In case you missed it, Bloody Elbow has spent the past few months running a fan-vote tournament to determine MMA's Greatest of All Time. Right now, the finals are running, pitting Anderson Silva against Fedor Emelianenko. There's been great debate on both sides in the comments on that thread (which you can check out here - voting is still open!). But in discussion with the Bloody Elbow staff, I discovered that Iain Kidd and I saw things differently in this debate. And so, being writers, we settled this the only way we know how - by polite exchange of ideas. Enjoy!
Iain Kidd: For me, the entire argument comes down to two basic points. The first is the strength of competition each fighter faced. The second is the relative level of skill compared to their contemporaries.
As far as strength of competition goes, the two are probably equal. While a number of Silva's title defenses look weak on reflection, everyone he fought was at least top 10 at the time. While Fedor definitely fought the best of his contemporaries, his record is also littered with freak show fights against fighters outside the top 25 of the heavyweight division, let alone the top 10. The 16 wins in a row Anderson racked up against top UFC middleweights is the match of Fedor's 15 Pride wins and 2 Affliction wins.
The relative level of skill is where I feel Anderson comes into his own and takes the crown. Most of Fedor's defining moments involve him being put in serious trouble by relatively inferior opponents (Mark Hunt's americana attempt for instance) and overcoming it to snatch a win. Anderson on the other hand spent almost his entire UFC career making former champions like Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin look like amateurs who didn't even belong in his cage. To watch Fedor was to see the most well-rounded mixed martial artist of the day always find a way to win. To watch Anderson Silva was to see an artist use violence as a medium. To me, that's what elevates Anderson to the Greatest Of All Time status.
Fraser Coffeen: It's interesting that you use strength of competition, as that's a key point for me as well, but in my eyes, it tips the scales to Fedor. Which is strange, because this has often been held up as a weakness in the myth of Fedor, but hear me out.
Yes, Fedor did have some silly freakshow fights - such was the nature of Japanese MMA. There's nothing more to be said about fights against Hong Man Choi or Zuluzinho. They were ridiculous. But he also fought a lot of great opponents. In particular, there are two names that stand out on his record: Mirko Cro Cop and Minotauro Nogueira. The two best non-Fedor Heavyweights of his era. Both were serious, dominating forces, and both were men that likely would have ruled over the division with an iron fist if not for Fedor. And yet Fedor beat them both. I just don't see those equivalents on Silva's record. Many of his best wins - Chael, Forrest - came against very good, but also very beatable opponents. I think with time, Silva's most worthy opponents will likely go down as Franklin and Belfort, who again, are no Cro Cop and Nog.
Which brings me to my last point - those two were both strikers who faced the superior striker in Silva and lost. Cro Cop and Nog were complete opposites - a master striker and a master grappler. And Fedor won against both styles. More impressive is how he beat them. Whereas GSP, the master technician, liked to outstrike the grappler (Jake Shields) and outgrapple the striker (Dan Hardy), Fedor beat Cro Cop standing, and beat Nog on the mat. That is insane. So for me, it's those two wins that give Fedor the nod.
Iain: The heavyweight division of MMA has historically been the weakest, and it comes down to numbers, really. The number of athletic guys who weight 200+ pounds is a significantly smaller number than the number of athletic guys who can make 170/185lbs, which is where Anderson Silva fought.
Much of Anderson's early record is forgotten or dismissed when considering his record, but Mach Sakurai was undefeated until he ran into Anderson, and he was considered the best welterweight in the world at the time in some circles. Rich Franklin also gets dismissed much too easily; if Anderson Silva hadn't come along he would have reigned in the UFC middleweight division for at least a few years. If someone with Cro Cop's skillset fought at middleweight, they would likely have struggled to break into the top 5. He was a talented striker with poor submission defense and serious defensive vulnerabilities. At heavyweight that's enough to rack up a strong record, but in a more competitive weight class? Not so much.
