Conor McGregor's self-absorbed tweets have gotten people talking - everyone has an opinion, but is there really a way to determine the GOAT in MMA?
Every sport has its fair share of debate amongst fans in regard to who the "Greatest Of All Time" or "GOAT" is, and combat sports are certainly no exception.
Taking a look at boxing, if you were to ask a layperson who the greatest boxer of all time was, their answer will likely be Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson.
Ask a dedicated boxing fan the same question, and you'll likely be asked for clarification on the criteria - are you talking about the most skilled boxer of all time? Their answer may be "Sugar" Ray Robinson or "Sugar" Ray Leonard; do you mean the most accomplished boxer? Perhaps they'll answer with Muhammad Ali or Floyd Mayweather Jr. The most dominant (in their prime)? Maybe Mike Tyson or Rocky Marciano.
Even in a sport as "simple" as boxing, there is no clear cut answer to who the "greatest" truly is - there are just so many variables at play beyond the number of wins and losses on a fighter's record.
Things like quality of opposition, effectiveness against different styles of opponents, ability in each aspect of the sport, and much more all can factor into debates over which fighter was the best to ever lace up a pair of gloves.
With mixed martial arts, even more variables are at play given the increased amount of tools and different skillsets available to competitors, not to mention the rapid evolution that the sport has seen given that it's still in its relative infancy.
As such, any debate around the "greatest" fighter in MMA, just like in any sport, is entirely subjective - arguments can be made for many different fighters depending on the criteria one wants to use and their personal analysis of performances and accomplishments.
So, what does the data tell us?
Given that there are so many variables at play, it's impossible to definitively come up with an answer that isn't just as biased as one's opinion - the analysis of the data will inherently be reflective of the views of the analyst(s) and certain aspects of the sport simply aren't accurately reflected by statistics.
Many people have attempted to use statistics to come up with an entirely "data driven" approach to determining the best athletes in their sports, and depending on the sport in question, these can be quite good estimations - for MMA however, they tend to be extremely subjective.
An example of this for MMA would be Fight Matrix - this site uses an algorithm to evaluate performances of fighters based on fight statistics and how their opposition compares to the field, with more points doled out for beating highly ranked opposition and of course the loss of points for losing to lower ranked competition.
It's definitely a fun way to look at rankings but it comes with several massive flaws - while the system may be "unbiased" in that it applies the point system to every fighter evenly, the points system itself is always going to have elements of subjectivity. How much is a knockdown worth compared to a takedown? Is one overhand bomb that rocks an opponent really worth the same amount of points as a stiff jab? How is the efficacy of a strike determined? How can one determine just how close a submission attempt was to finishing someone?
There is simply no way to determine the GOAT without the answer being entirely subjective, but that isn't to say that data isn't useful in forming an opinion and it certainly shouldn't be avoided entirely.
With the GOAT discussions the topic of the week, this report will take a unique approach to evaluating the top names in the discussion. Rather than looking at careers as a whole, this report will instead look solely on a fighter's most impressive stretch of fights (their "prime" if you will) and analyze each potential GOAT's opponent's record, and important statistics from those bouts, to see what fighters (if any) stand out from the pack.
Perhaps one candidate will come out on top in so many categories it becomes clear who the GOAT should be from a data standpoint - more likely, certain fighters will come out dominant in certain areas and fall short in others, showing exactly the GOAT discussions always end up without any definitive answers.
In an effort to be transparent, I personally have two front-runners for MMA's GOAT based on two sets of criteria.
In terms of pure skill across all areas of mixed martial arts, ie. the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, my pick would be Jose Aldo thanks to his technical brilliance in all areas of the game (striking, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu).
In terms of accomplishments, quality of competition, and longevity, which tends to be (loosely) the most common criteria used in GOAT debates, my nomination would be Georges St. Pierre.
