Plenty of digital ink and video and back when physical media actually mattered, real ink was spilled over various listicles and arguments over who was the best striker. Back when boxing was king, you had magazine columns extolling the virtues of Julian “The Hawk” Jackson and Mike Tyson and George Foreman with their clubs-for-fists. Hell, we’re probably still under isolation orders and you’ve got six minutes to kill, go watch this:
Absolutely fabulous, savage work. Makes for great copy and even better highlight.
But as the sub-title mentioned, the axiom to combat sports is to “hit and not be hit.” It’s obvious why we rarely talk about the second half of that motto — it’s less exciting, doesn’t win a fight at the drop of a hat, and is often a lot harder to see. But it’s time to give a little love to the best defenders in mixed martial arts (MMA).
I really wanted to troll the audience a little and actually rank them as if that means anything, but that’s all subjective and I don’t really get a kick out of trolling you all. Much. So this list will be presented alphabetically. Don’t get mad because some weird selection is higher up on the list than your favorite, blame their parents for not changing their last name.
The current 185-pound UFC Middleweight champion with a stellar kickboxing background is obviously one of the best stand-up fighters in the game today, that’s about as obvious a statement as one will get. It isn’t just his incoming fire that makes him so dangerous, it’s his fancy footwork and great head & waist movement that lets him snipe opponents nearly at will.
No matter what gameplan opponents have tried so far, whether it’s been to crowd him the way Kelvin Gastelum and Brad Tavares did or rush like Derek Brunson or try for the counter like Yoel Romero, he’s done an outstanding job at shutting down most or all of what opponents have tried to do to him. Izzy does a great job of feinting, which shuts down counter strikers, switching stances, which neutralizes people unfamiliar with how to fight vs southpaws, hand-fighting and trapping opponents lead hands and his takedown defense is among the best in the division.
If you care to sit through a nearly hour-long video (you can probably stop after about 20 or 30 minutes, to be honest), he went on IG live, smoked a bowl and drank some beers while talking through the Tavares 5-round decision. You can really get a good idea of all the things I’ve brought up so far and more.
“The Dominator” is coming off his standard three-year absence due to injuries and has been thrust into a title shot against two-division champ Henry Cejudo. Honestly, Cruz is probably one of the first names you’d ever think of when it comes down to great defense, because his fancy footwork is also among the most notable and very visible features of his game.
Cruz has rarely been hit hard by anybody, save his last opponent, Cody Garbrandt, who did an absolutely outstanding job of taking away Cruz’s preferred angles and setups while also throwing tons of punches in bunches at every opportunity. There are some great videos out there if you really want to get into the minutiae of his fleeting fast footwork patterns.
Regardless of the failure in his past fight, he managed to go the distance and still win round 5, having regained his timing and rhythm. Cruz leads all Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bantamweights in his signature strike defense (minimum 5 UFC Fights and 350 Strike Attempts by Opponents), with opponents missing 70.9% of the time. Amazing when you consider the speed in that division.
This might not be a name that immediately springs to mind when this subject comes up, but the long-time light heavyweight contender’s defensive credentials rank up there with some of the greatest in this sport. Has Davis been outstruck? Yes. When he ran into people he couldn’t outgrapple (Bader, Evans, Johnson), he’s gotten outpointed and lost. So his inclusion on this list is not with the assumption that he’s a smooth, barely flawed fighter like many of the others you’ll see - he just basically never gets hit hard.
Phil combines freakish length along with a striking adverse style that lends to a number of things: boring fights and little damage chief among them. When you’re such a grappling threat that you know he wants the takedown, you don’t overextend on your feet. In fact, you tend to bunch up and throw less. For reasons such as this, Davis leads all current and former fighters in the LHW division in sig strike defense. Feel free to watch some highlight videos if you want to see some middling striking, lots of takedowns and a few cool submissions.
“Mighty Mouse” is the flyweight GOAT. The former UFC champion who now resides in ONEFC has been in 34 professional MMA fights and while I haven’t seen all of them, he’s never gotten beat up on the feet that I can recall outside of his draw with Ian McCall (that Ian should have won were it not for the screwup in counting) way back in 2012.
Being a 125-pounder, he naturally possesses amazing speed, but his bit of burst and grappling threat makes opponents reluctant to open up against him. This is a theme from some of the least-hit people in this entire sport. The greater the grappling threat and ability to maintain top position, the less likely they are to get hit on the feet often. Johnson is one of the pound-for-pound best all around mixed martial artists in the history of this sport, and his resume is second to none. And he hasn’t lost a fight standing in eight years.
You knew it was coming. “The Dragon”. One of the most elusive, yet successful strikers in the history of this sport. The epitome of “hit and not get hit”. The owner of numerous highlight reel knockouts over the likes of Rashad Evans (his only KO loss for the first 13 years of his career), Thiago Silva (only KO loss for the first 10 years of his career), Ryan Bader, Randy Couture, Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort while only losing a sparse three knockouts over a 17-year career.