To me, it comes down to what you find more impressive; Fedor's ability to beat strong competitors in their strongest domain, or Anderson's ability to utterly outclass anyone else on the planet in his world, which was striking. Greatness to me is about more than being the most well-rounded fighter, it's about being able to do things no one else could even think of doing. Fedor is almost certainly the most well-rounded martial artist of his era, perhaps all time, but in terms of transcending so far beyond your contemporaries that they cannot even begin to approach you, Anderson takes the title comfortably. To my thinking, that makes him the Greatest Of All Time.
Fraser: Good point about Sakurai, which was a great win, though the same thing happens with Fedor's RINGS career and his forgotten wins over Babalu and Arona. Plus, if you consider Mach Sakurai, then you also have to consider Ryo Chonan and Daiju Takase - not points in Silva's favor.
I am in complete agreement with you about Silva's ability to totally outclass his opponents. His destruction of Griffin is the most complete clowning I have ever seen put on a world championship level fighter, and I don't know that we'll ever see anything like it again. Silva absolutely has the bigger moments of making his opponents look like idiots who are so far beneath him (though the Fedor midair KO of Arlovski is nothing to ignore).
But overall, I think the "Fedor fights out of bad situations" narrative has become overplayed in recent years and is not entirely accurate. Yes, he did that at times - the Randleman fight being the most notable. To me, when he did, it was incredible. If a man can do that to Fedor and still be tapping out a minute later, then how can anyone even dream of winning against the guy? But he also absolutely shut people out, such as sitting in Nogueira's guard and seemingly effortlessly pounding him down. That's the same kind of level of being beyond your peers that Anderson showed, though it's not as flashy. And I guess for me, that working grind, coupled with the ability to get through the rare tough patch, is just a bit more impressive, especially in the Nogueira fight.
Iain: I think to be honest we've kind of come to the crux of why it's so difficult to choose between Anderson and Fedor as the GOAT. It really does just come down to where you put the most value. Their careers are both so remarkable and so far beyond anyone else's that it comes down to splitting hairs or personal values. For me, the way Anderson made Mixed Martial Arts feel and look like an art form at times, even when he was fighting world champion caliber opposition, cements him in my mind as the greatest of all time.
If you put more value in a fighter being so good he could attack any opponents strongest area and still win, which is a perfectly viable criteria, then you would probably come down on the side of Fedor. I think in 20 years we'll still be showing people highlight reel footage of Anderson outclassing people, while Fedor's greatest moments will be split between things like the Randleplex and the Arlovski KO. To me, it's like Rocky Marciano vs. Muhammed Ali. Marciano is Fedor; he has a stronger record and managed to find a way to win fights he should have lost, but when you want to show someone the best of the sweet science, it's Ali's fights you put on, not his. I think in those terms, Anderson will go down as MMA's Ali and that's why he's my pick for GOAT.
Fraser: Splitting hairs is right. These guys (and I would add GSP to the mix myself) are head and shoulders above everyone else, and it's very, very hard to rank them. I'm still pro-Fedor, but if Silva wins it, I'll be fine with that.
Like you said, it largely comes down to personal style. I am, of course, a stand-up/striking guy at my core, and for that, I will always love Silva. And yes, I think Silva's highlights will stand the test of time more, and years from now, he'll be the more watched of the two with Fedor having existed in this weird, murky, olde tyme.
And maybe that's what in the end puts Fedor over the edge for me. I've been watching this sport since its inception, and I really value what the pioneers of the sport did. Both Fedor and Silva did things that have never been done before, but Fedor did them first. Is that a reason to vote for him? Maybe not. But again, if we're splitting hairs (and we absolutely are), I like the men who paved the way and helped turned this ragtag cage fighting into an actual sport, and Fedor is definitely one of those men. That he did it all while at the same time performing at as high a level he did for as long as he did? That's what to me makes him the GOAT. Other great fighters will come after him - but none like him ever came before.