10 Best Submission Grapplers in MMA History

By Dazzler

Grappling is One of the Key Components of MMA… Does Anything Look Cooler Than a Slick Submission?

Without Royce Gracie, MMA wouldn’t look the way it does today. The Gracie family changed the sport by making Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu go mainstream. Now every MMA fighter on the planet learns to grapple in some way. Is there anything cooler than seeing a man work another fighter’s body against him?

In MMA today, wrestling is probably the single most important element for fighters to learn. Even if that’s not your main style, you can’t ignore it. You have to figure out how to avoid getting taken down and defend when you’re on the ground. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the best submission grapplers in MMA history.

We’re focusing especially on submission artists so there’s no room for the likes of Daniel Cormier, Khabib Nurmagamedov or Henry Cejudo. They’re brilliant wrestlers but they don’t hunt for locks or chokes. Gunnar Nelson and Ryan Hall are unlucky to miss out, but they haven’t enough MMA success to warrant a place on this list. Who do you think we should have included?

10. Jake Shields

A former Strikeforce champion who has also fought for the UFC, Shields is known for his close association to the Diaz Brothers. He’s also one of the best submission grapplers in MMA history. A former wrestler, Shields began training with the Cesar Gracie Fight Team in 2001 drastically increasing his BJJ game.

12 of his 33 wins have come via submission. He describes his style as ‘American Jiu-Jitsu,’ which he has tattooed on his arm. He uses the smooth transitions of BJJ with the explosiveness of wrestling to great effect.

9. Ronda Rousey

Now whatever you think about Ronda Rousey, there’s absolutely no denying that she was a phenomenal submission artist. An Olympic bronze medallist in Beijing, she’s a 6th dan Judo black belt. Women’s MMA was basically introduced to the UFC because of her and she destroyed every girl in her path.

It’s fair to criticise her level of competition. Nowadays female MMA fighters are more well-rounded. But Rousey was a true MMA specialist. 9 out of her 12 professional wins came via submission and all of those were some variation of her lethal signature armbar.

8. Shinya Aoki

One of the most qualified submission artists in MMA today, Aoki has black belts in judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Oh, and he’s also an A-class Shoot wrestler. A former DREAM lightweight champion and two-time ONE lightweight champion, he’s also had superb regional success in grappling competitions.

Aoki is notorious for being nasty. He has broken multiple arms and has been criticised for causing unnecessary damage, especially earlier in his career. There’s no doubting his skill level though. A sensational 28 of his 43 wins have come by way of submission, with armbars, arm triangles and neck cranks some of his favourite attacks.

7. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

‘Big Nog’ is worthy of his place on this list because he’s a former PRIDE Heavyweight Champion, a former UFC heavyweight champion and a 5th degree BJJ black belt. That’s as impressive a CV as anybody else here. One of only four men to hold titles in both PRIDE and the UFC, the Brazilian is an MMA icon.

21 of his 34 wins have come by way of submission. During his heyday, his submission game was on a different level to his fellow heavyweight competitors and he was renowned for using the likes of triangle chokes and armbars to great effect.

6. Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza

14 submissions in 26 wins justify ‘Jacare’s’ place on this list. The Brazilian submission artist is a 6th dan black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Henrique Machado and also has a black belt in Judo. His credentials speak for themselves.

An 8-time World Jiu-Jitsu champion and a former ADCC champion, ‘Jacare’ is a savage when it comes to submission grappling. One of his most effective techniques is the kimura submission. The former Strikeforce champion has never won a UFC title but he’s still a legend of the game.

5. Fabricio Werdum

The former UFC heavyweight champion was introduced to BJJ when his sister’s boyfriend choked him out with an arm triangle. That definitely was a turning point because he started training in the martial art himself. Now he’s a 4-time BJJ World Championship winner and he’s also got a black belt in Judo.

He’s won multiple gold medals with the ADCC and IBJFF for submission grappling as well. 11 of his 33 MMA wins have come via submission. Werdum was also Mirko Cro-Cop’s BJJ coach. That’s how highly he is regarded in the world of grappling.

4. Rickson Gracie

One of MMA’s legends, Rickson Gracie holds the rank of a 9th-degree red belt – the highest possible grade in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. All 11 of his 11 fights ended as submission victories for the Brazilian martial artist who is actually held in higher regard by some experts than his half-brother Royce.

Famous for his rivalries with various exponents of luta livre, he also fought twice for PRIDE. Truly one of the icons of submission grappling, Rickson’s legacy puts him this high up the list. His son Kron is now also a UFC fighter.

3. Kazushi Sakubura

The only pure wrestler on this list, Kazushi Sakubura earned his place here as the ‘Gracie Killer.’ The Japanese fighter is a legend of MMA for beating four members of the Gracie family. A ‘catch wrestler,’ Sakubura used his double top wrist lock to submit some of the best grapplers of his day.

19 of the Sakubura’s 27 wins came via submission and he’s been praised by Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mark Kerr for his technical skill. His fight with Royce Gracie lasted for 90 minutes until the Brazilian was unable to continue. His submission of Zelig Galisic is one of the greatest ever.

2. Royce Gracie

Without Royce Gracie, MMA would look very different. He revolutionised the sport by popularizing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and normalizing grappling and ground fighting. While in contemporary MMA, wrestling has taken over as the most important grappling art, BJJ is still massively important.

12 of his 15 wins came via submission, with very few fighters able to cope with his slick assaults and transitions. If you’ve never trained in the grappling arts you’re just going to be toyed with and that’s exactly what happened to the fighters that Royce Gracie faced in the early days of the UFC.

1. Demian Maia

Nobody else could be on top of this list. Demian Maia is one of MMA’s ultimate nice guys and arguably the greatest martial arts specialist in the sport’s history. He’s never held a UFC title, but he’s been a top contender for years. 13 of his 27 wins have come by submission.

Renowned for his single leg takedowns, Maia bases his style entirely around his ability on the ground. The reason he’s top of this list is because of the level of competition he’s faced down the years. Sure, Royce Gracie might have introduced BJJ to the UFC, but Maia is the man who has used it against the best competition.