10 Most Influential First UFC Fighters (MMA Pioneers Ranked)

Are you wondering who the most influential first UFC fighters were?

In this article, we’ll look at the most influential first UFC fighters from the first 10 UFC events, in terms of how they impacted and helped develop the UFC and the sport of MMA.

Most Influential First UFC Fighters

Without the first UFC fighters willingly participating in a new promotion and new sport without any rules or regulations, the UFC and MMA wouldn’t be what and where they are today.

Listed below are the most influential first UFC fighters from the first 10 UFC events which ran from 1993 to 1996, ranked in order of most influential.

1. Royce Gracie

The entire Gracie family is the earliest pioneer of MMA due to their establishment of no-holds-barred fighting in 1920s Brazil, known as Vale Tudo.

However, it was Royce Gracie who was put forward as one of the first UFC fighters to represent Gracie jiu-jitsu (Bjj), in how it could be effectively used by smaller athletes against bigger opponents and against any other combat sport.

Royce Gracie was selected to compete by his older brother, Rorion Gracie, the co-founder of the UFC.

To the surprise of every viewer, Royce Gracie dominated all of his opponents despite only weighing 180 lbs – much lighter than most of his opponents. At UFC 2 he beat Remco Pardoel, who weighed 260 lbs.

The first UFC events were in a tournament format, meaning the first UFC fighters would have to compete either 3 or 4 times a night to win. Royce Gracie won 3 of the 4 first UFC tournaments and only pulled out of UFC 3 before the semifinals due to exhaustion.

Royce Gracie dominated his opponents by having great takedowns, which neutralized their striking, power, and weight advantages during stand-up, and then having the vastly superior skill and knowledge of jiu-jitsu on the canvas, which he used to submit 10 out of 11 opponents in the first 4 UFC events.

Overall, Royce Gracie was hugely influential in attracting viewers to the UFC and MMA, as they were intrigued to watch how effective submissions were against big and powerful fighters.

He showed fighters after him how essential jiu-jitsu was to becoming a developed and well-rounded fighter.

2. Ken Shamrock – ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’

Ken Shamrock was the second most influential of the first UFC fighters, competing in MMA since 1992 before even the UFC was founded

He entered the first UFC event as the most experienced MMA fighter with a 4-0 record but lost against Royce Gracie in the semifinals via a rear-naked choke.

He then became the first foreign Pancrase MMA champion in Japan, in 1995. This was influential as it brought a lot of eyes from Japan to the UFC in America when Ken went back to compete at UFC 5.

Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie were involved in the longest fight in UFC history (UFC 5), which lasted 36 minutes. 

They were fighting for the inaugural UFC Superfight Championship, which was the first fight outside of the tournament format and the first fight to introduce a time limit of 30 minutes. The fight was a stalemate and ended in a draw as there were no judges to declare a winner.

This was influential as it caused the UFC to introduce a 10-minute time limit on fights and a 15-minute limit on finals from UFC 8 (1996) onwards, as they could see the potential for stalemates with longer time limits or no limits at all.

Not only was Ken Shamrock influential in shaping UFC rules, but he was also hugely popular in both Japan and America, setting new UFC pay-per-view records every time he fought.

He was popular because of his great physique and his fighting skills and power as a wrestler and striker, but also because of his feuds with rival fighters. His most notorious feuds were with Royce Gracie and Tito Ortiz, both bringing in many viewers and fans to the UFC.

Ken was a UFC Superfight Champion with 2 title defenses and was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2003. He’s without a doubt one of the most influential of the first UFC fighters for his pioneering role in MMA that lasted a staggering 24 years from 1992 to 2016.

3. Mark Coleman – ‘The Hammer’

Mark Coleman introduced himself to MMA at UFC 10 in 1996, where he went on to defeat Gary Goodridge and Don Frye and win the tournament.

He also won the UFC 11 tournament and became the first UFC heavyweight champion after defeating Dan Severn in the first UFC event to feature weight classes (UFC 12).

He lost his next 3 UFC fights and joined Pride, winning the promotion’s biggest tournament to become the Pride 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix Champion with a prize of $200,000; which was absolutely huge at the time.

Mark Coleman got into MMA at the age of 32 to provide for his children, so he was fighting on instincts in the early days of his career and was more of a brawler. Mark used tactics such as headbutts before they were banned at UFC 15.

However, his bread and butter was his elite wrestling and ground-and-pound, which earned him the nickname, ‘The Godfather of Ground & Pound’. He was seen as the first martial artist to use the strategy and provide the blueprint for success in the early days of MMA.

