MMA: 20 Bouts Pitting Yesteryear vs. Yesterday vs. Today
There has always been something about the combative sports that seems to transcend the notion that today is better than yesterday, or today will be better than tomorrow; let’s face it, none of the fans of today can readily predict the fall of their heroes because none of us have a crystal ball.
But fall they will. On a long enough time-line, everyone loses, including Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Jose Aldo—one and all, they will fall.
When it comes to the fight game, it is nearly impossible to deny that the past is the father to the present and when you look into the past, nearly all of the greats, and the greatest of the greats, finally succumbed to the erosion of time.
Fans declare that age will never catch up with Anderson Silva, just as they declare that no one at light heavyweight will defeat Jon Jones, etc. It’s a method of thinking based on the easiest assumption at hand, and given how dominant these fighters have been, what could be easier to imagine than victory after victory?
Much like when Roberto Duran waved his hands in Round 8 of his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard, crying “No mas… no mas,” fans could not believe it was happening because they had never seen it before; to have asked them to imagine it beforehand would have been like asking Attila the Hun to imagine world peace.
The simple truth is that just as a ship is unsinkable until it sinks, so too will Anderson Silva be unbeatable until he is beaten; probably before his new 10-fight contract reaches the age of retirement.
But for those of us who have seen previous generations of supposedly unbeatable fighters taste defeat, growing older as they go along, we know what will happen, because it has always happened, and always will.
The great thing about the fight game is that on one night, the lessons learned and the skills drawn from yesterday can defeat the greatest of today, should they be marshaled by a man who has the courage of his convictions and a clarity of intent that will not see him dwarfed by the moment.
An example of this could be when Vitor Belfort almost submitted Jon Jones with a basic armbar, or perhaps an even greater example was when Anderson Silva defeated Chael Sonnen via submission very late in the fight at UFC 117, much like Royce Gracie defeated Dan Severn at UFC 4.
But such lessons and skills need a vehicle, and it is those fighters who have proven capable of coupling the precedents of the past with their own unique attributes and species of greatness that stand out in our mind as giants of yesterday, or the unconquerable of today.
For instance; Georges St-Pierre has been so dominant in his career—especially now that he is close to becoming the first tenured welterweight champion in UFC history—that he has turned a string of six straight decision wins into an epic testimony to his greatness among the great, just as Metallica proved that the long song was still art with the release of “And Justice For All…”.
So to even consider for a moment that GSP could lose in a hypothetical bout against one of the greatest of yesteryear—Frank Shamrock—is laughable and unthinkable, because it is outside the realm of experience for fans who were not fans when Shamrock was to yesterday what fighters like GSP and Anderson Silva are today; giants among men.
So, why ask the questions in the first place?
Because that’s what fight fans do; we look into the past (which gives us great appreciation for the present) and we try to evaluate the greatness we see before us with the greatness we have seen before.
After all, like attracts like, and if we didn’t like what we were seeing, we’d be looking someplace else.
So, with both feet planted firmly in the present, we can recall the past and ponder just how great the fights would have been between the standouts of yesteryear vs. yesterday vs. today.
BJ Penn vs. Benson Henderson
While the man known as “The Prodigy,” BJ Penn, continues to be in a holding pattern in limbo, we often scratch our head as we ponder just how much greater his legacy would be had he dedicated his attention and energy toward the weight class that has always suited him best: lightweight.
Benson Henderson, the current lightweight champion, seems to be all about the business of becoming the greatest champion in UFC history and is clearly dedicated to that end alone.
Given that one more victory could see Henderson become the leader in title defenses (and with that would come the mantle of “best UFC lightweight champion ever”), it seems only natural to ponder the “ifs” when trying to reconcile Henderson as a step above Penn; a man who’s emergence in the sport was more impressive than that of Jon Jones or anyone else for that matter.
In his prime, Penn was simply as great as he could imagine, perhaps because he didn’t know any better than to believe a rank novice in MMA competition could defeat two of the top five in his division in his second and third pro bouts.
But that’s exactly what he did when he took aim at Din Thomas and Caol Uno, blowing them both out of the water with an ease that was, and still is, shocking.
Some men are blessed with so much raw talent and natural ability that their rise to the top is almost a given, which is exactly how it was for Penn, who could have been a champion at 155 far before he was had he been fully committed to the task and the UFC.
