Hey. For those unfamiliar with me and my work – you’ll be reading this at TJRSports.com I’m guessing – my name is Scott Newman, and I’ve been watching and writing about MMA now for about eight or nine years. Before that I wrote about pro-wrestling, which is how I met John, as we both wrote – and still write for – The Oratory.
To cut a long story short, I stumbled into MMA in late 2003 when I became slightly jaded with the wrestling scene and instantly loved it. The first show I watched was UFC 40 (Ortiz vs. Shamrock, baby!), but being an obsessive type of dude, right away I got my hands on any form of MMA I possibly could from a myriad of promotions – PRIDE, Shooto, Cage Rage, WEC, you name it. I’d been what you’d call a hardcore fan for a little over a year when the TUF boom happened in early 2005 and allowed the sport to reach the heights it is at today. Today? A day rarely goes by without me watching some sort of MMA – it’s become like background music for me at home.
In terms of my writing, my usual forte is show reviews – I have hundreds of them archived at The Oratory and I’m planning to start posting them here too in the near future. I’ll also throw in some previews and regular opinion type stuff every now and then as time (or Johnny!) allows. What I’m looking at today is something slightly different.
After absorbing Strikeforce and its roster of fighters earlier this year, the UFC is now, let’s be honest, the only ‘big game’ in town when it comes to MMA. Sure, Bellator and World Series of Fighting seem to be doing okay for themselves, but really they’re light years behind the Zuffa juggernaut. In turn this means that the list of great fighters who have never fought under the UFC umbrella has become that much smaller. Names you would’ve put on a list like that such as Melendez, Mousasi and Overeem are now fully fledged members of the UFC roster. So that begs the question – who are the best fighters to never fight for the UFC?
I’ve compiled a list of the ten fighters I’d consider the greatest to never set foot inside the Octagon. Ten fighters who, if things had turned out differently, may have made an impact in the world’s biggest MMA promotion. A couple of things to consider, though. Before anyone screams about Sakuraba, for instance, I’m also counting the pre-Zuffa era here, and Saku of course had a cup of coffee in the UFC in the SEG era. Secondly, I won’t be mentioning the likes of King Mo Lawal, Eddie Alvarez, and a number of currently unsigned top-ranked Flyweight contenders, as those fighters are still in their primes and could well make their way into the UFC in the future. I’m looking more at those fighters who have either retired or are so far past their best that a UFC run is now highly unlikely. So without further ado….
Honorable Mention: Alexandre Franca Nogueira
‘Pequeno’ was the king of the Featherweights in Shooto back in the early 00’s; of course, this was when Shooto was pretty much the only promotion to be running that division properly. With his deadly guillotine choke he ruled the division with an iron fist and although he did suffer a couple of losses, he was able to avenge these to keep hold of his title from 1999 to 2005, which is hugely impressive by anyone’s standards. The reason he isn’t on this list? A UFC run for him was never really a possibility, given UFC didn’t run a 145lbs division until 2011 and Pequeno’s active career realistically ended in 2009 (he has fought once since; in 2012). Still, I believe a prime Pequeno today could’ve done great things in the UFC’s division. He’s a man who came ten years before he should’ve, really.
#10: Kazuo Misaki
This one might seem like a strange choice given Misaki retired earlier this year with a record of 25-11-2, but the ‘Grabaka Hitman’ was actually a tougher out than most give him credit for. I mean, think about it – wins over Dan Henderson, Phil Baroni, Ed Herman, Joe Riggs and Denis Kang are nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider he was largely undersized at 185lbs for the majority of his career.
Beginning the first stretch of his career under the Pancrase banner, Misaki’s best successes undoubtedly came in PRIDE, most notably in 2006 as he was able to upset the odds to win the Bushido Welterweight (183lbs) Grand Prix. Granted, personally I didn’t think his victory was very fair, given he came into the finals as an alternate after losing his semi-final to Paulo Filho, but to his credit he did fight an excellent fight to overcome the hot favourite in Denis Kang to capture the championship. Arguably Misaki’s biggest career win is one you won’t find on his official record, as he knocked out Yoshihiro Akiyama on the Yarrenoka! show on 12/31/2007, but used a soccer kick to do so which was illegal under that promotion’s rules. Had the fight been in Misaki’s usual stomping ground of PRIDE, he would’ve come away with a career-defining win over one of the biggest stars in Japanese MMA and a man who was ranked firmly in the top ten at 185lbs at the time.
