First, some much needed context.
Mixed martial arts turns 27 this month, which is very young for a sport. It’s exactly the same age as the Colorado Rockies, which is a decent parallel because both were born in Denver back in 1993.
So, given that MMA is such a young sport, when we talk about the Greatest of All Time, remember that we’re using “all time” to encompass a range that only stretches back to when Sleepless in Seattle was playing in theaters. We’re dealing with an early sample size of swiftly evolving pioneers who, through a series of kicks, punches, and flying knees, change the consensus on the Greatest of All Time on a near weekly basis.
Skinny Royce Gracie, who won UFC 1 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver back in 1993, was the original GOAT; he took on far bigger men from different martial arts systems and turned them into human origami. Gracie just went out there and proved that jujitsu was the great equalizer in no-holds-barred fight—no matter the size or musculature—and in the process reshaped a lot of cinematic perceptions of the fight game.
A lot has changed since those early, lawless days when the UFC marketed its product as “two men enter, one man leaves.” Rules have been implemented. Weight classes have been drawn up. PEDs are tested for. And gym parity has made most fighters “well rounded,” meaning they are versed in all the techniques. New GOATs have come and gone, and many have since disappeared.
Yet lately the GOAT talk has gotten pretty serious, because a couple of fighters who at one point held GOAT status—or still do—competed on back-to-back weekends in the UFC.
First, it was the UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who raised his record to 29-0 by submitting Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in what he called his last fight ever. Khabib is in the discussion for being the genuine, real-time GOAT, meaning there aren’t many asterisks on his legacy. He never got popped for PEDs, never won a controversial decision, and he never ducked a fight. He just dominated everybody he faced.
Then on Saturday night, the more complicated GOAT figure—a nostalgic one—fought in what the UFC called his last fight. Forty-five-year-old Anderson Silva took on Uriah Hall, and looked pretty good for two rounds before getting caught with a big right hand in the fourth. He couldn’t survive the ensuing onslaught and ended up holding onto Herb Dean’s leg for dear life as the referee waved his arms signaling that the fight (and likely his career) was over.
In Silva’s case, any GOAT talk is largely retrospective and era-driven with plenty of asterisks. He has gone 1-7-1 in nine fights over the last seven years. Yet when he was the reigning middleweight champion (from 2006 until he lost the title to Chris Weidman at UFC 162 in 2013), he was easily the GOAT. The UFC even marketed him that way, and despite Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight run overlapping, very few people could argue with it. Silva went 16-0 during that stretch, and every fight felt like an escalation of his legacy. He was the UFC’s first big event fighter, meaning he created an atmosphere that was both heavy with anticipation and exhilarating as a “happening.” Silva boasted a magnitude his peers couldn’t touch.
It’s not a stretch to say that Silva was the MMA GOAT longer than anybody else. In the sport’s 27-year existence, he held the middleweight title for seven of those years, and the title of GOAT for maybe five or six. So is he the MMA GOAT among GOATs given that longevity? Or has somebody else, like Jon Jones, who hasn’t really lost in a 11 years, overruled him?
Here’s a look at the fighters who achieved GOAT status at some point in their careers, and who could be considered the sport’s GOAT GOAT. (Note: Some GOATs overlap with other GOATs, because nothing is ever neat and tidy in MMA.)
GOAT run: 1993 to 1995
The case: Of course, the name itself—Gracie—is synonymous with MMA, and it’s royalty in the Brazilian jujitsu community. Gracie’s family tree is a picture of the sport’s spiritual roots, an alliterative murder’s row: Royce, Rickson, Royler, Renzo, Rorion. Before them it was Carlos and Helio, and before them, Gastão. Imagine having all these granddads and uncles who could kick anyone’s ass. The Gracies have been doing it forever, and there wouldn’t be a UFC—quite literally—without them.
