Though there is no strictly defined date for the birth of modern MMA, it is fair to say that the vale tudo and hybrid pro wrestling bouts that predate the inaugural UFC event in 1993 had failed to capture the attention of the mainstream in the western world.
Even when the UFC began to take off following the purchase by Zuffa in 2001, the sport was still over a decade away from securing its first major TV deal in the US, adding female fighters to the roster, and the debut of a certain Irishman who would redefine what it meant to be a star in mixed martial arts.
Before MMA had accrued the global appeal that it commands today, a number of fighters attained legend status, but have not since garnered the recognition that they so clearly deserve. From those that enjoyed an insane reign of dominance to those that progressed the sport to become what it is today, it's time to look at some unsung heroes of mixed martial arts.
8. Masakatsu Funaki (40-13-2)
The label of Yomigaetta Samurai or 'modern-day samurai' may seem like a hyperbolic description, even for a professional fighter. However, Masakatsu Funaki's legacy in MMA makes him entirely deserving of such a title.
Funaki, along with Minoru Suzuki, founded Pancrase, a combat sports promotion that took shoot-style puroresu to the next level by removing the predetermined outcomes, making it one of the first MMA organisations in existence.
To put that into perspective, Funaki's MMA debut at the inaugural Pancrase event was nearly two months before Royce Gracie would become the first-ever UFC tournament champion.
Funaki would be dominant in Pancrase during its early years, earning victories over Bas Rutten, Ken and Frank Shamrock, Semmy Schilt, and Guy Mezger.
After racking up 49 fights in just over six years Funaki would retire from fighting in 1999, citing a buildup of injuries over his career. He would return to competition sporadically thereafter, including bouts against Rickson Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, and Ikuhisa Minowa before stepping away for good in 2012.
So, why is Funaki not more well known to western fight audiences? The answer is mainly that all of the Japanese stars' bouts occurred in his home country. Also, Pancrase prohibited closed-fist strikes to the head and included other pro wrestling inspired rules such as rope breaks for submissions that make their fights appear alien when compared to a modern mixed martial arts bout.