A prime Tyson vs. a prime Ali? Most would favor Ali, but you never know. Tyson could crack back in the day. A prime Sugar Ray Robinson vs. a prime Sugar Ray Leonard at welterweight? I got Robinson, via late-round TKO.
For hardcore boxing fans, those mythical match-ups are a source of endless debate for devotees of the sweet science. That’s because the old-time fi ghters of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s would be competitive, even dominating, over today’s champs in every division. If you don’t believe me, let’s resurrect the Joe Louis of the second Max Schmeling fi ght, transform him into a cruiserweight, and then watch as he crushes everything put in front of him for the next 15 years.
MMA junkies don’t have that problem. At least not right now. There is simply not a chance in hell, for example, that the Royce Gracie who dominated the fi rst UFC cards 15 years ago would stand a chance against any of today’s top guns.
The reason today’s superstars would crush the old generation of champions is obvious: Compared to any other mainstream sport (and by now, it unquestionably qualifi es as mainstream), MMA’s infancy is barely in the rearview mirror. 1993? Might as well be the Ice Age, a time as antiquated as the days when a boxer like Jack Johnson didn’t have to go to a neutral corner after knocking a man on his ass, or when the two-handed set shot could win a team an NBA championship, or a pure serve-and-volley man could become the number one tennis player in the world.
On July 19, MMA nuts had their hands full. In one night, on competing cards (UFC and Affl iction), two of the best fi ghters in the world—Russia’ Fedor Emelianenko and Brazil’s Anderson Silva—were about to separate the men from the boys. And they did. Despite some lengthy contract disputes that had prevented him from facing off against marquee heavyweights for the past two years, Fedor annihilated former UFC Heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia in just 36 seconds. Silva was just as dominant. The current UFC Middleweight belt holder, who over the past two years has completely cleaned out his division with KO after KO, moved up to 205 and effortlessly picked apart the dangerous James Irvin before putting him out of his misery at 1:01 of the opening frame.
For the past two years, Silva and Emelianenko—along with a rejuvenated UFC Lightweight Champ BJ Penn and UFC welterweight king Georges St. Pierre—have been touted as representing a new, truly elite class of fi ghters: the Four Horseman of an MMA Apocalypse. While their games remain distinct from each other, all four men earned the superstar strips because they boasted a lethal combination of world-class athleticism, toughness, conditioning, and a fl owing style that could not simply be reduced to a handful of weapons, let alone any major weaknesses. This year, both BJ and GSP absolutely outclassed the consensus second-ranked contenders (Sean Sherk and John Fitch), winning their titles in thrilling but one-sided contests.
But watching a handful of guys mow down everyone in front of them can get a little old. Aside from a potential rematch for the Welterweight title between BJ and GSP, a 205-lb. run for Silva (he has publicly stated that he wants to remain the 185-lb. champ, for now), or the very outside chance that a 45-year-old Randy Couture could somehow pull another rabbit out of his hat and give Fedor a run for his money, the view from the top isn’t so exciting.
“In the early days you didn’t have a lot of complete fi ghters, but we’re seeing more and more of them,” says fi ghter/trainer extraordinaire Bas Rutten. “Right now mixed martial arts has become its own martial art—it’s really happening. To be a top guy you’ve got to be able to win in every way possible. The fi ghters are going to keep getting better, the techniques will keep improving, but today the top guys are just blowing everybody else away.”
But while some debates about the current MMA landscape seem to be closed for now, others remain. Will the top guns of today someday be considered the Robinsons and Alis of mixed martial arts in 10, even 20 years? Or will GSP, Silva, Fedor, and BJ be regarded in the same way that today’s fans see Royce Gracie and Dan Severn—innovators and champions, for sure, but nothing compared to what’s inside the ring and octagon right now? “In the past year or so there’s been a been a huge technical leap forward in terms of what fi ghters are doing in the ring, but right now, there’s only a handful of fi ghters who can do it,” says EliteXC star Frank Shamrock. “Older systems have been getting more effi cient. Guys like GSP now have what Bruce Lee always thought you needed—not style, but the ability to work effi ciently. When I see fi ghts, I see a lot of holes—the spaces, the extra movement, the wasted energy. But over the past year, I’ve seen everybody tightening up his game.”
