Imagining the UFC Champions as Rap Albums, Part 1
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.
Before the Ultimate Fighting Championship title picture reshuffles any more, here is part one, which covers featherweight down to women’s strawweight:
Conor McGregor: “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous” | Big L (1995)
As tempting as it is to pair McGregor with his “Notorious” namesake, there is a better “Big” fit for him. McGregor is not just a brash personality who took pre-fight trash talk to the next level; he is also one of the best, purest punchers in the game. The power in his hands is undeniable, but do not let that fool you. McGregor’s standup success has just as much to do with his precision and technique as it does his natural power. Although McGregor has other facets to his game, including a repertoire of flashy kicks and solid defensive wrestling, his punching ability rightfully gets most of the spotlight for him.
When it comes to punchy MCs, there is no one better than Harlem’s Finest. Big L did not invent punchline rap, but on “Lifestylez,” he damn near perfected it. The comparison is that much better since the rapid-fire delivery and comedic boastfulness of Big L’s rhymes are very much aligned with McGregor’s high-volume output and style of trash talk. Similar to McGregor, though, Big L is no one-trick pony. On “Lifestylez,” he flexes airtight storytelling as well as street-certified reflective cuts.
Yet for all the flamboyant skills these two have in the cage and on the microphone, both have suffered from similar ailments. Big L was a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of talent who was always held back by production that ranged from mediocre to outright poor. Similarly, McGregor has a wealth of abilities that have taken him all the way to the featherweight championship in unprecedented and spectacular fashion, but the quality of his training camps falls anywhere between mid-level and “touch butt in the park.” Regardless, both Big L and McGregor have earned platinum-level respect from fans and peers alike.
Jose Aldo: “Daily Operation” | Gang Starr (1992)
Gang Starr was a super-duo combination of Guru and DJ Premier. Together, their work defined the zeitgeist of early and mid-1990s New York rap, both sonically and lyrically. “Daily Operation” is Gang Starr at their best, with Guru’s laid-back, street savvy rhymes perfectly synched with the gritty, stripped-down boom bap of Premier’s beats. Best known for his monotone delivery and seamless flow, Guru’s presence on “Daily Operation” is as pronounced as it is on any album, solo or otherwise. The late MC is surgical on the microphone, bobbing and weaving with the production with direct, precise rhymes. He seems ready to go off on anything and anyone at any given moment, and the subtle confidence in his skills is less arrogant boastfulness than it is a matter of self-justifying facts.
After bursting onto the scene with wild aggression in the World Extreme Cagefighting, Aldo has since matured into a patient and precise powerhouse that represents the spirit of Brazilian MMA better than just about anyone else. Technically speaking, Aldo is phenomenal in the most fundamental ways; he does not throw much in the way of flashy strikes, though he certainly can, opting instead to master the basics to an extent that few have been able to handle. Along with longtime coach Andre Pederneiras, who seems perfectly in sync with and never in the way of his star pupil, the two have orchestrated masterful performances that continue to excite fans long after they took place. While Aldo’s style may not leap out and grab you from the opening bell, it is hard to take your eyes off him; at any moment, he is capable of pulling off something spectacular.
Both the album and the fighter are brilliant in their subtlety, and while their contemporaries may be louder and flashier, it is tough to say they are greater.
Dominick Cruz: “Paid in Full” | Eric B. and Rakim (1987)
Just one year after Run DMC broke into mainstream consciousness with their hit “Walk This Way,” Eric B. and Rakim dropped “Paid in Full” and ushered in a new era of lyricism. Rakim, who is often heralded as the godfather of modern hip-hop, earned his reputation with this record, deftly maneuvering complex, multi-syllable rhyme schemes and unpredictable rhythms. Even though “Paid in Full” is nearly 30 years old, it is lyrically as fresh and contemporary as anything you will hear today.
