GOATs in sports like MMA & Grappling: Gordon Ryan, and athletes’ asterisks

This post is a free preview of Open Note Grappling, the personal Substack of Bloody Elbow contributor Williams Watts. Subscribe to Open Note Grappling on Substack to support Trent’s work and receive his pieces directly in your inbox.

By: William Watts | 2 months ago
GOATs in sports like MMA & Grappling: Gordon Ryan, and athletes’ asterisks
IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE by Louis Grasse

This post is a free preview of Open Note Grappling, the personal Substack of Bloody Elbow contributor Williams Watts. Subscribe to Open Note Grappling on Substack to support Trent’s work and receive his pieces directly in your inbox.

Gordon Ryan, Patrick Gaudio, And Greatness

Grappling GOAT Gordon Ryan

This weekend Gordon Ryan is set to rematch Patrick Gaudio at WNO in a grappling match that has even MMA fans paying attention. This rematch is an exciting return event that no one asked for. Don’t get me wrong, watching great athletes is always welcome, but the grappling community is fixed on another match for him. Everyone really wants Ryan and Felipe Pena to square off a fourth time.

“Four? Hasn’t somebody won two of the three? Why would they do a fourth match?”

Pena has those two wins. One is by submission and the other is by points. The third? A no time limit match that Pena lost in the most bizarre way imaginable.

Pena quit, causing a “submission”, but he literally left the mat because he was done competing. He wanted to leave so he could catch a flight to Brazil and be with his friends and family to collectively mourn the loss of his best friend that was murdered that same day at around 1 AM in Brazil.

A simple asterisk * does not seem to sum up the footnotes necessary for that. Still, Ryan claims it as a win, the record books do as well, and we are compelled to recognize it as such.

Ryan says a fourth fight will be the second in his soon to be three fight winning streak which would remove any detractor’s argument about him being the best no gi grappler ever. According to Ryan. To me, Ryan is the Bill Russel of no gi grappling and I’m just happy to watch him compete live.

For those that aren’t basketball fans, Russel stands out in history with eleven NBA championship rings. He was so dominant the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award is literally named after him. He also stands out for being one of the earliest examples of what would be the modern NBA player.

Russel was a phenomenal athlete that stood at 6’10” when most of his competitors hovered closer to 6’3”. Russel was a consummate professional with brilliant fundamentals that leveled up the game of basketball.

Russel’s detractors say he benefitted from his size, athleticism, and the relative unprofessionalism of the league. They keep a mental asterisk next to his name. A quick “Yeah, but…”.

But he also won 10 NBA titles. That’s objectivity at it’s finest. No one can take that away from him much like no one can ignore Ryan’s dominance and the effect his team has had on the professionalization of submission grappling.

Some are calling Ryan the greatest of all time, the GOAT, much like some said about Russel at one point. Like Russel, Ryan has his own detractors. They want to put asterisks by his name for the rulesets he favors, the weight class he landed in, and his apparent PED usage.

Those critiques take away from why we watch sports, particularly martial arts and combat sports, and they’ve been ruining helpful discourse all year.

Greatest According To When?

MMA GOAT Fedor Emelianenko
IMAGO / ITAR-TASS by Stanislav Krasilnikov

2023 has been an excellent year for greatness in several combat sports. A former greatest ever unceremoniously left mixed martial arts in February. He received recognition and praise for being in his last fight, but “The Last Emperor”, Fedor Emelianenko, was stopped painfully. Fedor’s decade of MMA dominance in Japan will be never be eclipsed in my head, but, to a new generation of fans, Fedor was just an old man that needed to retire.

In July, Jose Aldo was admitted into the UFC’s Hall of Fame. An MMA maestro himself, Aldo is currently boxing in Brazil. That’s just to keep him occupied. Aldo is already an MMA legend owning the longest Zuffa title reign in featherweight history.

Before starting MMA, Aldo was a Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenom that won the World Cup, Brazilian Nationals, and beat BJJ legend Cobrinha. Regardless of the rules, the guy can fight his ass off.

