The Rear Naked Column 08.06.11: Old School vs. New School
Posted by Samer Kadi on 08.06.2011
Since the days of Ken Shamrock in the 1990s, MMA has evolved significantly! Fighters nowadays may compete at a higher level, but does that diminish the accomplishments of the sport’s pioneers? 411’s Samer Kadi takes a look!
Last month, the 411 MMA section staff decided to rank the top 25 MMA fighters of all time. Mixed martial arts is a young sport still, which makes it somewhat easier to come up with any "all time" list compared to other sports. That however, does not make it a simple task, as some worthy fighters are always going to be omitted. Moreover, the real headache lies in determining the order of the athletes who did make the list, especially in the lower end.
Unsurprisingly, some of our choices were met with firm disagreement. That is usually the case whenever any list is compiled, as evidenced by our – and many other website's – divisional rankings and pound-for-pound lists. However, despite the overreacting and at times vitriolic feedback resulting from someone's shock and disbelief that a certain fighter was ranked too high or too low, some interesting talking points somehow managed to arise.
When comparing fighters' accomplishments, records, or even skill sets, it is always easier to do so with two fighters who competed in a similar era, or at least two eras that weren't separated by a considerable period of time. As such, it is relatively straightforward to put say, Matt Hughes above Quinton Jackson. While both competed in different weight classes, and their respective primes didn't coincide, they are only separated by a negligible interval. Hughes' accomplishments, consistency and dominance eclipse that of "Rampage", making him the "greater" fighter.
Things get far trickier when weighing in the achievements of two fighters who competed in totally different eras. In the first edition of the list, the placement of Ken Shamrock proved controversial, as some deemed it to be too low. Being in the lower end of the list might sound harsh given that we're talking about a true pioneer of the sport, but can Shamrock really be placed significantly higher? Are his achievements that superior to that of Jose Aldo, whose inclusion triggered much disdain among readers? Because Shamrock is viewed as an all-time great, and Aldo is relatively "new" to the sport, it seems odd at first glance to have the latter placed above "The World's Most Dangerous Man." But when examining their careers, is it really that preposterous?
It is unfair to hold Shamrock's losses against Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin and other defeats throughout that period against him. By that time, he was clearly past his prime, and competing against younger, fitter, and stronger athletes. However, even when looking back at his dominant early run (circa 93-96), and comparing it to that of Aldo, it is hardly scandalous for Aldo's achievements to be held in higher regard. Against elite fighters of his day, Shamrock beat Masakatsu Funaki twice (and lost to him once), and Bas Rutten twice. He lost to Royce Gracie (drew with him in the rematch), Dan Severn, and Minoru Suzuki twice.
Aldo by comparison, has only lost once in his career, and is arguably the greatest featherweight of all time. With the exception of Urijah Faber, none of Aldo's wins came over all-time greats. However, they came over better trained, less one-dimensional, and generally stiffer competition. That is by no means a knock on Ken Shamrock, as at the end of the day, you can only beat the fighters in front of you, and no fighter can be asked to travel into the future to take on better competition. Yet, it is not unreasonable to reward fighters who are just as dominant (if not more) against tougher opposition.
A fighter's greatness is generally assessed relative to his peers. Therefore, Ken Shamrock will always remain an all-time great. But when formulating a list that ranks fighters across different eras, the cross-era comparison becomes systematic. Never mind the fact that when comparing their performances against their contemporaries, it is Aldo who has been the more dominant fighter. It is wise to separate ourselves from the mystique surrounding fighters from the past and just look at their accomplishments objectively. If Shamrock was one of the best fighters of his era, Aldo is the best fighter his division has ever produced. He might only be twenty-four years old, but he's already achieved enough to earn a spot on the list.
In a tougher, deeper, and more competitive era, it is always more difficult to stand out. As such, it takes a special kind of athlete to exert the kind of dominance that Aldo has throughout his career, and he should be valued accordingly. This only makes the other piece of backlash all the more puzzling: There was an outrage that Royce Gracie, who ended up at # 10, was placed too low. More baffling was the fact that someone actually thought he should have topped the list.
Royce Gracie's accomplishments are entirely based on what he did in the UFC, as his venture into PRIDE saw him get outclassed by Kazushi Sakuraba, and from that point on, it became clear that the man was on a decline and the sport had passed him by. As is the case with Shamrock, it is harsh to hold Gracie's loss to someone like Matt Hughes against him. Conversely, it is quite ridiculous to declare him as the greatest fighter of all time.
It is generally accepted that Royce Gracie was the most successful early day UFC fighter. In the modern day, that distinction goes to current reigning UFC middleweight champion, Anderson "The Spider" Silva. Excluding his loss to Matt Hughes and his pre-fight retirement against Harold Howard (Gracie was exhausted and should be given a pass due to the tournament format), Royce Gracie has fought thirteen fights inside the Octagon. He was victorious in twelve of them, and had one draw with the aforementioned Shamrock.
Incidentally, Silva has fought in the Octagon an equal number of times, and was victorious in all of them. The main difference? None of Silva's victories came at the expense of Art Jimmerson, Gerard Gordeau, Minoki Ichihara, Jason Delucia, Remco Pardoel, Patrick Smith, Ron Van Clief or Keith Hackney. Those fighters, in modern day terms, would qualify as "cans." If Fedor Emelianenko's record is enhanced by the Zulzinhos of the world, the same can be said about Gracie. Of course, it wasn't Gracie's fault, as those were the fighters available in the tournament at the time, but holding him in higher esteem than a fighter who showed superior dominance against world-class opposition is quite asinine.
Gracie's contributions to the sport are undeniable. His dominance in the early UFC's will forever remain a part of history, but the greatest fighter of all time he is not.
Note: Because some will undoubtedly going to question the motives of this column, this is not an attempt at defending our list. In fact, the list was done in the same manner in which our weekly rankings are done; meaning that each writer submits his own list before adding the numbers together to form the "unified list." Therefore, there are choices that I don't particularly agree with. For instance, in my opinion, Pat Miletich should have made it, Kazushi Sakuraba should have been higher, and Matt Hughes should have been in the top 5. However, I also realize that it is unreasonable to expect everyone to share the same opinion, and that these lists are extremely subjective as the number of variables that factor in is huge.
To further prove my point, I've decided to conduct an experiment. Since many readers were so enraged, I'll ask you guys to post your top 25 fighters list in the comments section (if 25 is too much, come up with any other number). Next week, I will tally things up to make the "411 readers unified list" and compare it to our own.
REMINDER: Be sure to check out the latest edition of the 411 Ground and Pound radio show. Mark Radulich was doing his usual hosting duties and was joined by Scott Kuczkowski, Jeffrey Harris and yours truly to review Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Henderson and preview UFC 133. Tune in again next Sunday at 11 am eastern as we will be reviewing the action from Saturday night.