UFC Judoka Watch: Combatants Putting Judo at the Pinnacle of MMA

    UFC Judoka Watch: Combatants Putting Judo at the Pinnacle of MMA

    4 Aug 2020 15:45

       David Finch /

    20160811_Rio2016_Finch_A1668 Harrison

    We’ve seen so many great judokas move from the continental, world, and Olympic competitions to showcase the art of judo in the UFC. Kim Dong-Hyun, Yoshihiro Akiyama, and Hidehiko Yoshida have helped to popularize the practice at the richest level of mixed martial arts, with the likes of Daniel Kelly bringing top-class judo prestige, as the seven-time Oceania champion, to the promotion, along with his devout Aussie following.

    It’s not just on the men’s judo front that the most exceptional athletes have adapted their skill from the mat to the octagon, though. The pioneer of women’s competition in the UFC, Ronda Rousey, may have bowed out on back-to-back losses in 2016, but she’s still widely considered to be a legend of the sport. Accumulating a 12-2 MMA record, Rousey reached superstar judoka status, claiming gold in 16 international tournaments, three continental championships, and three world cups.

    Now, there’s a new wave of judo stars who have climbed their way to the top, established themselves in the UFC, and another Olympics titan who may be on their way into the promotion.

    Valentina Shevchenko, UFC Flyweight Champion

    On December 19, 2015, Kyrgyzstani-Peruvian fighter Valentina Shevchenko burst onto the UFC scene, beating Sarah Kaufman in her debut. Her next fight was a huge ask, having to take on the now-seemingly unstoppable Amanda Nunes on the UFC 196 undercard. Losing to Nunes again three fights later, MMA News reports that the trilogy isn’t being prioritized by Shevchenko, who has won all five of her five fights since facing the rowdy Brazilian for a second time. As well as being very highly trained in Muay Thai, boxing, kickboxing, and being a 2nd dan black belt in Taekwondo, Shevchenko is a master of Judo. Under the Unified Sports Classification System of the USSR, she has achieved the lofty grade of being a Master of Sports, and in judo circles, she’s a black belt.

    Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC Lightweight Champion

    The UFC rates him as one of the pound-for-pound best with Khabib Nurmagomedov boasting the unique honor of being undefeated in professional mixed martial arts. The Dagestan superstar sits at a mighty 28-0, which includes a neck crank submission victory over Conor McGregor. His ability in the octagon is unquestioned, and he’s grown into quite the icon, even being able to spawn a popular Khabib brand of casual and sportswear clothing. His judo skills are supreme, earning him the second-highest honor of International Master of Sport of the USSR while also holding a black belt. The star might just put judo back at the top of the UFC pound-for-pound rankings if he wins his next fight. As of July 31, the Betway sports betting markets see UFC 254 going the way of Nurmagomedov, sitting at -250 to beat the very highly-rated and +187.5 Justin Gaethje. An active promoter of judo, the lightweight champion has gone as far-flung as Paris to visit dojos and teach the next generation.

    Kayla Harrison, Future UFC Star?

    Kayla Harrison is a good friend of Ronda Rousey and a notoriously talented judo star. The American won gold at London 2012, Rio 2016, at the 2010 World Judo Championships, and the Pan American Games twice, all at 172lbs. She transitioned to MMA a couple of years ago, marking her first professional fight with a win on June 21, 2018. Since then, Harrison has roared through the Professional Fighters League to claim the $1 million prize and a 7-0 record. Now 30-years-old with an unblemished record, Harrison looks poised to star in the UFC soon. However, last weighing in at around 165lbs, Harrison is a welterweight and about 20lbs heavier than the UFC’s heaviest women’s division, featherweight. While cutting weight is commonplace for judokas, there’s a substantial drop between Harrison’s weight of preference throughout her career and that of the UFC’s heftiest class. That said, UFC president Dana White has already stated that he’s interested in signing Harrison. Some tip the classy two-time Olympic champ as being a potential usurper to Nunes’ crown, but jumping into the deep-end too quickly could end very badly, given the Brazilian’s relentless nature.

    In the UFC pound-for-pound rankings, two judokas stand second, with Shevchenko cemented in silver right now and Nurmagomedov arguably being worthy of the top spot. Still to come, legendary judoka Kayla Harrison may yet earn her place in the upper-echelons of the overall rankings.

    This article was originally published on

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