Issue 157

August 2017

A fight is a great way to settle an argument. A solution centuries old, men and women fight for a host of reasons: love; hate; honor; superiority; to make money; to win titles. Whatever the reason, there’s a beautiful finality to a fight. It answers questions. It reveals the truth. It tells us who is number one. Yet this resolution, while applicable to fighters in the same weight class, ceases to exist in the pound-for-pound debate. They will never be able to fight to settle the argument, which means the definitive answer evades us. All we can do is speculate.

Everyone has an opinion, but here’s the truth: there is no right or wrong answer. Fighters stake their claim by beating contenders and champions in their respective divisions, while we witness the rise and take it upon ourselves to imagine how said fighter would fare against champions above and below. This whole pound-for-pound thing is a bizarre concept. And in a sport that prides itself on finality – the knockout punch, the tapout, the fight itself – a pound-for-pound debate allows our imaginations to run wild.

There is one thing we can all agree on: the top three fighters in the UFC official rankings – Demetrious Johnson, Conor McGregor and Daniel Cormier – deserve their spots. Were it not for his time away from the Octagon, Jon Jones would surely join them. So how do they stack up? Let the debate begin…

Who did you beat? What did you win?

The big one. This is typically what separates the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys and the pound-for-pounders from the mere champions and contenders. This is a fighter's CV. It's their body of work, their portfolio. It's what will ultimately define them. Ability and potential are subjective elements, so the achievements of a fighter are the cold, hard facts; the evidence and very foundation of their case.

Within this category, however, there needs to be a sub-category, something along the lines of Competition. This way, we can add context. Without it, we're liable to rate the achievements of a flyweight the way we would the achievements of a heavyweight, or the achievements of a middleweight the way we would those of a bantamweight. And that's wrong. It's wrong because weight divisions boast differing levels of competition. Some contain a murderer's row of contenders, while others are somewhat thin on the ground by comparison. It is perhaps unfair therefore to compare the achievements of a man who has survived murderer's row and come out on top with the achievements of a man who has exhibited dominance over a weaker batch of challengers.

Jon Jones, lest we forget, has conquered Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, Vitor Belfort, Lyoto Machida, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Rashad Evans and Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua. Long story short, it doesn't get much better than that. Big names, world-class fighters, some former champions. All beaten out of sight.

Demetrious Johnson, meanwhile, has a similar set of stats – and even more title defenses – yet lacks the equivalent signature wins. He has the scalps of John Dodson and Joseph Benavidez, as well as some other quality, if underrated, flyweights. But nothing on his record snaps and crackles quite like Jones' résumé.

How effective is your ass-kicking ability?

In theory, a pound-for-pound discussion throws up fantasy matchups between fighters from different weight classes. It asks us to assess their abilities, suspend our disbelief and imagine these two to be the same height and weight, doing battle in a galaxy far, far away. We can then ask ourselves: with all being equal, who would win?

Chances are every fighter included in the pound-for-pound conversation has an inordinate amount of ability. It would be tough for anyone to reach the summit of their division for this to not be the case. ‘Mighty Mouse’, for example, seems as well-rounded as any mixed martial artist; Conor McGregor is blessed with striking that colors him almost superhuman; and Jon Jones might be the most talented fighter to call a cage his second home. What’s more, no champion wrestles better than Daniel Cormier, no one moves better than Cody Garbrandt and no champion attacks with the vicious intent of Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

And therein lies the problem. In a sport as multifaceted as mixed martial arts, which skill wins out? Does the striking of one fighter trump the grappling of another? Is Fighter A more skillful than Fighter B? Would their skills translate if they were 50lb heavier, or lighter? Is there even a way of knowing? At least we have fun guessing.

What have you done for me lately?

According to the adage, you’re only as good as your last fight. If that is the case, it must be reflected in the pound-for-pound debate. That’s not all. If you haven’t fought recently, your stock falls. Apologies, then, to Jones, who, despite limitless potential, has been less sure of himself in his civilian life and MIA since April 2016. Therefore, he’s relinquished his right to be called pound-for-pound numero uno. He has lost his old belt, dropped from the rankings and had to watch old rival Daniel Cormier (himself now a pound-for-pound contender) squeeze into his throne. None of this reflects well on Jones, nor does it strengthen his case in this debate, circa 2017.

The same could be said of Conor McGregor. Like Jones, he is super-talented and seemingly without equal in at least two divisions. Yet, at this point, he also carries the distracted look of a semiretired mixed martial artist. One day a UFC champion, the next a boxer in pursuit of Floyd Mayweather, we must keep in mind McGregor, for all his brilliance, hasn’t competed in 2017 and is yet to have a single successful title defense. He’s testing the patience of rivals and fans by complicating weight divisions.

As Jones and McGregor drift further away, through choice or circumstance, fighters hungry for a title that doesn’t actually exist – that of pound-for-pound number one – make up ground.

Can you cut it, long-term?

Paying one’s dues is an underrated element of both a champion’s title reign and also their claim to a place in the upper echelons of the pound-for-pound pecking order. After all, MMA is awash with one-hit wonders – men and women whose tenure at the top was fruitful and memorable, but ultimately short-lived. Fights are won in an instant, stars are made just as quickly. Yet topping a pound-for-pound list requires more than just fleeting glory and fame. It should be a mark of a fighter’s successes – plural – not a knee-jerk reaction to a breakout night.

Demetrious Johnson is one man who has unquestionably paid his dues. The former UFC 135lb title challenger dropped to 125lb and lifted the flyweight belt in 2012. Five years later, he has equaled former pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva’s record of 10 successful UFC title defenses and all but cleaned out a weight class. Questions could be asked about the standard of some of his competition, but there can be no doubting Demetrious’ dominance. Nor should his ability to keep performing time and time again, when matched with world-class fighters, be overlooked, especially in a sport prone to throwing up danger and banana skins in equal measure. ‘Mighty Mouse’ has stayed in the zone when others have been either distracted or defeated.

That said, longevity doesn’t have to just be about racking up numbers, beating countless contenders and staying on top. There is value in changing things up and taking risks, and fighters who establish themselves in not one but two weight classes deserve special mention. The impact and influence of Daniel Cormier and Conor McGregor, for example, has been felt far and wide. Light-heavyweights and heavyweights remember time spent in Cormier’s esteemed company, while the two belts on McGregor’s mantel show he reached the pinnacle of two of the sport’s most talent-stacked divisions. It’s called leaving your mark.