But Shamrock, who is widely acknowledged as one of the fi rst true innovators of the “complete game” approach to MMA training, doesn’t think today’s elite will have what it takes to compete against the next generation in a mythical match-up. “I think we’re about 70 percent there, about two to three years away,” says Shamrock. “Because of the nature of our sport, techniques and styles come and go in terms of waves of popularity. Every year, athletes get better, techniques get better, and technology gets better. That being said, I don’t think we’ll fi nd guys that will make GSP look like Royce Gracie does today.”
Shamrock isn’t the only member of the MMA brain trust who feels that the future hasn’t quite arrived. “I think with time we’re going to start seeing individuals who will be able to compete at the top level in any of the disciplines in MMA,” says American Kickboxing Academy’s Javier Mendez. “For example, soon it won’t be enough to just say an MMA has good boxing technique. We’ll be able to put the top guys up against pro boxing champs and they might win, then they’ll go off and win gold at an international Jiu-Jitsu competition. That’s how good they’re going to get, because we’ll have more elitelevel athletes, and techniques that will be considerably more refi ned.”
Exactly what techniques will evolve into must-have knowledge for the next elite class depends on whom you ask, and whether the handful of truly unconventional fi ghters like Lyoto Machida and Cung Le get the opportunity to compete for a championship. (Machida, whose defense-fi rst Shotokan Karate style may not result in any Chuck Liddell-style highlight reel haymakers, currently holds an unblemished record, and Le, whose Chinese San Shou high kicks broke Frank Shamrock’s ulna in an EliteXC card in March, is just getting his MMA career off the ground.) “Every artist has his own interpretation of our art,” says trainer Greg Jackson, who prepared GSP for the Fitch fi ght. “Just look at how Mohammed Ali fought compared to Sugar Ray Robinson. That’s what an artist does. I have no idea when we’ll see a bigger group of guys with the skill set of a GSP or Anderson Silva, but that day’s coming, believe me. And it’s not far off.”
One discipline that’s currently being heavily tinkered with is the traditional Gracie BJJ guard position, which allows a fi ghter to have more options when fi ghting from his back. Current variations on the technique include the Rubber Guard, the X-Guard, the Spider Guard, the Butterfl y Guard, and the De La Riva guard. Don’t be surprised if that list doubles in two years’ time.
Eddie Bravo, the man credited with introducing the Rubber Guard into MMA, currently counts up-andcomer Shinya Aoki as his main pr
otégé. “In Gi Jiu-Jitsu, taking the high guard (moving your legs up to the high torso of your opponent) is a way to attack. But you can’t play high guard in MMA because your legs will slip down when there’s sweat on you and punches are coming down on you. Rubber Guard is a way to play high guard with no Gi. It is essentially the best defense in MMA, as well as the best offense.”
Whether Bravo’s style becomes standard issue in the years to come remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: There are children out there, in the gym, who are currently training in all aspects of MMA, learning things that guys like Tito Ortiz didn’t even know about until well into their pro careers. “I’ve got a 12-year-old son who’s been in a gym since he was born,” says boxer-turnedmixed martial artist and trainer Jeremy Williams. “He can kick, punch, wrestle, grapple, and submit, and do it all instinctually. The fi ghters of tomorrow are defi nitely going to be better than the guys out there today because training methods are evolving, and so many more people are getting into the sport. Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer that anyone’s ever seen. If you look at 1972, the times Mark Spitz was putting up couldn’t compare, and he was the man back in the day. In the same way, today won’t compare to tomorrow.”
And it’s not just fi ghters’ kids who are drinking the MMA Kool Aid. “I have a couple of boys working out of my gym who are 10, 11 years old, and they’re already beasts,” says training guru Pat Miletich. “I mean, we are talking champion wrestler, who can already perform at a high level with judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and kickboxing. When they’re 18, I wouldn’t want to be sparring with them. There are bits and pieces of all the disciplines that really work well for MMA, and honing and combining them into a real effective art is an ongoing thing all the time. To be honest with you, in fi ve years, you’re going to see some really scary things on TV.”