Now for the statistical analysis, rather than looking at each fighter's entire career as most analyses do, we'll be looking at only a fighter's "best" run - ie. a string of wins where they captured title(s) and/or defended them, ideally with no losses. This is of course highly subjective in itself, but attempts to focus on a fighter's "prime" which is what all GOAT debates centre on, especially given that most fighters tend to stick around long after their physical abilities have declined.
All of the top names mentioned in GOAT discussions are featured, with their most successful runs being highlighted as follows:
Georges St. Pierre post-Serra (Koscheck 2007 - Bisping 2019)
Anderson Silva pre-Weidman (Leben 2005 - Bonnar 2012)
Jon Jones post-Hammill DQ (Vera 2010 - Reyes 2020)
Jose Aldo pre-McGregor (Nogueira 2008 - Mendes 2014)
Demetrious Johnson flyweight post-draw to pre-Cejudo II (McCall II 2012 - Borg 2017)
BJ Penn at lightweight post-Pulver I (Creighton 2002 - Sanchez 2009)
Fedor Emilianenko pre-Werdum (Schilt 2002 - Rogers 2009)
Daniel Cormier pre-Stipe II (Bigfoot Silva 2011 - Lewis 2018)
Since Conor McGregor is the man who most recently inspired the heated GOAT debates in the MMA community, he has also been added from his UFC debut against Marcus Brimage in 2013 to his lightweight title win against Eddie Alvarez in 2016.
His rival Khabib Nurmagomedov's UFC career is added for contrast (Shalorus 2012 - Poirier 2019) as well as the now-retired Henry Cejudo (Reis 2017 - Cruz 2020) who has boldly staked his claim to GOAT status recently despite his early retirement and short stint on top.
For the sake of this report, drug test failures are ignored - many feel that testing positive for steroids (of which both Jon Jones (many times) and Anderson Silva have done) should make one ineligible for GOAT status, but for the sake of statistical analysis, both men are still included here.
Silva also has the benefit of only testing positive late in his career and following a severe leg injury which makes it hard to know for sure whether he was doping during his title run or not - Jones doesn't have that benefit however especially given his long history of suspect test results and of course multiple failures.
All no contests are ignored entirely from winning percentages and stat analysis.
Fighter records and their height/reach/age are taken from their Wikipedia entries and/or Sherdog, while striking/takedown statistics are taken entirely from Fight Metric's UFC Stats website (which also handily includes WEC and PRIDE fights amongst others).
It should be noted that while generally Fight Metric does a good job, sometimes their determination of "significant" versus total strikes can seem rather dubious and they can also be oddly conservative when it comes to handing out knockdowns in some fights compared to others.
Opponent rankings were taken from a variety of sources given the variance across different websites and in some cases difficulty getting information close enough to the fight date, and as such are only included as an estimate taken from the UFC rankings, published Sherdog rankings, and Fight Matrix's rankings from as close to the fight date as possible.
Rankings such as these of course don't take into account the differences between weight classes, so one may see the number five ranked lightweight and consider them a far superior fighter in terms of ability and skill than the number five ranked light heavyweight for instance, but at least give an idea of where the fighter is compared to others in their class.
If you'd like to take a look at the entire data set including the stats from each bout analyzed, you can check it out here.
So without further ado, let's take a look at the results.
Note that "ranked opponents" in the fourth column refers to each fighters record against opponents that were in the top ten at the time of their fight.
While Fedor may have the most fights during his streak, he also has the most filler - and many of his fights in PRIDE truly were filler as the Russian took freakshow bouts against the likes of Hong-man Choi and Zuluzinho, not to mention squash matches against extremely poor opposition like the 0-1 pro wrestler Yuji Nagata.
His run did still feature ten opponents inside the heavyweight top ten, though their average ranking at the time of fighting him was the highest out of the eleven fighters being analyzed.
Jon Jones features the most wins over top ten competition during his run, though it's hard not to point out that several of his wins were against middleweights that moved up in weight (more on size later) and both of his most recent outings were steeped in controversy given most fans and analysts scored the decisions against the light heavyweight champion.
