The greatest of all time.
You've heard it before—fight fans love to throw the term around. If you came here hoping for a definitive answer one way or another, I'm afraid you will be disappointed.
The Development of Style
The subject of styles could be dealt with by saying: "Silva was a striker who could do it all, while Emelianenko was a grappler who learned to strike, but they were really both mixed martial artists."
Many would write that, and a few readers might even be satisfied with that half-arsed deflection from any actual analysis.
It's not that simple, it will never be that simple, and with real top-tier guys—who evolved to stay at the top of the pile for so long—it is far more complicated.
Silva in 2000 was nothing like the Silva of 2006, and the Silva of 2006 wasn't the Silva who got in the Octagon with Chris Weidman. You can decide whether you want to call it growth and decline or continuous evolution, but the guy who let Daiju Takase in on his hips was not the same guy who shrugged off Chael Sonnen in their second bout.
Silva looked like other fighter from Chute Boxe when he started out, plodding forward with his hands ready to swing. He would go forward with strikes and hope to slam his hips down on top of his opponent's takedown attempts.
You know this style—it was what made Wanderlei Silva and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic great.
When you look at Silva's pre-UFC fights—when he was something of a hit-and-miss performer—it is clear that coming forward and sprawling didn't work for him. This could have something to do with him not being as stocky as Wanderlei and Cro Cop or not being as physically strong as them. But whatever the case, his inability to stop a takedown while he was on offence turned Silva into the fighter he is today.
He is largely responsible for popularizing counterstriking in mixed martial arts, and that wouldn't have happened if he had had a decent degree of success with the go-to method of the day early in his career.
What we began to see in his UFC tenure was a fighter who didn't like to attack opponents and risk takedown attempts but instead wanted to draw them in.
Emelianenko, for his part, was always known as a judoka with heavy hands. In his early performances through RINGS, though, he was all about takedowns and submissions. His stand-up was not nearly as developed as it would become (but also not as sloppy as it became in the end). Not only that, his grappling was rough in places too.
He was brilliant on offence with brutal kimuras, armbars and chokes, but when he was put on his back, he tended to hold a guillotine for far too long or attempt an Americana from the underside of mount. That's just strange stuff that few great grapplers do.
Of course, it's possible to finish a guillotine from the bottom of side control, but you don't want to waste energy on it and risk getting a kimura slapped on your arm once it's tired. Yet against Ricardo Arona, a takedown machine, Emelianenko held on for dear life to guillotines over and over in a match that most viewers feel he should have lost.
Coming of Age
Every fighter has a point in his career that could be considered a coming-out party.
For Silva, it was when he starched the granite-jawed and then highly ranked Chris Leben in his UFC debut. The Brazilian earned an immediate shot at Rich Franklin's middleweight crown and showed a completely different Silva once again.
Where he had been fleet-footed and danced before, against Franklin he looked to block or parry blows, move in and slap on his double-collar tie. From here, he demolished Franklin with knee strikes.
After that, we saw Silva's ground game tested against "the Michael Jordan of Jiu-Jitsu" (but not really) Travis Lutter. After that fight, we saw a well-rounded Silva show a similar game in every bout. He sat back and countered.
If someone came at him, Silva knocked him out with short blows between his opponent's arsenal. If his foes sat back or wanted him to engage, he'd flick kicks at their legs, dance and generally make them look and feel like they didn't belong in the cage.
Silva's greatest accomplishment in the eyes of many was his victory over Dan Henderson, who came to the UFC fresh off winning a title in a second weight class in PRIDE.
After a round of lying on Silva and smothering his breathing with a hand (now illegal), Hendo couldn't resist swinging at "The Spider" in the second round and found himself eating a couple of sharp left straights and a short high kick in response. Once the fight hit the ground, Silva got the back of the wrestler and secured a rear-naked choke for the finish.
After the Hendo fight, Silva had consolidated his position as the undisputed best at his weight in the world.
Emelianenko's explosion onto the main stage of MMA was not, as you would expect, his debut in PRIDE FC—then the premier MMA organization in the world. No, his debut was a convincing but largely uninteresting decision over Semmy Schilt.
It was Emelianenko's match with Heath Herring that convinced fans he was for real.
Herring was considered the No. 2 big man in the world and had fought an all-out war against the PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Some considered Emelianenko to be a tune-up for Herring in preparation for rematch with Nogueira, but the fight proved to be something of a mismatch in the other direction.
Emelianenko had come from RINGS, which prohibited striking of the head while on the ground. What nobody expected was him to show perhaps the finest ground-and-pound in MMA to date.
After putting Herring "through the meat grinder" in the words of Stephen Quadros, Emelianenko was granted his title shot against Nogueira. Nobody expected what followed, as Fedor spent the entire fight inside of Nogueira's guard, stripping the Brazilian's grips, shucking his way out of triangles and dropping bombs on the champion. He would then return to his initial position inside the great grappler's guard.
