Ranking the GOATS of Each Weight Division in MMA
“Greatest of all time” (GOAT) and “pound-for-pound” (P4P) are two of the most enigmatic and hotly debated metrics in the MMA blogosphere. After all, when there is absolutely no way to figure out who is right, the arguments are simply endless.
So, why don't we just go ahead and essentially combine the two?
Here we rank the GOATs of each weight division in MMA! Get prepared to wade through history to determine the greatest fighter of each class and then rank all of them against each other!
First, we will pick out the top dog in each division, going from the smallest weight class to heavyweight. Then, we will compare and contrast each of them.
The two noteworthy weight classes we will be ignoring are flyweight and super heavyweight. Flyweight is a very recent addition to the UFC and has very little history. Super heavyweight, meanwhile, is...just...awful. I doubt anyone wants to waste time choosing between Hong Man Choi, Teila Tuli, Scott Ferrozzo, Bob Sapp and Eric Esch.
So buckle up and enjoy!
Historically, few bantamweights have distinguished themselves as top-level fighters. Part of that is because so few promotions in the United States have had a bantamweight division over the years.
The IFL and EliteXC had no bantamweight division. The only 135-lb fighters in Strikeforce are women. Under the Zuffa umbrella, there have only been two especially noteworthy title reigns in the bantamweight division: Miguel Torres' heyday and the ongoing domination of UFC champ Dominick Cruz. Both Torres' recent struggles and Cruz's stranglehold on the division need no explanation.
In Japan, Pride FC had no bantamweight division, and Dream did not until 2011, when Bibiano Fernandes became the first, last and only champion. The two Japanese promotions to take a look at are Pancrase and Shooto, which has MMA's longest-running bantamweight division (first established in 2000).
Pancrase first introduced the bantamweight division in December 2007 and has only had two champions. The first, Manabu Inoue, has not had an especially impressive career, even fighting almost exclusively against lackluster Japanese competition. His record is a pedestrian 14-8-3. The current king, Shintaro Ishiwatari, is a solid bantamweight and one of the best fighters outside of the UFC. That said, his 14-4-4 record is largely due to a lack of strong competition. He has not fared well against recognizable fighters, losing to Chan Sung Jung and drawing with Michihiro Omigawa.
Shooto's bantamweight division is better-established than Pancrase's and has far more history. Mamoru Yamaguchi was belted the first champion in 2000 and is historically the organization's top bantamweight. Yamaguchi remains relevant today with a 26-6-3 record over an 11-year career. After Yamaguchi, the next best would likely be Masakatsu Ueda, who sports a 16-2-2 record with noteworthy wins over Royler Gracie and top Bellator bantamweight Eduardo Dantas.
It is hard to determine the best fighter from a historical perspective. Ultimately, though, none of these fighters has been as dominant for as long as Dominick Cruz is right now. He has an impressive winning streak and has faced substantially stiffer competition over the years than any of these other bantamweights.
1- Dominick Cruz
2- Mamoru Yamaguchi
3- Miguel Torres
4- Masakatsu Ueda
5- Bibiano Fernandes
Much like the bantamweight division, the featherweight division can be separated into two eras. There is the old guard out of Japanese promotions, and there are the dominant champions in the UFC and WEC.
The WEC and UFC have had three champions who all successfully defended the belt at least twice: Urijah Faber, Mike Brown and Jose Aldo.
Faber held the belt for more than two years. He defended it five times before losing it to Mike Brown, who defended it twice (including a rematch against Faber). Mike Brown would in turn cede the belt to Jose Aldo, who has defended the WEC and UFC belt five times thus far.
The definitive, best featherweight to achieve celebrity fighting in Japan is Hatsu Hioki. Hioki has been downright excellent throughout his career and has just two losses since 2008. His record is 13-2-1. Norifumi Yamamoto, is frequently brought up in GOAT discussions, but it is difficult to overlook his 1-5 record since 2007.
