Bloody Elbow Roundtable: The Mount Rushmore of MMA

Tim Burke: A recent quote by Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney stated that if there was a Mount Rushmore of Mixed Martial Arts, Rampage Jackson…

By: Tim Burke | 10 years ago
Bloody Elbow Roundtable: The Mount Rushmore of MMA
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Tim Burke: A recent quote by Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney stated that if there was a Mount Rushmore of Mixed Martial Arts, Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz would be two of the four faces on there. Obviously that’s just promoter speak, but it does raise an interesting question – who are the four faces that really belong on a Mount Rushmore of MMA?

KJ Gould: Royce Gracie, Matt Hughes, Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell.

Ben Thapa: Mt. Rushmore is a very apt metaphor for this as no matter who we choose, it’ll be treading on someone’s MMA sacred grounds. The Black Hills were a general holy ground for a few Native American tribes and appreciated for hundreds of years before latecomers dynamited a particular mountain amongst them. That is sort of what we do here and the four I choose to be blasted into rude prominence are:

Lorenzo Fertita, Fedor, Sakuraba and Anderson.

Lorenzo listened to a loudmouth friend of his and convinced his family to invest millions of dollars into an iffy sport. He let the money ride past the point of sanity, let the loudmouth friend be the face of the company and when TUF took off, he shared the rewards with us fans. MMA would exist without him, but the UFC and the standing the sport enjoys would not. His money and patience are the reason most of us pay attention to this sport.

Fedor remains the greatest heavyweight the sport has ever seen and only the brilliance of Anderson surpasses his legacy. He was like the Halley’s Comet of MMA, shining in the sky for so long before fading from view in graceful fashion. Nobody in his era combined the striking, grappling, ferocity and intelligence to the levels he did. We owe him for showing the way towards truly mixed martial arts.

Sakuraba embodied PRIDE, Japanese MMA and the wave of fighters who could strike with the strikers and grapple with the grapplers. His whimsical personality, acrobatic style and warrior spirit made him a mega-star, but also got him in some fights he never should have taken. His late career and uneasy retirement has not been graceful or even fun to watch, but Saku, mummified in tape or not, will always have a place in the real MMA fan’s heart.

Anderson Silva is the greatest MMA fighter of all time. His inclusion should be unanimous and any list without him should be viewed with deep suspicion.

Zane Simon: This is tough, in some ways I feel like the sport is still too young to even have a Mount Rushmore. So many of the early figures in MMA had an only passing importance in the sport, it’s hard to see just where we are now who will still be regarded as influential down the line. I feel that a Gracie has to be up there, but I feel like I have three options, Rickson, Rorion, or Royce, and none of them are particularly perfect options. Royce was the instrumental force around which the UFC was built, but it was Rorion’s influence that created the tournament. And as soon as the matches became more difficult Royce retired and eventually came back with Pride. And Rickson, while one of the focal points of early Pride events was never a overly engaged presence in the sport.
I also see Ben’s point about having Lorenzo on there, as he has been the quiet instrument behind the UFC’s success as they’ve gobbled up competitors and taken their sport from illegal cockfighting to globally recognized brand in a matter of years. Dana White gets some mention as well, if for nothing else than being the constant promotional head of the worlds largest MMA organization and the impetus for its purchase from SEG.

For fighters it’s something of a battle against picking favorites. Why Matt Hughes over GSP? I love Sakuraba, but is he really among the sport’s top four greats? It’s incredibly difficult to pair down. Despite my feelings that current and future stars may have a much larger impact than some of these names just over the next decade, I’m going with:

Anderson Silva, Royce Gracie, Lorenzo Fertitta, and Fedor Emelianenko.

Steph Daniels: Royce, Chuck, Sakuraba, Anderson.

T.P. Grant: Oh man, tough question.

First of all I very much agree with Ben that Sakuraba is a must. He is the perfect representative of Japanese MMA for a Mt Rushmore of MMA, both in his style, charisma, and approach to fighting.

