Rankings in general are essentially pointless, more fodder for conversation than any sort of tangible reward for a fighter. A high ranking won’t knock your opponent down or force a tap out. A high ranking won’t necessarily put food on the table. The most banal list of them all might be the pound-for-pound entries.
Comparing fighters of different weight classes is about as effective as comparing baseball players of different eras. It’s fun to do, but there are so many discrepancies and factors that are impossible to account for that you can’t conclusively prove anything. Would Babe Ruth have been as great a player in the 80s? 90s? Today?
Yet this matters to people. Maybe it’s lingering sentiment from the "Bloodsport" days (weight classes? *psht*) or our natural inclination towards romanticizing sports, but we are obsessed with determining who is the true, best, best, bestest fighter in the whole wide world. Making things more difficult is the varying criteria people use: quality of opponents, finishing rate, "dominance". The most bizarre to me is the demand to see these fighters change weight classes to battle each other. That defeats the purpose of pound-for-pound, doesn’t it? As you can see, I consider it to be a hypothetical argument more than anything else.
To clear up any confusion, I want to make it clear that I think pound-for-pound rankings are silly. However, please allow me to use the format to espouse the virtues of a man who might not be getting enough credit. I ask a question.
Are we certain that José Aldo isn’t the best fighter in the world?
These three men, in some order, have all had a claim on the Iron Throne of MMA for the last few years. Even after Silva was knocked out by Chris Weidman, there are still outlets refusing to drop him from this triumvirate. That’s the unconquerable stature Jones, Silva and St-Pierre have established for themselves. They’ve been impossible to beat. They’ve taken out fellow champions. They’ve cleared out their respective divisions. Asked to continually perform at the highest level against elite competition, their combined UFC record is 46-4.
How do Aldo’s accomplishments stack up? First, a quick rundown of his significant victories.
(*records are as they were when the fighter fought Aldo, not the fighter’s current record)
- since June, 2009
o Cub Swanson (13-2, borderline top 10, title eliminator)
§ TKO, :08 R1
o Mike Brown (22-4, WEC featherweight champion)
§ TKO, 1:20 R2
o Urijah Faber (23-3, top 3, considered the best featherweight of all time up to that point)
§ UD (49-45 x2, 50-45)
o Manny Gamburyan (11-4, 3-0 as a featherweight, top 5)
§ KO, 1:32 R2
o Mark Hominick (20-8, top 10)
§ UD (48-45, 48-46, 49-46)
o Kenny Florian (14-5, top 10 lightweight/featherweight)
§ UD (49-46 x3)
o Chad Mendes (11-0, clear-cut no. 2 featherweight)
§ KO, 4:59 R1
o Frankie Edgar (15-3-1, former lightweight champion)
§ UD (49-46 x2, 48-47)
o Chan Sung Jung (13-2, top 10)
§ TKO, 2:00 R4
After signing with the WEC, Aldo recorded KO/TKO victories in his first four assignments: Alexandre Franca Nogueira, Jonathan Brookins, Rolando Perez and Chris Mickle. Combined record (at the time they fought Aldo, excluding draws): 51-19. The matchmakers tuned up Aldo with the perfect mix of veterans and up and comers. His response was overwhelmingly violent. You can check off "dismissed inferior competition" on our imaginary pound-for-pound survey.
His first true test was Cub Swanson. Swanson’s only loss at featherweight had come at the hands of MMA legend Jens Pulver, so he was a logical opponent for Aldo to fight for the right to challenge the then-WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown. Everyone remembers how the Aldo/Swanson match turned out.
That’s one Swanson would like to have back. As remarkable as this finish was at the time, what makes it even more impressive is that Swanson has remained one of the best fighters at 145. More than just a highlight reel stoppage, the Swanson victory is an important notch on Aldo’s belt.
The opposite of the Swanson situation is Brown, who went on to have mixed results after losing to Aldo. Still, at the time he was the undisputed top featherweight and Aldo capped off a meteoric rise with a definitive finish of the reigning champion.
