The history of mixed martial arts is intertwined with the history of one family, the Gracies. The Gracie family is, without a doubt, the most famous and important family in the history of martial arts. They’re credited with creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a submission wrestling approach to combat that was derived from the Judo taught to Carlos Gracie by Mitsuyo Maeda – a famous Judoka – in the early 20th century. The martial art the Gracies developed stayed mostly within the family until the exposure Brazilian jiu-jitsu received thanks to the creation of the UFC.
You may have heard of Royce Gracie, who’s famous for winning UFC 1, UFC 2, UFC 4, and arguably being MMA’s biggest star before anyone had actually figured out what MMA was. However, what fewer people are aware of, is that the concept of the UFC was created by Royce’s brother, Rorion, and that it was a tournament created explicitly to showcase Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s effectiveness to the world. It goes without saying that it was wildly successful, beyond anyone’s expectations.
From day 1, MMA was linked to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In the early days, back when it was style vs. style, BJJ was shown to be a brutally effective martial art. Now in the modern game, where MMA training encompasses so many different aspects from many different martial arts, the unchallenged dominance of jiu-jitsu based fighters has subsided. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is now a fundamental component of MMA, and virtually all fighters will have at least a little bit of training in it, even if they prefer to stand up and strike. That being said, there are still fighters who prefer to rely on their BJJ skills. They’re usually the ones who began as jiu-jitsu practitioners and later transitioned into mixed atrial arts. These are the men with the strongest jiu-jitsu skills in MMA today.
10. Roger Gracie
A member of the aforementioned Gracie family, Roger’s grandfather Carlos was the one who originally learned Judo from Mitsuyo Maeda and began tweaking it to create Brazilian jiu-jitsu. As an MMA fighter, Roger has a record of 6-2, with 5/6 of his wins coming by way of submission. He mostly competed in Strikeforce, but had 1 fight in the UFC – leftover from his Strikeforce contract – that he would lose to Tim Kennedy. As a submission grappler, he has taken gold in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (the biggest no-gi submission tournament in the world) twice, both in 2005 (the <99kg division and the absolute division). He has also taken gold multiple times in the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship (also known as the ‘Mundials’), in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
9. Frank Mir
The longtime UFC veteran is also one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners in the heavyweight division. Mir’s knowledge and skill in the fundamental Brazilian jiu-jitsu concepts are matched only by his creativity. He hasn’t found as much success in pure grappling competition as some of his contemporaries, but he has a knack for landing some pretty innovative techniques – notably his kimura variation that’s been dubbed the ‘Mir Lock.’ Mir may or may not be approaching the end of his long MMA career, depending on whom you ask, but he’s suffered 4 defeats in a row and that’s never a good sign for a mixed martial artist.
8. B.J. Penn
Had this list been written a few years ago, B.J. Penn would have been way, way higher up. The story of how Penn received his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in only 3 years, from 1997 to 2000 – a feat unheard of then, and still unheard of now – has now become a part of the legend of this future Hall of Famer. In addition, Penn (an American) was the first non-Brazilian to win gold at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship, which he accomplished in 2000. Penn’s jiu-jitsu accolades caught the attention of the UFC, who encouraged him to switch to MMA. Penn obliged, and the rest is history.
7. Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira
One half of the Nogueira brothers, Antônio ‘Minotauro’ Nogueiro’s jiu-jitsu skills took him to the very pinnacle of the sport. In 2001 he became the first PRIDE Heavyweight Champion, at a time when PRIDE arguably had the toughest heavyweight division in the world. In 2003 he lost the title to Fedor Emelianenko, who would remain champion until PRIDE closed its doors in 2007. Nogueira went on to find relative success in the UFC, though not to the same degree as his days in PRIDE. Of his 34 career victories, 21 of them have come by submission. He teaches jiu-jitsu with his twin brother Antônio Rogerio Nogueira.
