Should he prove successful (and nearly everyone believes he will), he will, once again, set the record for UFC title defenses at 11, no small feat in a sport with so many ways to lose.
Silva is quite simply the greatest MMA fighter to ever live—a combination of incredible talent mixed with the highest level of skill, all honed to a razor’s edge by dedication, desire and hard training.
But is he the greatest fighter ever?
If we really want to be honest, we must examine Silva compared to his peers not only in MMA but boxing as well, simply because the sweet science represents nearly half of the realm where Silva shines brightest.
So, how do we make such comparisons?
Well, first we must make note of the accomplishments of said fighters, especially at the championship level.
Secondly, we have to look at their level of competition and how they fared against fighters of significant note.
Lastly, we look at the raw talent and skill of these fighters when they were (are) at their best, not only because such talent makes them the candles that burn twice as bright but also because some of the men in this discussion are still fighting and thus their futures are subject to prognostication, largely based upon their talent.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ve chosen 10 fighters of considerable repute in pound-for-pound discussions, past and present—six from boxing and four from the world of MMA.
It is important to also note the men who are not included in this list, such as Wilfredo Gomez, who at his prime had a true undefeated record, stopping each and every one of his opponents by KO or TKO—clearly the mark of a pound-for-pound great. All of that came to an end when he was ripped to pieces by the young Salvador Sanchez, but he was still an excellent fighter in his time.
He, and many others in the world of boxing and MMA, didn’t make this list of comparison because it just didn’t need that many samples.
When ranking men of such greatness, it becomes very hard to quantify the unseen and the unknown, mainly in the realm of how MMA compares to boxing, but there are enough similarities in both sports to proceed, albeit with some caution…
As it stands now, Georges St-Pierre is the single greatest welterweight fighter in the history of the UFC and the sport, bar none.
Even though his career has not seen him claim victory via stoppage since he defeated BJ Penn at UFC 94, as champion, he has been facing some of the very best opposition available, and many of his opponents are very hard to stop on their worst day.
In his championship career, he has utilized an excellent takedown game, ever-improving striking, slick submission defense and a relentless top game to defeat some excellent fighters, making it look easy and losing but a handful of rounds along the way.
In his time at the top, he has stopped Matt Hughes twice, BJ Penn, pulverized top contender Jon Fitch and dominated the likes of Thiago Alves, Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck and soundly trounced former Strikeforce champions Jake Shields and Nick Diaz, while defeating interim UFC champion Carlos Condit.
When comparing his level of competition in championship fights to that of Silva, it seems as if he’s got a slight edge over “The Spider.”
The stiffest competition Silva has faced in his time as middleweight champion has come in the form of Chael Sonnen, whom Silva stopped twice.
When looking at Silva’s overall record in the UFC, he has trounced five champions: Rich Franklin, Nate Marquardt (formerly a Pancrase champion), Dan Henderson (former two-division Pride champion), Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort.
GSP has defeated six champions: Hughes, Shields, Nick Diaz, Condit and Penn (when Penn was a P4P great himself) and Matt Serra.
In defeating such legendary champions as Hughes and Penn, GSP’s resume inches just above Silva’s…but not enough to prove himself greater in the pound-for-pound debate for three reasons.
First, Silva has moved up in weight to fight on three different occasions and stopped a former light heavyweight champion in Forrest Griffin.
GSP has yet to move up in weight, let alone trounce a middleweight champion with the same ease that Silva dispatched Griffin.
Silva can further the distance between himself and GSP if the two ever fight for Silva’s middleweight title; if he can defeat the younger GSP and his excellent takedown game, he will have the first victory in his career over a fellow P4P luminary.
Secondly, as talented as GSP is (which is very), Silva still seems high above him when it comes to fluidity in the cage and fight-ending potential, not to mention defensive skills. GSP is more of a highly talented and earnest workman, where as Silva seems more akin to a wizard.
Finally, Silva finishes fights, no matter how great the opposition or how high the stakes or risk of defeat, and that speaks volumes about him as a fighter.
