Is Demetrious Johnson the UFC’s GOAT?
After Demetrious Johnson submitted Wilson Reis for his tenth straight title defense the accolades started pouring in. None other than Dana White himself gushed that Johnson was the GOAT at the post fight presser.
That tenth title defense broke Johnson’s tie with Georges St-Pierre and brought him even with Anderson Silva. For many years, and for many fans, St-Pierre and Silva have been the top two GOAT’s in the UFC.
Johnson’s recent run of brilliance has thrust him into that discussion. For me the only other fighter who has as strong claim is the now still suspended in Jon Jones. Each of these four fighters put together a run at some point in their career that stakes them a claim to the GOAT title, but not unlike The Highlander – there can be only one.
So, I am going to make a case for each one of these competitors being the GOAT in the UFC. At the start, I lean towards Johnson and Jones. After I dig in things could change. I also understand there will always be opinion in these kinds of discussions.
First, let us start with a criteria to try to get beyond personal opinion and give some context to the discussion. I will look at their journey to being a UFC champion, their run as a champion, their dominance in the octagon, their intangibles, their completeness as a fighter, and the elements outside of their control like their opponents.
I will take each fighter and make a case for why they are the GOAT and why they are not the GOAT, then give my summation at the end.
The original GOAT, Anderson “The Spider” Silva
Let us start with the oldest fighter in the group, Anderson Silva. He was the first of these four to get the moniker of the GOAT in the UFC, The Spider entered the UFC with a stellar 16-4 record. It was a fine record and Silva had a reputation as a very good striker but no one was prepared for what would happen once he started his UFC career.
In his UFC début Silva destroyed the then durable Chris Leben. That earned him an immediate title shot against Rich Franklin. His destruction of Franklin in the clinch became a permanent part of the UFC’s highlight reel. Silva would actually have 11 straight title defenses if Travis Lutter had been able to make weight for their fight.
Over the next six years, Silva would go 16-0 in the UFC; 11-0 in title fights, with 14 finishes. 11 of those finishes coming via TKO/KO.
The two decisions were against Demian Maia and Thales Leites. Both of whom refused to engage with Silva in the stand up and tried to snake charm him down to the ground. Silva still dominated them both.
During that run, Silva became the biggest star in the UFC. That is important for several reasons. One is the added degree of difficulty it added to his fights. The biggest star of the event carries the most pressure, and the most responsibility to promote the event. As the biggest star in the UFC his responsibilities were even larger. His demands were not just during fight weeks but all throughout the year for almost four years.
Of the four fighters being considered, Silva is the most one-dimensional. During his dominating reign he became one of the most feared strikers in the UFC. Silva achieved this through his ability to stop fighters at both middleweight and light heavyweight. He used pinpoint accuracy, impeccable timing, and uncanny speed over raw power.
When it came to the grappling side he has skills but has employed them mostly defensively. When he could not stop the takedown, he was uncanny at slipping strikes on the ground before working his way back to his feet. If needed, he would use his jiu-jitsu to secure the occasional submission win. The most famous being his comeback triangle in the late minutes of the fifth round in the first fight with Chael Sonnen.
As far as some of the intangibles, Silva looked the part. He has that elusive “it” factor that every star has to some degree. The aura of greatness carried over to the fights. Many of his opponents were defeated before the fight started. Again, a trait many great fighters share. Silva also was one of the faces of the UFC.
Some hall of famers, some issues
When it comes to competition it is a mixed bag with Silva. Among his victims are two UFC hall of famers in Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. While others like Vitor Belfort, Rich Franklin, and Dan Henderson will likely make it.
What is most impressive is that he finished all of them. Also Griffin, Bonnar, Franklin, and Belfort all wore the UFC belt at some point in the careers. While Henderson was a former Pride and Strikeforce champion.
It is an impressive resume for Silva but there are some issues. The level of his competition is strong but if you start to look closely it starts showing some problems. Of the five hall of famers the only one he faced in his prime was Franklin.
The two that are in the hall now are there because of one fight. Maybe, Griffin gets in based on winning TUF and the UFC light heavyweight title but there is no way Bonnar gets in without the legendary TUF finale.
There is also the tainted drug test. That coupled with a drop-off in his performance since USADA fuels the talk even more.