Overall, Mark retired in 2010 with a 16-10 MMA record and as one of the most influential first UFC fighters as he showed how dominant wrestling could be in the new sport of MMA; when everyone believed Bjj was the gold standard.

He was inducted into the pioneer wing of the UFC Hall of Fame in 2008.

4. Dan Severn – ‘The Beast’

Dan Severn began his MMA journey at UFC 4 in 1994 and fought for 18 years until his retirement in 2012. He’s the most active MMA fighter in the history of the sport, retiring at the age of 54 with a record of 101-19-7.

Known as ‘The Beast’, Dan was the UFC 5 tournament winner, the Ultimate Ultimate tournament winner, and a UFC Superfight Champion, to become the first and only UFC triple crown champion and the third UFC fighter to be entered into the UFC Hall of Fame.

Dan was known for his elite wrestling, where he won gold medals at the amateur level and world championships as a professional. He’d also trained in Judo since he was in college and was a sambo champion before entering the UFC.

While in the UFC, Dan beat the likes of Paul Varelans, David Abbott, and Ken Shamrock, who were some of the biggest names in MMA during the 90s.

Dan started his MMA journey in the UFC but fought in many promotions such as WEC, King of the Cage, and Pride.

Overall, he was very influential in MMA and his moving between promotions meant he brought a lot of eyes with him anywhere he went because of his UFC and wrestling success.

5. Don Frye – ‘The Predator’

Don Fyre was a hugely popular and iconic MMA pioneer, recognized for his mustache, tough guy bravado, intense staredowns, and being one of the first UFC fighters to be truly well-rounded.

This was during a time when most fighters were specialists in a particular martial art due to the UFC’s original goal of finding the best one.

Don wrestled through high school and college so wrestling was his most developed skill, but he was also trained in boxing and had a black belt in judo.

He was a proficient striker and grappler with powerful boxing and effective clinch work who could also execute submissions (learned through judo) and ground-and-pound, which is where the majority of his wins came from.

His first MMA fight was at UFC 8 in 1996, winning his first 6 fights before losing to another influential fighter on this list, Mark Coleman, at UFC 10.

He then won another 9 fights, taking his MMA record to 15-1, all the while fighting for the two most competitive promotions, the UFC and Pride.

His 10-1 record in the UFC saw him win the UFC 8 and the second Ultimate Ultimate tournament while losing in the final at UFC 10.

After his success in the UFC, Don wrestled for the next 5 years before returning to Pride in 2001. This was hugely influential as wrestling had a very large following back then.

Overall, Don Frye was one of the first UFC fighters to really influence how future athletes would approach fighting; as they could see how he was successful by having a well-rounded skillset. 

Don Frye was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2016 and will always be remembered for securing one of the fastest knockouts in UFC history, after knocking out Thomas Ramirez in his MMA debut in just 8 seconds. 

He also had extremely fun fights – his fight against Yoshihiro Takayama at Pride 21 won the fight of the year.

6. Gary Goodridge – ‘Big Daddy’

Before MMA, Gary was one of the best professional arm wrestlers, a former heavyweight kickboxer with a record of 12-24, and also the Canadian amateur superheavyweight boxing champion.

With all of his combat sports experience, Gary was more than willing to jump into MMA when the chance to enter UFC 8 came around through the Kuk Sool Won school he’d been training at.

In his debut against Paul Herrera, he produced a memorable UFC knockout by getting him in a crucifix position and raining down 8 elbows – knocking out Herrera with only the second.

He then knocked out Jerry Bohlander but lost to Don Frye in the final after tapping due to exhaustion.

While Gary Goodridge was a very powerful fighter, his cardio was poor and he lost many fights due to exhaustion, again tapping against Don Frye in a rematch and losing 4 UFC fights this way.

Gary Goodridge was clearly an example of what happens if you don’t train your cardiovascular system for an MMA fight.

Gary also competed in the first 4 Pride Championship events and continued fighting for 14 years until his retirement in 2010.

Unfortunately, Gary Goodridge was diagnosed with degenerative dementia two years after retiring and is one of the first UFC fighters to show the dangers of competing in MMA; especially during the early days when there were fewer rules and fighter safety was less of a concern.

Gary influenced future generations of MMA fighters by showing how proper rest and recovery are essential for the brain and body. He’s also influenced commissions and promotions to increase fighter safety and raise awareness of how to protect their brains.

7. David Abbott – ‘Tank’

David Abbott, better known as Tank Abbott, made his MMA debut at UFC 6 in 1996 and quickly became an icon.