In terms of consistent strength of schedule, Georges St. Pierre and Demetrious Johnson stand out given that they put together 13-fight unbeaten streaks against entirely top ten opposition, though Georges also sports one controversial (though less controversial after a rewatch without commentary) decision of his own.
It's also worth mentioning that St. Pierre has avenged both the losses from earlier in his career in dominant fashion, the only fighter on the list to have no un-avenged losses (though obviously the undefeated Khabib and Jones (whose loss was via disqualification in a fight he was dominating) have no proper losses to avenge.
Georges' opponents also tout the lowest average ranking besides Henry Cejudo, who has just five top ten wins to Georges' thirteen, showing that he was regularly facing top contenders in what most regard as the second most stacked weight class in terms of talent, next only to lightweight.
The bottom three competitors unsurprisingly sport the least top ten fights during their streaks; McGregor's run included a stumble against Nate Diaz and was snapped again after he went to boxing and came back only to get dominated by Khabib and thus ends with the Diaz rematch, while Khabib has had a tough time getting quality opponents and staying active and Cejudo retired very early (not to mention his extremely dubious decision win over Demetrious Johnson in their rematch).
Of those three, Conor's loss to Nate Diaz certainly hurts his already weak argument for GOAT status, particularly given that Diaz doesn't exactly have a great record himself and McGregor only managed to eeke out a close decision to avenge his loss.
Unsurprisingly, Anderson Silva's superb 87.5% finish rate leads the pack and certainly weighs heavily for those that believe finishes are the best indicator of dominance - Georges St. Pierre on the other hand is the only fighter listed that falls short of at least a 50% finishing rate, coming in at just 23%, something he was heavily criticized for over the years even if he was still dominating his opposition.
In terms of experience, the average age of the competitors' opposition largely falls within what would be expected given their weight classes - heavier fighters tend to fall off slower than those in the lighter weight classes and younger fighters tend to do better in the lighter classes, so it's no surprise the top three highest averages come from the three light heavyweight and/or heavyweight competitors and the lighter fighters have faced younger competition in general.
A better analysis of the experience comes in the form of the number of fights each opponent had before they fought the fighters in question - in that aspect, Daniel Cormier (who also fought the oldest opponents on average), Georges St. Pierre, Henry Cejudo, and Jon Jones come out on top with Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov right behind them.
The other end of the spectrum features Johnson and Aldo, along with Fedor whose squash matches with inexperienced fighters brought down his average.
For Aldo and Johnson, several factors bring down their opponent's experience numbers - in Johnson's case, a relatively new division in which many of its competitors had trouble finding fights especially earlier in their careers, combined with his wins over the top talent and desire to stay active requiring the UFC to often thrust up and comers into title shots prematurely, hurts his numbers here.
In Aldo's case, his run began very early in his career with his first WEC fights against other prospects likewise earlier in their careers, and later in his reign he came up against fighters that had put together impressive streaks that rightfully earned them title shots even if they didn't have a ton of fights, such as Chad Mendes (who Aldo first fought when he was 10-0).
Their Opposition's Records
Evaluating the quality of a fighter's opposition is difficult to do purely through statistics - some fighters may have an extremely impressive undefeated record on paper, only for one to find out they fought a bunch of fighters with losing records, while others may have what appears to be a mediocre record that consists of entirely world-class competition.
We can at least get a general idea of the competition by looking at their win percentages - as such, in the picture above each fighter's opposition's winning percentage at the time of their fight is calculated, as well as the total win percentage to date. As one would expect since their opponents would have at least added one loss (from their meeting with one of the potential GOATs), the total win percentage is invariably lower than the before percentage.
Henry Cejudo comes out on top in terms of his opposition's winning and total percentage, but considering that's from a total of just six fights it's hard to really call him the overall winner there when it's in such a short span - unsurprisingly, Fedor comes in last in both. It turns out can crushing doesn't look as good on one's resume as it does in a highlight reel.