Anderson Silva also a must, both for being the best fighter but also being a nice embodiment of the Brazilian Vale Tudo style, a “I knock you out on the feet or submit you on the mat” kinda of attitude towards fighting.

I diverge in that I feel Frank Shamrock should be included. He figured out what Mixed Martial Arts was really all about well before any fighter. Lots of people were starting mix together disciplines, but Frank made them really blend together and he also embraced the idea of game planning and athletic training aside from simply technical drilling, sparring, weight lifting, and basic calisthenics.

The final choice is a tough one, Ortiz helped save the sport from extinction in North America, Liddell went a long way to helping it become more popular. But I will go with Georges St. Pierre, MMA’s first crossover star, a man who earn legitimate respect as an athlete competing in a sport rather that garnered attention for a highlight reel of impressive knockouts. He opened the door for many of today’s MMA stars like Jon Jones to get larger sponsorship opportunities and enter into the popular culture in a way never before dreamed of by MMA fans, fighters, or media just 10 years ago.

KJ Gould: Steph’s list was my second choice. Hard to choose between Hughes and Sakuraba, both important in their eras for different reasons, but Hughes helped MMA ascend overall in addition to being the pound for pound best at the peak of his career.

If it’s four people, then it has to be Dana White, Masakatsu Funaki (founder of Pancrase and subsequently JMMA), Rorian Gracie and Anderson Silva (best fighter we’ve ever seen thus far).

Steph Daniels: If it’s four people it’s got to be Dana White, Masakatsu Funaki, Rorian Gracie and Chuck Liddell. Chuck was, in my opinion, the fighter most instrumental in making UFC flow in mainstream circles. Hell, he became a household name and took the UFC along for the ride. Anderson Silva, and every great fighter to follow is walking the path that Liddell already cleared for them. In all his greatness, Anderson could have never achieved what Liddell did.

KJ Gould: That’s a fair point Steph. Chuck was the first breakthrough fighter at least when it came to non-mma sports journalists giving MMA a proper look.

Brent Brookhouse: I love Sakuraba and all, but Japanese MMA doesn’t matter, so they lose out on the spot.. Sorry, Sakuraba and Funaki! I know that sounds cold and I suppose that you could make the case that it forced bigger and better things from the UFC..etc. But what was Sakuraba’s lasting impact?

Dana White gets a spot. Regardless of my feelings on White and his place in the sport going forward, he was the exact right man to push the UFC forward when it needed someone to help grab headlines. Dana being Dana pushed things to a new level of publicity.

Similarly, on the “right man at the right time” scale is Royce Gracie. Gracie provided the mystique needed to turn a freakshow into a phenomenon that changed the way people looked at fighting. Aside from needing A Gracie, the UFC had the right Gracie. The little guy in the cage submitting violent looking monsters was really something. The UFC did launch as a phenomenon because of Gracie, decisions afterward led to changes down the road but Gracie was the impetus for the UFC’s successful launch.

Chuck Liddell served as the guy who got the “new” UFC the attention it needed and gave the sport a superstar. It helped having a Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture (who just misses out on his own spot) to play off of, but Liddell was the guy when the UFC needed a “the guy” to take that step forward.

I’m going to go a bit controversial with my last pick and say Jon Jones. Jones has yet to become the breakout star that I think the UFC and others have been hoping for — at least in terms of ability to draw a million PPV buys…etc. But he represents the next evolution in MMA superstar. Jones is a “modern athlete” more than the “classic martial artist.” He’s got the international Nike deal, his own shoe line, he had the annoyingly over-polished and over-managed public image which showed its cracks over time, including a DWI — one of the things he’d promised that his fans would never have to worry about. He’s also a freakishly good fighter who put together the best single year in MMA history in 2011, though wasting time beating up blown up middleweights has been an unfortunate waste of his time as of late. He’s the modern superstar. Jones has already built a legacy as a product that is unheard of in MMA, for that I’ll give the last spot to him over someone like Anderson Silva who was amazingly good but remained fairly stagnant as a draw and star over his career.

