Four fighters, three fights, and one thing in common: their next fight will go a long way to cementing their legacies.
Between now and New Year’s Day, UFC champions Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, and Chris Weidman will all defend their respective titles against challengers that pose very real threats to their reigns. In Weidman’s case, the newly minted middleweight champion will be squaring off with a man considered by many to be the best fighter in the history of the sport – the man he defeated this past July, Anderson Silva.
Each member of the quartet is fighting for something slightly different, beyond UFC gold that is, and by the time we ring in 2014, we’ll have another chapter added to the narratives about these four superstars, and potentially a different take on their places in the pantheon of all-time greats.
It’s astounding that Jones doesn’t get more recognition and praise for what he’s accomplished during his five-year UFC career. Yes, I said he deserves more praise and recognition. Check the numbers: if anyone deserves to carry the moniker “The Phenom,” it’s the man who calls himself “Bones.”
Over 13 fights, Jones has decimated 13 opponents. In the last three years he’s gone 8-0, working his way into a title shot, claiming the light heavyweight championship in dominant fashion and successfully defending said belt five times against three former champions and a pair of veteran middleweight title contenders in a string of near-flawless performances.
And he’s only 26-years-old.
The UFC light heavyweight champion has looked nearly unbeatable to this point in his career and there is a very real possibility that the best is yet to come.
With his fight next weekend against Alexander Gustafsson, Jones is not only looking to take sole possession of a pair of championship records he currently shares with Tito Ortiz, but he’s also looking to further separate himself from the pack and continue his progression from current pound-for-pound ruler to legitimately being one of the greatest of all-time. If anyone is going to make a real run at the records established by Silva, it’s Jones, and he’s quickly closing in on the historic accomplishments “The Spider” achieved.
He continues to get better with each performance and he’s already so good that we take some of his brilliance in the cage for granted. Lost in the dismissal of Vitor Belfort and Chael Sonnen as challengers were tremendous performances from the champion – first showing his resilience and heart when he gutted out the deep first-round armbar against Belfort, and then the sheer dominance of his arsenal in his bout with Sonnen, who had previously taken rounds – plural – from the man we all hail as the best to ever grace the cage.
Because it has only been just over five years since Jones debuted in the UFC with a decision win over Andre Gusmao, we dismiss the possibility that he might already be the best fighter in the history of the sport, even though his road to the 18-1 record he carries into his sixth title defence is one of the most challenging paths any fighter have followed inside the Octagon.
All of that talk gets put on hold if Jones loses the title to “The Mauler” next weekend in Toronto. The winning streak restarts at zero, his quest to reclaim UFC gold becomes the narrative, and another potential threat to Silva’s seat at the head of the table is turned away.
Lose and the conversation about Jones already being one of the best in MMA history fades to the background for the time being. But if he turns back Gustafsson with the same tactical precision he’s used to earn victories over the collection of fighters that carried the light heavyweight division during his ascension to the top of the weight class, those will be the conversations we’re having, and rightfully so.
This isn’t just another fight or simply another title defence. This is another step towards a higher historical standing.
There is no other champion that faces as much scrutiny despite having eight consecutive title defences and 11 consecutive wins overall as St-Pierre, but because he’s used every minute of the combined 150 minutes that have been available to him over his last six title defences, the UFC welterweight champion isn’t held in the same reverence as Silva or viewed with the same “Heir to the Throne” filters as Jones.
He’s the one we always want more from.
Winning isn’t enough for St-Pierre and that will remain the case when he steps into the cage to defend his title against Johny Hendricks in November. Another decision win will be met with the same critiques that have followed his last six victories, with a little more malaise and frustration tacked on for good measure.
Despite his dominance, St-Pierre will forever be dogged by the risk-averse approach that has become his signature since unifying the welterweight titles with his win over Matt Serra at UFC 83. His immense talents and next-level ability to make elite level athletes look out of place in the cage with him get brushed aside with a simple “yeah, but…” and any one of a handful of over-used complaints.
That’s why his fight with Hendricks is so important.
