Chapter I: (…but first, some history). Generational Evolution.
A professional sport that is in still in its developmental stage like MMA is perhaps too new to have a ranking of “greatest fighter” just yet. We are only now, for example, seeing true mixed martial artists winning matches against what we might refer to as “hybrid fighters.” It is a generational shift. The first generation of UFC combatants were strictly discipline (or lack thereof) representatives. Royce Gracie was the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu fighter. Ken Shamrock was the catch wrestler. Patrick Smith was a kickboxer. David “Tank” Abbott was… well, a brawler. And in between you have savate practitioners, sumo wrestlers, judokas, Greco-roman wrestlers, and the occasional samboiste. Very few, if any of these early fighters demonstrated a range of talents beyond their discipline. A boxer could put a man down with one punch, but if a BJJ expert got a hold of him on the ground, it was all over. Likewise, chancers like Tank Abbott, who actually managed to win the occasional match, would often have the advantage of guile in the face of technically superior opponents.
The original goal of mixed martial arts (in the sense that we know it. There have always been style-versus style events promoted as gimmicks or special exhibitions) was to test style-against-style and settle long-standing arguments. The Gracie family in particular had a vested interest in these early fights because the no-holds barred, bare-knuckle style suited their claim that Brazilian Ju-Jitsu was the most effective martial arts style. Time and again fighters not trained in BJJ would end up dominating the smaller Gracie (usually Royce) initially only to be wind up submitting to a joint lock or by being put to sleep by a choke hold. Because of the open-weight nature of these early bouts, Gracie would often be seen submitting a much larger man, such as Greco-Roman champion Dan Severn, who after keeping Gracie in a compromising position for most the match, ended up being submitted in a triangle choke. The secret seems to the Gracie ability to simply let the other man exhaust his big weapons and allow him to begin to feel overly confident. This in turn would cause him to leave a an opening to the seemingly indefatigable Gracie, who, having conserved amble energy during his “rest” would easily lock his man up in an agonizing pretzel of bone and muscle.
PICTURE: a visual representation of the five micro-generations of professional mixed martial artist. From right to left: Generation 1: Royce Gracie, Don Frye, Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture; Generation 2: Fedor, Tito Ortiz, Wanderlai Silva, Antonio Nogueira, CroCop; Generation 3: Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, BJ Penn, Matt Hughes, Quintin Jackson; Generation 4: Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Urijah Faber, George St. Pierre, Anderson Silva; Generation 5: Lyoto Machida, Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Brett Rogers, Aldo Reyes, Cain Velasquez
It is with the next, or middle generation of MMA fighters that we begin to see something like hybrid fighting. Mark Coleman, Tito Ortiz, Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Kevin Randleman, and many, many other fighters who got their start in the late 90s and early 2000s, were capable and comfortable in a variety of positions. A striker like Chuck Liddell could compete on the ground (and more importantly, defend takedowns), and Fedor, arguably the best samboiste in the world, has a record of wins that balances out dynamic submissions and jaw-shattering knockouts. What these fighters were and are capable of doing is switching between styles in-match. The proportional proficiency in any one style may be suspect (Couture rarely tries for submissions; Liddell is better at defending against the ground than dominating the position, and the rap on Fedor is that he can’t box properly) but the ability to turn on a dime and become Greco-Roman one moment, then transition to a judo or BJJ position, depending on the circumstance, is the hallmark of this generation. These now-seasoned fighters grew into the sport from the perspective of developing an arsenal, rather than focusing exclusively on a native discipline.
A key match during this era was the 2006 catch-weight bout between Royce Gracie and then-long-reigning UFC welterweight champion, Matt Hughes. The match was billed as old-school vs. new-school and, in truth, showcased a number of changes in the sport since its debut a decade previous. Hughes, a masterful Greco-roman wrestler, easily took Gracie to the ground and essentially kept him there at will. Hughes kept busy, not letting Gracie really settle into his usual game plan. At one point, Hughes landed a remarkable arm bar, a BJJ signature hold, that probably would have broken Gracie’s arm had Hughes not relinquished it. Hughes then mounted the veteran and ground-and-pounded Gracie to the point where the referee had to intervene and stop the match.
The reason this match is important is not so much for its symbolic value, (“changing of the guard,” and all that) but for the range of techniques Hughes employed to win the match. He transitioned from wrestling, to grappling, and finally to ground strikes effortlessly. The fighters of this middle generation dominated the mid-to-late 2000s and a handful of the first generation have continued to contend as well, adjusting their game and becoming more versatile. (In fact, Hughes recently defeated Royce’s cousin, Renzo, brutally dominating nearly every second of the three-round affair.)
