This weekend’s Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) card headlined by Cory Sandhagen and Song Yadong is not only an important event due to its epic Bantamweight main event and the title implications associated with it, but also due to its impact on the massive combat sports market of Asia. Asia has long been a haven for combat sports, playing host to incredible athletes, events, and promotions showcasing world-class talent on the global stage. Today, weight division rankings across the highest level of combat sports are populated with Asian combat athletes as promotions like the UFC try to expand their reach in eastern markets with projects like the UFC Performance Institute Shanghai. With this weekend’s event in mind, let’s take a look at ten of the greatest Asian combat sports athletes in history.
Hailing from the Philippines, Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Pacquiao is a no-doubter for this list. Pacquiao is one of the greatest boxers of all time regardless of ethnicity and is the only eight-division world champion in the history of the sport having won 12 major world titles. Not only that, but he's also the only boxer to ever win the lineal title in five weight classes and the only boxer to hold world titles in four separate decades (1990s, 2000s, 2010s, 2020s). Pacquiao is a very proud Filipino and has even spent time as a politician in his home country, being named a senator in 2016. Pacquiao announced his retirement from boxing in September of 2021 but many boxing pundits have said that a return is something that wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
Li Jingliang or ‘The Leech’ as he is more commonly referred to, is a Chinese fighter who signed with the UFC in 2014. He has racked up an 11-6 record since his signing and most recently competed one week ago at UFC 279: Diaz vs. Ferguson. Despite losing a razor-thin split decision, Li gained massive amounts of fans and respect throughout fight week as he dressed to impress and also accepted a fight with Daniel Rodriguez who was ten pounds heavier than Jingliang on 24 hours notice. As mentioned, he didn’t come away with the victory, but the Verdict Community heavily scored the fight in favor of Li. Lots of questions remain about what will be next for ‘The Leech’ but the general sentiment within the community is that he should be rewarded for his veteranship and willingness to do whatever it took to help save UFC 279. Some of ‘The Leech’s’ best moments include a crazy knockout of Santiago Ponzinibbio, a knockout of Muslim Salikhov, as well as multiple fight of the night honours.
Given that his participation in this weekend’s event was the inspiration for this article, of course Song Yadong had to be on this list. Obviously his amazing skills and ability are a major reason for his inclusion as he’s amassed a 8-1-1 record over the course of his five-year UFC career. Holding wins over excellent fighters like the red-hot Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera, Casey Kenney, and Marlon Moraes, Yadong was granted a shot at a top five opponent in Cory Sandhagen. At the time of writing this, Sandhagen is the favorite to get the win, but if Yadong can pull off the upset he will likely be staring down the barrel of a number one contender bout given his resume as well as his marketing potential in the Asian market.
Kazushi Sakuraba is also known as ‘The Gracie-Hunter’. Not only is that just a wicked cool nickname, but for any mixed martial arts fan who understands the history of the sport, this nickname is incredibly impressive. He earned the name by defeating Royce, Royler, Ryan, and Renzo Gracie—some of the most legendary fighters from the most legendary family in the history of MMA. Sakuraba also holds notable wins over SEVEN UFC champions including ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Vitor Belfort, and Kevin Randleman among others. The Japanese legend also remains one of the final UFC tournament champions ever, winning the UFC Ultimate Japan tournament in 2000. To make it even more impressive the tournament was intended for heavyweights which led to Sakuraba lying about his weight in order to compete, meaning he won a heavyweight tournament as a 183 pound fighter. Sakuraba is without a doubt a pioneer of MMA and should not be forgotten as more and more Asian fighters carve their own name in history.
Holding a professional record of 47-10, Shinya Aoki is a Japanese fighter who competes currently in ONE Championship and Rizin Fighting Federation. Aoki is a tremendous grappler who is best known for being the DREAM Lightweight Champion and the two time ONE Championship Lightweight titleholder. He has also cited fellow member of this list, Kazushi Sakuraba, as his inspiration for starting MMA. He even fought Sakuraba in 2015, picking up the victory. Today, Aoki still competes for ONE and is ranked #4 in the ONE Lightweight rankings.
