Ranking the best MMA families: The Gracies and Nurmagomedovs battle for No. 1

It was a momentous November night in 1993 when Royce Gracie made his way toward an ominous, octagonal cage at old McNichols Sports Arena in Denver to show a motley assemblage of fighters how to really fight. This first Ultimate Fighting Championship event (watch on ESPN+) would end up being a Gracie showcase — not just for Royce, who quickly won three “no holds barred” bouts by submission that night, but for the Brazilian family as a whole.

The power of kinship became evident from the moment Gracie appeared from backstage, walking to the cage as part of a single file procession. Royce, his head bowed, was wearing a white gi. The men lined up in front of and behind him were in blue tracksuits, each with his hands resting on the shoulders of the man in front of him. Those others were mainly Gracies, including Royce’s older brothers Royler, a jiu-jitsu legend, and Rickson, considered the family’s greatest fighter.

The entrance became known as the Gracie Train. It didn’t carry the joyful mourning of a jazz funeral, but instead, just a shared resoluteness that there was a job to get done and they — all of Gracie’s family, not just Royce — were coming to take care of business. Repeated every time it was Royce’s turn inside the Octagon, these grim parades became iconic.

But the most noteworthy Gracie imprint was on the UFC’s very existence. This inaugural event was a brainchild of another of Royce’s brothers, Rorion. He had worked with adman Art Davie to create a nationally televised spectacle aimed at showing off the dominance of Gracie jiu-jitsu — that’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu branded by a family devoted to taking the grappling art globally. And here we are, three decades later, watching the UFC and MMA, all grown-up on the world stage.

The Gracies are clearly at the head of the pack among MMA families, but they are not alone. Several dozen families have produced more than one notable fighter, and some even did so through more than one generation. It’s one thing for fighters who train together to refer to a gym brotherhood. It’s another matter when a bloodline produces multiple athletes who reach the sport’s peak. Here are the most vaunted family names in MMA.

1. The Gracie family

Founding the UFC (Rorion) and winning three of its first four one-night tournaments (Royce) is enough to build a strong argument for the Gracies as the greatest family in MMA history. But there’s even more on their collective résumé, including the fight careers of Rickson, Neiman, Roger, Ralph, Kron and other brothers, cousins and nephews. Two cousins have made their biggest impact as trainers: Renzo fought in the UFC and Pride, defeating several UFC champs along the way, but is best known for his New York City gym, once home to Georges St-Pierre, Matt Serra and others; and Cesar founded Cesar Gracie Academy, the gym in Northern California that produced Nick and Nate Diaz. By measure of historical impact and the number of kin involved, the Gracies have a Secretariat-sized lead over all other families in MMA.

2. The Nurmagomedov family: Khabib, Usman, Umar and others

Khabib Nurmagomedov retiring undefeated in 2020 as the greatest lightweight champion in UFC history is just the start of what makes this Dagestani family elite. One of his cousins, Usman, is also unbeaten and is the Bellator lightweight champion. Usman’s older brother, Umar, is likewise undefeated and is moving up the ranks of UFC bantamweights. The combined record of those three Nurmagomedovs: 62-0. Add in another cousin, UFC welterweight Abubakar, and a couple of notable second cousins, onetime Bellator tournament champ Magomedrasul Khasbulaev and former M-1 Global welterweight champ Shamil Zavurov. They all learned their craft under Khabib’s late father, Abdulmanap, who produced the winningest family in MMA history.

3. The Shamrock family: Ken and Frank

Ken Shamrock made a name for himself by fighting at UFC 1 and, in a loss, igniting a rivalry with Royce Gracie. They met again in 1995 and went 36 uninterrupted minutes — no rest breaks — to a time-limit draw. During the time between those bouts, Ken invited his adoptive younger brother, Frank, to his California gym, the Lion’s Den, and began training him in MMA. That led to big moments for both men. Later, in 1995, Ken beat Dan Severn for the inaugural UFC Superfight Championship, which, in the days of no weight classes, was ostensibly the heavyweight title. In 1997, after weight divisions were introduced, Frank became the first UFC light heavyweight champ, submitting Olympic gold medalist wrestler Kevin Jackson in 16 seconds. Frank defended his belt four times before leaving the UFC, then won championships in the WEC and Strikeforce. Ken is a UFC Hall of Famer, while Frank, owing to a falling out with CEO Dana White, is nowhere to be found in UFC tellings of its history.

4. The Diaz family: Nick and Nate

Nick Diaz is a former welterweight champion in the WEC and Strikeforce, and in 2013, he made an unsuccessful challenge of Georges St-Pierre for the UFC belt. Nate won Season 5 of “The Ultimate Fighter” and fell short in a 2012 UFC lightweight title fight against Benson Henderson. These are solid MMA résumés but not spectacular. And yet the Diaz brothers have secured a beloved place in the hearts of fans with their larger-than-life presence. Neither guy needs to be wrapped in a shiny belt to be the star of the show. They share a walk-you-down-demonstrably fighting style that is as fan-friendly as it gets. And both Diaz brothers have added indispensably to the MMA lexicon by keeping it real and unscripted, with “Don’t be scared, homie” (Nick) and “I ain’t surprised, motherf—ers” (Nate). Words to live by.

5. The Pettis family: Anthony and Sergio

Anthony Pettis put the family name on the map even before he was in the UFC, utilizing a spectacularly innovative “Showtime Kick” to win the WEC lightweight title at the promotion’s final event before being absorbed by the UFC. Anthony later became the UFC 155-pound champ and competed for the featherweight belt. Sergio, who followed his older brother into the UFC, had some big wins in the Octagon (Brandon Moreno, Joseph Benavidez) before moving on to Bellator, where he won the bantamweight title in 2021 and held it until last November. Sergio is still going strong in MMA, while Anthony made his professional boxing debut last April against boxing Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr. Pettis won by majority decision.