Randy Couture is a prime example of a multi-generational MMA combatant. While still primarily a rather stiff Greco-roman wrestler with a penchant for dirty boxing, over the past several years Couture has added improved strikes and kicks to his game and has even been known to utilize a choke hold. This has been enough for him to collect belts in multiple weight divisions in the UFC. But more on Couture later…
The generation currently coming into its prime in the new decade is the first generation to truly adopt MMA as a specific mode of combat unto itself. The difference between a fighter like Hughes and the new generation’s George St. Pierre is the fluidity of the movements and the integration of techniques without really having to transition between them. Hughes adjusts whereas St. Pierre combines. In other words, St. Pierre is not responding to something that isn’t working by employing a different fighting style for the moment, he is using the momentum of each move to set up the potential for the next one. It is like an ultra complex series of flow charts: If he shoots in for take down, he is thinking of a fork in the road: either my man will go to the ground or he will defend; either way he is going backwards; either way I am moving forward. Looking at GSP’s wins, what is striking is the variety of ways that he has won over the years: punches, elbows, chokes, kimuras, armbars, knees, and a host of judge’s decisions which on their own suggest a strategic dominance as well as an athletic one.
Along with GSP’s athleticism, we may also note a difference in the way the very notion of martial artist has manifested itself in this new generation . Fighters like GSP, Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn almost seem to swim through their matches. Silva especially is adept at making the match seem like dance of violence. If you watch any of his better matches, particularly his destruction of Rich Franklin for the UFC middleweight bet, you will get a sense of a fighter who appears to have choreographed the match from bell to bell. His final flurry against Franklin - a series of body blows followed by a vicious muy thai knee strike to the head which then led to powerful head kick and a final volley of punches - was as close as anyone has ever come to making bodily harm look beautiful. Franklin, a remarkable fighter in his own right, looked positively helpless against Silva. Indeed, their subsequent rematch proved no less convincing of Silva’s powers. He has in fact, seldom looked to be in substantial trouble. His dominance over the second generation of fighters and those in the middle portion of his generation of fighter (such as his rather embarrassingly lack-luster defeat of Patrick Cote, and the strangely one-sided affair against fan favorite, Forrest Griffin) suggests that he is the watermark for excellence in the sport at this time. The question remains whether someone really of his cohort - like GSP or Lyoto Machida – would meet at one another’s weight class. Recent events suggest he may never get that chance, as Silva has devolved in past several matches into unrepentant clowning and showboating.
We might term this era of MMA the “GSP Generation,” to stand just in front of the “Chuck Liddell Generation.” But we might just as easily call this the “Penn Years,” or “The Forrest Griffin Years” or “The Time of Silva,” or even “The Time of Faber.” There are too many claims to be made, all of them justified. Much depends on the legacy these individual fighters leave for themselves as they consider the direction their careers should take going forward. GSP continues to dominate the welterweight division with style, class, and overwhelming athleticism, but there are still dragons to slay and ambitions to fulfill – including a serious desire to join the Canadian Olympic wrestling team in London in 2012. For Penn, the recent loss to upstart Frankie Edgar resulted in an almost immediate scheduling of a rematch. But even if he wins (and the odds are that he very well might) what more is there him to prove at 155? Another run at GSP for the welterweight belt? Silva has talked about retiring from MMA to pursue boxing. And he may indeed be bored. Having never taken a lot of damage, “The Spider” could make a go at light heavyweight. A division he has so far dominated with lopsided wins over James Irvin and Forrest Griffin. But his recent wins have done nothing to improve his standing among fight fans and promoters. Dana White has gone so far as to threaten to place Silva in the undercard, whether he’s champion or not. And speaking of Griffin, the working class hero and baby-faced star of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter , and one-half of the fight that many claim to be THE watershed bout in UFC, if not MMA history when he fought Stephan Bonnar, there are still doubts about his true ambitions in the sport. After a brief tenure as light heavyweight champion, Griffin has gone one-and-three in his recent bouts. A fan favorite, Griffin may be content with his legacy as it stands.
Whoever history smiles on from the post-Liddell generation of fighters, what is clear is that for these men, the book is still being written. For now, we should take the broadest view possible if we are going to locate that elusive “greatest” fighter. So in the next two chapters I will be discussing several fighters who may fulfill the criteria. I will begin with the man who tops most lists… Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko.