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Following Henry Cejudo’s come-from-behind stoppage of Marlon Moraes in the UFC 238 main event on Saturday in Chicago, a new term popped up in the MMA vernacular. Cejudo labeled himself -- and the announcers further advanced the notion -- the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time. The claim is based on Cejudo’s impressive resume as an Olympic gold medalist in wrestling and now a multi-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder. Cejudo deserves to be proud of what he has accomplished as an athlete, but “greatest combat sports athlete” is a strange concept to put forward in today’s world of mixed martial arts.
To begin with, I question the idea that amateur wrestling should be categorized as a combat sport. This is not a knock against amateur wrestling, which has proven itself the most valuable building block for a complete MMA fighter. Nor is this a knock on what Cejudo has accomplished in wrestling, as an Olympic gold medal is as impressive as athletic achievements come. It’s just a question of how accomplishments in the sport of amateur wrestling are properly categorized.
Combat is fundamentally about incapacitation. In war, that meant killing the enemy. Since death is not desired in a sport, combat sports have had the goal of incapacitating opponents, or rendering them unable to continue. That is what a knockout achieves in a striking sport and what a choke achieves in a submission sport. A tap to prevent an arm or leg from being badly damaged has the same symbolic meaning, as it is exceedingly difficult to fight back against a skilled opponent with a broken arm or leg.
By contrast, amateur wrestling is about domination, not incapacitation. When a wrestler pins his opponent to the mat, it is about exercising physical control and supremacy rather than rendering the opponent unable to continue. Amateur wrestling, in contrast to catch wrestling or pankration, is more a simulation of combat than combat itself. The rules are set up to try to protect the participants from injury. Alistair Overeem’s K-1 World Grand Prix win and Fabricio Werdum’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu world championships seem more pertinent to the title of best combat sports athlete than an Olympic wrestling medal, even if the latter was more difficult to earn.
Whether or not amateur wrestling should be categorized as a combat sport, the title of best combat sports athlete remains a strange one. The distinction is clearly meant to value versatility. This makes sense in the context of an athlete who plays baseball and basketball or football and lacrosse. The skills in each of those sports are different enough that the athletes who can excel in more than one of them demonstrate a diversity of ability that is rare and different from their skill in any one sport.
The ability to thrive in a variety of different athletic endeavors is a credential that’s distinct from thriving in just one. As such, the concept of an all-around athlete has always carried weight. There are still conversations about the best all-around athletes of all-time, with names like Jim Thorpe, Bo Jackson and Dave Winfield coming up because of their versatility. The way that Jackson managed to break tackles as a running back and run up walls to catch baseballs was central to his marketability.
It’s one thing to bring together accomplishments in genuinely different sports. It’s quite different to do this when it comes to MMA, because MMA is itself an amalgam of different constituent sports. MMA brings together kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling and other disciplines. In order to thrive at the highest level of MMA, you need to blend these different skills. That’s the whole point of the sport.
Being the best mixed martial artist is itself better evidence of being the best combat sports athlete than being one of the best mixed martial artists and also a champion in an individual discipline. The other elite mixed martial artists are using skills from their individual disciplines, too, and if they find a way to use those skills to build up a better MMA resume, that’s the ultimate validation of their combat sport prowess. Similarly, the best overall hockey player is the one who has the best hockey career, not someone who has a great hockey career and also repeatedly cleans up in various NHL All-Star Game skills competitions. After all, the whole point of MMA is to bring together fighting disciplines to prove the best overall fighter.
This isn’t to suggest Henry Cejudo can’t prove himself the best combat sports athlete. He’s accomplished plenty already and still looks to have plenty of peak years ahead of him. When Anderson Silva was the age Cejudo is now, he had only held the UFC middleweight title for a year. However, there’s no need to create a new category for Cejudo. The best way to prove that he’s the best combat sports athlete is to prove he’s the best MMA fighter.
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.