Perhaps more than any of the four fighters discussed here, St-Pierre seems like the one who would be kicked out of the upper echelon faster than anyone else if he were to lose. Just as many quickly turned Benson Henderson’s championship loss to Anthony Pettis into an opportunity to say, “well he wasn’t that good anyway” (which, for the record, is completely ridiculous), a loss for GSP has the potential to turn five years of dominance into “as soon as he couldn’t wrestle someone to the ground and hold them there, he got beat,” as if that somehow nullifies the string of one-sided performances that preceded the UFC 167 main event.
What makes the situation more unfortunate for the French-Canadian champion is that anything short of a finish likely won’t change how he’s perceived or where he stands in the pecking order of the historical greats. Even though it would be his 12th consecutive victory – ninth straight title defence – and another impressive adversary turned aside, he’s still be the guy everyone wants more from.
This isn’t just another fight or simply another title defence. This is a fight to avoid his legacy being turned into an “I told you so” moment by his critics and detractors.
The newest champion on this list, Weidman’s rematch with Anderson Silva at the end of the year could turn into the opening chapter of a storied career that rivals that of the man he’ll face for a second time in December.
Right now – fair or not – Weidman’s initial victory over Silva carries an asterisk for a lot of people. Their rematch at UFC 168 stands to potentially answer the question: would that have happened if Silva wasn’t clowning with his hands down?
Beating the man regarded as the best of all-time once is an automatic great start to a career at the championship level. Doing it in back-to-back fights, the second of which promises to be the most focused and hungry version of Silva we’ve seen in some time, would – presumably – propel Weidman to a new level of stardom and establish him as the 1A to Jones as the top fighter in the sport today, especially if the champion collects another spectacular finish.
Another victory moves Weidman to a perfect 11-0 and has to begin the “can anyone dethrone him?” discussions. After all, if he’s beaten the guy no one else could beat on successive appearances, doesn’t that make him the new guy no one else can beat?
The middleweight champion has the least to lose as far as legacies are concerned should he relinquish the title to Silva three days after Christmas in Las Vegas. He’s still relatively young and just six fights into his UFC career, and if you’re going to lose, losing to one of the all-time greats is the way to go. Not that Weidman has any interest in losing.
Even in defeat, he’d remain the heir apparent to the middleweight crown and would have elevated his profile exponentially from this time last year, when many were actively arguing that he didn’t have enough skill or exposure to share the cage with “The Spider.” But pondering what happens in defeat isn’t something Weidman does. Losing to Silva the first time never crossed his mind and it surely won’t between now and the night they square off in the center of the Octagon for the second time in 2013.
This isn’t just another fight or simply another title defence. This is a chance to silence the doubters, and take another step towards becoming one of the all-time greats.
The only non-champion of the group, Silva’s total legacy will remain largely intact regardless of the outcome of his rematch with Weidman.
Years from now, we’re still going to look back in awe at his 16 fight winning streak in the UFC and the breathtaking performances he put forth along the way. Even if the current champion proves to be Silva’s personal brand of kryptonite, that won’t take away from the unprecedented run of success he enjoyed prior to facing Weidman in consecutive contests.
But here’s the thing: in there here and now, immediately following the bout, the way we talk about Silva will be altered by the outcome of the fight.
If he loses, people will question if he’s hung on too long, lost the motivation to be the dominant figure he was for so long, and so on, and so forth. If he wins, his knockout loss at UFC 162 was be somewhat excused as an outcome that wouldn’t have happened if he was taking Weidman seriously.
“And we all just saw what happens between the two when he takes the fight seriously,” will be the common refrain, as if Weidman’s ability to capitalize on Silva’s antics where several other fighters could do not counts for nothing.
In a lot of ways, Silva could run parallel to Fedor Emelianenko in the wake of his second fight with Weidman, especially if he loses. Over time, the memory of consecutive defeats at the hands of Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva, and Dan Henderson will fade, and “The Last Emperor” will rightfully continue to be revered as the greatest heavyweight in the history of the sport.
But at the time the losses occur, it changes how you perceive the fighter. We’re no longer talking about Silva’s winning streak and if he can ever be beaten – now we’re wondering if he will be beaten again, and if this is the end of the line for the all-time great.
The outcome of this fight will dictate where that conversation goes to next.
This isn’t just another fight. This is a chance to re-establish dominance and press pause on the mentioning of anyone else’s name as the potential “G.O.A.T.” for the time being.