While watching Unleashed, I heard Mike Goldberg call Chuck Liddell "the most dominant champion EVER (emphasis Goldy's) in the UFC". This got me thinking: is Chuck really the most dominant ever? How do you define dominant? Number of title fights won? Number of consecutive defenses? Method of win? Time inside the cage?
And this in turn led me to speculate upon which current UFC champion has a chance to usurp the title of "most dominant" from whomever currently holds it.
I'll start by expressing how unfortunate was PRIDE's practice of rarely having champs defend their belts. Fedor and Wanderlei Silva were more dominant versus their peer group in PRIDE than any fighter has ever been in the (modern - see below) UFC, and if PRIDE allowed them to defend their belt every fight, as is customary in the US, they would both compare favorably with the reign of any UFC champ.
But such is life. Fedor and Wanderlei are both great fighters, but by a measurement of putting your belt on the line and defending it, they, sadly, are forced out of contention.
I consider only the modern era of the UFC. Royce Gracie's impact on the sport of MMA cannot be overstated, but he fought in an entirely different era from the modern. Weight classes, time limits, equipment limitations, rules, even the tournament vs. single fight structure all dictate that Royce's undisputed dominance over his era cannot be evaulated alongside fighters like Hughes, Liddell, Anderson Silva.
In the modern era, there are 5 dominant UFC champions: Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre.
The critical reader may ask, "no Tim Sylvia"? No, and it's for reasons other than personal preference that I leave the Maine-iac out of consideration. If you count the Gan McGee fight as a loss (Sylvia won but failed his drug test and was stripped of the belt) he has a 4-5 record in title fights.
The critical reader may also ask, "no Randy"? Randy Couture is a special unique case in the history of the UFC. Almost every time he's fought it has been for the title, he's the oldest UFC champion ever, and he's one of only two fighters ever to hold UFC belts in two weight classes. However, with an overall title-fight record (in the modern era, so starting with the Randleman fight) of 9-5 (that is counting the Barnett loss as a win due to the steroid issue, as with Sylvia/McGee) and a best title-defense streak of 3 (and that includes Barnett), it is difficult to consider him among the most "dominant" champions ever. One of the greatest, however, beyond question.
From least dominant to most, then:
It may shock many that I rank GSP "least dominant" among the Big Five. But the numbers don't lie. In title fights (including interim title fights, as will be the case throughout this discussion) he is "only" (quote-unquote) 5-2, with 1 decision. One of those fights went to the end of the fourth round. If you (generously) count the Serra rematch as a "defense" (since he owned the interim belt), his best streak of belt defenses is 3. Obviously he is on the uptick, going 5-1 in his last 6 title fights and riding 3 consecutive defenses - but that speaks more to future promise than past results. For that, dear reader, read on.
Again possibly surprising. Most of us think of Chuck as being the guy who mowed down opponents, going 8-1 in a 40-month stretch, with all 8 by (T)KO and losing only to Rampage. Surely he can't be only #4 of the 5 most-dominant UFC kings. But judging by results he is appropriately placed. He is 5-2 in title fights with 1 decision - same record as GSP - but after losing his first title fight, he did win and then defend the title four consecutive times, before losing it (likely his final title fight) to Rampage. He went to round 4 once and round 3 once during that time.
One of the most controversial figures in the organization's history is also one of its most easily-overlooked champions. Part of the reason is that Tito's dominant reign ended just prior to the era of increased popularity for the sport that he helped to usher in. His title defenses aren't replayed endlessly on Unleashed, he doesn't get name-checked by Mike Goldberg 10 times a show like Liddell does, but like it or not, Tito was there and he did that. He is 6-2 in title fights with 1 decision - one more win than Liddell or GSP, and crucially, he had more consecutive defenses than either of them. After winning the belt against Wanderlei Silva, Tito went on to defend it 5 consecutive times before losing it to Chuck. In terms of time in the cage, beyond the decision, he saw round 3 once during this time but all other fights were first-round stoppages; and he lost his title by decision. His final title-fight was a full 3 years later, a rematch loss to Liddell well after Tito's reign was over and Chuck's was at its zenith.
While I consider Spider to be the #1 P4P fighter in the world right now, and he's as dominant a fighter as there is, he is just shy of Matt Hughes in championship dominance. Silva is 5-0 in title fights (6-0 if you include the Lutter fight), and has 4 consecutive and running defenses (5 if you include Lutter). Zero of those were by decision, and only one challenger saw the start of round 3. An overwhelming, dominant streak. But still just shades less impressive than the run of:
Another controversial fighter from the just-bygone era of the UFC. Like Tito, and probably Chuck, Matt will never again fight for the title in the UFC, but he's already done enough to be considered the greatest champion ever. He is 9-3 in title fights (10-3 if you include the Riggs fight), with only 1 win by decision. That's 4 more title wins than Silva (Lutter and Riggs counting), with only one decision. The three losses may be troubling, but when you consider that one came well after he lost his belt (as with Tito), it becomes less important to the question of dominance. Hughes did see round 4 twice and 3 once during the period. Hughes' best title defense streak was 5-0, equalling Tito and (counting Lutter) Silva, with only one decision during that stretch. But unlike Tito or Chuck (with the jury still out on GSP and Silva), Hughes went on to win BACK the title and defend it twice more (thrice counting Riggs) before the Darwinian nature of MMA supplanted his reign with that of GSP.
