B/R MMA Staff Roundtable: Who Was the Best MMA Fighter in the 2010s?

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2019

B/R MMA Staff Roundtable: Who Was the Best MMA Fighter in the 2010s?

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    Was Ronda Rousey the best fighter of the decade?
    Was Ronda Rousey the best fighter of the decade?John Locher/Associated Press

    Who was the best fighter of the last decade?

    That’s the question the Bleacher Report MMA crew had on our minds this time around as we gathered for another debate just a few hours after the final UFC event of the year ended in Busan, South Korea, on Saturday.

    The debate was as lively as it’s ever been. In fact, I’m not sure some of us will even be talking to each other for the next couple of days. 

    But it was totally worth it. 

    Because the 2010s were such an incredibly important time in the sport that coming up with the names of the fighters who deserve to be considered the best of the decade simply had to be done. 

    We ended up not agreeing on very much. 

    Heck, I’m not even sure we ever really got around to defining what criteria should be used to come up a such a bold proclamation as naming just one person as the best MMA fighter of the 2010s. 

    But each of us did get around to naming the one person we thought deserved the honor, so here’s how each of us sees things as the final days of 2019 tick toward completion. 

    Read through our takes, and be sure to leave your own picks in the comments below.

Harris: Conor McGregor

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    Conor McGregor drew more interest in the sport than just about any MMA fighter ever.
    Conor McGregor drew more interest in the sport than just about any MMA fighter ever.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Scott Harris: If one were to define "best" purely as skill in the cage, other fighters would leapfrog Conor McGregor. But in our collective heart of hearts, we know it doesn't end there, not in MMA, not in sports, not in life. To be the best, you have to be a star. With apologies to Ronda Rousey, on whose shoulders McGregor stands, the Irishman is the only true pick here.

    Any fan of MMA or Google can readily recall his exploits, including an arrest for sucker-punching an old man in a bar. The paper trail suggests McGregor may have become overwhelmed by the money and fame. Before you judge him on his personal decisions—those that didn't result in law-breaking and so forth—think about it: what would you do if someone dumped $100 million in your lap, as the world did to McGregor for getting knocked out by Floyd Mayweather. That is many, many times more than any other MMA fighter has ever earned. Don't forget this is a guy who started the 2010s on welfare. Think about that. He used his stardom to launch a whiskey brand, one that started a global craze and is now showcased at Buffalo Wild Wings (personal opinion: drink Windex, it's cheaper). No other MMA fighter has touched that level of wealth, celebrity or brand-building—and it must be why the very best in the sport are always agitating for a red panty night

    But this isn't about the future. This is about the past back to 2010. McGregor is 9-2 since joining the UFC in 2013 and 18-3 since 2010. Seven of those UFC wins came by knockout. He predicted his game-changing 13-second knockout of featherweight champion and legend Jose Aldo. When he knocked out Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205, he became the first fighter to hold two UFC belts at the same time, and he celebrated the accomplishment on the floor of Madison Square Garden, in the first pro MMA event ever to be held in New York. He also held two belts at the same time in Europe's well-respected Cage Warriors promotion in 2012. When I spoke to McGregor back in 2013 just after his UFC signing, back when he was still collecting welfare, he predicted he'd do the same in his new home. This, plus the stuff above, pretty much cements him in my book.

    We already mentioned the old indications with McGregor. New indications are that he is re-committed to training and has a point to prove in January in his return bout way up at welterweight with Donald Cerrone—his first MMA fight since that October 2018 smearing from and subsequent semi-riot with Khabib Nurmagomedov. If he can return newly as something remotely resembling humble, keep his nose clean and emerge as a positive influence, that will help his narrative. First and foremost, though, is the need to win. The goal is three McGregor fights in 2020. If (and that remains a big if) future years dawn the way the 2010s rode into the sunset, there are good times ahead for McGregor, his fans, and the star-dependent sport he leads. He's the best person for the job.

Snowden: Ronda Rousey

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    Without Ronda Rousey the UFC might never had included women.
    Without Ronda Rousey the UFC might never had included women.Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Jonathan Snowden: TMZ cameras caught Dana White just before he entered a black SUV, smile bright as he crushed dreams.

    "When," he was asked, "are we going to see women in the UFC?"

    The answer, it turned out, was simple enough to be contained in a single word.

    "Never," the UFC President said. 

    That was January 2011. When the decade began, no woman had ever stepped inside the UFC Octagon to test both skill and will against another human being. And, it seemed at the time, none ever would. 

    It's easy to take that for granted today, as women routinely headline both pay-per-view and television cards. That, in many ways, is the heart of my case for one Ronda Jean Rousey.

