The argument surrounding who is the best in the history of any sport is largely subjective. There are obvious favorites, like in basketball, where most believe Michael Jordan stands ahead of the crowd as the greatest of all time. That said, there are certainly some random detractors who believe otherwise.
In the sport of mixed martial arts, subjective opinions are no different when it comes to the concept of the best in history. MMA has evolved so rapidly over the last 20 years that the fighters of today can hardly be compared to those that fought in the cage during its genesis in the 1990s.
It also can't be forgotten that MMA is essentially only about 20 years old in terms of professionally held and sanctioned events, so the sample size is much smaller than a sport like basketball or baseball that has several decades of competition.
Current UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva is most widely considered the greatest fighter of all-time in MMA, but today, I'm going to take a look at his career, break down some key statistics and strength of opponents and also look at those closest to challenging his throne to determine if Silva truly is the best we've ever seen in MMA history.
An overview of Silva's early career prior to the UFC
Silva first stepped foot into the MMA arena all the way back in 1997 where he started competing in his home country of Brazil. He went 9-1 through his first 10 fights, with his only loss coming to fellow countryman Luiz Azeredo by decision in his third professional bout.
Over his next 11 fights, Silva would compile an 8-3 record overall, marking the only other losses he would ever suffer in his career. Those three losses came to Daiju Takase by triangle choke, Ryo Chonan by flying scissor heel hook (still considered to be one of the greatest submission finishes in MMA history) and Yushin Okami by disqualification when Silva used an illegal upkick and was subsequently disqualified.
In those years leading up to 2006, when he first debuted in the UFC, Silva was already gaining quite a reputation for battering opponents with some of the most vicious striking the sport had ever seen. Silva blasted former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton with a flying knee in Pride that stands as one of the quickest and most devastating knockouts ever.
He also dispatched of Alex Stiebling, who earned a nickname in those days being called "The Brazilian Killa" by defeating several Brazilian fighters. Silva punished him viciously and finished the fight at just over one minute in the first round when they met in Pride.
Silva also faced British bad boy Lee Murray, who at the time was most known for being the fighter who allegedly knocked out former UFC champion Tito Ortiz in a London street fight following UFC 38 back in 2002. Beyond his street-fighting acumen, Murray was a tough-as-nails boxer with heavy hands, but when he faced Silva, he found out what world-class striking was all about.
UFC commentator Joe Rogan remembers what Silva was like in that fight with Murray, as he told the story on a recent podcast where he talked about the UFC champion:
Anderson Silva became Anderson Silva when he went to England. England was where it all came together for him. It wasn't until he went to England and went to Cage Rage, that's when he became Anderson Silva. He was beating the f*** out of Lee Murray. He was f***ing his legs up and Murray is tough as s***.
Even during his early years, Silva was a finisher. He had 17 wins going into his UFC career and he put away 13 of those opponents by knockout or submission. Back in 2005, I called Silva one of the best strikers in all of MMA, and noted that the UFC would be well served to add him to their middleweight division (via MMAWeekly.com).
He’s almost on everyone’s top 5 list for middleweights, but since he hasn’t fought in Pride in a while somehow he’s faded from the spotlight that he so richly deserves. He struggles sometimes when the fight goes to the ground, but he is bar none, the best striker in the middleweight division. No one even comes close when it comes to the stand-up game in MMA, and there are some great strikers out there. Anyone that decides to stand with Silva usually ends up on the bad end of one of his razor sharp knee strikes and with wins over Jeremy Horn, Carlos Newton, and Jorge Rivera, his record speaks for itself. The UFC would be greatly served to pick up this free agent and put him in the octagon.
In his final fight for Cage Rage before moving to the UFC in 2006, Silva landed one of the slickest and most creative knockouts when he used a reverse elbow to floor Tony Fryklund in the first round of their fight. It was really just a harbinger of things to come as Silva made his move to the UFC.
Silva's first days in the UFC and winning the belt
On day one in the UFC, Silva already had a target painted on his back because he was coming over from Japan with a reputation as a crafty standup fighter with nuclear power in his hands, elbows, knees and feet. First up to the challenge was former Ultimate Fighter competitor Chris Leben, who openly scoffed at Silva's prowess in the striking department.
Leben was pretty confident during his pre-fight interview with the UFC.