Cruz mirrors this dynamic perfectly. Cruz is a technical innovator who brought widespread attention in the sport to sophisticated footwork. His movements stupefy even the most astute and prepared foes, causing opponents to swing wildly at open-air traps throughout the course of the fight. The crazy part: As one of the more seasoned UFC champions -- only Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Bisping began fighting professionally earlier -- Cruz more or less invented his style organically throughout his career, and it still holds up today as much as it did 10 years ago. In a sport where fighters have to constantly evolve to stay ahead of the curve, Cruz has continued to perfect the same fundamental style he has always had, and he has yet to get figured out.
Both “Paid in Full” and Cruz laid foundations for future generations to walk upon and did so through technical innovation. Through advanced lyricism and footwork, both created a futuristic style that has yet to age.
Amanda Nunes: “Scorpion” | Eve (2001)
If you were to describe Nunes’ strengths, you would spend most of your time talking about her overwhelming physicality and presence in the cage. While her skills are solid enough to find consistent success, Nunes is not going to dazzle anyone with her technical prowess. Really, toughness, grit and well-roundedness are what separate her from the rest of the women’s bantamweight division. On top of her power and athleticism, Nunes is also well-coached and disciplined in fighting to her strengths.
Similarly, Eve’s “Scorpion” is an aggressive, muscular album that does not shy away from the MC’s hardcore sensibilities. While Eve is a fine lyricist in her own right, nobody would count her as anything better than just “good.” What makes this album strong is her willingness to stay in her lane, and I mean that in the best way possible. Eve does not push the boundaries of her strengths or experiment much; she simply excels at what she does and sticks to the winning formula.
Neither the fighter nor the album is flawless. In fact, they share a similar problem. Due largely to her physical style, Nunes has the tendency to fade in the later rounds. Similarly, “Scorpion” starts off with several hard-hitting songs, but after 13 tracks and three skits, the album fizzles some the longer you get into it. Even so, Nunes and Eve can rest assured that they have already left a lasting impression in their respective fields.
Demetrious Johnson: “Illmatic” | Nas (1994)
Nas’ landmark album is almost beyond reproach. It is universally hailed as one of the two best rap albums ever, and while it is only 10 tracks deep with a total runtime just shy of 40 minutes, there is not a single superfluous second on it. Moreover, its greatness lies in its cohesiveness as an album; the sum of its songs is greater than the individual tracks, despite the fact that all of them are very good on their own. “Mighty Mouse” mirrors this dynamic almost to a tee. Not only is he short -- at 5-foot-3, he has never been taller than his opponent in the UFC or WEC -- but Johnson is a near-flawless fighter.
There isn’t a single weak part of his game. He’s a good enough striker to stand and trade with the best of them, and he’s a good enough wrestler to stymie ... Wait, who are we kidding? He’s a good enough wrestler to beat the brakes off of Olympic gold medalists. However, where Johnson excels like no one else is in transitional phases, where every individual skill compliments the next and enhances his overall game.
“Mighty Mouse” would not be mistaken for an outstanding boxer or kickboxer, nor would he be a stellar pure wrestler or submission grappler, though to be sure, he would be quite good. When he’s allowed to do all of the above together, though, he’s as good as it gets.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk: “Dirty Harriet” | Rah Digga (1999)
The queen of the women’s strawweight division may look unassuming, but despite her petite frame and quirky charm, Jedrzejczyk is as fierce and as technical as they come. Her striking is potent and mercilessly accurate, overwhelming opponents with precision and aggression. On any event, no matter where her fight falls on the billing, Jedrzejczyk is prone to steal the show with vicious technique and gutsy performances.
Similarly, the breakout debut album for Jersey-born Rah Digga is unapologetically raw. Where most female MC’s at the time took a backseat to their male peers and showcased more skin than skills, “Dirty Harriet” flipped that notion on its head. It is still widely considered the gold standard when it comes to female lyricism, but the steady salvo of original punchlines and metaphors transcend the backhanded compliment of being “good for a femcee.” It’s just dope, period. Despite the various and talented guest features on the album, Digga is never one to get overshadowed on a track.
Jedrzejczyk, too, is all killer no filler, showcasing a muay Thai skill set that puts many of her male counterparts to shame and remains unmatched in women’s MMA. Both Jedrzejczyk and Digga are masters of their crafts, and when they are in the cage or the booth, they are absolute monsters regardless of their appearances.