5 MMA fighters that history forgot about

An inside look at five unsung heroes lost in the annals of mixed martial arts history books.
Cage Fighting in America
Cage Fighting in America / David S. Holloway/GettyImages

Mixed martial arts, although still a relatively young and developing sport compared to other storied sporting competitions, has already produced a wide array of legendary figures. In its brief history, MMA has given rise to a diverse group of athletes who have captivated fans worldwide with their unique blend of martial arts skills, athleticism, and charisma. As it continues to mature and refine itself, it's clear that MMA will remain a driving force in the world of sports, churning out legendary figures who will shape its future and leave an indelible mark on the industry.

But for as many iconic pioneers to get their grace, there is an equal amount of unsung trailblazers who don’t get their due diligence. I mean no one could’ve expected MMA to grow to the worldwide phenomenon it has become now. Likewise, it would be hard to predict the quick rise of talent pool across the mixed martial arts landscape. 

At one point or more in time, these five cage warriors were amongst the upper echelon of their weight classes, if not, arguably pound-for-pound. Be that as it may, each fighter’s legacy has somehow been lost in time, for one reason or another. Perhaps they fell out of their primes rather quickly, injuries derailed their career, or competition caught up to them. Even still, they’ve each left a lasting footprint on the sport of MMA and it’s time to give them their flowers. 

And so, we reflect on five MMA fighters that history forgot about.

Ricardo Arona

Ricardo Arona may have had a relatively short MMA career, but he certainly faced a formidable lineup of opponents during his time in the sport. Talk about a killer's row of adversaries such as Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson, Rampage Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, and both Rua brothers (Mauricio "Shogun" and Murilo "Ninja"). Don't get it twisted though, Arona wasn't just thrown in as a lamb to the slaughter. "The Brazilian Tiger" actually managed to secure impressive victories over notable opponents including Jeremy Horn (twice), Hendo, Ninja Rua, Dean Lister, Sakuraba, Wanderlei (in a major upset), and Alistair Overeem.

Arona's chiseled physique made him appear like a fighter crafted in a lab, an intimidating force to be reckoned with in the ring. Despite his impressive achievements in the sport, Ricardo Arona is often overlooked in discussions of MMA history. For all but one bout, Arona's entire MMA career took place in Japan, where he established himself as a middleweight stalwart in both the RINGS and PRIDE FC promotions. While hardcore MMA enthusiasts would instantly recognize him, to the average, casual fan, Arona's name might not ring a bell. It's a bit of a shame, as Arona is a great example of a fighter who peaked too early.

Notable highlights of Arona's MMA career include holding the RINGS Middleweight Championship, winning the 2001 RINGS Middleweight Tournament, and finishing as the runner-up in the 2005 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix. It's intriguing to consider how Arona would have fared if he had continued his MMA career after PRIDE. When PRIDE closed its doors after Zuffa's purchase in 2007, Arona took a sabbatical from the sport and never got the itch to return. Be that as it may, picture Arona competing in the UFC's Middleweight or Light Heavyweight divisions during the mid-2000s. Arona could have been a top contender in the UFC, potentially giving elite fighters like Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, and Rampage Jackson (in a rematch) a tough test.

Mark Hominick

Mark Hominick, nicknamed "The Machine", is a pioneer of Canadian mixed martial arts. Hominick started his professional MMA career with impressive performances as a dominant champion in both the Super-Lightweight and Featherweight divisions, competing for the Canadian-based TKO Major League MMA promotion. From there, Hominick would enjoy a brief two fight stint for the UFC in 2006, winning against Yves Edwards and Jorge Gurgel. Despite early success, Hominick would take his talents to the WEC, a promotion in which lighter weight classes flourished.

After going 3-2 in the promotion, Hominick would jump ship to the UFC, following the WEC's closure in late 2010. The Machine swiftly rose to become the top contender at Featherweight after a TKO victory over George Roop in a title eliminator bout, earning him a shot at champion Jose Aldo. At UFC 129, held at Toronto's iconic Rogers Centre, Mark Hominick put on a thrilling performance against Jose Aldo, earning Fight of the Night honors despite ultimately losing his title bid. Unfortunately for Hominick, this would be the peak of his MMA career. He would go on to suffer a string of setbacks, losing his next four UFC fights in a row, and ultimately retired from competition in late 2012.

Hominick was known for his exciting and unpredictable approach to fighting, never content to simply cruise to a decision. With a well-rounded skillset that combined striking and grappling, he always brought an electrifying energy to the cage. He holds the distinction of being Jose Aldo's first title challenger, and sometimes he's remembered for it. But once again, the career of Mark Hominick serves as a reminder that some fighters are ahead of their time. Imagine him competing in the current Featherweight division. He would likely have thrived, much like he did over 13 years ago when he was a top contender.

TJ Grant

From one trailblazer in Canadian MMA to another, we shift our focus to former UFC Lightweight standout TJ Grant. Like Hominick, Grant served as a staple in the Canadian regional mixed martial arts scene for a few years, before signing with the UFC in 2009. Grant made a baptism by fire, facing Japanese MMA pioneer Ryo Chonan in his debut bout in the UFC. Grant would shock everyone when he secured an upset split decision victory over the experienced veteran Chonan. From there, Grant held a 3-3 record in the Welterweight division throughout 2009 and 2010.

Grant would then make the most significant move of his MMA career, dropping down to the lightweight division for the first time ever. It was certainly the right move, as TJ Grant quickly ascended to the top of the lightweight division. Grant's impressive five-fight winning streak culminated in a title eliminator bout against Gray Maynard, where he secured a TKO victory, solidifying his position as the lone number one contender.