Though he never reached his prime in the UFC, Kyoji Horiguchi is one of the best Asian MMA fighters ever. He went 7-1 during his UFC tenure, losing only to Demetrious Johnson before electing to move back to his native Japan to fight in Rizin. This was a great decision for Horiguchi as he went on to win not only the Rizin Bantamweight title but the Bellator title as well. Unfortunately for Horiguchi, he was forced to vacate both titles due to injury but won his Rizin belt back in late 2020, avenging his stunning loss to Kai Asakura by stopping him in the first round. Since then, Horiguchi has not been able to get into the win column, losing to Sergio Pettis by shocking knockout in a fight he was dominating, and falling to Patchy Mix in the Bellator Bantamweight Grand Prix earlier this year. Even with the recent losses, Horiguchi is still an elite Bantamweight and a legendary Asian athlete.
Being a native of Kyrgyzstan, Valentina Shevchenko is one of the most decorated Asian combat athletes of all time. Holding a pro record of 23-3, and losing only to Liz Carmouche prior to her UFC days and Amanda Nunes at Bantamweight, ‘The Bullet’ has been completely unstoppable during her Flyweight career. She’s recorded eight title fight wins, and proudly flaunts her seven title defence rubies that have been encrusted in her belt. Valentina is also one of the most deadly finishers both Asia and women’s MMA has ever seen, scoring finishes over Jessica Eye, Jessica Andrade, Katlyn Chookagian, and Julianna Pena among others. ‘The Bullet’ has been near flawless during her career, and outside of a handful of moments has not faced much adversity in her fights. Her next opponent is not yet decided, but they most certainly have a difficult challenge in front of them.
‘The Monster’ Naoya Inoue is one of boxing’s greatest talents but flies under the radar of many combat sports fans—this should not be the case. He is currently the unified Bantamweight world champion and has won world titles in two other divisions. He is also currently ranked number two on Ring Magazine’s boxing pound for pound rankings and with an undefeated 23-0 record, Inoue is not slowing down as he enters his prime at just 29 years old. The Japanese boxer is known for his vicious power punching and body attack, holding an 87% knockout rate which is very impressive for someone competing in lighter weight divisions. He most recently competed against Nonito Donaire where he scored a second round knockout to unify the Bantamweight titles.
When you’re known more by your nickname than your given name, you know you’ve made an impact on fans, and that is the case for ‘The Korean Zombie’ Chan Sung Jung. ‘Zombie’ is a Featherweight fighter who has competed at the highest level of MMA since his World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) debut in 2010. Since then, he moved to the UFC and became a cult hero within the MMA landscape. He pulled off spectacular submissions like his twister against Leonard Garcia or his D’Arce Choke over Dustin Poirier. He competed for the title against Jose Aldo and has fought the absolute best of the best since then, competing against Frankie Edgar, Brian Ortega, and most recently Alexander Volkanovski for the UFC Featherweight Championship again in April. ‘The Korean Zombie’s’ time at the top of the division may be coming to a close, but he has been a part of so many incredible moments that will live on in the hearts of MMA fans forever.
Weili Zhang is a Chinese mixed martial artist who is currently competing in the UFC’s Women’s Strawweight division. She holds a pro record of 22-3 and is the first Chinese athlete to ever hold a UFC championship, when she defeated Jessica Andrade via knockout in under a minute. Since then she has lost twice to Rose Namajunus although many fans believed she did enough to win in their rematch. After the saga with Rose, Weili entered another rematch when she took on Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 275, a rematch of one of the greatest fights of all time. The bout was instantly deemed a number one contender fight by Dana White, and the match couldn’t have gone better for the Chinese destroyer, as she solidified herself as the next challenger for Carla Espaza’s belt by stopping Joanna with a devastating spinning back fist. Weili is currently favored to get her belt back against Esparza, and it would only add to her already legendary status as one of the greatest Asian fighters of all time.
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