Do Elite Champions = Elite Competitors?

During the pay-per-view broadcast portion of UFC 201, colour commentator Joe Rogan made a remark suggesting that an elite, dominant champion in a weight class serves as a blessing, forcing challengers to rise to the same skill level.

It didn’t seem to be anything more than a quick thought passing through his mind, but around here we hold “Smokin'” Joe Rogan in pretty high regard and put some thought into his comments during the most recent edition of our MMA DnA podcast. With that said, let’s delve into a bit deeper level of examination on Rogan’s interesting statement (and take that as a warning for a bit of a lengthy read).

Now, when an MMA fan is told to ponder some of the greatest, most dominant champions of all time, it’s likely 3 names immediately spring to mind: Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre. More recently Jon Jones was in the process of adding his name to that list, but hey, he screwed up. So let’s forget about him for the time being, we’ll see you in a few years, Jon.

We’ll start at the top with Fedor, pictured here in a face-off with his rumoured next opponent. Fedor of course is renowned for his 31-1 (1 NC) that stretched from May of 2000,  through November of 2009 before finally suffering defeat at the hands of the world’s most dangerous troll. Even with some stat-padding type of fights, there’s no doubting Fedor’s greatness.

But did that reflect in the growth of the heavyweight division he fought in? To his credit, Fedor had a well-rounded game – he could strike, he could grapple. He certainly needed a more diverse skill set to overcome men much larger than himself, preferring to keep his dad-bod instead of cutting weight. But the rest of his division? It wouldn’t be until a UFC 188 in 2015 when two truly well-rounded heavyweights squared off against one another (yes, JDS is awesome, but he isn’t a particularly well-rounded fighter).

So did the division rise to catch up with Fedor’s skills? I would argue it has not, and doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of doing so. Outside of a couple fighters, heavyweight has remained more or less the same: two big dudes walk in there, one guy gets clocked in the face and crumples because that’s what 265lb. men are all about.

The versatile game demonstrated by Velasquez and Werdum is an aberration to the rest of the division, where the basic, “keep it standing and smash faces” tactic still rules. I wouldn’t exactly say the dominance of Fedor translated to creating a better heavyweight division (trust me, I wish). But hey, it’s heavyweight. It’s always going to be an anomaly, right?

So let’s take a look at the middleweight division, and it’s longtime ruler Anderson Silva. During his prime, “The Spider” ran off an incredible 17-fight winning streak. After annihilating Chris Leben in his UFC debut, Silva rearranged Rich Franklin’s face to claim the middleweight throne in late 2006. His reign of Matrix-fueled domination stretched a 6-year span, before finally being defeated in 2013.

Silva’s incredible title reign saw him rack up 11 wins in title fights. Some of the toughest challengers Silva faced before his eventual defeat came near the beginning of his reign. Dan Henderson and Rich Franklin, two legends of the sport, will likely stand the test of time as Silva’s best wins. Vitor Belfort, while a legend in his own regard is a whole different story, for a different time. After those men, the competition surely dropped off:

  • Travis Lutter
  • Nate Marquardt
  • Patrick Cote
  • Thales Leites
  • Demian Maia
  • Yushin Okami
  • Chael Sonnen

All good fighters in their own right, but did they achieve a higher skill set because of the dominance of Silva? I don’t think so, in fact the Middleweight division hasn’t exactly advanced terribly far in terms of overall skill since Chris Weidman upset “The Spider” at UFC 162. After all, Michael Bisping is the current champion (yes, that still sounds unbelievable to me too) and he began his UFC career in the same year Silva obliterated Leben.

The only fighter to hold more victories in title fights than Silva is our beloved Canadian, Georges St-Pierre, with an astonishing 12 wins stretching from 2007 through 2013. The most impressive thing about GSP’s winning streak is the division in which it occurred.

Welterweight has long been a murderers row of high-level challengers, and GSP – regardless of how you feel about his methods – thoroughly squashed his competition. Losing a round, let alone a fight, seemed impossible. Again, if the idea that a dominant champion encourages the rest of the division rise to that level, then a contender should have appeared to match St-Pierre.

Admittedly, GSP’s last fight (pending a return) against Johny Hendricks was extremely close (for the record, I had it 3-2 GSP). That was a very different “Rush” than fans were accustomed to seeing, with numerous injuries likely beginning to catch up to the champion, not to mention Hendrick’s innate ability to be in close fights (54.5% of Hendricks fights go the distance). After GSP vacated the belt, it has been passed around a few times, and looks likely to continue the game of hot-potato in the coming year(s). This begs the question: did the division actually catch up to St-Pierre, or did his decline move him back into the pack? I’m a firm believer in the latter, that a fully-healthy and prime GSP would still be at the top of the division.

And that’s where I hold a different opinion from Rogan. These great champions don’t create always create a challenger that rises up and surpasses them. The all-time greats sadly have their skills diminish over time for various reasons, and that allows others to catch up. Sure, the general evolution of the sport is going to continue.

The greats inspire the next generation. Fighters like Fedor, Silva and GSP can introduce some new tricks or techniques, but what makes them so great is that they are on a whole different level from the rest. Keep an eye on the UFC’s flyweight division, Demetrious Johnson is the next guy that could make this list. How’s the division doing in catching up to him? Hint: he thrashed his 3 toughest opponents, in his 3 most recent fights.

Sorry Joe, but we’re gonna have to agree to disagree on this one.

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