When you ask an MMA fan about the greatest MMA fighters of all time, the answers come almost reflexively, without a moment of thought.
The greatest heavyweight of all time? "Fedor Emelianenko." Or, if you're of the TUF generation, "Randy Couture."
The greatest light heavyweight? Either Chuck Liddell or Wanderlei Silva.
The greatest lightweight? Your answer is probably going to be "BJ Penn."
Of course, Anderson Silva has firmly planted himself as the greatest middleweight of all time.
And it's worth mentioning that when we consider the phrase "of all time" we really mean "in modern MMA history," which basically goes back maybe only as far as 2000 AD. In MMA, a decade is "all time."
"Interestingly," as Mike Goldberg would say, only very recently have most MMA fans come to accept Georges St. Pierre as the greatest welterweight fighter of all time. It's interesting, because St. Pierre has arguably deserved that recognition since August of 2008.
Yes, Hughes has a longer resume than St. Pierre, but St. Pierre's is far, far deeper when you consider the level of competition St. Pierre has faced.
The best wins on Matt Hughes' record are wins over St. Pierre, and BJ Penn. Aside from those, are there any others on Hughes' record that really stand the test of time? Besides those wins, Hughes' biggest victories were probably over Frank Trigg, who was a solid challenger, but not really someone who is going to go down as one of the best welterweights of all time.
By the time St. Pierre defeated Jon Fitch in August of 2008, he'd already defeated Matt Hughes twice, along with Sean Sherk, BJ Penn, Matt Serra, Josh Koscheck, Jason Miller and Frank Trigg.
Even St. Pierre's bad wins are good wins. Karo Parisyan may not be a good fighter anymore, but in his UFC run, he stacked up victories over the likes of Nick Diaz, Chris Lytle and Matt Serra.
When St. Pierre stomped out Jay Hieron in about a minute, it didn't seem like Hieron was much of a fighter. But Hieron is still ranked the 17th best welterweight in the world, one place ahead of Bellator's Ben Askren.
And then there is Jon Fitch.
It's easy enough to turn your nose up at Fitch's fighting style, but as MMA talking heads such as Jordan Breen will probably tell you, Fitch's resume is possibly one of the most overlooked and underappreciated resumes in MMA. If he beats BJ Penn this weekend, he himself might have the second-best welterweight resume of all time, although he has not title belt to show for it.
Apologies for dragging out this point, but my point is this: Fans had put Hughes on a pedestal such that they were nearly three years behind the times in anointing St. Pierre as the greatest welterweight of all time.
Could it be the case that we're overlooking other modern fighters in our "greatest of all time" conversations?
The Greatest Light-Heavyweight (205 lbs) of All Time
Wanderlei Silva and Chuck Liddell will get most of the votes in this category, but how close are the nearest challengers to this title?
Before I go into the possible challengers, I feel like we need to put the accomplishments of Silva and Liddell into perspective.
Silva does have a very good list of victories, but his record is also padded by a lot of victories over weaker opposition, and fighters who were good in their time, but aren't really relevant in the discussion of modern MMA. And by "modern MMA," I mean the modern era where fighters are studying all martial arts disciplines seriously, training like professional athletes and fighting for real paychecks.
Consider this: Kazushi Sakuraba may have once been the biggest star in Pride, but how much are Wanderlei's victories over him worth compared with victories over more modernized MMA contenders?
The same goes for Liddell, when you consider guys on his record like Mezger, Randleman, Horn, etc.
Liddell's four biggest victories are over Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture. While some insist that Ortiz's recent struggles are due to health issues, most people have come to the correct conclusion that while Ortiz can still put up a good fight, the reason he can't beat has more to do with how much better modern MMA fighters are, not with any supposed decline.
Randy Couture, Liddell's most notable victim, was 41 years old the first time Liddell beat him (he was 42 the second time).
In my mind, while Liddell is probably still the greatest of all time, there are four fighters who aren't there yet but who could surpass the achievements of Liddell within the very near future, depending on what happens. That shortlist includes three fighters who have beaten Liddell in Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans, as well as Lyoto Machida.
Mauricio Rua probably has the strongest argument. He owns victories over Liddell, Jackson, Machida, Rogerio Nogueira, and two brutal ones over the current most-talked-about fighter, Alistair Overeem.