Then, there are men who are incredibly driven and possess a high level of athleticism, relentless in their quest to be the best; and the lightweight division has such a man as champion in Henderson.
So, when considering both men, in their primes, coming together to settle matters with their own hands, such a fight takes on the semblance of a wild beast running through a well-known field.
Penn possessed many weapons that did not seem to rightly belong to a beginner: one-strike KO power, excellent takedown defense, freakish athleticism, a solid chin, incredible jiu-jitsu and so on.
It was such a potent ensemble that when assessing all the strengths of current champion Benson Henderson, it becomes very hard to see how Henderson could win a bout against a prime-time Penn.
However, Henderson is clearly more versatile in his attacks than Penn ever was, using a mixed bag of strikes that keeps most two-dimensional fighters of Penn’s cloth on the defensive all night long, looking low when they should be high, etc.
But Penn in his prime was far better than anyone the division has ever seen, including Benson Henderson.
So, while Henderson may very well go on to be the most notable and successful 155 champion in UFC history, ranked rightly above Penn, “The Prodigy” would have probably walked out of this hypothetical bout with a victory, via rear naked choke, sometime in Round 4.
Junior Dos Santos vs. Maurice Smith
As one of the most dominant heavyweights in the sport today, the man known to many as JDS, Junior dos Santos, is the only fighter to own a victory over current champion Cain Velasquez, but would it be enough to beat a man like Maurice Smith?
Smith was not your usual MMA fighter, coming from the world of kickboxing only to flounder in the beginning of his new career.
Once he teamed up with Frank Shamrock and began to learn how to grapple, he became the UFC heavyweight champion in short order.
And he defeated Mark Coleman, the man thought to be invincible in his day, in order to claim the crown.
If these two men would have met, a prime Smith wouldn’t have to worry too much about JDS trying to take him down, leaving him to steer his ship from his own wheelhouse.
However, even though Smith was the much more experienced striker, JDS has a way of making men fight his kind of fight, mostly due to his power and aggression.
Smith was a very crafty, cagey striker in the world of MMA, using distance well and attacking on all levels, especially with accurate leg kicks and straight punches.
But he was hittable, and JDS packs some serious horsepower in each punch, nearly always swinging for the fences.
This would be a bout that saw both men tagged, and although Smith would not only win rounds but stun JDS, the latter would continue to push forward, digging hard shots to the body before finally finding a home for his near-lethal fists on the chin and cheekbones of Smith.
The end would come via TKO, via corner stoppage, after four entertaining and highly competitive rounds.
Dan Henderson vs. Chuck Liddell
The world of combative sport—especially MMA—is filled with oddities of style and circumstance, and an excellent example of this would have been a bout between Dan Henderson and Chuck Liddell.
The case in point is found when you realize this is a fight that would have been decided on the feet due to the fact that Henderson, a wrestler in the beginning of his career, found his best form as a heavy slugger, while Liddell was at his best as a heavy slugger who used his underrated wrestling skills in stuffing takedowns.
The ground game would have been basically thrown out the window by the wrestler in favor of a fist fight, and that is ironic when you consider that Henderson evolved into a very heavy-handed puncher when Pride FC was coming to the end of the road; around the same time as Liddell was reigning light heavyweight champion in the UFC.
In a fight between two men as supremely confident as Henderson and Liddell, we would have got to see the kind of fight that could have ended in the blink of an eye, as either man could have knocked the other out with a single shot.
Granted, Henderson has never been rendered unconscious in his career, but Liddell could have done it; few were as capable of timing the perfect punch and then landing it with equal perfection as “The Ice Man.”
But Henderson has always been dogged and aggressive, and as Randy Couture proved, Liddell could be beaten to the punch.
I have no clear idea who would have won this fight; it is just that close.
If forced to pick, I would have to give the advantage to Liddell, who was simply the sharper fighter when it came to throwing devastating punches.
But if Henderson won, it wouldn’t be of any surprise.
Takanori Gomi vs. Caol Uno
Known as “The Fireball Kid,” Takanori Gomi, in this match-up, plays the part of Aaron Pryor to Caol Uno’s Alexis Arguello in what we could only hope would be a fight worthy of the comparison.
As usual, the clash of styles is a compelling one; the punching skill and power of Gomi vs. the poise and grappling acumen of Uno, all with national pride on the line.
