Recognizing The Difference Between GOAT & BOAT

No matter the year, there is one thing you can be sure will never change: there will continue to be the never-ending debates about who is the greatest of all time (GOAT). This year, however, I say we finally add an extra dimension to these debates that is long overdue: adding the term “BOAT” to the official sports lexicon.

There is a difference between being the greatest and being the best. Being the greatest is based primarily on accomplishments and résumé. Think of this as having the strongest and most accomplished career.

Being the best is based primarily on skill level. Think of this as having the most talent and being the most dominant.

Naturally, there is some overlap between the two, which is where most of the confusion lies when there are GOAT debates with varying criteria.

Being considered the best is something that is backed by the eye test, and then the accomplishments and résumé help prove that the talent level is as high as your eyes thought.

Being the greatest is like the number of trophies you have in your closet and the number of heads you have mounted on your wall. It’s based more on what you did than how you did it. But there is still naturally some skill and domination that played a factor in that. The biggest difference is being the best can be judged in a shorter period of time while being the greatest is almost always reserved for those with a very wide body of work.

Jim Brown, Marion Motley finalists for RBs on the NFL's All-Time Team
Jim Brown, Pro Football Hall of Famer

In football, you could argue that Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton is the GOAT at running back based on the records they set and their Super Bowl victories. However, the title of “BOAT” might be reserved for a Jim Brown or Barry Sanders, who ran with a form that set them apart from the pack, even if they lack the championships that a typical “GOAT” would have.

In basketball, one might argue that Kareem Abdul Jabbar is the greatest center who ever lived, with six NBA titles, six MVPs, and two Finals MVPs to support that claim. But in terms of the best? Give me the 1999-2001 Shaquille O’Neal every time. Because no one was more dominant.

In MMA, we’ve seen a couple of glaring examples of people having debates without realizing that they were arguing two completely different things.

Let’s take Jon Jones vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov, for instance. The following graphic best summarizes the difference between GOAT vs. BOAT (graphic via ESPN MMA).

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Here, Brett Okamoto is arguing for Khabib as the BOAT while Marc Raimondi is arguing for Jon Jones as the GOAT. The clash comes when the opposing sides feel they are limited to one term of “GOAT.” What results are impossible debates about different topics unbeknownst to the participants. We’ll have more on the Khabib vs. Jones debate a bit later on.

BOAT Sightings

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While we still have a ways to go before BOAT is officially added to the sports/MMA lexicon, there have been some “BOAT” sightings that have happened over the past year.

Alexander Volkov Cites Evolution

Below, Alexander Volkov essentially argues that Fedor Emelianenko is the heavyweight GOAT while Francis Ngannou is the heavyweight BOAT.

“Right now, it’s the UFC Champion Ngannou, most likely,” Volkov told RT Sport MMA in response to who is the greatest heavyweight of all time. “Depends on the particular era of MMA. Of course, in terms of achievements, Fedor is one of the greatest, a legendary fighter who was undefeated for many years, had spectacular fights, came back from different bad situations in his fights, beat them all in his time.

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“But now, there’s a new generation with new skills, new physical conditions, new techniques. And it’s unclear if the fighters of the past generation would do well against the elite fighters of the present. So before we talk about the greatest heavyweight of all time, we need to define what it really means. For me, there’s no such thing. There’s just the best fighter at the moment. Now, it’s the UFC champion, in my opinion.”

Chael P. Sonnen Weighs In

Next, here’s Chael Sonnen giving his own breakdown of how the line between the best and the greatest often gets warped into a haze.

“Khabib is the most dominant. I can prove that,” Sonnen said on his YouTube channel. “That’s not my opinion. I can prove to you that Khabib is the most dominant. I think that is a wonderful compliment to give a guy. You were the best fighter of all time. Hard to prove. Big compliment, hard to prove. Dominance is hard…Guys, Khabib has won more 10-8 rounds in his career than anybody in the history of unarmed combat. I’m including boxing. What an incredible statement. Then, OK, who’s the greatest of all time?

Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib Nurmagomedov

“…Khabib does have one thing against him. It’s only one. It’s only one. But it’s still against him, and it’s gonna grow over time. Now that we’re still in the Khabib era, we’ve all seen him fight, we all miss him and want to see him fight again…over time, we’re gonna forget that. We’re gonna forget how we feel right now. We’re gonna see new talent in there. So we’re now left with paper.

