10 Most Influential First UFC Fighters (MMA Pioneers Ranked)

Step into the octagon and witness the birth of legends. These ten fighters, the pioneers of the UFC, carved their names into the annals of mixed martial arts history.

From Royce Gracie's groundbreaking submissions to Ken Shamrock's superfight dominance, each fighter left an indelible mark on the sport.

Brace yourself for a journey through the evolution of MMA, as we rank the ten most influential first UFC fighters and celebrate their lasting impact on the world of combat sports.

Key Takeaways

  • Royce Gracie showcased the effectiveness of submissions in MMA and attracted viewers to the UFC.
  • Ken Shamrock popularized MMA and was influential in its development, especially in Japan.
  • Mark Coleman demonstrated the dominance of wrestling in MMA and contributed to the development of MMA wrestling.
  • Don Frye was one of the first well-rounded UFC fighters and contributed to the growth and popularity of the sport.

Royce Gracie: The Groundbreaking Submission Specialist

Royce Gracie revolutionized the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) by utilizing his exceptional skills in Brazilian jiu-jitsu to dominate opponents on the ground. Gracie's impact on MMA can be seen in the evolution of submissions within the sport.

Before Gracie, MMA fighters primarily relied on striking techniques, but Gracie showcased the effectiveness of submissions as a means of victory. His mastery of Brazilian jiu-jitsu allowed him to effortlessly transition from takedowns to submission attempts, often catching his opponents off guard.

Through his victories in the early UFC tournaments, Gracie demonstrated that size and strength weren't the determining factors in a fight, but rather technique and strategy. This revelation changed the way fighters approached their training, leading to a greater emphasis on grappling and submission skills in MMA.

Gracie's influence on the sport can't be overstated, as he paved the way for future fighters to explore the vast potential of submissions in MMA.

Ken Shamrock: The First Superfight Champion

Ken Shamrock became the first Superfight Champion in the UFC, and his victory solidified his status as one of the most influential fighters in the sport's early days.

Ken Shamrock's impact on MMA popularity can't be overstated. His rivalry with Royce Gracie, one of the most skilled submission specialists in the UFC at the time, captivated audiences and showcased the effectiveness of ground fighting and submissions.

Their first encounter in the UFC's inaugural event ended in a draw, setting the stage for a highly anticipated rematch. Although Shamrock lost to Gracie in their second bout, his resilience and technical prowess made him a fan favorite.

Shamrock's success in Pancrase, where he became the first foreign champion, and his involvement in the longest fight in UFC history further cemented his reputation as a formidable and influential fighter.

Mark Coleman: The Dominant Heavyweight Wrestler

Mark Coleman was one of the most dominant heavyweight wrestlers in the early days of MMA. His impact on the evolution of ground and pound in MMA cannot be overstated. Coleman's dominance in the UFC heavyweight division showcased the effectiveness of wrestling as a martial art in MMA. He won the UFC 10 and UFC 11 tournaments, becoming the first UFC heavyweight champion. Coleman's wrestling background allowed him to control his opponents on the ground and deliver devastating strikes. His ground-and-pound technique revolutionized the sport, as he utilized his wrestling skills to take his opponents down and unleash a barrage of punches and elbows from the top position. Coleman's dominance and ground-and-pound style paved the way for future fighters to incorporate wrestling into their arsenal, shaping the landscape of MMA.

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Mark Coleman: The Dominant Heavyweight Wrestler
Accomplishments Impact on MMA Legacy
– UFC 10 and UFC 11 tournament winner – Showcased effectiveness of wrestling – Pioneered ground-and-pound in MMA
– First UFC heavyweight champion – Revolutionized ground and pound – Influenced future generations of fighters
– Pride 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix winner – Shaped the landscape of MMA – Recognized as one of the sport's pioneers

Dan Severn: The Beast of MMA

He was known as 'The Beast' for a reason – Dan Severn was a force to be reckoned with in the world of MMA. His wrestling dominance and relentless fighting style left a lasting impact on the sport.

Severn's MMA legacy is defined by his achievements both inside and outside of the UFC. He won the UFC 5 tournament and the Ultimate Ultimate tournament, showcasing his skill and determination. Severn also became a UFC Superfight Champion, further solidifying his status as one of the greatest fighters of his time.

His amateur wrestling background allowed him to control his opponents with ease, using his ground-and-pound technique to devastating effect. Severn's long and successful career in MMA is a testament to his exceptional skills and tenacity.

Don Frye: The Iconic Tough Guy

Don Frye, one of the most iconic tough guys in MMA history, made a significant impact on the sport during his time as one of the first well-rounded UFC fighters. Known for his mustache and tough guy persona, Frye competed during a time when most fighters were specialists, contributing to the growth and popularity of the sport. With a background in wrestling, boxing, and judo, Frye showcased his proficiency as both a striker and grappler. His fighting style and technique captivated audiences and helped elevate the popularity of MMA. To convey a deeper meaning for the audience, here is a table showcasing Don Frye's impact on the popularity of MMA and his fighting style and technique:

Impact on Popularity of MMA Fighting Style and Technique
Helped grow the sport Well-rounded fighter
Captivated audiences Proficient striker and grappler
Iconic tough guy persona Utilized wrestling, boxing, and judo skills

Don Frye's legacy as an influential pioneer in MMA is undeniable, and his contributions to the sport continue to be celebrated.

