Judo serves as a powerful grappling base for navigating and even dominating your opponent inside the clinch.
When we think of Judo in MMA, some prominent names stand out, but you’d be surprised at the number of hidden black belts that have been climbing the UFC ranks for years.
In this article, we’ll highlight the 8 best judo fighters in UFC history, including a few that will take you by surprise!
8. Ronda Rousey
- Weight class: Bantamweight
- Fight record: 12-2
- UFC record: 6-2
Stepping first into our lineup is none other than Ronda Rousey. Undoubtedly the queen of Judo when it comes to MMA.
Ronda started Judo at age 11, and from there, the child prodigy set out to build a world-class resume that is second to none!
At 17, she was the youngest Judoka to Qualify for the 2004 Olympics. 4 years later, she returned to the games and won an Olympic bronze medal.
She made the transition to MMA in 2010 with a short 3 fight amateur career before turning pro a year later and becoming the Strikeforce bantamweight champion.
Ronda was the first woman to be signed to the UFC and the first to claim the title of champion. A title that she successfully defended 6 times!
Her UFC debut took place in 2013, with the UFC absorbing the former “strikeforce” promotion taking their roster with it.
Her first fight would be the main event of UFC 157 against Liz Carmouche.
Despite dealing with an early standing neck crank from Carmouche, Ronda went on to win the fight late in the 1st round via classic Judo armbar submission and solidifying her spot at the top of the women’s Bantamweight division.
Ronda quickly became a crowd favorite with the fans for her expert and tactical use of Judo within her fights. Ronda has 9 armbar finishes in her MMA career, most of which were set from her use of Judo.
7. Vitor Belfort
- Weight class: Light Heavyweight/Middleweight
- Fight record: 26-14
- UFC record: 8-6-1NC
Next on our list and the 1st of our surprise inclusions is Vitor Belfort. Vitor is most notably known for his explosive knockout power but hidden beneath the depths is also a black belt in Judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Vitor’s grappling prowess was never entirely showcased within the cage, and with good reason. Joining Anderson Silva and Matt Brown for the third most finishes in UFC history.
Although Judo may serve as a solid grappling base, it is not the only asset a fighter needs to possess to be successful.
Notable achievements from the “Phenom” include winning the Heavyweight tournament all the way back at UFC 12, winning the Light heavyweight championship in 2004, and being one of the only fighters to compete across 3 weight divisions!
6. Khabib Nurmagomedov
- Weight class: Lightweight
- Fight record: 29-0
- UFC record: 13-0
“The Eagle” Khabib Nurmagomedov, known for his unrelenting pressure to break down and dominate his opponents, holds his Black belt in Judo.
Hailing from the Republic of Dagestan in Russia, Khabib began wrestling at an early age and was famously known for wrestling a bear at age 9.
He began training in Judo at 15, and according to Nurmagomedov, the transition from wrestling to Judo was difficult.
Despite not being the tallest fighter, Khabib has always shown that Judo works very well for short guys.
Despite this, he persisted in his father’s wishes to become more comfortable fighting in the Gi jacket. A dedication that would later pay off, becoming a 2-time world combat sambo champion.
Sambo is a Russian martial art that combines techniques from both Judo and wrestling where competitors wear shorts and wrestling shoes and a traditional Gi jacket from Judo.
Combat Sambo is a variation of the sport again where the competitors wear headgear, gloves, and shin guards to incorporate strikes. It is a sport that presents the most resemblance to that of MMA.
This grappling pedigree armed Khabib with the foundation he needed to cement his legacy in the UFC with 13 fights for 13 victories in the promotion, becoming the longest-reigning Lightweight champion and eventually retiring with an undefeated record in MMA.
5. Yoshihiro Akiyama
- Weight class: Welterweight
- Fight record: 15-7
- UFC record: 2-5
Yoshihiro Akiyama, affectionately nicknamed “Sexyama” for his dashing good looks and chiseled physique, made his debut at UFC 100 in 2009.
Preceding this walk to the octagon, Akiyama had a prosperous career in Judo, winning back-to-back Gold medals at the Asian Championships in 2001-2002.
At the peak of his MMA career, he became the K-1 HERO’s Light Heavyweight Grand Prix Tournament Champion. His UFC career, unfortunately, was not quite as successful.
After a promising start winning his 1st fight against Alan Belcher and earning the prestigious “fight of the night” honor, he then suffered 4 straight losses against Jake Shields, Michael Bisping, and fellow judo blackbelt Vitor Belfort.
He clawed his way back into the winners’ column with a unanimous decision victory against Amir Sadollah in September 2014.
This return to the winners’ circle was short-lived, though after losing his next fight, and saw the exit of Akiyama from the UFC, showcasing that a pedigree in Judo would not be enough to climb the ranks.
4. Daniel Kelly
- Weight class: Middleweight
- Fight record: 13-4
- UFC record: 6-4
Flying the flag for Australia is former Judoka Daniel Kelly. A 4th dan in Judo, Daniel had a very decorated career before transitioning to MMA and making his UFC debut in 2014 at age 36!
Arguably his late start in the cage was due to a long and successful Judo career. Daniel began Judo at age 7 and won 9 national Gold medals, and is the only Australian to be selected for 4 consecutive Olympic games.
Daniel was most known for his incredibly unorthodox style in the cage, which many of his opponents found challenging to deal with. A long career in Judo gave him a decisive advantage in the clinch and the ability to create relentless pressure to win fights.
