The art of the submission is rooted in a fighter’s ability to seize an opening. An opportunity. A mistake. An action leading to a reaction. Close-quarters combat turns into an ongoing battle for positioning and leverage. It all plays on a constant loop until there’s an escape. Or an ending.
The very best in the world build their entire fighting style around this ability to make someone tap. They are the marathoners of MMA, with a fuel tank filled up to go much longer than the maximum of five rounds. They engage in mental warfare with their opponent, by means of brute force or constant deception. From the armbar to the anaconda choke, from the kneebar to the kimura, these fighters have a well-stocked toolbox that they’re ready and willing to use when the moment arises. Want to fight standing up? Probably a good idea, because taking it to the ground with them usually ends with one tapping to end the fight.
But who are the greatest to ever to do it? ESPN curated an expert panel and asked each of them to select the UFC’s all-time best submission artists in each division. As a bonus, we also asked them to identify the pound-for-pound all-time best. Here are the results.
Editor’s note: Our experts voted on all 12 active divisions in the UFC and also identified their choice for pound-for-pound best. The panel comprises Reed Kuhn, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Eddie Maisonet, Sean O’Connell, Brett Okamoto, Ian Parker, Marc Raimondi, Din Thomas and Jeff Wagenheim.
On June 26, 2010, Werdum submitted the great Fedor Emelianenko in just 69 seconds in San Jose, California — and the crowd didn’t initially react. That’s how shocking the result was and how quickly Werdum applied the submission that ended The Last Emperor’s historical win streak. It took a few moments even to comprehend it. Werdum is considered the best heavyweight grappler of all time, and he is regarded as one of the best grapplers in the sport’s history.
If you close your eyes, you can envision Werdum lying on his back in the middle of a fight against Alistair Overeem and beckoning, pleading with him to follow him to the ground — and Overeem naturally declining the offer. Werdum’s guard was one of the last places a heavyweight wanted to be over the past two decades. He did well rounding out his skills as his career progressed, which helped him become a UFC champion, but Werdum’s legacy will always be tied most to his skills on the floor. — Okamoto
For all of his accomplishments in the sport, it seems Teixeira gets credit mainly for his durability and longevity. That’s not wrong. He won the UFC light heavyweight title last year — more than seven years after his first title challenge against Jon Jones in 2014. The Brazilian has been finished only twice since his 2002 pro debut, a span of 39 fights. But not only does Teixeira rarely get finished, but he also does plenty of finishing of his own. And his nose for finding submissions has been excellent of late.
Teixeira has four submission victories during this six-fight winning streak. He took out Thiago Santos with a third-round rear-naked choke finish to earn the light heavyweight title shot. Then, Teixeira beat Jan Blachowicz to win the belt with the same technique in the second round at UFC 267 last October. Teixeira’s submission ability is different than others. He will wear you out — in some cases, get you tired from trying to damage him because he’s so tough — then take you down and make you tap. But the numbers don’t lie, Teixeira’s seven submissions in the UFC are the most in UFC light heavyweight history, making him one of the all-time bests in the division. — Raimondi
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza burst onto the U.S. MMA scene with a submission victory over the seasoned veteran Matt Lindland in Strikeforce. The MMA world knew that the submission specialist we had all heard of had finally arrived on that night. After going 7-1 in Strikeforce with three wins by way of submission, Jacare made his way to the UFC.
In the first round of his debut, he took Chris Camozzi down and locked in a fight-ending arm-triangle choke. Jacare continued his MMA dominance by winning four more in a row with two more submission victories. Jacare never won the UFC Middleweight belt, but he will be remembered for his exciting fights and ability to change a fight with his game-changing submissions. — Parker
Welterweight: Demian Maia
Maia was unanimously chosen as the best submission artist in welterweight history, which should surprise no one. Throughout his career, he was considered the gold standard of grappling at 170. You know exactly what he wants to do, but you still can’t stop him from doing it. He signed with the UFC as a highly decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner in 2007, and submitted his first five opponents inside the Octagon.
Maia always seemed a BJJ fighter competing in an MMA world, which might sound like a backhanded compliment. The rest of his skill set was solid, but not overwhelmingly so. Certainly not strong enough to reach a UFC title fight in two different weight classes. But his immense talent in grappling allowed him to do that, and be an elite fighter in the UFC for 14 years against a wide array of styles. You cannot have a conversation about submissions in MMA history without an early mention of the name Demian Maia. — Okamoto
Lightweight: Charles Oliveira
Few grapplers in MMA history have mixed Oliveira’s creativity, dexterity and explosiveness on the ground. He is not a master of one or two go-to submissions. Oliveira’s toolbox is complete. Armbars? Chokes? Leg locks? Yeah, he’s got those and more. Before he became the UFC lightweight champion — a journey that took 27 fights, the longest out of any titleholder in UFC history — “Do Bronx” was known solely for his submission acumen. Those skills haven’t let up as he has become a complete fighter in the sport. Ask Dustin Poirier, who knocked out Conor McGregor twice in the same year before falling victim to Oliveira at UFC 269 in December.
Oliveira is tied with Jim Miller for the most submissions in UFC lightweight history (nine). Since moving back to lightweight in 2017 from featherweight, Oliveira has picked up four rear-naked choke finishes, two guillotine choke submissions and an anaconda choke finish. He started his UFC career with two straight Submission of the Night bonuses: an armbar submission over Darren Elkins in August 2010 and a rear-naked choke submission of Efrain Escudero a month later. The man is truly dominant when getting opponents to tap. — Raimondi
Featherweight: Charles Oliveira
Oliveira joined the UFC in 2010 as a lightweight, but within 18 months, following a brutal stretch in which he went winless in three fights — once by submission, once by TKO and fought to a no-contest — he moved to featherweight. He spent five years at 145 pounds — and struggled there, too. Before jumping back to 155 pounds in 2017, Oliveira went 7-5 as a featherweight, and perhaps the most significant number attached to him from that time was four. That was the number of times he missed weight.
