Ah, the pound-for-pound list — one of the most infuriating traditions in MMA punditry. Our sport has a wealth of dominant champions and brilliant contenders, but who would win an epic, all-inclusive grand prix, if every fighter (somehow, theoretically) were the same size? To put it as simply as possible, who is the most talented mixed martial artist in the world? And by what combination of win streaks, titles, victories over top-ranked opponents, and ability to finish fights does one measure "talent"? All good questions, dear reader. The list below is our effort to define MMA’s absolute top ten list, as things stand now in February 2009. Read on, and let us know how you feel in the comments section…
1: Fedor Emelianenko (29-1, 1 no contest)
Some might argue that naming a heavyweight as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world sort of misses the point of the exercise. But at an even six feet tall (and a somewhat doughy 230 pounds), Emelianenko has never relied on size to win fights, and has beaten considerably larger opponents his entire career. Between his devastating punches and virtually undefendable armlocks, the Last Emperor can end a fight anywhere, at any time. And since the only loss on his record was due to a technicality — a cut stoppage due to an illegal elbow 17 seconds into a fight against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, which he later avenged — Fedor has developed an aura of invincibility that has psyched out opponents before they even step into the ring with him.
But hey, maybe he really is invincible. Even when a fighter manages to briefly put Emelianenko in a bad spot (see esp. Kazuyuki Fujita in 2003, Mark Coleman in 2004, Andrei Arlovski in 2009), his tremendous instincts always rescue him from danger; Fedor on auto-pilot is better than most fighters on their best night. If he can put away a couple more top-ten heavyweights before he retires (while avoiding losses), his status as the greatest fighter of all time will be non-debatable.
2: Georges St. Pierre (18-2)
GSP’s demolition of BJ Penn at Matt Serra raised some questions about his chin and mental fortitude. With a little luck — and some more of his unstoppable wrestling — St. Pierre will continue to answer those questions in 2009.
Why he’s below Fedor: It’s possible that GSP is merely human. If he can have a bad day against Matt Serra, he can certainly have another one against an even better fighter in the future.
3: Anderson Silva (23-4)
Last year, everyone was calling this guy the best P4P fighter in the world by a wide margin. So what happened? Well, Fedor and GSP stayed busy whipping top-ten opponents, while the Spider was booked in two embarrassing mismatches – with a third slated for April. It’s not his fault that he reigns high above the rest of the competition in the UFC’s middleweight division. But he’s achieved all that can realistically be achieved there, and with retirement a possibility next year, his legacy may depend on super-fights against champions in other weight classes. Still, the 8-0 path of destruction that he’s carved in the Octagon is one of the most dominant runs in MMA history, and has firmly secured his spot as a future Hall of Famer.
Why he’s below Georges: A lack of recent accomplishments, period. It has nothing to do with his abilities, which are truly astounding.
4: Miguel Torres (35-1; 48-1 including unsanctioned fights)
Honing his ferocious skills at small, often undocumented shows in Indiana, Miguel Torres entered the WEC in 2007 carrying bantamweight titles from the Total Fight Challenge and Ironheart Crown leagues, and an intimidating official record of 31-1. Though the WEC was supposed to represent a much higher level of competition for the Carlson Gracie protégé, Torres has sliced through everyone who’s been put in front of him, collecting the WEC’s 135-pound belt after choking out Chase Beebe, then defending it twice against Yoshiro Maeda and Manny Tapia. Torres is now on a 16-fight win streak; his last eleven wins have been by stoppage, including a first-round submission win over Ryan Ackerman, which avenged his only career loss. Few fighters can guarantee excitement every time they step into a cage, but Miguel is one of them. Now all he needs is a worthy challenger.
Why he’s below Anderson: Even though he’s been kicking people’s asses for over nine years, Torres has only been beating elite-level fighters for one year. His list of wins over champions and top contenders isn’t nearly as long as the Spider’s yet.
5: Rashad Evans (13-0-1)
Since winning the second season of The Ultimate Fighter as a heavyweight, Rashad Evans has evolved from a fighter who relied a bit too heavily on his wrestling background — and somehow managed to be a showboat and boring at the same time — to the UFC light-heavyweight division’s most explosive knockout artist. His unforgettable KO of Chuck Liddell at UFC 88 was career-altering for both fighters, and he did to Forrest Griffin in three rounds what Quinton Jackson wasn’t able to do in five — beat his ass into submission. Sure, the judges have made him sweat at times (Sugar’s gone the distance five times in the UFC, never once winning a unanimous decision), but nobody’s found a way to beat him yet, and figuring Evans out will only get harder as his game continues to develop and become more well-rounded.
