Which UFC Champion Has Faced the Stiffest Competition?
It was divisive, to put it mildly. Emelianenko's supporters declared that he had never suffered a legitimate defeat in 33 fights, and he had shown an almost superhuman ability to come back from the brink of defeat and win in spectacular fashion.
Detractors were quick to point out that Emelianenko's level of competition (with recent fights against Hong Man Choi, Mark Hunt and Wagner da Conceicao Martins, to name a few) kept him from being anointed one of the greats.
This argument, which has since fizzled after 'The Last Emperor' suffered back-to-back losses, got me thinking about competition, and specifically about UFC champions. If you were to rank the UFC champions based on who they had fought, who would really have the most 'respectable' career?
Of course, in a sport where fighters can pad their resumes with scrub fights in regional organizations, MMA records are far from the perfect barometer to determine a true strength of schedule.
So don't look at the following list as a concrete ranking, but rather as a quick-and-dirty snapshot for my own curiosity. There is no subjectivity here, just cold, hard numbers.
In order to compile this list, I have taken the combined win-loss-draw totals for all of the fighters that the current UFC champions have faced. I then subtracted that champion's record from the totals to determine a winning percentage independent of the champion's success or failure.
The following is an ordering of each UFC champion, starting with the lowest strength of schedule (SOS), and continuing to the highest. And just for the sake of argument, Emelianenko's SOS stands at .612, with a combined opponent independent W-L-D of 455-270-18.
A couple of abbreviations to remember:
IR - Independent Record
IWP - Independent Winning Percentage
Dominick Cruz (UFC Bantamweight Champion, 18-1)
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SOS: .608 (127-80-2 opponent IR)
The inaugural UFC bantamweight champion, Dominick Cruz built a strong argument for pound-for-pound consideration after avenging his one career loss with a win over Urijah Faber at UFC 132.
Cruz has now won nine straight fights, but only one of Cruz's opponents (Faber) has 20+ career wins, which significantly drags down his strength of schedule. This speaks less to Cruz's caliber of competition, and more to the youth of the bantamweight division as a whole.
Best opponent: Brian Bowles (10-0 IR, 1.000 IWP)
Bowles was the reigning WEC bantamweight champion and sporting a perfect 8-0 record when he faced Cruz at WEC 47 in March 2010. Leading up to the fight, Bowles had finished all eight of his career opponents, and had claimed two Submission of the Night bonuses and one Knockout of the Night bonus in the WEC.
Cruz would take the title that night, earning a TKO victory after Bowles suffered a broken hand and was unable to continue after the second round. The ending was anticlimactic, but Bowles has won two straight fights since that loss, and could be looking at a chance to avenge the loss in the near future.
Worst opponent (min. five fights): Kenneth Aimes (1-4 IR, .200 IWP)
After suffering his first career defeat in his WEC debut at the hands of Urijah Faber, Cruz took a brief one-fight hiatus from the organization, returning to the Total Combat organization that he had spent the majority of 2006 with for a matchup against Kenneth Aimes, who was 0-1 at the time.
Cruz knocked out Aimes in the first round, then dropped to bantamweight and proceeded to win his next eight fights. Aimes, meanwhile, would go 1-3 over the next year and a half, and has not fought since September 2009.
Jose Aldo (UFC Featherweight Champion, 19-1)
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SOS: .637 (219-118-7 opponent IR)
Like Cruz, Jose Aldo fights in a division that has yet to be fully established, but unlike Cruz, Aldo did not face an opponent with a current IWP over .500 until his sixth career fight.
Of those first five opponents, three of them retired with an 0-1 record, but after experiencing an Aldo-raptor knockout, can you really blame them?
Aldo's competition has of course been stiffer in the WEC and UFC, with four of his last six opponents sporting over 20 career wins apiece. Now riding a 12-fight win streak, Aldo is rumored to make his next title defense against former UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian.
Best opponent: Thiago Meller (17-2 IR, .894 IWP)
Just edging out Urijah Faber (.862 IWP), Thiago Meller began his career 8-0 when he met Aldo at the Gold Fighters Championship promotion's inaugural event in Rio de Janeiro in 2006. At the time, Aldo was coming off of his first career loss at the hands of Luciano Azevedo.
Aldo won the fight by majority decision, starting the 12-fight winning streak that he is still enjoying five years later. Meller has gone on to compile a 9-2 record since that loss, with both defeats coming to current UFC lightweights Rafael dos Anjos and Aaron Riley.
Worst opponent (min. five fights): Hudson Rocha (3-5 IR, .375 IWP)
Hudson Rocha was 2-1 going into his fight against a 1-0 Aldo in 2004, but was TKO'd when the doctor deemed him unable to continue after the first round. Since then, Rocha went a meager 1-4, and has not competed since December 2009.