How would he have done in the UFC, had he come over when he had the chance? Well, that would’ve been in mid to late 2007, after the PRIDE buyout took place. At that point Misaki was coming off a surprising loss to the out-of-retirement Frank Trigg at PRIDE 33 – a loss which badly damaged his ranking at 185lbs – , but given his stablemate and fellow PRIDE fighter Akihiro Gono instantly dropped to 170lbs upon signing with the UFC I think you could guess that Misaki would’ve followed suit. At Welterweight I think Misaki might’ve done alright for himself – his style, almost similar to that of Dan Hardy with a lot of striking, movement, and a slight penchant for brawling – would’ve been enough to keep him around the mid-level I think for at least a while. I don’t think he would ever have made it into title contention – wrestlers like Fitch and Koscheck and eventually the likes of Story, Hendricks and Brenneman probably would’ve been kryptonite to him, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he would’ve had at least a five or six fight run in the Octagon.
#9: Sergei Kharitonov
Ranked as high as #4 at Heavyweight during his prime days of 2004/5, Sergei Kharitonov is definitely a man that most MMA fans would’ve loved to have seen in the UFC at some point in his career. Sergei burst onto the scene largely from nowhere in 2004, coming into PRIDE on the back of winning a pair of tournaments in Ukraine and his native Russia. He made immediate impact, taking out Murilo ‘Ninja’ and Semmy Schilt en route to making the semi-finals of the 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix, where he lost out to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira by decision in an entertaining fight. Kharitonov started 2005 with a bang by knocking out Choi Mu Bae and former UFC title challenger Pedro Rizzo, but after a lacklustre decision victory over the then-inexperienced Fabricio Werdum, a reoccurring shoulder injury gave him some serious problems and in his next fight he was upset by Alistair Overeem in his first foray into the Heavyweight division. The scene of Overeem smashing Sergei’s face to pieces with some brutal knees was one of the most stunning of 2006. Another loss followed – this time to Aleksander Emelianenko – and that was enough for Kharitonov’s stock to tumble badly.
Although he has shown flashes of his former glory since then – most notably with a revenge knockout of Alistair Overeem, this time under the K-1 Hero’s banner in 2007, and a knockout of former UFC titleholder Andrei Arlovski in StrikeForce in 2011 – he’s never really been able to recapture the form he showed back in 2004 when people were talking about him as a potential challenger to Fedor Emelianenko for the crown of the best Heavyweight in the world. When Zuffa bought out StrikeForce in 2011 the possibility of Sergei making a run in the UFC came back to the forefront, but it never came off and he’s been dabbling more and more into kickboxing as of late, meaning I doubt we ever see him enter the Octagon in the future.
What would a UFC run have looked like for Kharitonov? Bring over prime Sergei in 2004/5 and I think he probably would’ve ended up with the title as the UFC’s division was pretty much just Sylvia and Arlovski at that point, but of course, PRIDE was the juggernaut then and a crossover would’ve been unlikely. He could’ve come over when PRIDE was bought out in early 2007, but that period was a real nadir for Sergei and most likely he would’ve crashed and burned and been seen by a certain portion of fans as another PRIDE star who couldn’t really cut it in the UFC – in a similar vein to Mirko Cro Cop, for instance. I don’t think, for example, he would’ve matched well at all with Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, or even the 2007-8 versions of Gabriel Gonzaga and Cheick Kongo. In 2011 following his brief StrikeForce run you’re probably looking at similar results. Really, Kharitonov’s prime was cut short by injury which is sad, as he could’ve developed into one of the true great Heavyweights had he continued to rise from the point he reached in 2005. As it is, he’s a missed opportunity, but I still think he belongs on this list.