In reality, both men are near the top of the rankings for this kind of hypothetical, but Silva sits at No. 1, GSP at No. 2.
Forget for a little while that both Anderson Silva and Roy Jones Jr. were pushing hard to get a fight with each other; that is a style vs. sensibility and venue question I am happy enough answering now.
In a boxing match, Jones annihilates Silva in any round he wants—no questions asked.
In an MMA bout, if Silva uses a lot of kicks, clinching, takedowns and submissions, he should win at nearly any time he wants—no questions asked.
But would Silva be such a slave to his desire to see if he can beat Jones in a boxing match that he would try to slug it out with the boxing legend in the Octagon?
If yes, then Jones cleans his clock, revitalized by just how much faster his hands fly using four-ounce gloves, blowing Silva off his feet in a savaging of epic proportions.
And as that is out of the way…
Jones is a hard case to quantify. He was really the greatest boxer between 1990 and 2000, but he never lived up to his full potential, and that hurts his legacy for all the right reasons.
Jones was just as freakishly gifted and athletic as Silva, only more so. He was far faster and more explosive, had incredible eyes for striking, better defensively and had KO power equal to Silva.
Silva and Jones in many ways are very similar. Both men don’t rely on the basics of the fight game, opting to make up the rules as they go along, blowing capable opponents out of the water with an ease that is, at sometimes, inspiring, and other times, boring.
But Jones did accomplish some incredible things in his career—most notably becoming the first former middleweight champion to capture the heavyweight title since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897. Yes, the first man in 100 years to accomplish something is a damn special fighter.
As far as competition, both are fairly even when you dig deep and equate their resumes. Jones smoked the likes of Bernard Hopkins (in what was essentially a one-handed performance) and James Toney, Virgil Hill, Jeff Lacey and Felix Trinidad. The rest of his resume could have been so much greater, but it wasn’t.
If pressed, I would have to say that Silva and Jones are just about equal, giving both men nods for being so great that they have gotten away with giving us less than they could have.
While Jones is actually and honestly more of a striking virtuoso that Silva, Silva has been the best there has ever been in a sport with nearly four times as many ways to lose, and that means a lot.
In fact, it means just as much as defeating John Ruiz.
Much like Jon Jones, Jose Aldo is another young fighter who is wickedly talented and looks to have an unbelievable bright future if he can keep his head on straight.
Blindingly fast, brutally powerful and utterly skilled, Aldo is the whole package, and to be honest, if he begins to fight three times a year, he could be one of those incredibly special fighters who wins and defends two belts in two divisions at the same time.
Very soon, we will get to see him square off against another ridiculously talented fighter in Anthony Pettis in a fight fans dream of coming true.
Should Aldo do to Pettis what he has done to nearly everyone else, there is really no one who can contend with his level of skill and his physical advantages.
In fact, in the world of MMA, Aldo is one of the few fighters who can surpass them all if he is of the mind to conquer the lightweight division. Should he do that and defend that belt, then he will really be the best fighter in the history of MMA.
And if he does, in fact, decide to defend both the featherweight and lightweight titles, then MMA fans will be looking at a living legend.
As far as accomplishments, Silva has still faced more champions and attained more in a very unforgiving sport. As great as Aldo is, his list of victims isn’t as impressive as that of Silva, but the Pettis bout could change all of that in a hurry.
Right now, Aldo sits behind Silva, and rightly so; but the next 12 months could see Aldo do incredible things, and the future always has and always will belong to the young.
Undefeated for the duration of his professional career, Floyd Mayweather Jr.—not Manny Pacquiao—stands as the pound-for-pound king of the boxing world, and he’s earned it.
Right off the bat, he’s got the kind of resume that is honestly more accomplished than Silva’s: wins over Diego Corrales (who was undefeated at the time with a record of 33-0 with 27 wins coming via KO/TKO), Jose Luis Castillo (twice), Arturo Gatti, Zab Judah, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, Victor Ortiz and Miguel Cotto.
