Nate Diaz had just had his hand raised after ending a three-year absence from the Octagon with a rugged victory over Anthony Pettis in summer 2019. It was a crowd-pleasing performance, as Diaz’s fights typically are, and when he stepped to the microphone for an interview inside the cage, he had a message for someone in that crowd.
“jorge masvidal had a good last fight,” Diaz said, much to the delight of “Gamebred,” who was sitting cageside in Anaheim, California. “All respect to the man. There ain’t no gangsters in this game anymore. There ain’t nobody who does it right but me and him.”
Was this an homage? A callout? Diaz didn’t specify — until a few minutes later backstage, when another microphone was put in front of him and he was asked if he wanted to fight Masvidal.
“I’m going to defend the baddest motherf—er belt, the baddest motherf—er in the game belt, against who I believe is the other baddest motherf—er in the game,” Diaz said.
To that point, the UFC brass had not envisioned booking such a matchup. But the blunt Diazian logic, combined with the loud pop from the UFC 241 crowd after hearing the feisty name drop, made it a no-brainer. So the fight was made.
And by the time Diaz and Masvidal stepped toward each other to fight that November at Madison Square Garden in New York, the UFC had fully gotten into the spirit by putting up for grabs a silver BMF belt, created just for the occasion. Masvidal won by third-round doctor’s stoppage, and the shimmering strap was wrapped around him by one of the baddest men in Hollywood, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
An off-the-wall concept had turned into an off-the-charts success, never to be repeated. Then again …
Surprise, surprise, the BMF belt will be on the line once again this Saturday in the main event of UFC 291 (10 p.m. on ESPN+ PPV), a rematch between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. It could very well turn out to be the fight of the year. These two showed in their first meeting in 2018 that they’re among the sport’s most heart-thumping action fighters.
Is that what makes someone a BMF? Or does it have more to do with how a fighter acts outside the cage? No one really knows, except Diaz, who dreamed up the concept, and Masvidal, who embraced it. Everyone else has an opinion, though, and those opinions vary greatly.
Our ESPN combat sports team bravely took a stab at ranking the truest BMFs in the history of MMA.
Men’s BMF results: Liddell and Lawler take top spot
It’s not surprising Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell occupies the No. 1 spot. There have been a lot of fighters in the UFC who have embodied that “anytime, anywhere” approach to the sport, but at the end of the day, Liddell was the poster boy of that mentality. Anyone who was fortunate enough to watch Liddell compete, or has gone back to watch his career after the fact, knows this man didn’t care about fame or titles. He didn’t even care about money. All he wanted to do was fight.
He is the original face of the UFC, and a massive reason for its long-term success. The fact that Robbie Lawler received as many votes as Liddell is a testament to how highly regarded he is by our panel. Even though he’s a legend of the sport, his profile is not nearly as high as Liddell’s. Nevertheless, he tied Liddell in overall votes thanks to his body of work, which began in the UFC all the way back in 2002. There are many ways to assess a BMF. For Lawler, it’s the longevity and the no-nonsense, no-frills approach. It’s also simply how comfortable Lawler looked in the midst of some of the most epic fights this sport has ever seen. Nothing fazed this man. He is the epitome of someone you’d want watching your back in a dark alley. — Brett Okamoto
Women’s BMF results: Rousey stands alone
The top five of this list might as well be a ranking of the best women’s fighters of all time, though perhaps they are out of order. This is different from the men’s list, which has some fighters who have durability and an exciting, all-action style but who maybe did not achieve the highest reaches of MMA greatness. Kimbo Slice is ranked, after all, and for as entertaining as he was to watch, no one would mistake him for being an elite MMA fighter.
The women’s list, however, is made up mostly of the elite of the elite. That probably speaks to how new women’s MMA still is at the highest level. Women were brought into the UFC in 2013, long after the runs of several of the men’s competitors above. And the stars of the early days of women’s MMA in the UFC got there with a marked ruthlessness. Ronda Rousey took the world by storm, armbarring her way to become the first UFC women’s bantamweight champion.
