Almost as soon as the dust had settled following UFC 285, the proclamations were rolled out, trumpeted to all who would listen: Jon Jones is the greatest fighter of all time.
Most fight fans readily agreed.
That comes as no surprise really. MMA is a sport where fans and, regrettably, pundits care more about what an athlete has done lately than their overall body of work. It’s a sport with an awfully short memory, and a very fast life cycle: an “era” in MMA is lucky to stretch past a couple of years. Just ask Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida.
To be fair, labels such as GOAT and this or that era are more the creation of promotions and media than they are of the fighters themselves. But the idea of the “greatest of all time” or GOAT for short has been long been latched onto by fighters.
Prior to becoming Muhammad Ali, the then Cassius Clay released a spoken world album in 1963 entitled “I Am The Greatest.” Ali’s wife Lonnie incorporated G.O.A.T Inc. in the 90s to handle the boxing legend’s business affairs. From there, rapper LL Cool J popularized the acronym be titling his 2000 LP “G.O.A.T.” — later admitting that Ali had been the inspiration.
In the MMA sphere, GOAT is used, and overused quite frankly, to describe the best in a division as well as the best overall. Welterweight GOAT, heavyweight GOAT, actual GOAT — it’s essentially a bar room debate, and given that, mixed with MMA’s short memory, often times a particularly pointless one.
Case in point, Stipe Miocic is frequently referred to as the heavyweight GOAT, based on holding the UFC’s title defense record — at three successful title defenses. Miocic’s resume is strong, but it’s certainly not as impressive as Fedor Emelianenko’s was during his prime — an era when the bulk of the world’s best heavyweights, Randy Couture aside, were fighting outside the UFC.
UFC diehards, however, use Emelianenko’s late-career struggles and the fact that he never came to terms on a deal with Zuffa to discount him from the debate.
But pointless squabbles and tribalism aside, there’s some merit to declaring an all-time great: it gives the next generation something to shoot for. The NBA had Michael Jordan, who became the measuring stick of sorts for LeBron James. The NHL had Wayne Gretzky, an unbelievably talented prospect saddled with the label “The Great One” from the time he was 10 years old. For generations since, he’s been the gold standard as the Sidney Crosbys and Alex Ovechkins of the world chased his legacy.
In MMA, the argument in recent years has come down to two names: Jon Jones, and Georges St-Pierre. Both were dominant champions who fought all the best names of their era. Both were massive stars inside and outside of the octagon. Both took extended hiatuses from the sport, then returned to the UFC, moved up in weight, and captured a second title in a new weight class: GSP at middleweight, and now Jones at heavyweight.
It’s Jones move to heavyweight and submission of Ciryl Gane that has many claiming the GOAT debate is settled. And one day soon, it may be. But not just yet.
What Jones has done is essentially replicate what St-Pierre did before him. There have been other dual-weight champions, including “Bones'” rival Daniel Cormier (who held two titles simultaneously), and Randy Couture, but only GSP and Jones have taken multi-year layoffs, come back, moved up — and captured gold again.
There are those who would discredit St-Pierre’s feat by claiming Michael Bisping was a weak champion. That not only discredits Bisping, who defeated Luke Rockhold on short notice to win the belt, it discredits all those names that Bisping defeated in his heyday: Rockhold, Anderson Silva, Alan Belcher, Yoshiro Akiyama, Chris Leben, and even Dan Henderson (in the rematch anyway). Is a submission of Gane that much more impressive than a submission of Bisping, especially given Gane’s struggles in the grappling department?
I’ve intentionally left out Jones’ many “asterisks” to this point. Whether you choose to hold his many failed drug tests against him or not is up to you. If you do, it probably discredits Jones from the GOAT argument entirely. That would also discount Anderson Silva, frankly.
But on pure in-cage accomplishments, Jon Jones and George St-Pierre essentially stand alone, with arguably Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson a close third. Jones has only one loss, a DQ against Matt Hamill. St-Pierre avenged the only two losses he ever suffered, and beat those names so badly it wasn’t remotely close. Jones struggled in his last two fights at light heavyweight, against Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes. St-Pierre struggled in his own final fight at welterweight, against Johnny Hendricks.
Jones, a wrestler, excelled at beating opponents at their own game. St-Pierre, not a wrestler, had the best wrestling in MMA during his heyday — and often beat opponents at their own game as well. Jones has the edge in defeating former champions, but that’s in part because the light heavyweight title was a hot potato before “Bones” came along. Prior to GSP, Matt Hughes and B.J. Penn were the only fighters to hold the title since Carlos Newton in 2001.
St-Pierre beat both of them twice.
There’s one thing Jones can do that Georges St-Pierre did not, however: defend that second title. In a race so close, that will be what puts an end to the GOAT debate. Jones will get his chance, likely against Stipe Miocic later this year. And then, with a win, he can settle this.
Until some new phenom comes along, anyway.