It was as bizarre as it was remarkable.
Through two more matches with Nogueira, a meeting with Cro Cop and a few good fights in between, Fedor defended the PRIDE heavyweight title until the organization was bought out.
The End of Each Era
Emelianenko's era came to an end long after it should have. The longer he went undefeated, the more footage and news of his training camps seemed to focus on his love of boxing. Yet when he came to fight, he didn't look anything like the man who had lit up Nogueira routinely and outstruck Cro Cop.
His body work and straight punches were gone. After his bout with Tim Sylvia, Fedor's left hook seemed to disappear as well.
From Andrei Arlovski onward, Fedor swung the right hand over and over again. But it wasn't the sharp, arcing right straight that led into clinches; it was an overhand mess that surprised no one.
It is more an indictment of how sloppy the heavyweight division was that he was able to defeat three more top-10 opponents (in Sylvia, Arlovski and Brett Rogers) while showing none of the skills that had made him great.
When he dived into Fabricio Werdum's guard, it was a shock to most that he got submitted, but we should have seen it coming. This wasn't the same guy who jumped into Nogueira's guard but stripped grips, postured accordingly and delivered strikes through openings created by these actions.
When he jumped on Werdum, he was trying to swing for the finish, and he got submitted by a man who was fighting smarter and waiting for that to happen. Through his bouts with Antonio Silva and Dan Henderson, the action played out much the same.
Emelianenko was swinging wild, almost parodying himself.
For Silva, the end came due to a different reason. Granted, he met a strong challenger, but just as Fedor dived into a triangle because he used to get away with it, Silva's losses can be traced back to the incredible things he used to do, which finally got him caught.
In his first bout with Weidman, his error was pulling back at the waist and reacting to punches. In the second, it was his kicking without set up, which led him to power kick into a strong check and injure himself. While not textbook, he was fast enough to pull off both tactics in his previous fights.
Now there is nothing to say that Silva is done yet. Just as Roy Jones Jr. put together some decent wins after he couldn't break the rules of the textbook anymore, Silva is smart enough to learn his way around any slowing down that age might have brought.
But it is clear that he will have a lot of work to do if he hopes to regain his middleweight title before he retires.
"Legacy" to many means the record you leave on paper. When you are talking about a fighter in the middle of the pack, it is reasonable to talk about his legacy like that.
What Silva and Emelianenko have achieved, however, is a technical and strategic legacy. While it is not entirely obvious now, both men have changed the way that MMA is played. They have left behind gems that younger fighters and generations to come will polish.
The most obvious example is the front snap kick that Silva used to knock out Vitor Belfort. Now it seems like someone tries the same kick in every other event, and a decent percentage of the time it connects. Silva took a technique that was considered by many in the MMA community to be classical BS, and he turned it into a whole new wrinkle to worry about.
But more than that, how many fighters who don't have a great wrestling pedigree do we see use their footwork to evade the threat of the takedown instead of confronting it? That was partly an extension from Chuck Liddell's methods, but that was largely the work of Silva and Lyoto Machida.
Backpedalling is the new trend, and until fighters outside of Cain Velasquez and the Pettis family have worked out how to get an opponent toward the fence, it's going to remain a powerful means of controlling a fight.
We could point to a lot that resulted from Silva's influence, but a quick final thought is the new popularity of low, low kicks. Think Benson Henderson's kicks to the calf or Jon Jones' side kicks to the lead leg.
Silva unloaded these strikes when his opponents didn't come forward, and they kept him safe from having to charge Demian Maia and risk being dragged into guard. They might be considered dirty or point scorers, but they are definitely game-changers.
What about Fedor's legacy?
One of the fascinating things about Emelianenko is that he used methods that carry enormous merit, but very few fighters have attempted to replicate. The right-hand lead into the clinch and weaving out to the double-leg takedown are two interconnected methods that make closing the distance so much easier and add the threat of a knockout punch when closing the gap. Yet the vast majority of grapplers in MMA are still set on the jab-and-shoot method.
Furthermore, Emelianenko's emphasis on grip breaking and baiting the opponent into attempting submissions before standing and passing with a punch are methods that we don't see regularly. Fighters are having more success from the closed guard, most notably Jon Jones. But while Emelianenko almost boxed on the ground—working the opponent's head and body up and down—most in MMA seem set on the one method and hammering it home as hard and fast as possible.
If you've reminisced with me over the merits, flaws and development of both fighters—and their actual, visible legacy to mixed martial arts beyond the numbers and names on a record—we can all agree on one conclusion.
As much as people love absolutes and want to point to a man who is the best at any weight, at any time, it's not that simple. Fighters change from fight to fight and with each opponent.
What we can agree on is that both of these men changed the game. In a sport where everyone loses, these men beat the best of the best and held off the inevitable for the longest.
Few men in any field can lay claim to such accomplishment and influence over their own sport. That is something to be applauded, examined and appreciated—not bickered over.