In 1967, Murray Woroner had an idea for a program, where the greatest heavyweight boxers in history would fight each other to the delight of radio audiences. Considering boxing had been around, in various forms of rule-sets and legality, for a hundred years, this was a colossal undertaking. With the aid of 250 boxing experts, sixteen of the greatest pugilists in history were selected and given scores in 128 attributes ranging from punching power, to footwork, to confidence. These numbers were then fed into a state-of-the-art computer, very similar to the Spike TV series The Deadliest Warrior, and each fight was virtually simulated. When the dust settled at the end of several weeks of prime time programming, Rocky Marciano defeated Muhammad Ali to become the Greatest Heavyweight Boxer Ever. The problem was, basically no one, including the boxing experts involved in the project, agreed with this.
What does all this have to do with MMA? If you look at any MMA website on the net, there will always be discussions of Top Ten, Pound For Pound, Greatest of All Time, etc and no one can seem to agree on anything. My outlook on this ranking debacle is this: In such a multi-faceted sport, is it possible to make a cookie-cutter chart and put the entire fighting world’s talent in order? If the aforementioned 250 boxing experts decided there were 128 variables to a boxer, how many would there be to an MMA fighter? The fact of the matter is, most of the greatest sports upsets have occurred in combat sports because of the ability to instantly and definitively end a fight. With the amount of facets involved in this sport, it’s not impossible to find fighters well outside of the standard Top Ten list that could potentially destroy those on top.
What I’ve done in my years of writing is make a yearly list of fights between “Top Ten” fighters and lesser known or much less regarded fighters. This is a bit of fun match-making to illustrate the fruitless quest for accurate Top Ten lists and to show exactly how much styles play into combat sports. Below is my list for this year’s Nemesis Top Ten, followed by previous year’s entries.
Urijah Faber (#2 Bantamweight) vs. Miguel Torres: A fighter ahead of his time, Urijah Faber dominated the early Featherweight division of MMA. Having since left the division for his true fighting weight of 135lbs, Faber has challenged for the title and come up short several times in the last few years. Even so, he’s walked through the upper tier of the division due to his tight grappling game, frantic pacing and veteran’s savvy. Oddly, a bout that would have been a super fight five years ago makes this list.
Much like Faber, Miguel Torres lost his title in the WEC and was never able to reclaim it, yet remains a lethal opponent. With true muay thai striking dynamics laced with KO power and a venomous BJJ game, Torres has beaten all but the best of the best, and would come into this fight with the skill set needed to trump Faber. Using the same low kick assault and footwork of Barao and Aldo, Torres could chip away at his opponent while fading away from any retaliatory attacks. The other aspect of Torres that makes him uniquely dangerous is his proficiency with the use of BJJ sweeps. While Faber’s submission defense from top is seamless, his defense from bottom has proven to be less so. Provided Faber gets a takedown, Torres can force transitions and work his own game here, making grappling the former Bantamweight champ dicey. Combine this with Torres ability to rip people apart from clinch and we’ve got the potential for a nasty scrap that could see Torres back in the top ten of the world at Faber’s expense.
Jose Aldo (#1 Featherweight, #4 P4P) vs. Daniel Straus: Undefeated in the last seven years, Aldo has defeated some of the best and brightest of the Featherweight division, having held the WEC and UFC titles without fail. Known for his razor-sharp muay thai and BJJ skills, Aldo has forced everyone he’s faced to square off with him in a kickboxing match that they can’t ever seem to win.
Someone who could potentially force their own hand in the fight is Daniel Straus. New to the 145lb division, Straus has plowed through harsh competition inside Bellator and fighting twenty-five bouts in three years, Straus is battle-tested like few others at this level. While Straus can’t really compete in a striking match with Aldo, his size, strength and explosive takedowns would give him an advantage in forcing Aldo out of his comfort zone. From there, Aldo would need to content with someone who walks at Welterweight in a clinch affair and Straus certainly has five rounds of fuel. A tough fight for both men, but it’s one where the much larger and faster fighter could impose his will on the ruler of the 145lb weight class.