#8: Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro
Shaolin is arguably the most intriguing on this list as where all of the others were signed with various promotions that made a UFC move in their primes difficult or almost impossible, during his prime (2003-2007) Shaolin was readily available for the UFC to sign, floating around promotions like Rumble on the Rock and Cage Rage. Of course, the biggest reason that UFC never picked him up was probably because they didn’t have a Lightweight division between 2004 and 2006, but when they did resurrect the division in early 2006 I was surprised that Shaolin wasn’t inked right away. He did seem, at one point, to have the reputation of a dull fighter in some online circles, but I never understood that myself – for me he was pound-for-pound one of the best grapplers in MMA, with excellent takedowns for a BJJ-based fighter, and an incredibly deadly submission game, most notably with his arm triangle choke. Unsurprisingly, if you look at Shaolin’s profile on Sherdog and the like you’ll notice he’s a Nova Uniao fighter!
Because he never fought for the ‘big two’ in UFC or PRIDE, you might think that he was never tested by the very top fighters. Wrong. Shaolin has wins like current UFC fighters Ivan Menjivar and Eddie Yagin on his record, and in his most successful period in Shooto he was able to defeat Tatsuya Kawajiri, Mitsuhiro Ishida, and, in his most famous win, choke out Joachim Hansen with his arm triangle. Unfortunately, by the time he did make his way into a pair of top promotions, he was past his prime. A loss to ‘JZ’ Cavalcante in K-1 Hero’s in late 2007 saw him suffer a serious eye injury, and when he returned over a year later to action in Japan’s DREAM promotion, he didn’t look like the same fighter and was outstruck by Shinya Aoki of all people. A brief run in StrikeForce – pre-Zuffa – followed, but again Ribeiro didn’t look like the old Shaolin and was beaten by Lyle Beerbohm and Justin Wilcox – two fighters who would hardly rank amongst all-time greats.
Had Shaolin entered the UFC in early 2004 after his great Shooto run, or in early 2006 when the UFC first brought back the Lightweight division, I think he would’ve been a title contender for sure. Remember that during that period, ‘wrestleboxers’ like Frankie Edgar and Tyson Griffin weren’t as common, and the division was topped by the likes of Yves Edwards, Hermes Franca, Josh Thomson and Spencer Fisher. I think Shaolin could’ve matched well with any of them, and I think his game would’ve worked well under the unified rules too – a brief 2001/2 run in the WFA proved this as he showed to be an expert at cutting his opponent using short elbow strikes from the guard. It’d be unfair to call him the best fighter who never fought in the UFC – that’s why he’s only #8 on this list – but to call him one of the biggest missed opportunities would definitely be fair I think as he was there for the taking.
#7: Gesias ‘JZ’ Cavalcante
It’s hard to believe it when you look at his recent record, which sports losses to the likes of Isaac Vallie-Flagg and Luis Palomino, but at one point, namely a period between mid 2007 and early 2008, ‘JZ’ was the most feared Lightweight on the planet. This was a time after the fall of PRIDE, when their top 155lber – Takanori Gomi – had hit a sticky patch during his run in Sengoku, and in the UFC, the champion Sean Sherk – who was largely untested at 155lbs if we’re fair – had just tested positive for nandrolone and had been suspended. JZ meanwhile was running roughshod over his opposition in K-1 Hero’s, showing well-rounded skills to win the 2006 Middleweight (155lbs) Grand Prix by KOing Hiroyuki Takaya with a flying knee and choking out grappling expert Rani Yahya. When he won the 2007 Grand Prix – brutalizing another contender for the world’s top Lightweight in Shaolin Ribeiro and then submitting Chute Boxe’s Andre Dida – many respected analysts ranked him as *the* top 155lber in the sport.
Like so many others before him, injuries cut JZ’s run short. Following his September 2007 Grand Prix win, he had serious knee issues that followed him into his DREAM run, which began in early 2008 with a pair of fights against Shinya Aoki. The first meeting was a controversial one, which saw a No Contest declared after Aoki was supposedly elbowed in the back of the head (still don’t buy that myself), but in the second Aoki firmly outgrappled the Brazilian to take a unanimous decision. That was the last we’d see of JZ as a top Lightweight, as he took over a year off before returning with a lacklustre performance in a loss to Tatsuya Kawajiri. He was able to recover from this with a win over Katsunori Kikuno, but then came his ill-fated StrikeForce run, as while his first outing was a controversial loss to Josh Thomson in a fight many thought he won, he went on to struggle and went 1-1 with one No Contest, and the win was one some thought he should’ve lost (a split decision vs. Bobby Green, no comment from me as I haven’t seen the fight). Since then he’s hit a real skid and appears to be a ghost of his former self.