Penn, Cormier, Georges, and Jones' opposition all break the 80% barrier pre-fight - the total percentages across the board however are a bit misleading given that many fighters are still competing and thus those numbers aren't final. Considering that the vast majority of fighters (including most on this list) decline and continue competing past their prime, many of those totals will continue to drop as time goes on.
A more specific measure of their opposition's success is used in looking at the opposition's results immediately preceeding and after their fight with the listed fighter. This is where the Last and Next 5 stats come in, which simply takes each opponent's record in the five bouts prior and the five after (not including the fight against the listed fighter of course).
While the Next 5 statistic is again not complete given some of the more recent bouts on several candidate's resumes, the Previous 5 gives a good look of when each candidate fought their opponents - were they facing fighters in the middle of a hot streak or during a downward trend?
Here, Georges St. Pierre comes out a clear winner with his opposition winning nearly 94% of the time in their five prior bouts, with runner up Demetrious Johnson about 7% behind and Anderson Silva another point back.
The two worst here are Conor McGregor, whose early UFC bouts were against (at the time) young middling prospects and is weighed down by Nate Diaz's lack of consistency, and Jose Aldo, who faced several lightweights that dropped down to 145 given his clearing out of the division for a time and their struggles to stay in title contention at 155.
Fight Metric Stats
Now for a more detailed look at the important metrics from the fights themselves, with striking (which includes strikes on the ground, in the clinch, and of course, on the feet) statistics as well as takedown rates. Things like guard passing and submission attempts and the like were left out here since they don't really tell you much about a fighter's performance in the same way as the selected metrics do.
Unsurprisingly, all of the fighters listed have above average striking accuracy (the standard is typically around 30%) whether they're throwing "significant" shots or not, with Anderson Silva's legendary precision coming out on top for significant striking accuracy while BJ Penn's laser sharp jab gives him the edge in overall accuracy.
Surprisingly, Jose Aldo is at the bottom of the list in terms of accuracy, though it should be noted almost all of his striking statistics are on the feet (Khabib for instance, throws the vast majority of his strikes on the ground or in the clinch where accuracy tends to be higher, and his striking accuracy on the feet is much lower).
Aldo makes up for it however by having the best overall striking defense, while he places third next to Anderson Silva and GSP for significant striking defense, with Silva's legendary head movement propelling him to a clear lead in that department.
In terms of strike differentials (on average, how many strikes a fighter lands on their opponent compared to how many they receive) there are a lot of impressive numbers on this list, but Georges St. Pierre reigns supreme - his ability to shut down his opponent's offense through smothering ground and pound, perfectly timed takedowns, and his stifling jab had him outlanding opponents at a ridiculous rate.
The knockout artists struggled in this category - Conor McGregor and Anderson Silva most notably in this area, which isn't surprising given that the ability to end a fight with a single or a few strikes often means they aren't given the chance to run up large numbers on opponents since they don't tend to last that long, and they usually opt to pick their spots rather than throwing a lot of volume.
This is made clear from the knockdown metrics - Anderson Silva actually ate more total strikes than he dished out during his reign (largely thanks to Chael Sonnen's relentless ground and pound and Anderson's dedication to picking his shots), yet scored a whopping 17 knockdowns in his 16 fights and didn't have one registered against him. Arguably he was knocked down by Chael Sonnen in their first meeting (even if he wasn't "rocked" per se), but Fight Metric didn't count it as one for whatever reason.
Likewise Connor went 12 nil in that category, though half of his knockdowns came in just two bouts (against Alvarez and the Diaz rematch).
All of the fighters scored favourably in knockdown ratios, with Daniel Cormier sporting the worst ratio at 4:2 or 2:1, and only Demetrious Johnson and GSP joined him in suffering any knockdowns at all during their highlighted streaks.
In terms of takedowns, Anderson Silva hilariously scored highest in takedown accuracy with 75% - given that he secured a total of three takedowns in his 16 fights, it's hard to really score that in his favour however.
