Pound for Pound rankings and accolades are always subjective and divisive, even more so than your run of the mill, individual weight class ones. I don't actually recall 'Pound for Pound' being discussed with any great regularity until the fall and sale of Pride Fighting Championships just under 6 years ago. The MMA press had noticeably increased talk of 'Pound for Pound' when discussing Heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko, where the story of his undefeated streak against some of the genuine best in the world (and a handful of 'showcase' opponents) was becoming eclipsed by Dana White's and the UFC's inability to sign him, and to put those claims to the test against a then relatively thin UFC roster.
The UFC's failure at capturing the White Whale of MMA only allowed speculation to grow. It got to the point where we heard Dana White comment for the first time publicly on the matter, championing his Middleweight Anderson Silva as the 'Pound for Pound' best at a time when some media outlets had only just conceded putting Silva at the top of his division ahead of UFC pariah Matt Lindland.
It's fair to say Anderson Silva has done more than enough to legitimise his place as the 'Pound for Pound' King in the minds of most in the last half decade, and that while perhaps the best Heavyweight of his era and possibly the best the sport has seen thus far, Fedor Emelianenko wasn't the 'Pound for Pound' best for any great duration. Especially when you consider the generally large drop off in skill post-205lbs at that time.
But this begs the question, what defines 'Pound for Pound' greatness in MMA? Often this definition is as subjective as the rankings themselves. Wikipedia has picked up on the attribution of 'Pound for Pound' to combat sports, however I've also heard it used in Zoology when discussing the physical strength and power of an animal within its own genus or across all species of animal life, the classic example being of how many times its own bodyweight an ant can carry and what this might mean if an ant's size was extrapolated to that of an average human's.
What MMA's greats like Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and more recently Jose Aldo have shown are a set of skills successfully applied in their fights that transcend the physical limitations and advantages they experience within their respective weight classes. Anderson Silva's talent has already shown he's more than capable of using his skills on top of his reflexes to destroy opponents in a weight class above, even if the quality of these Light Heavyweight opponents can fairly be scrutinised.
At present when it comes to 'Pound for Pound' talk, Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson is probably under most people's radar. Sporting a record of 16-2-1, he hasn't finished an opponent since Damacio Page in the WEC over 2 years ago, and for many a fighter's lack of finishing ability counts against them in 'Pound for Pound' discussions. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that a decision is something to be shunned, and even some fighters have apologised when fights go the distance, no matter how fantastic their fight was. I would argue a finish is merely a nice a perk to a fight, and not this unfair expectation the majority of us have of all fights even when match ups invariably become more even at the highest levels.
Johnson's losses have come to Featherweight Brad Pickett, and Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz, both by decision, and it's hard to argue he was particularly dominated by either. His draw to Ian McCall might be the only point of contention in his Flyweight run, due to McCall turning the fight around in the third round of their first fight, and being denied a fourth round because of the incompetence of the judges adding up the scorecards in Sydney, Australia.
The rematch with McCall left no doubt though as Johnson had adjusted and took a fairly clear decision victory over the then best Flyweight in the world. Upsetting the odds-favourite of the mini-tournament the UFC was holding, many expected the KO power and experience of the second favourite Joseph Benavidez to be the deciding factor. Johnson again took the decision, but how he did so is what impressed me the most.
To criticise another decision win by Johnson is to clearly ignore the skills that were on display during that fight. For those who can appreciate it, his footwork and timing in that fight was nothing short of stunning, as he successfully played matador to Benavidez's charging bull. I would argue the skill put on display in just that aspect of the fight is near the top of the sport across all weight classes. We've seen Johnson have success taking down and passing the guard of more than competent Jiu Jitsu stylists, and we've seen in his career he has the capacity to pull off a KO or Submission against those he outmatched in skill, even when competing in 2 or 3 weight classes above his current, more natural home.
What Johnson showed me in his fight with Benavidez is the potential to become a 'Pound for Pound' great. He's not there yet, but he is ever improving and corrections are being made to his game that's he capable of making through the right training. He has a strong top game on the ground, and he can scramble, and it would be good to see that parleyed into more submission or Ground'n'Pound opportunities. His movement on the feet is technical and not just speedy, and he already has the ability to fluster opponents who might be able to match him on fast-twitch reflexes alone like his upcoming challenger John Dodson.
If he's able to land cleaner counter strikes off of his brilliant evasiveness, to judge distance for them to land and to throw more than one or two shot combos in the process, we may see more dominant performances from him in the near future, if not more finishes outright as he wears opponents down not just through pacing, but from accumulative damage.
It's often perilous to discount a champion's opponent outright, particularly if it's the champion doing so, but I believe Coach Matt Hume has been around the game long enough to make sure that doesn't happen with Johnson. Dodson is dynamic and he can end fights, but as experienced as he is I just don't see him at Johnson's level at this point in their careers.
Maybe I'll end up eating my words, but for me Johnson has all the tools and potential to become one of the absolute best the sport of MMA has ever seen.