While Zuffa has signed a wealth of talent over the past few months, they haven’t locked up every top fighter just yet, including the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter. Here’s your guide to the top ten fighters that currently aren’t under contract with Zuffa (UFC/WEC) courtesy of Scott and myself…
1. Fedor Emelianenko (26-1-0-1) – The best fighter in the world, period. He has beaten a who’s who of heavyweights from around the world and is looking pretty much unstoppable at this point. The only thing we have against him is that he doesn’t fight often enough but it’s technically not his fault anyway. Both K-1 and the UFC are vigorously attempting to sign the hottest free agent on the market right now. Old rumors had him going to the UFC while the latest set has him staying in Japan. Only time will tell where Fedor is going to end up.
2. Josh Barnett (20-5) – Probably the second biggest FA on the market, Barnett hasn’t ruled out signing with any organization. He’s an extremely talented heavyweight and a former UFC Heavyweight Champion at that. Has split a pair of fights with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. His ‘Achilles’ heel’ seems to be Mirko Cro Cop - Barnett has lost to him in three straight tries. Has the skill set to beat anyone in the world. Has said that he would love to return to the US but the guy is a legend in Japan.
3. Matt Lindland (20-5) – The one fighter that the UFC should have never let go. Lindland was set to challenge Rich Franklin for the UFC Middleweight Title until the UFC terminated his contract because of an unapproved sponsor being on his shorts. Lindland has won 5 out of 7 fights since then - his only losses have been against Quinton Jackson and Fedor who both compete in higher weight classes than “The Law”. Has said that he currently does not want to be locked up by a single organization.
4. Takanori Gomi (27-3-0-1) – Gomi was the top ranked lightweight in the world for what seemed like forever until he was submitted by both Marcus Aurelio and Nick Diaz in less than a year. His losses have come against the cream of the crop and he’s beaten just about everyone else out there. Gomi is the current PRIDE Lightweight Champion as well the winner of the PRIDE Lightweight Grand Prix in 2005. He has stated that he has no interest in leaving Japan to compete at this time and has publicly said he is interested in signing with K-1.
5. Denis Kang (27-8-1-1) – Reports have Kang signing with K-1 any day now. If he does indeed ink a deal with K-1, he is expected to take on Kazushi Sakuraba in September in what could possibly be Saku’s final fight. Kang put himself on the map by fighting his way to the finals of the PRIDE Welterweight Grand Prix, defeating Akihiro Gono, Murilo Rua, and Amar Suloev before ultimately losing a split decision to Kazuo Misaki. He is widely considered one of the most well-rounded middleweights in the world today.
6. Gilbert Melendez (12-0) – Melendez hasn’t fought yet in 2007 but he remains one of MMA’s hottest rising young stars. A win over Tatsuya Kawajiri at PRIDE Shockwave 2006 cemented Melendez as the top prospect that the lightweight division has to offer. He pulled out a split decision over Clay Guida in June of last year to become the Strikeforce World Lightweight Champion. Melendez currently remains under contract with Strikeforce and is scheduled to fight at the promotion’s upcoming Playboy Mansion event on September 29th against an opponent yet to be announced.
7. Jake Shields (18-4-1) – Shields has been a bit of a nomad throughout his MMA career, never being locked up to any specific promotion at any point. However that doesn’t mean that Shields hasn’t been able to fight some of the best in the world at welterweight. Shields holds wins over Hayato Sakurai, Akira Kikuchi, and victories over Yushin Okami and WEC Welterweight Champion Carlos Condit in the same night. Along with Melendez, Shields currently trains out of Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Shields is slated to take on another household name in Renato Verissimo at EliteXC: Uprising on September 15th.
8. Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (4-1) – This year’s biggest surprise hasn’t fought since April because of stalling contract talks with a number of organizations. Team Quest officials have said they felt negotiations with the UFC were disrespectful to Sokoudjou. Sokoudjou was thought to have signed with EliteXC in June but the news was found to be false. Rumors are now pointing to Sokoudjou signing with K-1. He became the talk of the town earlier this year when he knocked out Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona in consecutive fights.
9. Ricardo Arona (13-5) – The aforementioned Arona has been relatively quiet since his loss to Sokoudjou at PRIDE 34. Arona was scheduled to participate in the 2007 ADCC Championships but was forced to pull out after he contracted Dengue Fever for the second time in two months. Arona has lost three of his last four fights but many experts still have him ranked among the top fighters in the world at 205 lbs. He owns wins over Wanderlei Silva, Jeremy Horn, and Dan Henderson just to name a few. There has been no indication concerning where Arona plans to sign now that PRIDE has been purchased.
10. Nick Diaz (14-6) – After knocking out then highly regarded Robbie Lawler in 2004, Diaz was touted as the future of the UFC welterweight division. Instead of living up to expectations, Diaz went on to compile a disappointing record of 4-4 in the UFC and found himself ousted from the promotion in the spring of 2006. Diaz was invited back, won two straight fights, and then turned down a contract extension, opting to defect to PRIDE instead. It was there where Diaz would shock the MMA world by submitting Takanori Gomi at PRIDE 33. Even though the fight was eventually changed to a no contest after it was found that Diaz had tested positive for marijuana, many still hold Diaz in high regard for the victory. Diaz is currently signed to a multi-fight deal with EliteXC and will make his debut for the promotion on September 15th against Mike Aina.
It would be unfair of us if we didn’t include those fighters that failed to make the cut as they are still among some of the best mixed martial artists in the world today. Here are some honorable mentions in no particular order…
Aleksander Emelianenko (11-3) – The younger brother of the world’s best fighter may not have the same exact skill set but that doesn’t mean he’s a slouch either. Aleksander’s only losses have come at the hands of Josh Barnett, Mirko Cro Cop, and Fabricio Werdum. A win over Sergei Kharitonov at PRIDE Final Conflict Absolute 2006 earned him a ranking as one of the top heavyweights in the world. Like his older sibling, Aleksander isn’t currently signed to any one promotion.
Shinya Aoki (11-2) – The gifted ground specialist experienced huge success at both lightweight and welterweight when he defeated Joachim Hansen and Akira Kikuchi in back-to-back fights this past year. Aoki also owns wins over Jason Black, Clay French, and a wealth of other fighters. His last fight was a submission win over Brian Lo-A-Njoe at PRIDE 34. Aoki hasn’t indicated anything about his future plans to the media after PRIDE was sold to Zuffa earlier this year.
Kid Yamamoto (15-1) – Yamamoto has been among the world’s top pound-for-pound fighters for years now. Wins over Jeff Curran, Caol Uno, and Genki Sudo have seen Yamamoto achieve success at both featherweight and lightweight in his career. His lone loss came at the hands of Stephen Palling because of a cut in 2002. Since then Yamamoto has reeled off 12 straight wins. WEC Featherweight Champion Urijah Faber wants him but will most likely have to wait a little while longer; Yamamoto has been under contract to K-1 since 2004 and recently took time off from MMA to try out for the Japanese Wrestling Team that will be competing at the 2008 Summer Olympics.