After he gets in there and I knock him out, he may want to go back to Japan or somewhere where the competition's a little easier. In the midst of me getting on the inside, getting through his punches, looking to take him down, he's going to leave his chin hanging out there and I'm going to break his jaw.
It took Silva all of 49 seconds to completely annihilate Leben while sending a clear message to the middleweight division that a new sheriff was in town. The Brazilian's history and record earned him a quick shot at the 185-pound title held then by Rich Franklin.
That fight didn't last much longer, with Silva dispatching Franklin with a barrage of knees to the body and head, winning the UFC middleweight belt at 2:59 in the first round.
Silva has never relinquished the title since that day—October 14, 2006.
The UFC kneels before Silva
Since that day, Silva's gone on an unprecedented streak through the UFC like no one has ever seen before. He's defended the middleweight title a record 10 times over the past seven years.
During his reign, Silva has won 16 consecutive fights in total while competing in the UFC, yet another record he has laid claim to. Silva has 11 knockouts to his credit with the UFC, another top promotional mark. He's also taken home 12 post-fight bonuses, tied for most in UFC history. Seven of those bonuses came from knockout of the night, another record Silva holds all by himself.
Silva's 14 finishes are the most in UFC history as well, having only gone to decision two times during his entire career in the Octagon, lending further credence to his dominance. Nine of those came during title fights, which, as you probably guessed, is another UFC record.
On the feet, there is no one deadlier than Silva in UFC history. Beyond his knockout record, Silva is also the most accurate striker ever, landing 67.8 percent of his significant strikes. He's never landed less than 50 percent accuracy in any of his 16 fights in the UFC, and he has 17 knockdowns as well (yes, another UFC record).
In other words, standing with Silva is like playing hot potato with lit sticks of dynamite—eventually, all of his opponents get blown up.
As if that wasn't enough, Silva's reign atop the UFC middleweight division is almost twice as long as any other champion in the company's history.
The statistics back up the claim that Silva is virtually untouchable, but what about the level of competition he's been facing over the last seven years while serving as UFC champion? Has he truly faced the best of the best along the way?
Silva's UFC challengers
Throughout his UFC career, Silva has been in title fights for 11 of his 16 fights, so it's safe to say most of the contenders have been very worthy of being in the cage with him. Silva has also had three light heavyweight fights and two non-title fights during his time with the UFC thus far.
Looking past his debut and the first fight with Rich Franklin, where Silva who came into the bout as a lower-ranked fighter, let's check out the rankings and records of his opponents as they approached their fights with Silva in the UFC.
Travis Lutter—9-3 record. Unranked at the time as he earned his title shot after winning season 4 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Nate Marquardt—25-6-2 record. Ranked No. 7 in the world by MMAWeekly.com in June 2007.
Rich Franklin—24-2 record. Ranked No. 3 in the world by Sherdog.com in September 2007.
Dan Henderson—22-6 record. Ranked No. 5 in the world by Bloody Elbow meta-rankings in February 2008.
James Irvin—14-4-1 record. Unranked at the time, with Silva taking the fight at light heavyweight.
Patrick Cote—13-4 record. Unranked at the time.
Thales Leites—14-1 record. Ranked No. 9 in the world by Bloody Elbow in March 2009.
Forrest Griffin—16-5 record. Ranked No. 4 in the world at light heavyweight by Bloody Elbow in July 2009. This was another case of Silva moving up in weight, and also happened to be one fight after Griffin won the UFC light heavyweight title.
Demian Maia—12-1 record. Ranked No. 6 in the world by Bloody Elbow in March 2010.
Chael Sonnen—25-10-1 record. Ranked No. 2 in the world by Bloody Elbow in July 2010.
Vitor Belfort—19-8 record. Ranked No 6 in the world by Bloody Elbow in January 2011
Yushin Okami—26-5 record. Ranked No. 2 in the world by Bloody Elbow in July 2011.
Chael Sonnen—27-11-1. Ranked No. 2 in the world by Sherdog.com in June 2012.
Stephan Bonnar—15-7 record. Unranked at the time, with Silva taking the fight at light heavyweight for the third time in his UFC career.
To add that up, since he won the UFC middleweight title in 2006, Silva has faced 10 ranked opponents (including one fight with a ranked opponent at light heavyweight). He's finished three fights while competing at 205 pounds and also beaten three former UFC champions (Franklin, Belfort, Griffin), and a two-weight class champion from Pride (Henderson).
