Randy Couture made his UFC debut on May 30, 1997, at UFC 13. UFC held the card in front of just more than 5,000 people in Augusta, Georgia. There was no regulation for the event; the rules changed from card to card to accommodate local fighting commissions or avoid political scorn.
It was a stark contrast to today’s UFC, a glitzy, multibillion-dollar sports promotion that runs massive events worldwide, airs on ESPN and is broadcast to millions of homes via television and pay-per-view.
“I don’t think anybody in those stands knew who was on the card,” Couture said of his debut. “They just wanted to see fights. It was the tractor-pull crowd. It was a little bit different. There were more fights in the stands at UFC 13 than there were in the cage. It was a totally different atmosphere.”
Couture, a multitime UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion and UFC Hall of Famer, said the UFC did not seem like a sport back then. Now, it’s a major league, global sports property that has risen in popularity — and professionalism — over the past three decades. The early UFC cards were kind of an experiment. Most fighters were specialists in just one martial arts discipline, and the entire idea behind the UFC at the time was to figure out which discipline was strongest. What everyone learned, Couture said, was that knowing just one martial art was not enough in a sport that had been dubbed mixed martial arts.
“I came in on the cusp of the end of that first generation of mixed martial artists that were out to prove their fighting style — whatever their background was — was the best fighting style,” Couture said. “I think what we quickly realized was there was no one fighting style in martial arts that encompassed everything you needed to know. And we all started cross-training.”
Couture, a former Olympic wrestler, was the only fighter to dominate three different years: 1997, 2000 and 2003. “The Natural” was the first UFC fighter to win titles in two weight classes, winning the heavyweight title three times and the light heavyweight belt twice.
“Mixed martial artists are treating themselves like professional athletes,” Daniel Cormier said of today’s stars. “They’re more well-rounded and more skilled than their predecessors.”
Cormier, also a former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, points to how fighters are training. State-of-the-art facilities and elevated coaching like American Top Team, Sanford MMA and American Kickboxing Academy set the standard in today’s sport. The UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas “rivals anything in sports” regarding strength, conditioning and MMA training. The access to resources and information has made way for an ongoing evolution of what it takes to be the best in the world.
In advance of UFC 276 on Saturday in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV), ESPN gathered a group of experts to vote and select the best fighter for every year since the UFC launched in 1993. The evolution of fighting styles is visible throughout the list — from Royce Gracie’s indomitable jiu-jitsu to Chuck Liddell’s sprawl and brawl to Ronda Rousey’s judo to multifaceted athletes Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson.
Here is the best MMA fighter in the world for every year, going back to 1993, when the UFC held its first-ever event in Denver. — Marc Raimondi
1993-94: Royce Gracie
The original dominant force in MMA. Gracie inspired generations to take up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which he showcased beautifully in winning the first two UFC single-night tournaments ever at UFC 1 and UFC 2 — and then winning again at UFC 4. At UFC 1 on Nov. 12, 1993, Gracie choked out a boxer in Art Jimmerson, a well-muscled submission wrestler in Ken Shamrock and a karate master in Gerard Gordeau, firmly establishing Brazilian jiu-jitsu as the strongest martial art at that time.
Gracie, who was routinely the smaller combatant, beat four men in one night to win UFC 2 in March 1994 and three more men to win UFC 4 in December 1994. Gracie won his only fight at UFC 3 but withdrew because of injury before the semifinals. In 1993 and 1994 combined, the gi-cloaked Gracie went 11-0, finishing every fight. — Raimondi
1995: Ken Shamrock
This was an early-career-defining year for Shamrock. Two years after Gracie’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu caught him off guard at UFC 1, Shamrock fought Gracie to a near 40-minute draw in a rematch — which he likely would have won, had there been MMA scoring at the time. At UFC 6 in July, he submitted former UFC tournament winner Dan Severn in the first round to win the UFC’s Superfight Championship, the first non-tournament championship ever presented by the promotion.
Those two fights were the linchpins of Shamrock’s year, but he fought eight times in 1995. He recorded wins against Severn and Bas Rutten, and a draw against another UFC tournament winner, Oleg Taktarov. — Brett Okamoto
1996: Mark Coleman
Coleman didn’t make his MMA debut until July 1996, and by year’s end, he had fought on only two nights. But it was anything but an inactive year. At UFC 10, Coleman competed for 21:17 — in three fights. Back then, the UFC ran one-night tournaments, and on this one night, “The Hammer” nailed it repeatedly by beating up undefeated UFC 8 champ Don Frye in the final. Coleman’s finishing touch? Headbutts, which were legal at the time. Two months later, Coleman won UFC 11 with a few more maulings. Then, a month into 1997, he became the first UFC heavyweight champion.
