he could have been ranked significantly higher.

9 – Henry Cejudo

Olympic gold medallist Henry Cejudo built up a 10-0 MMA record, earning a title shot against the unstoppable Demetrious Johnson. The fight would come a couple of years too soon for Cejudo, who was stopped in the first round.

Cejudo would lose a tight split decision to Joseph Benevidez in his next fight, but would win every fight from there until retirement.

A win over Sergio Pettis, and a lack of viable opponents for Johnson brought about a rematch for the title, which Cejudo would capture, ending DJ’s 14-fight unbeaten streak. The numerous records set by Johnson would be stopped by Cejudo. As the pound-for-pound great left the UFC, Cejudo would take on two-time bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw.

After TKOing Dillashaw in 30 seconds, Cejudo eyed UFC history, in moving up to bantamweight, where wins against Marlon Moraes and Dominick Cruz saw him become the second fighter in UFC history to defend titles in two different weight classes.

Although Cejudo did leave us wanting more, winning and defending titles at two different weights in your final four fights – against such stellar opposition – would create a lasting legacy.

8 – Chuck Liddell

Chuck Liddell was never quite as talkative as champion Tito Ortiz, but as the Ice Man rose through the UFC ranks, his training partner and friend (though that relationship was disputed by Liddell) was firmly in his sights.

A supreme striker, Liddell was adamant Ortiz was scared of him. Having won 10 straight fights, Liddell was next in line for a title shot.

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Ortiz refused the fight, but that was no matter to Liddell, who’d face Randy Couture for the interim light heavyweight title.

Liddell came up short on that occasion, but on the comeback trail, he’d not only beat Ortiz, he’d beat Couture in the rematch to take his title, beat him again in the trilogy fight, and beat Ortiz again to end their rivalry.

With a total of four defences of the UFC light heavyweight title, Liddell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.

7 – Randy Couture

While MMA fans were desperate to see the rivalry between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell reach the Octagon, Randy Couture was coming off the back of consecutive UFC title fight defeats in the heavyweight division.

A year earlier he’d become the first man to defend the UFC heavyweight title twice, having already become the first two-time UFC heavyweight champion.

As Ortiz refused the fight with his rival, Couture stepped down a weight to take on Liddell instead, who he’d beat to become the UFC’s first two-weight champion.

Three months later, he beat Ortiz, to wipe out the top two guys in the division, and despite losing the belt to Vitor Belfort in his next fight, he’d win it straight back in the rematch.

In the twilight of a remarkable career, Couture went back up to heavyweight to beat Tim Sylvia for the title, which he’d defend once more, capping off a remarkable career in the UFC.

His three heavyweight title defences would not be bettered until 2020, when Stipe Miocic beat Daniel Cormier.

6 – Ronda Rousey

The original female GOAT, Ronda Rousey. While the likes of Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano were perhaps the original pioneers of female MMA, it was Rousey who put it on the map.

Demolishing all six of her opponents in the first round – five in the first minute – Rousey made Dana White renege on his promise that women would never fight in the UFC.

‘Rowdy’ would win her first six fights in the UFC, four more in the first round. In the words of Mike Goldberg after her KO win over Bethe Correia, they hadn’t found a close second. Rousey was arguably the most dominant fighter the sport had ever seen at this point.

Arguments can be made about the quality of her opposition and the back-to-back losses to Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes as she retired from MMA, but at her peak, there is no doubting her greatness and what she did for not just women's MMA, but MMA as a whole.

5 – Matt Hughes

A UFC Hall of Famer, Matt Hughes was arguably the fighter of his generation. He set a then-record of five consecutive title defences in the welterweight division, and would become the first non-heavyweight to be the pound-for-pound #1.

He’d first win the title in the most extraordinary fashion, seemingly unconscious while holding Carlos Newton in the air, causing him to drop Newton to the mat and knock his opponent out, claiming the title.

Upon making the permanent switch to the UFC with a record of 29-3, Hughes would not just capture the welterweight title, but go on to clear out the division with five straight defences before a shock defeat to BJ Penn.

Hughes put another six-fight win streak together in the UFC, and with Penn’s vacation of the title, Hughes defeated Georges St-Pierre to reclaim the title, and avenged his defeat to Penn two years later.

4 – Daniel Cormier

But for his peak overlapping that of arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, you can’t help but think Daniel Cormier would have received higher acclaim.