It's hard to argue with those accolades, but now, let's look at the competition to Silva's claim to the throne as the best fighter in MMA history.
The prince closest to the crown
Without digging too far into career history of every single opponent that a fighter has faced throughout his career, the two names that likely come closest to Silva's records are current UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre and former Pride heavyweight king Fedor Emelianenko.
First up, let's look at St-Pierre, who, in my opinion, is the person most likely to challenge Silva's reign and claim as the best fighter ever.
During his UFC career, St-Pierre has won 18 total fights, tied for the most of all time, while also winning 11 times in title fights—an honor he currently shares with Silva.
The welterweight division has also been notoriously known as one of the toughest and deepest weight classes in the sport. He's faced and defeated three former UFC champions, although in one of those fights, he was taking on Matt Serra, who defeated him to win the belt in the first place.
Where St-Pierre may actually surpass Silva is in terms of level of competition in his division because outside of his first fight with Serra (that he lost), he hasn't faced an opponent in a title fight that was outside the top 10 at the time of their bout. Even Dan Hardy, who is universally recognized as the least accomplished fighter on St-Pierre's record, was a top 10 fighter when he battled for the belt back in 2010 (via Bloody Elbow).
St-Pierre does fall short in a couple of key areas when compared to Silva, though. First off, his finishing rate is atrocious by comparison. In St-Pierre's 11 wins since losing to Serra in 2007, he's put away only three opponents, one of whom retired after the fourth round. GSP has been extremely dominant, but in a sport where the goal is to actually knockout or submit an opponent, he hasn't come close to Silva's level of excellence in this category.
Another area where the Canadian falls short are his fights outside of the welterweight division, as he has never moved outside of the welterweight division to take on an opponent. Now, the distinction of moving up or down in weight shouldn't be a necessity for an MMA fighter to be considered an all-time great. As a matter of fact, I've argued vehemently that fighters shouldn't be asked or forced to jump weight classes just to prove how good they truly are.
But facts are facts—Silva has jumped up to light heavyweight three times in the UFC and holds a win over a former champion at 205 pounds. It doesn't mean St-Pierre can't eventually pass Silva on the all-time list, but for now, that's one accolade he can't claim.
The other name that would most likely be mentioned alongside Silva and St-Pierre is former Pride heavyweight icon Fedor Emelianenko.
He put together an incredible undefeated run between 2001 and 2008, winning a total of 26 fights in a row. Emelianenko was the conquering ruler of the heavyweights in Pride when they proudly boasted the strongest division the sport has ever seen.
What kills Emelianenko in the debate of the greatest of all time is the fact that his streak is littered with no names and fights that were obvious setups for him to destroy the opposition. At the time when Pride was at its apex, fights were routinely matched up as entertainment more than actually progressing a fighter's career by facing the best of the best in their division.
Emelianenko's streak is still ultra impressive, but it's hard to ignore that some of those wins came over names like Yuji Nagata (he was 0-1 when he faced Emelianenko) or Zuluzinho (despite his 7-0 record at the time, he had no business being in the same ring).
He did topple the best heavyweights in Pride, beating fighters like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko CroCop, but did not finish either of them.
Some wins on his record also have to be put into context. It's no secret that when Emelianenko squared off with names like Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, their best years were already behind them. Add in fights against Matt Lindland (who is a middleweight) and Hong Man Choi (who had just one fight in MMA at the time) and Emelianenko's invincible streak takes a few dings along the way.
It also can't be ignored that Emelianenko started fighting after Silva did (his first bout was in 2000), he retired at 36 years of age (Silva is currently 38) and went 3-3 in his final six bouts. In those three losses, Emelianenko was finished each time, including one defeat to Dan Henderson, who was a light heavyweight moving up to heavyweight for the bout.
As it was stated from the very offset, the idea of a crowning any one fighter as the greatest of all time is always going to be met with some criticism because, ultimately, it is a subjective argument. There's no clear-cut right or wrong answer because everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.
UFC president Dana White finds it hard to believe that any other fighter would top the list ahead of Silva, but again, he's only one man.
"To deny Anderson Silva is the best fighter in the world, and probably the best ever is tough to do right now," White stated (via MMAWeekly.com)
However, based solely on the facts, the records, and the competition, it would certainly appear that Anderson Silva has staked his claim to the throne…at least for now.
All statistics provided courtesy of FightMetric.com.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.