MMA is, for the most part, a sport divided by distinct ranks—amateur fighters wage war through local circuits in hopes of making a professional debut. With enough perseverance and dedication, some even manage to secure a position on the exalted roster of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
But making it into the ranks of the UFC doesn't merit the distinction of being a "world-class" fighter.
On the contrary, competing under the Zuffa banner is much like fighting for any other premier organization—athletes pave the road to a title with rigorous training, refined skills and a wealth of pedigree.
Some plateau as respected gatekeepers of a division, forever destined to act as stepping stones to future title contenders. An elite few surge past the competition and claim gold and glory.
Yet on the rarest of occasions, certain combatants transcend local, regional or even national boundaries—their capacity to perform at the highest level makes them world class.
Embodying the Ideals of a Complete Mixed Martial Artist
Olympic Games: the definitive proving ground for almost any form of sport—boxers, judo players and Greco-Roman wrestlers compete against the the very best for victory on a worldwide stage.
But a world-class MMA fighter needs to hone the skills of more than a single discipline.
Such a fighter must have proficiency in everything from stand-up striking to submission grappling.
Take, for instance, MMA veteran Dan Henderson: a two-time Olympic team member. Unsatisfied with mere wrestling, Henderson gradually developed knockout power en route to concurrently holding championships in two separate Pride weight divisions.
Henderson is but one example of an MMA fighter who may have begun his athletic career with a single discipline but ultimately wound up with a more formidable mixed martial arts game.
Deep Experience and a Refined Pedigree
But his distinction as a world-class fighter comes most prominently as the result of extraordinary experience and a diverse pedigree. Silva's resolve can't be broken because of the sheer quantity of fights he's completed, along with the varying ways in which he's managed to secure victory.
Any fighter striving to reach such rarified air must be willing to clock in similar time and likely endure countless hours of training in various martial arts.
Mental Focus to Pair with the Physical Performance
Fedor Emelianenko, widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight fighter in MMA history, was about as soft spoken and mild mannered as a cage fighter could be. His opponents often remarked that his stone-cold demeanor added to his mystique—"The Last Emperor" threw brutal casting punches with a look of nonchalant disinterest in his face.
In that regard, his passive nature added to the attraction of watching him fight. Emelianenko was a definitive example of a fighter who allowed his skills to do the talking, and yet he had the focus to make sure his goals were almost always met.
That sort of drive and perseverance is essential to any fighter worthy of being called world class. Put simply, an unfaltering ability to overcome adversity is a must.
Willingness to Evolve Alongside the Sport
Georges St-Pierre is MMA's archetype for an ever-adapting athlete—though he started his martial arts career with an emphasis on Kyokushin karate, the French Canadian phenom gradually added efficient wrestling and tactical boxing to his fight game.
His efforts haven't stopped.
As of late, GSP has turned to unorthodox tactics to stay leaps and bounds ahead of the welterweight competition. Namely, he's introduced gymnastics into his training regiment as a means to bolster overall athleticism.
Thinking outside the box is yet another dynamic that separates the great from the world class.
The road from local circuits to international superstardom is paved with treacherous obstacles and plenty of opportunities to plateau. Excellence might always feel like a win away. But win or lose, the most elite fighters continue to hone their craft in pursuit of uncharted boundaries.
The very best combatants absorb skills, training methods and rich experience from all corners—they are distinctly world class.