Before UFC 229, I wrote about Conor McGregor and his place in the MMA pantheon. Ultimately, it was all for naught, he lost and didn’t acquit himself well enough to warrant furthering that discussion. But, I read something recently and it got me thinking about greatness in another way. Not as it exists in the present, or as it will exist in the future, but the ways in which we came to contextualize greatness.
In the forward to the 4th season of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman collection, titled Season of Mists, Harlan Ellison writes about the nature of greatness: “In any field of endeavor, in any medium of the arts or sciences, an occasional talent will manifest itself and, through bare existence, we perceive how mundane has been the effort in that field or genre, that medium or category.” He continues, “Prior to John L. Sullivan, can anyone make a rational comparison of excellence with any of the nameless bare-knuckle champions who spilled their blood in sawdust arenas? There was only one Machiavelli, only one Chaka Zulu, only one Alexander of Macedon. Name the highest and brightest and most accomplished til you get to Fellini or Billie Holiday or George Berhard Shaw; and compare; and recognize how much higher thereafter is the high water mark. Suddenly, there is more sunlight in the world.”
It just so happens that the person who most fits that description, in the MMA space, is still fighting: Fedor Emelianenko.
First, it is important to note that there is always someone who enters a discourse or conversation who isn’t moored in the same basic reality as everyone else. Surely, there are people who will contend that the first the best MMA fighter ever was Rickson Gracie or Minoru Suzuki or Phillip Miller or Ryota Matsune. They’re not making a real argument or one that is in good faith, they just want to make some kind of weird point, and that sort of thing is fine, but those people aren’t really trying to part of the discussion. There will always be outliers arguing for some obscure point, representing some camp. Most of the time, it is best to ignore those people.
The other thing to point out is that, given MMA’s relatively short timeline, we don’t have the sort of generational history or accumulated knowledge that a sport like boxing or one of the major sports would. We’re only working with, at best, a 30 year period here, we don’t have the sort of broad perspective that other sports do. So, starting a discussion on the greatest fighter of all time with Fedor Emelianenko, would seem to dismiss a large portion of MMA’s history, in a way that starting a conversation about hockey players with Gordie Howe or baseball players with Babe Ruth doesn’t. We’re dealing with such a comparatively short period of time that it makes fighters and fights seem more relevant to the discussion. This isn’t to say that the likes of Royce Gracie, Yuki Nakai, and Masakatsu Funaki aren’t incredibly important to the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, that would be ludicrous. Rather, their contributions, their accomplishments and records, aren’t particularly relevant or germane to any real discussion of the best and greatest fighters, they come from an era that doesn’t allow for that kind of consideration. Part of that is a matter of circumstance, part of it is that they came before Fedor.
With all the preamble out of the way, let me make the case for Fedor, not as the greatest fighter of all time, I think that would be a tough point to make at this point, but rather to make the argument that Fedor is the first great fighter. A lot has been made of Fedor’s opponents, now and to some extent at the time. There is no getting around some of the names on his resume, some of them are soft: Kerry Schall, Yuji Nagata, Noaya Ogawa, Zuluzinho, Hong Man Choi, a middleweight Matt Lindland, Jaideep Singh, a tenuous win over Fabio Maldonado. They aren’t the sort of wins you would see on a top fighter of the last 5 years or so. What he does have, more so than any other fighter before him is a period of dominance filled with wins of an exceeding quality, even if it is mixed in with the aforementioned lesser fighters.
I’m of the belief that Fedor’s victory over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at Pride 25 is the biggest win in MMA history. That is an argument for another time, but in my mind, there isn’t a fight where the loser came in with such a high level of esteem, and was able to maintain a similar level after the loss. Now, there are other fights that are in contention for the honor, but I don’t think you can discount the magnitude of that win. Couple that with another, decisive win over Nogueira, wins over Cro Cop, Mark Hunt, Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, Heath Herring, even his recent win over Frank Mir and you have a resume that greatly surpasses any that came before. Even when you take into account heavyweight’s relative talent pool, his wins are still impressive.
