Looking Back at MMA Champions Like Anderson Silva

Susumu08_medium Jordan Breen has a very good piece on Anderson Silva's career today. He discusses Silva's largely forgotten accomplishments as a welterweight, the UFC's failed attempts to sign him to challenge Carlos Newton for the UFC welterweight belt at UFC 34, and Silva's embarrassing losses. But most importantly, he discusses a phenomenon all too often overlooked, the importance of timing in evaluating a fighter's wins:

In prizefighting, all wins are imbued with a temporal quality: The notion of "when" matters. For instance, Ricardo Arona beating Wanderlei Silva in 2005 is of far more merit than Vitor Belfort's or Rich Franklin's wins over The Axe Murderer. Dennis Hallman's wins over Matt Hughes, or even Thiago Alves' win over Hughes, are not on the level of Penn's triumph over a pound-for-pound stalwart Hughes in 2004. Beating individuals in their moment of greatness is what counts.

Many of Silva's greatest wins have come against opponents who were not just great for that moment but sustained greatness for much longer. Sakurai, Franklin, Nate Marquardt, Dan Henderson and even Jeremy Horn, who has become driftwood in the last two years, all continued to prosper as fighters following their losses to Silva. You may not find that especially gripping, but it's more unusual than you'd imagine.

When you look at lists of title challengers in the Zuffa era of the UFC, it is littered with fighters who rightfully earned their way to a title shot but failed to sustain any measure of greatness, from Carlos Newton to Gil Castillo to David Terrell to David Loiseau to Gan McGee to Thales Leites. If you were explaining a fighter's accomplishments to a neophyte, you would qualify the wins by saying "Well, he was a great fighter at the time." Many of the names that Silva has put on his docket speak for themselves in a way that is still exceedingly rare for MMA.

All too often when we get into discussions of fighters' careers, a weird form of revisionist history is applied. Fans will hear of a fighter from the old days, (say Carlos Newton or Dave Menne) head on over to Fight Finder and see a bunch of losses on their record and then conclude that the guy was never any good.

More recently we've seen it with wholesale attempts to dismiss the value of Fedor Emelianenko's wins over Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. As if suffering a massive defeat to the top fighter in the world and the subsequent depression and self-doubt has no impact. In Sylvia's case there was a clear failure to train for the Mercer fight as well.

MMA is far too difficult a game to evaluate a fighter based on their performances over a wide span of time. To win at the highest levels of MMA requires that an athlete be on top of their game both physically and mentally. When circumstances change -- be it a dramatic fall off in motivation to train, nagging injuries, drug or alcohol abuse, bad luck -- fighters who were performing at an elite level can suddenly find themselves reduced to mediocrity. That doesn't suddenly mean they weren't formidable when they were on their game.

The only way to evaluate the quality of a fighter's wins is to look at how his opponents were rated at the time. Keep the revisionist history out of it.

Photo by the great Susumu

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