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Norifumi Yamamoto, who sadly passed away two weeks ago, achieved a status that few fighters -- if any -- have accomplished since. Fighting outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting, he was viewed as the consensus top fighter in his division. The UFC has reached a position of such dominance in MMA that its champions are viewed almost unanimously as the best fighters in each weight class. There are many great competitors in other organizations, but it is exceedingly difficult for them to be perceived as the best in their divisions without running through the UFC gauntlet.
This was not always the case. At the end of the last decade, there were a few fighters that many considered better than anyone in established UFC or WEC weight classes. The most famous to the American audience was of course the great Fedor Emelianenko, although he was a bit of a different case. Emelianenko grew to be considered the best by beating the top fighters in Pride Fighting Championships at a time when Pride was the most powerful MMA organization in the world. That reputation then traveled with him, until he finally lost to Fabricio Werdum.
“Kid” Yamamoto was a different situation. He did not rise up through Pride when it was at its apex, getting the credibility that came with that. Rather, he was building his resume at a time when Zuffa was becoming a juggernaut. He fought the best fighters K-1 could present, while the WEC matched up the best lighter-weight fighters it could acquire; and the people who watched both regarded Yamamoto as better than anyone in the WEC. That is basically the blueprint for the best fighters outside the UFC today. The example of Yamamoto raises the question of whether someone else anytime soon will accomplish what he did and convince those who follow MMA closely that he or she is better than any fighter of the same size in the UFC.
This question popped into my mind while watching Bellator 206 on Saturday, as Gegard Mousasi demolished Bellator MMA welterweight champion Rory MacDonald. The UFC doesn’t typically let fighters like Mousasi go. He was a top contender in his prime and riding a five-fight UFC winning streak, including four in a row by knockout or technical knockout. Mousasi had the pedigree of being a champion in Dream and Strikeforce, and he knocked out former UFC middleweight champion and top title contender Chris Weidman. Mousasi hadn’t fought champion Robert Whittaker, No. 1 contender Yoel Romero or onetime champion Luke Rockhold at the time of his departure, raising the natural question of how he would fare against them.
The UFC historically hasn’t liked to let fighters like Mousasi go precisely because of questions like that. The UFC doesn’t want fans wondering whether the Strikeforce champion would beat the UFC champion in the middleweight division because it leads to them asking those sorts of questions in other weight classes. The UFC benefits from the implicit, unquestioning assumption that it has the best fighters. If Mousasi were still in the UFC, it’s hard to argue he wouldn’t be more deserving of a title shot at Robert Whittaker than anyone else. If he fought Whittaker, he might well be installed as the betting favorite by the oddsmakers. The odds certainly wouldn’t be long against him.
In spite of that lofty present status, it’s still an uphill climb for Mousasi to start convincing people he should be viewed as the world’s best middleweight. The problem is the UFC still has so much depth that it can keep matching elite fighters against elite fighters. Winners tend to face fellow winners, and at any given time, there’s a fighter on top with very impressive recent wins. By contrast, Bellator has some excellent fighters but lacks the overall depth. Thus, it’s difficult to find top competition each time out. UFC champions pretty much always get top competition.
Unfortunately for Mousasi, middleweight isn’t one of Bellator’s strongest divisions. That’s why Mousasi finds himself talking about moving up to light heavyweight or taking on a faded Lyoto Machida. MacDonald himself moved up from another division to take on Mousasi. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that Mousasi would likely beat Whittaker if they fought tomorrow, it’s still difficult for many to accept Mousasi as the best when Whittaker is proving himself each time out as champion in a way that Mousasi can’t.
That brings to mind another fighter on the same Bellator card who offers up a completely different potential path to eventually being viewed as the best in the world competing outside the UFC. Unlike Mousasi, Aaron Pico doesn’t have the credibility that comes with having defeated a number of top UFC contenders. He doesn’t have anything resembling the resume of a top-ranked fighter yet. However, he resembles the model of “Kid” Yamamoto much more than Mousasi does.
Like Yamamoto, Pico is rapidly generating buzz, not because of who he is beating but because of the way he is winning. Like Yamamoto, he was a child prodigy, and like Yamamoto, he has explosive athleticism that can be tapped. We’re still a long way away from discovering how good Pico can be, but he has burst onto the scene like a potential future world champion. Bellator does have a nice collection of talent at featherweight, and Pico can prove himself to be an excellent fighter there.
The key question is whether Pico could win so impressively that fans and media come to trumpet him as the best despite knowing he hasn’t fought the same level of competition. The argument would essentially be to trust your eyes. Pico is years away from reaching that level, if he ever does. He may well end up in the UFC by that time. However, if he continues on his present course, destroying quality veterans in Bellator while steadily improving his skills, he one day could work to undermine the perception of UFC supremacy. Until then, the example of “Kid” Yamamoto will have to do.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.