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November 27, 2014

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No. 3: Top 10 Fighters: The most influential men in UFC history

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Steve Marcus

Mixed martial arts fighter Randy Couture smiles after a workout at the Xtreme Couture gym on November 5, 2008. Couture is widely considered the most influential fighter in UFC history because of his accomplishments in the Octagon and mainstream popularity.

Top 10 UFC Fighters

In his UFC debut, Dan Severn advanced straight to the UFC 4 finals when the eight-man tournament format was still in place. Severn lost to Royce Gracie in the final match but returned to win it all at UFC 5. In addition to being one of the five members that currently make up the UFC Hall of Fame, Severn was also a successful collegiate wrestler, U.S. Olympic alternate and WWF wrestler. Launch slideshow »

Sun Expanded Coverage

Editor's Note: The Ultimate Fighting Championship is celebrating its 100th show on July 11 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. In the days leading up to this historic night, the Las Vegas Sun is presenting a Top 10 list of key personalities and points that have helped propel the sport into the forefront of the world's fighting conscience.

Hundreds of fighters have squared off in the Octagon during the 16 years the The Ultimate Fighting Championship organization has been in business, but only a select few deserve to be placed in the best-of-the-best. While any greatest-ever list is obviously up for debate, here's the Las Vegas Sun's version of the Top 10 fighters in UFC history — taking into account not only pure performance in the cage, but also the impact they had on their sport outside it.

10. Dan Severn

Few have represented the wrestling world better than Dan “The Beast” Severn. If wrestling were a buffet, Severn would have a little of everything on his plate: Arizona State University hall of famer, two-time USA Olympic team alternate, UFC champion, WEC fighter, WWF wrestler, NWA wrester – the list goes on and on.

His UFC career began in 1994 when the event was still an 8-man tournament format. He advanced to the finals that year but lost by triangle choke to the legendary Royce Gracie. Severn rebounded from that loss at UFC 5 and won the championship. Considered one of the best fighters in the sport at that time, Severn was given a title shot against Ken Shamrock at UFC 6, but lost by guillotine choke. He got the best of Shamrock at UFC 9 though, defeating him by split decision in 1996. He was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame at UFC 52.

“He was one of the first real, raw, hardcore wrestlers that we saw in the early days,” said former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk. “He was one of the guys that got me in the sport. Me, being 100 percent wrestler and seeing another 100 percent wrestler make other guys look like little kids, it kind of made me think I could do it too.”

9. Anderson Silva

It’s a question on a lot of minds right now – Who can beat Anderson Silva? Unfortunately, few have an answer.

The current UFC middleweight champion is undefeated since joining the organization in 2006. He claimed the championship belt just 2:59 into the first round of his second UFC fight, defeating Rich Franklin by TKO. Since then, he’s successfully defended it five times against fighters such as Dan Henderson, Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and a rematch with Franklin. Only his most recent fight with Leites has even gone to a decision.

“You definitely have to have Anderson Silva on that list,” said top lightweight contender Kenny Florian. “He’s really finishing top level opponents right now. He can do it all, he really shows the beauty of the sport every time he competes.”

8. Georges St.-Pierre

Out of all the accomplishments Canadian fighter Georges St.-Pierre has to fill his resume, one stands out from the rest – A Gatorade sponsorship inked this year.

May not be a big deal to some, but from a business standpoint nothing better symbolizes the growth the UFC has achieved and the marketability that is GSP.

St.-Pierre is 10-1 since losing early in his career to Matt Hughes. He tasted revenge for that loss twice by defeating Hughes at UFC 65 and again at UFC 79. His emergence as a legitimate pound-for-pound champion has earned him a massive fanbase, especially in his native country where he was voted Canadian Athlete of the Year in 2008.

“I want to be thought of at the end of my career as the best pound-for-pound fighter that ever fought in MMA history,” St.-Pierre said. “I have to make a legacy. That’s what I want to do.”

7. B.J. Penn

Few UFC fighters will ever know what it means to win a title in one weight division. B.J. Penn knows what it feels like to win the title in two.

In 2004, just when it was clear that no welterweight could take the title from Matt Hughes, a lightweight said he would. After returning from a 16-month hiatus from the UFC to compete in another MMA organization, Penn returned for UFC 46 where he defeated a heavily favored Hughes by submission in the first round.

Four years later at UFC 80, Penn defeated Joe Stevenson to win the vacant UFC lightweight title, becoming just the second fighter to win UFC titles in different weight classes behind Randy Couture.

“B.J. is a tough guy, there’s no doubt about it,” said Kenny Florian, who will face the defending lightweight champion at UFC 101 in August. “He’s proven to be one of the best opponents in the world and he’s the best fighter at 155 pounds until someone beats him.”

6. Chuck Liddell

The UFC is a sport but it’s also a business. To run a good business you need good business partners. According to Dana White, no fighter has been a better business partner than Chuck Liddell.

Liddell’s overall popularity led to him fighting in some of the most successful events in UFC history. His heated rivalry with UFC bad-boy Tito Ortiz was infamous. His trilogy with Randy Couture was epic. WEC founder Reed Harris has said his light heavyweight rematch with Quinton Jackson is the loudest fight he has ever attended.

What makes Liddell even more special is how much respect he’s earned within the organization. Nearly every fighter asked to put together a list of influential fighters mentioned “Iceman.” Liddell will become the sixth fighter inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame during this month’s Fan Expo.

“It’s no secret what I think about Chuck Liddell,” White said. “He acted like a true partner. One time he was the next in line for a title shot against Tito and we asked if he would step aside and let Ken Shamrock fight Tito. He did it. He helped us build this business.”