A notable victory for Daniel was an exciting split decision win over former Light Heavyweight champion and UFC Hall of Famer Rashad Evans in 2017.
3. Kim Dong Hyun
- Weight class: Welterweight
- Fight record: 22-4
- UFC record: 13-4-1NC
Tied for the most UFC appearances on our list is Korean native Kim Dong Hyun.
Kim made his UFC debut in 2008 against Jason Tan. Kim methodically broke down his opponent to secure a TKO victory early in the 3rd round to become the first Korean to win inside the octagon.
Kim fought fellow Judo practitioner Karo Parisyan in a controversial fight that saw him lose to a split decision.
Fans in attendance booed the decision, and UFC president Dana White later commented that he thought Kim had won.
Afterward, though Parisyan tested positive for 3 banned painkillers, the Nevada Athletic Commission declared the match a no-contest, expunging Kim’s 1st UFC loss from his record.
Kim’s UFC career spanned 9 years with 13 victories in the promotion. A notable win to mention is that over Ultimate Fighter winner Nate Diaz in 2011. Kim showcased his expertise in Judo to dominate the first 2 rounds and secure the Unanimous decision.
2. Fabricio Werdum
- Weight class: Heavyweight
- Fight record: 24-9
- UFC record: 12-6
Another surprise addition to our list is former Interim Heavyweight titleholder Fabricio Werdum.
Fabricio’s grappling pedigree is solid, having won 4 world championships in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and holding a Black belt in Judo.
He began his UFC career in 2012 against Roy Nelson, winning via unanimous decision.
His career in the promotion then spanned the next 8 years before exiting the promotion and becoming a free agent in 2020.
His career peaked in 2014, defeating Mark Hunt by TKO to claim the Interim Heavyweight Title.
The following year Werdum unified the belt by defeating Cain Valasquez by guillotine choke in the 3rd round to claim his thrown at the top of the UFC’s Heavyweight division.
1. Karo Parisyan
- Weight class: Welterweight
- Fight record: 24-12-1NC
- UFC record: 8-4
Our list would not be complete without mentioning Karo Parisyan.
If Ronda Rousey is the Queen of Judo in MMA, Karo Parisyan has to be the king.
Widely regarded as the pioneer of Judo throws in the UFC, Karo made people take notice of exactly what a skilled Judoka had to offer in the world of MMA.
The Armenian-born martial artist migrated to the USA at 6 years old and began Judo 3 years later. Parisyan won 6 National titles as a junior and competed at the Olympic trials for the 2004 games.
During the trials, he received the invitation to compete at UFC 44 against Dave Stressor.
He won the fight via Kimura, but after suffering an injury to his ribs during the fight, he had to withdraw from the Olympic trials.
This turn of events marked the end of his Judo career and a transition into MMA full time.
His UFC career lasted the next 7 years, with his next fight against George St. Pierre becoming the first man to ever go the distance with the all-time Welterweight. Ultimately he lost the fight via decision, but this feat marked a promising future for the former Judoka.
Parisyan quickly became known for his heavy Judo style and a force to be reckoned with in the clinch!
Successfully landing a wide variety of Judo throws throughout his career in the octagon.
His weapon of choice would have to be the Harai Goshi, a sweeping hip throw from the clinch that neatly transitions to the ground past the guard.
His most noticeable victories in the promotion would be against former Welterweight champion Matt Serra and UFC crowd favorite Nick Diaz.
Worst UFC Judoka: Hector “Lightning” Lombard
- Weight class: Middleweight
- Fight record: 34-10
- UFC record: 3-8-1NC
Flying the flag for Cuba is the 4th-degree blackbelt and former Olympic Judoka, Hector Lombard.
Widely regarded as one of the toughest men to walk through the cage door at 185lb. Hector possessed an adonis-like physique and the power to match.
The former Bellator Middleweight champion was an exciting prospect for the UFC at 185lb but unfortunately didn’t live up to expectations.
Hector made his debut on UFC 149 in 2012 against Tim Boetsch replacing an injured Micheal Bisping.
Despite a 4:1 betting favorite entering the fight, the outcome was somewhat anticlimactic, with Hector flat-footed and hesitant to initiate strikes. This hesitation saw him leave his debut with a split decision loss in the promotion.
After securing 3 wins in the UFC, Hector’s career took a turn for the worse after receiving a 1-year suspension for failing a post-fight drug test at UFC 182 and subsequently had his win over Josh Burkman overturned into a no-contest.
Returning to the cage in March 2016 and eager to get back into the winners’ column against Neil Magney. The fight saw him TKO’d early, which set the tone for the remainder of his career.
Hector exited the UFC in 2018 on a 6 fight losing streak.
So there you have it, a selection of the best Judo Fighters in UFC history, plus 1 of the worst Judoka records in UFC with Hector Lombard and his 3-8-1NC record. Judo has provided a strong base for many fighters in the UFC, including some of the most successful ones, but like most martial arts you shouldn’t ever rely on just one. Learn from many disciplines and become a great mixed martial artist to reach the top.
Luke Howard is a lifelong Judoka with over 20 years of experience. He was awarded his Black belt at 17, holds multiple national titles, and represented Australia on the world stage.
He has since earned his Brown Belt in BJJ, transitioned into the sport of MMA for 10 professional fights, and teaches others as a coach with Day One Martial Arts.