The main name, though, as far as MMA is concerned, is Royce. He was the first to exhibit the Gracie system to the broader world against fighters from all disciplines—boxers, wrestlers, kickboxers, savateurs, kung fu aces, aikido masters, tae kwon do specialists, 1970s Blaxploitation stars (Ron van Clief), and nut-shot artists (Keith Hackney). He went an astounding 11-0 between UFC 1 and UFC 4, winning three of those gleefully lawless tournaments (he pulled out of UFC 3 after submitting Kimo Leopoldo in the opening round), all while wearing pajamas.
Gracie was the original benchmark for greatness in MMA. He was the pioneer of the sport, and the reason that Brazilian jujitsu gyms opened up at every strip mall in America. He is the UFC’s Babe Ruth, and is still cited to this day by many champions as an inspiration.
The problem with Gracie’s case is that 99.9 percent of current fight fans didn’t pay attention to his career in real time. They discovered him on bootleg VHS tapes years later. The impact just isn’t the same.
GOAT pros: Gracie started the clock for MMA, so he is where the “all time” in the GOAT conversation begins. His 11-0 run before that 36-minute stalemate draw with Ken Shamrock at UFC 5 made him the UFC’s first GOAT.
GOAT cons: Not many people knew about jujitsu when Gracie was making them tap, and he faced a raw crop of competitors back in the mid-’90s. He only fought a few more times over the years, and the Matt Hughes loss in 2006 not only broke a few people’s hearts, it kind of diminished his shine. As far as his striking went, let’s just say that he was a very good jujitsu player.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? No. Gracie was a pioneer, not the GOAT.
GOAT run: 2003 to 2010
The case: Not many names outside the UFC get brought up in the GOAT conversation, but one that inevitably surfaces is Fedor Emelianenko—the great champion who lorded over the heavyweight division in PRIDE FC. Fedor didn’t talk much, either in English or his native Russian. He didn’t emote much either; his Mona Lisa smirk was about all you’d get out of him in the lead-up to a fight. And just like with the famous painting, everyone read into it whatever they wanted. Is he sad? Is he angry? Is he hungry?
The answer was always the same: maybe.
What Fedor did between 2001 and 2010—going 28-0-1 in Rings, PRIDE, Affliction, and finally Strikeforce—is absurd. Four-ounce gloves were not created with the intention of people staying conscious for a decade. Yet Fedor seemed to activate when he got smashed upside the cranium by some madman’s fist. Kevin Randleman actually suplexed Fedor onto his head before the “Russian Bear” tapped him out with a Kimura. His classic battle with Mirko Cro Cop was the fight of the decade, showcasing his legendary perseverance. He withstood three encounters with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Big Nog’s prime and lived to tell the tale.
Maybe it’s because he fought in the Japan-based, yakuza-affiliated PRIDE FC, which had its share of theatrical elements and blurred the line between fact and fiction with some of its matches, but Fedor’s run went unheralded in the States. He lost his unbeaten streak when Fabricio Werdum duped him into a submission in 2010, which set up the fall of the great “Emperor.” He lost three in a row, including a mauling at the hands of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, and later a knockout against Dan Henderson, a barely registerable heavyweight (who drank a gallon of water to hit 206 on the scale). That losing streak cooled people on the GOAT talk a little bit. It didn’t help that he lost a fight against Fabio Maldonado and was awarded a victory anyway in his second fight back from retirement in 2016.
GOAT pros: He was the greatest heavyweight in the sport for a decade. He didn’t lose a single fight through the UFC heavyweight title runs of Ricco Rodriguez, Tim Sylvia (whom he beat in Affliction), Frank Mir, Andrei Arlovski (whom he beat emphatically in Affliction), Randy Couture, and Nogueira. That’s pretty GOATlike.
GOAT cons: Fedor’s name is still brought up in GOAT conversations all the time, but mostly in a name-drop sense to establish credibility as a longtime fan. The beatings Fedor took toward the end of his career are some of the most visible, and those images take away some of the luster of an otherwise amazing career.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? No, though some people will argue until they’re blue in the face that he is. A good way to think of it is like this: Would a prime Fedor beat a prime Daniel Cormier or a prime Stipe Miocic? We can’t be certain, but the reflexive “no” reflects the hunch.