The drop-off for me is explainable by his age and style. Fighters who fight relying on their reflexes as much as Silva do not age well. A boxer he was linked to during Silva’s prime, Roy Jones Jr., had the same problem.
The issue for Silva is the failed test for knock-off erection pills opens up the questions of PED use. You cannot say he did or did not use because the doubt is there.
For me, Silva was the GOAT, but not at the moment. He was always be a part of the discussion but I feel that the others have stronger cases.
The basic greatness of Georges “Rush” St-Pierre
For many years in the UFC the GOAT discussion was down to Silva and Georges St-Pierre. They were the UFC’s two biggest stars and fought just a weight class apart. We thought we might actually get an answer to this question. On several different occasions there was a lot of discussion of a super-fight between the two greats. However, for many reasons it never happened.
St-Pierre entered the UFC 5-0 with three wins coming via TKO/KO and two others by submission. In his first fight with the UFC, St-Pierre defeated Karo Parisyan. It was a brilliant début. The young St-Pierre dominated the talented Judoka taking him down six times to zero for Parisyan. The striking stats show more domination as St-Pierre landed 46 to Parisyan’s 1.
In his next UFC fight St-Pierre would stop veteran Jay Hieron in the round. The TKO/KO win earned St-Pierre a title shot against Matt Hughes. In that fight, St-Pierre would dominate Hughes in the early moments of the fight. No one seemed more surprised than St-Pierre himself. He would make a mistake late in the round and Hughes capitalized to retain his title.
St-Pierre’s path back to his next title shot was longer. It would take four more UFC wins over Jason Miller, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk, and B.J. Penn to earn another chance a Hughes. This time St-Pierre destroyed Hughes finishing him in the second round by TKO/KO.
We were all surprised
It was his first title defense is one of those factors that keeps him off the top of the list. Matt Serra was a huge underdog who shocked the world catching St-Pierre in the first round. That loss keeps St-Pierre from potentially having 12 straight title defenses or more.
Once St-Pierre regained the title his run to greatness took off. He avenged his loss to Serra and ruled over the welterweight division for the next six years.
St-Pierre’s resume includes two UFC Hall of Famer’s in Hughes and Penn. I think Nick Diaz should make it in but it is hard to say how the UFC will treat him after he retires.
While the list is not filled with legends, like Silva’s or Jones, St-Pierre did face some tough talented competition in their primes. For years welterweight has been one of the UFC’s toughest and deepest divisions. No one really questions the level of St-Pierre’s competition.
Gaining street cred
That happens when you enter a deep division being ruled by a great champion. By beating Hughes and then Penn, St-Pierre gained a lot of credibility.
He built upon that by dominating the division with his wrestling, jab, and octagon control. For some it made him a boring fighter to watch, but that did not prevent him from becoming one of the faces of the UFC. When St-Pierre walked away after his controversial SD win over Johny Hendricks he was second only to Silva in title defenses.
The case for St-Pierre is his dominance over a deep talented division. Unlike Silva, who in retrospect faced fighters than seemed tailor-made for his style, St-Pierre faced fighters that had skill-sets that presented more danger based on being better all-around fighters in their primes.
While St-Pierre does not have the hall of famers on his list he does have three UFC champions in Hughes, Serra, and Penn. Carlos Condit held the interim UFC belt, was a former WEC champion, and Jake Shields was a former Strikeforce champ.
Vengeance is mine
Another strong element of St-Pierre’s case comes from the fact he definitively avenged both of his losses. It shows a champion’s mentality to come back from adversity and the ability to move past one’s mistakes.
The case against him centers around his fight with Hendricks, the way he left the sport right as drug testing was getting stiffer, the competition was getting tougher, and his boring style. St-Pierre went 12-2 in title fights with three finishes; Hughes, Penn, and Serra. The rest are all decisions. It does not help that he was stopped in his two losses.
There is no doubt that St-Pierre deserves to be in the discussion but I cannot put him at the top of this list. If he had stayed and tied Silva, or passed him it would be a different discussion. Right now I rank him behind Silva.
