The Olympics is a place where every 4 years, athletes display their elite-level abilities to a worldwide audience and highlight their ethos of excellence, friendship and respect.
However, to combat fans, it’s a scouting pool of wrestlers, Judokas, and all other martial artists who can possibly translate to MMA, with previous Olympians making great strides in MMA and becoming champions, pioneers and global superstars.
So, in honour of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we take a look at 5 great Olympians who went on to compete in MMA, with the list taking into account a combination of both Olympic and MMA achievements.
However, as it’s Olympic season, the Olympic achievements will take precedence in this list in comparison to the competitor’s MMA success. So without further ado, let’s get to grips with these 5 Martial-Arts Olympian Greats Who Became MMA Stars! (in descending order)
5. Daniel Cormier (“DC”)
Starting off our list is the former double champion Daniel Cormier (aka “DC”), who competed in 96kg Freestyle wrestling just missing out on a medal, finishing in 4th place as he lost the bronze medal match to the Iranian, Alireza Heidari.
DC was honoured as team captain for the USA in the Beijing 2008 Olympics, however, he was forced to pull out from the competition due to kidney failure as a result of extensive weight cutting.
Arguably, DC has the right to be further up this list simply because of his outstanding achievements in MMA, however, since this list favours Olympic achievement over that of MMA with Cormier just missing out on an Olympic medal, he takes the number 5 spot here.
After the 2008 Olympics, Cormier decided to pursue a career in MMA, and his Olympic wrestling status got him a debut fight within Strikeforce which he won via 2nd round TKO against Gary Frazier. Cormier had a perfect 10-0 start, and within this run won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Tournament against Josh Barnett, and in his 12th professional fight, DC got his UFC debut against former champion Frank Mir, over whom he would get a unanimous decision win.
A 4-0 start in the UFC taking DC to 15-0 gave him a shot at both the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship and an MMA G.O.A.T in Jon Jones, where he would suffer his first defeat. However, as Jon Jones was later stripped of the UFC title, DC was able to obtain the belt against Anthony Johnson and went on a 4-fight win streak before meeting Jon Jones again for a long-awaited rematch.
Originally counted as a knockout loss against Jones, the result was later changed to a no-contest as Jones tested positive for Turinabol metabolite, so Cormier kept hold of his title.
After this, DC would go on to defend his belt for the last time at light-heavyweight against Volkan Oezdemir before moving up to challenge Heavyweight Champion Stipe Miocic, where he would take the Heavyweight crown via a 1st round KO.
After defeating Miocic, DC would defend his crown against Derek “The Black Beast” Lewis with a 2nd round submission; however, DC would go on to lose his last two fights in a rematch and trilogy against Stipe Miocic.
In 2020 after the loss in the trilogy against Miocic, Cormier would go on to announce his retirement from an outstanding career being the second simultaneous, multi-divisional champion and fifth multi-divisional champion in UFC history and is a certain future Hall of Famer.
4. Ronda Rousey (“Rowdy”)
At number 4, we have one of MMA’s biggest ever stars and pioneers of MMA, Ronda (“Rowdy”) Rousey, a martial arts Olympian who competed in two Olympic games – Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. Whilst in Beijing, Rousey scored a bronze medal in the 70kg Judo tournament, becoming the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo.
Rousey had an MMA career unparalleled to anyone not named Conor McGregor – she was one of the sport’s biggest stars introducing women’s MMA to the masses. Her professional MMA journey started in 2011 with an armbar finish just 25-seconds into her debut against Ediane Gomes.
In just her third fight, Rousey would make her Strikeforce debut and, by her fifth, would win the Strikeforce Bantamweight Championship with 5 straight armbars, all within the 1st round.
In 2013, at UFC 157, an iconic event took place as Rousey and Liz Carmouche became the first women to ever grace the UFC’s octagon, and Rousey would taste UFC gold with another 1st round armbar.
Rousey would defend her title 6 times straight, taking her record to a perfect 12-0; however, this would all come to an end against Holly Holm suffering a KO loss in the 2nd round.
Ronda looked to recapture gold a year later against the new G.O.A.T of women’s MMA, Amanda Nunes; however, it seemed the competition had caught up to Rousey as she was stopped in just 48 seconds.
Rousey hasn’t fought since 2016, and although never officially retiring, it is very unlikely that a return to MMA is on the cards; however, a trilogy matchup of intense rivals, now that Miesha Tate has returned, would be one to watch. In 2018 Rousey was honoured and rightfully inducted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame.
3. Yoel Romero (“Soldier of God”)
Taking the number 3 spot is the “Soldier of God” Yoel Romero, who is a multiple-time championship challenger under the UFC.
At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, Romero scored a silver medal in the 85kg Freestyle wrestling event, losing to the Russian, Adam Saitiev in the final.