A UFC run for JZ would’ve been intriguing, particularly if he’d come over following the Hero’s GP win rather than moving onto DREAM. BJ Penn was just beginning his run of dominance in early 2008 so it’s doubtful he would’ve captured the title or anything, but to see a healthy JZ against the likes of Sean Sherk, Tyson Griffin, Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian would’ve been interesting and I think he could’ve held his own with any of them. The doubters would say his reputation was built on crushing smaller opposition – and it is true that a lot of his Hero’s victims went on to careers at 145lbs and even 135lbs – but his wins over Caol Uno and Shaolin suggest to me otherwise.
#6: Ricardo Arona
There are very few fighters who have had more ‘where is he now?’ threads made about them on MMA.tv than the ‘Brazilian Tiger’. By all sources, he’s somewhat of an enigma these days, with rumors that he splits his time surfing in Brazil and training the Abu Dhabi sheiks in BJJ, earning ludicrous amounts of money for his efforts. Whatever the truth, it’s a shame he never had a chance to test his skills in the UFC, as during the mid 00’s, there weren’t many 205lbers out there better than Ricardo Arona.
Arona came into PRIDE in 2001 following a stint in Japan’s RINGS promotion, where he went 5-1 with the lone loss coming at the hands of Fedor Emelianenko. Many fans will tell you Arona had a fair argument for winning that fight, too – myself included. His winning ways continued in PRIDE as he rolled off wins over Guy Mezger, Dan Henderson and ‘Ninja’ Rua, and he was an early favourite for 2003’s Middleweight (205lbs) Grand Prix before suffering a serious leg injury that laid him up for about a year. When he returned, he faced off with ‘Rampage’ Jackson and after almost knocking Quinton out with a pair of upkicks, became the victim of one of MMA’s most famous highlight reel moments as Rampage powerbombed him unconscious. Arona bounced back from that loss to go all the way to the finals of the 2005 Grand Prix – beating fierce rival and PRIDE champion Wanderlei Silva in the process – but again fell at the final hurdle, this time to ‘Shogun’ Rua. An unsuccessful challenge for Wanderlei’s title followed, although I thought he won that fight, too.
The last we would see of Arona in PRIDE was on their final show – Kamikaze – where he was stunningly knocked out by the explosive Sokoudjou. Still, even coming off the knockout it was expected that he would surface in the UFC following the buyout. Instead, it wasn’t to be. Arona seemingly vanished, only appearing for a 2009 fight against Marvin Eastman, and his Wiki entry now has him listed as retired. And while Wiki isn’t the most accurate often when it comes to MMA, I don’t think I’ll argue.
Most would argue that Arona was tailor-made for the UFC and for UFC stardom. He certainly looked the part, with a ridiculous jacked-up physique like Dwayne Johnson. And his fighting style, heavily based around takedowns and ground control, was also suited to the UFC and the Unified Rules. Whether he would have been successful though, I’m actually not sure. While he was a physical beast in PRIDE where there was no drug testing, you wonder whether he would’ve come into the UFC in the same condition. And while his takedowns were perfectly adequate against strikers like Silva, Ninja and grapplers like Dean Lister, would they have been as successful against the large wrestlers of the UFC like Chuck Liddell, and in 2007 when he would’ve arrived, Rampage Jackson, Rashad Evans and Tito Ortiz? And if he couldn’t take a fight to the ground, Arona was likely in trouble – he never did look comfortable standing, with an awkward stance, even if he did throw a killer leg kick. Still, as a fan of his it would’ve been nice to see him try.
#5: Joachim Hansen
Before Alexander Gustafsson’s rise, there was only one top Scandinavian MMA fighter, and his name was Joachim ‘Hellboy’ Hansen. Hansen first came to prominence in 2003, when he beat Takanori Gomi for the Shooto 155lbs title. He lost it to Shaolin Ribeiro in his first title defense, but then went on to knock out Caol Uno in one of the greatest fights you’ll ever see and took a decision over Yves Edwards in PRIDE to affirm his reputation as one of the baddest Lightweights in the world. Sure, even at his peak, Hansen’s record was a little sketchy – a loss to the unheralded Eiji Mitsuoka came after his PRIDE career prior to his run in DREAM – but the thing with Hellboy was that no matter the opponent, he guaranteed excitement. The fight with Uno tells its own story, but his fights with Edwards, with Luiz Azeredo and with Eddie Alvarez are also absolutely outstanding.