Why he’s below Miguel: Rashad has only recently become a well-rounded fight-finisher, and he’s still one or two wins away from being the kind of unstoppable force in his weight class that Torres is.
6: BJ Penn (13-5-1)
Not to harp on the same point, but BJ Penn’s lopsided loss to GSP in January wasn’t so much a judgment on the Prodigy’s abilities as an indication that lightweight is the only weight class he should really be competing at. Penn is a fantastic 155-pounder — the best in the world, in fact. His jiu-jitsu is legendary, and yet it’s his powerful hands that have earned him the most acclaim in the UFC. He hasn’t quite cleaned out his division (no matter what he might think), but his last three wins at lightweight — against Jens Pulver, Joe Stevenson, and Sean Sherk — were so one-sided that it’s hard to imagine any 155’er giving him problems. The belt is his as long as he’s motivated to keep it.
Why he’s below Rashad: Penn makes the list due to raw talent level, but his last three wins have been his only wins at lightweight since 2003. Evans’s recent body of work at light-heavyweight is more extensive and impressive.
7: Lyoto Machida (14-0)
As his brother Chinzo observed, Lyoto Machida will only attack when he knows his strike will land. Don’t ask us how he could possibly know that. (Magic?) But in his undefeated MMA career — and particularly in the UFC, where he’s never lost so much as a single round — the top light-heavyweight contender has made his opponents look like slow, awkward children trying to play a big boy’s game. He’s the first mixed martial artist to take elements of traditional karate (particularly the foot-sweeps and emphasis on interception) and make them effective in a cage-fight. He also has a habit of never taking damage, ever. If you value quick finishes above flawless technique, the Dragon is probably not your favorite fighter. Though as he demonstrated against Thiago Silva last month, he will knock a motherfucker out when the opportunity presents itself. What’s not to love?
Why he’s below BJ: He doesn’t have Penn’s finishing ability, and he hasn’t won a title yet — something that Penn has done in two different weight classes.
8: Urijah Faber (22-2)
The original WEC poster boy has thrilled MMA fans with his breakneck-paced kamikaze style, which mixes a tenacious wrestling background with aggressive submissions and unpredictable striking. After five-straight featherweight title defenses, it seemed like the California Kid would be on top forever, but an upset loss to Mike Brown in November demonstrated that Faber’s crowd-pleasingly high-risk attacks can occasionally get too risky. (Throwing a blind reverse elbow can get you knocked out sometimes, apparently.) But that seems to be the only weakness in his game, and if he can rein in his more wild-ass urges he’ll surely reclaim his belt and hold it for another impressive stretch.
Why he’s below Lyoto: Faber hasn’t beaten anybody not named Jens Pulver since December 2007, and beating Jens Pulver isn’t as impressive as it used to be.
9: Shinya Aoki (19-3, 1 no contest)
With his vast arsenal of creative submissions and an equally vast wardrobe of multi-colored tights, the “Tobikan Judan” really is the most entertaining grappler in MMA. Aoki knows you don’t want to go to the ground with him, and he doesn’t care. He’ll hop on your back, pounce into a flying guard-pull, even butt-scoot chase you around the ring; he’s not above any of it. Of course, that only emphasizes the fact that the standup game is not his strong suit, and his loss to Joachim Hansen at last year’s DREAM lightweight grand prix final showed that he can be overwhelmed by an aggressive striker, particularly when he’s already gassed from another fight earlier in the evening. But Aoki has run through a who’s-who of lightweights in Japan, and if we’re ranking fighters based on talent level (which is what this is, pretty much), there’s no way we can leave out the current WAMMA lightweight champ.
Why he’s below Urijah: Though Aoki is a buzzsaw on the ground, he’s not a threat from every position in the way that the California Kid is; Urijah has nasty submissions and dangerous striking.
10: Thiago Alves (16-3)
The UFC welterweight division’s #1 contender has defeated three consecutive top-ten-ranked 170-pounders in his last three appearances (Karo Parisyan, Matt Hughes, and Josh Koscheck), and none of those fights were even close. Only Georges St. Pierre and Miguel Torres can make the same claim, putting the Pitbull among very good company. Known for his devastating Muay Thai, Alves might possess the sharpest standup in the UFC after Anderson Silva, and is a far better striker that anybody Georges St. Pierre — who has made his name shutting down grapplers — has ever faced. Maybe it’ll be enough to earn the American Top Team young lion an upset victory when he meets GSP later this year.
Why he’s below Shinya: He hasn’t won a title yet. And would it kill him to wear some crazy tights once in a while?