Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Cro Cop: not only one of MMA's greatest all-time fights, but also one of the most legendary competitive outings in the history of combat sports
The question of whether the old school fighters truly top the new school in combat sports is as broad as it is subjective, and it also introduces a plethora of other questions.
Did the old school present the better fighters and the more memorable fights? Should the new school get credit for changing the game and turning in fights that deliver in more than one area? Do people put too much stock in these "old-school vs. new-school" debates?
These are just some of questions that can come up when discussing old-school vs. new-school fighters.
One particular question relates to the excitement factor and whether the old school had that excitement factor down to a tee in comparison to the new school—which some have accused of being too conservative and, therefore, not all that exciting to watch. Likewise, some applaud the new school because they feel they are more versatile than the old-school fighters.
There's something to love about both, but for obvious reasons, it seems more are truly appreciating the old school more than the new school.
After all, without it, how could the new school exist, right?
The truth is that this new breed does owe the old school a bit of thanks for making it possible to stay active in MMA today. After all, they inherited the "scrap first, ask questions later" mentality they brought with them to the cage, which still exists in some of today's fighters, from fighters of the past.
That is, the old-school fighters came out ready for anything and, as Vitor Belfort put it best, they adapted to change. As fans of this era will recall, this went deeper than just fighting a particular opponent differently.
Much like there's more to an MMA fight on TV today than what a casual fan may see, adaptation to change in the old school meant preparing mentally for an opponent to bring something into the cage that one may not have physically focused on in practice.
Regardless of whether or not they prepared for a particular situation, fighters were willing to face unfamiliar threats to their success in the cage, and they looked to throw caution to the wind in finding an opening to turn the tide.
Some would argue that, aside from their natural fighting styles, their willingness to pull something big from out of nothing—without planning all that much for it beforehand—contributes to what makes these old-school fighters more exciting to watch.
This holds true in reality, and it really causes them to stand out more in some fans' minds. The added incentive of name recognition is merely a bonus for fans who don't like the new-school style.
On the other hand, to really label the new breed as a whole as "conservative fighters" seems not only unfair, but also a bit of an exaggeration. Sure, there are some fighters that use only one aspect of the game to their advantage without capitalizing on others, but why knock all of the fighters for it? If anything, the new school's style showcases the evolution of MMA at its finest.
Now, fighters really do have to prepare for everything, and it's really not as simple as some believe.
The fighters make it look easy, and even the ones that win only one way—the Ronda Rouseys, the Ben Askrens, and the like—put more into fighting for the win than it seems, and because fans don't see them use one discrete strategy, it gets misconstrued and misinterpreted as a weakness.
As for the age of the "just scrap" mentality, we're not saying goodbye to it anytime soon.
Plenty of fighters have shown that they can evolve with the sport while adapting to change as well. Rather, it is more accurate to say that we are saying hello to the "MMA athlete"—the well-rounded, truly-gifted version of the fighter.
The MMA athlete can turn it up in all areas of the sport while still finding one common area in which he or she can find victory, and while still turning in a blockbuster bout for fans of the sport to enjoy.
It has not been easy to welcome the "MMA athlete" into the sport, as this brand of fighter has introduced new questions concerning the responsibility that comes with it, as well as criticisms about the attitude that can often shake things up, to the chagrin of a few.
However, while it may never prove beneficial for business in the world of fighting, the "MMA athlete" definitely proves profitable to the mission of cultivating the sport.
Few will believe that their training leads to any semblance of a "complete fighter" for these athletes in any way, shape or form, but by focusing on preparation and ensuring that they are excellent in every area of the game, they force their competitors to prepare for the fight everywhere or risk losing a fight due to a deficiency in one area.
This preparation is so critical in the era of the "MMA athlete" that it often causes some of these athletes to deny a significant challenge when they feel they face a significantly different kind of threat, which might affect to their overall success in the sport.
This does not mean that the fighter is a boring fighter or a cowardly lion, but rather, that they wish to fight without any excuses, and they also look to fight with whatever they perceive as a complete skill set so as to deliver the full price of admission to a paying audience.
It is that completeness that may explain why there are not many "fighters" as opposed to "MMA athletes" in today's era, but that completeness is a factor in why fans can't contain their excitement for the men and women that step into the cage today.
The sooner we come to grips with this reality, the sooner the sport can evolve.