So, you ask, why the hell did the guy not end up in the UFC? He ended his PRIDE stint with an impressive win (over Jason Ireland), after all. From all reports, it was money-based. The two stories I’ve heard are that either Zuffa picked up Hansen’s contract and for whatever reason, wanted him to take a massive pay cut to come to the UFC, or Zuffa brass told him he was too small to compete at 155lbs and so he should drop to 145lbs. Which unfortunately in 2007, meant a trip to the WEC and again, much less money. Regardless of the reason, Hansen was supposedly quoted as saying that he’d rather have haemorrhoids than fight under the Zuffa banner. And that was that.
I don’t think Hellboy would’ve been a title contender in the UFC at 155lbs. I don’t think he’d have had as much success as JZ or Shaolin in fact, who I’ve ranked below him in this list. But he was exciting. Ridiculously, incredibly exciting. And as we all know, Dana White and the boys love exciting fighters. Fighters like Pat Barry and Chris Lytle and Matt Brown – essentially journeymen – have enjoyed longevity and made serious money in the UFC despite never coming close to challenging for titles, all because every time they get into the cage, a wild fight ensues. I think the same would’ve been said for Joachim Hansen and if he’d have signed with Zuffa in 2007 I think he’d still be around today putting on his crazy wars. Which in a way, would’ve been more successful than one failed title shot.
#4: Tatsuya Kawajiri
‘The Crusher’ was another product of Shooto and a badass one at that. The nickname was, and in a lot of ways, still is an apt one. Just watch his Shooto title victory over Shaolin Ribeiro. Or his absolutely devastating PRIDE debut over tomato can Kim In Seok. In 2005, Kawajiri was ranked by many as the top 155lber in the world. That all changed once he met Takanori Gomi in PRIDE’s Bushido Grand Prix and was thoroughly beaten by the ‘Fireball Kid’, but even so, Kawajiri was still widely recognized as one of the top Lightweights out there. When PRIDE was bought out by Zuffa in March 2007, Kawajiri was coming off a tight decision loss to Gilbert Melendez, but it was still thought that he’d make his way into the UFC. But for some reason, it never happened. We never got word of bad contract negotiations or anything like with Hansen. But Kawajiri was never even rumoured to be signing. The only rumor I heard was that he didn’t like flying and thus wanted to stay in Japan. Who knows.
Regardless, Kawajiri had an impressive run in DREAM following the death of PRIDE, going 10-2 with the only losses coming to Eddie Alvarez and Shinya Aoki. Along the way, he was able to beat Joachim Hansen, Josh Thomson and JZ Cavalcante. A nasty loss to Melendez in a rematch in Kawajiri’s first fight on US soil knocked him out of the top ten at 155lbs, but he’s since dropped to 145lbs where he’s unbeaten, although he hasn’t fought this year yet. And yet there’s still no rumor of him ever coming to the UFC and at this point I just don’t think it’ll ever happen. And hey, if he can make good money in Japan and he prefers the home cooking, then I guess that’s fair enough even if it’s frustrating as a fan.
It’s hard to say how Kawajiri would’ve done in the UFC. I don’t think it’s fair to base a decision on the one Melendez fight as to be honest, that’s the best I’ve ever seen Gilbert look, and Gilbert is an incredible talent. Had he come into the UFC in 2007, Kawajiri definitely could’ve been successful. The division wasn’t quite as packed with talent as it is today and I think he could’ve had good fights with the likes of Kenny Florian, Din Thomas and Hermes Franca. The question to me is how his wrestling would’ve held up against the superior American wrestling of fighters like Sherk, Edgar, Guida and Griffin. After all, the only fighter he faced in Japan with that style was Eddie Alvarez, and he beat him. I think he would’ve had a career in the UFC with some highs and some lows, and may have gotten as far as a #1 contender’s fight or something. Definitely would’ve been fun, but you can’t blame a guy for wanting to stay at home I guess.
