The submission hold is the unique facet of mixed martial arts that separates it from nearly all others. The drama that an attempted hold renders on a crowd is gripping in ways the cheap thrill of a flash knock out is not. Here are 42 fighters who we owe the pleasure of thanking for making the submission victory our own.
As with all lists concerning the best in MMA, the hard part is figuring out who makes the cut. A proper criterion is the only way to set a regimented creed of standards to objectively judge. And here they are:
• QUALITY — Submissions over first-rate opposition weighed heavily.
• CREATIVITY/DIFFICULTY — Utilize a rare or ingenious submission and you score big.
• SIGNIFICANCE — Title shots, drastic upsets, career changing aspects, etc.
• AWE FACTOR — Win the crowd, win a spot on this list.
This is a list of current and relevant MMA submission artists and where they stack up today. Kazushi Sakuraba, Ken Shamrock, and others are exempt due to their current lack of submission accomplishments. And, this is just MMA submissions. Achievements in other venues like Olympic wrestling or the ADCC can be noted to clarify their history, but will not be counted as a determining factor. Marcelo Garcia is one of the all-time best Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialists, but he is not accomplished in MMA.
With the fine print and lawyer talk out of the way, it’s time to dive into the dangerous guard of the top 43 submission fighters in MMA. Keep the ice bags and crutches close by.
43. MARLON SANDRO
It seems fitting to start this off with a man from one of the best submission schools in the world, Nova União. While Sandro prefers finishing fights the old fashioned way—punching his foes until they cannot feel feelings anymore—his opponents have to pick their poison with his powerful grappling game.
Best Sub—Any time you can submit a guy without going to the floor you score major points. This featherweight locked up Matt Jaggers in a standing arm-triangle choke, pushed him into the corner of the Sengokuring, and squeezed until Jaggers fell over unconscious.
42. JEREMY HORN
“Gumby” has seen some things, man. Then again, he’s had 112 career fights, winning 57 via submission. And no, that’s not a typo. He has 57 career submission victories. Although he’s lost a little pep in his step these days, it’s not a good idea to say that to his face, or you might end up in lala land.
Best Sub—Although Horn has two submission wins over Chael Sonnen (guillotine and arm bar), Gumby’s best work was putting Chuck Liddell to sleep with an arm-triangle at UFC 19 in 1999. It was the first loss of Liddell’s career and the only defeat in his first 13 fights.
41. GEORGE SOTIROPOULOS
The only man on this list from Down Under, Sotiropoulos has been a surprisingly nasty submission fighter after his stint on the TUF 6. Picking up some tricks along the way from 10th Planet’s Eddie Bravo, the Aussie is meticulous, voracious, and lots of other very big words.
Best Sub—The way Sots yanked George Roop’s arm with a kimura at UFC 101 made it look like the whole shoulder was going to come out of its socket. Victims have been pulled out of burning buildings with less urgency.
40. Joe Stevenson
Who says you need long limbs to be good at submissions? Listed at 5’7”, which is just a bad joke, the compact Stevenson is able to make his tiny frame an advantage. Using his short arms like tiny levers, he is able to clamp tightly around his foes’ necks, helping him score his favorite submission—the guillotine.
Best Sub—After a couple rounds of trash talk between the two fighters in the media, “Daddy” and Melvin Guillard’s bout took all of 27 seconds for Stevenson to seal the deal with a—you guessed it—guillotine.
39. Urijah Faber
Also a choke artist, all of Faber’s submission wins have been by guillotine or rear naked. The unyielding pace he forces on his opponents only ends when the ripped man gets a pit bull-like grip on a neck.
Best Sub—There’s nothing quite like submitting a master of submissions. Rafael Assuncao is a master, but it didn’t stop Faber from latching on yet another rear naked choke. Sometimes a tool belt only needs one tool.
38. Joe Lauzon
He made his mark by defeating 7-to-1 favorite Jens Pulver by KO in his UFC debut, but it is his submissions that make up the bulk of his highlight reel. “J-Lau” reeled off eight straight wins to start off his career, all but one coming via submission hold.
Best Sub—Jeremy Stephens is no slouch. So, hitting an armbar from the mount, then scrambling for several seconds, jockeying for position, and still getting the submission is worth more than a simple UFC Submission of the Nightcheck. It’s also worth an “attaboy” from FIGHT!
37. Kenny Florian
Boston’s own may not need creativity, as all of his submission wins in the UFC are by the effective rear-naked choke.“KenFlo” is adept at beating the will out of his opponents before willfully putting them out of their misery with a merciful choke.
