When MMA and UFC first came to life, there were basically no rules that made it a real combat sport instead of brutal street fighting. Those guys that fought at the beginning made huge strides in making MMA a world-renowned sport that we all love today.
Without these MMA pioneers, the UFC and mixed martial arts would never be as popular and as big as they are today. Without further ado, here’s a list of the most influential MMA pioneers that competed in the first several UFC events and made the development of the sport possible.
The fighters are ranked according to their contributions to MMA development.
9. Guy Mezger
Although Guy Mezger became a true UFC star at UFC 13, many folks don’t know he actually competed at UFC 4 and UFC 5 as an alternate bout, winning both fights via TKO.
He then transitioned to Pancrase, where he fought guys like Bas Rutten and Semmy Schilt, only to return to compete at UFC 13, where he had won the UFC 13 lightweight tournament against Tito Ortiz.
Mezger was one of the first true, technically sound strikers in MMA who finished his career with a 30-14-2 record, fighting other legends like Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, etc.
8. Oleg Taktarov
Oleg Tatkarov was known as The Russian Bear, and he used his knowledge in sambo and judo to dominate his opponents in the early days of UFC and MMA.
Tatkarov holds the record for the fastest submission in UFC history as he submitted Anthony Macias in only nine seconds at UFC 6. However, due to the lack of regulations at the time, it’s not in the record books.
He had won that tournament and fought to a draw in one of the longest UFC matches/rounds of all-time at UFC 7 against Ken Shamrock. The fight lasted for 33 minutes straight.
Taktarov also fought other legendary MMA pioneers such as Tank Abbott, Dan Severn, Marco Ruas, etc.
7. Marco Ruas
Marco Ruas was one of the first guys to effectively combine striking and grappling arts to become a complete fighter instead of simply squaring off one martial art against the other. He developed Ruas Vale Tudo, which is a hybrid of submission wrestling and kickboxing.
He won the UFC 7 tournament using his prolific martial arts skills, and when you look at his fights, you can clearly see how his game was the next step in MMA development.
6. Gary Goodridge
Garry Goodridge is one of the first big MMA icons. He was a UFC 8 finalist, where Don Frye stopped him with a submission, but the guy knew how to use his strength and knock his opponents out cold. Before his martial arts days, he was one of the best in the world in arm wrestling.
His biggest problem in MMA was his stamina, as he had to give up three fights in a row in 1996-1997 due to fatigue and dehydration.
Goodridge was one of the UFC pioneers and PRIDE pioneers as he competed in each of PRIDE’s first four events. His most notable career fights came against Don Frye, Marc Coleman, Oleg Taktarov, Marco Ruas, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and others.
He also competed in professional kickboxing, where he had a 12-24 record.
5. Don Frye
Back in the day, Don Frye was one of the most skilled fighters in the world of MMA. He was never afraid to learn new techniques, as he used both his striking skills and submissions to destroy his opponents. He won the UFC 8 tournament and was a UFC 10 finalist.
In 2002, his fight against Yoshihiro Takayama at Pride 21 was named fight of the year. He was one of the biggest stars in combat sports at the moment with a 15-1 record. Unfortunately, that’s when his career started to go on a downward trajectory.
Still, he was a spectacular fighter, racking up wins against big MMA stars like Gary Goodridge, Mark Hall, Tank Abbott, Ken Shamrock, etc.
4. Dan Severn
Dan Severn was one of the most active professional MMA fighters in history and one of the most influential UFC/MMA icons that made the sport popular. He lost in the UFC 4 finals against Royce Gracie but won the UFC 5 tournament – and that was just the beginning.
Severn finished his MMA career with a staggering 101-19-7 record. He was a huge star in his prime days, destroying other legendary fighters such as Ken Shamrock, Tank Abbot, Oleg Taktarov, etc.
3. Mark Coleman
Breaking open the top 3 of the most influential MMA pioneers is Mark Coleman. This guy gave us so many iconic battles over the years, starting with UFC 10, where he won the tournament by defeating Gary Goodridge and Don Frye at the same event.
Then he won the inaugural UFC heavyweight championship against Dan Severn only to lose it against Maurice Smith at UFC 14 in what turned out to be the 1997 Fight of the Year.
Coleman is a pure legend, competing against Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Cro Cop, Mauricio Rua, and others.
Also, he was a part of the first-ever UFC Hall of Famer vs. UFC Hall of Famer fight. He fought Randy Couture in 2010, 14 years after he became the first UFC heavyweight champion. He lost the bout via submission, after which he retired for good.
2. Ken Shamrock
Ken Shamrock is one of the most important faces in MMA history and one of the first titans in the UFC. He has competed in the UFC since their first event, where he got stopped in the semi-finals by the eventual tournament winner, Royce Gracie.
He and Gracie were also a part of the longest fight in UFC history that lasted 36 minutes. It was a fight for the inaugural UFC Superfight Championship, but it had been declared a draw as there were no judges to decide on the winner.
During his career, injuries made him switch styles from grappling to striking, but he was a force to be reckoned with for a decade, using his incredible strength to outpower his opponents. His most notorious foe was Tito Ortiz.
1. Royce Gracie
We should thank the entire Gracie family for the development of MMA, but Royce Gracie had the biggest influence out of all the MMA pioneers. He has shown the world just how effective grappling and BJJ can be against power and striking, winning three of the first four UFC tournaments.
Gracie dominated the competition with his superior grappling, taking his opponents down to neutralize their striking and diminish their power advantage.
He didn’t compete in MMA much after those first few events, but he did fight Ken Shamrock once again in 2016 when he was 51 years old at Bellator 149. Unlike the first time they fought to a draw in the longest UFC match in history, he had won via TKO.