MMA: What's More Important, Wins or Level of Competition?

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MMA: What's More Important, Wins or Level of Competition?
Photo by Josh Hedges/Forza LLC/Forza LLC via Getty Images

I've been doing some thinking about the just-concluded (for now) career of Fedor Emelianenko and about what matters more in MMA: your total amount of wins or the level of competition you faced during your career.

Lots of people - and I'll include myself in this list - consider Emelianenko to be the greatest heavyweight in the short history of the sport. I'm not sure how you can come to any other conclusion, really. He coupled together two winning streaks of 16 and 11, marred only by a no contest with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira back at PRIDE Final Conflict 2004.

PRIDE's heavyweight division, at least when Emelianenko ruled it with an iron first, was the best in the world. This isn't even a debate. The UFC had two or three heavyweights that mattered in rankings at the time, and the rest were in PRIDE. And Emelianenko faced and defeated nearly all of them.

Here's a list of what I deem to be "quality wins" on Emelianenko's record:

  • Ricardo Arona
  • Renato Sobral
  • Heath Herring
  • Semmy Schilt
  • Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
  • Gary Goodridge
  • Mark Coleman
  • Kevin Randleman
  • Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
  • Mirko Cro Cop
  • Mark Coleman
  • Mark Hunt
  • Tim Sylvia
  • Andrei Arlovski
  • Brett Rogers
  • Jeff Monson
  • Pedro Rizzo

Your definition of a "quality win" may be different than mine. Essentially, my list contains fighters who have had moderate success in mixed martial arts, which is why you don't see names like Hong Man Choi or Wagner "Zuluzinho" Martins. I also excluded Matt Lindland because, well, he was a middleweight fighting a heavyweight. That shouldn't count as a real win, even if Lindland is a tough competitor.

And so, out of Emelianenko's 34 career wins, we find that only 17 are quality wins.

Emelianenko fought and defeated the best that PRIDE had to offer, but he also fought his fair share of scrubs. This wasn't entirely his fault. Once you've beaten Nogueira two times, there's very little desire to see a third fight. And Japan's fighting ecosystem was often dependent on having fighters like Emelianenko square off in "freak show" fights, because that's what the public wanted to see.

But now, the real question: Does the fact that half of Emelianenko's wins came over lower-grade competition hurt his case as one of the greatest fighters of all time? 

What matters more in MMA?

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I think it does. And this is why fans wanted so very badly to see Emelianenko enter the UFC after the death of Affliction in 2009. They wanted to see him against the likes of Couture, Lesnar and Mir, the men considered to be the UFC's top heavyweights at the time. Doing so would have given him a chance to cement his personal fighting legacy.

Emelianenko was the best heavyweight in the world, but only for his time. But is he the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, regardless of weight class? I don't think so. The fact that half of his wins came against sub-par competition hurts him greatly when you're having that discussion.

The sport is ever-evolving, changing like the tides. New heavyweights like Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez - fighters with all-around skill and extreme physical gifts - are changing the way we view heavyweights. It's only a matter of time before Emelianenko is brushed to the side.

But that doesn't mean he wasn't the best. Because he was, once upon a time.

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