Benson Henderson (#1 Lightweight, #5 P4P) vs. Josh Thomson: Having taken the title from Frankie Edgar, held it in the rematch and recently worked over Nate Diaz, Henderson has cemented his place at the top of the division across the board. With a unique combination of skills and physical attributes, Henderson has proven to be impossible to finish with submissions and incredibly difficult to out-point due to his mobility and athletic prowess. While other tests await him in the top ten, there’s a fighter well outside those rankings that could give him a run for his money.
Injury-prone and well outside of the rankings, Thomson is perhaps the least appreciated fighter in the division. Having arguably beaten highly regarded Gilbert Melendez in their rubber match, a fit and ready Thomson is one of the best lightweights in the planet. Putting the time in on the mat and being a long time veteran of the sport, Thomson’s wrestling game is razor-sharp and functional in a way other grapplers can only dream of. Rapid leg kicks, counter punching flurries and a fast shot would be a great deal for Henderson to contend with, and while finishing the Lightweight champ might not be possible, taking a decision wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for the former Strikeforce title holder.
Nate Diaz (#5 Lightweight) vs. Matt Wiman: The man with one of the most impressive resumes in the UFC, Nate Diaz has fought within the top ten at both Lightweight and Welterweight in the last several years. Having lost to Benson Henderson in a title bid in his last fight, Diaz finds himself hanging around the top ten on virtue of having beaten almost everyone on the list below him. With long and punishing punches and a top-notch submission game, Diaz remains a force in the division, though he’s not unbeatable.
Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Matt Wiman has fought and lost to a different set of top-level competitors than Diaz, but comes to the cage with an entirely different set of talents. A relentless striking game built around lunging, off-angle punches, a grinding clinch game and murderous ground and pound, Wiman has put a beating on many top-tier fighters and rarely been completely out of a fight. It’s Wiman’s ability to close the gap and survive Diaz submissions that make him such a threat here, as he can keep pace with him the entire fight. Working Diaz over in the clinch, putting him on his back and attacking from top, Wiman can win on points, or perhaps even snag a submission win over his fellow TUF 5 contestant.
Johny Hendricks (#3 Welterweight) vs. Tyron Woodley: While Hendricks seems to have been passed over for his title shot, his name is still on the lips of many fight fans and analysts. A decorated wrestler with the heaviest hands in his weight class, Hendricks has found his groove in the last year, putting sturdy fighters Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann straight to sleep with one punch each. While his fight game is simple for the most part, sometimes simple is the most effective tactic, as he does everything just right.
If there’s one guy well off the rankings of the world that could put him in his place though, it’s the recently defeated Tyron Woodley. A stellar wrestler in his own right, he never made it to NCAA status at the same level as Hendricks, but has used his talents to great effect in his career. Woodley has the speed and technique to get inside on Hendricks before he can unload with punches, and has the strength to force Hendricks into the cage, where he’s proven to be ripe for takedowns. Woodley also packs an incredible chin that could carry him if he was to be on the wrong end of an exchange during the bout. It would be an ugly match of positioning against the fence and come to a grinding pace, but Woodley has all the elements to pull the upset.
Michael Bisping (#4 Middleweight) vs. Lorenz Larkin: Like him or hate him, Bisping has been a forced within both the Middleweight and Light Heavyweight divisions for some time. One of the most physically fit fighters in the sport, his relentless pacing and underrated wrestling skills have allowed him to push several top-name fighters off the edge of exhaustion as he mercilessly batters them from bell to bell. While not the stiffest puncher out there, the sheer volume of strikes Bisping can land in a short time has overwhelmed sturdy opponents time and again, making him a fear competitor at MW.