So now the question turns to which current champion can unseat Hughes from his perch atop the dominant-champion rankings.
First we can say who WON'T do it. Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Matt Hughes have almost certainly fought their last UFC title fights. Their accomplishments are hall of fame worthy, and they are among the most dominant champs the sport has ever had; but their potential to add to their championship resume is very low. I would consider Chuck to be "closest" for varying reasons, but I give him almost no chance to be champ again.
For the remaining champs, each faces a specific question that must be answered:
- Another special unique case in the UFC. Along with Randy, the only fighter to hold UFC belts in two weight classes. BJ is famous (or infamous) for fighting only A-level fighters, refusing to fight anyone that isn't top-10 or (usually) top-5 in a given weight class. The question for BJ is whether he will be satisfied staying at 155 and dispatching contender after contender. My prognosis for BJ is the same as that of many other fans: if he settles down and focuses on being the best MMA lightweight ever, he will win for as long as he wants to. As it stands now, he has won the lightweight belt and defended it once, so he has considerable achievements required of him to unseat the Big Five.
- Already one of the Big Five and clearly still improving. GSP has already soundly defeated all the best UFC competition at 170 save for Thiago Alves, whom he fights next. Should he win that fight, I see Georges ruling the welterweight roost for as long as he wants to. The "big one" is still out there in top-5 Jake Shields, but even if Shields should come to the UFC and fight GSP for the title, I would heavily favor St-Pierre. The question with Georges is not whether he can unseat Matt Hughes, rather it is how long does GSP want to cycle through progressively weaker challengers at 170 before he decides to move up a weight class.
- Speaking of middleweight, Anderson is beyond superlatives in his success at carving up the UFC 185-pound division. Thales Leites, his next opponent, poses some interesting stylistic challenges, but I don't see him posing a big threat. The biggest threat to Anderson's reign is a man he already beat - if Dan Henderson can beat Michael Bisping following this season of TUF, he will rematch Silva and present the Brazilian with his toughest test to date. Should Silva see his way through that - not a given - then I see him winning for a while. Demian Maia is going to make a great challenger for Silva one day, but with Silva's huge edge in striking and top-level experience, I see that likely to end only one way. With some retirement and pro boxing talk in recent months, the question with Silva is how long the sport can hold his interest. Another important point is that Silva is the closest of all the current champs to unseating Hughes. With just another one or two title defenses - especially if they are finishes - he will already push clear of Hughes as the most dominant champion ever.
- A long way to go, having just won the title and with zero defenses, but he has gotten a great start. Rashad, at 29, is clearly still improving as well, and has looked great in his last 2 fights against Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin. He is unquestionably a great fighter, but for him the question to be answered is, can he retain the belt long enough to build any kind of streak in the shark tank that is the UFC 205-pound division? Long lauded as the most exciting weight class in MMA, light heavy is packed with proven killers (Forrest, Rampage, Machida, either Silva, for starters) that will be gunning for what Rashad's got. Time will tell but based on "removal" (or lack thereof) from clear and present dangers to the title, I consider Rashad to have a much steeper hill to climb than BJ, GSP, or Silva.
- Another very polarizing figure and in many ways the champion with the toughest future to predict. With all of four fights (three in the UFC), we have most likely not seen the best of Brock nor his weaknesses. Frank Mir showed one weakness, but being a fighter with (at the time) exactly one fight, I wouldn't expect him now to be nearly so green on the ground as he was in that fight. Brock certainly came to the UFC at a perfect time to allow his still-tender skills to develop: fighters like Herring, Randy and Nogueira are older and past their primes, fighters like Cro Cop, Sylvia and Werdum have moved out, half of the world's best heavyweights fight for Affliction rather than the UFC, and future superstars like Velasquez and Carwin are nearly as young in the sport as he is. This then gives us the question Brock faces: will his technical skills grow sufficiently quickly, and in a well-rounded way, during this "amnesty period" of sorts to allow him to integrate them with his unquestioningly imposing physical gifts in a way that will allow him to reel off win after win? Time alone will tell.
: Anderson Silva will unseat Matt Hughes as the most dominant UFC champion ever. GSP will win a couple more at 170 pounds and then choose to hunt bigger game at 185. BJ will have one or two great fights at lightweight - Florian, maybe Griffin or a Sherk rematch, maybe Diego - and call it quits. Evans will continue as a great fighter but the 205 belt will become Lyoto's, either immediately or in the future, and speculation will turn to how dominant he can be. Lesnar will continue to win for a time but ultimately will not pass the twin test of Carwin and Velasquez.