GOAT run: 2004 to 2007
The case: The “Iceman” was a visual spectacle who looked every part the cage fighter, with a Mohawk and a tattoo trailing down the side of his shaved head. He painted his nails and dared anybody to point it out, and he was the only fighter who forced a six-pack of abs to coexist with a six-pack of beer. He drank hot sauce straight from the bottle, had a stripper pole installed in his house, and would throw his arms back and scream bloody murder after a victory, as if he was sent straight from hell.
He also used to beat the shit out of Tito Ortiz, which won him over with just about everybody, from UFC president Dana White to celebrities to fight fans all over the world.
Liddell’s run from 2004 to 2007 was really remarkable, not just because he compelled people to watch, but because he had no use for scorecards. He knocked everybody out over a furious seven-fight UFC win streak after coming back from his cameo in PRIDE (where he beat Alistair Overeem but lost to Quinton Jackson). Chuck was the kind of badass who had you asking your friends, “How much would it take for you to get in the cage with Chuck Liddell?” He became the biggest star MMA had ever known after avenging a loss against Randy Couture. His legend grew even further when he knocked out Ortiz in a rematch later that year.
Yet, just like what would happen with B.J. Penn and ultimately Anderson Silva, the end of Lidell’s career deprived him of everlasting GOAT status. First he got knocked by Rashad Evans. Then it was Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Then, in one last attempt to regain badass status in the UFC, he got knocked out by Rich Franklin. It didn’t help that Franklin broke his strong hand in the first round, and took Liddell out with his off hand. (The less said about the 2018 comeback trilogy fight with Ortiz, the better.)
GOAT pros: He didn’t just beat people, he ravaged them with his fists and legs during his prime. Chuck’s fights felt dangerous in the Mike Tyson sense. They also felt a little underground and taboo, like you were watching something borderline illegal.
GOAT cons: Losing five out of six to end his career was like watching a character spiral into some dark place in an Aronofsky film. The sting of the losses has long offset the brilliance of the conquests.
Is he the GOAT GOAT: If Chuck is in the room, yes. If he’s not? Then no.
GOAT run: 2006 to 2013
The case: By the time Silva was fighting Chris Weidman at UFC 162, his entourage moved through the casino floors in Vegas like a school of fish. Much like Floyd Mayweather Jr., he had 15 people flanking him at all times. Usher would turn up in his locker room to give him advice. When he punted Vitor Belfort into the mezzanine at UFC 126, sensei Steven Seagal took credit for teaching him the kick. To affiliate with Anderson Silva was to affiliate with greatness.
And really, that run between 2006 and 2013 is still one of MMA’s great marvels. People tried to walk him down, and they got sniped. Joe Rogan famously called his in-cage aesthetics a “ballet of violence,” which was apt throughout his career. People like Dan Henderson tried to bully him and got choked out. People like Vitor tried to strike with him and got posterized. What Silva did against former light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin in Philadelphia could be a tall tale, only it actually happened. Griffin sprinted out of the cage after his encounter like he’d been accosted by a phantom.
It can be said that without a true rival, GOAT status is hard to obtain. That might be true with Silva, who often seemed bored until Chael Sonnen came along and disrespected him in every conceivable way before UFC 117. Sonnen’s baiting of Silva, who had been almost universally revered to that point, made an ordinary title defense into a mega-event and the Brazilian into a huge star. The way the fight played out only served to give Silva eternal baller status. He was manhandled by Sonnen for four and a half rounds before catching Sonnen in a triangle and tapping him late. It was epic.
GOAT pros: Silva was the GOAT during his title reign, yet he was sort of GOAT A to Georges St-Pierre’s GOAT B (Silva’s title defenses felt bigger). During that time he went 16-0 with a then-record 10 title defenses.
GOAT cons: Silva was busted for anabolic steroids in 2015 and blamed it on some sexual enhancement pills he got from a friend who’d been to Thailand (the infamous “dick pills” episode). He has lost just about every fight since then, and the fights against Weidman—getting knocked out while goofing around the first time and shattering his fibula in the second—are hard to forget. In fact, the UFC plays the Weidman knockout on every generic promo.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? He was the GOAT, but the end of his career has been slow torture to watch unfold. He’s been bypassed by other GOATs.
