The MMA fighters who defined the decade

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There are fighters who found success in the Octagon, and there are fighters whose success transcended the Octagon.

The latter group featured superstars whose contributions weren’t necessarily defined by their records. They didn’t just excel in the sport, they changed it.

Over the past decade, three such athletes stood out for how they impacted MMA. One was a pioneer, one may be the greatest fighter of all time and someone associated with a landmark policy change and the other simply is the biggest star in the sport’s history.

ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Marc Raimondi break down the contributions that made these three the most influential over the past decade.



Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Mark Raimondi discuss the early days of Conor McGregor in the UFC and the atmosphere that surrounded him.

No fighter in the history of mixed martial arts has made a greater impact on the sport than McGregor has over the past decade. Period. End of discussion.

That is to take absolutely nothing away from any of the great athletes who have shaped and carried MMA to where it is today, but none of them came close to defining it as much as McGregor. The UFC’s World Tour in 2015 — the greatest promotional campaign the company has ever embarked on — was because of McGregor. The UFC brand selling for $4 billion in 2016, was, in no small part, because of McGregor. A crossover event with Floyd Mayweather? That was because of McGregor. The Irishman’s impact on MMA has been felt from a competitive and business standpoint. Amazing, when you consider he essentially did all of it in a span of roughly five years.

Of course, not all of McGregor’s exploits can be characterized as positive. His persona and legacy have changed — a lot — in recent years. He’s gone from virtually unknown, to star, to champion, to superstar, to spectacle in a very short amount of time. There is no denying McGregor is still good for a sport that has always fought for new viewers and mainstream attention, but the way in which he’s demanding that attention has become disappointing.

Still, ask any sports fan if they are familiar with Conor McGregor, and the answer is very likely to be yes. He is the biggest star the sport has ever produced and it has reached a new level of popularity because of him.

— Okamoto



Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi discuss Jon Jones, whose status as the greatest ever is undermined by issues outside the octagon.

How Jon Jones defined the decade isn’t as simple as looking at his record inside the Octagon. His impact may have started there, but it extends far beyond the steel structure.

Jones entered this decade coming off a defeat. OK, that’s sort of a joke. The record does show a Jones loss to Matt Hamill in December 2009, but his disqualification for landing illegal elbows has been hotly disputed. And something no one will dispute: Until those forbidden elbows landed, Jones was obliterating Hamill with every attack allowable, as he has done to everyone else who has stepped into the cage with him, to varying degrees, before and especially since.

On March 19, 2011, Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history. And boy, did the 23-year-old do it in style. On the morning of his challenge of light heavyweight belt-holder Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Jones and a couple of his coaches left their Newark hotel in search of a quiet place in northern New Jersey for meditation. What they stumbled upon instead was an elderly couple being robbed, whereupon Jones ran down the suspect and held him for police. Hours before the biggest cage fight of his life, Jones had become a crime fighter worthy of the Justice League.

Since taking the belt from Shogun, “Bones” has fought 13 times without a defeat. There have been other MMA greats this decade, but every one of them — from Ronda Rousey to Demetrious Johnson — has eventually faltered. Not Jones. He has remained the gold standard of sustained excellence inside the cage.

Outside the cage has been a different story. The fiascoes have kept on coming, from news conference brawl to hit-and-run car accident to disorderly conduct with a waitress in a strip club. For fans and especially UFC officials, Jones has been as much hold-your-breath as he’s been breathtaking.

But some of Jones’ failings have helped define the decade. Two of the three times he’s been stripped of his title belt, it’s been for failed drug tests. The Jones drug test saga has put a main-event spotlight on the UFC’s transition from the testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT) era. It was intended as a leveling of the playing field, but it turned into what to all appearances was anything goes. Today we’re in a current period of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) rule, which has resulted in high-profile fights having to be canceled. For Jones, as with other top-shelf fighters who’ve run afoul of USADA, entire résumés have been shrouded by question marks.

A year ago, Jones failed a third drug test but was ultimately cleared, and that led to a defining moment: UFC 232 was moved in its entirety from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to allow his rematch with Alexander Gustafsson to go on. Despite all the turmoil Jones has created over the past decade, the change of venue demonstrated just how important this man continues to be for the fight promotion and the sport.


Ronda Rousey



Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto look back at the significance of the first women’s fight in UFC history, Ronda Rousey vs. Liz Carmouche.

There is no separating Ronda Rousey and the growth of women’s MMA over the past decade.

Rousey’s skill, star power and charisma as Strikeforce champion convinced UFC president Dana White to allow women to fight for his promotion. Prior to Rousey’s rise, White infamously said women would “never” compete in the UFC. He didn’t think there was enough depth. Rousey changed his mind.

The first women’s fight in UFC history was Rousey taking on Liz Carmouche in the main event of UFC 157 on Feb. 23, 2013. Rousey won with her trademark armbar submission at 4 minutes, 49 seconds of the first round. There were those at the time who disagreed with Rousey and Carmouche headlining over the co-main event between former champions Lyoto Machida and Dan Henderson. Now, almost seven years later, that notion seems ridiculous.

Including UFC 157, 13 UFC pay-per-view events and 27 total UFC cards (almost 10 percent) have been headlined by women. Rousey headlined a record six of those PPVs. Due to her marketability, dominance and no-nonsense approach, Rousey took a promotion that had no women’s fights into one that regularly had women in featured spots.

“Ronda was the perfect person in the perfect place at the perfect time,” said the PFL’s Kayla Harrison, a former two-time Olympic judo champion and longtime friend of Rousey. … “She opened up the door for women like me. She didn’t even open it — she kicked that s— down.”

Women in mixed martial arts didn’t start with Rousey, of course. The Strikeforce headliner in 2009 pitting Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano on Showtime was extremely influential. Carano was one of Rousey’s inspirations to fight after Rousey won the Olympic bronze medal in judo in 2008. Even before Cyborg vs. Carano, there were big women’s fights.

But Rousey took things a giant step further in the UFC, where women are now essentially paid on average as much as men are — a big difference between MMA and other major sports. Rousey brought with her the bantamweight division, but there are now four divisions for women in the UFC: strawweight, flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight.

Inside the cage, Rousey’s run of dominance was unprecedented and may never be seen again. She started her career 6-0 with all first-round armbar submissions and was awarded the UFC women’s bantamweight title when she signed in 2012 after holding the Strikeforce belt. The UFC purchased Strikeforce a year earlier.

Rousey (12-2) won her first six UFC fights, all but one by first-round stoppage. During one three-fight stretch in 2014 and 2015, she defeated Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano and Bethe Correia in a combined 64 seconds. Rousey became the biggest mainstream star in UFC history in 2015, crossing over into movies like “Furious 7,” “Entourage” and “The Expendables 3.”

Holly Holm ended Rousey’s undefeated streak by knockout at UFC 193 on Nov. 15, 2015. Rousey returned at UFC 207 on Dec. 30, 2016, but was knocked out again by Amanda Nunes, essentially ending her MMA career. But Rousey’s legacy was already cemented. She still holds the UFC women’s record with six title defenses. In 2018, Rousey became the first woman inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame — not just for her individual accomplishments, but how she transformed the game for women in MMA.

— Raimondi

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