Ask a sports fan about their favorite team and a passionate response is sure to follow. They'll tell you the "why and how" of their affiliation and the deeper connection to the process.
A bullet-point list of credentials is always ready and depending on which point the team currently stands in the trajectory of rise and fall; things typically (I'm a lifelong Cubs fan) lean toward the periods of success. Even if championship glory was never obtained, those sacred few did enough to leave a lasting impression.
It is within these conversations where talk of legacy and greatness come to life. We have an emotional attachment to memories, moments created by the athletes we have followed, and we personally shape our perspectives based on how we want to remember them.
In situations where a particular athlete has risen to great heights, that argument becomes part of a larger dialogue. We want them to be great. We want them to achieve because when said athlete falls on our side of favor, the lengths we will go to support them is without boundaries. Should they wear the colors of a rival, shortcomings and missteps become ammunition.
When put under a microscope, every hero has flaws. In team sports, those errors can be shifted and distributed elsewhere, but in the singularity of combat sports, the individual athlete has few places to hide.
What happens inside the ring or cage is branded on the brain and some version of their accomplishments will stand the test of time. Anderson Silva's highlight-reel knockouts over Leben, Franklin, Griffin and Belfort will always outshine the subpar bouts with Maia and Leites.
Jon Jones' four-fight path of destruction in 2011 will hover above the DUI charge and UFC 151 debacle. Both champions have had their tense moments with a passionate fanbase, but a savage front-kick knockout or spinning back elbow later, and all things are back to favorable.
This happens because we want our fighters to be the "baddest men on the planet." We want to see and know who the best fighter in the world is. Even if that label is a myth, it doesn't make us want it any less. This is where legacy comes into play in mixed martial arts.
Fans create the buzz, and the media amplifies the sound. A fighter's profile will rise based on the talents he displays inside the cage, but it is the prior combination which increases the trajectory.
As terms such as "pound-for-pound best" or "G.O.A.T" (Greatest of All Time) are thrown around, the fires of the debate are fueled even more as the fighter they’re attached to continues his ascent into the rare space reserved for only the truly legendary in the sport.
The bigger question comes down to whether or not legacies matter in mixed martial arts? Personally, I believe the answer is a resounding yes, and we need only look to boxing for validation. "The Sweet Science" is a sport defined by fighter legacies, and when particular eras are brought up, fans are able to pinpoint the legendary fighters of that generation.
But, where boxing has enjoyed a long-and-storied history, mixed martial arts is in its infancy. MMA has certainly grown rapidly since 1993 and has done so on the fists and chins of the sport’s pioneers—the early champions who inspired future generations of fighters and made a lasting impression with fans.
The efforts of those early stalwarts laid the foundation on which today’s MMA was built, and the legacies they left behind have had an immeasurable impact on the sport.
That is why when fighters like Jones, Silva and Georges St-Pierre speak about establishing their place in the history books and building their legacies in the cage, we can’t just dismiss it as selfish chatter from a champion who is looking to protect their belt or reputation.
Long after they’ve retired, their accomplishments will continue to live on and serve as a measuring stick for determining the greatness of those who come after them.
Just as Jones is chasing down Tito Ortiz’s record for consecutive title defenses in the light heavyweight division, a new champion will take aim at the number Jones establishes whenever his time in the 205-pound weight class comes to a close.
Silva’s incredible winning streak inside the Octagon not only serves as a target for his current peers but also will remain the benchmark for excellence inside the UFC cage, just as Royce Gracie’s string of 11 consecutive victories was before that.
History changes depending on who is recounting it and how the events that followed were allowed to reshape what had already transpired, but legacies endure.
No matter what comes next, Silva’s run of 15 straight wins and counting in the UFC stands as an unprecedented achievement, and Jones’ destructive rise to being the reigning and defending light heavyweight champion will remain one of—if not—the greatest individual year the sport has ever seen.
They may be fighting for championships, but they’re also fighting for their place in the pantheon of all-time greats—a chance to live forever in the history of the sport long after they’ve hung up their four-ounce gloves, and we get to watch it happen.
That is something that should be celebrated, not stifled or scoffed at.