(When in doubt, knock him out: Fedor Emelianenko proved his status as the best in the world with his KO of Andrei Arlovski at Affliction’s "Day of Reckoning" event last month.)
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 UFC 94 proved that when two extremely talented fighters face off, the big guy will usually beat the shit out of the little guy. That’s just reality — and it’s why we create pound-for-pound rankings in the first place. But the size and strength advantages that St. Pierre enjoyed in his most recent welterweight title defense shouldn’t take away from his inspiring performance. Easily one of the most athletic mixed martial artists in the world, GSP is also one of the most cerebral; his win over Penn was largely the result of a meticulous game-plan executed perfectly. Though we believe he’ll rule the UFC’s welterweight division for a long time, St. Pierre’s April 2007 upset loss to 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.