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It wasn't long after a thrilling, spectacular victory by Kamaru Usman in the main event of an otherwise disappointing UFC 258 that the most predictable subject was brought up. Namely, how does the welterweight champion rank among the greatest fighters in the history of the sport, both at 170 and other divisions? What was interesting here, however, is that some of the first people to broach the topic weren't either fans posting on forums or journalists penning columns. Rather, it was Ultimate Fighting Championship head Dana White and another all-time great champ, Jon Jones. This shows, if nothing else, how mainstream and ubiquitous “GOAT” discussions have become. Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with talking about the greatest ever, so long as one treats it like the fun, silly diversion it is, similar to who is the cooler superhero between Batman and Iron Man. Taken too seriously, however, it's an utterly pointless endeavor.
To begin with, Dana White and other UFC talking heads have a habit of anointing every champion who has just completed a successful title defense as the “greatest of all time”. Remember when Renan Barao was the greatest bantamweight ever, and one of the five greatest pound-for-pound talents ever? I sure do. Remember when T.J. Dillashaw was routinely referred to as the greatest bantamweight ever, shortly after defeating Cody Garbrandt for a second time? Doesn't seem as convincing now, does it? Remember when Ronda Rousey was not only by far the greatest female fighter ever, but in Joe Rogan's opinion, the greatest female athlete ever? I could go on and on.
However, I can't blame White too much here. After all, he is a promoter! Of course he is going to peddle the idea that “the latest is the greatest,” because he can make money from current champions like Usman in a way he can't from retired legends like Georges St. Pierre or Matt Hughes. And in a major surprise for regular readers, I completely agree with him about something! Usman vs. Colby Covington was indeed one of the very greatest fights I've seen in my life.
And I also understand the appeal of the many YouTube videos that seek to meticulously dissect why this or that fighter is actually greater than the other, often without bothering to define what the hell “great” even is. “List of the top X” or “Who is the greatest of Y?” are naturally popular with viewers, and also work as effective clickbait. I should know. I've whiled away a number of hours watching them.
However, there is a surprising amount of earnestness in discussing these topics. For some, this is as serious as trying to figure out who would win an actual, concrete match, despite the GOAT being a made-up distinction, with no direct way to compete for it. So let's run down the two main problems.
1. You Can't Properly Rank Active Fighters Anywhere Near Their Primes
There is simply no way of knowing how a currently active fighter's career is going to pan out, and how that will affect their standing. What if Usman wins his next 10 fights in a row? What if he loses 10 in a row?
This may seem far-fetched, but recall the example of Barao noted above. When he had just won the main event of UFC 169, knocking out legend Urijah Faber in the first round, he was 32-1 overall, 7-0 in the UFC against very tough opposition for that time, and looked utterly unbeatable. One would have to be crazy not to consider him one of the greatest ever. Yet, he has gone just 2-8 since and one never sees him on these lists anymore.
There are more subtle examples, too. After defeating Francis Ngannou, Stipe Miocic was roundly anointed by many as the greatest heavyweight ever. While he then won a fantastic trilogy against Daniel Cormier, showing the heart and will of a champion time and again, is that really the performance of someone who is the greatest ever? Daniel Cormier was clearly past his prime for their fights, yet he knocked out the purported greatest ever in the first round, dominated him for the first two and a half rounds in the second fight, and was one round away from winning a very close decision in the rubber match, according to most. At the very least, this changes the arguments one has to make for Miocic.
With guys well past their primes, like Fedor Emelianenko or Anderson Silva, what they do now shouldn't affect their greatness. But rarely do such debates focus solely on champions who are retired or close to it. Rather, they examine current ones who can substantially affect their standing in either direction.
2. The Lack of Any Clear Criteria, and the Impossibility of There Being One
This is the main problem. By one criteria, Kamaru Usman is by far the greatest welterweight ever already. How is that? Well, right now, he would beat the brakes off a “GSP” in his prime. His striking is better, his wrestling is better, he's bigger, he has a better chin, and even better cardio. If you think Johny Hendricks beat St. Pierre, or at least gave him a hard time, that's nothing compared to what Usman would do. This is the simple reality of MMA evolving and improving, attracting more aspiring martial artists, and becoming more popular and competitive every year.
However, is this a good criteria? Royce Gracie in his prime would get utterly destroyed by a borderline top 50 lightweight of the modern era. Does that mean the fledgling modern contender is greater than Royce? In most people's estimations, no. Usman himself may be no match for the 10th best welterweight 30 years into the future. I'd like to believe that in 2050, we will still appreciate how good he was for the time, though.
But if not who would win in their primes, the most concrete and tangible metric, what do we look at? Many look at title defenses, or “good” wins, defined as top fighters for that time period.
However, here we also run into problems. The first UFC welterweight champ, Pat Miletich, has four title defenses, one more than Usman, and beat a number of solid opponents for the time. However, this was done in a far weaker and less competitive UFC, when MMA was a small sport that only a few countries seriously engaged in, rather than the ultra-competitive, highly popular, global sport it is today. Readers of my column will know how much I love and appreciate old-school MMA and its history. I find learning about it utterly fascinating. Yet I have to remain honest. The level of fighting is nowhere near what we see today. As further proof, Miletich was actually finished by both Jutaro Nakao and Jose Landi-Jons outside the UFC in the midst of his title run.
The reality of MMA being less competitive is true to a more subtle extent for the eras of Hughes and St. Pierre. On the flipside, during the reigns of Hughes and “GSP,” all the top welterweights were competing in the UFC. Meanwhile, now during Usman's reign, Douglas Lima, a top 5 welterweight, is competing in Bellator MMA.
How does one even begin to reconcile all this or objectively consider it? Should one choose different criteria? If so, which? Why is one set of criteria better or worse than the other? The more one seriously thinks about it, the more impossible and inscrutable ethereal qualities like “who is greater” become.
Personally, I prefer to simply consider Hughes, St. Pierre and Usman as great champions and leave it at that. If you get some fun out of rankings and comparisons, that's fine, too. Just don't take it too seriously, or else you will look like the geek getting angry when someone says Iron Man is cooler than Batman. Or worse yet, be falling for Dana White's marketing hype.