Given how often fights go to the ground, it’s no secret that having an extensive background in jiu-jitsu is helpful for athletes who want to get into MMA. While some BJJ practitioners are happy to focus on grappling for their entire career, many others decide to branch out and step into the cage.
Here are some of the most famous BJJ athletes who’ve made a successful transition into the world of MMA:
1. Garry Tonon
Garry Tonon is easily one of the most famous submission grapplers in modern jiu-jitsu history. A member of the infamous “Danaher Death Squad” under Renzo Gracie instructor John Danaher, Tonon has helped revolutionize the submission grappling scene with leg locks, which have helped him become a multiple-time champion at the Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) and earn a bronze medal at the prestigious ADCC World Championships in 2019.
Tonon is now well on his way to earning the same reputation in his professional MMA career, which he kicked off in 2018 with a TKO victory against Richard Corminal. Tonon is currently 6-0 in MMA, with all of his fights taking place under the ONE Championship banner. Even more impressive is that Tonon has finished all but one of his fights, with only his most recent bout against Koyomi Matsushima being left up to the judges. He’s already established an enthusiastic fan base in jiu-jitsu, and now, the MMA world is quickly learning that he’s a serious force to be reckoned with.
2. Mackenzie Dern
One of the most popular household names in jiu-jitsu, Mackenzie Dern has long been considered a BJJ icon. She’s won many of the major jiu-jitsu championships, including IBJJF Worlds, No-Gi Worlds, and the UAEJJF Abu Dhabi World Pro. During the height of her career in 2015, she became one of only five competitors to defeat Gabi Garcia in a BJJ competition by a narrow victory in the absolute finals of Pans.
The following year, Dern had her first professional MMA fight in the LFC, which she won via decision. After going 5-0, she was signed by the UFC, making her promotional debut in 2018 against Ashley Yoder. Dern’s submission skills have come in handy on the mats, and even in the high-stakes fights in the UFC. Her only loss in MMA has been a dropped decision against Amanda Ribas in 2019. Dern is currently rocking a record of 10-1, proving that her prowess extends beyond the mats and into the cage.
3. Gabi Garcia
One of the most accomplished and famous jiu-jitsu athletes of her time, Gabi Garcia has earned a whopping four ADCC titles since earning her black belt. She’s also brought home a substantial collection of gold medals at the World Pro, Pans, and Worlds, though her 2013 medals from the latter two were stripped after she tested positive for banned substances.
Garcia transitioned to MMA in 2015, when she began fighting for Rizin in the heavyweight division. She went on to finish all her fights, though her career was again met with controversy due to size disparities between her and her opponents. After her most recent fight in 2018, which left her with an undefeated record of 6-0 (with one no-contest due to an eye poke), she again began focusing on her BJJ career, which has paid off with big wins in major tournaments and superfights alike.
4. Michelle Nicolini
Another ONE Championship fighter who’s come from the BJJ world, Nicolini has made it clear that she prefers to bring fights to the ground. It makes sense — she won her division at ADCC in 2013, and she’s claimed a whopping ten gold medals at the IBJJF World Championship over the years (two in no-gi and eight in the gi).
Nicolini began her professional MMA career in 2011 with a fight at Inka FC 11, which she won in the first round via armbar. Though she had a couple more fights in 2014, she really began to focus on her MMA journey in 2016, when she joined the ONE Championship roster. Her most recent fight took place in July 2019 against Angela Lee, which Nicolini won via unanimous decision. Her professional MMA record currently sits at an impressive 6-2, winning five of her fights via submission.
5. Gilbert Burns
Gilbert Burns is perhaps one of the most famous modern MMA fighters to come from a BJJ background. Burns started training as a pre-teen and eventually rose through the ranks to earn his black belt, where he’d go on to win Worlds, No-Gi Worlds, the World Pro, and Brazilian Nationals.
Burns began his professional MMA career in 2012 and went on to win ten consecutive fights. Now a UFC fighter with a record of 19-3, his two most recent fights saw him defeat MMA stars Tyron Woodley and Demian Maia. He hasn’t let his MMA pursuits stop him from competing in jiu-jitsu, though, and throughout his time as a fighter, he’s stayed active in the BJJ scene by competing at events like Fight 2 Win, 3rd Coast Grappling, Submission Underground, and Polaris.