After Rousey’s ground dominance, Joanna Jedrzejczyk brought striking to the forefront in the UFC’s women’s divisions, piecing up everyone who got in her way during her run as strawweight champion. She’d routinely leave opponents bloodied and bruised from a steady barrage of punches, elbows, knees and kicks. Jedrzejczyk’s 2020 fight with Zhang Weili was the best in women’s MMA history. Some fans have even dubbed her “Joanna Violence.” Amanda Nunes and Cris Cyborg both got to the top by physically dominating opponents, usually leading to brutal knockouts unseen before in women’s MMA. Meanwhile, Valentina Shevchenko’s brand of BMF has always been more of the cold, calculated and surgical variety. — Marc Raimondi
Historical acknowledgment of former BMFs
The early days of MMA sometimes pitted one martial art against another, but often the action inside the cage looked more like a toughman contest. Back then, the sport was littered with brawny brawlers whose personas evoked not a dojo but a dark alley.
None of them could rattle Royce Graciewho for the first four UFC one-night tournaments in 1993 and ’94 was the one doing the intimidating, despite being barely 170 pounds with a baby face. He would march to the Octagon as part of a Gracie train, a grim procession of brothers and cousins and uncles, all wearing white gis and stoic scowls, their hands resting on the shoulders of the Gracie in front of them.
Then there was Kimbo Slice, who built a reputation for violence in Miami backyards in the early 2000s, fighting bare-knuckle bouts that made him a YouTube sensation. Kimbo eventually made his mark in MMA, both as a fighter and as the street-fight promoter who helped make the world aware of a BMF hall of famer, Masvidal. (There’s not really a BMF hall of fame, of course, but the BMF belt itself has no concrete meaning either, right?)
If you’re talking about old-time BMFs, you have to include BJ Penn — who else would lick an opponent’s blood off of his glove? And Cris Cyborg is the women’s BMF GOAT. She has been intimidating opponents for 18 years, with her icy stare and her rock-hard fists. And at age 38, she’s still an active fighter. So watch out. –Jeff Wagenheim
Who should be the next men’s BMF fight?
The belt needs some continuity. If the UFC is going to bring back what was supposed to be a one-off novelty title, let’s do it the right way. Either Poirier or Gaethje will win the belt Saturday, and then it should be defended. The stipulation should be that there is no weight class attached, which would make it completely unique compared to other championships and also stay within the spirit of the name. Bouts could even be at agreed-upon catchweights. This fight is at lightweight, but if the winner wants to defend it at welterweight — perhaps against someone like a returning Diaz — he should be able to do that.
My pick for the winner at UFC 291 would be a fight against Max Hollowayif he beats “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Young next month. Poirier and Holloway have fought before, and it was a war completely befitting the BMF title. Gaethje vs. Holloway would be phenomenal. The BMF belt has a great brand and could be another marketing tool for the UFC that can headline pay-per-view events. It would also be an opportunity to highlight elite, exciting fighters like Holloway who might not necessarily be in a title conversation at this point. — Raimondi
Who should be in the first women’s BMF fight?
Unfortunately, many of the top female BMFs have already hung up their gloves. If there was a way to somehow book Rousey vs. Cyborg, that would probably be your answer, for pure nostalgia alone. That potential matchup tantalized women’s MMA for years before it became clear it would never happen.
As things stand today, the most appropriate women’s BMF fight would likely be Shevchenko vs. Rose Namajunas. It’s not a perfect matchup by any stretch, and it’s worth noting the two are very friendly toward each other. They are also both coming off losses. But Shevchenko’s lifestyle screams BMF. Not only is she good at MMA, she seems like someone you’d want to team up with in an actual world apocalypse. And Namajunas has had countless BMF moments over the course of her career — including her 2017 upset knockout of Jedrzejczyk, the original strawweight boogeywoman.
What’s nice about the women’s side is that even though the UFC has never formally promoted a women’s BMF fight, many of the options that would qualify we have already seen, including Rousey vs. Nunes, Nunes vs. Shevchenko, Nunes vs. Cyborg and Jedrzejczyk vs. Shevchenko. — Okamoto