Nicknames can be fun or serious, have little meaning or be deeply personal. They can be self-given, coined by a coach or a promotion or in some cases earned based on a performance. Oftentimes a nickname is more ubiquitous than a fighter’s actual name.
Such is the way of combat sports, where so many fighters have some sort of ring name. There are the common ones — such as “Sugar” (Ray Leonard, Ray Robinson, Shane Mosley, Sean O’Malley) — and the many developed to create a persona or make a fighter seem tough.
“For some people, they pick nicknames just to pick them,” said UFC welterweight Matthew Semelsberger, otherwise known as ‘Semi The Jedi.’ “But your ring name — your nickname — should be heavily connected to you as a person … and the journey that you’ve taken to get to whatever level of the game you’re at, at that point.
“I think the nickname is a very spiritual thing, so I take that to heart.”
But there is something to every nickname. There is an origin story. Here are the stories of some of the best nicknames in the UFC and how they came to be.
Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya
Adesanya knew his nickname would be different. He couldn’t have known, however, when the UFC middleweight champion created “The Last Stylebender,” it would become one of the most well-known monikers in all of combat sports.
He just knew it spoke to him.
“It came from the TV show ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ because I could relate to learning all the elements to meet my destiny,” Adesanya said in an email to ESPN. “Stylebender is based on freestyle — I love the different styles in martial arts, and I was trying to bend my way through each one and master each one.”
The nickname took hold as his career rose in the King In The Ring kickboxing tournament in New Zealand. It followed him from kickboxing to MMA. From Australia and New Zealand to all over the world.
And it’s a nickname no one can touch.
“No one has ever had it, and it’s uniquely me.” Adesanya said. “Some people have the same fight names, no one can ever have this.”
Paulo “The Eraser” Costa
Paulo Costa received his first nickname because of his older brother. Carlos was also a fighter, and his nickname — after being translated to English — was “Rubber Man,” because of his flexibility. So it made sense Paulo’s first nickname was “Borrachinha,” which Costa says translates to “Little Rubber” — or “Little Rubber Man.”
For years, Costa was “Borrachinha,” but when he signed with the UFC the name didn’t translate great from Portuguese to English. Plus, he wanted something new.
His coach, Eric Albarracin, suggested a new name somewhat based on an Arnold Schwarzenegger film: “Eraser.”
“They are both special to me,” Costa said. “In Portuguese they mean almost the same thing, so it’s OK to me. But ‘The Eraser’ is like a new version of Paulo.”
The eraser, in Costa’s eyes, “of the more dangerous fighters.”
Whatever Costa goes by he has yet to lose a fight entering Saturday’s UFC 253 middleweight title fight against Adesanya. So far in his career, it’s a nickname that fits as 11 of his 13 wins have been by KO or TKO.
“These nicknames make sense as the kind of fighter I am,” Costa said. “‘The Eraser’ is like, I finish all my fights. I don’t let my fights go to the judge.”
Maurice “The Crochet Boss” Greene
At some point, Maurice Greene was “The Pirate.” He isn’t sure when it changed — when he first started calling himself “The Crochet Boss” — only that it came during a phone conversation with his friend, rapper T-Billa.
Greene said it was a moment of clarity.
“It was a way to figure out how to have both of my worlds collide,” he said. “You know what I mean, and have the world see that, yeah, I’m a fighter and I fight, but crocheting is cool and it’s cool for men to crochet.”
The nickname was just weird enough that people were curious. He backed up what could be viewed as simply a gimmick by actually crocheting — a hobby he picked up in his 20s, in part, “because it’s faster than knitting.”
It’s become an icebreaker, both with fighters and crocheting away in a local Starbucks. Fighters have bought hats from him. He’s sold, he said, countless pieces. Using the same Lion Brand Yarn for years. He’s even hoping to one day land an endorsement contract.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years-plus now,” Greene said. “I’ve been doing it for longer than I’ve been fighting. I say this all the time. My stitches are impeccable.”
Chan Sung Jung — “The Korean Zombie”
As he developed as a fighter early on in his career, Chan Sung Jung sparred with teammates and wouldn’t stop attacking. Didn’t need rest. Didn’t need a break.
One of his teammates said he was like a zombie, relentlessly moving forward no matter what. It stuck. Then, he went to fight in Japan. The promoter at the time added “Korean'” to the front.
And that is how “The Korean Zombie” came to life.
“I liked it from the start,” Jung said in an email to ESPN. “Because it reminded me of a type of person who always pushes forward, searching for a good fight.”
Unlike fighters promoted by their first or last names, or fighters who at least have their names on promotional material, most of the time Jung prefers to go by his nickname. At this point in his career, he’s better known by that name than his real one.