Anderson Silva (UFC Middleweight Champion, 30-4)
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SOS: .655 (559-277-17 opponent IR)
Anderson Silva is widely considered one of the top two pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but consider that without Jeremy Horn's robust 87-20-5 IR, his strength of schedule would be even lower.
You can blame this on the lack of significant upper-level competition in the UFC's middleweight division, with Silva claiming wins over Travis Lutter (10-5 IR), James Irvin (15-8 IR) and Patrick Cote (15-6 IR) in the past four years.
Silva's perfect 13-0 mark in the UFC is something to be marveled at, but when you consider his competition over the last few years, especially compared to some of the other UFC champions, and it's easy to see why 'The Spider' has sometimes lacked motivation.
Best opponent: Demian Maia (14-2 IR, .875 IWP)
Like I said at the beginning of this endeavor, MMA records rarely tell the whole story. But while you can argue that fighters like Dan Henderson (27-7 IR), Yushin Okami (25-5 IR) or even Hayato Sakurai (35-11-2 IR) deserve to be in this spot, the bottom line is that with a 14-2 IR, no fighter on Silva's resume has posted a better win/ loss ratio than Demian Maia.
Silva came into the fight tied for the most consecutive title defense in UFC history (five) and had just moved up in weight and knocked out former light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin.
Maia was selected to replace an injured Vitor Belfort in a championship bout, despite the fact that he was just one fight removed from a 21-second knockout loss against Nate Marquardt.
What followed was one of the most bizarre 25 minutes in UFC history. After toying with Maia and yelling and gesturing across the Octagon, Silva generally refused to engage for most of the latter rounds, earning a unanimous decision but inviting a bevy of criticism in the process.
Since that fight, Silva has extended his consecutive title defense streak to eight with a come-from-behind win over Chael Sonnen and a highlight-reel knockout of Belfort.
Maia rebounded from the loss with back-to-back decision victories, but has since dropped a unanimous decision to Mark Munoz at UFC 131.
Worst opponent (min. five fights): Alexander Otsuka (4-12 IR, .250 IWP)
Alexander Otsuka was already mired in a five-fight losing streak and sporting a 2-10 record when he met a surging Silva on a seven-fight winning streak at PRIDE 22 in 2002.
And while Silva could not score a finish, he did walk away with a unanimous decision in his favor. Otsuka, meanwhile, managed to go 2-2 in his next four fights, but has not competed since 2006.
Frankie Edgar (UFC Lightweight Champion, 13-1-1)
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SOS: .694 (173-73-3 opponent IR)
The man who broke BJ Penn's stranglehold on the UFC's lightweight division, Frankie Edgar has flourished despite fighting with a frame that is probably better suited for featherweight.
Despite his first three opponents forming a combined 7-21-1 independent record, Edgar's strength of schedule has been helped by the ridiculous level of competition in the UFC lightweight shark tank that has seen him facing top fighters consistently over the last five years.
Best opponent: Gray Maynard (9-0 IR, 1.000 IWP)
Gray Maynard is the only fighter to defeat Edgar, winning a unanimous decision over him at UFC Fight Night 13 in 2008.
He almost did so again in their rematch at UFC 125, knocking Edgar down multiple times and nearly finishing him in the first round, only to see the champion storm back and force a split draw.
The fight was an instant classic, and a trilogy fight is expected between the two sometime this year.
Worst opponent (min. five fights): Mark Getto (1-4-1 IP, .167 IWP)
Mark Getto and his 0-0-1 record met a debuting Edgar at Ring of Combat 9 in 2005, where he would lose by TKO in the first round. Getto retired after losing four of his next five fights, with his lone win coming by rear-naked choke in 2007.
Jon Jones (UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, 13-1)
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SOS: .701 (115-48 opponent IR)
Still only 23 years old, Jon Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history when he TKO'd Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 128 last March.
Perhaps scariest for the rest of the light heavyweight division, Jones has yet to be tested or threatened in eight UFC fights, despite being fed a diet of steadily increasingly difficult opponents throughout his career.
And considering that Jones has yet to even approach his athletic peak, we could be on the verge of seeing the next truly dominant UFC champion.
Best opponent: Ryan Bader (12-1 IR, .923 IWP)
In a matchup of fast-rising prospects, "Ultimate Fighter" winner Ryan Bader met Jones on the main card of UFC 126. Bader was 12-0 at the time, having won his first five UFC fights. Jones was 5-1 in his UFC career, with the only loss coming via controversial disqualification against Matt Hamill.
The subsequent nine-and-a-half-minute match proved that Jones was on a different level, as he easily shrugged off Bader's takedown attempts and attacked from range before locking in a guillotine choke in the second round for the finish.