While both men were among the best of their divisions (somewhere between lightweight and welterweight) in their time, neither was able to become the best of the best, and oddly enough their main foil for that mantle was but one man: BJ Penn.
So, who would see their hand raised if both these excellent fighters were allowed the chance to put forth the best version of their former selves the sport had ever seen?
As we’ve come to expect from such a drastic contrast in styles, much of the outcome would depend on who was the most adaptable, able to handle setbacks mid-fight, adjust and resume the attack, and in this case, that looks to be Uno.
But as Gomi has proven more than once, sometimes all you need is dynamite in your hands to render the rest a moot point.
Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua vs. Bas Rutten
There is seldom a better feeling for a fight fan than when he hears that two powerful strikers with similar styles are going to be slugging it out—it was that way when Marco Antonio Barrera vs. Erik Morales was announced, just as it was for Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, and it would be the same way for Bas Rutten vs. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Both Rutten and Rua had brutal power in their primes, and their style of striking was very similar as both use chopping leg kicks, heavy knees, hard punches and surprisingly good head movement on the outside.
When trying to imagine this fight, both men are so close in skill, power and style that trying to decide who wins is really nothing more than a matter of splitting hairs.
One scary fact about Rutten was during his prime, the rules of Pancrase were set up so no closed-fist striking was allowed, just open palm strikes. This may have helped Rutten, oddly enough, as he had to learn to develop other areas of his striking game in order to gain the KO, and he did plenty of damage via open palm.
Rua was a product of that violent environment of the Chute Boxe Academy, so that his arsenal of strikes contains nearly all the same weapons as Rutten is no surprise; all eight points of contact were trained into Rua much like humility is trained into a Buddhist monk; Thai fighting in the Brazilian style is just as much a virtue to the Chute Boxe camp as jiu-jitsu is to the Gracie family.
It’s hard to know who would have the advantage in a striking battle; Rutten was so polished that he turned the liver-shot KO into a work of art, while Rua used his relentless attack and explosiveness like it was a lion on the end of a short leash, waiting to be released.
The true foil in the fight would be that Rutten was the more poised, calculated striker while Rua was of the mind that a strong offense is far better than any kind of defense.
The ironic part of this is that Rutten could become a shockingly effective brawler at the drop of a hat while Rua could play the part of patient tactician, as we saw in his bouts with Lyoto Machida.
It would have been another one for the ages.
Frank Mir vs. Mark Kerr
When it comes to fighters with a strong wrestling base, very few were as powerful as a prime Mark Kerr, and hardly any embraced the world of submissions and striking toward the end of becoming true mixed martial artist as he did.
In Frank Mir, he’d be facing his superior in terms of submission grappling and striking, but that might not be enough to defeat a fighter like Kerr, who in his prime was a staple in the ADCC, defeating all comers while polishing his submission game against the best in the world at that time.
This is a bout that poses several questions, almost all of them revolving on how Mir would deal with the top game of a great wrestler who was an avid student of the game of grappling as a whole.
Would he be able to catch Kerr in a submission from his back? Or would Kerr, using his high degree of submission awareness, be able to defend those submission attempts while maintaining a strong base, hammering away at Mir from up high?
Of course, if Mir could catch Kerr with some serious strikes while standing, he could knock “The Smashing Machine” out; but in truth that is an outcome in some doubt, as Kerr was a very smart fighter, having been taught the basics of the striking game by one of the best strikers ever in Bas Rutten.
Kerr was the kind of fighter who didn’t suffer from any real form of hubris; he knew he could be knocked out if he lingered too long in that dangerous range without any kind of true goal—and for Kerr, the goal was normally the takedown.
When it comes to athleticism and raw horsepower, Kerr would have a decided advantage; he really was a specimen at 250 pounds, possessing incredible strength and surprising speed to complement his wrestling game.
Mir is no slouch in this department, either, but his main advantage is his mind for submissions and his explosiveness; when the moment of opportunity arrives, few seize it with the authority and energy due the moment than Mir.
This one is honestly too close to call, but if forced to choose, I see a prime Kerr winning a decision via takedowns off attempted leg kicks by Mir, maintaining a heavy top game that is based on a wealth of knowledge when it comes to submission defense (especially during transitions or fast scrambles) and a focused, heavy ground-and-pound attack.
But then again, I picked Junior dos Santos to defeat Cain Velasquez in their rematch, so what the hell do I know?
