Determining the All-Time Greats of Mixed Martial Arts

One of the interesting discussions that was created out of the recent Randy Couture vs. Mark Coleman showdown at UFC 109 was the talk about how we will be able to determine the all-time greats of our sport in the years to come. Mainstream sports like football, baseball, basketball, and hockey have athletes who have been indisputably given the title, but MMA doesn't have the decades of competition to truly make the same comparisons.

Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth, and Jim Brown are all considered legendary greats of their respective sports, but some are simply out of reach of ever being compared. Wayne Gretzky dominated the NHL in an era that was far tougher than today's game. Perhaps hockey was less technical in those days, but the physical aspect of the sport was much more dominating. It wasn't uncommon for players to headhunt constantly throughout a game without ever being penalized. Players could set picks, crush opponents without the puck, and cross check at will. Despite the tough environment, Gretzky always found a way to produce.

Ruth's display of power, Jordan's dominance and ability to change a game all by himself, and Brown's incredible rushing records were equally astonishing. How will we be able to determine the all-time greats of mixed martial arts when this sport is in its infancy in comparison to some of the other major sports?

MMA's heavyweights were at the forefront of the discussion on Twitter yesterday as Sports Illustrated's Josh Gross, Sherdog's Jordan Breen, and a bevy of MMA fans and writers debated as to what criteria should be scrutinized in the selection. The leading candidates focused on Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Randy Couture, Mark Coleman, and Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic with mentions of Bas Rutten, Don Frye, Igor Vovchanchyn, Brock Lesnar, and Tim Sylvia all in the mix.

The most agreed upon criteria included accomplishments over the course of one's career in combination with victories over contemporary fighters. While some fans felt this would hurt the chances of fighters such as Mark Coleman, the argument was made by Jordan Breen that the "pioneer" era of MMA didn't necessarily produce great fighters unless they proved it in the modern era. 

In thinking about the all-time best fighters in our sport, I came to a conclusion that multiple factors bring about this same theory. Modern training methods, the evolution of how techniques are used in the sport, more abundance of quality competitors, and more knowledge of ways in which to escape those "pioneering" techniques have brought about a disparity in the two time periods.

Mark Coleman is the perfect example. Coleman was the pioneer of ground and pound in mixed martial arts, but as MMA evolved into something much more dynamic and popular -- more fighters trained in the ways in which to counter such abilities. Coleman didn't evolve in that manner. Age has something to do with his most recent performances, but Coleman wasn't overly successful in the past decade.

Fedor entered the sport at the very end of the pioneer era, but we can safely say that he was miles ahead of the competition at the time. Nogueira was equally ahead of the competition in his jiu-jitsu prowess, but he's also proven to be an evolving fighter even in lieu of the many doubters he had following his loss to Frank Mir. For that reason, both men are consider the #1 and #2 heavyweights of all-time respectively.

Couture would likely be my third choice on the list. He's managed to not only be successful in the early days of the UFC, but he's also accomplished titles in the modern era as well as wins against contemporary fighters. Coleman and CroCop round out the top five, but it's a tough call as to where each man would sit. The alternatives, however, can quickly be dismissed.

It's an interesting topic, but I believe it's a bit early to compile a true top five. Right now, many fans felt Coleman and CroCop were interchangeable at #4 and #5 with Lesnar becoming a shoe-in in the next few years. I generally agree with that, but I believe the constant evolution of MMA is only going to push guys like Coleman and CroCop out of the top five and potentially top ten as the years go by. We'll undoubtedly see great athletes in the sport as we move ahead, and it's a shame that some of these fighters will be forgotten by fans who haven't even discovered this fantastic sport yet.

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