Is He The Greatest Ever?
By Michael DiSanto
It’s a legitimate question.
Fans and pundits alike throw around the phrase “greatest of all time” in the world of sports so often that it truly is trite, particularly in the fledgling world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Every time a guy wins a title belt, the topic seems to rear its redundant head in proverbial water cooler discussions around the Internet.
Royce Gracie. Randy Couture. Dan Severn. Mark Coleman. Frank Shamrock. Tito Ortiz. At one time or another, each of these champions caused fans to debate the “greatest UFC fighter of all time” topic.
Today, Chuck Liddell is starting to pop up on the radar screen, and it seems as if everyone wants pound-for-pound superstar BJ Penn to win another UFC title and dominate a division (or two) so that he can be anointed as the UFC’s greatest competitor.
Debating the relative merits of the aforementioned names makes for good entertainment, but none of those current or former champions, not a single one, can come close to the championship resume of reigning UFC 170-pound czar Matt Hughes.
Since first winning the belt from Carlos Newton via controversial knockout at UFC 34, Hughes has been nothing short of brilliant. During that five-year period, he has defeated each and every legitimate number one contender--some of them more than once.
The net result is that Hughes is an eye-opening 9-1 in UFC title bouts, defeating Newton (twice), Hayato Sakurai, Gil Castillo, Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg (twice), Georges St. Pierre, and BJ Penn along the way (wins against Royce Gracie and Joe Riggs were in non-title affairs). The win over Penn at UFC 63, a dramatic, come-from-behind technical knockout, avenged his only championship loss.
But where do those 9 championship wins rank all time?
Only Couture rivals Hughes in terms of championship experience, but he hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much success. Couture’s 11 title fights (not counting the 2003 “interim” title bout with Liddell at UFC 43) include five losses. So that leaves him tied with Ortiz in a distant second place in terms of all-time UFC championship wins.
It is interesting to note that all of Ortiz’s title wins came in consecutive fashion, matching Hughes in terms of consecutive successful defenses at five--the current UFC record. Liddell and Pat Miletich are next with three. Couture, Rich Franklin, Jens Pulver and Tim Sylvia can each claim a pair.
But Ortiz has yet to regain the title since losing to Couture at UFC 44, so his total successful defenses (not just consecutive defenses) sits at five. Hughes, by contrast, has seven total successful defenses in his two reigns, also a UFC record.
Nine wins in title fights; seven overall title successful title defenses; and five consecutive successful defenses. Three UFC records.
There is little doubt that Hughes is the most successful champion in UFC history, but does that make him the greatest fighter to ever step inside the Octagon?
The truth is that it is difficult to come up with an objective measure for such a subjective question. But that begs the question of what better measure of greatness exists than championship success?
Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that individual sports are all about winning championships, not just raking up impressive statistics or achievements in non-championship contests.
Ask Sam Snead, the most prolific winner in the history of golf. Despite winning a record 82 tournaments in his amazing career, few, if any, experts consider him the greatest golfer in history. Why? Because he cannot claim the same level of success in golf’s four majors--the equivalent of a championship fight.
Jack Nicklaus, a 73-time winner on the PGA Tour, happens to hold the record for the most major victories with 18 (compared to Snead’s 7) and is generally accepted as the greatest ever.
Tiger Woods, second in major championships with 11 and fifth in overall wins with 54, may very well shatter both records because he still has another decade of world class golf ahead of him, at least. And he is arguably the most talented golfer to ever swing a club. But if he falls short of Nicklaus’ 18 majors, it will be hard to argue that he was better than Nicklaus.
Greatness in swimming, diving, and track and field are all measured by Olympic gold medals. Tennis is measured by winning major tournaments. NASCAR is all about winning the Nextel Cup. Boxing greatness is defined by success in world title fights (not merely alphabet title scraps, but that is another discussion altogether). And the list goes on and on.
It doesn’t stop with individual sports, either. Using championship success as the standard for greatness also applies, in large part, to team sports.
When football historians debate the topic of the greatest quarterback in NFL history, names like Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana dominate discussions. Yet, Dan Marino and Warren Moon both have vastly more impressive statistics, particularly Moon, who also racked up amazing numbers in the Canadian Football League before coming to the NFL.
Why? Unitas and Montana performed when it was all on the line, winning multiple championships. Marino turned the ball over three times versus one touchdown in his lone Super Bowl appearance, and Moon wasn’t able to get to the big game, failing to dominate in the playoffs like he did in the regular season.
For those fans who are a little too young to remember watching Montana, a similar situation exists today.
Peyton Manning may very well be the most talented quarterback in the NFL and may well shatter Marino’s passing records if he plays as long as Marino did. But if he retired today, would he even be considered the greatest quarterback of the last decade? Of course not, because some guy named Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings (and two Super Bowl MVP trophies) sitting on his bedside table, despite career statistics that pale in comparison to Manning.
Of course, there are more examples.
What about Wilt Chamberlain – statistically, the most dominant player in the history of the NBA? Yet, Chamberlain, who averaged 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game over his career, sits below Bill Russell, who averaged 15.1 points, 22.4 rebounds and 4.3 points per game over his career, on almost every “greatest centers in NBA history” list.
Why? Chamberlain won only a single NBA title, while Russell led his Celtics to 11 rings in 13 seasons.
That brings us back to today and the question of who is the greatest fighter in UFC history. Is it Royce Gracie? How about Frank Shamrock? Maybe it is Randy Couture?
If success on a championship level is the barometer, then it is Hughes by a long shot.