Georges St. Pierre is the rightful winner there with his 72.63% success rate and 69 completed takedowns during his streak, which is especially impressive given that run includes bouts with several highly accomplished wrestlers (there's a reason why the Canadian Olympic wrestling team wanted him to try out despite his complete lack of any competitive wrestling background).
Jose Aldo is also surprisingly in third - while his takedown defense is legendary for a reason, few think of takedowns when they think of the Brazilian striker, yet he was successful in 13 of his 18 attempts (mostly in his earlier career before he became focused entirely on the feet). It's one of the most disappointing aspects of Aldo's career as of late, given that he's focused entirely on boxing and seemingly forgotten about his world class grappling game and deadly low kicks (Fedor also fell down the same well, falling in love with his overhand right and forgetting all about his grappling).
Surprisingly the worst in terms of takedown success rates was Henry Cejudo, the Olympic gold medalist in wrestling. His defense was extremely high however, just behind Jose Aldo, and Jon Jones who comes in at #1 as he stopped over 93% of attempts to take him down. Jones' takedown offense however is the lowest next to Cejudo's, and he has particularly struggled to take down opponents similar in stature to him throughout his career.
Perhaps the biggest surprise here was the fact Daniel Cormier, an Olympian wrestler himself, tied with Conor McGregor for the lowest takedown defense rate - of course Conor's streak didn't include his Khabib fight, and Cormier always sprang immediately back to his feet when taken down unlike others on the list such as Conor and Silva, but it's a surprise nonetheless.
The Size Factor
When discussing pound-for-pound rankings, talk often shifts to fighters who have moved up in weight to challenge for titles in multiple weight classes, which is reasonable enough.
Rarely though is the size of the competitors discussed given that they are competing against others that, at least for a while on the day before a fight, weigh the same amount (other than heavyweight, though the extra weight seems to stop being useful and becomes a hindrance against skilled competition around the 235-245 mark).
Weight however fails to take into account height and reach, two other factors that are well-known to have large impacts in a fight, particularly in the striking realm.
Being able to hit an opponent at a range where they are unable to hit you back is a major advantage, and while it certainly involves skill in order to utilize it effectively, it can be a major advantage over opponents even if they are more technically adept than you.
In this category, it's no surprise to see Jon Jones have a massive advantage against his opposition given his very odd frame (particularly given that he can still be so strong despite his rather "scrawny" limbs, although how much PED's factor into that is a topic for a separate debate) - on average he enjoys a absolutely massive 9-inch reach advantage over his opponents, in addition to over 2 inches in height.
Jones has shown to have glaring defensive flaws in his standup and issues with getting his opponent down when facing competition of similar height. While his kicks and elbows are certainly a strong suit, his hands have always been rather poor and his boxing defense extremely amateurish, which is rarely punished given his size advantage and doesn't bode well for his prospects as an elite heavyweight should he finally make his long-talked-about move up in weight.
His rival Cormier on the other hand has found tremendous success despite a massive height and reach disadvantage - giving up an average of 6.5 inches of reach and 3.5 inches in height to his opponents, Cormier still managed to put together an incredible run with only Jon Jones managing to best him up until his most recent outing at 40 years old, a fight in which he was dominating but seemed to enter "autopilot mode" and saw slip through his fingers in much the same way as his rematch with Jones.
Henry Cejudo also gave up sizeable height and reach advantages to his opponents during his short run - surprisingly Demetrious Johnson, who most think of as being smaller than all of his opponents even at flyweight, actually enjoyed on average a one inch reach advantage over his opponents.
GSP, McGregor, and Silva all enjoyed sizeable reach advantages on average through their streaks as well, though Georges did so while giving up a slight height advantage.
So what did the data show us? Is there a clear GOAT?
Well as one may have expected, some fighters looked great in certain areas statistically and less so in others, with no fighter clearly coming out on top in all or even a majority of categories.