Brock Lesnar vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
When people think of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in his prime, they recall not only the moments of his technical brilliance on the ground, but his ability to overcome monstrous odds against monstrous opponents, like he found in Bob Sapp, and for the sake of this hypothetical, like he would find in Brock Lesnar.
Nogueira was really the second greatest heavyweight in the history of the sport during his prime, second only to Fedor Emelianenko. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the man known as “Big Nog” is as of now the second greatest heavyweight in the history of MMA, period.
In Lesnar, Nogueira would be facing a monster of a wrestler who was far more agile, fast and explosive than any big man he had ever seen; not to mention possessing more functional strength than the likes of Sapp or anyone else.
While much is made of Lesnar’s dethroning, it is important to note that we don’t know just how much of an effect the diverticulitis had on his reign, especially since he suffered a relapse.
What we do know is that when he was healthy (in his prime), he was a monster on the mat that few could contend with, capable of establishing a solid position after an explosive takedown and then unleashing a brutal flurry of strikes that happened so fast and did so much damage that he could take some of the best in the sport and make them look nothing more than victims to a crime—most notably a crime to our sensibilities that declared that no ex-WWE wanna-be could take out one of MMA’s notable.
After seeing Nogueira withstand the hellish punishment he took at the hand of Emelianenko in their first bout, it becomes very clear that he is probably one of the very few that could withstand the hammer that is Lesnar long enough to perhaps turn the tables and show the big man the painful requirements of being the nail.
But then again, MMA is a sport where David doesn’t always slay Goliath.
Pat Miletich vs. Jake Shields
Before anyone begins to beat that tired drum about Pat Miletich being the kind of fighter that could put insomnia to sleep, it should be noted that out of his 29 wins, 18 came by submission and five via KO/TKO.
Yet given his ability to finish fights, he’d be hard pressed to stop the rugged Jake Shields, a fighter who in more than a few ways is cut from the same cloth.
Granted, Miletich was a far better striker, whereas Shields is the greater submission grappler, they still have common ground; both are dogged men who don’t like to lose, both come from a grappling background and both never shied away from a tough fight, no matter who was waiting in the wings.
This would be a bout fought in the trenches, with both men pressed hard to defend the weakest links in their chain while looking to stop the other man as quickly as possible.
Most may have forgotten how sly Miletich could be in a fight, luring the opposition in and then catching them in transition or a moment of indecision.
What Shields may lack in terms of subterfuge, he makes up for with sheer skill on the ground, possessing one of the most underappreciated guards in the sport.
If Miletich could keep the bout standing (and there is a very good chance he could), odds are he would pile up the points via strikes and win a decision.
If he could not, then he could find himself in deep water when forced to play chess against Shields, who is equally adapt from the top or bottom.
While this bout may seem short on interest for many, I cannot help but think these men would put on a fight that would surprise everyone.
Nick Diaz vs. Jose Pele Landis-Jons
While a healthy number of today’s MMA fanbase already owns substantial stock in the Nick Diaz don’t-be-scared-homie fan club, there was (once upon a time) another fighter who was just as fierce and dedicated to fighting anyone, anytime, happy to engage in the mental aspects of psychological warfare before, during and after a fight: Jose Pele Landis-Jons.
In fact, the man known as “Pele” (for short) was perhaps the closest thing the sport has ever had to Roberto Duran when it comes to belief and bad attitude.
This is one of those rare bouts where both men would enrage the other as the seconds ticked by, neither backing down an inch, until we had what would surely be as close to a lock for Fight of the Year as any hypothetical can provide.
In his prime, Pele was one of the angriest fighters you’d see, attacking with the kind of fearlessness and aggression that was pure Chute Boxe, top to bottom.
And against the elder Diaz, he’d have the perfect dance partner.
Both men would attack with strikes all night long, seeing Diaz score well with punches-in-bunches while Pele attacked with biting leg kicks and brutal knees as the two of them battered and blasted each other from pillar to post.
If the fight hit the ground, the edge would go to Diaz, and in truth, that’s where he’d need to take this fight to win it. Pele took heavy leather from Chuck Liddell, who hits far harder than Diaz ever could, so eventually Diaz would need to drag the bout to the floor before Pele finally chopped his legs out from under him.
Perhaps the perfect venue for this bout would have been the IVC (International Vale Tudo Championship) ring in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the refs were all about the business of letting fighters decide things on their own.