Best Sub—His submission wins are all the same, so 1/4 of a point for each RNC against Takanori Gomi, Clay Guida, Joe Stevenson, and Din Thomas. These are four tough guys who are missing a few million brain cells courtesy of Florian’s touch.
36. Cole Miller
The American Top Team product is not the most intimidating fighter—his nickname “Magrinho” means “skinny” in Portuguese—but the lanky Georgian’s submission wins fill in the gap. At only 26 years old, he is just entering his prime.
Best Sub—A better display of his ability would be his triangle choke on Jorge Gurgel, but the mind-boggling eye candy goes to his kimura win over Dan Lauzon. Turning an inverted triangle into a kimura while hanging upside down is too much fun to pass up.
35. JEFF MONSON
Built like a refrigerator with tattoos, “The Snowman” is one of the most interesting fighters on this list. At 5’9” he is as wide as he is tall, stocked with short arms and legs and nothing resembling a neck, begging to be the answer to the question (despite having two submission losses), “Is anyone unsubmittable right now?”
Best Sub—At UFC 57, Monson secured a north/south choke on Branden Lee Hinkle that left Hinkle’s body completely limp. After Monson rose from his unconscious opponent, the camera zoomed in on one of the most eerie stares into oblivion few had ever seen in MMA.
34. GEORGES ST-PIERRE
The UFC Welterweight Champion has a positional, dominant ground game that he uses to wear down his opponent until they give up an appendage in surrender to the French-Canadian. Ironic, I know.
Best Sub—In the rubber match with former all-time welterweight badass Matt Hughes, St-Pierre left no doubt the torch was officially passed, hitting a beautiful kimura-to armbar transition that had Hughes screaming in pain.
33. NATE MARQUARDT
It’s scary that the least dangerous part of Marquardt’s game may be his submissions. He is now punch happy, but let someone leave their nec
k, arm, or leg out for him to snatch and people will remember why he was King of Pancrase.
Best Sub—Yuji Hoshino at Pancrase Proof 6 made the mistake of shooting a high crotch and lifting Marquardt in the air. Like Nate planned it all along, Hoshino landed himself in a triangle and “The Great” simply locked it up for the win.
32. IKUHISA MINOWA
What he lacks in polish, he makes up for in style. The speedo-wearing showman has found a niche for himself in Japanese MMA by taking on gargantuan opposition and submitting most of them. If we are ever attacked by giant aliens, only Minowa would have the adequate experience to defeat them.
Best Sub—In true “Minowaman” fashion, he took on 7’2”, 350-pound Korean kickboxer Hong Man Choi at DREAM 11. After a back-and-forth first round, Minowa was finally able to secure his patented heel hook in the second round, curing little-man syndrome for thousands of small guys everywhere.
31. RENATO SOBRAL
Another wrestler convert, Sobral took his international wrestling experience and Gracie Barra jiu-jitsu techniques to turn himself into one of the best grapplers in his weight class. The combination of wrestling and submissions has yielded the light heavyweight plenty of victories.
Best Sub—At UFC 74, “Babalu” faced a David Heath that had rubbed him the wrong way. Unfortunately for Heath, this was not a tennis match. Sobral cinched a tight anaconda choke and held it a few seconds after the referee moved in to stop it, causing Heath to fall into unconsciousness. The UFC sent Babalu packing, but the sub was spectacular.
30. MARCUS AURELIO
A tougher-than-nails BJJ black belt,Aurelio has never been finished, but he has submitted 13 of his opponents with armbars, triangle chokes, and rear-naked chokes.
Best Sub—Aurelio hit a high-speed transitional armbar against Ryan Roberts at UFC Fight Night 13, but “Maximus” has been and will forever be known as the man who tapped out Takanori Gomi with an arm triangle, back when Gomi was unbeatable in Pride. It’s most likely already engraved on his tombstone.
29. JASON MILLER
The man known as “Mayhem” is better known for his just-escaped-a-mental institution charm and his role as an enforcer against bullies on MTV’s Bully Beatdown, but it’s his great submission game that keeps him going in MMA.
Best Sub—He may be far past his prime and fighting on two haggard legs, but when Miller arm-triangle choked Kazushi Sakuraba at DREAM 16, he made history by submitting a man who had never been submitted before. (Saks sub loss to Kimo in 1996 is highly suspect).
28. BIBIANO FERNANDES
The three-time World Brazilian Champion may only have three submissions in professional MMA, but he is a threat every moment of every nail biting second he is on the floor. With only10 fights, the DREAM Featherweight Champion has plenty of time to wow the fans with his slick jiu-jitsu.
Best Sub—It took only 42 seconds for “The Flash” to armbar current Bellator Champion Joe Warren, which is still Warren’s only loss.