All of the fighters in the GOAT debate had their share of dominance, and a strong case can be made for many of them in terms of pure skill given its subjectivity, while an overall case factoring in sustained dominance, level of competition, and accomplishments can easily be made for Georges St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson, Jose Aldo, BJ Penn, and Daniel Cormier.
A few of the fighters however don't have such a strong case - Fedor's impressive streak came at a time where most heavyweights were highly one-dimensional and his resume includes plenty of padding and simply doesn't stack up very well with the other greats.
The man who started the latest raging debates over mixed martial arts' GOAT, Conor McGregor, has an incredibly weak case - he may be the biggest star, but his entire run consists of just four top-10 ranked opponents and he lost to one of them, eeking out a close decision to avenge his loss and to date still has not granted the same courtesy of a rematch that he so often demands from those that best him.
He could certainly make a case for himself in the future, but as of now, his success at the top reads much more as a flash in the pan than that of a true great, and his complete refusal to defend any titles throughout his career certainly doesn't do him any good.
His entire claim focuses on being the first simultaneous two-weight champion, yet it ignores the fact that other champions were repeatedly denied the opportunity to move in weight without sacrificing their title simply for not drawing enough PPV buys - while it may make sense financially, in a competitive and sporting sense it holds little weight and once the floodgates opened following his second title win, other champions followed suit and actually defended their titles in the process.
His biggest rival may have a slightly stronger case, but just barely - while his 28-0 record is extremely impressive, regardless of circumstances he only has wins over five top-10 fighters and never faced Tony Ferguson (again, regardless of circumstances) who was tearing through lightweights at the exact same time with a 12-fight winning streak of his own.
He has also as of yet (though that may change soon with Justin Gaethje) never faced a truly elite wrestler inside the Octagon, which is stylistically his toughest test given his complete reliance on takedowns in order to win.
Finally, Henry Cejudo also has a very weak argument - while his streak was certainly impressive, it was short and includes plenty of asterisks.
His flyweight title win against Demetrious Johnson was a gift decision to say the least - while other close or even bad decisions can at least have solid arguments for both fighters to have won, especially on rewatching a fight without commentary, Cejudo's rematch with Johnson was very clear cut and even more so on a rewatch, with virtually no one outside of his own camp honestly believing he won the fight.
His one and only title defense then came against bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw rather than top contender Joseph Benavidez, who held a close decision win over Cejudo. Dillashaw had to cut a drastic amount of weight and while he hit the mark, with no other fights in the division it's impossible to tell how much that impacted his performance.
While no one feels sorry for him given the fact he is a now disgraced doper, it's impossible not to mention the entire finishing sequence for Cejudo in his fight with Dillashaw stemmed from a headbutt, something that Cejudo is notorious for doing and can be seen landing in virtually all of his fights (even in his retirement fight with Cruz, though ironically he cut his own head in doing so).
His fight against Moraes was certainly impressive, but he then followed it up by opting to face Jose Aldo, who was riding a two-fight losing streak and while he is still one of the best fighters in the world, he's clearly slowing down, rather than one of several top contenders riding impressive winning streaks. When that fight fell through due to COVID-19, he then opted to face Dominick Cruz; while regarded as the best bantamweight in MMA history, Cruz was coming off a loss of his own and hadn't fought in nearly three years due to injuries.
The remaining names on the list all have solid arguments that can be made for them being the GOAT, with Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva having the best arguments when looking at the overall data included in this report.
St. Pierre's dominance over the stiffest competition on paper, which included over five years without losing a single round on any judges' scorecard, and his extremely well-rounded abilities make GSP, in my humble opinion, the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
Ultimately however, it comes down to one's own analysis of each fighter and how one chooses and weighs each aspect of the criteria. There are some that don't have very strong cases however (especially when looking at the data)...*cough* Conor *cough* Cejudo *cough. In the end though, there is no definitive "right" or "wrong" choice - it is all theoretical and impossible to definitively prove.
That being said, feel free to use any of the stats or analysis provided in this piece to aid you in your verbal assaults of people with different opinions on social media. You're welcome.