Although mixed martial arts is still very much in its infancy as a sport, it has come a long way in just over 20 years. MMA has grown from a no-holds-barred challenge pitting style vs. style into a competition between highly skilled fighters who train in all aspects of combat sports.

Many fighters have come and gone over the years, but only a handful can be considered the true icons of the sport. If a Mount Rushmore of MMA were constructed, what four icons would be forever immortalized?

That is truly a big question. There have been so many great fighters to compete over the years, and I had a lot of trouble narrowing my list down to just four. In fact, I was having such a hard time that I enlisted the help of my fellow MMA lovers to try to narrow things down.

Erik Fontanez of MMA Weekly listed Royce Gracie, Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre as his candidates for immortalization.

Brian Oswald of Bleacher Report MMA agreed with Gracie, Silva and Emelianenko, but replaced GSP with Chuck Liddell.

Former Pride and Strikeforce commentator Mauro Ranallo felt like Pride great Kazushi Sakuraba deserved the coveted final spot on the mountain.

The MMA Corner’s own Rob Tatum put it best when he wrote, “Royce Gracie, Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko are definitely up there for me. The fourth spot is a coin flip. B.J. Penn, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Georges St-Pierre, Matt Hughes and Dan Henderson all have a case.”

Filling the first three spots seemed to be a relatively easy task. Hopefully everyone can agree that Gracie, Silva and Emelianenko all easily make the list. Where things really get tricky, though, is in deciding who deserves that final spot. There are many deserving fighters to choose from.

St-Pierre should be considered because of his sheer dominance of what is widely considered to be one of the most highly competitive divisions in all of MMA, welterweight. His resume is littered with wins over a who’s who of MMA elite, including Hughes, Penn, Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck.

Even though GSP has two victories over both Hughes and Penn, those two men have very strong arguments for inclusion in their own right. Hughes is a former two-time UFC welterweight champion and Penn is one of only two fighters in UFC history to win titles in two separate divisions (lightweight and welterweight).

The other fighter to win UFC titles in two divisions, Randy Couture, also has a strong case. Couture is a former five-time UFC champion who has won the heavyweight title three times and the light heavyweight crown twice. He has wins over Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz.

Liddell and Ortiz, both longtime UFC light heavyweight champions, also put forth strong cases to consider. Ortiz won the title in April of 2000 and was able to defend the belt on five occasions before losing the title to Couture in September of 2003. Liddell won the title from Couture and was able to defend the title four times. Liddell also has the most UFC light heavyweight wins via knockout with 10.

What about the fighters from Pride, you ask? Wanderlei Silva, Sakuraba and Henderson all make compelling arguments.

Sakuraba was after all “The Gracie Hunter” and the face of Pride in its early days. Silva was the longtime Pride middleweight champion, having earned the title in November of 2003 and remaining champion until February of 2007 when he lost the title to Henderson.

Henderson, who might just have the strongest argument of all, held both the welterweight and middleweight titles when Pride fell. In addition, he was the UFC 17 middleweight tournament winner, the 1997 Brazil Open lightweight tournament champion and the Rings King of Kings 1999 tournament winner.

All of the aforementioned fighters could easily be included on MMA’s Mount Rushmore, but there is only one spot left to fill and it is not an easy decision to make.

There is one fighter no one I talked to put on their list, but he is the one fighter to whom I keep circling back.

The fourth and final spot on the Mount Rushmore of MMA goes to the one and only Bas Rutten.

Why Rutten, you ask?

It’s simple, really. Rutten was one of the best fighters to ever compete in the sport and he was one of the true pioneers in making MMA what it is today. Not only is Rutten a former UFC heavyweight champion, but he was also a three-time King of Pancrase openweight champion and one of the sport’s greatest finishers, with 25 of his 28 victories coming by way of either submission or knockout.

There you have it. If construction of a MMA Mount Rushmore were to begin tomorrow, Gracie, Silva, Emelianenko and Rutten would be the four faces that would be immortalized in stone.