He was an extremely entertaining fighter whose style was more of a brawler than a technical martial artist. Tank learned his trade by fighting on the streets and in the bars of California.

His game plan was always the same, rush in and make the fight a brawl. It worked at times but often backfired if his opponent managed to survive his onslaught, as he’d use a lot of energy and they were now the fresher fighter.

Tank’s martial arts experience was in wrestling, which he had trained since the age of 9. He became an NJCAA All-American in college and also boxed on the side.

He had great cardio, decent ground-and-pound, and knockout power in his punches, but lacked any real technique and relied on brute force, even for his takedowns.

For many fans, Tank Abbott was the face of MMA in the mid to late 90s due to his image and style of fighting. He made every fight a brawl, wasn’t afraid of any opponent, and was one of the most durable early UFC fighters.

Tank also gained a reputation due to his trash talk, taunting, UFC 13 post-fight brawl, and his ability to bench press 600 lbs. He was also the first UFC fighter to wear traditional MMA gloves as a way to protect his hands from breaking. 

Lastly, he tried throwing fighters out of the octagon which led to the rule being changed, as well as getting fish hooking banned, as he would regularly fishhook opponents when on top of them.

8. Oleg Taktarov – ‘The Russian Bear’

Oleg Taktarov is the only Russian fighter on this list, known for using his sambo and judo skills from UFC 5 onwards. He grew up training in both arts and formerly had the position as a hand-to-hand instructor for the KGB.

At the age of 22 in 1989, Oleg started to train jiu-jitsu, so he was a very skilled and well-rounded fighter who was one of the most experienced of the first UFC fighters.

His specialty was grappling and submissions, where 14 of his 17 MMA wins were by submission.

He was very influential in showing how effective leg locks and kneebars were in turning defense into attack and ultimately victory; and also the power of mixing sambo and Bjj, which was effectively wrestling, judo, and Bjj.

He won the UFC 6 tournament by beating Tank Abbott in the final via a rear-naked choke, and he also fought Ken Shamrock to a draw in the UFC 7 Superfight Championship, in a fight lasting 33 minutes.

Oleg then lost to Dan Severn in the Ultimate Ultimate tournament final which was his last fight in the UFC. He then went to Pancrase and also fought in Pride for 1 fight, bouncing around various promotions until his retirement in 2008.

9. Guy Mezger ‘The Sandman’

Guy Mezger made his MMA debut at UFC 4 and he also fought at UFC 5, winning both of his alternate fights by TKO – which were single bouts outside of the tournament fights.

He then signed and fought in Pancrase MMA for the next 2 years, going 9-4-2 before returning for UFC 13. At UFC 13, Guy Mezger won the lightweight tournament (under 200 lbs) by beating Christophe Leininger and Tito Ortiz in the final.

He then went back to Pancrase before eventually joining Pride in 1999 and fighting there until 2002 before retiring a year later.

Guy Mezger was one of the first UFC fighters to have real technical striking as he’d trained in taekwondo since high school and was a 7th-degree black belt.

He was also a kickboxing and karate champion, winning the 93 and 94 World-Full Contact Karate Championship and the 1995 WKC title.

Mezger also wrestled during high school but most of his undoing in MMA was due to his lack of wrestling skills. Overall, he was very influential in showing technical striking and how the future of striking in MMA may look.

10. Gerard Gordeau

Gerard Gordeau was the most elite striker to enter UFC 1. He was the 1991 savate world champion, which was a form of kickboxing originating in France. 

He was also the Dutch karate champion for 8 consecutive years and had previously trained in wrestling and boxing; so he was a well-rounded martial artist.

Gerard was hugely influential to the UFC’s initial success in attracting viewers after he knocked out Teila Tuli’s teeth with a soccer kick in the first-ever UFC fight. He went on to beat Kevin Rosier in the 2nd round but lost to Royce Gracie in the final via a rear-naked choke.

While Gerard’s MMA career only lasted 4 fights, he was hugely influential in showing what the UFC could be. Technical striking with a lot of experience and respect for multiple martial arts; it just so happens that he came up against a Bjj wizard in Royce Gracie.

First UFC Fighters at UFC 1

While not all influential, here’s the full list of the first UFC fighters at UFC 1. There were 10 fighters in total:

  • Royce Gracie
  • Gerard Gordeau
  • Ken Shamrock
  • Kevin Rosier
  • Patrick Smith
  • Art Jimmerson
  • Zane Frazier
  • Teila Tuli
  • Jason DeLucia
  • Trent Jenkins

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