Along the way, however, Oliveira also had six submissions, the most ever by a UFC featherweight. No other 145-pounder has elicited more than four tapouts. For Oliveira, getting six tapouts in seven wins set a standard as a ground threat that he has continued in his run to the top of the lightweight division. — Wagenheim
One night after winning the Raw Women’s Title at SummerSlam, Ronda Rousey forces Stephanie McMahon to tap out after grabbing her by the arm.
Few fighters in the history of MMA have been the level of a submission threat that Rousey was in the UFC women’s bantamweight division. If the fight went to the floor, Rousey had a chance to finish things from almost any angle or position. The former Olympic judo bronze medalist was so advanced past her peers in grappling that she at times made it look easy, including a 14-second armbar finish of Cat Zingano, which at the time was the fastest finish in UFC title fight history.
Rousey, the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion, compiled an incredible nine armbar finishes in her 14-fight pro career — including a stretch where she stopped eight fights in a row with the technique. The armbar became so automatic for Rousey that it was almost like a real-life pro wrestling finishing move, which is fitting because “Rowdy” has since made the transition to performing in WWE. Not only is Rousey one of the greatest female fighters ever and a pioneer for women in MMA, but she is also one of the top-tier submission artists in UFC history, regardless of gender. — Raimondi
Arguably, the most overlooked name on this list. Yahya has been excellent throughout an 11-year UFC career (13-4-1) and was a name to watch in the WEC before that. He’s in a seven-way tie for seventh on the UFC’s all-time submission list — with names like Kenny Florian, Joe Lauzon and Glover Teixeira.
He has reached that list despite fewer fights than many of his counterparts. This man has finished 75% of his professional fights via submission. Seventy-five percent! The third-degree BJJ black belt has won gold in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club World Championships and has been submitted only once in MMA, by Gesias Cavalcante in 2006. — Okamoto
Robertson has not had it easy these past few years as she has lost three of her past four fights. But throughout a 4½-year run in the UFC flyweight ranks, Robertson has won seven times, with five of those victories coming via submission. That total is not just the most among 125-pounders, it is the most by a woman in any UFC weight class.
It has become clear that when fighting Robertson, Plan A must be to keep your feet, not your butt, planted on the canvas. Robertson is a terror in ground fighting, and her results show it. In UFC bouts in which she doesn’t get a takedown, she is 0-2. When she does get an opponent to the ground, she is 7-3, with all but one win coming by finish. If you do get taken down, do not allow Robertson to seize back control. Four of her five tapouts have come by rear-naked choke. — Wagenheim
Johnson is not your typical submission artist, he doesn’t even have a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Johnson is a brown belt, which is nothing to sneeze at. He does have training under Matt Hume, who honed his grappling skills in Japan in the early days of MMA under the Pancrase banner. Hume’s ground game is more catch wrestling or submission wrestling than Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett, who became MMA’s biggest catch wrestling proponent, was a student of Hume. Then came Johnson, absolutely dominant on the mat in the UFC flyweight division.
“Mighty Mouse,” one of the best pound-for-pound fighters, still owns the record for most submission finishes in UFC flyweight history (5). He also has one of the most absurd submission finishes ever pulled off. At UFC 216 in 2017, Johnson had Ray Borg‘s back in a standing position. He hoisted Borg up into a modified German suplex and transitioned to Borg’s arm on the way down. Once they hit the ground, Johnson was already in position to torque the arm. Borg tapped. Johnson dubbed the pro-wrestling-like move “The Mighty Wizbar.” Johnson also submitted Kyoji Horiguchi with one second left in a five-round fight, the latest submission in UFC history. — Raimondi
After winning every grappling award possible in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the world was ready for Dern to crossover into MMA. The two questions on MMA fans’ minds were: One, can she learn how to strike? And two, can her BJJ accolades transfer over to the world of MMA?
Dern answered both questions quickly when she won her first five professional fights, with three wins by way of submission. The UFC called soon after, and Dern has continued to find success in the octagon. Now 7-2 in the UFC, with four wins by submission, Dern is one step closer to getting her first title shot. With her striking coming along and a dominant submission arsenal, Dern’s ability to make her opponent tap in the strawweight division is unmatched. — Parker
For fans, a submission specialist will probably never invoke the same kind of fear and awe as a knockout artist. However, if you ask the opponents of Oliveira, they would likely tell you his submissions are just as hard to deal with as any fighter’s knockout power.
In the history of mixed martial arts, Oliveira stands on an island when it comes to accomplishments on the floor. Going into UFC 274, Oliveira holds the UFC record for most submission wins at 15. That’s four more than Demian Maia, who has four more UFC fights on his résumé than Oliveira. Oliveira is riding a nine-fight win streak that dates back to 2018, and he has recorded finishes in eight of those nine — six by submission. And considering he is the champ, the majority of that nine-fight win streak has come against fantastic competition, including three consecutive men who have held a title in a major organization: Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler and Tony Ferguson. But even if you wanted to dismiss all of the data and numbers, it’s easy to see why Oliveira is the best — the creativity, skill and speed with which he submits his opponents jump off the screen. — Okamoto