Given the importance of wrestling in mixed martial arts today as well as the number of champions having a wrestling base, there’s always been a debate as to who the best wrestler in the UFC is.
Chael Sonnen, former UFC middleweight title challenger and NCAA Division I wrestler, shared his thoughts on the topic in a recent video.
While he noted that there are differences such as who was the best wrestler in college versus who uses the best wrestling in MMA, he eventually named his five best wrestlers in UFC history:
5. Randy Couture
“Randy Couture came into mixed martial art at 34 years old and was called “The Natural” because he was one of these guys who was just a natural. He was able to close the distance, get a hold of his opponent. The phrase “dirty boxing” was coined after him. Jens Pulver actually coined the phrase but he applied that phrase to Randy Couture. He was a very complete wrestler in the three styles — collegiately, he did well. Freestyle, he was proficient in and won his championships and got his acclaim in Grecko-Roman.
“I think it was his Grecko-Roman that was able to transfer so well into mixed martial arts and the dirty boxing. Randy was not one of those come across the ring and hit the double-leg guys. He would close the distance, he would do it in an upright posture which is how Grecko-Roman is contested and it’s also how MMA is contested.”
4. Jon Jones
“Jon Jones as an amateur won the highest levels of everything that he ever tried to win. He tried to become a state champion for his high school — he succeeded. He went on to junior college. The biggest thing he could win is the junior college national which he did win.
“By the way, I don’t believe he’s been taken down in MMA. [Alex] Gustafsson did get him down but he had the element of surprise. Even in his matches with Daniel Cormier, while many of you might say Daniel took him down, there was enough scramble, get back to your feet fast enough to make even the greatest referees have a debate if was that a takedown. Then when you look at offensively how well he’s able to do, I think it would be very insincere to not put Jon in the list.”
3. Cain Velasquez
“Not only do I not recall a time that he [Velasquez] was taken down but I have seen him in fights where he needed a takedown. He’d prefer to come out there and grind, be in your face, western boxing. This was his preferred style. But every now and then, he’d slip a kick in just to throw you off and when he needed to regroup and catch his breath, when he’d turn to a takedown and grind an opponent out for a little bit, he succeeded. I don’t recall him failing.
“He would mix those takedowns in just enough to keep his opponent guessing. Defensively, his hips were where they needed to be. Opponents would not even try to wrestle with him. He was able to throw them off, he had good footwork, movement, clinching.”
2. Matt Hughes
“Matt Hughes was a two-time Division I All-American. … One thing about top MMA wresters — anyone can shoot a shot. Anybody can get to a leg, two legs or a clinch position. A wrestler will use that as a setup just to get to the next shot. It’s called chain wrestling which you only get if you’re an active wrestler [like Hughes who entered collegiate tournaments while he was active in MMA].
“The sport is good enough to stop one attack. The sport still to this day is not good enough to stop attacks two and three and four. That was a tool that Matt Hughes kept sharp.”
1. Georges St-Pierre and Khabib Nurmagomedov
“Georges St-Pierre not only did not get taken down outside of a match with Johny Hendricks, he took down every single opponent he faced including Johny Hendricks. He has to share the spot with Khabib Nurmagomedov who also not only has never been taken down, has done the taking down of every opponent he’s ever faced and has innovated the sport.
“Khabib Nurmagomedov is not near as good as a wrestler, meaning out in the open, middle of the cage, as many of you believe him to be. Watch his fights a little closer, everything he does is designed to push you to the fence. Once you get on the fence, Khabib has ways to pull you off. Use leg entanglements, once he gets you down, he again is using traps, leg entanglements like the sport has never seen. He has innovated and changed the sport.
“He makes the list. How do we have a tiebreaker? Let those boys figure it out.“