Fedor Emelianenko, Royce Gracie, and Georges St. Pierre all must be included in any debate regarding the greatest MMA legends of all time. Exactly where they rank is a matter of perspective.
For a stretch, Emelianenko was considered by many as the sport’s unquestioned No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter. From April 2001 to to November 2009, “The Last Emperor” went unbeaten in 28 professional bouts while competing for organizations such as Pride Fighting Championships, Strikeforce, Rings and Affliction. That streak of dominance included a lengthy list of notable victims: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira twice, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Mirko Filipovic, Mark Hunt, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, to name a few.
The Russian didn’t join the ranks of mere mortals until his shocking first-round submission loss to Fabricio Werdum under the Strikeforce banner on June 26, 2010, a defeat which still ranks among the greatest upsets in MMA history. Two more losses would follow, leading to Emelianenko’s Strikeforce release. Emelianenko recently came out of a three-year-retirement to fight on New Year’s Eve in Japan, where he stopped the Jaideep Singh with punches 3:02 into the first round. Even at 39 years old and against an unheralded opponent, Emelianenko still generated plenty of buzz for his return.
Gracie probably won’t be mentioned in any modern pound-for-pound debates, but his legacy as an MMA legend is secure nonetheless. Gracie introduced the world to the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu at UFC 1, when he submitted Art Jimmerson, Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau to win a one-night tournament in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993. He repeated the feat twice more, winning tournaments at UFC 2 and UFC 4 while setting the record for most UFC submissions (11) in the process.
Gracie didn’t lose an MMA bout until his legendary 90-minute encounter with Kazushi Sakuraba in Pride Fighting Championships, nearly seven years after he burst upon the scene in the UFC. He competed sporadically after that until 2007, and he was the first man inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame for his efforts. Gracie came out of retirement to face Ken Shamrock for a third time at Bellator 149, where the 49-year-old Brazilian earned a controversial first-round technical knockout victory over his rival.
While he is the youngest of the three, St. Pierre is also the only one of the trio who isn’t currently active. The former UFC welterweight king vacated his title and announced that he was taking a leave of absence following a hard-fought victory over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in November 2013.
“I’ve talked with Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] about it,” said St. Pierre. “I’ve been fighting for long time. I’ve had 22 fights in the UFC at a very high level, and I decided I need to take some time off. I know the UFC is a business, and they have to keep things rolling. I don’t want to make people wait out of the respect for the sport, so I vacate the title. One day, when I feel like it, I might come back, but right now, I need a break.”
That leave of absence feels more like a retirement at this point, although rumors persist of a GSP comeback. Whether he returns or not, his accomplishments are undeniable. His 19 wins are the most in UFC history and his 12-2 record in title bouts suggests an ability to raise his game when the stakes are highest. While “Rush” was criticized later in his career for his style of fighting, he was consistently a top pay-per-view draw for the company. In a career with many highlights, St. Pierre notched wins over the likes of B.J. Penn, Nick Diaz, Matt Hughes, Jake Shields, Josh Koscheck, Carlos Condit, Thiago Alves and Jon Fitch.
With such impressive resumes and great contributions to the sport, Emelianenko, Gracie and St. Pierre are undoubtedly three of the greatest MMA legends of all time.