5. Tito Ortiz

It seems like every sport has a dynamic figure that refuses to get along or play by the rules – the guy everyone loves to hate. For the UFC, that’s Tito Ortiz.

Ortiz was accused of ducking fights he didn’t want to take, waged an open war with Dana White, left the organization because of the open war and married a porn star. Somewhere in the middle of it he brought thousands of fans to the sport.

Ortiz is considered the longest-reigning UFC champion, officially hanging on to the light heavyweight championship for three-and-a-half years from 2000 to 2003. His pay-per-view rematch fight against Chuck Liddell at UFC 66 remains one of the most successful in company history.

“Tito Ortiz was that guy you hated but ended up liking him anyways,” said Rashad Evans, who fought Ortiz to a draw at UFC 73. “It was crazy when I fought him because I looked up to him.

“All of a sudden, I’m looking at him across the ring and I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m about to fight Tito Ortiz and he’s doing that thing where he points to the crowd and he only does that when he’s about to whoop somebody’s [expletive] and it’s me this time. He’s about to fight me.’”

4. Ken Shamrock

Before there were belts, title shots or even rules, the UFC was about stepping into a cage with an opponent and leaving the better man. Few fighters personified this better than Ken Shamrock.

Shamrock’s most infamous UFC moment may not even be a win or a loss. It may be a draw.

After losing to the legendary Royce Gracie in UFC 1, Shamrock couldn’t wait for an opportunity to prove he could beat him in a rematch. It took nearly two years, but the two finally squared off again at UFC 5. They fought the entire allotted time of 30 minutes plus an extra five minutes of overtime that was added on the spot. In the end, the fight was called a draw, since there was no judging system in place, and turned out to be Gracie’s last fight until his return to fight Matt Hughes 11 years later.

Shamrock continued to fight in the UFC and remains one of the most influential fighters in the organization’s history.

“Obviously when you talk about the old days he’s one of the names that pop up,” Dana White said. “He’s always had a huge persona in MMA. I’ve always had good dealings with Ken.”

3. Matt Hughes

It’s just the way it is: You’re not a champion until you’ve defended your belt. No UFC fighter has defended a title more than Matt Hughes.

Hughes won the UFC welterweight title for the first time at UFC 34 by defeating Canadian fighter Carlos Newton. It was a special win for Hughes because Newton had defeated his mentor, Pat Miletich, in a previous fight. Miletich wanted a second opportunity but had to settle for choosing Newton’s next opponent.

The man he chose ended up defeating Newton and defending the title for the next two years. Hughes finally surrendered the belt in 2004 to B.J. Penn, before re-gaining it that same year with a win over Georges St.-Pierre.

Hughes admits his fights are numbered at this point, but plans on becoming an ambassador for the sport once he retires.

“I think I’ve got a lot of experience and am a good representative of the sport,” Hughes said. “[My success] is definitely something I can be proud about. I’m really not a record-book person though. I’ve always went out and fought because I love to compete.”

2. Royce Gracie

These days, welterweights don’t take on heavyweights in the Octagon. But before the idea of weight classes were introduced in the UFC, Royce Gracie made a career doing exactly that.

The UFC is based on the fact that MMA is an art form. It’s not a backyard brawl where the bigger man always wins. Although it took some time for fans to accept this and to appreciate it, it didn’t take long for a fighter to demonstrate it.

Gracie, one of the smallest fighters in the early days of the UFC, won fight after fight as an underdog, using his technical Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills to trick his opponents into submission. At the time, even fans of the UFC couldn’t understand how a fighter that gave up so much in size and strength was able to win so much. Gracie was the tournament winner at UFC 1, 2 and 4.

His only legitimate loss in the UFC came against Matt Hughes at UFC 60 when he returned to fight a non-title bout in 2006. Although Hughes caught Gracie in an arm-bar, the legend was so stubborn in refusing to tap out that Hughes eventually released the hold and went on to win by a TKO, later saying that he knew Gracie would rather allow his arm to break than submit. Gracie’s only other loss was a pre-fight forfeit because of injury.

“He was a pioneer in the UFC,” said Dan Henderson. “Back then it wasn’t really a sport yet and guys didn’t need to be well rounded. His style was one that nobody knew how to defend. It was a lot of big guys against him and to be able to submit them showed that jiu-jitsu was a vital aspect of MMA.”

1. Randy Couture

There is no draw. Not even a split decision. The most influential fighter in UFC history is Randy Couture.

His many accomplishments in the Octagon coupled with his appeal to the mainstream market and dedication to furthering MMA, firmly places him at the top of the list.

After a successful wrestling career that included feats such as being crowned a four-time National Champion in Greco-Roman and a U.S. Olympic alternate four times, he became the first fighter in UFC history to claim titles in two different weight classes. He remains the only three-time world champion, having claimed a title in 1997, 2000 and 2003.

Outside of the Octagon, Couture served as a coach on the debut season of the reality television series, “The Ultimate Fighter.” He also starred in the Universal film, “The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior” and has appeared on mainstream television shows including “The King of Queens” and “The Unit.” Couture was also featured alongside female fighter Gina Carrano on the “Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3” video game.

Despite rifts with the UFC concerning contractual matters, Couture will always be remembered as a face of the organization. His success has led his own chain of gyms, Xtreme Couture, which was founded in 2005 and has grown to include multiple locations.

Perhaps more than anything, Couture will be remembered for his competitive spirit, which has kept him performing at a champion’s level even at his current age of 46.

“What inspires me, is when I see people like the great Randy Couture, the greatest role model mixed martial arts has or maybe ever will have,” said longtime Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer.

“To see this man at 44-years-old, fighting against insurmountable odds only to come out on top – these are the kinds of stories that inspire me. It’s true warrior spirit. I see it more in the UFC than I do anywhere else.”

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