What’s in a nickname? As it turns out, quite a bit. Whether they are assigned by a teammate or coach, earned through the heat of battle or simply based on a previous life, mixed martial arts can claim some of the most colorful and creative nicknames in any sport.
Would Wanderlei Silva have been any less fearsome if he was more commonly referred to by his Brazilian moniker, “Cachorro Luoco?” Would Mirko Filipovic have experienced any less success had he stuck with his original alias, “Tigar?” The answer, of course, is no. Nicknames have no bearing on fight night performance, but they do tend to give great athletes a larger-than-life aura, and, most importantly, they can be a lot of fun.
Here is our attempt at selecting the top nicknames in MMA history, as voted on by a 10-person panel of Sherdog.com staff:
10. Kazushi Sakuraba: “The Gracie Hunter”
It seems that no Sherdog.com Top 10 list is complete without an appearance by Sakuraba, the professional wrestler turned mixed martial artist who terrorized the sport’s first family in his heyday. How Sakuraba came to be known as “The Gracie Hunter” is pretty simple: during a 13-month stretch from November 1999 to December 2000, the Japanese star defeated Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie and Ryan Gracie.
The most historic of those bouts was Sakuraba’s 90-minute showdown with Royce in the Tokyo Dome on May 1, 2000 -- a contest that ended when Rorion Gracie threw in the towel on his younger brother’s behalf after six exhausting 15-minute rounds.
The Japanese media took to calling Sakuraba “The Gracie Hunter,” but the former Pride Fighting Championships star was not able to take out everyone in the Gracie family.
Rickson Gracie, who was widely recognized as the family’s most skilled Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, reportedly turned down huge amounts of money from Japanese promoters to step into the ring with Sakuraba.
Sakuraba would not maintain a perfect ledger against the Gracies for the duration of his career. In 2007, Royce avenged his earlier loss to Sakuraba via unanimous decision at a K-1 Hero’s event, and the Japanese fighter also dropped a three-round verdict to Ralek Gracie at Dream 14 in 2010.
9. Demetrious Johnson: “Mighty Mouse”
Johnson knows what it means to be the underdog. The AMC Pankration product began his stint with Zuffa as an undersized bantamweight, but he battled his way to the No. 1 contender’s spot before finally coming up short against reigning champion Dominick Cruz.
When the UFC introduced the flyweight division with a four-man tournament earlier this year, Johnson was an easy choice to fill one of the spots in the bracket. However, the Washington native was not the favorite; that honor belonged to Joseph Benavidez. When Johnson defied the odds and bested both Ian McCall and Benavidez to become the promotion’s inaugural 125-pound champion, it was not a surprise to his team. Coach Steve Skids dubbed the diminutive fighter “Mighty Mouse” a long time ago for his tenacity, stature and appearance.
“We were training, I’m the smallest guy in the gym, and there’s a lot of big guys. I’m just going after them like it ain’t nothing,” Johnson told Luke Thomas of SBNation prior to facing Cruz. “Mighty Mouse is short in stature, I have big ears -- my ears stick out and my structure is compact. The nickname ‘Mighty Mouse’ just landed with me, it just stuck and everybody seems to like it.”
Like his cartoon namesake, Johnson is fast and ruthless on the attack, a lethal combination for prospective foes. As any old-school animation buff might say: “What a mouse!”
8. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: “Minotauro”
A Minotaur is a mythological creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. In MMA circles, “Minotauro” is a near-mythic fighter known for his toughness, resilience and ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Nogueira’s ability to bounce back from long odds was established at an early age, as the Brazilian was run over by a truck when he was 10 years old. The indentation that remains on Nogueira’s back to this day is a remnant of that accident.
During his professional fighting career, Nogueira has authored many a comeback en route to becoming one of only three men to hold titles in both the UFC and Pride. He has seen his share of injuries from competition, as well. Knee and hip surgeries sidelined Nogueira for 18 months prior to UFC 134, where he made a triumphant return by knocking out Brendan Schaub in his home country.
In his next outing, the Brazilian had his arm broken by a nasty kimura from Frank Mir at UFC 140. He returned to the Octagon in October, submitting Dave Herman with a second-round armbar. The wear-and-tear of a many demanding battles has gradually taken its toll on “Minotauro,” but he somehow manages to keep showing up for work. Some might call him crazy. Others? Well, they would say he has the bull-headed determination of a legend.
7. Ian McCall: “Uncle Creepy”
Despite being one of the world’s top flyweights, McCall spent much of the early portion of his fighting career mired in obscurity. His anonymity ended when the UFC announced it would introduce the 125-pound division with a four-man tournament in 2012. The eccentric Californian with the curious alias drew much of the attention as the division’s debut approached.
“I hate nicknames. Nicknames are stupid, especially people who give themselves nicknames,” McCall said during an interview on Inside MMA. “One night I was trying to teach my friend’s son to skateboard ... and then he said ‘Uncle Creepy’ in front of everyone. Everyone noticed and it stuck.”
Since he did not assign it to himself, McCall has grudgingly accepted the sobriquet, and, with his prominent handlebar moustache, he looks the part.
“It works so well,” McCall once told Sherdog.com of the moustache. “People say I look good in it. I meet so many people who compliment it, saying, ‘I don’t like moustaches, but yours looks good.’”
McCall’s shining moment did not arrive in the flyweight tournament, however. A pair of hard-fought battles against Johnson left “Uncle Creepy” on the outside of the UFC’s 125-pound title picture, at least for now. Expect the Team Oyama representative to remain a prominent player in the division, taking out anyone with a self-appointed nickname in his way.
6. Chan Sung Jung: “The Korean Zombie”
The date was April 24, 2010, and World Extreme Cagefighting was set to hold its first-ever pay-per-view event. It was a preliminary bout aired on Spike TV that stole the show, however. For three rounds, promotional debutante Jung went toe-to-toe with veteran brawler Leonard Garcia, trading punches, knees and kicks in a furious display of action. While Garcia would emerge with a controversial split decision triumph, Jung earned plenty of followers for his “Night of the Living Dead” imitation in the cage that night.
The performance did not surprise Jung’s training partners at Korean Top Team. They were the ones who gave Jung his unique title thanks to his move-forward-at-all-costs philosophy. The setback to Garcia was part of a rough stretch in which the Korean lost three of four fights. Jung has righted his ship since moving to the UFC, winning his first three bouts in the Octagon.
While Jung remains an all-action type of guy on fight night, the plodding, zombie-like approach appears to be a thing of the past. Now, “The Korean Zombie” has realistic 145-pound title aspirations.
“I’ve really changed a lot,” Jung told MMAJunkie.com prior to his breakout win over Dustin Poirier at UFC on Fuel TV 3, “both in my technique and my game as an MMA fighter, but also in the way that I think about my fighting and my thought process.”
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