This wouldn’t have been something as simple as just a “great fight”; it would have been the kind of brawl that was timeless, like Hagler vs. Hearns, Ali vs. Frazier III and so on—the kind of fight you watch time and again; amazed at how it defines and realigns your appreciation and perspective toward the virtue of violence for the sake of violence.
Michael Bisping vs. Murilo 'Ninja' Rua
If Michael Bisping were American, he might be more appreciated for what he brings to the ring; if Murilo “Ninja” Rua had not been toiling in the shadow of his brother Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, he may have seen his star rise much higher than it did.
But what they are in this match up is more than good enough: two fighters with contrasting styles and the kind of skills that would make their clash one for the ages.
Much like Nick Diaz vs. Jose Pele Landis-Jons, we have one fighter in Bisping who uses his boxing chops against another Chute Boxe fighter in Ninja who attacks with knees, kicks and punches; the resulting clash keeping us on our seats nearly the entire time, waiting to see who would fall first.
Of course, Bisping isn’t just a stand-up fighter; he’s proven that he can take the fight to the floor when he is of a mind to, but Ninja in his prime wasn’t the kind of fighter taken off his feet easily.
Most of this bout would be fought on the feet, with Bisping looking to land his one-two and then circling out of danger while Ninja attacked the legs, and anything else within striking range, pushing forward with the kind of aggression that would make Wanderlei Silva smile.
If Bisping could manage some takedowns, he would likely pull off a decision victory, and if he could not, he would be in the kind of firefight that would demand that he explore the option of offense being the best defense; Ninja simply wouldn’t content himself on waiting for Bisping to come in—he would attack any time Bisping backed up or tried to circle away, constantly putting on the pressure.
This is one of those bouts that could see Bisping pressured, at times, into becoming the brawler instead of the boxer, fighting hard in long flurries just to get a little bit of walking room, and he’d have to be checking leg kicks all night long; a key component for Ninja to limit the movement of Bisping, all toward the end of boxing him in and shipping him out.
But many others have thought that dealing with the style and skills of Bisping would be easy, and nearly all of them have been turned away, frustrated and defeated.
While we’ll never know if Ninja would have suffered the same frustrations, we do know that both men would have left it all in the ring, firmly advocates of the adage that it’s better to give than receive, and giving us one hell of a fight in the process.
Rashad Evans vs. Igor Vovchanchyn
While most fans of the sport today don’t know who Igor Vovchanchyn was, the idea of seeing him in his prime, squaring off against a fighter with the tools of Rashad Evans would be telling on both sides.
For Evans, we would learn if he could deal with a compact power puncher who was very good at stopping takedowns and using those successes to blast opponents into dreamland.
Vovchanchyn was a monster in his prime, and on top of all of that, he was perhaps one of the most well-conditioned fighters of his time.
How would Evans deal with being in a fight against a man who could knock him cold with even a grazing punch, especially if Evans couldn’t take him down?
Also, could Vovchanchyn find a way to pressure Evans, given how adept “Suga” is at circling and picking his shots?
Vovchanchyn was a very aggressive fighter who would go forward, sprawling out of takedown attempts while throwing bombs anytime he closed ranks.
In a clash of styles as well as time periods, this one would be a classic, especially if it was contested in the Pride FC ring.
One thing is for sure; Evans couldn’t afford to phone this one in like he did against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. If he did, he’d end up being carried out of the ring on a stretcher.
Royce Gracie vs. Shinya Aoki
While it is possible that a bout between Royce Gracie and Shinya Aoki could end up looking like Matt Hughes vs. Renzo Gracie, it is hard to imagine either man shying away from the inevitable: an all-out war on the ground.
Both men are not known for their striking chops, nor their wrestling, instead opting to drag any fight to the floor as fast as they can, hunting for submissions as only those who love jiu-jitsu are wont to do.
In his prime, Gracie possessed a very solid base from which to amaze us all with new submissions in nearly every early UFC bout; no one had really ever seen a triangle leg choke until he used one to submit Dan Severn way back at UFC 4.
But if there is a crack in the pavement, it could perhaps be found when Gracie, still very much in his prime (albeit rusty after stepping away from active competition of any kind for many months after UFC 5), was submitted by Wallid Ismail in Brazil in a kind of sport jiu-jitsu match.
Obviously, it is hard to know just how good Gracie was compared to other members of his family and contemporaries through out the MMA and jiu-jitsu world, but when the spotlight was brightest, he was poised and committed to go all in.
