Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The MMA Files - Part 5 - The Greatest MMA Fighters of All Time (6 – 10)

6. Matt Hughes - People either hate or love Matt Hughes. He is the proverbial jock from high school. Captain of the football team. He dated the girl-next door. He never smoked or drank, probably went to nice Lutheran church, and got high grades. He was nice to you but there was always a swaggering air about him. Everything seems to come easy. High excellence, long term success. Even when he has lost in the cage, Hughes still looks like he had it all planned somehow. He rarely looks bad. And when he looks good, which is often, the non-flashy ease of his moves makes even experienced fighters look like they are sparing with their coach. Learning to appreciate Hughes as a fighter is a rite of passage for the MMA fan. His pale, oatmeal-like complexion, squat musculature, and relaxed continence combine with his “get the job done” style of fighting (heavy on take downs, jabs, and a handful of BJJ moves) to deliver a factory-made octagon performance suggestive more of a combat machine than a fighter. His nearly five year reign as UFC’s welterweight champion - interrupted only briefly by a defeat to BJ Penn who almost immediately bolted the promotion thereafter, leaving the belt up for grabs – defined an era of welterweights. Since losing the belt, Hughes has been content to take the matches as they come, perhaps feeling that after a 1-2 series against George St. Pierre, and being TKO’d by contender Thiago Alves, he may no longer be in the chase. Hughes has also become something of a Stateside Sakuraba or “Gracie-hunter,” taking down two of the Gracie family’s elite. He dominated both Royce and Renzo Gracie at two distinct periods of his career. There are of course other Gracies to fight, and there may even be more title contentions, but Hughes has carved an indelible space for himself in MMA history, as a true craftsman of the sport. A standard-barer for a true mixing of disciplines.

7. Wanderlei Silva
– Has there ever been a fighter who really struck terror into his opponents the way Wanderlei “The Ax Murder” Silva did? Silva’s muay thai was so vicious that it destroyed Quinton Jackson twice. His knee strikes are like the kicks of Mirko CroCop… left leg: hospital, right leg: morgue. Few possesse his killer instincts or his ring cunning. He is expert at feigning injury to draw his man into his strike zone. But what really sets Silva apart is his athleticism. He is a pure cardio animal, able to motor through a match whether it is PRIDE style ten minute round or a UFC fiver. The guy does not exhaust. He bleeds, he suffers, but he does not gas. Silva dominated the middleweight division of PRIDE for five years, defending the championship belt against strong (mostly Japanese) opponents. (That being said, true title matches were actually rather occasional as Silva also participated in PRIDE’s many “grand prix” tournaments. ) Over the years, he has been willing to fight open-weight and catch-weight matches, including against much heavier Fujita, who he defeated by TKO. Silva lost his belt to Dan Henderson just as the promotion was beginning to dissolve. Less than ten months later, he was back in the UFC after seven years to finally meet Chuck Liddell. The match lived up to its hype, but it added to an on-going losing streak that surely had to make the once dominating cage warrior re-think his career. A “sure thing” win over Keith Jardine was only a small reprieve on the way to a devastating knock-out loss to bitter rival, “Rampage” Jackson, and a disappointing judge’s decision against Rich Franklin. However, he has recently entered into what might be the dawn of a new era for the 33 year old, and new developments may scatter this seemingly dark four year trend of inconsistent performances. His reserved, but still aggressive ring control spelled victory for Silva over the always game Michael Bisping in early 2010. It was easy to note a couple of new qualities in the Brazillian. One, Silva seemed more confident, his energy more focused. And second, he had a transformed face. Years of taking hard punishment had essentially destroyed Silva’s nose. Reconstructive surgery gave him a new face and a dramatically improved ability to take in oxygen, an athlete’s greatest ally. This new Wanderlei was to test his resolve against master judoka, Yoshihiro Akiyama, one of the few Japanese imports who has actually managed to make an impact in the UFC. Sadly, a case of cracked ribs has sidelined Silva and he may not return to action until the end of the year.