Lorenz Larkin himself has moved down to Middleweight recently, and having soundly beaten Robbie Lawler at his own game has shown he’ll be giving many fighters in the division night terrors. Equal parts talent and natural ability, Larkin has picked apart some of the best kickboxers that Strikeforce had to offer, and would present an interesting challenge to Bisping. Being quite a bit faster, and with KO power in every limb, Larkin could take one to give one against Bisping, avoid danger when present, and unload with power shots when applicable. Having more speed and finesse than the power punchers Bisping has faced, Larkin would be in a great position to throw another monkey wrench into Bisping’s title aspirations.
Tim Boetsch (#5 Middleweight) vs. Tim Kennedy: Not someone you’d have expected to see on a top ten list, Tim Boetsch has seemingly reinvented himself as a Middleweight. Using his power wrestling, boxing skill and most importantly, his sharp mind, Boetsch has won all of his Middleweight bouts to date and will be heading into a potential number one contender spot if he can keep it up.
His opponent here is a great example of why top ten don’t make much sense, as Tim Kennedy is everything Boetsch is, but better. Having reinvented himself during the Iraq conflict, the once pedestrian MMA fighter came home as one of the best submission grapplers in Strikeforce, challenging for the title on two occasions. Kennedy has everything Boetsch has, but a better submission game, striking skills and conditioning, making this an easy fight for the solider if it were ever to go down.
Jon Jones (#1 Light Heavyweight, #3 P4P) vs. Pat Barry: What can I possibly say about Jones? One of the greatest talents to step into the cage, Jones rose from late replacement to superstar champion in a short amount of time. The elite-level attributes by Jones are too numerous to list as almost no one has been able to do so much as win a round against him, and he’s fought nothing but top-level opponents. Hence why we look outside his division for…..
Pat Barry. A small heavyweight who would also be a rather small 205lber if truth be told; Barry has see-sawed against heavyweight competitors in the UFC since his debut. Having fallen victim to the submission savvy and KO power of the Heavyweight monsters of the division, Barry has also finished several of these fighters in spectacular fashion. With the list of realistic opposition growing small, Barry actually has two aspects that make him the worst match for Jones possible. One is a savage leg kick learned from Ernesto Hoost himself that has literally crippled true heavyweights in Barry’s career, and that could potentially take out Jones thin leg in one shot. Another is an uncanny accuracy with his punching, even when running. The ability to move in hard, throw hard, and land the punch is everything against an all-star fighter like Jones, and Barry’s power should translate nicely when facing men closer to his own size. I’d call it a 50/50 shot, which is more than you can say about anyone else’s chances outside of Anderson Silva.
We now have the past three years worth of lists. With hindsight being 20/20, some of the matches are ridiculous today. You’ll also notice that some of the Top Ten and non-Top Ten have actually flipped position in this amount of time. Amazingly, some of these fights have actually happened as well and more may come up in the near future. Say what you will about my list, but who else on the internet called Jones beating Machida back in 2009?
Dominick Cruz vs. Ian “The Barn Owl” Loveland
Marlon Sandro vs. Jonathan Brookins
Shinya Aoki vs. Nate Diaz
Josh Koscheck vs. Douglas Lima
Chael Sonnen vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” DeSouza
Yushin Okami vs. Alexander Shlemenko
Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Gegard Mousasi
Alistair Overeem vs. Cole Konrad
BJ Penn vs. Donald Cerrone
Eddie Alvarez vs. Joe Stevenson
Georges St. Pierre vs. Brock Larson
Thiago Alves vs. Anthony Johnson
Anderson Silva vs. Frank Shamrock
Dan Henderson vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama
Rashad Evans vs. Renato Sobral
Lyoto Machida vs. Jon Jones
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Cheick Kongo
Frank Mir vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
Manny Gamburyan vs. Joe Soto
Hatsu Hioki vs. George Roop
Gray Maynard vs. Donald Cerrone
Jake Shields vs. Ben Askren
Dan Hardy vs. Edgar Garcia
Anderson Silva vs. Hector Lombard
Yushin Okami vs. Robbie Lawler
Mauricio Rua vs. Brandon Vera
Forrest Griffin vs. Alexander Gustafsson
Frank Mir vs. Brett Rogers