GOAT run: 2007 to 2017
The case: The greatest thing that ever happened to GSP was also the worst. When he got knocked out by long-shot underdog Matt Serra at UFC 69, it drove him to strive for greatness. That greatness had a price, though. St-Pierre guarded against complacency the way a mother bear guards her cubs. He was mortified by the loss and made the idea of never letting it happen again a compulsion. That compulsion, which St-Pierre referred to as his “dark place,” ultimately drove him out of the game entirely.
Still, GSP is the rare champion who got out of the game while he was still on top. Granted, he was a little lucky. His fight with Johny Hendricks was super close, and plenty of people maintain to this day that he actually lost. Adding to St-Pierre’s legacy was his comeback fight in 2017 against then–middleweight champion Michael Bisping. Four years after retiring as the welterweight champion, GSP took Bisping’s belt and became a double champion. A month later he vacated the title, which was also a statement. St-Pierre didn’t need another title. He just wanted to show that he could win it.
St-Pierre brought a new level of professionalism to MMA. He showed up on time to meetings and press conferences and he wore suits. He answered questions with bromides, the way pro athletes do in other sports. He treated the chaos of a fight like a puzzle to be solved, and from late 2007 to 2017, he solved every puzzle he was presented, going 13-0 and leaving the door open for perhaps one more return.
GOAT pros: Greatest welterweight of all time. Ten title defenses. Double champion who won the middleweight title.
GOAT cons: You really have to comb through his career to find some blemishes, but the Hendricks fight is one (even though he won). His strength of schedule wasn’t to everyone’s liking, but beating guys like Jake Shields, Carlos Condit, Jon Fitch, and Matt Hughes in their primes is kind of GOATy.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? Yes, I think you could make the case that GSP is the GOAT GOAT. But of course, he has competition…
GOAT run: 2011 to present
The case: Technically speaking, nobody has ever had the kind of run that “Bones” Jones has had. In 22 UFC fights, he has unofficially lost zero of them. He has officially lost one, which was a disqualification for nearly killing Matt Hamill with 12 to six elbows. That loss shouldn’t be on his record. His second fight with Daniel Cormier was a brutal knockout that was overturned and made into a “no contest” when he tested positive for the anabolic steroid turinabol.
There is no GOAT more complicated than Jones. The drug test failure adds an asterisk, but let’s be real—there’s a full constellation of asterisks lighting up his name. Forever in trouble for partying too much (he’s had DUIs, a hit-and-run, and speeding tickets galore, not to mention his dabblings in cocaine), Jones has been stripped of his title on two different occasions, and he vacated the title again just this year. In his last two title defenses—against Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes—he won fights that a majority of the public thought he lost.
Then again, Jones hasn’t lost. He has taken out Daniel Cormier twice, which is the only reason Cormier himself isn’t on this GOAT list. Back when he fought Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165—which ended up being an all-time UFC classic—he became the first fighter to wear Nike and Gatorade as sponsors on his trunks. He is a superstar in the athletic sense, but a polarizing figure in general. Still, even with the asterisks, it’s very easy to argue that Jones is in fact MMA’s GOAT.
GOAT pros: In 22 UFC fights, Jones has pretty much had his way with everybody he’s faced. Before he won the light-heavyweight title at UFC 128 in New Jersey, he even detained a petty robber out in Patterson who interrupted his pre-fight commune with nature. He is like a superhero, if that superhero was created by Bukowski.
GOAT cons: The steroid thing sticks on him, in large part because every opponent he faces points it out. Did he hide from USADA when they showed up in Albuquerque for a random test? Damn right he did. He hid under the ring, which somehow is one of his least embarrassing offenses over the years.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? It’s complicated, in part because he’s still active—but you can definitely make the argument that Jones is the GOAT GOAT. It’s hard to deny. But given the PED stuff and the close fights that he narrowly won on the judge’s scorecards, GSP has the clearer path to GOAT status.