"Definitive" is the key word here. Jones, Silva and St-Pierre all made sure there was no doubt who the new king of the division would be when they defeated their respective opponents. Jones blasted Shogun Rua, Silva embarrassed Rich Franklin twice and St-Pierre won a best of three series against Matt Hughes with a pair of submission victories. It’s also worth mentioning that Shogun, Franklin and Hughes were themselves considered unbeatable for a significant stretch of their careers.
Brown doesn’t quite stack up to those names, but he had just beaten Urijah Faber for a second time and a lengthy run was a possibility. Also, the featherweight division was still in its infancy so it would be impossible for anyone in the WEC to match the notoriety of the aforementioned fighters.
Even after losing to Brown twice, Faber was still thought of as the best featherweight of all time. Without him, the WEC wouldn’t have grown at the rate it did and it would have taken much longer for the UFC to integrate the featherweights and the bantamweights.
With six WEC appearances under his belt, there were still a lot of question marks surrounding Aldo’s game. He’d always been the aggressor. Could he handle Faber’s non-stop pressure and wrestling?An analysis of that encounter informs Aldo’s future dominance. For one, he was much bigger than Faber. Second, he showed no fear of Faber’s wrestling, getting the better of the grappling exchanges time and time again. Of course, that was helped by the reinforcement of his lethal leg kicks. By the time the fight was over, the skin on Faber’s leg had gone through all the colours of the rainbow.
In the wake of so many quick finishes, a one-sided decision win turned out to be the best thing for Aldo’s reputation. He showed he could go into the championship rounds and control an extremely dangerous and durable opponent. There was plenty of substance to go along with the style.
The next two challengers, Manny Gamburyan and Mark Hominick have been lost in the shuffle, especially Gamburyan who was Aldo’s last opponent in the WEC. Scoff if you will, but Gamburyan was undefeated as a featherweight and he’d earned his shot by knocking Brown out cold. He even took the first round from Aldo before the champ adapted in the second and scored another TKO victory. For the sake of comparison, Gamburyan is like Nate Marquardt to Silva or Rampage Jackson to Jones. Maybe they didn’t have the best shot of winning, but there was good reason to place them opposite the champ.
Hominick is remembered more favourably based on the strength of his performance. The Ontario native was 4-0 since coming back under the Zuffa umbrella in 2010. He had put on two memorable fights against Yves Jabouin and Leonard Garcia. In his return to the UFC, he knocked out George Roop in a title eliminator. Hominick was a top 10 featherweight no matter how you slice it.
Fighting in his home province, the Ontario native drew strength from the crowd as Aldo faded. He gave his all in the championship rounds, battering Aldo from inside the Brazilian’s guard. The massive hematoma on his head and his pounding fists are the enduring images from that bout. What people seem to forget is that Aldo had handily won the first three rounds. Even in the end, he never allowed himself to be put in a position where Hominick could realistically end the fight.
Gamburyan and Hominick are the kinds of lightly regarded challengers that often prove dangerous. They keep a champion sharp. They’re not expected to move PPV buys; the UFC has other ways to do that.
Kenny Florian and Frankie Edgar were both put on the fast track to a meeting with Aldo. Florian had one win at 145; Edgar, zero.
Florian is well-liked and reliable. You can understand why the UFC wanted to see gold around his waist. An impressive run at 155 came to a sudden halt at the hands of BJ Penn and after a suffocating decision loss to Gray Maynard, Florian decided to move down to featherweight. A hard fought victory over Aldo’s Nova União teammate Diego Nunes was enough to set up what should have been a marquee matchup.
The ever evolving Aldo completely neutralized Florian en route to an unremarkable decision. That said, Aldo becomes firmly entrenched in the top five of the pound-for-pound rankings after this fight. Florian was a top five lightweight for two years and presumably a top five featherweight as well (he retired after this fight, so it’s unclear if he would have continued to succeed at 145). That Aldo dispatched him with such ease was enough to cause fans to consider the possibilities. Should he move up in weight? Could he be the first dual champion?
