In light of the promotion for UFC 166’s main event between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most prominent talking point to emerge from last night’s chaos concerns the UFC heavyweight champion’s place in history.
From the moment Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan hailed Velasquez as the greatest heavyweight to ever strap on a pair of 4 oz gloves, you could almost hear the army of Fedor Emelianenko devotees furiously typing out their strongly-worded rebuttals.
While I’m sympathetic to their perspective, I also appreciate the reasoning behind the claim of the UFC’s commentary duo.
As the dust settled and we began to dissect what we had just witnessed, I engaged in a lengthy Twitter exchange with MMA Sentinel's Iain Kidd and B/R MMA’s own Hunter Homistek, in which we debated the merits of the competing perspectives.
Whether you’re discussing tennis, boxing, MMA, soccer or any other sport you’d care to mention, the sticking point is almost invariably the question of how to compare eras—or indeed whether it's fair to even make the comparison.
In Hunter’s own excellent piece on the subject, he makes the following point about the ubiquitous G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) debate:
“You cannot fault the man [Emelianenko] for competing in an era of mixed martial arts that was not as deep or as competitive as it is today.”
He’s not wrong, either. We can no more blame Fedor for his level of competition than we can credit Cain for his.
However, there are a number of ways to approach such discussions, each of which seems to be increasingly subjective.
As a fan of the hard sciences, I appreciate the desire to take a quantitative approach and make it purely a numbers game.
But as a social scientist by trade, I can’t help but also view the discussion from a qualitative perspective.
If we simply do the G.O.A.T math, Velasquez’s record doesn’t hold a candle to Fedor’s lengthy period of dominance throughout the noughties.
“The Last Emperor” ran through the best the heavyweight division had to offer, going undefeated for almost 10 years.
In contrast, Velasquez has two consecutive title defences under his belt and a career record of 13-1.
Case closed, it would seem.
Do the numbers tell the whole story, though?
Granted, comparing the respective abilities of Cain and Fedor adds a layer of subjectivity to the discussion that complicates the issue, but G.O.A.T debates are by nature an intellectual exercise in futility.
Should I call Fedor the greatest heavyweight of all time even if I believe that, assuming they were matched up in their primes, Velasquez would have his way with the Russian?
Like my B/R MMA colleague, I think the issue has to be examined from more than one perspective.
We cannot just look at a fighter’s record in isolation from its surrounding context, nor can we match up fighters from different eras in the imagination and simply declare a winner.
Where Hunter and I seem to part ways is in how we weigh the significance of each perspective.
While my colleague gives greater weight to the record and longevity of Fedor, I tend to emphasise the improved level of competition with which Cain is faced as a result of the sport’s evolution.
In the end, it boils down to our own personal biases. There is no right or wrong answer here—unless you’re the mercilessly inflexible type who refuses to consider competing views.
All the same, you folks can add your voice to the debate by voting in the poll and offering your own take in the comments section.