“My friends back in the States just call me ‘Zombie,’ and most of my fans are not familiar with my real name,” Jung said. “Korean names can be a little complicated for foreigners to pick up. However, the word ‘Zombie,’ has an impact.
“There are a lot of fighters that are known for [their] nicknames, such as ‘Cro Cop’ or ‘Shogun.’ I think my name is one of them.”
Darren “The Dentist” Stewart
Darren Stewart loves his nickname, he just abhors the profession. Not his profession as a fighter, but rather the one his name is linked to.
“I’m scared of needles,” Stewart said. “I hate the dentist.”
Just a few weeks ago he dreaded going to the dentist to have a filling examined. Sitting in the chair and learning that no needles would be needed, he celebrated. Then, for a laugh, he told the dentist that he, too, was a dentist. Sort of.
At first, Stewart thought it was cheesy. He had returned to his gym, The MMA Clinic, in London after he knocked a few of his opponent’s teeth out in the first round of his final amateur fight. Someone in the gym started joking around with him.
“He’s like, ‘Yeah, you took out teeth, mate. Call yourself the dentist,'” Stewart said. “I said, ‘OK, whatever.’ [I] kept training there, and then on fight night, I went home and said, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.'”
That fight was his pro debut and ended with a first-round knockout of his opponent Michael Ravenscroft. Once again, he heard from those around him that he tried to take his opponent’s teeth out. The name he once didn’t like had stuck.
Now there has been confusion that has led to occasional questions about whether he actually is a dentist. Once, on a lark, he told a fan during a meetup that he was indeed a real dentist but on a break. He told the fan to wait and book an appointment when he returns to practice. That fan, in theory, is still waiting.
There was a point, recently, he briefly thought about switching to “The Snack,” but he can’t abandon the name. It has become part of his persona.
“They know when I turn up for a fight it’s going to be war, going to be damage. He’s going to take your teeth out, stuff like that,” Stewart said. “People know what it is. It’s got a ring to it, you know what I mean. People when they hear that, it puts an image in their head.
“Some fighters have a name and, OK, it’s just a fighter. When you hear ‘The Dentist,’ it’s OK, well, what’s going on here? He’s going to take someone’s teeth out tonight.”
Chase “The Teenage Dream” Hooper
Chase Hooper has been fighting for a long time. Back to, you guessed it, when he was a teenager. Minus a gruff look, he started searching for a name that fit.
His life was pretty sweet — fighting in casinos instead of working a typical teenage job. So his coaches and teammates at Combat Sports and Fitness decided on “The Teenage Dream,” because, well, duh.
“You could say part of it kind of comes from that Katy Perry song,” Hooper said. “But it was kind of a joke because I was a super awkward kid, so a nickname like ‘The Axe Murderer,’ doesn’t really fit me or my personality.
“So it had to be something kind of not intimidating.”
But Hooper also realized that a nickname like that has a shelf life. Now 21 and in the UFC, the “Teenage” part of his nickname was cut. Kind of. He said he tried to get Bruce Buffer to say the “Teenage” part of it after he won his fight against Daniel Teymur, but Buffer wouldn’t. Hooper said the teenage part has come to an end, but if people still want to add “Teenage,” fine. He’s not going to.
“It goes from funny to creepy pretty quick,” Hooper said.
Instead, he’s now going by “The Dream,” or the Spanish version, ‘El Sueño.’ But the teenage part — just like teenage years — was fun while it lasted.
“It’s just, like, funny to hear people in huge arenas just announce ‘The Teenage Dream,’ and stuff,” Hooper said. “And then just fighting people like, ‘The Tiger,’ stuff like that. All these guys are trying to go in like super tough, and I’m just standing across the cage looking like I look, not intimidating at all.
“That was kind of the funniest part for me because … the fights are such a high-stress thing that it brings you back to reality a little bit.”
Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall
Ian McCall thought nicknames were dumb. Then one night he was helping put one of his friend’s kids to bed. The kid called him Uncle Ian. McCall, recently sober at the time, had no problem helping out.
“Everyone else was hammered and he goes, ‘Uncle Ian, Uncle Ian, let’s go skateboard. Uncle Ian, Uncle Ian, let’s do this,'” McCall said. “And then, finally, ‘Uncle Creepy.’ Then everyone heard and sat up out of their drunken stupor and was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s it. That’s it.’ I was like, ‘OK, whatever, that’s fine. Uncle Creepy.'”
McCall wasn’t sure if he’d fight again at that point. Then he took a bout in 2010 against Jeff Willingham. As a joke on the bio sheet, he wrote down that his nickname was “Uncle Creepy.”
It was so unique, so out there and so different, it remained even when McCall no longer wanted it to.
