Becoming an MMA fighter is a brutal and demanding career choice, and yet, many MMA fighters still choose to compete outside of the cage, too. Competing in jiu-jitsu or submission grappling tournaments is one way that professional MMA fighters can build their ground game while earning some extra cash.
As professional grappling events have become more popular over the years, we’ve seen more and more fighters from big promotions signing up to compete in jiu-jitsu, and a few of them have surprised fans at just how good their skills are on the mats.
Here are a few of the most famous MMA fighters who’ve competed in professional BJJ events:
1- Benson Henderson
A former lightweight champion in the UFC and WEC, Benson Henderson is still very much an active professional fighter, having competed for Bellator since 2016. He’s also a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under John Crouch, and he’s put his grappling knowledge to the test on the mats a few times in recent years.
Henderson has competed in jiu-jitsu at Polaris, where he picked up a win over AJ Agazarm at the promotion’s sixth event before then going on to face Vagner Rocha at Polaris 8. More recently, he’s competed on the Fight 2 Win stage, first going up against Marcio Andre at F2W 134 and then Edwin Najmi at F2W 141. Though both of Henderson’s appearances at F2W resulted in losses, his matches gave hope to his fans that we’ll still be seeing him in action after he retires from MMA.
2- Donald Cerrone
Donald Cerrone is a well-rounded fighter who started off in kickboxing before moving to MMA. He’s broken multiple records in the UFC, surpassing Georges St. Pierre and Michael Bisping’s numbers when he recorded 21 wins with the promotion in 2018. He and Charles Oliveira also share the record for the most finishes in the UFC, each with sixteen to their name. Though Cerrone is best known for his striking, he also tried his hand at a pure grappling competition in late 2020.
Cerrone competed in a super fight at Submission Underground 19 against fellow UFC fighter Rafael dos Anjos back in December, coming away with the win twice in an unusual ruling from promotion officials. Cerrone had appeared to submit dos Anjos in overtime, with dos Anjos appearing to tap to Cerrone’s armbar. Dos Anjos, however, denied that he had tapped, instead claiming that he was pushing off his opponent’s knee.
Cerrone and SUG officials agreed to repeat the overtime rounds to see if the outcome would be different, but it wasn’t — Cerrone got the armbar again, and this time, there was no question that dos Anjos had tapped out. The victory was a unique one, and there’s no doubt that it will be remembered — for better or for worse — in submission grappling history.
3- Roxanne Modafferi
Modafferi has been making a name for herself as an MMA fighter since 2003. A former Invicta fighter, she went on to compete at The Ultimate Fighter and now throws down for the UFC. She’s defeated a few notable fighters, including Andrea Lee (twice) and Maycee Barber, and recently, she’s been putting her BJJ black belt to use in the competitive grappling scene as well.
Modafferi’s first major professional grappling bout took place at Submission Hunter Pro 60, where she faced off against Silver Fox black belt Danielle Kelly for the 130lb no-gi title. Though Modafferi ultimately had to tap to Kelly’s toehold with about a minute and thirty seconds left in their match, her efforts were impressive. She’ll be testing her BJJ skills again at SUG 21 in just a few weeks when she faces off against current SUG champion Amanda Loewen for the title.
4- Lyoto Machida
Machida is often considered a legend in MMA, going undefeated for six years when his professional career started in 2003. During his time with the UFC, Machida defeated names like Rashad Evans, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Vitor Belfort before moving on to Bellator in 2018.
Though Machida has been known as more of a knockout artist throughout his MMA career, he still put his grappling skills on the line for a good cause at MusclePharm’s Submit Cancer event back in 2016. Machida went up against Jake Shields in the co-main event of the charity card, ultimately losing to Shields via heel hook. Might “The Dragon” return to compete on the mats once he retires from MMA? Only time will tell.
5- Ryan Bader
Another UFC-vet-turned-Bellator-fighter, Bader has gone up (and won) against many of the MMA greats of his generation, including Quinton Jackson, Phil Davis, and Rashad Evans. Though his most recent fight against Vadim Nemkov ended in a loss, Bader’s defeats in MMA are few and far between. He was previously on a seven-fight winning streak that ended with a no-contest ruling at Bellator 226 due to an accidental eye-poke during his fight against Cheick Kongo.