I don’t want to make it out like Fedor appeared, sui generis, into the wasteland of MMA and single-highhandedly modernized the sport through his fights. There were others along the way, ones who came before Fedor and those that were contemporaneous, that paved that path, but they don’t rate in the same way.
When I read the Ellison selection repurposed for the beginning of this piece, Fedor was the first name that came to mind, but afterwords I considered a few other names, the first being Frank Shamrock. In a lot of ways, Frank Shamrock was MMA’s first real great champion. his UFC run with wins over Kevin Jackson, Igor Zinoviev, Jeremy Horn (the first real great MMA fight, in my book), John Lober, and Tito Ortiz, the absolute best win of his career, is exceptional. The problem is, is just doesn’t match up to Fedor’s. The fight with Tito, which you should watch if you haven’t seen it, is just an exceptional win both in terms of legacy and presentation, but it isn’t on the same level as Fedor’s win of Nog. Tito Ortiz is a great fighter, one of the best light heavyweights of all time and after the loss to Shamrock he went on to dominate his division for a time, but over time Tito would be surpassed by Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, while during that same time Nogueria continued to prove himself to be the second best heavyweight in the world. While those respective wins can, to a degree, stand up to each other, Shamrock’s other wins, they just don’t compare their not on the same level. Horn, Jackson, Zinoviev, they’re good but they’re no Cro Cop. They’re not even Tim Sylvia. You could make an argument for Shamrock, perhaps he is the right answer here, but I don’t think so. When you compare Shamrock to Fedor, the difference, in my view, is much greater than when comparing Fedor to anyone who came after him.
Another name that came to mind, perhaps because he is, in my mind anyway, closely associated with Frank Shamrock is Bas Rutten. I don’t want to come off as dismissive or glib, and this might just a personal quirk of mine, but I don’t give Pancrase much credence as a promotion where relevant fights were taking place. That isn’t to say that all the fights were works, or even that most of them were, but enough of them were that it casts doubt on all of them. You only need to see Ken Shamrock hit Matt Hume with a move out of Minoru Tanaka’s arsenal once to realize that things aren’t exactly on the up-and-up. To Rutten’s credit, he claims he never knew that any of his fights were worked, never was told to make a fight more entertaining,but it only takes one guy to work a fight, and it isn’t the winner. All that being said, Bas had incredible victories over Maurice Smith, Frank Shamrock, and Kevin Randleman (on paper anyway). But, they just don’t match Fedor’s, even if every win on his resume was a fully competitive, sporting contest.
Kazushi Sakuraba was MMA’s first transcendent talent. His run through the Gracie family is the stuff of legend, his single leg is one of the great tools in the history of the sport. He is, in many ways, the prevailing icon of Mixed Martial Arts. What it is, what is was, and what it can be. The problem is, he just doesn’t have the wins for this discussion. A lot of times, people can confuse importance for relevance, and impact for greatness, which isn’t to say that Sakuraba isn’t relevant or great, but only that those things, his best wins his defining losses, aren’t the things that weigh most heavily when it comes time to judge his career.
In many respects, you could say the same thing for Randy Couture. He remains one of MMA’s lasting fixtures, an indelible image cast on this sport. But, also like Sakuraba, the wins and the more so the losses just don’t make for a compelling argument. Sure he has wins over Vitor Belfort, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Tim Sylvia, but do those stack up to Fedor’s? No. They may be more iconic, more visceral and lasting images, but are they of the same quality as Fedor’s wins over Nogueira and Cro Cop? No.
Perhaps, some point in the future, somebody will write something similar to this, and maybe then, MMA will have crystalized to such a point that Fedor won’t be in this discussion anymore, maybe Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones won’t either, who knows. But, at this moment, this conversation starts with Fedor. All others who came before him, they just don’t shine as bright.