#3: Paulo Filho
The fact that there was once a serious thread on MMA.tv entitled ‘Paulo Filho would RAPE Franklin’ should tell you a lot about this guy’s reputation at his peak in 2005-6. At that point, Filho looked unstoppable. Jacked to the gills with a ridiculously quick takedown, phenomenal ground control and a tight submission game, nobody in PRIDE had really come close to dealing with him, as he racked up a 14-0 record with wins over top fighters like Amar Suloev, Murilo Ninja, Ryo Chonan and Kazuo Misaki. Sure, he had a sketchy record when it came to injuries – he’d withdrawn from two PRIDE tournaments in fact – but when he did fight, he looked like an absolute machine. So there was no question that he’d be bringing his game – which looked like it would translate perfectly to the unified rules – to the UFC, right?
Wrong. It wasn’t to be and Filho never did make it to the UFC, although from most sources, he came closer to the Octagon than anyone else on this list. See, when Martin Kampmann pulled out of his planned UFC 72 main event against Rich Franklin, the word was that Zuffa wanted Filho to plug the gap. The fight only fell apart when Filho explained that if he beat Franklin, he didn’t really want to face his friend Anderson Silva for the UFC title. So instead, Yushin Okami got the fight and Filho was signed up to the UFC’s sister promotion, the WEC, instead. His first fight there was against tough journeyman Joe Doerksen for the inaugural WEC Middleweight Title. And although Filho knocked Doerksen out to claim the belt, he didn’t look quite like the same dominant Filho from PRIDE. He looked….deflated, for lack of a better word. A controversial win over Chael Sonnen followed, with Sonnen claiming he didn’t tap to an armbar when the referee stepped in. A rematch was signed, but then the real problems started. Filho pulled out of the first fight to check into rehab. Never a good sign. When the fight did take place, it looked like Paulo’s mind was still in rehab, as he was muttering to himself during the fight and appeared to be looking away from Sonnen for portions. He lost the fight in one-sided fashion but still kept the title, as he missed weight by a wide margin. Suffice to say, when the WEC’s 185lbs division was moved to the UFC, Filho missed the boat.
Since then, calling his career a disaster would probably be too kind. He’s seen weight gain, more substance abuse and trips to rehab, and losses to fighters like Dave Branch and Norman Paraisy, guys he would’ve utterly crushed in his prime. But in hindsight, ‘prime’ Filho was likely jacked out of his mind on lord-knows how many PEDs, and if he’d have come to the UFC for the fight with Franklin we likely would’ve seen the bloated shell that we saw in the WEC and he would’ve been a huge disappointment. But damnit – and I admit, this sounds cruel – I wish that run had been in the UFC, if only so we could say that we saw Paulo Filho step into the Octagon. Because regardless of his faults, the guy was incredible during that run in PRIDE. Incredible.
#2: Shinya Aoki
I admit it. When I was working on this list earlier, I had the ten fighters pretty much right away, and I had the #1 sorted immediately. When I came to order the rest, I really didn’t want to rank this guy so highly. I’ll be frank and say I can’t stand him. But it’s hard to deny the strength of his record. On paper alone, Shinya Aoki is a great fighter. There, I said it. Wins over Hansen, Ribeiro, JZ, Kawajiri, Alvarez – that’s one of the best records in 155lbs history really. And yet there’s so many other things surrounding this guy’s career that it’s almost hard not to be subjective about it.
Essentially, Aoki didn’t come to the UFC following the PRIDE buyout because after a string of pretty slick submission wins, namely his gogoplata of Joachim Hansen, he found himself the new poster-boy of Japanese MMA, and so when the DREAM promotion was formed he immediately moved there. The controversial No Contest with JZ followed, although his win in the rematch was undeniable. Then came a mounted gogoplata of Olympic wrestler Katsuhiko Nagata, a decision win over Caol Uno, and Aoki found himself in the finals of DREAM’s inaugural Lightweight Grand Prix. Glory eluded him though, as he was smashed to pieces by alternate Joachim Hansen, who gained his revenge over the submission expert. A failed run at Welterweight followed, where he was knocked out by Hayato Sakurai. But then came the win over Shaolin, and after that, an armbar submission of Hansen to claim the DREAM title and brutal submission wins over Kawajiri and Mizuto Hirota. On the other side of the coin, in his two excursions to the US, Aoki was comfortably beaten by Gilbert Melendez and by Eddie Alvarez, who took his revenge for an earlier loss to Aoki in Japan.
