The men and women of MMA are tough, that’s a given. Realistically, you couldn’t fight if you weren’t tough to some degree, right? Eventually, as a fighter, you’re going to get hit and you’re going to have to fight through it if you want to win- and everyone wants to win – otherwise, what’s the point?
Well among the sea of professional fighters that want to win, there are a select few that want it just a little more than the others. These fighters are willing to do what others won’t and can take what others can’t. They’ve been labeled as too many things to list, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just call them tough.
The text book definition of tough is “strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough or careless handling” or “involving considerable difficulty or hardship; requiring great determination or effort“. Now those descriptions are nice, but they don’t do it justice. To really capture the grit that these pugilists represent, we have selected 10 fighters that physically embody the term itself. These fighters push through the pain like no other and have left us occasionally shocked, sometimes speechless and always inspired.
These are the human beings that can rally back after all hope appears lost. They have that extra gear that most are not built with that takes them to the finish. The effort is not always a winning one, but they give it all they have and don’t give in to the demands of their body to quit. These fighters have minds constructed of greatness, with the ability to push past physical boundaries and run on nothing but fumes and the desire to get their hand raised. The criteria for this list? Super human level resilience, nothing less.
These athletes are in no particular order.
Fight to Watch: Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar 1 – TUF 1 Finale
Griffin, one of the two winners during the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter, is often credited with the mainstream success of the UFC today. Over the course of 15 minutes, Bonnar and Griffin gave fans all they could handle in their bloody, courageous war of attrition. The fight engaged new fans and inspired old ones, but most importantly, it showcased the heart and will to win of an eventual champion in Forrest Griffin. The Georgia native proved his grit more than once, however, surviving a broken arm in a bout with an opponent early in his career to achieve a knockout later in the fight.
Griffin’s very first professional MMA bout was against the heavier, more experienced Dan ‘The Beast’ Severn. That fight set the tone of Griffin’s career as his stock climbed following his stint on the reality show, he eventually captured a UFC belt and ended his career with a place in the Hall of Fame.
Fight to Watch: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Zelg Galesic
The former Pride Fighting Championship superstar made a career out of taking on opponents beyond his physical means, often with good success. Sakuraba, a man credited with building Pride into the Asian MMA powerhouse it became, was known for taking on any and all comers, no matter how terrifying. Evidence of this can be found in any of his three stoppage losses to Wanderlei Silva.
Sakuraba was not just a punching bag, however, as he captured wins in most of his outings, often again facing the likes of larger opponents. During ‘Saku’s early career, he took on the much larger, surging Brazilian heavyweight Marcus ‘Conan’ Silvera. ‘Conan’ was fresh off dominant wins in Extreme Fighting and considered one of the best heavyweights in the world, while Sakuraba – weighing around 200 pounds – remained largely unknown. After a controversial ending to their first bout, Sakuraba secured an arm bar in the rematch between the two, held the same night at UFC Japan.
Further evidence of Sakuraba’s toughness comes in bouts with Quinton Jackson, the war of attrition he had in his first bout with Royce Gracie, and in a more recent outing, his knee bar win over Zelg Galesic. Sakuraba absorbed inhuman amounts of punishment from the striker as he worked towards his favored knee bar, eventually securing the tap.
The bout was just one of many that proved why ‘The Gracie Hunter’ is as tough as they come.
Fight to Watch: Leo Bercier vs. Chris Curtis – Final Fighting Championship 24
Perhaps the least-known fighter on the list, Leo Bercier’s capacity for punishment rivals the best in the world. A striker by trade, the middleweight bruiser has looked to cement himself as a draw in a major promotion for the past few years. After finally getting the call to fight in a big show, Bercier was given a short-notice fight against fellow striker Chris Curtis.
Over the course of the bout, Bercier and Curtis traded shot for shot through 15 minutes, never hitting the mat once. As the fight progressed however, Bercier accumulated an astounding amount of punishment, fracturing both orbital bones and breaking his nose. Despite the damage, Bercier did not quit, throwing high-impact shots with rapid frequency until the final bell, losing a close decision.
The future of Bercier as a fighter is unclear until his potential is realized, but the certainty remains that his ability to stand and trade sets him far apart from most prospects his caliber.
Fight to Watch: Diego Sanchez vs. Gilbert Melendez – UFC 166
Diego Sanchez, like Griffin, was one of the two men to win the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. Sanchez, a Greg Jackson product of proud Mexican heritage, is and always will be known as one of the grittiest fighters in the game. For decades, Mexico has been known to produce some of the toughest and most consistent boxers in the world, and although Sanchez made his name in the MMA world, he didn’t disappoint his cultural precedents.
Known for his ‘in your face’ style, Sanchez evolved from a ground and pound artist into a fighter that preferred to stand and trade. That stylistic transition led Sanchez down a path of destruction, mostly for his opponents. Evidence of his ‘blow for blow’ style can be found in his win over Clay Guida or in his gutsy loss to Gilbert Melendez.
The bout with Melendez was a whirlwind affair, as both fighters stood and traded for nearly all three rounds. Although Melendez was getting the better of the high-impact exchanges, Sanchez stayed on the former Strikeforce champion with his moment of glory coming in the third frame, dropping the California Native and nearly finishing the bout. The fight proved that even when Sanchez appears outmatched, his heart and will to win always gives him a real shot at victory.
Fight to Watch: Matt Brown vs. Stephen Thompson – UFC 145
For those who don’t know, Matt Brown’s nickname ‘The Immortal’ comes from an experience he had as a former substance abuser in which he overdosed, and nearly died. That battle of mortality resonated with Brown and shines every time he steps into the cage, as the striker has become known as one of the most hard-nosed men to ever set foot in the octagon.