Masakazu Imanari is another solid homegrown Japanese fighter, but he has bounced between bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight throughout his career. Still, in terms of record alone (13-2-2 across Japanese promotions as a featherweight), he ends up being one of the foremost featherweights to rise from Japan.
It is very easy to pick out Aldo, Faber, Brown, Hioki and Imanari as the five greatest featherweights of all time. Sorting them is considerably more difficult.
Aldo takes the top spot, as he has as many title defenses as any of these fighters, and has beaten both Brown and Faber convincingly. Faber's dominance (21-1 at the time) until encountering Mike Brown and his impressive title reign earn him the No. 2 slot. Hioki takes third based on how amazing he was in Japan for so long. Brown takes fourth, and Imanari rounds out the list.
1- Jose Aldo
2- Urijah Faber
3- Hatsu Hioki
4- Mike Brown
5- Masakazu Imanari
Here is where things get interesting.
Every major promotion over the last few years has had one lightweight rise up and cement himself as the unquestioned top lightweight. The UFC? BJ Penn. Pride? Takanori Gomi. Strikeforce? Gilbert Melendez. Dream? Shinya Aoki. Bellator? Eddie Alvarez.
Outside of each promotion's top dogs, many fighters have racked up impressive winning streaks and taken home gold.
Frankie Edgar ranks among the best ever, amassing an impressive 14-3-1 record against top competition and twice defending the UFC lightweight belt. Kenny Florian is a sentimental pick, but a 12-5 UFC record and three losses in three title fights makes it tough to rank him. Tatsuya Kawajiri also comes to mind, but he has coincidentally lost to almost all those fighters listed above. I could come up with an extremely long list of fighters who could reasonably be slotted into this list (Yves Edwards, Jens Pulver, Ben Henderson, etc.).
Ultimately, there is no contest at the top spot. BJ Penn is the greatest lightweight of all time, as both a fighter and a pioneer in his division. After Penn, credit must be given to Frankie Edgar for beating him twice (once debatably, once convincingly).
After Penn and Edgar, Gomi slides into the third spot. As Pride's dominant lightweight champion, Gomi was the clear-cut top lightweight from 2004 to 2007 while Penn was fighting in other weight classes. After Gomi, Melendez slides in at fourth, courtesy of his domination of everyone Strikeforce has thrown in front of him over the last six years. Rounding out the list is Gray Maynard, who has consistently fought and beaten top-ten fighters for the past five years.
1- BJ Penn
2- Frankie Edgar
3- Takanori Gomi
4- Gilbert Melendez
5- Gray Maynard
Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes are the clear-cut top two welterweights of all time. I won't even waste the time to add some mystery there. St-Pierre gets the nod over Hughes for the top spot, given how he is currently riding on the longest title reign between the two (seven defenses to this point) and won their rubber match at UFC 79.
This may be moderately surprising, but the No 3 selection (which, honestly, is also somewhat beyond debate) is Jake Shields. While he is best known for his reign as Strikeforce's top middleweight, Shields did not lose a single fight at 170 lbs from 2005 to 2008, and he beat the likes of Paul Daley, Carlos Condit, Yushin Okami and Dave Menne. Shields was a very, very, very good welterweight for a long while.
Pat Miletich comes in at fourth. While Miletich is best known as a trainer, he was one of the most accomplished fighters of the 1990s, racking up a record of 25-2-2 in old-school, tournament-style events. In 1999, he became the UFC's first welterweight champion, and would defend the belt three times before losing it to Carlos Newton (who would in turn, hand it over to Miletich's student, Matt Hughes).
Last but not least is Jon Fitch. Fitch has been a staple welterweight in the UFC and owns an amazing 14-2-1 record with the promotion. From 2006 to 2011, Fitch rarely budged from the No. 2 spot on welterweight pound-for-pound lists. While he wavered in 2011, fighting BJ Penn to a draw and getting knocked out by Johny Hendricks, he still finds himself ranked near the top of the 170-lb division.
