Sunday, May 13, 2012

Champion vs. Champion, who is the greatest ever?

No disrespect to Bellator Fighting Championships, but they had the stage all too themselves this weekend with no UFC and major boxing events scheduled and they just didn't bring it. A very controversial stoppage and a couple of lackluster high profile fights on the main card of Bellator 68 sealed their fate. So, with a relatively slow weekend in combat sports, I turn to an idea given to me by a reader.

As I was finishing up my 'Champion vs. Champion' series, taking a look at the current champions in each major U.S. organization side by side, someone suggested I do a piece using the same concept, but with legends. After giving it some thought, I decided there was only one way to approach this. Take a look back at the nearly 19 year history of mixed martial arts and profile who I think was the greatest champion in each weight class, regardless of organization affiliation.

To do this, I will only look at the five weight classes ranging from lightweight - heavyweight, since the other three lighter weight classes have only been instituted in the last few years. (I will do this in two parts) Of course in the early days of MMA, there weren't any weight classes and then when a few were instituted, such as light-heavyweight when it used to be less than 199 lbs., the weight limits were different than today's standards. Taking this into consideration, here are the five I consider to be the greatest champions the weight classes have ever seen:

Lightweight (155 lbs.) - B.J. Penn (16-8-2, 7 KO's 6 subs)

Of course with the short, but rich history the sport has had, there is going to be possible debate; and considering some of the great lightweight champions we've seen over time in their prime, it may begin here. However, names like Takanori Gomi and Gilbert Melendez aside, there is one name that immediately comes to mind @ 155 lbs., B.J. Penn.

When you're given a nickname like 'The Prodigy' because of all you've accomplished within a short period of time before your 22nd birthday, it's a lot to live up to. Penn (pictured above) did that and more when he stormed onto the MMA scene in 2001. If you're unfamiliar with his career and just look at his record you may ask yourself, what's so special?

However, take into consideration he actually won his first world title when he moved up to 170 lbs. to challenge the greatest welterweight champion ever, at a time when no one gave him a chance, and you begin to see why. Then take a closer look at the losses and realize a majority of them came outside of the lightweight class against men much bigger and stronger than him and you start to understand why.

Finally, see the names he's lost to, Pulver, Machida, Hughes, St. Pierre, Edgar and Diaz and it's a murderer's row of champions. More importantly though, who he has beaten during that time period, Pulver, Hughes, Sherk and two different Gracies to name a few, are what cements Penn's legacy as a future hall of famer. Win or lose, he's always been a huge fan favorite and continues to be during his supposed retirement.

Welterweight (170 lbs.) - Matt Hughes (45-9, 17 KO's 18 subs)

All respect due to Georges St. Pierre, who has defeated Hughes two out of three times and may end up being the greatest welterweight ever before he's done; but a/o today, Hughes remains the standard bearer for all 170 lbs. champions. People tend to forget one's greatness when their career starts to subside after their prime. However, analyze Hughes's career and the evidence is quite clear.

An extremely well established (29-3) record before he ever won his first title @ UFC 34 against Carlos Newton, he went on a run of five straight title defenses before losing it to Penn in their first meeting; a defeat he would later avenge. However, he worked his way back and won it a second time, establishing himself as the greatest welterweight of his era.

His resume is a virtual who's who list in MMA and while he's not officially retired at the age of 38, he did retire once previously and was soon after inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. Thus, whenever he does step into the cage, he does so as a hall of famer and a living legend. As great as St. Pierre is and may be, I'm still not sure if his overall career may be looked upon as Hughes's when it is all said and done.

In part two and the conclusion of this series, I will look at the greatest champions from middleweight-heavyweight and determine who is the greatest ever among these five.


  1. Hey Sammy,

    I'd argue that with the exception of Carlos Newton, Hughes fought challengers less well rounded than GSP. But otherwise I agree 100% with both this and the second list.

  2. Ravyn, I can see your argument. However, at the height of Hughes career, the sport was still evolving; thus, the fighters had not reach the level they are at now. Therefore, you have to consider Hughes career at that point, while considering GSP's career at this point. Kind of like viewing Joe Louis in the '30's vs. Larry Holmes in the '80's. Louis is seen as being greater, but 50 years later, the fighters Holmes fought were much better.

    Thanks for your comment brother; I appreciate you reading.


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