What Does It Mean: Greatest of All Time

By Todd Jackson

The man they call “Mighty Mouse” recently seized his position as the athlete with the most consecutive UFC title defenses ever. Understanding how difficult it is to even earn a title shot, much less win or even defend a title, magnifies just how special of an accomplishment this is.

The numbers are as follows. Demetrious Johnson set the record at 11 consecutive title defenses. The following five fighters are Anderson Silva with 10, Georges St. Pierre with 9, Jon Jones with 8, Jose Aldo with 7, and Ronda Rousey with 6.

As those names flow off of that list we are talking about a who’s who among MMA greatness. All for their own reasons one might add. Dominance being key, these are all very different fighters. Their individual attributes of greatness are as unique as their fighting styles.

With Mighty Mouse’s recent accomplishment, and the fashion in which he accomplished it, the inevitable discussion must be had. The question must be asked. Is he the greatest of all time? Regardless of what answer follows, there should be more questions asked before that answer is given.

The G.O.A.T. discussion used to be an easy one to have. The factors were few and we let the fighters do the talking. Sure you might not see eye to eye with every MMA fan you came across but if you weren’t talking about Fedor, Royce, or Randy…..let’s be honest. You were blowing smoke.

In the days where the options were few, our scope of vision was limited. We knew the sport was evolving with the emergence of Hughes, St. Pierre, The Spider. But few could really predict what would follow in the likes of a Jones, Cruz, or a Demetrious Johnson.

The evolution has happened quite quickly and what once appeared spectacular has paled in comparison to the standard litmus test of today’s Octagon. So not only do more questions need to be asked but the accomplishments of the greatness we have witnessed need to be gauged realistically based on the era in which it happened.

Where do we place weight when we delve into the quality of a fighter? What contributes to greatness? And not just greatness, but greatness that transcends time. All time greatness is what we are kicking around here.

A few obvious points to make are as follows. When did the fighter compete across the timeline of the sport. Sure today’s Brock Lesnar is a specimen to behold, but if caged up with a young Royce Gracie twenty four years ago he might not be so intimidating. Today of course the rules would never allow them to compete but in 1993 anything went.

Then there were single night tournament formats. Something you would never see today. Fighters are fortunate to fight three times a year these days much less three times in one night. That has to be considered in the discussion.

Another point to consider is of course what one might call strength of schedule. When Chuck Liddell was cracking skulls and making it look easy you have to consider the guys he was taking to school. Kevin Randleman, a young Vitor, The Reem, Tito, The Natural, Wanderlei, this list goes on for a minute. In that era of MMA those men were wrecking machines and Chuck put them all in the loss column at one point or another, Vitor being the only one that didn’t get put on ice.

That lineup will hold quite a bit of weight when you start comparing consecutive wins or title defenses. When it is contrasted to some of the best certain divisions have to offer, the UFC light heavyweight division has always had the most sharks in the water.

By no means is this writer suggesting Chuck is the greatest ever more so than this is an attempt to point towards what is clearly a depiction of elite competition, and success against that competition.

 

The next thing to consider are the results of that competition. Not to knock the man but Ben Askren is one of the single most dominant athletes this sport has ever seen. Strength of schedule aside, or lack there of, the man simply dominates every minute of every fight he is in. Yet nobody is lining up to watch the man fight. The reason for that is perception of style. The casual MMA fan has little interest in the highly technical approach of a fighter like Askren or even a St. Pierre.

Theirs is an approach of I am going to do this to you until you force me to try something else. If you cannot stop me then we are going to continue competing in my comfort zone. Before fighters know it the final bell has rung and they spent 25 minutes being abused in exactly the fashion they just spent three months preparing to defend.

Again, purists can and do appreciate the poetry of a fighter who can impose his will against all preparation. Casual “kick his ass” fans, not so much. So when we talk about greatness do we take into consideration the ability to not only succeed, but to succeed in such a fashion that fans both pure, and casual can appreciate and rally behind.

The polar opposite of an Askren would a pair of brothers who go by the handle Diaz. Or a pleasant little fella quaintly known as The Axe Murderer. These men have not been dominating across the spectrum of their illustrious careers. But they damn sure know how to bring a crowd to its feet. The key isn’t playing it safe, or cautious. Theirs is a mantra of war, the kind of all out open war that fans love to see regardless of results.

So in that topic alone the two extremes of the spectrum both deserve their credit but where is the weight placed more heavily? On victory, or gamesmanship en route to victory, or defeat in some cases?

Next we have the obvious currently topical question. Performance in title fights is huge. Anyone who is anyone in the G.O.A.T. discussion has had their fair share of title bouts. What were the results, how many times did they rise and fall in the rankings, how many title runs and defenses did they have?

Were they finishers? Did they leave it all in there. Consider a B.J. Penn and how he fought mercilessly versus the title run of GSP who was so utterly dominant but rarely took risks? Two all time greats respectively but they got there by walking very different paths.

One could argue that defending his title more than anyone ever has before puts Mighty Mouse at the forefront of that discussion.

They would be mistaken. While he very easily is included in the all time greats discussion, it is not simply title defenses that put him there. It becomes easy to get caught up in metrics but this isn’t baseball and there is no statcast doing the math for us to figure out which athlete is superior to the next.

In this world of instant gratification we live in, especially when it comes to casual MMA fans, we repeat what we have heard and make it our own.

If you go down to your local Buffalo Wild Wings on fight night and run a survey, I personally guarantee by the time you’re done Conor McGregor is the greatest fighter that ever lived and he may even be able to end world hunger as well. And I’ll be damned if he may not be the greatest someday. But if you enter your local MMA gym and conduct the same survey you’re going to get a very different answer.

What that answer is will always be up for debate. But in the end the point of this piece is to demonstrate that the greatest of all time can’t be weighed simply by one aspect of talent or success. The spectrum of what makes a fighter great can’t be quantified by one or two metrics. And it damn sure isn’t a popularity contest regardless of what Sea Bass and his cronies would have you believe.

 

Again, to answer with any real conviction, what you really need to do is start asking additional questions. Learn about your game and become the voice people repeat when they want to sound like they know what they’re talking about.

Then an only then can you realisitically develop and qualify a position on who the greatest fighter of all time might be. The best part is you still won’t be right depending on who you ask. But at least you can explain why you aren’t wrong.