Brown, like others on this list, has a tremendous chin, but his pace and desire to break his opponents are what built his reputation. Brown’s fights with Johnny Hendricks or Robbie Lawler could be pointed to when asked for examples of his best work, but perhaps the most complete example of Brown’s mental endurance comes in the form of a 2012 bout with Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. Although the bout was only Thompson’s second in the UFC, his unblemished professional combat sports record would jar most men, especially considering the high esteem Thompson is held in today.
Matt Brown once again proved why he is cut from a different cloth as he withstood Thompson’s striking assault en route to a decision win in one of the most back and forth bouts in recent memory. The future for Matt Brown’s place in the welterweight title picture is currently unclear, but his place in MMA history was carved out long ago.
Fight to Watch: Igor Vovchanchyn vs. Mark Kerr – Pride Fighting Championships 7
To newer fans of the sport, Vovchanchyn’s name may not ring a bell, but his place in the early formation of Pride Fighting Championships was as important as any. His position as one of the best heavyweight strikers of his time was not only forged as a result of his crushing knockout power, or surprisingly nimble kicks – in fact, many of the Ukrainian’s best wins came as a result of his ability to endure.
One of the best examples of the ‘Ice Cold’ striker’s toughness comes in the form of a bout between him and Mark Kerr, which took place during Pride 7. Kerr was a heavy favorite to win the bout, and his size and strength were expected to carry him past Vovchanchyn. The Ukrainian had different plans however, as he withstood a lengthy ground and pound assault from the wrestler to win via knockout due to knees on the ground.
The bout was later ruled a no contest due to a miscommunication regarding the rules, but the fight still serves a great of example of the stout striker’s will to win.
Fight to Watch: Nick Diaz vs. Takanori Gomi – Pride Fighting Championships 33
The Diaz brothers have a reputation for handling conflict in an ‘urban’ capacity of sorts, often trash talking opponents leading up to, and during, fights. Most fighters refrain from this type of behavior in the cage, but Nick Diaz ran towards it. Dating all the way back to his memorable bout with Robbie Lawler at UFC 47, Nick Diaz has egged on his opponents during bouts whilst absorbing their best shots – a feat that most fighters also don’t do, usually because they can’t.
Diaz’s brash style did not falter under pressure, as the Stockton native rose to the challenge when he was given the chance to take on then-Pride champion Takanori Gomi during one of Pride’s US events. Diaz absorbed Gomi’s best shots and kept coming forward, eventually tiring out the Japanese fighter, redirecting the momentum of the fight and securing a rare Gogoplata submission for the win. During the bout, Diaz sustained multiple cuts and a broken orbital bone.
Time and time again, Nick Diaz has proven what he means every time he says he’s a ‘real fighter’.
Fight to Watch: Minotauro vs. Bob Sapp – Pride Shockwave 2002
During his time as an active heavy weight, Nogueira was a fighter’s fighter, putting in the hard work and getting hard fought wins in return. That incredible work ethic and will to win led him to become the very first Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight champion. Throughout his storied career, Nogueira took on opponents from a variety of styles, claiming victory over all but a few. Many of the bouts the Brazilian was involved in were long, tough fights against opponents like Mirko Cro Cop or Fedor, but perhaps the most compelling bout was a back and forth ‘freak show’ fight against Bob Sapp in 2002.
After surviving a piledriver from the 350-pound Sapp, ‘Big Nog’ weathered another storm in the form of a ground and pound barrage. Nogueira hung tough, absorbing shots but not losing focus as the heavily muscled Sapp began to tire. Once an opportunity presented itself, ‘Minotauro’ took dominant position and secured the tap via arm bar.
That bout, along with countless others, showed fans why Nogueira’s fortitude was something to behold.
Fight to Watch: Dan Henderson vs. Wanderlei Silva 2 – Pride Fighting Championships 33
Dan Henderson could easily be argued as the toughest fighter in the history of the sport, having captured numerous titles in a variety of weight classes all against top-flight opponents, while his success can be refined to a few simple attributes: his chin, his punching power and the physicality in his fighting style. Henderson is a true sportsman, staying humble in victory and defeat, but that does not change the fact that he has treated every fight like a one-man demolition job.
His aggressive, power punching style has led him to victory on dozens of occasions often in high-profile bouts. One if the best examples of the tit-for-tat style that made Hendo a household name was his Pride 33 knockout victory over Wanderlei Silva in a rematch that made him the sport’s first, and only, major two-division champion (simultaneously).
After eating the hardest shots the Brazilian bomber could throw, Henderson uncorked a thunderous left hook that left Silva out cold. The fight was one of many that further cemented Dan Henderson’s legacy as one of grit and determination to get the job done.
Fight to Watch: Miesha Tate vs. Holly Holm – UFC 196
One might say it’s kind of odd to put a female fighter ahead of all these men with tremendous reputations – that would be a tall order for anyone – but you simply can’t build a list of tough fighters properly without including the current UFC women’s bantamweight champ. Getting tagged for the better part of four rounds before putting Holm to sleep with a choke is a good example of Tate’s toughness, but rather than just picking one example from her storied career, a reader would be better served to look at it as a full body of work.
In her first effort against Ronda Rousey, Tate refused to tap to an arm bar that almost her arm broken beyond repair. In her bout with Sara McMann, she endured to win a gutsy majority decision, and as previously mentioned, she waded through the storm of Holly Holm to capture a UFC title.
Beaten, bloody, broken or bruised, Miesha Tate has proven that she never goes down without a fight.
Fighters not listed, but also fall into this category include: Nate Diaz, Robbie Lawler, Jon Jones, Rory MacDonald, Randy Couture, Mark Hunt, and Carlos Condit, among others.