Bader set a record for the fastest submission in the UFC light heavyweight division when he guillotined Vladimir Matyushenko in just fifty seconds in 2013, but aside from that win, he isn’t really known for his submissions. That hasn’t stopped him, however, from making the effort to expand his professional skillset on the mats.
Submission Underground has welcomed Bader into their cage multiple times now, and he made his promotional debut with a win against fellow MMA star Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in overtime. Bader then got a title shot against current SUG champion Mason Fowler, and though Fowler retained his title, we’ll almost certainly be seeing Bader on the mats there again.
6- Felicia Spencer
Spencer has made no secret of her black-belt-level BJJ skills, as half of her professional victories in MMA have come by way of submission. Following an undefeated career at Invicta, she moved on to fight for the UFC in 2019, winning her debut via rear-naked choke against Megan Anderson and soon earning a title shot against current featherweight champ Amanda Nunes. Though Nunes came away victorious in their fight, Spencer is still among the top fighters in the (admittedly sparse) division.
Given Spencer’s prowess on the ground, it made sense for Submission Underground to give her the opportunity for a title shot when they announced their first-ever women’s championship at SUG 19. Spencer went up against Amanda Loewen for the title, and it was Loewen who came away with the win, it seems likely that we’ll see Spencer back in action on the mats at some point in the near future.
7- Jake Shields
Shields is a UFC, WSOF, and Strikeforce veteran who currently fights as a welterweight for the PFL. He’s earned a host of championship titles during his MMA career, including the Strikeforce middleweight title, the Elite XC welterweight title, and the Shooto welterweight title. In addition to his significant achievements in the cage, he’s also a BJJ black belt under Cesar Gracie.
These days, Shields is even more active as a grappler than he is as a fighter. He made waves when he earned bronze at ADCC back in 2005, and recently, he’s appeared in a variety of tournaments and super fights at events like Polaris, F2W, 3rd Coast Grappling, and SUG. Though he’s had mixed results on the mats, he’s taken home wins against big names like Gilbert Burns, Kit Dale, and Murilo Santana.
8- Gillian Robertson
Robertson, a Din Thomas BJJ black belt, has been fighting for the UFC since 2017, where she submitted Emily Whitmire in the TUF 26 finale with an armbar. Since then, she’s been on a consistent run, winning two out of every three fights for the promotion.
This Canadian flyweight fighter is among the many others on this list who have competed at Submission Underground. Though she lost her promotional debut against Amanda Loewen at SUG 17, she redeemed herself with a round-one rear naked choke against Pearl Gonzalez at SUG 20 at the end of last year.
9- Anthony Johnson
This light heavyweight fighter made a name for himself in the UFC with wins over fighters like Ryan Bader, Glover Teixeira, and Alexander Gustafsson. “Rumble’s” most recent fight, however, was in 2017 and resulted in a loss to Daniel Cormier, and Johnson has since moved on to sign with Bellator.
None of Johnson’s 22 wins in professional MMA have come via submission, but he appears to be trying to expand his skill set by competing in grappling events. He competed to a draw in his two matches on the team-based Quintet Ultra at the end of 2019, and more recently, he suffered a close loss at SUG 19 against fellow Bellator fighter Ryan Bader.
10- Gilbert Burns
To be fair, Burns got his start as a jiu-jitsu competitor before making the transition to MMA. He’s since gone on to enjoy an illustrious career in the UFC, winning six fights in a row before getting a title shot against Kamaru Usman. Though Usman retained the welterweight title, Burns has still made his mark as one of the best in the division.
Remarkably, Burns still finds the time and energy to compete in jiu-jitsu. His most recent BJJ match resulted in a loss against Craig Jones at SUG 10, but he’s picked up numerous wins at promotions like Fight 2 Win, 3rd Coast Grappling, Polaris, Quintet, Kasai Pro, and the Black Belt CBD Invitational since he began his journey with the UFC.
Taking the Fight to the Ground
MMA is a brutal sport, but even as these fighters have pushed themselves to the limit in the cage, they’ve still managed to diversify their careers by competing in grappling as well. As the popularity of professional BJJ and submission grappling tournaments increases, we will likely see even more professional fighters competing in grappling, both after retirement and during the height of their careers.