1- Georges St-Pierre
2- Matt Hughes
3- Jake Shields
4- Pat Miletich
5- Jon Fitch
Once again, I will spoil it. Anderson Silva is the greatest middleweight of all time for painfully obvious reasons. Past that, however, the list is an ugly mess.
Rich Franklin comes in second, but that is partly due to the weakness of the division past Silva. While Franklin is one of the UFC's top company men (and a personal favorite), he did not have an especially amazing reign as middleweight champ. He beat Evan Tanner to get the belt and defended it against Nate Quarry and David Loiseau. Meanwhile, a huge portion of his career was spent idling in light heavyweight.
After Silva and Franklin, the next logical step is to consider some old Pride greats and some fighters with long, impressive careers.
Paulo Filho deserves a spot on this list, courtesy of his perfect record in Pride (8-0) which included winning the 2006 Welterweight Grand Prix (Pride's welterweight division, before you get too confused, was 183 lbs.). After leaving Pride, he found a new home in the WEC and quickly won the middleweight belt (although he would never truly defend it). While he struggled with drug and alcohol problems and has not been the same since checking into rehab between his bouts with Chael Sonnen, it is impossible to look past his undefeated record from 2000 to 2007.
Dan Henderson deserves a spot on this list from a historical perspective. He was the UFC 17 middleweight tournament winner, the Pride 2005 Welterweight Grand Prix tournament winner and Pride's only welterweight champion. In addition, he has UFC wins over Rousimar Palhares and Michael Bisping at 185 lbs.
The last spot is between UFC fighters with long, impressive histories: Nate Marquardt, Yushin Okami and Chael Sonnen. Marquardt is one of the most dominant fighters in Pancrase history and was a top-ten middleweight for a long time. Okami was one of the best fighters in Japan and has a highly under-appreciated 11-4 record.
Sonnen, however, gets the nod over both of them. He is rightfully the final WEC middleweight champion, and has beaten Marquardt and Okami. These wins are on top of victories over Brian Stann, Michael Bisping and Tim Credeur.
1- Anderson Silva
2- Rich Franklin
3- Paulo Filho
4- Dan Henderson
5- Chael Sonnen
Unsurprisingly, this is one of the hardest divisions to sort through, and there are many fighters who are worth bringing up.
Ultimately, few would disagree that this list boils down to choosing between Wanderlei Silva, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jon Jones, Frank Shamrock and Randy Couture.
Randy Couture gets cut based on the fact that most of his accomplishments came as a heavyweight. Frank Shamrock also finds himself on the outside looking in. While he was the original UFC light heavyweight champion, the bulk of his light heavyweight career was concentrated into a two-year stretch that many other fighters have matched.
The toughest cut is Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. While Jackson is almost the only fighter to have true UFC success after leaving Pride, beating Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson, his title reign was relatively brief. In addition, he has struggled against other fighters on this list (except for Liddell).
So now, how to rank the others?
Tito Ortiz has the longest title reign and most defenses of the belt. Additionally, he was by far the UFC's biggest draw from 2000 to 2004 and was one of the UFC's top light heavyweights until 2006. That said, there is no ignoring or defending the horrible stretch between back-to-back wins against Ken Shamrock and retirement, when he went 1-7-1. This period badly tarnished an otherwise stellar career.
“Shogun” Rua comes in at the fourth spot. Rua was the clear-cut No. 2 middleweight in Pride, going 12-1 in the promotion. His lone loss came via a fluke, when he broke his arm defending a takedown from Mark Coleman. In the UFC, he took the belt from Lyoto Machida. He can reasonably be slotted higher, and at age 30, he still has time to step over at least a couple of fighters ahead of him.
Chuck Liddell earns third place on the list. He is probably the UFC's best light heavyweight champ to date, given his multiple wins over both Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. However, much like Ortiz, the tail end of his career was very, very bad.
