There are many reasons why billions of people around the globe watch the Olympic games every four (or two) years; but if there is one thing about the Olympics that seems to catch the attention of both rabid sports fans as well as the casual ones, it is that unknowns have the opportunity to beat the best in the world. (In America , sports fans can often become too complacent with the basic Football, Baseball, Hockey, and Basketball, and the way they are played on a professional level in this country.) Mixed Martial Arts is still evolving rapidly, as fighters and fight camps that were not even on the map six years ago are now at the top of the pile. Thus, much like some Olympic events, the MMA game has provided a playing field that is reaching deeper into the world’s talent pool on an ongoing basis, and the results are very intriguing.
Mixed Martial Arts, as compared to most professional sports, is still in its infancy. The first UFC was held just twenty years ago, and the sport is so rapidly evolving that every five to seven years we see another major change that is so dynamic that we are constantly witnessing a “new generation” of fighters. In the mid 1990’s, Royce Gracie seemed so dominant against opponents that were two and three weight classes larger that it was clear that no fighter his own size would ever be able to compete against him. Yet, in 2006, Matt Hughes just crushed Royce in a battle of Welterweights (They actually fought at 175lbs.), prompting several questions; Does American Wrestling trump the daylights out of Brazilian Jui-Jitsu? Is Royce Gracie is just too old at 39 years? Has the MMA game had evolved into hyperspace and left poor Royce behind? Is Matt Hughes is just better than Royce Gracie?
Matt Hughes himself seemed nearly unbeatable during a five year stretch from 2001 through 2006 when he ran up a UFC record of 12-1. His only loss was to fellow UFC Hall-of-famer BJ Penn, a loss that Hughes later avenged. Yet from 2007 until his retirement in 2011, Matt Hughes managed just a 3-4 record. Did Matt Hughes get really old really fast? Did the Welterweight division get a lot better really fast? Did MMA evolve rapidly?
When Royce Gracie began beating up tough guys in the Octagon in the mid 1990’s, he was generally fighting Karate guys, tough men, and a variety of other bad-asses who had never been in a real no-holds-barred cage fight, yet by the end of his career he was fighting All-American Wrestlers with dozens of cage fights and Professional Fighters from Japan. Matt Hughes first won the UFC Title from Carlos Newton, and then beat guys like Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, Gil Castillo, Hayato Sakurai, and (once more) Carlos Newton; these were the best fighters that the UFC had to offer at the time. Yet by the end of his career, just a few short years later, Matt Hughes would face fighters like BJ Penn, Josh Koscheck, Thiago Alves, Georges St. Pierre, and Matt Serra. I think it is safe to say that the MMA game is evolving so quickly that every five or so years there are such new developments that former top level fighters are often no longer able to compete at the top level.
Currently there are three MMA fighters that are (or were) widely considered the best ever: Jon Jones, Georges St. Pierre, and Anderson Silva.
From 2002 through April of 2011, Georges St. Pierre built a record of 22-2, including a 16-2 record in the UFC, until a knee injury sidelined him for a year and a half. GSP returned in November of 2012 and, in one year, faced Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, and Johnny Hendricks. In the three fights after his 18 month sabbatical, GSP absorbed a total 412 strikes (according to Fightmetric, an MMA statistical group) while in his previous 24 fights combined he absorbed 465 strikes. One look at GSP’s face after each of his last three fights (versus his previous 24 fights) can lead us to believe that the Welterweight division in the UFC got significantly better during St. Pierre’s 18 month lay off. After the beating he took in his last fight against Johnny Hendricks, GSP announced his retirement. (Georges St. Pierre did receive a win in that fight via split decision, but most MMA fans, including me, believe that he lost that fight.)
Anderson Silva was king of the Middleweight division for seven years. From April of 2006 through mid 2012, The Spider ran off 17 consecutive win, 16 of them in the UFC. Nearly all of Anderson ’s wins were against the best fighters in the world, and he so dominated the rest of his peers that it was widely accepted that he was the best fighter in any weight class. In July of 2013, Anderson, who had built a 33-4 record and had not lost in seven years, was KO’d by American Wrestler Chris Weidman, who came into that fight with just a 9-0 record. In their next fight, just five months later, Anderson ’s leg was snapped in a gruesome manner, giving him his second loss in a row. Some fans said that Weidman landed the “lucky punch” in their first fight, and “got lucky” with the leg break in their second fight. But in each of those two fights, each of which ended in the second round, Chris Weidman dominated Anderson in the first round. It is arguable that Anderson Silva never even won a minute of either of the two fights.