Family takes all shapes

We could continue with family rankings and fill out a top 10, even a top 20 or 30. We haven’t acknowledged a pair of Bellator fighters who share a bloodline and a nickname, Patricio and Patricky Freire, better known as “Pitbull.”

We’ve also not yet mentioned a couple of other vaunted Brazilian families: the Nogueiras, twins Antonio Rodrigo (“Big Nog”) and Antonio Rogerio (“Little Nog”), and the Ruas, Mauricio and Murilo. “Shogun” Rua is one of several UFC champs who have had a sibling fight as a pro: Leon Edwards, Kamaru Usman, Valentina Shevchenko, Deiveson Figueiredo, Chuck Liddell, BJ Penn, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Matt Hughes and Matt Serra. And on the current UFC roster, there’s a pair of bantamweight brothers who are a combined 26-0: Javid Basharat (14-0) and Farid (12-0).

But rather than just digging deeper into MMA’s brotherhood and sisterhood, let’s shine a light on the various ways in which families have made an impact on the sport:

Brother and sisters: Christian, Angela and Victoria Lee

Only one of the Lee kids is still competing in the ONE Championship cage, but he’s doing it in a big way. Christian reigns as champ at welterweight and lightweight, and he’s a past challenger at featherweight. Angela owned ONE’s atomweight title until she abruptly retired last September at age 27. She attributed her departure in part to the death of her 18-year-old sister, Victoria, who had died by suicide nine months earlier. Victoria had started a pro fighting career at 16 and was 3-0. This heart-wrenching situation was as “family” as things get in MMA. Life’s pain either drives you forward or slams on the brakes.

Father and son: Antonio and AJ McKee

Antonio McKee had a 30-6-2 record as a pro, including one appearance in the UFC, but his swan song had to be a career highlight. It happened in 2019 at Bellator 228 inside The Forum in Inglewood, California, just a few miles from his Long Beach home. McKee was six months shy of his 50th birthday and had not competed in five years. But there was a family matter to handle. First, Antonio fought — and won — in the prelims. Then he cornered his son, AJ, in an opening-round bout in the Featherweight World Grand Prix. AJ won by knockout in just 8 seconds that night and went on to win the tournament. His submission victory over Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in the finale made AJ the Bellator champ. And though he no longer owns that belt, the 28-year-old remains a star.

Father and daughter: Frank and Bella Mir

When Frank Mir armbarred Tim Sylvia to win the heavyweight title in 2004 at UFC 48, Bella was cageside at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. She was 11 months old, asleep in her mother’s arms. But as she grew up, Bella became increasingly attentive to her dad’s fights and spent a lot of time with him in the gym, developing a love for combat sports and competition. Once she began competing, Bella excelled. Before she was 19, she had been a four-time high school wrestling state champion in Nevada, had won multiple Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments and was 3-0 as an MMA pro. Last year, as Mir went off to the University of Iowa for her freshman year as a wrestler, the UFC signed her as its first NIL ambassador. Frank Mir, 44, has insisted he will come out of retirement someday to share a fight card with his daughter.

Husband and wife: Montana and Mark De La Rosa

Married couples typically honor Valentine’s Day with a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates, maybe a night out on the town for a romantic dinner. But the De La Rosas took their celebration in a different direction a few years ago: They fought on the same UFC card. It happens regularly with siblings, but lovers? For Mark and Montana, both flyweights, the lovey-dovey outing was at a UFC Fight Night in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, on Feb. 15, 2020. Mark started the night with a performance that would have wilted a dozen roses, losing by knockout to Raulian Paiva. But Montana saved the marriage later in the evening with a decision win over Mara Romero Borella. Love conquers all.

The in-laws: Chris Weidman and Stephen “Wonder-bro-in-law” Thompson

The story goes that a decade or so ago, Stephen Thompson was headed to New York to spend time with Chris Weidman, his close friend and sometime training partner. “Wonderboy” brought along his brother, Tony, who met Weidman’s sister, Colleen, at some point during the visit. They hit it off. And by 2016, Chris and Stephen were brothers-in-law. That November, Weidman and Thompson fought at UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden — the first time they were on the same card, amid careers of 18 (Weidman) and 20 (Thompson) UFC fights. It was not a good night for either of them. A brutal Yoel Romero knee knocked out Weidman, and while Thompson didn’t lose, his majority draw with Tyron Woodley kept the UFC welterweight belt in Woodley’s possession. The in-laws felt like outliers.

Adoptive brothers who fought each other: Caros and Ben Fodor

“When Caros looks at himself, he’s going to have to ask himself if he’s ready to kill me, because that’s what it’s going to take,” Ben Fodor said to the broadcast interviewer, his voice cracking with emotion. “Because you did this and you put us here. Be ready to kill me, because I’m not going to stop fighting until one of us wins.” The tears start coming as Ben adds, “You did this. This is your fault.” The prefight interview took place at WSOF 32 back in 2016 in Everett, Washington, near where Caros and Ben grew up as adoptive brothers. They didn’t get along as kids or young adults, and when they both ended up as professional fighters, maybe this was inevitable. But after Ben, best known for his Seattle crime-fighting in costume as Phoenix Jones, was so teary and shaken backstage shortly before heading to the cage, how was this fight allowed to go on? (Caros won a unanimous decision.)

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