Only in combat sports can someone proclaim themselves the “Greatest of All Time” and have it be viewed as a positive self-portrayal instead of an egotistical boast. A football player couldn’t get away with such a statement without being called arrogant, nor could a basketball or baseball player. A golfer, other than Jack Nicklaus, calling himself the greatest would be seen as blasphemy.
But being the G.O.A.T. in mixed-martial arts seems to be an evolving process considering the relative youth of the sport, though UFC 239 in Las Vegas presents a strong argument for the top contenders of each gender.
Jon Jones is a big favorite to successfully defend his UFC light heavyweight championship against Thiago Santos, while Amanda Nunes defends her UFC women’s bantamweight title against former bantamweight champion Holly Holm. The main card at T-Mobile Arena can be viewed on pay-per-view with the preliminaries on ESPN and UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+.
Jones (24-1) is considered by some the greatest male MMA fighter of all-time, while Nunes (17-4) is getting that distinction on the women’s side. Nunes certainly isn’t shying away such accolades after becoming the first woman to simultaneously hold titles in two divisions. The Lioness added the UFC featherweight title last December with a stunning first-round stoppage of Cris Cyborg.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Nunes said in the build-up to Saturday’s bout with Holm (12-4). “I am the best MMA fighter of all-time in general. I’m going to keep on defending the featherweight title. I’m going to keep making history.”
It’s tough to argue with Nunes. She first won the women’s bantamweight title by dethroning Miesha Tate at UFC 200 in July 2016. She followed that by stopping Ronda Rousey on the punches in the first round at UFC 207 in December 2016. Nunes has since defeated Valentina Shevchenko, the current women’s flyweight champion, and Cyborg, who was the most feared woman in MMA until Nunes stopped her on punches in the first round at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
“It’s very gratifying,” Nunes said of her career. “It makes me very happy. I stop, think and remember my journey. It makes you emotional really because I believed in myself.”
Nunes has earned her status through hard work in the Octagon. But she isn’t nearly as popular as Rousey or even Tate, the pioneers of women’s MMA in the UFC. Time and even decades will tell exactly where Nunes’ legacy will fit as women’s MMA keeps evolving with better and better fighters each year.
The same can be said for the men’s side, where athleticism is starting to combine with brawn to create more skilled fighters. Jones is certainly in the argument as the G.O.A.T. on the men’s side, but his history of PED use can’t be ignored.
He was first stripped of his title in 2015 after being arrested on felony hit-and-run charges. Upon return from personal issues, Jones was later stripped of an interim title and suspended for a year after failing a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency test just before UFC 200. He then failed another USADA drug test after beating Daniel Cormier at UFC 214 in July 2017.
It’s hard to put Jones’ tainted legacy ahead of such fighters as Anderson Silva, Randy Couture, Georges St-Pierre or Matt Hughes.
In his latest comeback, Jones has defeated Alexander Gustafsson on a third-round TKO last December and claimed a unanimous decision over Anthony Smith last March in Vegas. In a thinning light heavyweight division, Jones might need to move up to heavyweight to enhance any claim of being the G.O.A.T.
“I’ve been fighting a lot to make it up to fans who stuck with me through all my controversial moments,” Jones said this week. “This is my way of saying ‘Thank You’ to UFC for always supporting me and all of the fans for supporting me. My job is to fight as much as my body will hold up. I plan on winning this fight Saturday and winning a fight in December and fighting another three times in 2020. I’m going to be a busy man.”