6. Nick Diaz
A polarizing fighter from Stockton, California, Nick Diaz – along with his brother Nate – is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Cesar Gracie. Although Diaz’s pure jiu-jitsu competition accomplishments don’t rival some of the other members of this list, his ability to successfully integrate BJJ moves and concepts into his MMA fights are what makes his jiu-jitsu notable. Many pure jiu-jitsu prodigies can’t make the transition into MMA. Nick Diaz’s method of constant striking pressure and excellent conditioning allow him to control the pace and keep moving forward until he finds an opening to execute a submission. Although he’s been in semi-retirement, it seems as if Diaz is getting ready to make another run in the UFC.
5. Jake Shields
Another Cesar Gracie black belt, Jake Shields trains with the Diaz brothers and Gilbert Melendez. Shields began training MMA in 1999, where he got his first taste of jiu-jitsu. He met Cesar Gracie in 2001 and continued his study with him at his school. Shields has a total MMA record of 29-7. In 2005 he took bronze in the ADCC -77kg division, and gold in the purple belt division of the Pan American BJJ Championship. His jiu-jitsu base was largely responsible for his 15-fight win streak that began in 2005 and lasted until he lost to Georges St. Pierre in 2011 with the UFC Welterweight title on the line. After his recent loss to Hector Lombard, Shields was unexpectedly and shockingly cut from the UFC.
4. Demian Maia
An accomplished jiu-jitsu competitor, Demian Maia entered the UFC with experience at the ADCC, where he won 1st in the 77-87kg division, as the 2006 Pan American champion, and with multiple CBJJ championships. He is a black belt under Fabio Gurgel, which he received after only 4 years and 7 months of training. In MMA he fights as a member of Team Wand, an association of mostly Brazilian fighters led by Wanderlei Silva. He has a total MMA record of 18-6, and his most recent fight ended in a loss to Rory Macdonald.
3. Rousimar Palhares
Rousimar Palhares is perhaps the scariest man on this list, if only for his approach to jiu-jitsu and MMA. Palhares grew up in the slums of Brazil and later learned jiu-jitsu from former UFC Middleweight champion Murilo Bustamante and Bebeo Duarte. Over time his own style of jiu-jitsu developed into one that made him a leg lock specialist, particularly the heel hook. Palhares took 2nd place in the 2011 ADCC no-gi submission tournament, losing to André Galvão in the finals. In MMA, he has a professional record of 16-6, with 13 of his victories coming by submission, and 8 of those submission victories coming by way of his devastating heel hook. Palhares was released by the UFC last year for holding on to a heel hook after the end of the fight and now fights for World Series of Fighting, where he is the WSOF Welterweight champion.
2. Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza
‘Jacare’ is a decorated submission grappler, winning gold at the ADCC (2005), the CBJJ (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) and the BJJ World Cup (2004). In MMA he is a former Strikeforce Middleweight champion with a record of 20-3, with 14 of his wins coming by submission. He’s currently riding a 6-fight win streak and it’s in that timeframe that we’re beginning to witness the apex of Souza’s MMA career. ‘Jacare’ uses his jiu-jitsu to stay tight and suffocate his opponents until they leave themselves open for a submission. His last loss was in 2011 and since then he’s beginning to look virtually unstoppable. He competes at middleweight, and if he can get one more victory he’ll set himself up for a title shot after Machida and Belfort get their opportunities against UFC Middleweight champion Chris Weidman. Of all the star-studded Brazilian fighters lining up to fight Weidman, the man he should worry about most is the scary, underrated, submission master at the end of the road that is Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza.
1. Fabrício Werdum
Fabrício Werdum is a Brazilian MMA fighter with an extensive jiu-jitsu background. He won gold in the IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation) in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. He also competed in the ADCC no-gi submission tournament, where he won gold in 2009 and 2011. In MMA he has a total professional record of 17-5, and is widely remembered as the man who ended Fedor Emelianenko’s 28-fight unbeaten streak in 2010, when he caught him with a triangle/armbar hybrid and won the fight by submission. Werdum probably has the best jiu-jitsu out of the top ranked heavyweights in the UFC today, and he defeated Travis Browne on April 19th in a match that determined who gets to face UFC Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez for the title.