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Is Silva the G.O.A.T.?

Is Anderson Silva the greatest fighter of All-Time? Read on to hear Michael DiSanto's take on that question...

Anderson Silva’s spectacular first-round knockout win over former 205-pound champion Vitor Belfort solidified his kung fu grip on the claim of best fighter in the world, pound for pound.

Belfort represented the final unknown at 185 pounds, at least for the time being. That may change in time. Maybe even in the short term. But as I sit here today, I cannot think of a single person fighter that Silva “needs” to fight.

13 UFC bouts. 13 wins. Eight consecutive successful defenses of the title. Both of those stand as UFC records, by wide margins.

With nothing left to prove in the middleweight division, what else is there for Silva, other than focusing on establishing his legacy? He is lying if he claims that he doesn’t think about the label of Greatest of All Time. Of course he thinks about it. Every fighter wants to go down as the greatest to don a pair of vale tudo gloves. Silva is no different.

Again, Silva is universally regarded as the greatest fighter in the world, pound for pound, and he has owned that undisputed title for several years. But is he the greatest ever?

Randy Couture certainly has to be included in any discussion of the G.O.A.T. He has several career records of his own. Couture will forever go down as the first man to ever win titles in two different weight divisions—heavyweight and light heavyweight. He is the only man to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship three separate times. He is also the only man to win the 205-pound title twice. His nine wins in UFC championship bouts ties him with Silva and Matt Hughes.

Couture certainly has a legitimate claim to the title of G.O.A.T. But one must weigh the value of winning across divisions versus Silva’s record-setting run in one. Silva is a former 170-pound competitor, but that was before his arrival in the UFC. He also has a couple of great wins at 205 pounds, including a win over a former champion in Forrest Griffin, though he has not yet won a UFC title outside of the middleweight division. Couture comfortably holds the edge, therefore, on multi-division success within the UFC.

Where Silva stands out compared to his much older rival is the length of his title reign and undefeated start to his UFC career. Most people will probably be surprised to know that Couture’s longest winning streak in the UFC is only seven fights, and he lost three times outside the UFC during that run. “The Natural” has never gone more than four professional fights without a loss. And his longest winning streak over the last decade sits at three.

Again, one’s definition of all-time greatness dictates whether Couture gets the nod for his success across divisions or Silva for his unmatched reign at middleweight. Let’s not forget this guy named Georges St-Pierre, either. It may very well come to pass that when the smoke settles, he passes Silva in both consecutive wins and successful title defenses. The odds are against him, but it could happen.

Better yet, GSP could remove Silva from the debate by scoring a timeless upset in a much ballyhooed future catchweight fight with the pound-for-pound kingpin. It is a fight often bandied about at bars and on Internet forums, and UFC President Dana White seems committed to making it happen, if GSP gets past Jake Shields in April.

For the record, I am torn. I flip flop all the time. One day I will firmly believe that there is no reason for Silva to leave the comforts of the middleweight division. The next day it becomes a pound-for-pound requisite, if he wants to stand before Couture.

The truth of the matter is there is no right answer. Not until Silva, Couture and GSP have concluded their illustrative careers. Mixed martial arts has such a short history that it is impossible to predict how fans will evaluate the respective careers of Randy Couture, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre 20 years from now. All we can do is look to boxing’s more than century-long history for some guidance.

Most top 10 lists include some variation of the following 15 names, in no particular order: Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep, Roberto Duran, Benny Leonard, Sam Langford, Joe Gans, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Roy Jones Jr., Jack Johnson, Manny Pacquiao, Harry Greb and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Only six of the names among that list did not win championships across multiple divisions. Three of them, Ali, Louis and Johnson, were heavyweights. Langford never won a legitimate world title, but that was due to the racist realities of his day, not his talent, since he defeated many former or future champions from lightweight up to light heavyweight. In any other era, Langford would have won titles across several divisions. Both Pep and Gans fought their entire championship careers in one division, featherweight and lightweight, respectively.

Contrast that list with division record holders for most successful title defenses in boxing history. Louis holds the all-time mark at 25 and is the only single-division champion who graces both lists. Joe Calzaghe, Sven Ottke, Dariusz Michalczewski, Bernard Hopkins, Eusebio Pedroza, Wilfredo Gomez, Khaosai Galaxy, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam and Ricardo Lopez each put together historic runs in their respective divisions, but one rarely sees any of those names pop up on all-time pound-for-pound lists.

It is safe to assume, therefore, that Silva’s claim for G.O.A.T. would be more persuasive in the decades to come, if he is able to move up in weight to capture the 205-pound championship. Defending his 185-pound title a couple of additional times probably won’t do much to enhance his legacy, unless he can get the number to something absurd like 20.

If I am part of Team Silva, I think the path to solidify his legacy is a very clear one. He must first take care of business against GSP, assuming the French-Canadian gets past Shields.

That fight is all about helping to define GSP’s legacy. It does nothing for Silva. Let’s be honest for a moment. The size differential between the two is going to be shocking come fight time. If GSP wins, it will be one of the all-time great upsets. If Silva wins, he beat someone he was supposed to beat, regardless of GSP’s true level of greatness.

Nonetheless, it is a fight that has to happen. GSP wants it. The fans demand it. And Zuffa recognizes that it may very well be the biggest fight in UFC history. So it makes a lot of sense from a lot of perspectives, other than Silva’s.

Assuming Silva passes the GSP test, I believe that he should instantly challenge for the light heavyweight crown. Don’t pass go. Don’t collect $200. Move up and try to make history. The one thing that nobody has been able to accomplish, not Couture and not BJ Penn (who is the only other two-division champion in history) is to simultaneously hold belts in two divisions. Silva has the size and skills to do just that.

He should then defend both belts, moving up and down in weight until his luck runs out. If he can put together two or three defenses at each weight, it will throw down the gauntlet for greatness for fighters decades into the future. The other storybook ending would be to win the 205-pound title and retire the next day. That is one heck of a way to go out.

I think Silva needs to be very careful taking 205 pound fights without the belt being on the line. Those are unnecessary risks. Only bad can come from non-title affairs against light heavies. Winning doesn’t improve his legacy and losing crushes it because it eliminates the argument by his supporters that Silva could have dominated at 205, just like he did at 185 pounds. That argument is critical for the G.O.A.T. argument, if the champion doesn’t actually move up and challenge for the title.

Is Silva the true G.O.A.T.? Based on his body of work to date and my view on what would happen if he faced Shogun Rua, or any other 205-pound champion who isn’t a ground-and-pound specialist, it is tough to argue against him.