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In 2011, the Ultimate Fighting Championship brought together all of its champions for a “Super Seven” media event ahead of UFC 129. The Super Seven included all of the promotion’s champions from bantamweight up to heavyweight; flyweight would arrive the following year, with women’s divisions to follow. It was a fitting name for the group, consisting of Dominick Cruz, Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar, Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez -- luminaries of the sport who are guaranteed to end up in the UFC Hall of Fame, if they aren’t already there.
At the time, it was considered the greatest gathering of mixed martial arts talent in a single room, and it’s easy to understand why. With the exceptions of Edgar and Velasquez, everyone else has a legitimate claim as the greatest fighter in the history of their respective division. A defensible MMA Mt. Rushmore could easily be sculpted from the Super Seven. At that time – and including Aldo’s and St. Pierre’s wins at UFC 129 -- they sported a combined record of 124-10-1 overall, or 67-5-1 if narrowed down to UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting fights. They shared 21 total title defenses between them, excluding Edgar’s title retention via draw. By any metric, it was an insane group of talent and accomplishment.
Yet nine years and three additional divisions later, a new group has emerged that may give the Super Seven a run for its money as the most talented group of champions at a single point in time. The combined overall record of the current champions – let’s call them the “Titanic Ten” – is 225-16; this does not include Jones’ win over Daniel Cormier at UFC 214 that was overturned and ruled a No Contest. In the UFC, that record becomes 117-8 with 30 combined title defenses.
The UFC/WEC win percentage of the Super Seven was 92.47, whereas the Titanic Ten’s UFC win percentage is 93.6. Both groups have an average of exactly three title defenses per champion. Statistically they are, to quote Mike Goldberg, virtually identical.
Of course, statistics do not provide anywhere close to a complete picture. They are only an entryway into comparative analysis, especially when the stats are so similar. At the very least, however, they show that comparing them as groups is reasonable. The next step is to take into account the strength of opposition.
For the most part, the overall level of talent only improves over time. George Mikan may have been just as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal relative to his peers, but imagining them playing against each other would quickly become a hilarious thought experiment. In a sport as young as MMA, the evolution of technical and athletic excellence has been dramatic over the years. Envision what it would look like to see former heavyweight title challenger Tank Abbott trying to keep up with current 15th ranked heavyweight Ciryl Gane, or former middleweight champion Dave Menne mixing it up with 10th ranked Uriah Hall. That’s not an insult to Abbot or Menne; they were simply products of their generation, reflections of the knowledge and opportunity available at the time.
Now, however, there is significantly more money in the sport, which means better athletes and more skilled competitors are drawn to it. Perhaps more importantly, best practices for training, weight cutting and technical development have been sharpened over decades. All this to say, the nine years separating the Super Seven from the Titanic Ten is significant. The champions of 2020 have almost certainly defeated better overall fighters as they climbed through the ranks as a general rule. A more precise comparison, however, would be to look at the individual matchups between champions then and champions now.
This is somewhat unfair. The three women’s champions right now would run roughshod over the nascent women’s divisions of yesteryear, and flyweight champ Deiveson Figueiredo similarly benefits from the decade of development the 125-pound division has undergone. For the sake of comparison, we’ll throw out those four matchups.
A prime Cruz vs. a prime Petr Yan is tough to call until we see how Yan’s reign pans out, but the eye test shows Yan with more firepower and paths to victory. Alexander Volkanovski has defeated Aldo already, but that was a visibly post-prime Aldo; 2011 Aldo was hard to bet against. Edgar, for all his heart and toughness, would probably get mauled by Khabib Nurmagomedov just like everyone else has. St. Pierre is probably the best fighter of all time in any weight class, but Kamaru Usman poses some serious stylistic challenges. Israel Adesanya vs. 2011 Silva would likely look much different than Adesanya vs. the 2019 Silva who had only won one fight in his previous six. Young, dynamic Jones vs. a slower, older and craftier Jones is a fascinating matchup, as is the relentlessly aggressive and not-yet-injury-addled Velasquez vs. the all-time leader in heavyweight title defenses Stipe Miocic. Really, the only obvious pick in these fantasy matchups is Nurmagomedov over Edgar.
Needless to say, this is all speculative. There’s no way of knowing which group would prevail in this hypothetical until time travel becomes available. The Super Seven was a truly elite collection of champions, and the fact that most of them would be competitive with the champions of today is a testament to that. At the same time, it’s equally impressive that today’s champions -- many of whom are just beginning their title reigns -- are in the same tier as the all-time greats of their divisions. Today’s champions represent a new ceiling of talent, implying another level of possibility in the cage. It’s impossible to know what the next stage of development will look like, but damn is this an exciting time to be a fight fan.
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