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Baaaaaaah: Is Jon Jones MMA's G.O.A.T?
Let's Break it Down
Last night I wrote at length about Jon Jones for the new Bloody Elbow substack. It’s a venture you should consider supporting. The team there speaks fearless truth to power, something we don’t get much of in the mixed martial arts space. As you would imagine, that brand of cowboy journalism isn’t a good fit in the increasingly corporate sports media. If we want someone covering our sport critically and smartly, we’ll have to pay for it ourselves. Such is the world these days.
In the moment, as you might expect, I was quick to crown Jon Jones as the sport’s G.O.A.T. Hell, I’ve been calling Jones the world’s best fighter for more than a decade. But it’s a claim worthy of additional scrutiny—plus, as an added bonus, it’s fun to think about and discuss.
So, if you’ll indulge me, let’s take a look at the major candidates and see where each stands. Criticism here should be taken in the spirit it’s offered. Each man is one of the very best fighters of all-time, first ballot Hall-of-Famers all. If they come up short, it’s only because the company they keep here is so exceptional. All are much admired in these parts. That is a given.
Record: 27-1 (1); 17 finishes
Major Titles: UFC Light Heavyweight, UFC Heavyweight
Top Wins: Mauricio Rua, Quinton Jackson, Rashad Evans, Daniel Cormier(x2), Alexander Gustaffson (x2), Cyril Gane
Major Losses: None
Strengths: Length, intelligence, wrestling, mental toughness
Weaknesses: Lack of stopping power, out-of-cage issues
The Case for Jones: What more can you say? He’s stepped into the cage against the best fighters in the world for years and never once walked out a loser. Every fight since 2011 has been a five-rounder with a UFC title at stake. He only hunts big game and has never come home empty.
The Case Against Jones: Light Heavyweight and heavyweight, despite being the promotion’s glamour divisions, aren’t exactly stocked with top fighters. Jones also has a long history of criminal behavior and whispers of performance enhancing drugs have plagued him throughout his career. His heavyweight title claim is dubious considering he didn’t take the top prize from Francis Ngannou, who didn’t lose the belt inside the Octagon but rather to a contract dispute that is on-going.
Record: 26-2; 14 finishes
Major Titles: UFC Welterweight, UFC Middleweight
Top Wins: BJ Penn (x2), Matt Hughes (x2), Jon Fitch, Jake Shields, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping
Major Losses: Matt Hughes, Matt Serra
Strengths: Jab, wrestling, charm
Weaknesses: Lack of stopping power, overly cautious
The Case for GSP: After four years on the sidelines, St-Pierre returned to take the middleweight title from Michael Bisping. It was a story book moment that really bolstered his position in these kinds of discussions. St-Pierre was a brilliant fighter. He outstruck the strikers and outwrestled the wrestlers and did it all with a class and grace rarely seen in the hellscape that is mixed martial arts. The man is a hero.
The Case Against GSP: Before his comeback, St-Pierre had gone to decision in seven consecutive fights. After his shocking loss to Serra he approached each fight with a caution that belied his chosen profession. In short, he made it harder than it needed to be in the name of risk mitigation.
And, let’s be honest here, he ducked Anderson Silva during the Brazilian’s run on top, only returning to stake his claim at middleweight when the prospect of winning seemed much brighter against Bisping.
Record: 34-11-1; 26 finishes
Major Titles: UFC Middleweight
Top Wins: Hayato Sakurai, Carlos Newton, Jeremy Horn, Rich Franklin (x2), Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, Chael Sonnen (x2), Vitor Belfort
Major Losses: Ryo Chonan, Chris Weidman (x2), Daniel Cormier, Israel Adesanya
Strengths: Striking brilliance, confidence, grappling from the bottom
Weaknesses: Cocky, lack of focus, age
The Case for Silva: Silva is the most brilliant fighter I’ve ever seen. At his best, he played with his food. He didn’t just win fights (at one point 15 in a row inside the UFC Octagon), he did it with a style and ease that has never been matched. When facing the specter of defeat against Sonnen at UFC 117, he pulled off a miracle submission in one of the most satisfying comebacks in the sport’s history
The Case Against Silva: Could be outfought be a game opponent. Chonan was the perfect example. While everyone remembers the exciting finish, they forget Anderson was on his way to a loss anyway. Overconfidence and defensive lapses also haunt some of his most memorable defeats. His chin-up-hands-down defense against Chris Weidman led to the most incredible knockout the UFC has ever seen.
Silva also fought long past his prime, racking up five losses in his final six fights. How much that harms his case is in the eye of the beholder. An aged Muhammad Ali lost three of his last four in the boxing ring and few seem to hold it against him.
Record: 31-4-1; 18 finishes
Major Titles: UFC Flyweight, ONE FC Flyweight
Top Wins: Kid Yamamoto, Miguel Torres, Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez (x2), John Dodson (x2), Kyoji Horiguchi, Henry Cejudo
Major Losses: Dominick Cruz, Henry Cejudo, Adriano Moraes
Strengths: Fight IQ, finishing ability
Weaknesses: Size, limited competition
The Case for Johnson: The UFC’s decision to promote a flyweight division rescued Johnson from what might have been a frustrating career as a game but undersized opponent for the top bantamweights. Instead he became a dominant champion, holding firm to UFC gold for five years before a questionable decision loss to Henry Cejudo.
Johnson is simultaneously one of the sport’s most cerebral and exciting fighters. His last fight featured an all-timer knockout against Adriano Moraes to avenge a loss and his win over Ray Borg has a legitimate case as the coolest submission in MMA history.
The Case Against Johnson: The pool of elite fighters weighing just 125 pounds is small. In some ways, Johnson was a shark in a pool of minnows. There’s also the lingering issue of Cejudo to consider. Rather than attempt to reclaim his title in a rubber match, DJ departed for ONE FC. Leaving that kind of unfinished business doesn’t feel like a G.O.A.T move.
Jose Aldo, Fedor Emelianenko, Rickson Gracie, Ronda Rousey, Khabib Nurmagomedov
Looking closely at each potential candidate does little to add clarity. Instead, the debate is more opaque than ever. Each man has a solid case.
Jones and GSP lack the pizzazz of Silva and DJ—but, perhaps as a result, they don’t have a record dotted with losses either. In the end, it comes down to what you value most in a fighter.
The truth is, you can’t really go wrong in air this rarefied. For me, Jones has personified excellence and seems likely to continue building his case. It’s close right now—but in two years, any argument may very well be moot. Wins over Stipe Miocic and Ngannou would make Jones the best fighter in two different weight classes, an accomplishment no one could dismiss in good faith.