6. Ryan Hall
Though he’s now a black belt under Felipe Costa, Ryan Hall was making waves in the jiu-jitsu scene even during his time as a purple and brown belt, taking home titles at Worlds and Euros in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, he went on to win the ADCC West Coast Trials, earning himself a spot — and then a bronze medal — at the prestigious ADCC World Championships that same year.
Though Hall had one professional MMA fight on his record — a decision loss against Eddie Fyvie at RF 12 in 2006 — he didn’t decide to officially make the long-term switch to MMA until 2012. He finished his first four fights, then won The Ultimate Fighter 22 against Artem Lobov. He shocked the world at UFC 232 when he submitted UFC legend BJ Penn with a heel hook, further cementing his status as one of the jiu-jitsu community’s most beloved UFC fighters. Hall currently boasts an official professional record of 8-1.
7. Neiman Gracie
As the great-grandson of Gracie jiu-jitsu founder Carlos Gracie, it’s no surprise that Neiman Gracie has had a successful career in martial arts. After winning Pans, No-Gi Pans, and American Nationals as a purple belt and winning bronze at No-Gi Pans as a brown belt, he was promoted to black belt by Renzo Gracie.
Neiman Gracie made his professional MMA debut in 2013 at the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and signed with Bellator less than two years later. His jiu-jitsu has shined in his MMA career, with submissions comprising nine of his ten wins in the cage, and his only loss so far is a decision against Rory MacDonald at 2019’s Bellator 222. Neiman isn’t the first or only Gracie to make the move to MMA, but he’s certainly had one of the most impressive MMA careers in his family so far.
8. Rodolfo Vieira
Rodolfo Vieira made a name for himself on the mats, winning five World Championship titles (including one in the absolute division in 2011) and claiming victory in his weight class and the open weight division at both Pans and Worlds during his time as a black belt. A victory at ADCC 2015 propelled him into “legendary” status in the BJJ world, and just a few months later, he made the choice to focus on a career in MMA.
So far, Vieira’s decision has played out well for him. Since his professional MMA debut in 2017, he’s fought to an undefeated record of 7-0, finishing all of his fights and earning all but one via submission. He made his UFC debut in 2019 in spectacular fashion, winning his fight with a head-arm triangle in the second round. He improved upon his performance in his most recent fight last march, landing the same submission in the first round. Vieira could very well become an MMA legend in his own right now that he’s already proven himself in the BJJ scene.
9. AJ Agazarm
AJ Agazarm started his combat sports career as a wrestler, and he found early success in jiu-jitsu as well. He maintained a decorated BJJ career from blue to brown belt, continuing his lengthy list of accomplishments as a black belt. Agazarm has picked up a host of titles, namely in the no-gi installments of Worlds, Pans, Brazilian Nationals, and Euros. He also took home silver at ADCC in 2017, and even since starting his MMA career, he’s had a couple of matches at Fight 2 Win.
Agazarm kicked off his professional MMA career in 2019 after signing with Bellator, training with Nick and Nate Diaz to prepare for his fights. Though he lost his first fight via decision, he won his next three fights, submitting two of his opponents in the process. Agazarm was one of thirty fighters to be removed from the Bellator roster in October, but he’s shown no signs of wanting to abandon his MMA career, and we’re likely to see him back in action soon.
10. BJ Penn
UFC Hall-of-Famer BJ Penn got his start in the jiu-jitsu world, where he earned his black belt in under three and a half years. Penn went on to make history as the first U.S. jiu-jitsu athlete to win Worlds before making the transition to MMA.
Penn made his professional debut at UFC 31 and would go on to win both the lightweight and welterweight titles throughout his career, becoming just the second of seven fighters in the league to win titles in two separate weight classes. He was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2015.
Unfortunately, Penn’s reputation has been marred in recent years after videos surfaced of him being involved in multiple street fights and being arrested on suspicion of DUI. He was released from the UFC in 2019.
From the Mats to the Cage
With jiu-jitsu being such a huge part of MMA, it’s no surprise that so many BJJ athletes have expanded their skillset to begin a new era in their martial arts careers. As more young jiu-jitsu athletes decide they want a new challenge, we’re likely to see even more grappling experts test their skills in the mixed martial arts scene.