Steph Daniels: Brent just broke my heart 🙁

Zane Simon: I really have to agree with Brent on that. It’s why I couldn’t pick a Japanese fighter or figure. I feel like the impact they had was so fleeting that historically it will be almost meaningless. The best I could do on that end was Fedor, because he was so dominant. I’m also really torn on an “American Fighter/Classic UFC star” Liddell was key to selling the sport and dominant, but less accomplished in the ring than Hughes. It’s a toss up for fighters between awarding them for their significance or their performance. And you could argue that Chuck’s post fighting significance has been incredibly low so far.

Mike Riordan: MMA, for all intents and purposes, is two things now, and probably for the foreseeable future- The UFC( Zuffa, Dana White, Chuck, Tito, Royce Gracie et al.) and The Unified Rules. The Unified Rules don’t just affect the sport, they are the sport. For this reason any Mt. Rushmore of MMA should have Jeff Blatnick on it.

John Nash: Normally I don’t comment on these round tables but since I’ve put an inordinate amount of thought into this question over the last few months I have something to add.

The first head I would carve into that mountain would be Dana White’s bald dome. I actually think that his contributions are greatly exaggerated. Lorenzo Fertitta’s vision, money, and connections have been the primary force behind the UFC’s rise. Dana has long been a figurehead for the company, a mouthpiece who’s name is attached to everything that Zuffa does, and who’s ubiquitious any time the UFC acronym is seen. But since Dana is such a figurehead he’s the perfect choice to symbolically represent Zuffa the company.

Next, there has to be a Gracie on it, but which Gracie? Royce was the first UFC champ and the first MMA star in America, but that’s partly because he was put in that place by his brother Rorion instead of his other brother Rickson. Rorion was probably the person who was most responsible for launching the UFC and introducing MMA to the United States while Rickson was the family champ and the Gracie most responsible for introducing their brand of MMA to Japan with Vale Tudo Japan and PRIDE (which was built around his appearance in their first main event.)

None of these Gracies make it though. Instead I choose their father, Hélio. The man who not only taught his sons BJJ but actually made Gracie Jiu-jitsu what it is after getting lessons from his older brother Carlson. He was the champion of the first generation of Gracies, the man who sparked the vale tudo craze of the 50s and 60s in Brazil, and the link that connects modern MMA with the “anything goes/vale tudo” fighting of early 20th century.

The next person should be someone that represents MMA’s strong links with pro wrestling. We could choose Brock Lesnar who’s presence in the UFC sparked its 2009-2010 boom and peak, but as profitable as that time was it really didn’t change the landscape of MMA nor was his career long enough to really leave behind a legacy. An even better choice would probably be Sakuraba, who helped make PRIDE the number one promotion in the world and Japan the center of the MMA universe for a decade. Unfortunately though it didn’t last and much like the Mayans it left impressive relics but passed along little else to future generations.

The most worthy pro wrestler for inclusion is Ken Shamrock, having a hand in almost every major in MMA event from 1993-2006. He helped launch JMMA with Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki when they decided to take their pro wrestling matches and compete in them for real a full month before the first UFC event. He was also a competitor at UFC 1, 1/2 of the first great rivalry in the sport with Royce Gracie, and the first King of Pancrase and UFC Superfight Champion. Eventually he left the UFC and Pancrase for the WWF but eventually returned to MMA just in time to save Zuffa. As much as people write about Griffin-Bonnar at the TUF finale, UFC 40 with Tito vs Shamrock was arguably more important. It was the first show that made money for the company, kept the promotion above water, and with his victory over Ken, made a star out of Tito, who in turn made stars out of Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. Without Ken the UFC very well might not have lasted long enough for there to be a TUF (which he also helped by headlining season one’s finale and drawing who knows how many to see Griffin and Bonnar?) He also coached on the biggest season of the Ultimate Fighter at that time, and rematched against Tito in fights that set records for the UFC in ppv and viewing audience. Ken probably played a bigger part than any other single fighter in making this the era of Zuffa.