27. JAVIER VAZQUEZ
It was not good enough for Vazquez to earn his black belt from a Gracie, he had to marry the daughter of one. The Carlson Gracie product has merged his wrestling background with jiu-jitsu to become one of the most dangerous submission threats in the WEC featherweight division.
Best Sub—During the prelims of WEC 50, Mackens Semerzier felt what it was like to get stuck in a standing rear naked choke. The submission was so good, Versus aired the untelevised fight online following the event.
26. MARLOES COENEN
One of only two ladies to make the list, Coenen sheds the striking only stigma of the Dutch and has churned out 13 career submissions. Her tall frame, 5’9”, and active guard make her groundwork a thing of beauty to watch.
Best Sub—Her best sub put her on the map for American audiences when she armbarred Sarah Kaufman for the Strikeforce 135-pound title. Kaufman complained Coenen held on too long, but the two immediately reconciled and squashed the issue. Leave it to the ladies to be the ones that act like gentlemen.
25. THALES LEITES
Another Nova União product, Leites has a diverse submission game but prefers the straight armbar and arm triangle choke as his weapons of choice. Throw in some great positional grappling skills and a high-flying judo throw every now and then, and you have one fun Brazilian on your hands.
Best Sub—He had three submission victories in the UFC, but only one earned him the coveted Submission of the Night bonus. At UFC 74, Leites armbarred Ryan Jensen in the first round to earn the win and some bonus money.
24. ANDERSON SILVA
Pick your poison with one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world:stand and trade and you get knocked out, take him down and you get submitted.A BJJ black belt under the Nogueira brothers, “The Spider” uses his extremely long appendages like, well…a spider.
Best Sub—After taking a beating from Chael Sonnen for 23 minutes, Silva went to Sonnen’s Achilles heel and slapped on a triangle, tapping the world-class wrestler. However, he still couldn’t shut Sonnen up.
23. MATT HUGHES
One of the most dominant fighters to ever weigh 170 pounds, Hughes transitions his amateur wrestling roots beautifully into a hybrid grappling style. The “Country Boy” learned a thing or two about submissions out on the farm.
Best Sub—It is tempting to pick his kimura-defense to armbar on GSP, but submitting Ricardo Almeida, a five time placer at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Championships, with a Dave Schultz front headlock must not be ignored. The move caused everyman in the Midwest with cauliflower ears to shed a couple tears of joy.
22. NICK DIAZ
One of only three Caesar Gracie jiu jitsu black belts, Diaz could be much higher on this list if he was not so damn good at punching people into oblivion. The Strikeforce Welterweight Champion’s precarious guard disgruntles people from shooting on him, hiding his biggest weakness—takedown defense.
Best Sub—The fight finders say “No Contest,” but you and I know better. Facing the then consensus number one fighter in the world in Takanori Gomi, an all out war was abruptly halted by the white whale of submissions: the gogo plata. Failing a post-fight drug test dismisses the win from the record books but not from our memories.
21. CHRIS LYTLE
Professional boxer + fulltime fireman + all-time leader in UFC win bonuses = one fun fighter to watch. Two of those win bonuses have been submissions, and that is out of 19 career submission wins.
Best Sub—Chris Lytle’s best submission didn’t even earn him a submission of the night bonus. At UFC47, Lytle tapped out Tiki Ghosn with a bulldog choke. You should win an award any time you tap out a professional fighter in the UFC Octagon with the same move you used to choke your little brother with in the backyard.
20. WAGNNEY FABIANO
This WEC bantamweight has the wicked combination of tap-you-at any-point submissions with aggressive takedowns, including double leg shots and inside leg trips.
Best Sub—He became the first,and only, IFL Featherweight Champion by slapping on a
lightning fast armbar on LC Davis.
19. DUSTIN HAZELETT
The man they call “McLovin” sure doesn’t look the part, but beneath the glasses and mustache lies a submission machine. The Jorge Gurgel black belt scores huge with diversity, rarely scoring the same submission twice.
Best Sub—The Submission of the Year on a lot of people’s ballots in 2008, his whizzer step-over armbar against Josh Burkman was reckless, wild, and, according to Hazelett, “technically unsound.” But that is exactly why it looked so good.
18. PAULO THIAGO
The best part about watching Thiago fight is hearing Wallid Ismail screaming in his corner. Second best part, watching him dive for Brabo chokes like it’s the last loaf of rye in a Russian bread line. The UFC welterweight was victorious in the first 11 fights of his pro career, winning seven by submission.
