If MMA was music, it would have to be rap. Not only is individualism at the forefront of the sport and the genre, but both encompass a unique aesthetic that blends gritty toughness with technical artistry; the word “art” is one-third of MMA, and if we are being honest, rap at its best is everything poetry wishes to be. It is only right then to anoint the greatest MMA fighters in each division by comparing them to the rap albums that best encapsulate their fighting styles, personalities and careers.
In part two of this special feature, we bring you the five remaining Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders, from lightweight to heavyweight. This, of course, excludes Jon Jones. He was the interim light heavyweight champ but has quietly been taken out of the official UFC rankings. For those curious souls, his album analogue was 2-Pac’s “All Eyez on Me.” I’ll let you use your imagination as to why.
Let us turn our focus to the five champions who have not been stripped:
Eddie Alvarez: “The Truth” | Beanie Sigel (1999)
It might seem like I’m picking at low-hanging fruit to choose a rapper from Philadelphia to represent a fighter from Philadelphia, but that’s only partially true. If anything, the City of Brotherly Love’s personality has likely left lasting impressions on both men, which has manifested similarly into their respective crafts.
The newly minted UFC lightweight champion exemplifies toughness and grit. Although Alvarez is maturing into a smarter, less reckless fighter, he’s still known for and capable of putting his head down and engaging in power-punching pocket exchanges. His hard-hitting and aggressive style has made him a fan-favorite with an enviable highlight reel, but his game is more layered than that. Alvarez has depth to his striking, even if he doesn’t have much in the way of breadth; he sticks to clever yet fairly traditional punch-kick combinations but does so with enough power and style that it is equal parts exciting and effective in the cage. Although there had been a great deal of potential surrounding Alvarez for nearly a decade before he became the UFC champion, the lightweight belt in the biggest promotion finally fulfilled that promise.
Beanie Sigel has similar aspects to his game in the booth. On his debut album, Sigel went from a promising member of Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella posse to a legitimate star of his own. More than anything, “The Truth” showcased the hunger of an MC who had yet to break through. His style is not over-the-top lyrical inasmuch as complex rhyming goes -- he tends to stick to one- and two-syllable rhymes and straightforward metaphors -- but his hard-hitting style and clever turns of phrase make him an unexpectedly intriguing lyricist. Like Alvarez, the substance of his technique is accentuated by the ferocity of his delivery, and even though he may not be as diversely talented as other MCs, he is no less effective for it.
Tyron Woodley: “Get Rich or Die Tryin” | 50 Cent (2003)
Before 50 Cent became a household name, he was already a well-known presence on the east coast. Yet when “Get Rich or Die Tryin” dropped and blew up, he seemed like an overnight celebrity even though he had been grinding on the scene throughout the late 1990s. The album became an instant sensation, blowing up the streets and the radio with banger after banger. It doesn’t break any new ground in terms of its sound or style, but it does what it does as good as any other gangsta record before or since. Though it is incredibly consistent, there’s something conservative and even formulaic to its approach. It more or less checks off every box that a good rap album should have, from the street-anthems and posse features to the for-the-ladies jams and diss tracks.
Woodley occupies a similar space and not just because of his recent pivot to pursuing money fights. Although he was toiling in lesser-known promotions for several years, it wasn’t until his breakout performance against Robbie Lawler that Woodley became known to wider audiences. More importantly, though, his heavy-hitting style aligns well with the defining characteristics of “Get Rich.” Woodley is also a banger, with heavy hands that are capable of spinning around anyone’s head if he lands clean. However, he’s more complete than that. As a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler boasting legit submission chops, Woodley has all the basic components of MMA success checked off in spades. Even though those various skills manifested in a way that isn’t exactly cutting-edge -- the boxer-wrestler archetype is nearly as old as the sport itself -- it doesn’t need to be; the formula exists because it works. Moreover, the conservative gangsterisms of “Get Rich” are mirrored by the play-it-safe style that has reared its head in Woodley fights from time to time.
“Get Rich” isn’t exactly a classic album, just as Woodley probably won’t go down as an all-time great in the sport. However, both will be long remembered as being the best thing around at their given times.
Michael Bisping: “The Heist” | Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2012)
Bisping may be the unlikeliest UFC champion currently on the roster, but don’t let that fool you. He is and has been a solidly good fighter. That reality has been easy to overlook because he’s played the heel so well and for so long that he’s easy to hate on, and he’s been overshadowed by peers that are more athletic and more talented than him. Yet Bisping’s most defining quality is the fact that he has been able to transcend his very real limitations through an unrelentingly earnest ethos of hard work. Truly, no fighter has been able to get as much out of his ability as Bisping. Striking is clearly the centerpiece of his game, but he also touts underrated grappling acumen, giving him something to work with in any phase of the game.