The final spot should probably go to one of the four fighters I would have carved into the mountain if the criteria was only for in-cage or in-ring accomplishments: Fedor, Silva, GSP, or Jon Jones. Jones represents the future and may help catapult the UFC into the mainstream success wit the help of FOX, but his impact so far hasn’t been enough to warrant inclusion. Both GSP and Silva have not only been dominant champs (the two longest reigns in UFC history) but have played a big part in making MMA a major sport in both Canada and Brazil (as well two of the UFC’s biggest markets). Even so I think the impact of Fedor Emelianko on MMA, and the UFC, has been even greater. And not always for the better.

Not only did Fedor go undefeated for a decade, with most of that time being spent as the number one heavyweight, but he also played a big part, mostly unintentional, in the UFC’s rise to near monopoly status. Fedor’s participation at the Yarennoka! NYE event (and the Yokuza response that followed) led directly to the investigation of PRIDE that ended up killing the promotion and JMMA. It also led to a large migration of fighters from Japan into the UFC. After that he signed with Affliction and then Strikeforce, and in both cases he instantly elevated those promotions into competitors to the UFC. That is until they were bought out by Zuffa who then had an even greater share of the top fighters locked into their contracts than they had before someone decided to challenge them.

There’s my Mount Rushmore: Dana White, Hélio Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Fedor Emelianenko.

Steph Daniels: Leave it to Nash to make us all look like slackers 😉

KJ Gould: I don’t think Pride exists without Pancrase. Yes it formed out if UWFi and Kingdom, but Pancrase proved legit shoots were viable and arguably influenced Rings to become legit as well. Without Funaki (and Suzuki) and Pancrase, there’d be no Shamrocks, Rutten or Maurice Smith in MMA. Subsequently Fedor and Red Devil probably don’t go into JMMA, or the noguieras, or chute boxe, or cro cop etc. Wanderlei Silva gets blasted in UFC Brazil and stays on the small and dying Brazilian circuit.

No Funaki and Pancrase changes the world of MMA, not just Japan.

Tim Burke: This is actually fairly tough to answer, but here goes:

Dana White – While he might just be the figurehead of an organization, his ability to individually promote the sport and be one of the most accessible front men in pro sports has been a big factor in the UFC’s explosion. Should it be Lorenzo Fertitta instead of Dana? I say no.

Tito Ortiz – People will probably laugh at this, but whatever. Tito was one of the first real stars in the UFC and has managed to keep his name in the limelight for 15 years despite an uneven record in the cage. It’s still true that when casuals think of MMA, a lot still remember the guy named Tito with the huge head.

Royce Gracie – Without him, does the UFC ever get off the ground? If it was Rickson or another Gracie in there in the first few UFC’s, it might not have worked and we wouldn’t have what we have today.

Kazushi Sakuraba – While Nobuhiko Takada and Rickson Gracie are the ones that really got Pride started with their fight at Pride 1, Saku was the guy that carried them all the way from the beginning to the end. His wins over the Gracies helped cement both his legacy and the legacy of Pride FC itself, and without him, they probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did.

John Nash: Funaki definitely played a big part in launching JMMA but I’m not 100% certain it wouldn’t have happened without him. Shooto was already around with their quasi-MMA before Pancrase went real and 9 months after the first UFC they even brought Rickson to Japan to hold their own version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship with Vale Tudo Japan. There seems to have been plenty of tinder in Japan at the time just waiting for a spark to ignite the shootfighting or MMA craze.

Your list of names linked to JMMA makes a greater point that is often over looked: how much Japan propped up MMA before TUF. While the UFC was holding five events and less than fifty fights a year in the early aughts, PRIDE FC was holding 10-12 events a year and over 100 fights. K-1 added another couple dozen MMA fights per year. For a decade it was Japan and not the United States where more than a handful of fighters could make a living competing.

Connor Ruebusch: I’ll stick to fighters, I suppose.

