The UFC has been making fights featuring some of the greatest wrestlers, Sambo competitors, and Judo or BJJ black belts for over two decades, but who was the best grappler in the promotion’s history? Since the very beginnings of MMA, the sport has attracted athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their previous sports and are looking for new challenges. With the UFC being the biggest MMA promotion in the world, the majority of those who are looking to make it to the top of the sport will end up there at one point or another. There have been Olympic medallists in both Judo and wrestling who have competed in the octagon, along with plenty of BJJ and Sambo world champions.
Mark Schultz was one of the earliest examples, as the wrestling gold medallist from the 1984 Olympics competed at UFC 9 all the way back in 1996. Although his MMA career was short-lived, he has since been joined by several men and women who have reached the podium at the Olympic games. Henry Cejudo is perhaps one of the most successful Olympic gold medalists to set foot in the octagon but Ronda Rousey, Yoel Romero, Matt Lindland, Sara McMann, and Kevin Jackson all reached the podium in the Olympic games before doing well in MMA.
Of course, there has also been plenty of options for greatest grappler in IBJJF world championship history who have competed in the UFC like Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, Fabricio Werdum, Rodolfo Vieira, Demian Maia, and Roger Gracie. That’s not even including the ADCC world champions like Kron Gracie, Davi Ramos, and Mark Kerr just to name a few. While Sambo athletes weren’t represented much in the earliest days of the UFC, Khabib Nurmagomedov led the way when he won the UFC Lightweight world championship and retired undefeated. He isn’t alone though because Blagoy Ivanov, Aleksei Oleinik, and Islam Makhachev were all Sambo world champions before they embarked on their UFC careers.
This isn’t even taking into account the huge number of NCAA championship-level wrestlers who competed in various divisions, BJJ or Judo black belts who focused on MMA careers, and Sambo competitors who couldn’t quite make it to a world championship gold medal. This incredible list includes the names of plenty of UFC legends like Royce Gracie, Matt Hughes, and Andrei Arlovski. Along with the hundreds of elite grapplers who have transitioned to UFC competition throughout history, there’s even some strikers and all-rounders who developed incredible grappling in order to supplement their other skills like Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva.
But who is the greatest grappler in UFC history?
Really it comes down to four names. Four fighters who used their grappling prowess to dominate their opponents over and over again and etched their names in to the history books with their success. Georges St-Pierre and Khabib Nurmagomedov are both examples of what the peak of wrestling and Sambo performance looks like in MMA, with one key difference between the two.
St-Pierre excelled at using his fantastic striking to set up his wrestling entries and the success of his grappling was largely reliant on his striking talent to supplement it. Nurmagomedov on the other hand was a grappler first and foremost, and he avoided lengthy striking exchanges at all costs. When he got a hold of his opponent, they knew that the best outcome for them would have been losing the round and the worst was getting finished before the bell could ring. Although Nurmagomedov was the only one to retire undefeated, St-Pierre avenged both of his only professional MMA losses and managed to win titles in two different weightclasses.
The other two options represent Jiu-Jitsu in MMA instead, although they actually follow a similar pattern as the previous two. Charles Oliveira and Demian Maia were both incredible grapplers, but only one of them managed to reach a high level of striking skill in order to supplement his talent on the ground. Maia was known as one of the most impressive BJJ black belts of his generation, but he remained one dimensional throughout the length of his career. He would win almost any fight that went to the ground, but the majority of his losses came from fights where his opponent was able to keep him on his feet instead.
Oliveira however, has spent his career fine-tuning his striking ability and developed into a fearsome knockout artist over the years he has spent in the UFC. This led him all the way to a UFC title, something that has eluded Maia throughout his career. Along with this, Oliveira has used his ability as a high-level grappler in order to set the records for the greatest number of both finishes and submission victories in UFC history. He’s a relentless storm of vicious striking and lightning-quick submission attempts that can wear down almost any man who steps in front of him.
A convincing case could be made for any one of these four men. In fact, a reasonable argument could even be made for other competitors like Ronda Rousey and Henry Cejudo, but these four really do stand out above the rest. Interestingly, Demian Maia himself actually believes that Nurmagomedov is the greatest MMA grappler in UFC history and he certainly isn’t alone. In the end it really depends on the metric you would use to define the greatest grappler. If you value submission finishes then the obvious choice would be Charles Oliveira, but if you value positional domination and control above the ability to finish then Nurmagomedov is definitely the man.