8. Dan Henderson –
“Hollywood” Henderson has been the “solution” to many a problem in MMA. Specifically, how does the late-middle generation of American fighters, steeped in Greco-roman wrestling and western boxing deal with the Brazilian threat? Brazilian jujitsu is more dangerous and more threatening than its antecedent because it presents opportunities for danger and pain at nearly every interval of the match. A black belt in BJJ can snatch an arm from a standing position, apply massive pressure to the knee in ankle from a seemingly in a bad spot on the ground, and choke a man out while being slammed from the cage. A BJJ practitioner only really has to “defend” against other holds. Every movement is an chance to attack, and patience is a more important skill than muscular strength. For awhile, there seemed no solution for the non-BJJ proficient opponent. A lucky punch, a lucky kick, or a lucky flurry of ground-and-pound was the best fighters could hope for. But Henderson’s wrestling is so strong, and his boxing so crisp, he has managed to out flank BJJ through shear will power. His career in RINGs and PRIDE, though not without defeats, was one of dominance. As graceful as a brick wall, and with all the finesse of a human cannonball, Henderson was for ten years, the iron face of American fighting in the east. His list of accomplishments are daunting, but one accolade truly underscores his talents. He is the only man to have simultaneously held championship belts in two weight divisions (welterweight and middleweight) in the PRIDE organization. He confidently carried both belts into the UFC and fought the only unification matches in the promotions history. He lost both contest to Anderson Silva and Quinton Jackson respectively Since those defeats, Henderson has gone on to win his next three bouts, easily shifting between weight divisions. His Stateside cache expanded in a big way after coaching on the UFC’s flagship program, The Ultimate Fighter. There, despite showing all the charisma and personality of PE instructor, Henderson provide a sober counterpoint to rival coach Michael Bisping who ruthlessly taunted the Yank week after week. “Hendo” got his John Wayne moment, however, when he delivered the fast-talking Brit to the canvas with a shattering right hook. A controversial follow-up punch to the unconscious “Count” aside, Henderson looked to be back with a vengeance. A rematch with middleweight champion, Anderson Silva seemed in the offing. However, with his UFC contract up, Henderson bolted the UFC for the upstart Strikeforce organization, hoping to become a shark in the fish tank of developing fighters. He was immediately given a title shot against middleweight champion Jake Shields. A Henderson victory was essentially assured, and probably hoped for. Strikeforce clearly wants to clear out the “riff-raff” of their promotion and replace their champions with “faces.” Unfortunately for Henderson, someone forgot to send Shields that memo. After nearly winning the match in the first minutes of the first round, Henderson seemed to lose all interest in the fight. Shields had his own answers. He is a world-class wrester, and a black belt in… BJJ. An unusual, but powerful combination. The defeat may have put Henderon’s lofty goals on hold for the moment (he wanted to fight in three divisions in Strikeforce. He wants to fight Mousassi, Fedor, win all the belts, etc.) but don’t look for him to coast for the foreseeable future either. He may have new answers, as well as a few questions of his own for future opponents. UPDATE: With Jake Shields rumored to be leaving Strikeforce for the greener pastures of the UFC, the middleweight belt may yet become a going concern for Henderson. A vacant title would mean a multi-event tournament (a format that Henderson, coming from PRIDE, would be familiar with), which could make for several interesting combinations of fights for Hendo, including matches against Cung Le, Gegard Moussai, and possibly Nick Diaz.