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Gary Goodridge: The Striking Pioneer

Interestingly, Gary Goodridge, known as 'Big Daddy', played a pioneering role in the development of MMA striking techniques.

With a background in kickboxing and boxing, Goodridge brought a unique skill set to the early UFC events. His notable victories in the UFC showcased the impact of his boxing background on his striking abilities. Goodridge's proficiency in striking allowed him to deliver powerful knockouts, making him a fan favorite. His contributions to the development of MMA striking techniques can't be overlooked, as he paved the way for future fighters to incorporate effective striking into their repertoire.

However, Goodridge's poor cardio led to multiple losses, and he faced health issues after retirement, being diagnosed with degenerative dementia. Nonetheless, his legacy as a striking pioneer in MMA remains significant.

Tank Abbott: The Street Fighter Turned Brawler

With a background in street fighting, Tank Abbott quickly made a name for himself in the early days of MMA as a brawler. Known for his lack of technique and reliance on brute force, Abbott brought a raw and aggressive style to the octagon. His impact on early MMA can't be understated, as he showcased the effectiveness of a brawler in a sport that was still finding its identity.

Tank Abbott's approach to fighting had a significant influence on the evolution of striking techniques in MMA. While other fighters focused on grappling and submissions, Abbott's aggressive striking style highlighted the importance of powerful punches and knockout power. His presence in the early UFC events helped shape the sport and laid the groundwork for future fighters to develop their striking skills.

Oleg Taktarov: The Russian Grappling Master

The Russian grappling master, Oleg Taktarov, made a significant impact in the early days of the UFC with his impressive grappling skills. Taktarov, who had a background in Sambo and judo, showcased the effectiveness of grappling in MMA. His expertise in submissions, particularly leg locks and kneebars, helped him secure 14 wins by submission throughout his career. Taktarov's success in the UFC, including his victory in the UFC 6 tournament and his draw against Ken Shamrock, demonstrated the evolution of Sambo in MMA and its impact on grappling techniques. As a former hand-to-hand instructor for the KGB, Taktarov brought a unique level of technical expertise to the Octagon, establishing himself as one of the early pioneers of grappling in MMA.

Key Achievements Notable Victories Fighting Style
UFC 6 Tournament Winner Mark Kerr Sambo
Fought Ken Shamrock to a Draw Tank Abbott Judo
14 Submission Wins Marco Ruas Leg Locks, Kneebars

Guy Mezger: The Evolutionary Striker

Guy Mezger, a technical striker with a taekwondo background, contributed to the evolution of striking in MMA. His unique skill set and innovative approach to striking techniques had a significant impact on the sport. Here are some key aspects of Mezger's evolution as a striker:

  • Integration of traditional martial arts: Mezger's taekwondo background allowed him to incorporate dynamic kicks and precise footwork into his striking repertoire, adding a new dimension to MMA striking.
  • Strategic use of boxing fundamentals: Mezger's training in boxing helped him develop powerful punches and effective combinations, enabling him to effectively mix striking techniques and keep his opponents guessing.
  • Adaptation to MMA rules and environment: Mezger recognized the need to modify his striking style to fit the MMA landscape, which included learning how to defend against takedowns and incorporate ground strikes.
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Mezger's evolution as a striker paved the way for future fighters to explore and refine their own striking techniques, shaping the landscape of MMA striking as we know it today. His impact on the sport can't be overstated.

Gerard Gordeau: The Elite Dutch Karate Champion

Gerard Gordeau, an accomplished Dutch karate champion, showcased his elite striking skills in the early days of the UFC. As a well-rounded martial artist, Gordeau's striking dominance in early UFC events left a lasting impact on the sport of MMA.

Coming from a background in savate and karate, he brought a unique style to the Octagon. Gordeau's striking skills were unparalleled, and he utilized his precise punches and devastating kicks to finish his opponents. His success in the UFC not only highlighted his own abilities but also demonstrated the effectiveness of Dutch karate in MMA.

Gordeau's contributions to the early success of the UFC can't be understated, as he played a crucial role in popularizing the sport and paving the way for future fighters.


In conclusion, these ten influential fighters played instrumental roles in shaping the early days of the UFC and paving the way for the sport of MMA.

From Royce Gracie's groundbreaking submission skills to Gerard Gordeau's elite striking abilities, each fighter brought their own unique style and contribution to the octagon.

It's interesting to note that among these pioneers, Royce Gracie holds the record for the most submissions in UFC history with an impressive 11 submission victories.

Their legacies continue to live on, forever impacting the world of MMA.

Mike Williams
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