The beauty of MMA lies in the infinite number of possible ways to fight and win; taking someone down and choking him out is one of the best ways to end the fight with an exclamation mark.
Grappling is a very broad term encompassing many different styles and techniques. Fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Kamaru Usman are great grapplers in MMA. On this list, I will focus on distilling the best submission artists in MMA fighting today.
Some are veterans in the twilight of their careers, while others are still making their name. But the common thing is that they all are fighters with big grappling titles and the proven ability to snatch limbs and souls in the cage.
Submission wins: 21
Charles Oliveira is less accomplished in grappling competition than most other fighters. Still, his MMA credentials are second to none. The former UFC lightweight champion holds the record for the most submission wins in the UFC with 16, but his career total is 21. His finishing abilities are unmatched, and he has the most finishes in the history of the biggest MMA promotions, with 19.
Du Bronx has grown to be a complete martial artist. While he’s not the best pure grappler here, I can argue he has the best Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for MMA. He is lethal from all positions, but his guillotines and rear naked chokes have earned him more scalps than any other move.
Submission wins: 14
Ronaldo Souza entered MMA with enormous hype thanks to his grappling accomplishments, including eight BJJ World Championships, two ADCC gold medals, and many silver medals for good measure.
The hype materialized, and as Jacare was still winning grappling accolades, he also captured the Strikeforce middleweight title. He spent most of his career at the highest level in the UFC, where his grappling was always a significant danger for his opponents.
Still, with time he started favoring his punches more and more. Jacare is in the twilight of his career and recently debuted in boxing, but he will always remain one of the most decorated grapplers to reach the highest levels of MMA.
Submission wins: 7
The only female athlete to win the IBJJF world title and the ADCC, Mackenzie Dern, is in very good company on this list. The female grappling wizard transferred her skills to MMA in 2016 and has proven to be the most dangerous woman on the ground on the entire roster.
As the daughter of Wellington “Megaton” Dias, Dern started grappling at age 3. The long list of BJJ medals speaks enough for her submission grappling prowess.
Dern currently fights in the UFC, and she is untouchable when she relies on her ground fighting. Her more recent reliance on striking has led to some close decision losses, but at age 30, we can still expect Dern to strangle her way into UFC gold.
Submission wins: 12
Fabricio Werdum was one of the most feared grapplers in MMA for over two decades. Werdum was a standout BJJ competitor before he ventured into MMA. He has four jiu-jitsu world titles and two ADCC gold medals.
In mixed martial arts, Werdum has fought a whos who list of the best heavyweights on the planet over twenty years. He has fought in Pride, Strikeforce, and the UFC. Werdum gained worldwide fame by submitting Fedor Emelianenko in 2010, snapping his 28-match unbeaten streak and scoring an enormous upset. But the highest honor Werdum achieved was winning the UFC’s heavyweight title in 2015, again courtesy of a nasty submission against Cain Velazquez.
Submission wins: 14
Few, if any, fighters after the first era of MMA have relied so extensively on their grappling as Demian Maia. He has been widely regarded as the BJJ player in MMA for two decades.
While most other submission specialists begin relying more and more on striking as they progress, Maia has made it his mission to out-grapple anyone who steps against him in the octagon and strike as little as possible. The Brazilian has made world-class fighters look like amateurs while on the ground with him.
Although Maia was challenged for a UFC title at middleweight and welterweight and fell short both times, he has had a legendary career spanning 21 years. He will always be one of the best ambassadors of BJJ in MMMA.
Submission wins: 9
Like many other grappling specialists, Gilbert Burns has also found his talent for knocking people out in MMA. Still, his grappling credentials and submissions make him a worthy addition to the list of the best grapplers in MMA.
As a three-time BJJ world champion, Burns decided to transition into MMA and has even challenged for the UFC welterweight title against Kamaru Usman in 2021. Despite loving to stand and bang, most of Burns’s best finishes are submissions. Even though his main focus is MMA, Gilbert occasionally competes in submission grappling events.
Submission wins: 3
If you’ve seen a successful Imanari roll executed in MMA, chances are you’ve seen Ryan Hall do it. What may be even more remarkable is when people start obsessing over Hall catching their leg, he starts kicking them in the head.
Hall has only had 10 MMA fights in his 10 years as a pro, but during that time, he has won TUF season 22 and has only lost once in the UFC. On top of being a supremely skilled grappler, Hall is an interesting character and is quite different from most of his MMA colleagues.
His MMA career looks to be on hold. Still, he is looking to be back in professional grappling, so the grappling world has something to look forward to.
Submission wins: 9
Stepping outside the UFC, we find more outstanding grapplers. One of the best of them is Bibiano Fernandes. Bibi is a five-time BJJ world champion and holds one of the best championship runs outside the UFC.
Fernandes debuted in MMA in 2004 and became the Dream featherweight champion in his ninth professional fight. After winning the Dream bantamweight title, Fernandes signed with One FC. He set the standard for all future champions with a record of seven successful title defenses, with one more on his second reign.
The Flash has outstanding wrestling and submission skills and is one of the best examples of using and crossover world-class grappling skills in a cage fight.
Submission wins: 30
Some on this list may have more grappling credentials, and others may have more prestigious MMA titles. Still, none have the number of submissions Shinya Aoki has. With 31, Tobikan Jūdan has submitted more people than any other MMA fighter at the highest level.
Aoki started with Judo, but when he moved to MMA, he also started training in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and holds a black belt. The Japanese combat sports legend has been the Dream lightweight champion and the One FC lightweight champion. He has had many epic battles in his 59-fight career, which is still going.
While not a pure BJJ specialist, in my opinion, Shinya Aoki is by far one of the best submission experts in the history of MMA and should be a mandatory presence in any comprehensive list.
Submission wins: 4
One of the famed Danaher Death Squad leg lock specialists, Garry Tonon, is considered one of the best submission grapplers on the planet and made his successful transition into MMA in 2018. Tonon is a five-time EDI champion, a two-time no-gi world champion, and a multiple-time Pan-American champion.
One FC has an eye for talent and signed Tonon, who got off to an excellent start to his career with six straight wins. The leg lock expert learned a harsh lesson against Thanh Le that leg locks are more challenging to come by when strikes are involved. Still, his MMA career is just starting. He surely has championship potential once he learns how to mix the martial arts even better.