“And this even happens now, I mean, Jordan vs. LeBron. You talk about Jordan had six rings and LeBron had none—at one point—but this was the argument. And you could see—many people said, ‘No, LeBron’s better. I don’t give a damn if he has the rings or not. He’s gonna get ’em and he’s better.”

El Cucuy Knows What’s Up

And what kind of guy is Tony Ferguson? Tony Ferguson is the kind of guy to hop on board the BOAT movement before it was cool. Be more like Tony Ferguson.

Recent MMA Examples of GOAT vs. BOAT

Jon Jones vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov

The two most frequent examples of GOAT vs. BOAT debates this past year were the Jon Jones/Khabib GOAT debate and the Georges St-Pierre/Kamaru Usman welterweight GOAT debate. For Jones’ part, he was offended that he was even being compared to the Dagestani in terms of their overall careers (graphic via ESPN MMA).

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Here, Jones is solely arguing about greatness in terms of accomplishments. This quote and argument do not address actual talent and dominance over competition.

Now Jones did go on to say that Khabib had just started fighting elite competition, so his dominance is overstated. However, for one thing, “elite” is subjective. You could argue that Rafael dos Anjos was elite already at the time Khabib faced him in 2014. He just didn’t look like it because…you know, Khabib.

Second, if what Khabib did was easy, more people would be dominating “non-elite” competition the way Khabib did. Or maybe….just maybe…he’s just insanely good.

But the frustration Jones is experiencing in this quote below and that a Twitter user had in this tweet is a classic case of what happens when you are in debates about two different things: greatness in terms of accomplishments (GOAT) vs. being superior to everyone else purely in terms of talent (BOAT).

Georges St-Pierre vs. Kamaru Usman


First off, the date in which this viral graphic was created is unclear, as Usman’s unique opponents as champion is currently 3, not 1. Although this discrepancy calls the rest of these numbers into question, that’s not what I want to point out.

This is a classic example of the “lying with statistics” maneuver, and/or the cherry-picking fallacy. Because there’s no logical reason to have stats this in-depth but somehow neglect to mention UFC win/loss record, which at the very least is equally as important as anything else here.

And even aside from posts like these, the most common argument for GSP as the welterweight GOAT is that he had more title defenses. That’s where the majority of the pro-GSP GOAT arguments begins and ends. This argument completely ignores Usman’s longer, harder road to the title through no fault of his own.

Other things to be considered in Usman’s favor is his record for longest welterweight winning streak, having the highest winning percentage out of any fighter who has ever competed in the UFC, and the fact that he has never lost in the UFC while GSP lost twice, including to Matt Serra, and had an extremely hard time against Johnny Hendricks in a win closer than any of Usman’s wins.

Usman’s opponents were considered tougher at the time of the fights. Just compare Usman’s odds history vs. GSP’s odds history to see how experts/the public viewed their level of competition. For the most part, GSP’s level of competition was not as strong, which is something people knock Demetrious Johnson for.

GSP Odds History:

Kamaru Usman Odds History:

In terms of GOAT vs. BOAT, GSP may very well still have the stronger argument for welterweight GOAT in terms of his overall career, but Usman would make for an easier argument on who is more likely to win any fight and is thus better.

At minimum, that is of equal value to being the GOAT. For instance, you can’t win money on someone’s overall career achievements. But you can win money when correctly judging who will be the better fighter on a given night. Usman has proven to be more reliable on that regard not only in terms of wins/losses but in terms of rounds.

To paraphrase Brett Okamoto in the earlier graphic, if my life is on the line and I’m picking who to bet on, I’m betting on the dude with the longest winning streak, the highest winning percentage in company history, and who in my opinion, the eye test shows is the more difficult fighter to beat overall. And none of those conclusions on Usman are being made with a small sample size. The man is setting records that can only be broken with amazing consistency.


In closing, there is a difference between being the best of all time (BOAT) and being the greatest of all time (GOAT). Let’s start firing up the scholarly articles, talk-show debates, or whatever is needed to get the term “BOAT” officially accepted into the sports lexicon! And come on, the boat emojis would be lit, too! 🛥️ 

Not recognizing the difference between GOAT and BOAT is a big reason why so many people grow frustrated when having these debates because they and their opponent are literally debating two different things without realizing it. Would differentiating these terms suddenly make these subjective debates more clear-cut and definitive? Of course not. But it sure would make the impossible a little bit easier and the goal post much clearer.