    Before Rousey, White couldn't even imagine a woman in the Octagon. After her, it's hard to imagine a UFC without them. 

    She was the perfect vessel to launch a new enterprise, an attractive blond wrecking machine with an Olympic pedigree who dominated the competition like no fighter before or since. Prior to her shocking loss to Holly Holm, Rousey had been taken beyond the first round just once in her career. Nine of her opponents failed to make even a single minute. 

    No, that's not a typo. One minute.

    And, despite the attempts to retcon history, these were no slouches. Rousey beat the top fighters in the class, all while carrying an enormous burden on her shoulders, tasked not just with winning bouts, but with winning the hearts and minds of a skeptical fight world. 

    There may have been better fighters this decade—but there were none more important. Every woman who steps into the cage owes Rousey an enormous debt of gratitude.

Fitzsimmons: Amanda Nunes

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    Most consider Amanda Nunes the GOAT of the women's division.
    Most consider Amanda Nunes the GOAT of the women's division.Steve Marcus/Getty Images

    Lyle Fitzsimmons: Many fighters had great decades.

    But there’s only one who began the 10-year stretch in relative anonymity and will end it with nearly universal acclaim from peers and critics as the greatest to ever do it.

    Her name is Amanda Nunes.

    While each of the men suggested has ruled the mixed martial arts world at one time or another, each has fallen off the perch at some point thanks to competitive or personal demons.

    But once the Brazilian known as the “Lioness” took hold of a UFC championship strap three years ago, she set about defending her claim with the ferocity of a ravenous cat on an unsuspecting buffalo.

    Not only have none of the seven foes across two weight classes since mid-2016 beaten her, but only two of them have even been around to stand alongside her as official scorecards were read. Among the high-profile carcasses she’s collected in title-level bouts include then-reigning bantamweight champ Miesha Tate (submission), ex-pay-per-view bully Ronda Rousey (TKO), then-incumbent featherweight phenom Cris Cyborg (KO) and former boxing/MMA crossover star Holly Holm (TKO).

    None of those elites, by the way, lasted beyond 4 minutes, 10 seconds with Nunes.

    And just for good measure, earlier this month she ground out a punishing five-round decision over Germaine de Randamie, who just happened to be the UFC’s first 145-pound champ.

    Come to think of it, the other bullet points aren’t so bad either. Nunes has the most overall (12) and UFC title-fight wins (7) by a woman, she’s defeated six reigning/former champions and she’s the only simultaneous two-division women’s champion in the promotion’s history.

    Few fighters, regardless of decade, have compiled that sort of resume.

    And no fighter, male or female, has elevated that far above the rest of the 2010-2019 pack.

McCarson: Jon Jones

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    Jon Jones went undefeated in the 2010s.
    Jon Jones went undefeated in the 2010s.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Kelsey McCarson: There are many great candidates, but the one who stands out the most to me is Jon Jones.

    Look, I know Jones doesn't have the box office credentials of Conor McGregor. He also isn't someone like Ronda Rousey who pretty much singlehandedly helped the UFC open its doors to half the population.

    But the plain truth of the matter is that there hasn’t been a single MMA athlete over the course of the last decade that has been as dominant as Jones.

    He’s the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world today.

    He's the longest-reigning UFC light heavyweight champion in history.

    He didn’t lose a single fight all decade long.  

    Heck, not even Amanda Nunes did all that. 

    Additionally, Jones had the added pressure of being tabbed the fighter ten years ago who would probably go on to be the decade’s best overall performer, and he still managed to prove those soothsaying pundits right by slaying the stalwart opposition he consistently faced year after year with hardly any trouble at all. 

    If you think about it, even Jones couldn’t derail Jones.

    He’s repeatedly sabotaged his own career by doing things like refusing to fight a replacement opponent at UFC 151 in 2012, getting into a 2014 promotional event scuffle with Daniel Cormier, twice testing positive for banned substances and getting into serious legal trouble after leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident. 

    Jones was even charged with battery just a few months ago.

    Still, at the end of 2010s, Jones leaves the decade with arguably the best resume in the field, scoring dominant wins over the likes of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Daniel Cormier, Chael Sonnen and Alexander Gustafsson. 

    And no matter what he does outside the Octagon, none of it seems to matter when he's inside it. 

    On top of all that, Jones headlined 14 total UFC PPV events over the course of the 2010s, starting with UFC 128 in 2011 and ending with UFC 239 in July 2019. All those wins and all those main events have to mean something to the overall debate. 

    To me, it means Jones was the best fighter of the 2010s, and the 32-year-old might even be on his way to doing it again over the bulk of the next 10 years. 

    He's been that dominant, and he still looks that good.