And while he didn't know it at the time, the fight proved to be a No. 1 contender match for Jones, who would go on to win the title in his very next fight.
Worst opponent (min. five fights): Ryan Verrett (3-3 IR, .500 IWP)
Looking to snap a two-fight losing streak, Ryan Verrett faced a 3-0 Jones at "War in the Woods 3" in 2008. And while he would last longer than any opponent Jones had faced to that point (an entire 2:58), Jones would score the first-round TKO victory. Verrett actually rebounded with back-to-back wins, but has not competed since those two victories.
Georges St-Pierre (UFC Welterweight Champion, 22-2)
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SOS: .720 (398-145-10 opponent IR)
The 1A to Anderson Silva's 1B in the pound-for-pound discussion, Georges St-Pierre has been one of the most successful champions in UFC history, defending his title six straight times while going 15-1 in his last 16 fights.
When examining St-Pierre's career, it is remarkable to reflect on the level of competition that he has faced throughout it.
Consider that St-Pierre made his career debut against a then 4-0 Ivan Menjivar, a fighter whose 22-8 career record has more wins than the combined records of the fighters that the other six champions on this list faced in their first respective fights.
None of the 19 opponents that St-Pierre has faced currently have a losing career record.
To simply face the caliber of competition that St-Pierre has fought would be impressive enough, but the fact that he has excelled against that competition is truly special.
He has avenged both of his career losses (against Matt Hughes and Matt Serra) and despite some criticism of his safety-first style, St-Pierre has been one of the steadiest forces in MMA over the last decade.
Best opponent: Sean Sherk (36-3-1 IR, .900 IWP)
All the way back in 2005, Sean Sherk was on a 12-fight winning streak and was returning to the UFC for the first time since suffering his first career defeat at the hands of Matt Hughes in a welterweight title match.
Sherk's record at the time was 31-1-1, and he met a 10-1 St-Pierre who had won three straight since suffering his own defeat to Hughes.
St-Pierre would dominate the fight, breaking Sherk's nose in the second round and becoming the first man to finish "The Muscle Shark."
Two fights later, St-Pierre would avenge his loss to Hughes and claim his first welterweight title.
Worst opponent (min. five fights): Matt Serra (10-6 IR, .625 IWP)
When you consider that Matt Serra was arguably one of St-Pierre's worst career opponents, it makes his shocking 2007 upset of the champ that much crazier. In many ways, Serra deserves much of the credit for St-Pierre's sustained success.
After the loss, St-Pierre reevaluated the way he fought and the way he trained, and the result is a nine-fight winning streak that is still active today.
St-Pierre rematched Serra three fights later, TKO-ing him in the second round and taking back a title that he hasn't lost since.
Cain Velasquez (UFC Heavyweight Champion, 9-0)
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SOS: .723 (120-43-3 opponent IR)
The only undefeated champion in the UFC today, Cain Velasquez entered the UFC with just two professional fights under his belt, and he became the UFC champion two and a half years later.
Like St-Pierre, all nine of the fighters on Velasquez's record have winning career record, and most of them had significantly more experience than Velasquez at the time of their meeting.
In fact, the only time that Velasquez has had more experience than his opponent is in his championship-winning fight against Brock Lesnar last year.
This pattern will continue in Velasquez's next fight when he looks to defend his title for the first time against 13-1 Junior dos Santos later this year.
Best opponent: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (32-5-1 IR, .842 IWP)
It was the fight to determine the number-one contender for the heavyweight title, and former interim champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was coming off of a Fight-of-the-Year candidate decision victory over Randy Couture.
Nogueira had only been finished once in his career (a TKO loss to Frank Mir one fight earlier) but when it was revealed that he had suffered from staph infection and injury prior to the bout, many assumed that Big Nog's health was to blame for the surprising stoppage.
Velasquez left no questions after this fight, though, brutally knocking Nogueira out in just 2:20 of the first round to claim Knockout of the Night and a shot at Lesnar's title. Eight months later, Velasquez dropped Lesnar in a similarly brutal fashion.
Worst opponent (minimum five fights): Jeremiah Constant (10-6 IR, .625 IWP)
Jeremiah Constant had finished all four of his career opponents in the first round, with three of those submissions coming in under a minute.
He squared off against the 1-0 Velasquez at "Bodog Fight - Clash of the Nations" in 2006, looking to make the former Arizona State All-American wrestler his fifth straight victory.
The fight lasted almost as long as Constant's first four fights combined (4:00 in total) with Velasquez eventually scoring what would be the second of five straight TKO victories.
Constant is still competing, most recently picking up a win over Xavier Saccomanno at "Fight to Win - Outlaws" in May.
You can follow Cameron Gidari on Twitter at Twitter.com/GidariTapouTVTC