Jon Jones gets penciled in at No. 2. Jones is by far the most athletically gifted fighter in light heavyweight history. If he keeps winning, he will become the greatest light heavyweight of all time. A strong case can be made that he already is the greatest light heavyweight ever, but given his youth and short career so far, it feels premature to give him the top spot.
That spot belongs to Wanderlei Silva. Silva's dominance in Pride from 1999 to 2005 was as amazing a stretch in MMA as anything we have ever seen. You might already be scrolling down to post inflammatory comments, but Silva gets this spot on a technicality. While he is 3-7 over his last 10 fights, he has only fought at light heavyweight four times during that stretch. This ultimately leaves him with a nearly flawless resume at 205 lbs, which is enough to slot him in as the top light heavyweight of all time.
1- Wanderlei Silva
2- Jon Jones
3- Chuck Liddell
4- Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
5- Tito Ortiz
Ranking the heavyweight division is difficult, as it requires an awkward balancing of performance in the cage, strength of competition, career length, historical importance and championship reigns.
The top two are easy enough choices. They were the most dominant heavyweight fighters for years. From 1999 to 2009, they had a combined record of 64-6-1 (2). They fought and beat every noteworthy fighter Pride had to offer during that stretch, and had success against solid competition after the promotion closed up. Obviously, these two fighters are Fedor Emelianenko (who takes the top spot) and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
After these two, Randy Couture has to be given the No. 3 spot. His UFC record as a heavyweight is 10-4. In those wins are three championship belts, the UFC 13 heavyweight tournament victory and three title defenses. All that is on top of his major contributions to the UFC brand, despite butting heads with promotional brass on numerous occasions.
After Couture comes Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. Cro Cop is another fighter who experienced high highs and low lows. In Pride, he had huge victories over Josh Barnett, Wanderlei Silva, Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman. Confusingly, he ended his MMA career in the UFC with back-to-back-to-back knockout losses to Frank Mir, Brendan Schaub and Roy Nelson. He has since returned to kickboxing and is 3-0 with two knockouts.
Finally, Frank Mir comes in at fifth. Mir's MMA career dates back to 2001. He ran through early competition and rode this success to the UFC heavyweight belt, which he earned by popping Tim Sylvia's elbow. While he came back to the UFC worse-for-wear after a motorcycle accident in 2004, he is one of the very few fighters who fought at the turn of the millennium and stayed relevant as a fighter to this day.
1- Fedor Emelianenko
2- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
3- Randy Couture
4- Mirko Filipovic
5- Frank Mir
Ranking the GOATs
So, now to rank each division's GOAT against each other:
1- Anderson Silva
2- Fedor Emelianenko
3- Georges St-Pierre
4- BJ Penn
5- Wanderlei Silva
6- Jose Aldo
7- Dominick Cruz
Obviously, this strictly takes into consideration the single greatest fighter from each division. Otherwise, other fighters would outrank Silva, Aldo and Cruz.
Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre and Fedor Emelianenko are by far the three greatest fighters of all time. Their historical dominance needs no explanation.
Anderson Silva gets the nod over Fedor for reasons explained here.
I pondered moving GSP over Fedor, and a compelling case can be made to rank him over Anderson Silva. Ultimately, I opted in favor of the status quo—although, if Silva retires or even makes lengthy vacations a common occurrence, GSP could easily take his place.
Penn is the clear No. 4. He was a dominant champion at lightweight, and he set up the division for the long-term success it enjoys to this day.
Wanderlei clocks in at No. 5, with Aldo and Cruz bringing up the rear. The primary reason for this is the same reason why Silva is ranked over Jon Jones. Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz have so much fighting left to do that we don't really know how good they are capable of being quite yet (and, by extension, how good their opponents are). Basically, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
So there you have it! Hope you enjoyed the history lesson.