However, if he defeats Michael Bisping and becomes the UFC middleweight champion his case starts to get stronger. He could pass Silva and start challenge Jones and Johnson. They have an advantage of being the two youngest and can continue to make strong cases. St-Pierre could join them for another year or two. It is impossible to know how he will perform after so much time off.
The enigma that is Jon “Bones” Jones
Possibly the most talented of the group, Jon Jones entered the UFC with a 6-0 record at the age of 21-years old. He would go 6-1 to start his UFC career earning him a title shot after his teammate Rashad Evans was injured. The most notable names during that run were Bonnar, the veteran Vladimir Matyushenko and a then undefeated Ryan Bader.
The first two fights for Jones in the UFC went the distance. After that start, Jones would stop 9 of his next 10 opponents with only Evans seeing the final bell.
The lone loss happened when Jones was Mazaggatti’d against Matt Hamill. Jones completely dominated Hamill before dropping a couple of illegal elbows resulting in the DQ loss. That it even got to that point was due to Mazaggatti’s ineptness as a referee. The fight should have been stopped before that but Mazaggatti is going to Mazaggatti.
Youth is served
The loss did not slow Jones down and three wins later he took on ‘Shogun’ Rua for the UFC light heavyweight title. Jones completely destroyed the legendary Rua to become the UFC’s youngest champion at only 23-years old. From there, Jones submitted Rampage Jackson for his first defense. Followed by a submission win over Lyoto Machida.
For his next title defense, Jones would take on former training partner Rashad Evans who would become the first challenger to go the distance with Jones. A submission win over Belfort at UFC 152 gave him five straight wins over former UFC champions. It would not be surprising to see those five and Daniel Cormier, another UFC champion, make the UFC Hall of Fame.
Jones’ run has been a dominant one with only Silva, and Johnson showing more stoppages in title fights. When you look at his opponents they look more impressive than both Johnson’s or Silva’s. That stretch of former champions he finished was an insane run.
His reign has also been one where he has been barely challenged. Basically, there are only two fights that we saw him really pushed. Cormier gave him a close fight, but one Jones clearly won and was never in danger of losing.
The Gustafsson test and Jones versus Jones
While Alexander Gustafsson took him to the brink of defeat in the toughest and closest fight of Jones’ career to date. The only other time we have seen him in trouble was a for moment when Belfort had him in a deep armbar.
The challenge for Jones has been against himself outside of the octagon. What is scary is how good he could be if he does get his life together. He has admitted to not training hard and partying heavily. Still, he has put himself in this discussion at the age of 29-years old.
Again, if Jones applies himself he could soon make this discussion pointless. A few more wins at light heavyweight and he has talked about moving up to heavyweight. If he does that and captures the UFC heavyweight title he would easily be considered the GOAT.
Without the outside issues he probably would be at the top of this list. If Jones had the same focus and approach as Johnson his ceiling is potentially higher due to his reach. That is an advantage no other fighter really has and Jones uses very effectively. What makes him more dangerous is his ability to fight at all ranges, distances, areas, and not just on the outside.
So often you hear Joe Rogan or Brian Stann pointing out that a fighter needs to keep the fight at his range. With Jones, he can fight at all ranges. He punishes his opponents with the oblique kicks, teeps, jabs, and spinning kicks to the body. Jones attacks with a variety of weapons and uses all levels attacking the legs, body, and head.
Then as his opponent finally gets inside of those attacks he finds, hooks, elbows, spinning elbows, and a strong grappling game awaiting them. It can be demoralizing to work so hard to finally be able to land a strike of your own only to get blasted by an elbow.
The argument against him comes down to the outside issues that have kept him from fighting. Some think he lost the fight to Gustafsson. If that is the case then you have to hold St-Pierre’s fight with Hendricks against him. To me, Gustafsson won the first part of the fight, while Jones won the last part. And for me the last part is always more important.
Right now I am left going back and forth between Johnson and Jones. Now it’s time to take a look at the case for Johnson.
The mighty might of Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson
The UFC flyweight champion started his career at bantamweight. He entered the UFC at 12-1 with the lone loss coming to Brad Pickett in his WEC debut. Two wins into his UFC career he took on bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz dropping a five round decision to the champ.