That’s Aoki’s career in a nutshell, now let’s talk about what he could’ve done in the UFC. The cynics – and in a way, I’m one of them – will point to all the advantages he had in Japan. He was fighting in a ring rather than a cage, he was able to wear his long tights to gain an advantage on the ground, and in certain fights – namely the first JZ fight and the third Hansen fight – he seemed to have the referees and other officials firmly on his side. Those cynics would also point to the Melendez fight and use it as an example of how Aoki’s game just wouldn’t work stateside as long as fighters refused to play to his strengths. Would he have been successful in the UFC? As long as fighters didn’t get silly and attempt to fight him at his own game, I don’t think he would’ve been. He certainly wouldn’t have even come close to beating BJ Penn, and for fans to claim he would’ve is pretty laughable in my eyes. But his sheer strength of record against proven top opposition – even if it was in Japan – makes him one of the greatest fighters to never set foot in the Octagon. As much as I hate to admit that.
#1: Fedor Emelianenko
But of course. Who else did you expect? Let’s be fair – regardless of all the Zuffa rhetoric, Fedor was simply put, the best Heavyweight of his generation. You just can’t argue with his record – wins over Nogueira (twice), Cro Cop, Coleman, Randleman, Herring, Schilt, Fujita, Hunt, Sylvia and Arlovski – literally the only names missing from that era of Heavyweights would be Barnett, Mir and Couture, and you could argue Randy was more of a 205lber anyway. And more than enough has been written about his reasons for not signing with the UFC – and lord knows he had enough opportunities, from when PRIDE went down, to when Affliction crashed and burned – and also about his ill-fated tenure in StrikeForce, where losses to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and finally Dan Henderson killed his mystique for good. I prefer to wonder though, what would have happened if Fedor had signed with the UFC?
Let’s look at 2007 first. The rumor was that he would be signed just prior to UFC 75, ready for a match with Couture for the Heavyweight Title at the end of the year. If that had gone ahead then I don’t see how Randy could’ve beaten him, if I’m honest. Randy was a great fighter in his own right, but in late 2007 Fedor was still at his peak, and hit harder, was faster and had a better overall ground game. I think Fedor would’ve won and if he’d taken the UFC title then, he probably would’ve gotten at least three or four defences under his belt against the likes of Sylvia, Arlovski and Nogueira again.
If he’d have signed in 2009, when Affliction crashed? It would’ve been Lesnar vs. Fedor for the title at UFC 106, and of course that would’ve been postponed with Brock’s illness, so we likely would’ve gotten Fedor vs. Shane Carwin for the Interim belt. I find it hard to see how a fighter as limited – if brutally powerful –as Carwin could’ve dealt with Fedor, and I think we’d have seen a result similar to Fedor’s win over Brett Rogers. Next would’ve been Frank Mir in March and while that would’ve been a super-intriguing fight, I think Fedor’s punching power would’ve made the difference despite Mir’s size advantage. And I think he’d have beaten Lesnar too, particularly the Lesnar that came into that fight against Carwin in July 2010. If Fedor had hit Brock like that, he would’ve finished him, no doubt. Cain Velasquez though would’ve been a step too far in my eyes. After all, Cain is part of a different era of fighter, and as we’ve seen with GSP crushing Matt Hughes and Jon Jones slaughtering most of the 205lbs division, when that generation gap comes it comes suddenly and it’s hard to stop.
The biggest difference in my eyes would be to Fedor’s legacy. To hardcore fans who did see him in action, he’ll always be the best of his generation, a guy who was able to blend brutal power with perfect technique and enough heart to overcome some serious obstacles, but failed once he was faced with a pair of fighters from the next generation. But history is written by the winners, and undoubtedly in MMA, the winners are Zuffa. And so he’ll likely be remembered as the man who turned his back on a golden opportunity to prove his worth in the place where it really mattered – the Octagon – that is, if he is remembered at all. If he’d have signed with the UFC though, he’d likely be seen in a much different light – probably like a Wanderlei Silva or an Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – an ageing warrior who happened to ply his trade elsewhere during the prime of his career. And when it comes down to it, it’s sad that his and his management’s choices have cost him that legacy. So sad.
Any feedback/questions/hate mail? Send it my way at NewmanMMA@gmail.com. Expect to see me back soon with a UFC review. Until then…..it’s been emotional.