“I’m still embarrassed by it, to this day,” McCall said. “I always thought it was so stupid.”
Yet McCall kept winning. His real name — and his unwanted moniker — kept getting attention. What once was a joke became familiar to fans. While people weren’t negative, he’d have to do some convincing to show people he wasn’t weird.
He never thought it would become a real thing. Now retired and working in psychedelics, he’s hoping “Uncle Creepy” retires, too.
“For once in my life, I’m trying to get rid of it,” McCall said. “Trying to actually not be called that anymore because I’m not that person. I will never be that person again. I don’t like that person. Like, it’s just not me.”
Julia “Raging Panda” Avila
Julia Avila wants one thing known: Her nickname has nothing to do with protests or animal rights. She’s not making a statement of any sort. It’s simpler than that.
“My thing has always been pandas,” Avila said. “It kind of stuck throughout college. When I first started fighting, they called me ‘Panda Girl.’ And when I moved to Oklahoma, my manager, he’s like, ‘Well, you’re kind of a savage so let’s just call you ‘Raging Panda.’ You’re kind of like Jake LaMotta, the ‘Raging Bull,’ so he just put two and two together.'”
There were other considerations — Avila quickly nixed “Showtime” — but there was no preventing her from being the “Raging Panda.”
When she was a senior in college at the University of California-Santa Cruz, her roommate donated to the World Wildlife Fund in Avila’s name to save a panda for a year as her 21st birthday gift. Avila still has the commemorative stuffed animal.
She loves the panda shirts she receives as gifts and photos and memes she gets on social media. There’s even a panda tattoo on her thigh she got around the same time as the nickname. When she went to fight in Texas after getting the name she received quite the interesting reaction.
“Everyone was kind of nerdy about it,” Avila said. “They were like, ‘The Raging … Panda?'”
The “Raging Panda” would very much like to meet a real panda. Maybe, she says, if she wins a UFC title a zoo will set up a meet-and-greet. They had already looked into it for a previous fight in Singapore that fell through.
While the panda love is real, so too, is the raging part of her nickname. Just watch her fight.
“Most people, whenever they hear that, they don’t give it a second thought,” Avila said. “Like, ‘Raging Panda? Whatever.’ But you got to remember, a panda may be cute and cuddly but they are still a f—ing bear.”
Matthew “Semi The Jedi” Semelsberger
Matthew Semelsberger has always been “Semi.” It started when he was playing football as a kid, when a coach didn’t want to bother saying his long surname. Instagram and social media, in a different way, helped with the rest.
“My nickname was ‘Semi’ and I was just like, that’s my nickname, but it wasn’t gettable [as a username],” Semelsberger said. “So I was thinking of random stuff and said, ‘Oh, I’m a fighter so why don’t we just do ‘The Jedi,’ because now it rhymes and is pretty catchy.'”
In his downtime, the former Marist defensive back plays Dungeons & Dragons and loves Star Wars. He has inspirational quotes from the fictional character Obi-Wan Kenobi saved in his phone.
“If you define yourself by the power to take life, the desire to dominate, to possess … then you have nothing,” reads Semelsberger’s favorite Kenobi quote.
Hence the obvious: “Semi The Jedi.”
Anthony “Fluffy” Hernandez
Anthony Hernandez was preparing for an MMA kickboxing tournament when he was 15 years old. One of his coaches came up to him and wrote a word on his right arm.
Weighing between 240 and 250 pounds at the time, the coaches were messing with him. A decade later, the nickname remains.
“Apparently I earned mine being a fat ass,” Hernandez said. “It’s f—ed up. But it worked out.
“No one likes losing to a guy named ‘Fluffy.’ So I’ll take it.”
At his fighting debut, his coaches jokingly told him to write “Fluffy” down as the nickname. He did it, and it caught on. His friends call him “Fluff.” He has introduced himself to coaches as his nickname — and then they call him Anthony instead.
“It’s easy to remember,” Hernandez said. “It’s catchy. No one expects it.”
Ariane “Queen of Violence” Lipski
She’d knocked out seven of her past nine opponents entering the fight and thus became the “Queen of Violence.”
She loved it.
“It’s a female nickname but aggressive,” Lipski said. “I think how I am in my life, if people meet me outside of the cage I’m not aggressive, you know. I’m very calm. But inside of the cage I’m very aggressive.
“I like to show violence, and I saw the nickname and thought, ‘Oh, I could not think of a better nickname for me than ‘Queen of Violence.'”
After she lost her first two UFC fights, her coach asked her if the nickname was too much pressure and if she wanted to change it. No way, she said.
“I just love it,” Lipski said she told her coach. “‘This is my style.'”