Shinya Aoki is a submission wizard in his own right, possessing a very slick ground game that, in truth, seems superior to that of Gracie.
But “seems” is not enough in a bout like this, which is why it would have been so fun to watch. Aoki would have given us the kind of action we had hoped for (yet never really got) when Gracie faced off against Kazushi Sakuraba the first time; attacking Gracie with submissions on the floor instead of standing and battering his legs with kicks.
For men like Gracie and Aoki, bragging rights are only really worth bragging about if the real question was answered, and in this case, said question is a simple one: who would have submitted whom?
Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic vs. Pedro Rizzo
Once again, the style vs. style match up is front-and-center as we investigate the possibilities in a bout between two excellent strikers in Pedro Rizzo and Mirko Cro-Cop Filipovic.
Rizzo was an excellent counter-puncher with some of the most brutal leg kicks the heavyweight division has ever seen, where Cro-Cop was a patient offensive fighter who excelled at head-hunting with his devastating kicks.
Both men possessed underrated punching skills, but Rizzo possessed the heavier hands, where as Cro-Cop was better at landing nasty kicks to the body.
Perhaps it would be decided by which man got into his rhythm first, and there the advantage belongs to Cro-Cop.
But if he couldn’t find the means to put Rizzo away early, he’d have a serious fight on his hands against a man who, when not having to contend with any kind of serious takedown game, got sharper and more accurate as the fight went along.
Given that neither man had the best defensive skills in the world, both would be getting hit in a fight that would likely be decided by who was the best survivor.
While it is hard for me to imagine Rizzo enduring the early power and accuracy of Cro-Cop, it is possible; and when you’ve got the kind of power that Rizzo possessed, turning possibility into triumph is just a good right hand away.
Sadly for Rizzo, the reach of Cro-Cop’s legs is greater than the length of the Brazilian’s arms, and usually it is the swordsman with the longer blade (and in this case the heavier one as well) that wins the battle.
Marco Ruas vs. Don Frye
Some fights seem timeless and when considering Marco Ruas vs. Don Frye, it would have been such an exciting fight that for the old fans of the sport in America, it almost leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
You have the Thai-based striking and submissions of Ruas vs. the boxing and wrestling of Frye, and ideally it would have happened during the early days of the UFC, perhaps somewhere between UFC 7 and the second Ultimate Ultimate, with no rounds, just a 30-minute time limit.
Both of these men were as tough as they come, and stylistically this has all the makings of an exciting bout where the outcome was very much in doubt, minute by minute.
This wouldn’t have been some lesser version of Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo I; this would have been an entirely different beast that was equally large and demanding.
Both Ruas and Frye, in their primes, were hard-nosed fighters who knew how to play to their strengths and were willing to suffer a great deal for their “art,” so to speak, and when facing each other, words like suffering and endurance and grit would be oh-so-necessary to describe the scene.
And of course, “action;” we can’t forget that, because there would be so many punches thrown, takedowns completed (and thwarted), legs beaten black and blue with kicks, submissions thrown up like blessings during Mass at the Vatican, knees and kicks to the head of a downed opponent, and all with Ruas coming forward, bare knuckled, meeting a willing Frye, sporting those 4 oz. gloves and his trademark sneer.
This would be less a gun fight and more a sword fight, the business being conducted both at range and in the trenches in a display of pure old-school gangland mayhem, leaving both the victor and the vanquished to bask in bloody glory.
Matt Hughes vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
It’s hard to fairly imagine how a bout between one of yesteryear's best, Kazushi Sakuraba, and one of yesterday's pound-for-pound greats, Matt Hughes, would have unfolded, save to say it would have happened on the ground, where both men did their best work.
During their primes, neither Sakuraba nor Hughes were what one would consider capable strikers, but both were excellent on the floor; Sakuraba a wizard and snatching up submissions during scrambles and Hughes excellent at maintaining a crushing top position while raining down heavy shots from above.
Truth be told, it might have been bad for Sakuraba to have faced Hughes in the Pride FC ring, where the MFS champion could have gained a front headlock position, or a cradle, and from there unleashed brutal knees to his head.
Hughes was so damn strong that if he gained either position, he probably could have ended the bout from there; one can only take so many knees to the dome.
