When fans analyze MMA champions, they tend to look at a few things.
First, they look at how many times they have defended their title. Second they look at how they beat their opponents, and third, they look at the names of whom they fought.
Start up a conversation with a fellow MMA fan and ask who they think is the current best champion in the sport. Most likely Anderson Silva and GSP’s names will pop up, but a plethora of others can come to mind as well. Some argue for UFC champs, others for Strikeforce or Bellator. Regardless of who the different people choose as their top one, the conversation inevitably leads to comparing the champions.
In this comparison, the aforementioned criteria are applied in the same way. Fans look to see which of their respective choices had the most defenses. They look at their fights, and if they had a lot of knockouts or submissions. Lastly, they go down the list of opponents faced on their way to being the champion of their division.
These are all great points to argue and compare, but it is the last one that raises more thought than the others.
The list of past opponents. A simple stat, but the most complex of them all.
Fans have shown that they sometimes put great value and importance to this statistic more so than others in a debate over who is the greater champion. The debate leads to one side claiming that the other’s choice of champion has not faced anyone really challenging.
This is where fans can run into trouble. Not all fans think this way, but in many debates over the Internet, in media and among peers, this debate comes up. The issue is how generalizing are we being by summing up a fighter’s opponent list and comparing it to another?
For example, Frankie Edgar has just retained his lightweight belt in the UFC and the MMA universe has erupted in comments on whom he should face next. Most believe that Gilbert Melendez, the current Strikeforce LW champion, should come over and get the title shot. The opposition to this idea argues that Melendez has not fought anyone of worth in order to be champion, and remain champion.
Similar accusations are received by UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Silva is many times compared to the UFC welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre. GSP fans argue that the Canadian has faced tougher opponents than Silva, whereas Silva fans argue they were all just as good as the welterweight contenders.
The truth is, there are different levels of competition between all fighters. However, discounting a victory over anyone is a premature action at this level in the sport.
The UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator are the top three organizations in the world. They are at the forefront of the sport and represent the best talent in the world. If you can make it into these organizations, especially the UFC, many people revere you as a successful MMA fighter. Not saying all fighters are on the same level of competition, but the bigger picture is that they are still professional fighters in a substantial organization.
In regards to the previous example, Anderson Silva critics claim he hasn’t fought anyone “good,” making a note of how many of his opponents are still in the UFC or still top contenders. This is a good point, and a bad one at the same time.
It is a good point, since if the fighters Silva has beat do stick around and cause trouble in the division after losing to Silva, they look better. However, it is a bad point since it lays a standard for what constitutes a worthy opponent. Essentially, just because a fighter is not in the UFC anymore, or loses a few fights after Silva, it does not mean that they were any less of a great challenge for Silva.
Chael Sonnen and other critics of Anderson Silva discredit his fights against Patrick Cote, Demian Maia, Thales Leites and even Chris Leben. Sonnen even goes as far as to discredit Rich Franklin.
The truth is, all the fighters deserved the title shot and worked to get there.
Patrick Cote was on a five-fight winning streak before facing Silva, having nine finishes in his 13-4 record at the time. Demian Maia was 12-1 going into his fight with Silva, and Thales Leites was 14-1 and riding a five-fight winning streak as well. Chris Leben was on a six-fight winning streak at 15-1 before facing Silva, 11 of those wins by finish.
Lastly, Rich Franklin was the champion, 22-1 at the time, riding on an eight-fight winning streak with two title defenses. Twenty of those wins were via finish.
The point of mentioning Silva’s case is that his opponents were not any less difficult and posed as much challenge as GSP’s. They were not any less difficult than any other champion’s repertoire. All of the champions have to face whomever is put in front of them, and the ones put in front of them are usually the ones that have worked to be there.
In and of itself, comparing the lists of two separate champions is a convenient way of making an argument, but fundamentally is futile. Each champion has faced whomever they had to face. Regardless of what happened to their opponents after they beat them, the challenge was the same.
Any fighter can win on any given night. It just takes one punch, one slip or mistake, one moment to change the MMA world.
Still, fans and critics will have their opinions on the importance of this particular statistic, but it is wise to try to look at the bigger picture sometimes. Where this opinion is perfectly fine for all to have, the generalization of fighters under a banner or a strict standard can degrade some great fighters.
Sometimes it is a case of a champion being so dominant, their competition looks “weak” or “bad.” Sometimes fighters do not receive the credit they deserve because they are not media-friendly or well publicized. Sometimes people are just looking for ammunition in an argument.
Regardless, the list of opponents a champion has faced and defeated is really nothing more than just that at this level of competition.
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