All of the aforementioned fighters were champions, and even though Mosley and Marquez were on the older side of 30, Mayweather dominated both with an ease that is truly the hallmark of greatness.
As far as talent and pure physical gifts, both men seem equal to these humble eyes, although again, it is hard to equate, given the differences and demands of each sport. Both are basically once-in-a-generation talents.
In regard to accomplishments, both would be about equal as well; both have dominated their sport, and while Mayweather has conquered more champions, many of them were not in their prime, and that, when added to how the sport of MMA has four times as many ways to see a fighter lose, makes them about equal.
Another way that they are growing closer and closer is their inability or lack of desire to see true and meaningful superfights made.
For Silva, it is a bout with Jon Jones, for Mayweather, it is a bout with Pacquiao.
In the end, I have to give an advantage to Mayweather, but just by a little bit. If Silva conquers GSP, that counts for a lot, and if he faces and defeats Jon Jones, Mayweather is officially in the rearview mirror.
When it comes to heavyweights, no one has done better than “The Last Emperor,” Fedor Emelianenko.
As unassuming as he was ferocious in the ring, Emelianenko was a whirlwind of destruction who ran over anything in his path, with damn near-perfect balance. He was equally capable of winning via his striking or submissions, and his defense was keenly good for a heavyweight.
He also possessed brutal power and was shocking fast for a heavyweight, and if that wasn’t enough, he was also ungodly tough and resilient; anyone who has seen the fight where Kevin Randleman lofted Emelianenko into the air and power-bombed him right on his head knows this to be true.
For nearly 10 years, he went undefeated, beating everyone placed in front of him, including Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic in his prime, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (twice), Mark Coleman (twice), Kevin Randleman, Tim Sylvia, and Andrei Arlovski—all former or future champions.
Yet as impressive as that is, Emelianenko may actually be a victim of the shallowness that seems inherent in the heavyweight division of MMA.
If Emelianenko had additional opponents like Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar, he could have seen his legacy held in even greater esteem than it is now. But that is also the fault of his management and their ridiculous mismanagement of his career after the fall of Pride.
So how does Anderson Silva compare to Emelianenko?
Both men have accomplished a great deal, going undefeated for 10 years, but Silva has continued with no signs of slowing down, where Emelianenko began to look more and more human as he inched closer to the three-fight losing streak that saw him toppled.
As far as talent is where physical gifts are concerned, Silva has the edge on him in everything but constitution—no one had a better constitution and resiliency than Emelianenko in his prime.
Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight the sport of MMA has ever seen, and in his prime, he would have wrecked Lesnar, Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Frank Mir or anyone else put in front of him.
In truth, Emelianenko compares to Silva much like GSP does. Both men are talented and gifted fighter-athletes who are earnest workmen employing game plans that work to their strengths, while Silva is a wizard doing magic in the cage, and there is really no comparison.
Perhaps, that is why Silva, who is older than Emelianenko, looks so timeless, because only the young at heart seem to believe in magic enough to make it happen.
If there is one thing that can be said of Manny Pacquiao, it is that he has become great because he dared to be great, because he desired it so much that he out-trained and because he outfought nearly everyone in front of him, willing to risk losing in pursuit of the record books.
When it comes to achievements, Pacquiao outdoes Anderson Silva by a country mile, along with just about all of his contemporaries in boxing, which is saying a great deal.
He is the first eight-division champion (winning 10 titles therein), he captured the lineal championship in four different divisions, has been named the Fighter of the Decade in boxing (2000 to 2009) by multiple organizations, named Fighter of the Year by The Ring magazine (in 2006, 2008 and 2009), and so on and so on.
When it comes to his resume against stiff competition, he vanquished many champions of serious note, besting nearly all of the greats of his generation.
He steamrolled over Marco Antonio Barrera (twice), mauled Erik Morales (twice), Juan Manuel Marquez (twice), David Diaz, annihilated Oscar de La Hoya (sending him into retirement), flattened Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, and many others—all of them great champions.