Jon Jones, the best Light Heavyweight the MMA game has known, burst on the scene in 2008. He is currently the UFC 205lb king with a record of 19-1. (His only loss came by way of the DQ against Matt Hamill when ref Steve Mazzagatti called an illegal elbow in and amongst one legal slam, a dozen legal punches, and seven legal strikes of varying types.) To say that Jon Jones is the most dominant Light Heavyweight in the history of MMA is an understatement. Yet in Jones’ last fight, against Alexander Gustafsson, he took more damage to his face and head than we fans ever thought possible; his lips, face, and eyes were so swollen and battered that his speech was sometimes difficult to understand. Though Jones won via unanimous decision, many believe that he should have lost; but the fact remains that Jones is no longer “light years” ahead of the number two guy, as was previously the case.
The Mixed Martial Arts game is so new that we are still experiencing rapid change. Unlike other sports that have been around for a hundred years, MMA is still in its’ initial growth period. Looking at Baseball, is the Boston Red Sox team that won the World Series last fall (2013) significantly better than the one that won it in 2004? No, not significantly. Football? Basketball? Not likely. But when we compare the fighters of 2004 with those of today (ten years later), the difference is significant. Can circa 2004 UFC Heavyweight Champs Tim Sylvia, Frank Mir, or Andre Arlovsky compare to current UFC Heavyweight Champ Cain Velasquez, etal? I think not. We all thought that UFC LH Champ Chuck Liddel was nearly unbeatable when he ran off seven straight wins from 2004 through 2006, but when the UFC acquired Pride and blended the two organizations in 2007, Liddel’s win streak ended and he the finished his career with a 1-5 stretch. 2004 UFC 185 Champs Evan Tanner and Rich Franklin are no match for current Middleweights Chris Weidman and Anderson Silva. In 2004, Matt Hughes and BJ Penn were the Welterweight Champs of the UFC; today they would not be in the top ten. Penn was also the Lightweight Champ, but based on consecutive losses to current UFC Featherweight Frankie Edgar is it unlikely that he could hang with today’s 155ers, especially for five rounds. And not only are today’s champs better than ever before, the divisions are deeper in talent than ever.
So how can we account for this constant evolution in MMA?
The first of several critical components to the rapid improvement in the sport of MMA is the style. The Gracies introduced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with UFC I, and for the next few years BJJ was all the rage. Karate schools around the country took down the Kung Fu signs that they put up in the 80’s and slapped a BJJ shingle out front. Then the American Wrestlers brought their ground game into the cages. Kick boxers and other striking arts began cross training and the pure hybrid that we now know as MMA was evolving. Today’s MMAthletes are the complete blended Martial Artist. But style alone is not enough.
One key component that gave a huge shot in the arm to the quality of the sport was the combination of nutrition and conditioning. Fighters, now fully skilled in this hybrid form, got bigger and stronger with world class cardio, all the while fighting at lighter weights than was previously thought safe. Being a national caliber wrestler with solid striking was no longer enough, because if the fighter cannot carry that level of athleticism for a full 15 minutes he would be compromising his future in the sport. And with championship fights now set at five rounds, it became necessary for top level fighters to carry their skill set for a full 25 minutes. This one component proved to be a major problem for BJ Penn, who was once a championship level fighter, but seemed to struggle later in his career, winning just one time in his final six fights. MMA fighters boast some of the best cardio, strength, conditioning, and nutrition levels of any athletes today.
Merging promotions is another key component that sets modern MMA ahead of earlier versions of the sport. The UFC has not only established itself as the top dog in the MMA world, but it has also purchased or acquired many of its’ competitors, like Strikeforce, WEC, Pride, etc. In doing so, the UFC has brought many of the best fighters in the world under the ZUFFA banner. So now, instead of the best fighters being spread over six or eight promotions around the globe, the bulk of the best fighters are fighting for the UFC and Bellator. This has had a big impact on the rapid evolution of the sport.
World class training camps (Jackson’s, AKA, Serra Longo, ATT, BTT, Blackzilians, Tri-Star) have brought the best fighters from around the world into common training camps, and nearly all of these camps cross train with other top level camps. The days of top fighters training at small local camps is long gone.
One final component that can’t be overlooked when discussing this topic is the previously untapped region’s of the world that are now producing MMA fighters who are competing on the big stages. Royce Gracies father, Helio, supposedly had a streak of 400 fights without a loss; regardless of the validity of this claim, he was likely fighting local tough guys in Rio de Janiero. By 2000, the UFC was generally represented by Americans, Brazilians, and a few other nations. Pride was operating in Japan with representation from America , Brazil , and Japan . But today’s world class MMA game is largely being fought under the UFC and Bellator banners, and includes fighters from North America, South America, all of Europe, Japan and other Asian nations, Australia, and those former Eastern Bloc nations like Dagestan.
The MMA talent pool is getting broader, deeper, and more highly skilled every day, and there does not seem to be a leveling off point in the near future. It’s amazing…
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