Top 5 Submission Artists in UFC History

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While the art of the knockout has been glorified by combat sports since its inception there are more and more people who are beginning to appreciate the mastery that is required in order to submit the opponent. This article will aim to name the top five individuals who could be considered the greatest, most talented, submission specialists in the history of the UFC.

Top Five UFC Submission Artists

Number 5 – Gunnar Nelson

Now, I know this immediately may have some people up in arms and I admit I do find myself slightly biased towards Gunnar Nelson given his Irish connections. However, I do believe that his skillset and body of work is more than capable of speaking for itself. Starting Jiu Jitsu in 2006, Nelson immediately impressed any coach he came across and was awarded his Brown Belt by SBG’s John Kavanagh only 2 years later. He would then train at Renzo Gracie Academy in New York where he would win prestigious tournaments such as the 2009 Pan American Championship. This contributed to him receiving his black belt in a little under 4 years. Truly phenomenal.

While Gunnar has failed to win titles in the UFC, he has established himself as a truly talented fighter and his jiu jitsu skills have allowed him to break the Welterweight’s division for submission finishes where he holds 7 and won 2 Submission of the Year awards in 2015 and 2018 respectively. After an extended hiatus, Gunnar returned in March earlier this year and finished the always game Bryan Barberena via armbar in the first round, showing that there are still things to come from the Icelandic fighter.

Number 4- Jacare Souza

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza may be considered by many at the top of this list when talking about pure BJJ prowess in MMA. He has won a whole host of Jiu Jitsu competitions such as the World Championship, Pan American Championship and the ADCC Championship.

After transitioning to MMA, Souza’s skillset served him extremely well, leading 14 of his 26 victories by way of submission. Notable wins include Robbie Lawler and Gegard Mousasi to name but a few. Yet despite becoming champion in Strikeforce, Jacare failed to pick up that coveted UFC gold. He slightly deviated away from his grappling style later on in his career, preferring often to use his hands. Although retiring from MMA competition in 2021, Jacare only possess 2 Submission victories post 2014. This clear shift away from a submission based style is what stops Jacare from placing higher on the list as this list is based on UFC history as opposed to overall grappling pedigree.

Number 3- Damian Maia

Demian Maia is unquestionably going to be present on anyone’s list of UFC grapplers and the only debate may be that he is placed too low when discussing the caliber of this combatant. Amazingly accomplished in Jiu Jitsu, Maia made his MMA debut twenty-two years ago in 2001.

A veteran of almost 40 fights, he has truly established his superiority on the ground over almost all his other opponents the last few decades. Jointed 2nd for most submissions in UFC history with 11, Maia has submitted countless fighters inside the Octagon, including Carlos Condit, Neil Magny, Matt Brown and Ben Askren as the most prominent names. Maia also notably fought Gunnar Nelson who is Number 5 on this list and totally neutralized the Icelandic fighter’s ground offense in the bout, handily picking up the unanimous decision victory.

Number 2 – Royce Gracie

Royce Gracie is not top of the list. The man who started it all and introduced Jiu Jitsu to a wider audience. Gracie gained prominence in the first UFC tournaments back in the mid 1990s. He was especially noteworthy for going up against much larger opponents than himself and managing to pick up the win even when many would have written him off entirely.

Often needing to defeat at least three opponents in one night in order to win a tournament, Gracie would submit each one and win tournaments at UFC 1, UFC 2, and UFC 4—he went  undefeated at UFC 3 also before withdrawing voluntarily. The resume and historical significance may seem to scream that Gracie should be the submission G.O.A.T. on any list such as this; however, I tend to disagree.

The reason being simply, that his opponents had little to no knowledge of Jiu Jitsu. They were fighters of course, yet they had no knowledge of techniques or methods used in BJJ and therefore were unable to properly defend it. While this is no fault of Gracie’s as he is more than entitled to exploit weaknesses in his opponents if he is able to find it, it does mean that in my opinion, it is more impressive for someone to utilize high level BJJ today than it was back then. This simply is because generally to be in the UFC now a fighter has to have a solid foundation in grappling and there are plenty of other black belts in the organization. This was not the case back in the time of Royce Gracie. 

Number 1 – Charles Oliveira

Charles Oliveira is the best submission artist the UFC has ever seen. The fighter who has had perhaps the biggest career U-Turn of all time, the recent win over Beneil Dariush suggests that Oliveira is not slowing down anytime soon.

While his recently improved form in the last few years is due also to developing his stand up game, Oliveira’s primary weapons will always be his submissions. Holding the record for the most Submissions in UFC history with 16, he is five ahead of 2nd place. A statistic that may be more impressive is that Oliveira holds the record for most submission in two different weight classes, with ten at Lightweight and six at Featherweight.

It is also important that Oliveira has managed to use his skills and submissions on the biggest stage of them all and the level of opponent he has beaten cannot be questioned. Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier were both submitted in title fights with the Brazilian. These are 2 fighters that will go down as being some of the best in the history of the Lightweight division. Other prominent names that have been tapped by “Du Bronx” include former interim title challenger Kevin Lee and division legends Jim Miller and Clay Guida. Oliveira’s sheer number of submissions and the fact he has done it to the most impressive names during title fights means that he has to go at the top of this list. Despite being almost 15 years in the UFC, he is only 33 and it appears that he is still in the prime of his career. It is more than likely that he will add to his resume and further cement his place as number one.

Honorable mentions include – Glover Teixeira, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Jon Jones, Frank Mir

That was the 5 Best Submission Artists in UFC History. I know there were a few slightly left field shouts and placements in there, but I think that is a solid list. Let me know if you would make any changes in the comments below. 

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