Best ever? It's not that simple when no two wins are equal.
Greatness is more often measured in quantity; wins and losses. But is the basis of those wins and losses cumulative? Or do we measure the streaks of wins? Or total title defenses?
An issue comparing great careers based purely on wins and losses is that it doesn’t leave much room for shades of grey – but lends itself to flourishes of color. It can ignore the strength of those wins or the depths of the losses. We forget that Mike Tyson had a tough go of it in his win over Tony Tucker in 1987 but certainly remember his legendary 90-second knockout of Michael Spinks in barely a year later.
The greatest measure of champion is the measure of their opposition. In combat sports, much of how we look back on a fighter’s legacy depends on who they beat and when (in the example of Tyson, his Spinks knockout stands out because Spinks was an undefeated 21-0 when he faced Iron Mike. It was spectacular and it was against a fighter riding a long history of success).
With his record-tying tenth title defence at UFC Fight Night: Kansas City, Demetrious Johnson undeniably entrenched himself into the conversation of ‘best ever’. Since then, the debate has raged on. Just who is the best ever?
The purpose of this piece is not to make a determination, but hopefully, glean some understanding of each of the contenders based on the competition they faced.
Take a look at the top names each of the three has toppled.
From a qualitative standpoint, Georges St. Pierre’s five biggest wins came over Matt Hughes, Jon Fitch, BJ Penn, Jake Shields, and Carlos Condit. Four of those fighters rode win streaks and sterling records into their bouts with St. Pierre - only BJ Penn had seen losses recently before facing St. Pierre. Not much to discount there.
Silva’s greatest victories came over Rich Franklin, Dan Henderson, Vitor Belfort, Forrest Griffin, and Chael Sonnen. But the further you look into their careers prior to fighting Silva reveals that only Rich Franklin and Belfort carried long win streaks into the fight (for Belfort, four of the wins came outside the UFC). Meanwhile, Griffin and Henderson were both coming off a loss while Sonnen was only running a three-fight win streak overtop a middling record.
Jump over to Demetrious Johnson. His five biggest victories were Joseph Benevidez, Henry Cejudo, Kyoji Horiguchi, Ali Bagautinov, and John Dodson. All five of those fighters ran long win streaks into their bouts with DJ. There’s not much to discredit their quality leading up to their shots at Johnson.
But what happened to the opposition after they faced the champ?
If you look at GSP, his frequency for derailing careers is remarkable. Take for example, Jake Shields. Before facing GSP, Shields was one of the world’s premier welterweights (with a long streak of success at middleweight to boot). After tangling with GSP, Shields has gone 4-4-1. Just like that, Shields seem to become an average fighter. Matt Hughes went 4-3 after his second loss to St. Pierre. Matt Serra went 1-2. BJ Penn, 3-6-1. Dan Hardy, 2-3. Thiago Alves is 5-5. Josh Koschek is 2-6. Carlos Condit went 2-3. Johny Hendricks, 3-4. Jon Fitch is the only one to continue his winning ways with an 11-4-1 record. Combined, his opponents have gone 46-67-3-1, a supbar winning percentage of 0.319.
Silva, meanwhile, didn’t have a penchant for derailing careers. Rich Franklin went a healthy 7-5 afterwards (one of those five being another Anderson loss). Meanwhile, six of his opponents continued to win, with Patrick Cote going 10-6, Demian Maia 12-4, Thales Leites, 12-5, Griffin 3-1, and Yushin Okami went 7-4. Meanwhile, Travis Lutter went 1-2, Marquardt, 10-10, Henderson, 10-8, James Irvin 3-5-1 NC, and Belfort 6-5. Sonnen went 3-4 (one of those losses again to Silva). Bonnar fought once more, lost, then retired. Silva’s opponents have gone 88-60, a winning percentage 0.595.
Johnson’s opponents have accomplished more than either GSP or to Silva’s. Since losing to Johnson, Joseph Benevidez, Kyjoji Horiguchi, John Dodson, and Tim Elliott have continued their winning ways (while both Benevidez and Dodson can count one of their subsequent losses to Johnson in rematches). The rest of the field, meanwhile, has only had middling records. John Morarga has gone 3-4, Chris Cariaso is 0-2, Ian McCall is 2-2, Baugitinov is 1-2 (and out of the UFC), and Henry Cejudo dropped his most only fight since. Combined, Johnson’s opponents have gone 24-14, with a winning percentage of 0.632.
What does it all mean?
Perhaps DJ’s level of competition has been underrated. DJ tackled fighters who were producing in the wins department before and after, typified by Benevidez, Horiguchi, and Dodson.
Perhaps St. Pierre’s competition was overrated. GSP fought competition who were either on the best run of form in their careers or right at the end of it.
Perhaps Silva’s competition was wildly uneven. The Spider was fighting competition that were limping into their fights like Griffin and Hendo or were early in their career arcs like Cote, Maia, to Leites.
There is no doubting all three dominated virtually each man put in front of them. But the point is, not every one of those wins is created equal. They each benefited from facing a challenger on the downswing. They each turned away competition on the rise. If we want to measure their greatness, sometimes we need to give ourselves a history lesson first.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.