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A few years ago, I wrote a series called “Under the Microscope,” where I analyzed the Greatest of All-Time arguments for fighters across several weight classes. I only did this for the five legacy divisions -- lightweight through heavyweight -- since the sub-lightweight weight classes were too young; there simply weren’t enough fighters who could be legitimately defended as the G.O.A.T. Every weight class had its own distinct gray areas and there were definitely fighters that were harder to make a case for than others, but there were at least enough contenders for the crown.
I debated doing a shortened version for featherweight but ultimately didn’t because there was really only one option: Jose Aldo. He was the only Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight titleholder at the time, and he had dominated two of the three previous World Extreme Cagefighting champions along the way. I could have made half-hearted cases for Urijah Faber and Mike Thomas Brown -- and an even less-convincing one for Norifumi Yamamoto -- but those would have been tremendous stretches. There was Aldo, an unfathomably wide gulf, then everybody else.
That was 2015, though. In the post-UFC 218 world, the discussion surrounding the greatest featherweight of all-time is now a lot more interesting. Following Max Holloway’s 12th straight win and second consecutive TKO victory over Aldo on Saturday in Detroit, the G-Word was floated around the 26 year-old. “Blessed” himself declined the G.O.A.T. mantle, chiefly citing a lack of title defenses compared to the all-time great he had just thoroughly smashed for the second time in six months. If anything, Holloway has made his case for the humblest featherweight G.O.A.T. contender.
There is, however, a case to be made for Holloway, as there continues to be one for Aldo. Of course, there is also a case to be made for Conor McGregor. It’s worth inspecting these cases, as they provide different looks at the criteria we use for assessing greatness and the various ways in which a fighter can be great.
For the original pieces, the rationale was to apply some statistical analysis to a discussion that’s almost always ruled by kneejerk opinions. I used the following criteria: record at the weight class in major organizations or against opponents who had fought in major organizations; the average winning percentage of opponents or “strength of schedule” so to speak; winning streaks; record in title fights; and the percentage of wins in which they finished opponents as well as losses in which they were finished. Notable victories and general career accomplishments also weighed in. It may not be the perfect criteria, but these categories still provide a solid picture of greatness.
Let’s start with Aldo, still the consensus pick for the greatest featherweight ever:
* Featherweight Record: 16-3
* Opponent Winning Percentage: .762
* Longest Winning Streak: 15
* Record in Title Fights: 11-3 (Nine Defenses)
* Finish Percentage: 56 Percent
* Finished Percentage: 100 Percent
* Notable Victories: Frankie Edgar (Twice), Chad Mendes (Twice), Ricardo Lamas, Chan Sung Jung, Kenny Florian, Urijah Faber, Mike Thomas Brown, Cub Swanson
Now, compare that to Holloway:
* Featherweight Record: 15-3
* Opponent Winning Percentage: .759
* Longest Winning Streak: 12
* Record in Title Fights: 3-0 (One Defense)
* Finish Percentage: 66 Percent
* Finished Percentage: 33 Percent
* Notable Victories: Jose Aldo (twice), Anthony Pettis, Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson
Finally, look at McGregor:
* Featherweight Record: 7-0
* Opponent Winning Percentage: .777
* Longest Winning Streak: 7
* Record in Title Fights: 2-0
* Finish Percentage: 86 Percent
* Finished Percentage: N/A
* Notable Victories: Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Dustin Poirer, Max Holloway
Keep in mind, the point is to look at a fighter’s featherweight résumé, which is why McGregor’s exploits at lightweight and above were not factored into these numbers. That includes his loss to Joseph Duffy, which took place at lightweight but would have otherwise counted even though it occurred outside of the UFC.
Seeing these numbers laid out makes it easy to understand why people make the case for any of them. Aldo certainly has the most impressive list of victims, including the most impressive winning streak and title reign. From this perspective, he’s the clear G.O.A.T. Then again, Holloway is close behind in terms of overall record and winning streak; on top of that, he finishes opponents more and has never been finished. Plus, he’s 2-0 against Aldo. If head-to-head is the difference maker, then McGregor -- who has fought statistically tough opposition but for a significantly shorter duration -- is the overall winner since he beat both of the other contenders.
It all comes down to what you value most. If sustained success at a weight class is the ultimate factor, then Aldo is the obvious victor for now, though it is easy to see that changing in the next two years if Holloway keeps up his winning ways. If direct competition is what matters most to you, including the ways in which fighters win and lose, then McGregor is the clear pick. If it’s a mixture of sustained success and direct competition, then Holloway is the all-around favorite.
Eddie Alvarez may also have something to say about this topic, since he has catapulted onto the shortlist of G.O.A.T. lightweights over the past few years. He wasn’t even on the original list I wrote, but keep in mind that he hadn’t even won a UFC fight at the time, let alone a championship. Now, after becoming the first man to defeat Justin Gaethje, he probably has the greatest total body of work at lightweight in terms of who he has beaten, but to many, having zero UFC title defenses is disqualifying compared to fighters that have done so on multiple occasions.
There are no clear-cut, right-and-wrong answers for this type of discussion. As usual, it boils down to a set of defensible responses, and from there, it’s all pretty relative. People value different traits when they assess greatness, and part of the fun is how charged yet ultimately moot debate is. At the very least, we’re lucky that the youth of MMA allows this to be an ongoing and ever-evolving topic.
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.