Kidding, of course—I just wanted to make sure you were still reading. However, if you were to plug the hashtag #GOAT in on Twitter, here’s guessing Lobov’s name pops up about a thousand times. People love to call him the GOAT (though it fits better in a mascot sense).
GOAT run: 2012 to 2018
The case: “Mighty Mouse” has ruled the UFC’s flyweight division since its inception in 2012. After fighting Ian McCall to a draw that same year, he beat McCall in the rematch and never looked back. Johnson won 13 straight fights and broke Silva’s record for title defenses by arm-barring Ray Borg to set the new mark at 11. That finish of Borg was like something out of a wire fu film. After playfully beating Kyoji Horiguchi for 24 minutes and 59 seconds, he tapped the Japanese contender out with a single second left in the fight. That, too, is a UFC record.
Johnson was a marvel in so many ways. But he never was a star in the way so many others on this list are. Was it because he was 5-foot-3 and fought at 125 pounds? Maybe, but Henry Cejudo, the man who took his title before Johnson was shipped to One Championship in exchange for Ben Askren, had a decent amount of fanfare for his fights at the same weight. Was it because Johnson was a gamer, who preferred to talk video games with media? Or that Johnson groused publicly that he was underpaid?
Who knows? But for a guy who dominated a weight class so thoroughly that the UFC had to base a season of The Ultimate Fighter around him to generate a contender, he went pretty unheralded.
GOAT pros: He broke Silva’s title defenses record and cleaned out the flyweight division like a neat freak. He was so far above the field that many of his fights were hard to hype. The outcome felt like a foregone conclusion.
GOAT cons: The biggest knock on Johnson is that the flyweight field was so thin—and it never really replenished. The same guys would float back into contention and Johnson would have to beat them a second time just to stay busy. These days, with a guy like Deiveson Figueiredo on the scene, it might be different. Johnson also went out on a loss to Cejudo, thus ending a ridiculous run on a sour note.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? Like Fedor, there is a hipster sect that will always argue in favor of Johnson as the GOAT, because he’s a delicacy for sophisticated palates. The answer is closer to “no” though, because the challenges weren’t the same in the flyweight division.
GOAT run: 2017 to 2020
The case: Nurmagomedov is the most recent entry in the GOAT GOAT conversation. He went undefeated over his career (29-0) and had a perfect 13-0 in the UFC. The crazier stat is that the Dagestan wrestler lost just two rounds in his entire UFC career, one against Conor McGregor at UFC 229 and one in his last fight against Justin Gaethje. In both cases he submitted the offender in the very next round.
Dominant? Hell yes. Khabib would present a terrifying pace against anybody he fought, and eventually trounce them altogether. He took a wild fighter like Gaethje and tamed him for the world to see. He shut down McGregor in ways that made a rematch feel completely unnecessary. He took down Abel Trujillo 21 times in a three-round fight, which was a UFC record. And he did it all with a stoical attitude à la Ivan Drago, that cold-blooded Russian.
Khabib said he was done fighting after beating Gaethje at UFC 254, going so far as to leave his gloves in the center of the octagon. If he stays retired, he will go down as the most dominant fighter the UFC has ever known, if not the true GOAT. Yet to hear Dana White say it, he believes Nurmagomedov will come back for one more fight, to get his record to a tidy 30-0.
GOAT pros: Leaves the game as a dominant champion with a spotless 29-0 record. Had three title defenses on his way out, finishing McGregor, Poirier, and Gaethje all in dramatic fashion. The fact that he lost just two rounds in his last 13 fights is just unheard of.
GOAT cons: His strength of schedule is the main thing people criticize, as beating the likes of Darrell Horcher (a late fill-in) and Al Iaquinta (for the title) weren’t exactly earth-shattering feats.
Is he the GOAT GOAT? The fight that Nurmagomedov and his late father/coach Abdulmanap wanted most was Georges St-Pierre, the now-39-year-old parallel GOAT. Jones will ultimately have a say in things as his career plays out, but if GSP and Khabib end up fighting, perhaps we will have a definitive answer as to who is the GOAT GOAT. Pencil in Khabib for now.
Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.