A 1988 NCAA Division I wrestling champion and 1992 Olympian, Coleman came to MMA straight out of the ’96 Olympic trials with no stand-up fighting skills whatsoever. The godfather of ground-and-pound didn’t need ’em. — Jeff Wagenheim
1997: Randy Couture
‘The Natural’ was 34 years old when he made his professional MMA debut in 1997, and he did not take long to make an impression. Couture won the UFC 13 heavyweight tournament that first year as a pro, putting him on a fast track to title contention. At UFC 15, he finished Vitor Belfort via TKO eight minutes in to earn a shot at the UFC heavyweight championship in just his fourth pro fight.
That fight took place that December in Japan, against an experienced MMA fighter and kickboxer, Maurice Smith. Smith had won the title earlier that year by defeating Mark Coleman and defended it with a TKO victory over Tank Abbott. However, Couture’s inexperience didn’t show once the fight started, and he won the title by majority decision — all within the first seven months of his pro career. — Okamoto
1998: Frank Shamrock
Before the likes of Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones, Frank Shamrock was one of the first multidimensional threats in MMA. He could strike, wrestle and grapple with proficiency. And 1998 was the best example of that. Shamrock fought three times in the UFC that year, defending his UFC light heavyweight title with victories in each one. But it was how he did it that was most impressive.
Shamrock knocked out Igor Zinoviev with a slam in March, submitted Jeremy Horn with a kneebar in May and finished John Lober with punches in October. The latter matchup headlined the first-ever UFC card in Brazil. — Raimondi
1999: Kevin Randleman
Randleman, a two-time NCAA Division I champion, came to MMA right out of wrestling, just like his mentor and Ohio State coach, Coleman. He did get his feet wet with some regional fights down in Brazil, but when he first set foot in the UFC cage in March 1999, Randleman was thrown right into the deep end of the talent pool.
His debut at UFC 19 was against former heavyweight champion Smith, who also had won a world title in kickboxing. Randleman won by decision, and two fights later, he was the UFC heavyweight champ. Randleman died in 2016 of pneumonia at age 44. — Wagenheim
2000: Randy Couture
There were plenty of banner years in the career of Couture, but the year 2000 is arguably one that gets overlooked. After pausing MMA to focus on his amateur wrestling career, Couture didn’t make his first MMA appearance of 2000 until October — but he crammed plenty into those final three months. He defeated UFC veteran Jeremy Horn and Ryushi Yanagisawa on the same night in a tournament in Japan.
Those two victories earned Couture a trip to the tournament finals in February the following year. Still, in the meantime, Couture squeezed in a UFC heavyweight title fight against two-time NCAA wrestling champion Randleman. Couture knocked out Randleman with strikes on the ground at UFC 28 to win his second UFC heavyweight title. — Okamoto
2001: Tito Ortiz
When you think of dominance in a division, I look back at 2001 as the year of the “Huntington Beach Bad Boy.” Ortiz’s reign was nothing short of perfection. The high-paced cardio that allowed him to dictate the narrative of the fight and impose his will with his wrestling made Ortiz unique at the time. The year 2001 started with his fight against the well-rounded Evan Tanner. Ortiz made quick work of the veteran with a win via KO slam in the first round.
Oritz would return in June of that same year to face Elvis Sinosic. Different opponent, similar result as Ortiz used his wrestling to get the fight to the floor where he finished it via TKO with strikes and elbows. As if that wasn’t enough, Ortiz signed on for his third fight of the year, against Vladimir Matyushenko. In this fight, Tito showed the world his relentless cardio and dominance in wrestling that got him the win via unanimous decision. — Ian Parker
2002: Matt Hughes
Hughes became a UFC champion essentially as an act of revenge. He fought Carlos Newton in November 2001, six months after Newton had dethroned Hughes’ coach and friend, Pat Miletich. Once Hughes knocked out Newton (and knocked out himself, actually) with a slam to the mat to win the welterweight title, he went on to defend the belt five times in his initial reign, then won back the vacant title in a fight against an upstart St-Pierre.