9. George St. Pierre –
There aren’t many athletes in mixed martial arts who are genuine sportsmen, which is to say a person who represents values beyond personal excellence in competition; someone who represents the sport as a good-will ambassador. So much of the MMA game is about hype, heat, and trash talk, that when someone turns up in the ranks who is humble, self-depreciating, and… well, nice, it is like a revelation. George St. Pierre is a freakishly gifted athlete with a command of an arsenal of fighting styles, including karate, boxing, BJJ, and wrestling, a discipline he essentially learned from the ground up. He wins his matches in a variety of ways. He can submit his opponent (he likes armbars and chokes), pummel effectively with his fists and feet (see his masterful KO of Matt Hughes in November of 2006), and he is more than willing to see a match to its conclusion, confident that his skills are enough to impress the judges. Indeed, four of his last seven victories have gone to the judges. Thus, one can easily see “GSP” as the model mixed martial artist. Three years into his second reign as the UFC’s welterweight champion, St. Pierre has defended approximately every six months, and always against high-caliber fighters. He even deigned to a rematch with lightweight champion, BJ Penn, a dangerous prospect given Penn’s status as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. St. Pierre/Penn II was a watershed moment for GSP’s career. It marked his shift from simply being a great athlete with combat skills, to being a totally complete fighter. Usually, Penn’s opponents have to work around his uncanny takedown defense, which means they will try to trade strikes, a strategy for disaster (see Penn’s match with Joe Stevenson or Diego Sanchez), or they will play the BJJ game with him, thinking that their skills are on par with his. (Kenny Florian, a black belt in two forms of jujitsu, never got his ground game going with Penn, who choked him out in the fourth round.) But in their match, GSP took Penn down at will, bullying him, making Penn play his game. This dominance, which ended with Penn’s corner throwing in the towel in the fourth round, silenced any doubt about St. Pierre’s ability to grow and develop as a fighter. Subsequent title defenses against Thaigo Alves and Dan Hardy suggest that St. Pierre may be close to hitting the UFC’s floor of legitimate contenders. Outspoken and controversial “bad boy,” Josh Koschek will be testing that conclusion sometime later in 2010, but there are whispers of greater glory in store for the young French-Canadian. A possible challenge for the middleweight championship, currently held by Anderson Silva, has been widely speculated for 2011. Dan White’s current antipathy for Silva (“he doesn’t deserve to fight GSP”) may put the kibosh on that dream match. GSP himself has communicated some desire to wrestle for Canada at the 2012 Olympic games (he has since come down from that lofty notion). Many in the lightweight division are looking to move up in weight, and the Zuffa-owned WEC, rumored to be scrapping its lightweight division, may see its one-fifty fives bulking up to meet the welterweight mark. Unlike many in the top ten of this list, GSP has more of his career ahead of him than behind him. His options may be limited by his size, but his ambition to be the greatest mixed martial artist in history suggest a giant in the making

10. Vitor Belfort –
Belfort was fixture of the developmental years of both the UFC and PRIDE. To say that he has fought “everybody” in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions would be an exaggeration, but name any elite fighter of those weight classes from the period of 1996 to 2006 and you stand a good chance of seeing Belfort on the other side of that match. Like his long-time rival, Couture, Belfort fought almost exclusively elite fighters for nearly fifteen years. Many of those bouts were championship fights. And like Couture, he has lost a bunch. He has a 42% loss rate, slightly higher than “The Naturals.” But those losses suggest a fighter who is ambitious and willing to test himself at all stages of his career. And one more comparison to Couture, “The Phenom” has continued to develop his style. Although always a dangerous striker, in recent years, Belfort has increased his punching power (perhaps through his association with the Xtreme Couture camp?) to such devastating effect that five of his last nine bouts have ended by knock-out. A major difference between him and Couture is age. Belfort is just 33, having begun fighting professionally when he was only 19. He was unusual in those days because unlike other BJJ practioners at the time (Belfort is also a black belt in judo and a blue belt in karate), he tended to prefer to win via strikes. One might therefore view the Brazilian as a turbo-charged version of his countryman, Wanderlai Silva, who, despite being a BJJ black belt, has scored all of his wins via strikes, kicks, or judge’s decision. But Belfort is comfortable on the ground, and transitions well between styles. In fact, his muay thai and jujitsu complement one another. In an early match with Tank Abbott, Belfort used standing leverage, hooking arms and blocking escapes, in order to fire off his punches. This occurs simultaneously and seamlessly Abbott had nowhere to go and could not retaliate effectively. Belfort can therefore be on the offence and the defense at the same time. But after all this, there is one factor which makes Belfort unique, and that his capacity for focused, and devastating violence. When he wants to attack, he throws everything at you. It is terrifyingly unambiguous and honest. No fighter, save perhaps Fedor or Chuck Liddell in his prime, could come close to his focused intensity. Many fighters who “explode” early in a match gas themselves out in the first two minutes (Phil Baroni comes to mind), but Belfort’s athleticism allows him to sustain the attack through two, three, even four rounds. He is the model for a type of Brazilian fighter who has truly evolved violence into an art form. Befort, Wanderlai Silva, Anderson Silva, and “Shogun” Rua are not brawlers in the conventional sense. They are efficient machines for inflicting injury. Indeed, Belfort may be the king of them all.

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