The UFC would create the flyweight division and hold a tournament to determine the inaugural champion. After a glitch of a draw against Ian McCall in the opening round, Johnson defeated him in the rematch earning the right to face Joseph Benavidez for the belt.
Being first is always best, at first
This would be the beginning of his run to greatness. Johnson took a SD win to become the UFC’s first flyweight champion.
He is now 11-0 in title fights with six finishes and five decisions. Jones is 10-0 with five decisions and five finishes. Silva again checks in with an 11-2 record in title fights with nine finishes and two decisions. It must be noted he was finished in both of his losses. St-Pierre brings a 12-2 record in title bouts with four finishes and eight decisions. Now, St-Pierre was also finished in both of his losses but he also avenged both of them with finishes of his own.
However, Johnson did not have the luck, honor, or privilege of defeating a legend to win the belt. He has been forced to essentially create the greatness of the division himself. By equaling Silva’s record Johnson has started to do just that. It is also the way that he is doing it that is starting to gain him traction as the GOAT in the sport.
Unlike Silva, who struggles with other counter-punchers and aggressive wrestlers, or St-Pierre, who relies on control, Johnson can finish you in a variety of fashions. His submission of Wilson Reis is difficult to put into context. Reis is one of the best in BJJ; he’s never been submitted before and Johnson made it seem effortless.
He and Jones are the most alike in this area. They both have the ability to dominate their opponent in their opponent’s area of expertise. And, while Johnson does not have the reach advantage, he does have a few of his own.
You complete me
All of these fighters work with top coaches, trainers and training partners, but Johnson has something unique. He has worked with Matt Hume his whole career and during his camps the focus is solely on Johnson.
This pairing is like if Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had left Apple and Microsoft to work together. It is the meeting of two of the best minds in the sport.
In Hume, Johnson has true O.G. of the sport. Hume’s father trained with Bruce Lee during his time with Seattle Police Department. Hume himself fought, has judged, been a part of rules committees, and the Vice-President of Operations for ONE Championship. As well as coaching world champions.
Johnson also possesses one of the great MMA minds, one able to make adjustments in the midst of the chaos of the fight; he shows few weaknesses in a fight. When he does they disappear by the next one. Johnson and Hume are constantly adjusting, tweaking the small little elements of Johnson’s game.
Like Jones, Johnson can fight in all areas and most ranges. Sure, a taller, longer fighter will have an advantage on the outside but Johnson is able to negate it. He uses speed, timing, and almost flawless technique to control the fight.
By constantly closing his own holes while adapting to his opponent, Johnson is always evolving and improving. To defeat him, you have to anticipate how he is going to approach you. Then you also must be able to adapt and adjust to his in-fight adaptions and adjustments. Jones is also a master in this area as he also makes adjustments effectively during his fights.
Who is the GOAT
For me it comes down to Johnson and Jones. I lean towards Johnson right now due to Jones not fighting for over a year. At their peaks, these are virtually identical fighters in completeness, capable of stopping their opponent with their own area of expertise with the ability to end the fight anywhere.
As I mentioned before they are also in the best position to build upon their resumes. St-Pierre is the wild card in this regard. As I mentioned before, winning the middleweight title would help his case. If you mix in a few more quality title wins he could force his way to the front. But right now for me it is between Johnson and Jones.
I know people want to hold Johnson’s opponents against him but I do not. For me it is about facing the best competition available. It is more important that he has not ducked anyone and faced several of his toughest challengers twice. And in every rematch the fight has been easier for him.
It is clear that Jones has the more impressive resume on paper, but I feel like he has been ducking a rematch with Gustafsson. That will always bother me. If you want to claim the GOAT title you need to have clear definitive wins over all of your top challengers and Jones does not have that over Gustafsson. I think he won the fight but it was not a definitive win and many think he lost.
I lean slightly towards Johnson right now, today. His approach, his mindset and the fact he is not his own worst enemy puts him in the front. Johnson is continually evolving and growing as a fighter. His most recent performance is one of his most impressive while Jones looked ordinary against, a solid but not special, Ovince Saint Preux. For some, Jones’ advantage in quality of opponents will be the deciding factor, but not for me.
It will be fun to watch these two and see if one can separate themselves, or who knows, maybe it will be St-Pierre reviving his career or someone new putting themselves into the conversation.
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