Opinion: The Slippery Nature of MMA Greatness

By Eric Stinton Mar 14, 2016

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Greatness in mixed martial arts is an oft-discussed and ill-defined phenomenon.

There are moments of greatness, when a single move is so spectacular and dynamic that it transcends its own context: Think the “Showtime Kick,” the “Randleplex” or simply YouTube an Anderson Silva highlight video. Then there are great fights: gutsy, never-back-down brawls, come-from-behind wins, shocking upsets and the like. If you’re spending your Monday reading MMA opinion articles, you probably don’t need too many examples; watch this sport long enough and you’ll develop a shortlist of great fights without conscious effort in the same way you involuntarily breathe in your sleep.

Yet what is probably the most hotly debated and feverishly coveted claim to greatness is consideration as a great fighter. This usually requires a long-term aggregate of both of the former criterion, a rare feat that is slowly developed, hastily misapplied and readily dismissed. The shallow history of the sport magnifies our short memory, but even though we are often too quick to anoint the latest fighter on a hot streak as the next “Great,” we are just as quick to recant when he or she slips up or stumbles. Great fighters require time to fully appreciate, as well as a detached appraisal that those of us who thirst for the instant gratification of knockouts and submissions often lack the patience to distill.

That doesn’t stop us from immediately conjuring a list of fighters when we hear the qualifier of “Great.” Greatness is elusive in this way, since the word inspires obvious examples so instantaneously that it crowds out the space required to define its edges. Absent the noise of any major events, this past week provided a conducive atmosphere to analyze greatness.

Let’s take a look at World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, who maintained a perfect record en route to another stoppage win against Brian Foster on Saturday in Colorado. “The Highlight” may very well be the most exciting lightweight on the planet right now. He fights with a compelling, technical recklessness and a willingness to take shots to give them back, fully confident that he will remain standing when the bell tolls. Every man he has fought in the promotion has wilted under his power-shot pressure.

There is no question that the man puts on great fights -- and wins them -- but does that qualify him as a great fighter? Surely a 9-0 run in the preeminent mid-major MMA division is nothing at which to sneeze, especially when it includes a perfect 5-0 mark in title fights. Yet the kneejerk reaction is to qualify Gaethje as a great action fighter. Fair or not, until Gaethje dips his toes into Ultimate Fighting Championship waters, that may be as great as it gets for him. If that’s what his career amounts to, it’s still a pretty enviable position.

That leads us to our next case study: Invicta Fighting Championships atomweight titlist Ayaka Hamasaki, who put on an excellent chess match of a scrap with Amber Brown before defending her belt with a third-round armbar on Friday in Las Vegas. Without a UFC division, the Invicta belt is the pinnacle of the sport for 105-pound women, making Hamasaki worthy of the “Great” moniker. At the same time, would anyone have heard the divisional splashes she made if there was even a low-grade UFC or Bellator MMA event on the same weekend? That seems unfair, but it begs several questions on what it means to be great in this sport. How responsible is a promotion for creating greatness? What role do fans play in anointing a fighter as great? If a great fighter fights a great fight and no one is there to watch it, how great could she be? I have my own opinions -- I think she’s pretty great -- but the infancy and disorganization of MMA makes the discussion a bit murkier than other sports.

Moving along, Ken Shamrock continued his campaign to piss on his early accomplishments and become an even greater butt of jokes when he failed a drug test for his embarrassing loss to Royce Gracie in February. This is the second time he has tested positive for something -- the specifics of his test results were withheld this time around -- since 2009. It’s sad to see a pioneer with very legitimate credentials, albeit in the zygotic stages of the sport, continue to fight into his 50s when he hasn’t had a decent or meaningful fight on this side of the millennium. The things people do for greatness can be baffling. Is he fighting for nothing but the paycheck, or is he trying to reclaim some lost pride? Only “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” can say for sure, but from my vantage point, there is no Bellator payout worth getting roided out and subsequently put down with a nut shot in front of millions of viewers. Show me that Conor McGregor money and we’ll talk. Maybe it’s just me, though.

When Achilles was approached by his mother about fighting in the Trojan War, he was presented with a choice that would come to define our concept of greatness for generations to come. He could have either stayed home, lived out a long, happy boring life and be forgotten by history or meet certain death in battle and live forever in glory. The fact that we are familiar with his story is enough to shed light on what it means to be great in anything: sacrifice. Gaethje may be sacrificing his brain cells to go down as great while simultaneously sabotaging that mission by doing so in the World Series of Fighting. Hamasaki’s greatness may come at the cost of recognition, which somehow dims its value, since greatness always includes a measure of external influence. Meanwhile, Shamrock may be sacrificing his former greatness on the altar of relevance -- or worse, shameless paydays.

Without the echoing gongs of the UFC loudspeakers, this last week allowed us to philosophize. Even though more questions arose than answers for them, there is value in such punch-kick meditation. The lingering feeling that remains is that the sport of MMA is closely akin to the sport that is life, underpinned by the same competitive complexities that drive us regular, non-fighting folk. No other enterprise is as brutal or beautiful in its ability to reduce the grandness of human ambition into a single, perfect symbolic action.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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