For me, and I know I’ll catch flak for this, I have trouble calling Anderson the greatest fighter of all time. As impressive as his performances have been, I think it’s hard to argue with the fact that they have been against some pretty suspect competition, especially for a UFC champ. So he’s had a huge win streak. Why not say that Renan Barao is the greatest of all time? What really matters is who that win streak came against, and for that reason I have to pick Fedor for pure fighting accomplishments. Nobody has beaten as many top-level fighters as the Last Emperor. True, there were some easy wins mixed in, but the number of big names that Fedor defeated, and the way he beat them (Nog on the ground, Cro Cop on the feet) make him the best in my mind.

Royce Gracie has to be included. Even if the organization was Rorion’s idea, it was Royce who convinced the world that you could beat a man lying on your back. It was Royce that really sold BJJ/GJJ as the ultimate martial art, and that impression, more or less, still holds true today. You can’t be a successful mixed martial artist without a ground game. Some might worry that BJJ’s time has come and gone in MMA, especially when we have events with several candidates for knockout of the night and not a single submission. But I think this is only evidence of the ubiquitousness of grappling in MMA. It’s long been known that when two great grapplers fight, a crappy kickboxing match is imminent, and that scenario is now becoming more and more common.

If Royce is on here, Sakuraba has to be. While Royce was proving the effectiveness of BJJ in the UFC, Royce was proving the effectiveness of true mixed martial arts in Japan. When Royce decided to test himself against Saku, the pro wrestler for the most part declined to engage him in a ground battle and beat him into a pulp on the feet. Sakuraba probably couldn’t have outgrappled some of the Gracies he beat, at least in the sort of grappling match they would have preferred, and he certainly couldn’t outstrike the best strikers in MMA, but he was one of the early pioneers of well-roundedness. That, combined with his personality and in-ring antics, as well as his undeniable heart, make him an easy candidate.

Finally, I have to say Chuck. Chuck Liddell was the first name I can remember hearing related to MMA, back before I even knew the sport existed. The football players at my high school were shaving their heads into Chuck-esque faux-hawks, and referencing his latest knockout wins. Chuck was huge for the UFC, and it’s hard to remember another champ who has had such a far-reaching significance for MMA outside of the sport’s sometimes reclusive niche.

Matt Kaplowitz: I would go with (in no order) Fedor Emelianenko, Royce Gracie, Frank Shamrock, and Tito Ortiz. Yes, I think rebney got one right!

These four men were the ones that got people caring about MMA through various points of its growth. Royce started it all in the golden age of the UFC, giving American audiences their first chance to see no-holds-barred competition and ultimately (if you pardon the unintended pun) shape and mold what would become the MMA that we know

Frank then took what we were learning about MMA and flipped it on its head (quite literally if you were Igor Zinoviev), and I feel created the MMA style itself. In Frank’s era, we had guys that were cross-training, but not as extensively as Frank was where he developed it into what fighters today use.

Tito was not the poster boy that we wanted, but he was the bad boy that we needed. There is no denying that Tito sold (and still does sell) tickets, and for a long time was the go-to guy for the company and showed how to build an image that fighters today continue to model themselves after, whether they realize it or not (of course, both frank and tito were also smart enough to build a life after fighting, but that’s another story).

Finally, Fedor showed that even a foreigner could be the top dog in an American market. Plus, that whole undefeated for a decade streak. That was kind of important.

Granted, that is how I feel today, and chances are tomorrow I would say, nah, Sakuraba should go there and Fedor is out, but for now, these are my picks. One would assume that if it was an MMA Mt. Rushmore, it should be solely American fighters, and if that was the case, I would remove Fedor and replace him with Randy Couture, mainly
for being the George Foreman of the sport. Royce would stay since he is an American citizen (I think).

Also, at the bottom of the mountain, i would have the Kimbo Slice memorial statue, with this quote carved on its base: “The inner me – enemy!”

Share this story

About the author
Recent Stories