Hughes’ 2002 was particularly dominant, with three TKO victories fueled by his unstoppable wrestling. That element of his game was demoralizing for opponents, as Hughes loved to pick them up, carry them to the center of the cage and slam them violently to the mat. Hughes was an alpha male among alphas. — Wagenheim
2003: Randy Couture
Couture’s 2003 was arguably one of the most famous calendar years ever put together by a mixed martial artist. All signs pointed to a friends-turned-rivals UFC title fight between Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. When Ortiz initially refused to defend his championship against Liddell, the UFC brought in Couture as a foe for Liddell. The company booked an interim title fight between Liddell and Couture in June, with the likely presumption Liddell would win and further set up a grudge match against Ortiz.
The 40-year-old Couture spoiled those plans. He upset Liddell at UFC 43 in Las Vegas and then unified his interim light heavyweight title by defeating Ortiz in a five-round decision in September. In doing so, he became the first fighter to win UFC titles in multiple weight classes. — Okamoto
2004: BJ Penn
It was a wild year in 2004 for Penn. “The Prodigy” signed with Japan’s K-1 promotion while still being the UFC welterweight champion because he thought the UFC didn’t have enough competition for him then. During this period, there was as much talent competing in MMA over in Japan as there was stateside.
In January, Penn stopped Hughes, then considered the best welterweight ever, via first-round submission to win the UFC’s 170-pound title. When Penn signed with K-1, the UFC stripped him of the belt. Penn went on to finish Duane Ludwig via first-round submission in May and then moved up to 185 pounds for a win against Rodrigo Gracie in Penn’s beloved home state of Hawaii that November. — Raimondi
2005-06: Chuck Liddell
The mohawk and Fu Manchu made for a fearsome look, and Liddell lived up to it every time he set foot in the Octagon.
He began his 2005 with an April knockout of rugged Couture to become UFC light heavyweight champion. And by the end of ’06, “The Iceman,” with flames on his shorts, had recorded four more knockouts. The last of those was against heated rival Ortiz at UFC 66, the promotion’s biggest pay-per-view to date. It attracted nearly a million customers and made Liddell a star transcending the cage. He appeared in films and TV shows that needed to fill a tough guy role because Liddell looked — and earned — the part. — Wagenheim
2007: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson
After being one of the biggest stars in Japan’s Pride FC, the charismatic and heavy-handed Jackson returned to the United States in 2006 and signed with WFA. The UFC wanted “Rampage” in the Octagon so much that it was one of the reasons the promotion bought out the WFA promotion and the contracts of its fighters.
Jackson made his UFC debut in February 2007, a second-round knockout of Marvin Eastman. That put “Rampage” right in a UFC light heavyweight title fight with Liddell, the UFC’s biggest mainstream name, at UFC 71 in May. Jackson knocked Liddell out in the first round to win the belt. In September of that year, “Rampage” beat Dan Henderson via unanimous decision to retain the UFC light heavyweight title and unify it with the Pride FC middleweight belt. — Raimondi
2008: Anderson Silva
Silva began 2008 by defending both his middleweight title and the UFC itself. His challenger at UFC 82 was Henderson, the reigning champ in the Pride Fighting Championship, formerly the UFC’s biggest rival but now a soon-to-be-defunct organization within the Zuffa parent company. Silva won the cross-promotion fight by submission, detoured up to light heavyweight for a knockout win, then closed his year back at 185 pounds with another KO.
It was part of a 16-fight UFC winning streak, a record that still stands (although Kamaru Usman is coming after it hard, just one from a tie). And that doesn’t even account for the copious style points accumulated by “The Spider,” whose elastic movement while in the line of fire was mesmerizing. — Wagenheim
2009: Lyoto Machida
In the year 2009, a new contender entered the title picture. That man was Lyoto Machida. His Karate-based style was a puzzle that couldn’t be solved nd hadn’t been seen in the UFC. Finishing off 2008 with a win over Ortiz, Machida was introduced to the MMA world in a big way and was primed for a successful career. His first opponent in 2009 was a very dangerous knockout artist in Thiago Silva. To say Machida passed that litmus test is an understatement. He knocked out Silva in the first round. A few months later, Machida welcomed TUF winner and former LHW champ Rashad Evans. Many thought the wrestling of Evans could neutralize the striking of Machida. But again, Machida ran through his opponent and finished Evans in the second round. In his third and final fight of the year, Machida fought Mauricio Shogun Rua and won by unanimous decision.
