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As is the case all too often in MMA, a spectacular performance by an already-great fighter led to another Greatest of All-Time discussion on Saturday at UFC 232. Just in the past year, there have been discussions about Stipe Miocic as the greatest heavyweight of all-time, T.J. Dillashaw as the greatest bantamweight of all-time, Max Holloway as the greatest featherweight of all-time and Demetrious Johnson as the overall greatest fighter of all-time, among others. MMA as a younger sport has always been a fertile ground for hyperbole. Great fighters are lionized at their apex and then underrated after their falls.
Of course, just because too many fighters are declared the G.O.A.T. doesn’t mean these declarations should be dismissed offhand. After all, fighters oftentimes do distinguish themselves above all previous competitors while still active. Johnson at flyweight, Anderson Silva at middleweight and Georges St. Pierre at welterweight are a few clear examples. Amanda Nunes’ win over Cristiane Justino in the co-main event -- combined with previous victories over Ronda Rousey, Valentina Shevchenko, Miesha Tate, Julia Budd and others -- at least enters her into the discussion for greatest female fighter of all-time. So how does she compare to the other top candidates for that distinction?
Let’s begin by noting a few very accomplished fighters who fall just short of making the final list. Tate, Marloes Coenen and Holly Holm have had great careers, but they have fallen short too often against some of their elite contemporaries. Tara LaRosa and Megumi Fujii stood above the competition but they were at their best when women’s MMA wasn’t as well developed, and thus it was harder to come up with top-shelf opponents to test them.
Shevchenko is on the cusp of the discussion, but it’s hard to rank her above Nunes when she has fallen short (albeit barely) twice in head-to-head matchups with the Brazilian; plus, Shevchenko hasn’t had the long title reign that Joanna Jedrzejczyk did. There’s a good chance Shevchenko gains in stature in the coming years. That leaves us with four leading candidates: Nunes, Rousey, Jedrzejczyk and Justino.
Nunes has a 17-4 MMA record, with a 12-3 record in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Strikeforce and Invicta Fighting Championships, and she has held the UFC bantamweight and featherweight titles, with three successful defenses. Rousey has a 12-2 MMA record, with a 10-2 record in the UFC and Strikeforce, and she has held the Strikeforce and UFC bantamweight titles, with seven successful defenses. Justino has a 20-2 MMA record, with a 16-1 record in EliteXC, Strikeforce, Invicta and the UFC, and she has held the Strikeforce, Invicta and UFC featherweight titles, with seven successful defenses. Jedrzejczyk has a 15-3 MMA record, with a 9-3 record in the UFC, and she has held the UFC strawweight title, with five successful defenses.
Looking over those resumes, Nunes doesn’t have a particularly compelling argument relative to the other three. She has the fewest title defenses -- a measure of sustained success against top opposition -- and simultaneously the most losses. The greatest argument in her favor is that she has won titles in two different weight classes, something none of the other three have achieved. “Cyborg” has held the most titles over the largest number of organizations. Working against her is that she in many instances fought opponents moving up in weight class rather than taking on opposition from the same natural weight class. Jedrzejczyk had the longest runs with UFC titles.
Nunes’ case as the greatest women’s fighter is most similar to Fabricio Werdum’s argument for greatest heavyweight. Like Nunes, Werdum wasn’t thought of as potentially the best until decisively beating other key claimants to the throne in Fedor Emelianenko and Cain Velasquez. However, Nunes and Werdum’s resumes weren’t as impressive as those other legends before they won head-to-head matchups.
Some fighters lose early in their careers to underwhelming opposition before they are fully developed competitors -- something that tends not to count all that much against them relative to more recent losses. “Cyborg,” Silva and Jose Aldo are a few examples of this trend. Nunes had one of those losses in her MMA debut against Ana Maria India. However, it’s important to note that her three other losses were more recent. She lost to Sarah D’Alelio the same year that Jon Jones fought Alexander Gustafsson the first time, and she was stopped by Cat Zingano a year after that. Nunes is clearly a much more dangerous fighter now, but those fights aren’t exactly ancient history.
It’s hard to argue that Nunes’ most recent six fights -- she stopped “Cyborg,” Rousey and Tate in the first round, finished Raquel Pennington in the fifth round and beat current flyweight champion Shevchenko twice -- don’t constitute the most impressive six-fight run in women’s MMA history. The question then becomes how that is balanced against the prolonged dominance of “Cyborg” or the impact of Rousey. Nunes is in the discussion for greatest of all-time, but the answer is far from clear. As is almost always the case in these instances, time is needed.
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.