I don't think anyone could legitimately argue that Jones is the GOAT right now, but does Jones have the potential to be the GOAT?
GOAT is remarkably hard to define, but most people would agree that it’s the person’s dominance relative to their era. People shouldn’t be dismissed from consideration when the era has clearly changed (i.e. if they start losing a bunch at the end of their career). Fedor is clearly no longer at the top, but that’s not the point: Fedor dominated the Pride era from ~2002-2006 and went 31-0 before his first loss (not counting an idiotic stoppage).
To start off with, I’d like to define three general “eras”. MMA is at the beginning of its development and is evolving so quickly that the landscape changes every 5 years or so, and these eras overlap and are too general, but it helps frame the argument:
'02-'06: Pride Era: Fighters go from being largely unidimensional to being largely multidimensional.
‘06-’10: UFC Era I: Fighting techniques are hugely refined; fighters are fluidly multidimensional instead of switching between striking and wrestling.
'10 - : UFC Era II: High caliber athletes who are also refined fighters.
I don’t think there’s a consensus on who the GOAT is, but I’d like to use Fedor to illustrate a couple points:
1) A 31 win streak is ridiculous. As a sport evolves streaks tend to become longer (see: boxing) because a) more scrubs are fought to get to the top and b) the sport is more mapped-out (better fighters generally have more knowledge of their opponent’s techniques, and get surprised less often). Long winning streaks in the Pride era were more rare than they are now.
Even discarding that argument, MMA has a significant element of chance. People who are clearly better sometimes lose: like Anderson Silva being submitted by Ryo Chonan. Yes, it was early in Silva’s career. Yes, Chonan performed a high-risk move. But that just illustrates how remarkable it was to go 31-0.
2) Fedor helped transform the sport. In 2002, MMA was filled with mostly one-dimensional fighters (e.g. either wrestling or striking). By 2007, every fighter realized that they had to be at least two-dimensional. This transformation would probably have happened regardless, but Fedor was the first real multidimensional fighter: he stood with Cro-Cop and laid in the guard of Nog.
As an example of integrating multiple disciplines, Fedor lead the transformation in how to take opponents down. In 2002, wrestlers, jujitsu practioners, judo choppers were all just beginning to learn how to effectively take down opponents in a MMA setting. Fedor was the first master practitioner of “throw a punch to set up a takedown.” Other people did it occasionally. Fedor did it to everyone.
Notice how Fedor places his right leg outside of Nog’s left. Even by modern standards that’s ridiculously smooth.
3) A champion’s moments. It’s not a direct measure of skill, but the GOAT of every sport has moments where they simply prevail.
Let's take a look at Jones after the jump.
If Jon Jones started losing consistently, he would obviously be removed from consideration. That’s because he’s not at the end of his era.
Looking at the same criteria:
1) Jones has a great record (16-1; he was clearly winning against Hamill, but he was also clearly violating the rules). It’s probably the best or one of the best records right now, but it doesn’t eclipse his peers. It’s similar to Silva and GSP’s.
Importantly, this record just isn’t long enough. It doesn’t cover an entire era. Fedor’s win streak started from a time where fighters were unidimensional and he had a strength advantage; it lasted until fighters were multidimensional and he had a size / strength disadvantage.
On the surface, this isn’t entirely fair to Jones: Jones has consistently fought absolutely top-tier opposition whereas Fedor did not always fight the best (he did sometimes, but not as consistently). But this major blemish is exactly why a lot of people do NOT consider Fedor to be the GOAT. In my opinion, for Jones to be the GOAT WITH consensus, he has to extend his winning streak for another year or two.
2) The major transformation of our current era is the level of athlete in the sport. In Fedor’s era, some of the top fighters still looked like, well, Fedor. The argument at the time was that the extra weight gave more advantages than the disadvantages incurred from loss of cardio and speed. But fighters today have that extra weight in size and muscle (e.g. Lesnar, Carwin, Overeem, etc.), not fat.
Jones is similarly known for his size and athleticism and is one of the first “NBA/NFL-caliber” athletes to compete in the sport. But unlike e.g. Lesnar, Jones has both top size and top skill, and it will take more than someone who's just as big to defeat Jones. His wrestling is already top-tier, and while he doesn't yet have top-tier striking technique, he has time to learn: he's young; he can get away with a few mistakes (such as backpedaling straight from an advancing opponent); he has remarkable creativity and coordination that suggests a natural talent in striking. Importantly, Jones also gameplans remarkably well and that plan remains intact in the ring (cf. the recent post on elbow techniques).
If Jones continues to improve his striking and footwork some more, he’ll should be able to stay at the top of the LHW division for another couple years. And that would also satisfy criteria #1.
3) Statistically, Jones will probably be in trouble in some fight in the future. When he does, the question will be whether can persevere (e.g. Silva winning in the last moments of the final round against Sonnen).
If Jones fulfills all of the above criteria, I think fans would be very justified in calling him the GOAT.