The dominance of Machida was one-of-a-kind. Between his karate-based style, counterstriking and ability to be unpredictable, 2009 was the year of “The Dragon.” — Parker
2010: Frankie Edgar
UFC 112 on Apr. 10, 2010, was the promotion’s first trip to the Middle East and kickstarted a strong relationship with the government of Abu Dhabi. In the co-main event of that card, Edgar shocked Penn, one of the UFC’s biggest stars and considered one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, via a close unanimous decision to win the UFC lightweight title. The flashy Penn was a big favorite over Edgar, a workmanlike fighter with fundamental boxing and wrestling and god-tier toughness.
Many felt the judges’ decision was a poor one. So, the UFC booked the rematch for August that year — and Edgar beat Penn again via unanimous decision. The second time around, Edgar dominated and didn’t lose a single round. “The Answer” was no longer just a durable, exciting fighter — he was one of the best in the world. — Raimondi
2011: Jon Jones
Jones began 2011 as an understudy but quickly seized the spotlight. As he stood inside the cage immediately following a February victory that continued his rise through the light heavyweight ranks, Jones was told that his training partner, Evans, was injured and had to pull out of a title challenge scheduled for a month later. The UFC was granting Jones the shot. The rest is history — the 23-year-old became the youngest UFC champion ever.
Before the year was out, Jones had defeated — and finished — two more former champs. It was quickly becoming apparent that no one in MMA could stop “Bones” — except Jones himself. But the chronic misdeeds would come later. In 2011, when Jones made news outside the cage, it was from tracking down a robber on the street just hours before he won his belt. — Wagenheim
2012: Benson Henderson
It usually takes two victories to truly dethrone a dominant champion in MMA, and that’s what Henderson accomplished in 2012. He went up against arguably the greatest lightweight of all time (at the time) in Edgar and beat him in back-to-back five-round wars in February and August. Edgar was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but Henderson bested him once by unanimous decision and then by split decision in a highly anticipated rematch.
Those two wins would have qualified for a fantastic year on their own, but the former WEC champion squeezed in another title defense in December, when he dominated Nate Diaz throughout five rounds in Seattle. — Okamoto
2013: Chris Weidman
After winning five fights in a row and remaining undefeated in his MMA career, Chris Weidman was a prospect to watch. Weidman, an all-American wrestler with incredible submission skills, was on his way to being a problem in the middleweight division. In 2013, Weidman did the unthinkable as he dethroned Anderson Silva and then defended his title in a rematch. Silva, arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time, had met his match in Weidman.
Weidman’s wrestling and submission skills were feared by many, as two more title defenses against legends Machida and Belfort came in 2014 and 2015. That four-year run from 2011 to ’15 puts Weidman’s name near the top of the all-time great middleweights list. — Parker
2014: Ronda Rousey
A year after essentially introducing women’s MMA to the UFC, Rousey opened 2014 with an Olympian showdown, as the 2008 judo bronze medalist faced 2004 silver-medal-winning wrestler Sara McMann. This one was not competitive, like nearly all of Rousey’s fights during her heyday, as Rousey dropped McMann with a knee to the body just over a minute in.
Five months later, Rousey needed just 16 seconds to knock out Alexis Davis. This stunner began a stretch of three fights in which “Rowdy Ronda” finished opponents in barely half a minute. It was as dominant a run as any fighter has produced in MMA history. — Wagenheim
2015: Conor McGregor
This was the “mission accomplished” year of Conor McGregor’s career. McGregor’s rise to the biggest star in MMA history was always firmly linked to his quest to dethrone the great Jose Aldo, which happened in a 13-second knockout at UFC 194 in December 2015. That year just had the feeling of destiny for McGregor. Everything from his demolition of Dennis Siver in January, after which he confronted Aldo in the stands, to his interim title win against Chad Mendes in July, to the final exclamation point of defeating Aldo in Las Vegas. It was all magic.
Of course, some would say the following year was the biggest of McGregor’s career. In 2016, he fought Nate Diaz twice in two instant classics before finishing it up as the UFC’s first “champ champ” at Madison Square Garden. That was an incredible year in MMA history, but when you consider McGregor’s career as a whole, it’s hard to say any one calendar year was more memorable than 2015. — Okamoto
2016: Amanda Nunes
Nunes was not only the best fighter in the world in 2016, she had arguably the greatest year in women’s MMA history. In March, the Brazilian slugger beat Valentina Shevchenko via unanimous decision. That was only Shevchenko’s second UFC fight, but we know now she’s among the best women’s fighters ever. Nunes became the No. 1 contender for the UFC women’s bantamweight title with that victory and, courtesy of a Jones drug test failure, was moved to the main event of UFC 200 in July against then-champion Miesha Tate.