Best Sub—After knocking Mike Swick on his butt, Thiago quickly locked in his patented Brabo choke. Swick fought valiantly, only to wake up a few moments later.
17. ROUSIMAR PALHARES
Note to every middleweight in the UFC: Do not let your legs anywhere within 50 feet of Palhares unless you plan on using crutches. The Brazilian Top Team black belt has some of the nastiest heel hooks to go along with a very complete jiu-jitsu game.
Best Sub—Against another very good black belt in Fábio Negão, “Toquinho” scored a fight ending heel hook. While controlling his back from the standing position, Torquinho rolled to the hold and forced the tap. It looks far more spectacularthan the last sentence gives it credit for.
16. MIGUEL TORRES
When Carlson Gracie Sr. says you are the best, people takenotice. The former WEC Champion has a long frame for his weight, which he uses well with his Muay Thai, but even better with his jiu-jitsu.
Best Sub—Against Chase Beebe at WEC 32, the mullet master sunk in an anaconda choke, rolled to his back, and switched to a guillotine that would have cut a lesser man’s neck in half.
15. SATORU KITAOKA
Any leg lock fan has to appreciate the cringe inducing style of Kitaoka. The Sengoku Lightweight Grandprix Champion firstmade his mark in the leg-lock-happy Pancrase promotion.
Best Sub—He has submitted Paul Daley, Carlos Condit, and Kurt Pellegrino among others, but none are bigger than the straight ankle lock over Takanori Gomi. It only took 1:41 for Kitaoka toboth simultaneously win the Sengoku Lightweight Title and eliminate all memory of Gomi’s Bushido win streak.
14. RANI YAHYA
A lot of good Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters have astute submission games and attempt to round out their other skill sets—not Yahya. The ADCC Champion knows what he does well and is more than happy to stick to it, scoring 14 submissions in 15 victories.
Best Sub—With a move normally set aside for heavyweights who can rely on gravity for the extra force, Yahyahas pulled off three north/south chokes, with the best coming at the expense of Eddie Wineland.
13. MEGUMI FUJII
One of only two fighters on this list without a Y chromosome, Fujii is perhaps the most dominant submission fighter of all-time. In 22 straight victories “Mega Megu” scored 18 submissions, finally losing in her 23rd fight against Zoila Frausto.
Best Sub—Nothing like a good old fashioned rolling leglock. Against Serin Murray, a single leg shot turned into a textbook toehold and win number eight. Try doing that in a pink sports bra.
12. FRANK MIR
The former UFC Heavyweight Champion can lock on armbars, chokes, kneebars, kimuras, and just about break any appendage on the body of whoever happens to be standing in front of him in the cage.
Best Sub—This may be the toughest one to pick with his make shift shoulder lock of Pete Williams and Octagon welcoming kneebar of Brock Lesnar, but the submission no one will ever forget is the basic armbar he scored on Tim Sylvia. Basic, that is, until Sylvia’s forearm snapped in half and turned into a backwards boomerang.
11. JOSH BARNETT
Catch wrestler extraordinaire Barnett reminds the MMA universe that there is more to submissions than what Royce Gracie taught us. The Erik Paulson protégé specializes in leglocks, but he is more than happy to crank anything you give him.
Best Sub—His heel hook over Hidehiko Yoshida helped an ongoing storyline in Japan on the supremacy of catch wrestling over judo.
10. MASAKAZU IMANARI
In proper medical terminology, Imanariis bonkers. However flamboyant and unique he is out of the ring, the quirks improve exponentially when he is in the ring. But that strange style of fighting also hosts one of the most dangerous submission games in all of MMA. Perhaps the most innovative submission fighter, Imanari has scored wins via omoplata neck crank, flying armbar, and more heel hook attempts than he has landed punches.
Best Sub—Against Robbie Olivierat Cage Rage 20, a flying front kick attempt by Imanari turned into a flying triangle attempt, which then turned into a flying armbar finish—all in the span of about four seconds.
“Jacare” could be on top of this list in a few years. The five-time World Jiu-Jitsu Champion is one of the most skillful athletes, and he continues to get better with every fight. The Strikeforce Middleweight Champion also has a positional awareness, helped in part by his judo blackbelt, which has translated beautifully into MMA.
Best Sub—Matt Lindland has tapped out his share of black belts, so it had to feel good for“Jacare” to arm triangle Lindland at a 2009 Strikeforce event. Jacare also armbarred the Olympic silver medalist in the 2003 ADCC.
8. JAKE SHIELDS
A Cesar Gracie black belt, Shields is also a converted wrestler who has amassed a 15-fight winning streak with his self described “American jiu jitsu.”I do not know what it is either, but it must be working.