As far as raw talent is concerned, Pacquiao is a very fast fighter with thunder in both hands, but he really is just the greatest workman of his generation. Silva is a wildly talented virtuoso in the cage who seems capable of doing anything his mind can picture, so talent goes to “The Spider.”
It is honestly very hard to imagine Silva being a greater pound-for-pound than Pacquiao simply due to all the Filipino congressman has accomplished in his sport.
At UFC 159, we will get a unique kind of litmus test for Jon Jones, and the P4P debate, when he squares off against the only man to ever dominate Anderson Silva for an extended period of time: Chael Sonnen.
Should Jones dismantle Sonnen with the same ease as he has all his other competition during his reign as champion, it will be hard to debate that he is on the verge of not only being as great as Silva from a pound-for-pound stand point but greater.
Since Silva has not retired, Jones could surpass him on the list, as such lists are current and ponder the question in real time as well as retrospectively.
When you look at their resumes, Jones has fought nothing but champions, stopping them all (save Rashad Evans) inside of five rounds, which is an incredible feat.
This must be weighed in equal opposition to the amount of times Silva has defended his title and reigned undefeated in the UFC, a record equally incredible.
When it comes to pure talent and athleticism, Silva and Jones are running side-by-side—what Silva is to striking, Jones is to grappling.
Silva is the more accomplished fighter, not only given his standing as longest UFC champion ever but given how he has dominated when moving up to another division. Jones is still young in his career and has been toying with the idea of moving up to heavyweight, but until he does, he is unproven in that realm.
Right now, Silva must be ranked ahead of Jones, simply because he has fought longer in the toughest organization and remained undefeated, looking brilliant in the process.
Jones has also looked brilliant, but he hasn’t had enough time in the UFC cage to eclipse Silva as of yet.
Perhaps the greatest of “The Four Kings,” Olympic gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard was a brilliant fighter who fought just about every perceived threat to his dominance, defeating Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Wilfred Benitez.
Fast as hell, Leonard was one of those rare fighters who could box all day long, but if the going got tough, he could dig deep and unleash the brawler within, as seen in the sixth round of his epic first fight with Hearns.
Understanding the greatness of Leonard is sometimes hard, given how few champions he bested when compared to the likes of men like Pacquiao, Ali and others.
But when it came time to make the fights with the greatest fighters of his generation—all still in their prime—Leonard was all about seeing the fights signed. It was a rare thing when you think of how long Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have been struggling to come to terms for the greatest bout in boxing history, which is honestly a moot point now.
When it comes to accomplishments, Leonard won titles in five weight divisions, but again, he fought but a handful of really great fighters. On the flip side, men like Duran, Hearns and Hagler really were fantastic fighters and champions—no question about it.
But are his accomplishments greater than Silva, given how vastly different the sports are and that Leonard was fighting in the 1980s? That is hard to say, and at this time, I have them ranked just about equal simply because it is just too damn hard to quantify, with any fairness, the worth of both men’s accomplishments.
As far as raw talent and athleticism, I have to give the nod to Silva, while acknowledging that Leonard was very talented and used his talent with a high degree of skill.
There is a difference between fighters who seem bound by nothing in the use of their incredible skills and those who bend their considerable talent to serve a high skill set. Silva is the former, and Leonard is the latter.
When it comes to the overall level of their competition, both Leonard and Silva had feasted on some lesser fighters while achieving greatness over a handful of great fighters.
As of now, I would rank both men about equal as far as how they compare, pound-for-pound.
But if superfights with GSP and Jon Jones come to fruition and Silva wins either (or both), it is hard to argue that he won't surpass Leonard.
Perhaps one of the greatest heavyweights in history, Muhammad Ali is still unappreciated for all of his skills, talents and accomplishments.
That says a great deal since he is, perhaps, the most widely acclaimed fighter to step inside the ring in the past 50 years.
Ali was one of the gutsiest boxers ever—a man who loved to fight and loved to win, never shying away from any challenge—and the challenges to his throne were vast and great.