Before we got a preview of his chances at 155, Aldo would have to deal with the one thing missing from his resume: a young, hungry challenger who appeared equally unflappable. Chad Mendes fit the bill (though he was two years Aldo’s senior, he was less experienced), sporting a sterling 11-0 record. His outstanding wrestling allowed him to beat the likes of Javier Vazquez, Michihiro Omigawa and Rani Yahya without losing a round. If he could ground Aldo, all bets were off.
The first round was a feeling out period that Mendes tried to steal with a late takedown. He ducked right into an Aldo knee and he was hurt too badly to recover. The stoppage came with one second remaining in the first round.
Mendes was clearly the second best featherweight going into that title fight and he’s only gotten better. None of his last three opponents have made it past the two minute mark against him. The way Mendes has bounced back only makes his abrupt termination by Aldo even more compelling. He seems destined for a rematch somewhere down the line. It is a rivalry that could do wonders for both men’s legacies.
Moving on to another fast track challenger, we have Edgar who shouldn’t have received such an early title shot. He was riding (the opposite of riding? Falling off his horse?) a two fight losing streak stemming from back-to-back five rounders with Ben Henderson. Even more curious, Edgar was never a PPV draw so it’s unclear why they felt the need to hotshot what was essentially a superfight.
The results were predictable. Even though Edgar had dropped a weight class, Aldo still towered over him. Edgar’s vaunted speed served him well enough, but Aldo is the most vicious and quickest striker at 145. When the scorecards were settled, Aldo could now count another former world champion amongst his triumphs.
Lastly, we have the Chan Sung Jung. The Korean Zombie’s road to Aldo was a mixture of excellence and good timing. When Aldo’s original UFC 163 dance partner Anthony Pettis suffered an injury, Jung had positioned himself as a suitable replacement with three tough wins over Garcia, Hominick and Dustin Poirier. Depending how highly you think of Hominick and Poirier, Jung would be as high as #4 in the rankings (the top 3 would rightfully be Aldo, Mendes and Ricardo Lamas).
The fight itself was a dud. Jung’s camp aimed to drag the fight into the later rounds before turning up the intensity, a plan that was derailed by a freak shoulder dislocation that left Jung vulnerable to a fight ending flurry. It did look like Jung was building momentum, but Aldo was up three rounds to zip and it would have been a steep uphill battle regardless.
Aldo himself would later reveal that he had broken his foot in the first round (explaining the dearth of leg kicks). He had to change his approach on the fly, showing off some nice wrestling to keep Jung from finding any sort of rhythm. The highlight of the fight was Aldo snatching Jung out of the air as the Zombie went for a flying knee and planting him on the mat.
That sort of perseverance and versatility is what it takes to be considered the best. Thank about St-Pierre jabbing Josh Koscheck to death. Silva breaking out his jiu-jitsu to submit Dan Henderson and Chael Sonnen. Jones...doing something different in pretty much every fight.
Fedor Emelianenko, oft cited as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time, spent much of his career as a submission machine before becoming a knockout artist at the tail end. He was fearless in both matching his opponent’s strengths and exploiting their weaknesses. Adapt or die. Aldo has proven he can adapt as well as anyone.
There isn’t much else you can ask Aldo to do to further his position in the pound-for-pound rankings. Look at that list of opponents again. There isn’t a single fight that could be perceived as "easy". Jones and Silva have both engaged in amusing mismatches (Jones with bulked up middleweights, Silva with his excursions at 205). Only GSP can claim a lineup of foes as formidable as Aldo, but his lack of finishes has proven frustrating for fans and pundits alike. In the last decade, professional boxing made the move to recognize its lighter fighters as the true pound-for-pound kings. Should Aldo continue to demolish the competition (say beating Anthony Pettis and then tackling the lightweight division), the MMA world might have to crown a new king.
While I was working on this post, some additional reading helped me to reinforce my ideas. Check them out!