What Does the GOAT Conversation Tell Us About MMA?
The typical “Greatest of All Time” debates (GOAT), especially in light of Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic’s final fight of their trilogy at UFC 252, has grown old. It is the single lowest common denominator of debate when it comes to sports. “X is better than Y because Z.”, followed by a series of talking points with no measurable way of defining an outcome. We yell at each other until we run out of talking points and maybe if you’re really lucky, someone might make an interesting point. You could make the argument that sports as a whole are pointless. I’m not saying I would agree. However, these debates, in particular, are especially pointless.
The GOAT conversation as a whole is totally inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, especially if you want to have a conversation as broad as the greatest athlete of any sport. We could easily just frictionlessly appreciate the accomplishments of these athletes without questioning greatness. But, it does raise two questions that I think are worth exploring — 1) how, if at all, could you legitimately quantify an argument for someone as the greatest professional athlete of all time, and 2) why aren’t mixed martial artists more of a part of these conversations?
I am not saying that we should start immediately comparing fighters to people like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, or Tom Brady. Athletes at that level of skill and notoriety have been in our collective consciousness for decades. Plus, their achievements have been observed and dissected ad nauseam. With that being said, it is important to consider the context in which we assess athletes. As well as their skill and pedigree, against their contemporaries.
The first person that comes to mind is Daniel Cormier. Obviously, there remains a passionate debate about his place among the greats of heavyweight mixed martial arts. Though Cormier’s overall resume across multiple divisions and even multiple sports are astonishing. Just within the UFC, he’s one of only four athletes ever to hold titles in two divisions simultaneously, making three defenses of the light heavyweight title and one defense of the heavyweight title. His only losses in the UFC have come against Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic, arguably the greatest fighters in UFC history in their respective divisions.
Outside of the UFC, Cormier won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, came in fourth in freestyle wrestling at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and served as team captain for the American wrestling team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Regardless of the sport, that is an unprecedented level of success for any athlete competing at a professional level in multiple sports.
Making the Case for GOAT
Jon Jones also comes to mind for obvious reasons. Aside from the controversial win over Dominick Reyes and the sole loss on his record via disqualification against Matt Hamill, Jones has shown unrivaled dominance in a historically deep division. Plus, is one of few fighters ever to show such dominance against the past and present of the division. Of Jones’ fourteen career UFC title wins, six have come against fighters who held titles at one point in their careers, including legends in their own right such as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort, and the aforementioned Daniel Cormier. He also holds wins over fighters like Alexander Gustaffson, who is arguably one of the greatest fighters in UFC history to never win a title, and Glover Texiera, who held an outstanding twenty-fight win streak going into his title fight against Jones.
While rising challengers like Reyes, Jan Blachowicz, and Jiri Prochazka could allow Jones to set himself apart from his contemporaries against the future of the division, his potential move up to heavyweight could add further accolades to his resume.
Amanda Nunes GOAT Case
Amanda Nunes also has an easy case to be made. As current UFC women’s bantamweight and featherweight titles, Nunes holds wins over every fighter to ever hold the title in either division. This includes wins over Cris Cyborg, Ronda Rousey, Meisha Tate, and Holly Holm. Plus, two wins over current flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. You could argue that other fighters have had tougher competition than Nunes. Still, that is still absolutely unheard of for any sport, let alone one as tough and as unpredictable as MMA.
The last fighter I will highlight has probably the easiest case to be made for the time being — George St. Pierre. With only two losses in his career to Matt Hughes and Matt Serra, both of which he would avenge, GSP’s resume reads like a who’s who of all-time great fighters at welterweight. This includes wins over fighters like Hughes, B.J. Penn, Nick Diaz, Jon Fitch, Carlos Condit, and Josh Koscheck. This doesn’t include his win over Michael Bisping where he claimed the middleweight championship after a four-year layoff.
Many of these fighters could have been champions in their own right, and GSP consistently earned unanimous 50-45 decisions or better against them — at one point winning 33 rounds in a row over consecutive fights. His lone controversy comes from his with Johny Hendricks, against whom he edged out a split decision victory that many people thought should have gone to Hendricks.
A Neverending Debate
As far as the GOAT debate goes, I don’t think there’s truly a definitive ruling you can make. Initially, I thought you could make these arguments solely based on statistics. For example, Daniel Cormier is ranked in the top five in UFC heavyweight history in statistics like significant strike accuracy, strikes landed per minute, and bottom position time and percentage. However, Cormier isn’t ranked even in the top ten in statistics like takedown accuracy, strike defense, or control time and percentage. You can easily pick and choose which stats help or hurt your argument no matter who the fighter is.
There’s no argument that Cormier, Jones, GSP, and Nunes aren’t among the greatest athletes in MMA in terms of accolades. The question that I’m raising however is why these athletes don’t transcend the sport the way someone like Lebron James or a Bo Jackson would? Obviously, those two come from markedly more popular sports, but how much of that is the fault of the fighters or even the sport itself?
The one thing MMA lacks compared to other sports is a singular greatest of all time or a few clear-cut contenders for that title. Football has Tom Brady. Basketball has Michael Jordan and Lebron James. Boxing has Floyd Mayweather and Muhammad Ali. MMA has yet to see an athlete as far ahead of their contemporaries. You can make the argument for Jones or GSP pretty easily, but there will always be criticisms of both. For GSP, there are still people to this today who debate the decision of his fight with Hendricks.
For Jones, it’s his long history of scandals out of the ring that warrants the most criticism from fans. Plus, he has also drawn a fair amount of flak for the outcome of his fight with Reyes. You could argue that MMA fighters aren’t reaching these conversations because the sport is comparatively less popular than other sports. Of course, you wouldn’t be wrong, but I personally believe it goes deeper than that. At this point in our current professional sports landscape, it would take a more clear-cut resume to transcend MMA. Especially to reach beyond the UFC in a way that athletes have in other sports.
A fighter not only with an undefeated record but one who is so clearly a step above their competition that their greatness is beyond debate. At this point, I believe two fighters could amass such a resume — Khabib Nurmagomedov and Israel Adesanya.
Next in Line for GOAT Status
Khabib already has an argument to be made for him as the GOAT at lightweight. A 28-0 record — the most wins by an undefeated fighter in all of the mixed martial arts — speaks for itself. But, that also includes former champions like Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, Rafael Dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, and Michael Johnson. He’ll have an opportunity to add to his resume in his fight against interim champ Justin Gaethje. Except, with Khabib’s injury history and murmurings of retirement on the horizon, he may come up short. Another win over Conor McGregor would help his case. However, he would certainly need a win over Tony Ferguson. Who, is the consensus second-best lightweight on the planet. However, who knows if that fight will ever happen.
The GOAT case for Adesanya is a little more complex. At 19-0, he holds the second-most wins for an undefeated fighter behind Khabib. Additionally, he holds wins over fighters like Robert Whitaker, Yoel Romero, and Kelvin Gastelum. Obviously, we’re only a few fights into his reign as middleweight champion. Although, he probably has the best case to be made among any of the contenders at 185. His fight against Yoel Romero was a strong contender for one of the worst fights shown live. There are still plenty of stylistic matchups in the division that don’t necessarily favor Adesanya. In particular, his upcoming defense against Paulo Costa at UFC 253. Whereas Khabib’s legacy is more or less set in stone, who knows how Adesanya’s title reign plays out.