In the Octagon, Sakuraba would have the benefit of strict weight classes and no knees to the head, in addition to shorter rounds that would give him more opportunities should the top game of Hughes prove too much in the beginning frames.
Honestly, such a bout could have gone either way—a decision victory for Hughes or a submission victory for the daring Sakuraba; their styles of grappling would have given each man more than a few opportunities to put the other in danger.
In contests like this, perhaps the only real way to determine who is best would have been a trilogy; God knows the fans would have been happy to tune in if the bouts were as close in real life as they seem on paper.
Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva
Once upon a time, Wanderlei Silva was simply the greatest fighter in his division, bar none, and for one simple reason—he was the storm bringer.
A relentless whirlwind of violence and murderous intent, prime Silva ran over just about every fighter he faced, styles be damned.
He threw a beating on Dan Henderson, proving capable of roughhousing his way out of the clinch and at times manhandling Henderson like a rag doll—a sight never really seen before or since.
Chael Sonnen is a kind of unique cowboy, capable of throwing his saddle onto any horse and riding them into the ground, proven by how shockingly capable he was at containing the striking of Anderson Silva (much like a man repeatedly throwing himself atop a grenade, yet never dying) during their first meeting.
So, could the style of Sonnen contain the tireless whirlwind of Wanderlei Silva in his prime? Tito Ortiz managed to win a decision over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 25, using strong takedown and top games; but he also had his fair share of trouble against Silva, at one point even turning his back and sprinting away from the fight.
But that came before Silva seemed to turn the corner in his career; when he arrived in Pride FC, the rules were so close to those of regular Vale Tudo competition that Silva was limited only by his imagination; and as we saw when he mauled Kazushi Sakuraba for the first time, he was a man with some serious blood-soaked dreams.
I wish we could have seen it, because it would have been one hell of a fight either way.
Jon Jones vs. Tito Ortiz
While no one can say that Tito Ortiz has never had as big a fan as he does in Tito Ortiz, the man was still a very dominant fighter in his prime, defending his title five times in a sport that has seen countless other champions—great fighters in their own right—dethroned far sooner than later.
That being rightfully acknowledged, the greatest version of Ortiz would be a poor match up against the man poised to surpass his record, Jon “Bones” Jones.
There is no escaping the harsh lens of history, and when looking upon the record of Ortiz, it was built upon the bones of future middleweights, and save for his title-winning effort against Wanderlei Silva, Ortiz was never forced to contend with a legitimate rival for his crown.
When he was, in the persons of Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, he was soundly defeated.
Jones, on the other hand, has faced nothing but former UFC champions, save for Chael Sonnen, stopping all but Rashad Evans; a feat that has both his fans and detractors calling from him to move up to the heavyweight division in order to find suitable challenges for his skills, athleticism and length of frame.
While Ortiz was a powerful and aggressive fighter in his day, his only real weapons of note were his takedown and ground-and-pound games, both of which still remain among the best the division has seen, perhaps second only to the current champion.
Jones has far more tools in his toolbox, and honestly, his takedown and ground-and-pound game are at least the equal of Ortiz, if not superior.
Jones is also a much better striker, utilizing kicks, knees, punches, spinning elbows and almost anything else he can think of with surprising accuracy and authority.
Ortiz never seemed to get to the point where he could do the kind of damage with his strikes on the feet that he aspired to, seemingly unwilling to push all his chips into the center of the table (and with them his chin) and really committing himself to enter that dangerous territory where the KO blow can land on either side.
A prime Ortiz would have a chance of taking Jones down, but it is more than likely that his attempts would be thwarted—Jones has faced far better wrestlers than Ortiz and none of them have been able to take him down.
Baring a slick submission from Ortiz, odds are that Jones would pummel his rival on the feet, gain some takedowns of his own and then rain down those brutal elbows until Ortiz was limp on the canvas.
Anderson Silva vs. Murilo Bustamante
Believe it or not, Anderson Silva is not the first Brazilian that was touted as being “the best fighter in the sport.”
Before Silva, it was none other than Murilo Bustamante, former UFC middleweight champion, who was thought by many to be the best fighter in the sport, although the debate was always a good one with those on the other side of the fence, holding up their heroes from Pride FC as the best.
Bustamante took the middleweight crown via KO at UFC 35, then defended the title twice in a single night, defeating Matt Lindland via submission both times.