Best Sub—Shields was chosen to be Robbie Lawler’s welcome to Strikeforce. A rather unwelcoming guillotine slipped in by Shields stopped Lawler’s six fight unbeaten streak dead in its tracks.
7. FEDOR EMELIANENKO
“The Last Emperor” has been raining havoc on the heavyweight division ever since the turn of the decade, and in no small part thanks to a submission game perfectly suited to his frame. A small heavyweight, Fedor relies on smooth hips and a fundamentally sound ground game focusing on armbars and chokes.
Best Sub—The short choke on Tim Sylvia showed the world how Fedor handled the top American fighters, but his same choke over Kazuyuki Fujita showed heart and resiliencyno one had seen from him before.
6. HATSU HIOKI
The former Shooto and TKO Champion flows seamlessly on top, which is even more surprising considering his 5’11” frame on a featherweight. Those longs limbs make short work of fighters who are not paying attention, especially with his patented triangle from mount.
Best Sub—Another mounted triangle victim, Mark Hominick tried to hang tough as the closing seconds of round two ticked away at TKO 25 for the featherweight strap. Hominick woke up without the belt.
5. ANTONIO RODRIGO NOGUEIRA
If comeback submissions counted in this list, “Big Nog
221; would be on top. The Brazilian Top Team standout is notorious for taking a beating over the course of the fight, only to swipe victory from the clutches of defeat on an unsuspecting victim. Back when few heavyweights had high-level jiu-jitsu skills, Nogueira was making it look easy.
Best Sub—In trademark Nog fashion, Mirko “Cro Cop” spent the majority of the first round of their fight landing kicks and punches while defending desperate takedown attempts. By some miracle, Nogueira was able to drag his opponent down and score an armbar victory off a scramble.
4. BJ PENN
The first non-Brazilian winner of the Jiu-Jitsu World Championships saved his best for the cage. Other worldly flexibility and dexterity make dealing with his guard like serving spaghetti with a spoon. While he rarely tries anything flashy, Penn scores most of his submissions by beating the will out of the other fighter and finishing him off with a choke.
Best Sub—After a one-year hiatus from the UFC lightweight division, “The Prodigy” returned to the Octagon as a welterweight, taking on the seemingly invincible Matt Hughes.Within one round, Penn had Hughes tapping out. The smooch he gave him at the end was probably to soothe things over.
3. DEMIAN MAIA
Another ADCC Champion made a seamless switch from sport jiu-jitsu to a sport where jiu-jitsu works but you have to worry about getting punched. He won Submission of the Night in four of his first five UFC fights, three against guys training at Team Quest. Few fighters can live by the true jiu-jitsu credo of beating an opponent without throwing one punch like Maia.
Best Sub—After tossing Chael Sonnento the ground with a foot sweep, Maia landed in a mounted triangle and finished off the outspoken contender just seconds later.
2. FABRICIO WERDUM
Rounding out a Brazilian contingency of notable submission stars, the World and ADCC Champion took nothing but pure jiu-jitsu slick into the MMA arena. Not as athletic as Jacare or well rounded as BJ Penn or takedown savvy as Maia, “Vai Cavalo”has still found success and has never faltered too far from his roots. He also holds the Kryptonite everyone wondered existed.
Best Sub—A mere 69 seconds into their main event bout, Fedor Emelianenko—the number one heavyweight in the world—fell head first into the most dangerous guard in the heavyweight division and tapped out via triangle/armbar. Fedor went from god to still-best heavyweight-ever-but-now-finally-looking-human. It’s arguably the most significant submission ever executed in the young sport of MMA.
He has been called dirty, he’s been called a flopper, and some people give all the credit to his magic, spandex pants, but there is no denying the “Tobikan Judan” is the most dangerous submission fighter in MMA today. Despite having a striking game Shirley Temple could tap dance through, Aoki has run roughshod over nearly every fighter he has faced. The 27-year-old has a unique approach to dragging fighters down into his web where the wiry lightweight tangles up limbs, sometimes never giving them back.
Best Sub—Where to begin? Hes howed the world what a gogoplata was against Joachim Hansen, flying triangle choked Clay French, broke Keith Wisniewski’s arm in half while standing, and, in case people forgot what it was, put another gogoplataon Katsuhiko Nagata, this time from mount. But nothing beats Shinya Aoki snapping Mizuto Hirota’s humerus—the bone between your shoulder and elbow that’s never supposed to break—on New Year’sDay. A combination of a hammerlock meets an Indian burn put Hirota in a cast and sealed Aoki’s legacy as the cash cow of orthopedic surgeons the world over.