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It seems like almost a different lifetime now, but it wasn’t that long ago there was real debate as to the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. In 2013, Anderson Silva was still in the midst of his historic run of dominance in the middleweight division. No fighter was more spectacular. Georges St. Pierre hadn’t yet retired and had no unavenged career losses against a murderer’s row of opponents. Meanwhile, Jon Jones was making it look easy against one former champion after another. Each fighter had his claim to being the best overall, and the comparisons benefitted all three.
Those arguments faded away, and in their place, a consensus emerged. St. Pierre left the sport, Silva lost a series of fights and Jones just kept winning. Besting his rival Daniel Cormier was particularly important because Cormier is an all-time great in his own right and Jones won at the peak of their respective powers. Even as chaos engulfed Jones outside the Octagon and he fought less frequently while looking less impressive, he had built such a resume that it was difficult for anyone to argue against him. Demetrious Johnson was the only name sometimes thrown out, but the level of competition just wasn’t there and Jones was also closer to his most dominant run.
It has been six years, but it’s time to reopen the discussion about the best fighter in the sport. Jones’ career has been marked by such excellence that it’s difficult to argue against him as the best when he still is ostensibly unbeaten, but Khabib Nurmagomedov belongs in that conversation. At 28-0, Nurmagomedov has more wins than Jones at a younger age. He has reached the top in the most talented division in the sport. Most important, however, is the way that he is winning.
When Jones emerged as a superstar, he was running through world-class opposition. He had an elite wrestling background that allowed him to dictate where fights took place. He had ridiculous reach and was a creative striker who used what felt like the most diverse arsenal in the sport. He was the puzzle nobody was coming close to solving. That he was winning every fight was almost incidental; the way he fought was what made Jones stand out more than anything.
Now it is Nurmagomedov who inspires that sort of awe. He isn’t as multifaceted as Jones, but he is even more fearsome in the way he handles opponents. Once he gets a hold of an opponent, it’s like a lion getting a tight grip on a gazelle. Only terrible things are coming. On the ground, he generates tremendous power over short distances, and he only needs small openings to apply submissions. He is a dangerous predator, while in contrast, Jones in his most recent outing seemed more concerned with a hobbled Thiago Santos than Santos seemed concerned by Jones.
Whether you think Nurmagomedov or Jones deserves the title of best pound-for-pound fighter today likely hinges on one of two arguments. For Nurmagomedov, it’s that he’s the most impressive fighter right now. For Jones, it’s the level of competition he has defeated over the course of his career. Jones clearly has bigger names on his resume and Nurmagomedov just as clearly has looked better recently against a similarly high level of competition.
In this way, the Jones-Nurmagomedov comparison resembles the debate surrounding the last Russian to be in the mix for No. 1 pound-for-pound consideration: Fedor Emelianenko. The difference is that this time the Russian is the rising challenger rather than the incumbent. Like Jones, Emelianenko reigned as the best in his division for nearly a decade with only one controversial loss. However, Emelianenko began to show vulnerabilities and had points where he struggled, even when matched with lesser competition.
At the time, Silva and St. Pierre were surging, which led to questions about whether Emelianenko could be supplanted as the best before he even lost. The memories of Emelianenko’s wins over the likes of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko Filipovic still remained strong. Given that he had been on top longer, he had more big-name wins on his resume than Silva and St. Pierre. Yet Silva passed the eye test and St. Pierre was winning against the best opponents. Emelianenko’s three straight losses ended the discussion, but it was only going to get hairier if all three kept winning with Silva and St. Pierre winning more impressively against better opponents.
Likewise, Nurmagomedov-Jones is likely to become even more of a debate as time progresses if they both keep winning. That’s because Jones doesn’t have as many challenges to conquer as Nurmagomedov. Jones has cleaned out the light heavyweight division and defeating the best remaining light heavyweights won’t stand out relative to beating the best of today’s lightweights. Jumping to heavyweight was always the big challenge for Jones, but Cormier already made that jump and won the title. Jones doing the same against the same opponent wouldn’t mean as much.
Nurmagomedov, on the other hand, still has his biggest challenge waiting for him. Conor McGregor was the biggest star for Nurmagomedov to beat, but Tony Ferguson is the fight that would mean the most to keen observers of the sport. Having won 12 straight UFC fights against a gauntlet of ferocious competition, Ferguson is as offensively devastating as he is mentally tough. Ferguson would be the crown-jewel win for Nurmagomedov, just like Cormier was the crown jewel for Jones. Nurmagomedov staked his claim for being the best at UFC 242 on Saturday, and that claim will get even stronger if he keeps fighting at the same level. It’s exciting for fans to watch but a stiff challenge to the status of the sport’s longtime best.
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.