Given that Rua is going to be fighting the top fighters in the world consistently, he could pile up a considerable list of opponents in the near future, as long as his knees hold up. If he beats Evans, and then goes on to beat Quinton Jackson and Jon Jones, is his record still inferior to Liddell's?
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's case is also a good one. Liddell's big reign of terror went from April 2004 to May 2007. That reign was bookended by two lopsided losses to Rampage. Add in victories over Dan Henderson, Lyoto Machida and Wanderlei Silva, and his record looks convincing (yes, I know he lost to Silva twice).
Most important, though, Rampage still has a good chance of adding significantly to his record given the list of likely opponents lined up in front of him. Again, imagine if he beats Thiago Silva and then goes on to beat Rua, Evans and Jones. It all seems quite unlikely, given he's already lost to Rua and Evans, but if he does it, his record will be most impressive.
Rashad Evans is in the same boat as these other two. His record is anchored by wins over Liddell, Silva, Jackson and Forrest Griffin, and he's already cemented himself as the most-successful TUF product ever, through 12 seasons.
Machida is perhaps the dark horse in this equation. His most notable wins are over Silva, Evans, Rua, Ortiz and Sokoudjou, but he'd already beaten BJ Penn and Rich Franklin before he ever stepped in to the Octagon. He doesn't have that win over Liddell, and there isn't much demand to see him fight Rua again at this point in time. On the other hand, he's heavily favored to beat Couture, and if Evans beats Rua, Machida might once again find himself in the title mix.
The Greatest Lightweight Of All Time
While BJ Penn is considered by most to be the greatest lightweight of all time, his record at lightweight is a modest 11-3-1.
Penn's record here highlights the reason greatness is a measure of accomplishments, and not of talent or any other "coulda woulda shouldas." I'll invoke the MMA guru Jordan Breen again, who quotes existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre who basically says that it's not what you could have done in life that counts. It's what you DO accomplish that means something.
As it turns out, BJ Penn didn't beat up Frank Edgar, and more generally, this is why we make these guys fight each other.
Putting Penn's wins into the modern perspective is difficult to do, but his best wins are probably his wins over Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk and Takanori Gomi.
Some people already argue that Gomi's overall lightweight record is already better than Penn's, but at the present time, Frank Edgar is already nipping at BJ Penn's legacy.
Aside from his two wins over Penn, Edgar also owns wins over Sherk, Mark Bocek, Tyson Griffin and Jim Miller, all solidifying his 13-1-1 record. It was Edgar's win over Sherk that really opened up people's eyes, but Edgar's record looks a lot better now that people have started to recognize how good Mark Bocek and Jim Miller are.
How close is Edgar to supplanting Penn as the greatest of all time? Knowing that nobody ever seems to give Edgar enough respect, I don't think this discussion will happen for a while. Given his two wins over Penn, the argument can already be made in his favor.
If Edgar manages to defeat Gray Maynard and one or two more contenders, he'll be the greatest lightweight of all time. Second place won't even be close.
Or Maynard could beat Edgar, and then he'd be in a similar position.
The Greatest Fighter Pound-For-Pound Of All Time
When most MMA websites put out their "fighter of the decade" awards last year, Fedor Emelianenko seemed to be the popular choice.
One year later, BloodyElbow.com has published its own "fighter of the decade" retrospective, after the decade actually ended, at the end of 2010.
This time around, Georges St. Pierre received a lot more of the attention.
Fedor lost his only fight in 2010, while GSP dominated 50 minutes of fighting, going 2-0 against Koscheck and Dan Hardy.
Now that Emelianenko has lost, and we have more evidence supporting the hypothesis that he is, in fact, human, the door has been blown wide open as to who is the greatest fighter of all time.
Of course, we can't forget to mention Anderson Silva in this equation.
Consider the following scenario:
If Emelianenko wins the Strikeforce Grand Prix, Silva defeats Vitor Belfort and Yushin Okami, and St. Pierre defeats Jake Shields, who is the greatest fighter of all time?
The winner of the UFC:138 Middleweight Title fight between Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre.
That fighter will be the greatest fighter in 12 years of modern MMA.