Along with producer Ryan Lewis, Macklemore dropped what was the most easily dislikable album among rap fans in recent memory. Again, don’t be fooled. Despite the memetic caucasity of Macklemore, “The Heist” is a very good album, no matter what you’re looking for. Macklemore is a strong MC in all facets of the craft; he’s a good lyricist with a defined sense of delivery and presence. On “The Heist,” he weaves through a varied range of production seamlessly, giving the album something for everyone. Yet for all his skills, compared to his hyper-talented contemporaries Macklemore is a demonstrably lesser rapper. Be that as it may, he is never one to be outworked, and on “The Heist,” he was able to milk every drop of his potential.
This brings us to the greatest parallel between the album and Bisping. In 2014, Macklemore won the Grammy for the best rap album over the heavily favored and clearly better MC Kendrick Lamar. Two years later, Bisping won the UFC middleweight belt over the heavily favored and by most measures superior Luke Rockhold. Through more heart than talent, both the album and the champion ended up winning when all signs pointed towards them losing. Even if it’s a bit backhanded to call them overachievers, at the end of the day, both the man and the album have the trophy that matters most.
Daniel Cormier: “Lord Willin” | Clipse (2002)
The debut album by the Virginia duo Clipse may seem mismatched with the clean-cut image of the light heavyweight champion, but despite its unapologetic street pharmacy motifs, the essence of “Lord Willin” encapsulates what Cormier is all about: the grind. It is only right that the lead single was the track “Grindin.” Regardless, the album is raw and aggressive in its portrayal of street life, including what it takes to overcome it. Rappers Pusha T and Malice are technically gifted lyricists capable of painting honest, vivid pictures of drug hustling, and that’s about what you can expect from this album. After all, it’s where the members of Clipse are most comfortable; on the few tracks they try to branch out, they sound very much out of their element. Even though “Lord Willin” is predictable in its content, the production and Clipse’s execution keeps the album exciting and fresh, whether or not its retreading the same ideas from track to track.
Cormier is also unapologetic about his grind. He is a distinct pressure fighter, using his wrestling, aggression and stout frame to bully opponents into the fence and beat them with his physicality and technique. Throughout all 18 of his professional wins, that has been his go-to path to victory, and even though it is a predictable game plan for Cormier, no one -- well, almost no one -- has been able to stop it. When Cormier is forced out of his comfort zone, he can still be effective, but he is noticeably more awkward. He continues to punch off the wrong foot at times and can throw ineffective kicks, as well. Still, all that pales in comparison to his strengths, which he has been able to impose on all but one fighter.
This brings us to the most accurate and most damning comparisons. “Lord Willin” is a good, maybe even great album, yet Clipse has never seemed to get the recognition it deserves. Similarly, Cormier is a great fighter that has done little to draw the ire of fans, yet that’s exactly what he gets. Perhaps it’s because of the final overlap: “Lord Willin,” for all its merits, is easily the second best album from Clipse, a clear notch below its sophomore effort, “Hell Hath No Fury.” For all Cormier’s gifts, it looks like he’ll go down in the record books as no better than the second best light heavyweight.
Stipe Miocic: “The Nacirema Dream” | Papoose (2013)
When Miocic won the heavyweight championship, it felt like a long time coming. The 33-year-old is young by heavyweight standards, but more importantly, he had all the tools to beat anyone in the division. He was a NCAA Division I wrestler and Golden Gloves champion with knockout power. Furthermore, as a high-level baseball player in college, Miocic is an above-average athlete for the division. Yet every aspect of Miocic as a fighter, be it his technical skills or physical attributes, seems to be just shy of elite. Every part of his game is good, but nothing stands out as his greatest asset. Bluntly speaking, he is as effective as he is bland; his talent is undeniable but also somehow forgettable. Furthermore, his overall game lacks cohesion. He has yet to put the pieces together in the transitional phases, though to be fair he hasn’t really needed to. This type of splintered well-roundedness without a singular dominant area makes him a bit of a throwback to the early Zuffa years, when fighters were no longer single-discipline martial artists.
When “The Nacirema Dream” was finally released, it felt long overdue. That’s because it was: It dropped several years after Papoose first made a name for himself on the mixtape circuit. Even so, Papoose was a breath of fresh air for New York rap, tipping his hat to the tropes of Golden Era records while adorning them with complex multi-syllable rhymes and fresh delivery. As a pure rhymer, Papoose is top-shelf; however, “Nacirema” lacks an artistic cohesion. The result is a fragmented assortment of individual tracks that play like more of a glorified mixtape than a true album. Similar to Miocic, “Nacirema” ends up being somewhat forgettable, and even though Papoose is a dope MC, no single attribute makes him stand out from his peers. Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny Papoose’s talents here, and the album ends up with more knockout tracks than jabs, so to speak.
In the same way that rap purists will love “The Nacirema Dream” while radio listeners will yawn, Miocic will excite the hardcore MMA fans without moving much of a casual needle.