It’s puzzling to consider how a fight between Silva and Bustamante would have gone, especially that many will discount Bustamante offhand due to his short reign and then his quick downturn in Japan.
But during his prime—short as it was—Bustamante had an excellent boxing game and submission skills that were subtle in their sophistication, always coming from a very strong base, which says perhaps the most important thing about the man; the fundamentals of his entire game were so sound that upon them he could build great moments from night to night.
Silva, on the other hand, is a wildly talented fighter who not only has an abundance of physical gifts to complement his skills, but is an artist bound by nothing save the length of his frame and the rules of the game.
In a fight between these two countrymen, Silva would have the clear edge in overall striking (with Bustamante having equal boxing) while Bustamante would hold the edge in submissions.
Sadly for Bustamante, he has to take Silva down in order to utilize his most dangerous weapon, and his takedown game is not that good.
It would still be a thrilling bout, given that Bustamante’s hands are sharp enough and heavy enough to land better than anyone else in a long time.
But in the end, he simply doesn’t have enough weapons to contend with the best fighter in UFC history.
Georges St-Pierre vs. Frank Shamrock
I’ve belabored a fantasy match-up between Georges St-Pierre and Frank Shamrock before, and no matter how long and hard I look at it, it never grows old.
This is a battle of styles first and foremost, and in that equation, GSP would have some serious advantages, none of them depending on the notion that the fighters of today are “just better.”
GSP does his best work from the top, taking fighters down almost at will and grinding them down to a bloody nub; against Shamrock, the takedowns would likely happen easier than anyone could imagine, given that Shamrock never really seemed to fight any takedown thrown his way.
Both men are known for having a high level of endurance, and both have proven that they don’t wilt in the big fights.
The questions that would decide the fight are few, really.
First, could GSP avoid the constant barrage of subtle yet cunning submission attempts Shamrock would be throwing his way?
Lastly, would GSP be able to contend with Shamrock in a striking battle?
In addressing the former, this would be far easier said than done for GSP as Shamrock was incredibly explosive when he locked on a submission, and he could counter submissions with submissions or manipulate transitional scrambles like few have ever seen.
As for the latter, that seems to be a wash simply because if Shamrock started to outland GSP, the current welterweight champion would simply take him down at will, due to skill and acquiescence on the part of Shamrock.
In the end, I have to say GSP would probably pull off a close decision victory that would see his submission defense and top game tested like never before by a man who made a career of defeating men much heavier and stronger than those currently found on I-170.
Cain Velasquez vs. Fedor Emelianenko
When considering a bout between Fedor Emelianenko and Cain Velasquez, we are putting a great deal of faith into the notion that the latter will become one of the greatest champions the heavyweight division has ever known.
And thus comes the rub, because we did the same thing with Junior dos Santos, and after just one title defense.
But faith and optimism are like two sides of the same coin, and Velasquez has given us a great deal to believe in.
In his prime, Emelianenko, for his part in this equation, was the greatest heavyweight the sport has ever known, and we don’t have to do much imagining to concede that.
Granted, he did see his record padded in Pride FC as the company was unabashedly fond of booking fights based on appearance rather than substance; yet the same could be said for all pound-for-pound greats to some degree.
But he also defeated just about every great heavyweight of his generation, going undefeated for over a decade, providing the division with a level of consistency it has not known since.
Emelianenko had shocking power in his hands, a high level of endurance, a well-nigh indestructible quality and excellent grappling and submission skills, all hidden within the guise of a man who looked more monk than mauler.
Velasquez possesses a relentless style of wrestling and ground-and-pound, augmented by his seemingly limitless cardio and tenacity, happy to fight the fight no matter where it goes.
But against Emelianenko, Velasquez would have a hard time closing ranks without getting blasted off his feet by the fast (and nearly malevolent) punches of “The Last Emperor.”
And if he managed to get inside, he would have a very hard time getting Fedor off his feet, let alone keeping such a savvy and experienced man under him.
In bouts like this, it is usually the man with more weapons at his disposal (and the experience needed to use them in nearly any situation) that usually wins, and that would be Emelianenko.
But every sheet has a wrinkle, and in this case it would be found in the ability Velasquez has of making the most of every good position, conserving energy and doing damage efficiently while staying aware of any movements that could see his position reversed.
He doesn’t have the power or the submission skills of Emelianenko, but he never gives up, always playing to his strengths, and that has seen men pull of unlikely upsets before.
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