Romero also went to the Athens 2004 Olympics finishing 4th in the 84kg Freestyle wrestling event, losing to eventual gold medalist Cael Sanderson in the semi-finals, and being defeated by Sazhid Sazhidov in the bronze medal match. Yet despite never achieving Olympic gold himself, Romero proved his ability throughout his career as he had defeated 3 Olympic gold medalists during his wrestling career.
With an extensive background in freestyle wrestling and an abundance of raw, athletic ability, as highlighted by Romero’s god-like physique, it was no wonder that Romero’s abilities fit right into MMA. This freak-of- nature athleticism was put on show in Romero’s debut in 2009, with a 48-second TKO which got him off to a flying start.
Romero started his MMA career at 4-0 before losing his first fight (in his debut at Strikeforce) to Rafael Cavalcante in 2011. However, as the UFC bought Strikeforce, this gave them the rights to Yoel’s contract, and he made his UFC debut in 2013, defeating Clifford Starks with a flying knee TKO.
Romero went on an 8-fight win streak in the UFC, culminating in a shot at the interim UFC Middleweight title against Robert Whittaker, which Yoel would unfortunately lose.
He would get another shot at the interim title as the champion Whittaker pulled out of his fight against Luke Rockhold for which Romero stepped in, winning by KO, but due to missing weight, was ineligible for the title.
After this win, Romero would rematch Whittaker just 11 months since their last encounter but again would miss the 185lb weight limit and lose a very controversial split decision.
Currently, Romero is on a 3-fight losing streak after suffering losses to Paulo Costa and Israel Adesanya; however, he has recently signed with Bellator, moved up to light heavyweight and is now looking to cause damage in the division. We look forward to see what the Soldier of God brings to the table…
2. Henry Cejudo (“The Messenger” / “Triple C”)
Coming in at number 2 is the ‘The King of Cringe’, the only person to win an Olympic gold medal and not one, but two UFC titles, Henry Cejudo has a real argument for topping this martial arts Olympian list; however, the following entry, two-time Olympic gold medalist keeps him from that number 1 spot.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cejudo took gold in 55kg Freestyle wrestling against Tomohiro Matsunaga which made Cejudo the youngest American at the time to win Olympic gold in wrestling history at age 21. For his outstanding achievement in wrestling, Cejudo was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.
In 2013 Cejudo would make his professional MMA debut with a 1st round TKO finish and would go on a 6-0 start of his career, earning him a contract with the UFC.
Cejudo would continue this streak to 10-0 with 4 straight wins in the UFC, which lead to a shot against one of MMA’s greatest, Demetrious Johnson, where Cejudo would suffer his first career defeat.
Cejudo would lose a controversial split decision to Joseph Benavidez before putting together 2 wins to earn a rematch against Demetrious Johnson, where he would take revenge in a split decision victory winning the UFC Flyweight Championship, and becoming only the second person to hold the title.
In the first defence of his title, Cejudo took on Bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in a super fight of Champion v Champion where Cejudo would get the quickest finish of his career with a 32-second TKO.
It was later discovered that Dillashaw tested positive for EPO, (erythropoietin) a banned substance leading to a 2-year ban, stripping him of his Bantamweight title.
With the Bantamweight title being vacant, Cejudo moved up to take on Marlon Moraes, where after suffering early adversity, Cejudo would come back with a 3rd round TKO to become a simultaneous double champion.
In May 2020, Cejudo would battle against Bantamweight great, Dominick Cruz, who he would defeat with a 2nd round TKO stoppage. After this win, Cejudo would announce his retirement from MMA and (cringe-worthily) declare himself the greatest combat athlete of all time.
1. Kayla Harrison (“Doug”)
Despite a tough battle with Henry Cejudo for the best combination of Olympic and MMA prowess, it can only be given to the two-time Judo Olympic gold medalist, Kayla Harrison who scored gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
In 2012 Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal, and would retain gold 4 years later. These achievements would lead to Harrison becoming the youngest person in the US to receive a 6th degree Black Belt in Judo.
Being a former training partner of MMA legend Ronda Rousey, Harrison had ties to MMA and a clear idea of the transferability of Judo to MMA success.
Harrison debuted in MMA in 2018 under Professional Fighters League (PFL), and came out victorious in a 1st round armbar win. Harrison went 7-0 and won the PFL Lightweight Championship in December 2019, just over a year since her professional MMA debut.
Since then, Harrison continued her streak and, to the current day, holds a perfect record of 10-0 after submitting Cindy Dandois on June 25th, 2021.
Harrison’s incredible achievements already make her top of the list as a martial arts Olympian, and she is only 3 years into her MMA career with a lot more action on the cards as she comes to take Cejudo’s self-proclaimed crown of the greatest combat athlete, ever.