“Leoa” destroyed Tate, knocking her down and choking her out in the first round. And then, to cap the year in December, Nunes obliterated Rousey, the biggest star in women’s MMA history, in 48 seconds via TKO. It doesn’t get much better than that. — Raimondi
2017: Demetrious Johnson
“The Mighty Mouse” nickname is a size reference, of course, but the “Mighty” part signified something essential about Johnson: He might have been in the weight class for the UFC’s smallest fighting men, but that was no measure of the fight inside this man. Johnson was fast forward and nonstop. Back in 2015, Johnson had pulled off a submission at 4:59 of Round 5 — one second before the fight would have ended with the judges’ decision likely to go his way. But that wasn’t good enough for him. This man’s foot never leaves the gas pedal.
Johnson pulled off another fifth-round submission in October 2017, and this one was spectacular, as “Mighty Mouse” transitioned from a suplex into an armbar. The win over Ray Borg was Johnson’s 11th successful title defense, a UFC record. It was both historic and a thing of beauty. — Wagenheim
2018: Daniel Cormier
Cormier was already one of the most recognizable names on the UFC’s roster by 2018, but this was the year that truly sent him over the top. It was also when he completely distanced himself from an attachment to Jones. Cormier was the light heavyweight champion at the time, and it was a legitimate title. But remember, he never took the belt from Jones, who beat him twice and lost the belt during that time only because of issues outside the cage.
Because of that, Cormier’s success was always somewhat linked to the absence of Jones in the division. That changed in 2018, when he moved up to heavyweight and knocked out arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time in Stipe Miocic to claim a second championship. That was one thing Jones had never done, and it separated Cormier’s legacy in a way he probably never would have been able to at light heavyweight. Cormier went 3-0 in 2018, including title defenses in Boston and New York. — Okamoto
2019: Israel Adesanya
Israel Adesanya’s stunning rise to middleweight champion of the world was completed in 2019 against Robert Whittaker in front of a UFC-record 56,214 screaming fans at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. Adesanya had earlier in the year defeated his idol, Silva, at UFC 234 in February. Then, he won the interim title in a bruising five-round encounter with Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 236 in April while the champion, Whittaker, was on the mend due to injury.
Adesanya’s second-round knockout of Whittaker at UFC 243 marked his arrival as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, a position he retains today. From the prefight dance routine, the twin floorings of Whittaker and then his postfight celebration, it was clear the UFC had found its next big star. — Sam Bruce
2020: Deiveson Figueiredo
In 2020, when you think of dominance, one name comes to mind. That name is Deiveson Figueiredo. This was a fighter who had evolved into a championship contender as his speed, power and submission ability had come into full bloom. Yes, he weighed 125 pounds, but he fought and walked around like he was the world’s heavyweight champion.
He started his year with a TKO win over Joseph Benavidez for the flyweight title in February, but a rematch would take place later in the year due to Figueiredo’s missing weight as he couldn’t claim the belt. In July, Figueiredo made weight and finished Benavidez, this time by submission. The newly crowned champ returned to the cage against Alex Perez, and Figueiredo made him tap in the first round. In a stunning twist, Figueiredo would put his title on the line just three weeks later against Brandon Moreno, with the two fighters putting up a fight for the ages. Figueiredo and Moreno’s match ended in a draw, but “Figgy Smalls” definitively won the year. — Parker
2021: Kamaru Usman
Coming off a year that was defined by a pandemic, Usman promised to be active in 2021. And he certainly lived up to that promise. He defended the UFC welterweight championship three times in 2021, and each defense came with a story. He knocked out his former teammate and friend Gilbert Burns in February. He demolished a superstar in Jorge Masvidal in a rematch of a lackluster fight from 2020. And he capped off the year by defeating his most heated rival in Colby Covington, inside the historic confines of Madison Square Garden.
It’s not easy to defend a UFC championship three times in a single calendar year in modern MMA, but Usman made it look easy, against legitimate competition. In doing so, he moved to a near-consensus pick as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world and closer to upending the great St-Pierre as the greatest welterweight of all time. This was not just a career-defining year for Usman. It was a legacy-defining one. — Okamoto
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