"Baddest man on the planet."
At one point, going back to the Irish drunkard John L. Sullivan, it was a title awarded, almost without question, to the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Sullivan would swagger into a bar and announce, without the slightest hesitation, that he could lick anyone in the joint. If someone wanted to question his brash statement, well, they could go outside and discuss it.
Eventually, that part of the game changed. Fighting became more professional. The heavyweight champion didn't prove his worth by challenging guys in the street. But the danger still loomed. Ask Mitch "Blood" Green what happened when he tried to start something with Mike Tyson late one New York City evening.
Tyson, 220 pounds of crazy, was the last boxer to claim the title. The paradigm, as super-serious people might say, was shifting. The new "World's Most Dangerous Man" wasn't boxing in a ring—he was trying to rip people's limbs right off their bodies. His name was Ken Shamrock, and he was representing a brand-new sport, one that took organized fisticuffs to brand new levels of complexity and raw violence.
It takes a special kind of man to become the baddest man on the planet. The level of hubris, just to even fathom the idea, is off the charts. Imagine thinking, if only for a moment, that you might the toughest guy in the world. It's an act of almost incalculable arrogance—the kind of personal confidence and unbridled belief in yourself that most of us could never imagine.
As a writer, I've never once thought "David Foster Wallace, Phillip Roth, George RR Martin, I'm coming for your titles." I realize my own mediocrity and just try to do the best I can. But these aren't the kind of thoughts that drive a world-class athlete.
Fighters, especially, are different than other men. They confront situations that would scar most of us deeply, and for life, for a living. They proclaim, to another tatted-up, muscle-bound killing machine, that they will break their will and make them quit. It's really quite extraordinary if you stop and think about it.
If You Want to Know: Ask
Think about it—it turns out that's something these tough guys rarely do. We asked three current or former UFC heavyweight champions—men who could legitimately make claim to have been the best in the world—about how they decided, and at what moment they conceptualized, that they might be the baddest man on the planet.
But we wanted more. How did it feel? That's the parlance of our times right? What does it feel like in your soul to know you are the best person in the world at what you do? And what you do is pummel other men in a cage.
"I don't really feel that way," UFC champion Junior dos Santos said. "I don't think of myself that way. I don't consider myself the toughest guy or the best guy. I think I just reaped the rewards of all of my hard work. I work really hard and I feel like I'm blessed by God.
"I consider myself the number one ranked fighter in the world in my sport in my weight class. But I don't really see anything bigger than that as far as being the baddest or toughest on the planet. I'm really happy with everything that's happening to me. I feel very blessed and I like to share that with the people around me. I like to share happiness. I like to share the rewards of my success with the people who are around me in my life."
How The Sausage is Made
The hidden truth is that you don't wake up one morning as the baddest man on earth. It's a status you earn in the gym, during the parts and doing the things they normally skip on The Ultimate Fighter. Cain Velasquez isn't sure when he first realized he could be the best. As early as college perhaps. But he knows it's the product of hard work.
"From junior high until now, I've been five days a week," Velasquez said. "Even when wrestling wasn't in season, I would be in the gym working out. Wrestling freestyle in the summer time. Pretty much nonstop. It's been forever. It's something that you have to do all the time. People dedicate themselves to it. It's work. I've pretty much been working all day and that's how I think of it.
"It's definitely a good feeling. Getting to the top, knowing you've been at the top. It's definitely one of the best feelings in the world. Now I'm on the other side. I'm trying to go back to where I was."
Jeremy Botter and Matt Roth contributed to this report. UFC 146, starring three of the baddest men on the planet, is available Saturday night on PPV. All quotes in this piece were acquired by Bleacher Report. Because that's how we do.