Grant was on the cusp of a career-defining moment, as he was scheduled to face UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson in the main event of UFC 164, the biggest fight of his professional MMA career to date. Unfortunately, disaster struck at the worst possible moment, as Grant suffered a concussion that would force him to withdraw from his title matchup, paving the way for Anthony Pettis to take his place.

Pettis would capitalize greatly at Grant's expense, defeating Henderson once again, this time claiming the UFC Lightweight Championship. As the top challenger before his withdrawal, TJ would be granted (pun intended) the first title shot at Anthony Pettis, scheduled for the main event of UFC on Fox 9. But concussion symptoms would continue to plague Grant, and he would once again have to step back from the biggest opportunity of his MMA career. Grant's win over Maynard would prove to be his defining moment, as he would ultimately hang up his MMA gloves for good. TJ Grant is one of the most intriguing what-if stories in MMA history, as his career could have had a profound impact on the lightweight division and potentially altered the course of the UFC's trajectory.

Josh Thomson

Lightweight standouts from the 2010s continue to make an appearance on this list as we transition to Josh "The Punk" Thomson. In the early stages of his MMA career, Thomson made three appearances in the UFC, securing victories over Gerald Strebendt and Hermes Franca, but suffering a loss to Yves Edwards via a spectacular flying head kick knockout. Following his highlight reel KO loss, Thomson would become a mainstay of the lightweight division in Strikeforce, winning the promotion's US Lightweight and Lightweight championships. In fact, Thomson would etch his name in Strikeforce history by participating in the most promotional bouts, accumulating a total of 13.

For a considerable period, Josh Thomson was one of the top lightweight fighters not signed to the UFC, alongside notable names like Shinya Aoki, Eddie Alvarez, Joachim Hansen, and Gilbert Melendez. Gilbert Melendez was a formidable opponent for Nate Thomson, becoming his most significant rival in his MMA career. In 2009, Thomson lost the Strikeforce Lightweight Championship to Melendez, also known as "El Nino". The two fighters faced off again in 2012, with Melendez emerging victorious once more in the rematch.

After Strikeforce dissolved in 2013, The Punk made his way to the UFC, where he was matched against one of the promotion's top lightweight contenders at the time, Nate Diaz. Diaz had established himself as one of the most resilient fighters in MMA, having never been finished by strikes up to that point in his career. Thomson would surprise everyone with a TKO victory over Nate Diaz, knocking him down with a head kick and proceeding to finish Diaz with vicious ground and pound. With his win, Thomson rapidly emerged as a potential future contender for the UFC Lightweight Championship and was subsequently booked to face Anthony Pettis at UFC on Fox 9, replacing the injured TJ Grant.

Thomson's luck would come crashing down as Pettis withdrew from the title matchup citing a knee injury and The Punk was left waiting for a future title challenge. Meanwhile, he suffered a split decision loss to Benson Henderson in a closely contested fight, which hindered his momentum and derailed his top contender status. Thomson's UFC career took a downturn, as he suffered three consecutive losses, leading to his departure from the organization. He then joined Bellator MMA, where he won two out of three fights before ultimately retiring from competition. Despite an uneventful latter half of his career, Thomson's impressive legacy remains unchanged, cementing his status as a standout lightweight from the 2000s and 2010s.

Hayato Sakurai

For our final lost MMA pioneer, we take a look at one of the greatest Japanese MMA fighters of all time, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai. Boasting an MMA career that lasted over 20 years, Mach stood out as one of the top pound-for-pound figures in MMA at the turn of the new millennium. Sakurai began his career in the Shooto promotion in 1996, amassing an impressive 18-0-2 record until 2001 when he lost the Shooto Middleweight Championship to a young Anderson Silva. Soon after, Hayato Sakurai made the move to the UFC, where he faced Matt Hughes for the Welterweight title at UFC 36. Unfortunately, Mach was defeated by TKO in the fourth round.

There was no shame in losing to Matt Hughes, as Sakurai showed he was willing to challenge himself against international competition. Mach would return to his native Japan where he joined the PRIDE Fighting Championships, becoming a staple in its rising lightweight division. Sakurai had two thrilling bouts in the 2005 PRIDE Lightweight Grand Prix, emerging victorious in both, defeating former UFC Lightweight Champion Jens Pulver and future DREAM Lightweight Champion Joachim Hansen. In the final bout of the tournament, Sakurai would be matched up against fellow ex-SHOOTO classman Takanori Gomi. Gomi would go on to knock out Sakurai, becoming the inaugural PRIDE Lightweight Champion.

Sakurai would go on to win his final three PRIDE FC bouts before the company closed in 2007. Mach would not jump ship to the UFC and instead joined the newly launched PRIDE offspring promotion, DREAM. Hayato Sakurai competed in the 2009 DREAM Welterweight Grand Prix, where he won his opening bout against Shinya Aoki, but was eliminated in the second round by Marius Zaromskis. Sakurai would then see two subsequent armbar losses to Akihiro Gono and Nick Diaz respectively,

Despite experiencing a mix of wins and losses in the later stages of his career, Hayato Sakurai's impact on the sport of MMA and the lightweight division as a whole remains immense. Sakurai missed out on dream UFC matchups against the likes of BJ Penn, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Frankie Edgar. Nevertheless, Sakurai consistently showcased his impressive grappling skills, dominating on the ground while also posing a threat with his striking abilities. To put it simply, Mach deserves more love for his efforts.