No one in this sport is untouchable, and everyone on this list has gotten touched up at least once. But Machida’s footwork and elusive in-and-out movement has led given him a storied career with only a few lowlights. Yea, he got obliterated by Derek Brunson (really?!) and there’s no shame in eating a flying knee from Yoel Romero or some vicious right hands from Shogun Rua. The Machida Era will be remembered both for his successes and failures, but overwhelmingly as one of the absolute best to ever live up to the motto “hit and not get hit”.
Anderson is a tough include to me on this list, but he spent the vast majority of his career as a demigod on the feet, hardly ever taking damage. Quite frankly, if this list includes someone like Machida who’s been straight KO’d three times, then it should include Anderson, who’s looked like MMA’s own Neo at times, despite some of his foibles and losses.
Look, Silva was an absolute genius and a madman. If he fought someone who was slow, good gravy did he embarrass them. However, part of what he also brought to the table wasn’t just great reflexes, but an insane ability to roll with any punch that would get through combined with an absolutely iron chin. There’s a great story that Jorge Rivera has from his fight against Anderson back in Cage Rage. They tied up in a clinch and Rivera just unloaded on Silva. Clean blasted him with four shots right to the chin. Silva took them, smiled at him and winked. That’s when Rivera knew he was fucked.
It’s amazing stuff, but gamemanship is a two-way street, and we can’t pretend it didn’t bite him in the ass against Weidman. It took a particular skillset to trouble “Spider”, but he did have trouble with people who would do controlled swarms at him. The Weidman loss is the obvious example, but opponents from Nick Diaz to Chael Sonnen to Israel Adesanya would find continued moments of success when they would stay above their feet and not overextend; when they’d mix up feints and same-hand strikes repeatedly to mess with his bob and weave.
I’m not putting in a highlight, you can see it all in your head. Post it in the comments section if you want, but we all know the Forrest Griffin GIF. Sheer brilliance, the likes of which this sport had never seen.
“The Hulk” is your newest UFC Featherweight champion and a man who rarely gets hit clean. The possessor of solid movement, footwork, gameplanning and overall mix of skills has been known to eat a shot from time to time, but has also spent years in a row rarely getting hit clean.
While he’s certainly not an untouchable, unhittable wizard, going full Matrix on opponents like a prime Anderson Silva, his last three fights has been a murderer’s row of Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo and Max Holloway, and Volkanovski came out of all three of them not only with a win, but relatively unscathed. Yea, he gets cut on his left eyebrow a bit, but that’s about the only knock on the man. All three of those opponents - 145 pound terrors, the lot of them - all got beaten up on the feet by the better all-around fighter.
If you watch a Volkanovski highlight, you’ll find clip after clip of the man darting in and out, slipping and countering counters like the fistic genius he is.
There are certainly a lot of great fighters that you could argue should be on this list, but it’s my list and they’re not.
Where’s “Wonderboy” Stephen Thompson? I thought about including him. He’s made very credible fighters look bad as they’ve swung at air for rounds at a time. A modern day Machida, but with a shorter career and no championship credentials to back them up. He’s also been dropped repeatedly to a guy who throws nothing but two overhand rights per round and he’s 0-1-1 against him (Woodley). Very recently, he got knocked out by a featherweight.
Georges St. Pierre nearly got put on the list, because he had a dominating career, having only been caught once, against the Round Mound of Pasta-Feuled Hooks, Matt Serra. The issue I had with this was by god did that man wear damage poorly. People like BJ Penn and Anderson Silva had leather skin who hardly ever looked torn up even if you dropped a running lawn mower on them. GSP possessed the skin toughness of a wet tissue.
Maybe it was the decades spent huddling in warm jackets out of the cold, Canadian winters, but even in wins, he looked like a lasagna half the time. He clearly got hit and did those hits do damage. Maybe it’s unfair, but so is life.
Genki Sudo almost made this list as well, with his oddball style and grappling-heavy approach, but he would still occasionally get wanged and danged by many of the better strikers he faced. He did a great job avoiding damage a fair amount of time, but it was more his unorthodoxy that troubled people, not a particular defensive movement or five. Great man, but not on the list.
I almost put the Light-Heavyweight G.O.A.T. on here, as Jon Jones has never been knocked out, or even lost to anyone but himself and Steve Mazzagatti, but his flaws with long, lateral fighters are getting demonstrated repeatedly (Gustafsson, Reyes). Like Davis, he possesses freakish length and ability to control distance with footwork, but what separates those two are the eyepokes and a constant buzzsaw of teeps, oblique kicks and elbows from all angles. Jones was the hardest cut to make, and if a fair chunk of his defense wasn’t illegal, he’d be on it.
The final exclusion was Michael Page. He’s looked a lot like Adesanya and Silva at times, but he’s beaten jabronies. Dougie Lima made him do the Dougie. Look like Izzy or Spider against some top-flight comp, and I’ll take it back.
There you have it. I miss your favorite? Tell me about it down below.