Going into his first fight with Jon Jones, Cormier had a perfect 15-0 record, but ultimately ran into the man that would dog him throughout his career, and gave him his first loss in MMA.

Due to outside issues with Jones, Cormier would capture the interim, and then regular light-heavyweight title, but his white whale would be out there, waiting. Cormier would lose again to Jones, though that result would be overturned and made a no contest.

DC would reclaim the light heavyweight title once more before stepping up to heavyweight, where he’d beat one of the greatest heavyweights in UFC history in Stipe Miocic to become a two-weight world champion.

Cormier was the fifth man to become a two-weight UFC champion, but would be the first to defend titles at two weights, and was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in May 2022.

3 – Georges St-Pierre

One of the greatest fighters of all time, few have looked as unbeatable at their prime as Georges St-Pierre, and it was a prime that lasted several years.

After losing to fellow great Matt Hughes for the vacant title, GSP would have another five fights before getting a second shot, as underdog in the rematch against Hughes. It was the last time ‘Rush’ would fight at welterweight as an underdog.

He’d win that, but remarkably he’d lose in his next fight to Matt Serra in one of the UFC’s all-time greatest upsets. Later that year he’d complete the trilogy, beating Hughes to the interim title, avenging the defeat to Serra four months later, and he’d win every fight for the rest of his career.

After a contentious decision win over Johny Hendricks, GSP would step away from the game for four years, only to return and beat Michael Bisping at middleweight to become a two-weight UFC champion.

A solid striker, a black belt in karate and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, GSP didn’t perhaps have the finishing ability of some of his contemporaries with 12 of his 21 UFC wins coming by decision, but he beat every fighter he ever faced, and more often than not, did it in the most convincing manner.

2 – Anderson Silva

Although not officially retired from MMA, he’s no longer under contract by the UFC, and seems intent on pursuing a boxing career now. Few captured the imagination like Anderson Silva. With his Matrix-inspired moves, ‘The Spider’ was able to show respect and contempt for his opponents almost simultaneously.

After joining the UFC, he’d win his first 16 fights, capturing the middleweight title. So dangerous was Silva’s striking, that more than one fighter simply refused to engage on the feet with Silva.

The only decision wins on Silva’s record during his title reign came to Thales Leites and Demian Maia, who showed little interest in a striking match with Silva, frequently throwing themselves to the mat.

One of the most dominant fighters in MMA history, Silva would break records for the longest title reign in UFC history at more than six-and-a-half years, as well as the most consecutive UFC wins (16), a record that still stands today, with three more victories than the legendary GSP and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Although the tail-end of his career has seen his record blotted with more defeats than a fighter of his legendary status deserves, at his peak, Silva was – quite literally – untouchable.

1 – Khabib Nurmagomedov

Any one of a number of fighters on this list could have occupied top spot for various reasons, but so few fighters go through their career in top-level MMA, win the title, defend it multiple times against top-class opposition, and have the sense to retire with the 0 intact.

But that’s exactly what Khabib Nurmagomedov did.

His final fight before a two-year injury layoff would see Khabib convincingly beat Rafael dos Anjos, who’d go on to become champion less than a year later.

On the comeback trail, Nurmagomedov would fight Darrell Horcher, Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza, before finally capturing the vacant UFC lightweight title against Al Iaquinta.

At long last, the title fight with Conor McGregor was made. It turned into a humiliating, humbling night for McGregor, who didn’t just lose on the ground to Khabib – as many predicted – but was even knocked down.

From there, Khabib would cement his legacy as an all-time UFC and MMA great, beating Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje.

What was so remarkable about Khabib is that everybody knew exactly how he’d approach every fight; he’d pressure his opponent, take them down at will (his fight against Abel Trujillo saw him land a ridiculous 21 takedowns – the previous record was 16, and even that was in a five-round fight), and land either a submission or force a referee stoppage, with a handful of opponents taking the full 15 minutes of punishment. But despite that, nobody ever found an answer to it.

Across the 31 completed rounds in his UFC career, he lost just two (to Conor McGregor and Justin Gaethje, and even the latter wasn’t unanimous).

There’s an argument that Khabib didn’t have the longevity of a GSP or a Silva, but to have dominated every single opponent in the manner he did, it’s hard to see who’d have ever stood in his way.

By @LiamWilliamsSJ

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