Ali was the greatest heavyweight champion of his generation. He was king of the hill at a time when the division was at its best. Men like the Klitschko brothers would have been eaten alive in the heavyweight division during the '70s and '80s, while Ali ruled them all.
He was a very talented fighter who had excellent skills, speed, KO power, incredible will to win, dedication, desire and heart, and he marshaled all of that into a flamboyant package that made him a walking media event.
And he could back it all up in the ring, with plenty of bravado to spare.
Was he as talented as Silva in the area of uncommon physical gifts? Probably not—but he was much more consistent in displaying his own unique level of excellence, defeating some of the toughest and most dangerous men to ever step into a gym.
Or, to be clear, even in fights against the very best, when he was taking a beating, he still looked incredible on one hand and magical on the other. As far as accomplishments, that can be tied directly to the level of his competition, that is fantastic.
He faced and defeated such giants as Sonny Liston (twice), Floyd Patterson (twice), Ken Norton (two out of three), Joe Frazier (two out of three), George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Bob Foster, Jimmy Ellis, Ernie Terrell and so on.
He was also the first-ever three-time heavyweight champion, a feat he accomplished when he avenged his loss to Leon Spinks in 1978.
There is no question that Ali faced and conquered a more impressive and dangerous list of opponents than Silva has (as of now), just as there is no question that he accomplished more than Silva.
But one thing that Silva has over him is longevity. Ali took some tremendous beatings in his stories career, while Silva has been so superior to nearly everyone he has fought that even now, as he nears 40, he looks as if he just might be able to complete his new 10-fight deal undefeated.
However, for now, Ali was greater in his time than Silva is now.
As the man who is actually responsible for pound-for-pound rankings being created in the first place, Sugar Ray Robinson is widely considered the greatest fighter to ever lace up gloves—and for many, many reasons.
Ranked No. 1 on Dave Carlson’s list of the top 100 greatest pound-for-pound boxers in history (among countless other such lists), Robinson defeated all of the elite fighters of his era.
He was very fast, aggressive, possessed a granite chin, had KO power in both hands, could fight equally well going backward as he could going forward, which is saying a great deal considering when he was going forward, he was the best the sport had ever seen.
He could do it all, putting everything together with a fluid ease that saw him conquer just about every style put in front of him, and when you look at his record, you can see he conquered them all.
During his incredible career (173-19-6 with 108 wins via KO/TKO), he faced Denny Moyer (twice), Carmen Basilio (twice), Gene Fullmer (four times), Joey Maxim, Rocky Graziano, Randy Turpin (twice), Bobo Olson (four times), Kid Gavilan (twice), Henry Armstrong, Jake LaMotta (six times—including the infamous “St. Valentines Day Massacre”), one of the roughest and dirties fighters of all time in Fritzie Zivic (twice), Maxie Shapiro, Sammy Angott (twice).
Each and every one of these fighters was an all-time great and undisputed champion during the time when there were only eight titles—total—in the sport.
This isn’t the resume of just a great fighter—it’s that of a king slayer.
Silva also has a great resume, but he just doesn’t have enough of that greatness to compare. He would have to defeat Chael Sonnen another few times, in addition to defeating GSP and Jon Jones at least twice each to be in the running with Robinson.
Of course, it must be recognized that, in Robinson’s day, fighters of all levels fought much more per calendar year, while we are lucky Silva fights three times a year. Had the sport of MMA existed back then—and Silva—he probably would have fought with much more frequency.
And yet, when comparing the level of competition, it is clear that Robinson faced far greater fighters.
But they are comparable in some ways, aside from their obvious greatness in talent and in-fight dominance—for Robinson, it was “the greatest left hook ever thrown,” for Silva it would be “the greatest front kick” against Vitor Belfort.
When it comes to raw talent and athleticism, they seem equal. It’s just that Robinson accomplished far more, quite possibly because his era demanded more of its champions than we demand of ours today.
Silva is great, no question about it, but he isn’t as great as Robinson was—at least not yet.
But coming up short to Robinson is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, everyone else has, but few are still the greatest fighter in the history of MMA, and Silva clearly is.