Ironically, a day after Aldo’s Hall of Fame ceremony, the last man to beat him at featherweight, Alexander Volkanovski, had his hand raised as he defended his featherweight title again. The Australian is undefeated in the UFC’s featherweight division and has thoroughly dominated every would be contender. On his list are other featherweight greats like Max Holloway and Chad Mendes, in addition to the aforementioned Aldo.

Perhaps even more ironically, Volkanovski’s last loss was one week after Fedor’s final loss. Volkanovski went up in weight to challenge the UFC’s Lightweight Champion, Islam Makhachev, and lost, but the skill he showed against his much larger opponent is earning him praise from the entire MMA world. Many are claiming Volkanovski is the best pound-for-pound fighter in MMA. Some are even claiming he is on his way to being the best mixed martial artist ever.

I’m not sure what type of advanced calculus is leading people to argue this. All I know is, the more time you spend arguing someone’s record, the less time you have to appreciate what they did to earn that record.

Quantifying Greatness in MMA and beyond

MLB, Baseball Herren, USA Game Two-Miami Marlins at Los Angeles Dodgers Aug 19, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; The Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James (23) acknowledges the crowd as he attends the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Miami Marlins on his bobblehead night at Dodger Stadium. Los Angeles Dodger Stadium California USA, EDITORIAL USE ONLY PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY Copyright: xJaynexKamin-Onceax 20230819_tbs_aj4_254
IMAGO | USA TODAY by Jayne Kamin-Oncea

My favorite non-combat sport is basketball. Until I was 15, all I ever wanted to do was play and watch basketball. With grappling, I don’t have time to play anymore, but I still follow the sport from a distance.

Last season Lebron James became the NBA’s all time leading scorer. James accomplished this record in his 20th season. The previous record holder, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, set his record after 21 years in the NBA. That means James took a coveted title quicker than it was last snatched. While James is slowing down, he’s still playing at an All Star level.

If James is anything he is consistent. He’s jokingly called Mr. 27-7-7. For you non-basketball fans, that means you can count on James to score 27 points, pass to his teammates for another 7 scoring opportunities, and secure the ball 7 times after a missed shot.

At the time of writing this, midway through his 20th season, James is averaging 29.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7 assists thus far. Let’s put this insane stat line in context.

The average NBA career lasts about 5 years. In 2023 an average NBA player can expect to score about 9 points a game. James is literally quadrupling the career expectancy of an average NBA player while tripling the current scoring average. That’s beyond hall of fame longevity and productivity. James is a marvel of athletic achievement.

Whenever discussions of basketball greatness come up, James’s name is inexorably tied to “His Airness”. The man with two letters and one name; MJ, Michael, the basketball god Michael Jordan.

What else needs to be said about the man behind the most famous silhouette in the world? Jordan dominated one of the most hotly contested eras in basketball history, was the face of the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled, and he starred in Space Jam. The guy can’t miss. Jordan has six NBA championship appearances and six rings.

James has won four of his ten NBA finals appearances. To scoff at that record would be contrarian to the point of dishonesty. Still, numbers are numbers; 6 > 4 and 100% > 40%. But can it really be so simple?

To translate an entire athletic career into a few numbers erases what it took to record those numbers. It takes the fun out of watching, learning, and doing the sport.

In a number you don’t get Michael soaring to dunk with his tongue out or closing his eyes shooting free throws. A single number ignores the context behind James’s 25 consecutive points in a single playoff game, or his exasperated declaration of relief, “It’s about damn time” after winning an NBA championship.

Reducing athletes to one number ignores the whole person.

To that point, if we’re going purely on numbers, why not bring up Robert Horry? Big Shot Bob has 7 NBA titles to his name, more than Jordan and James.

Here is where any sane person would say, “Basketball is a team sport. You can’t possibly believe Horry, the role player, is on the same level as James and Jordan?”

I’d expertly ignore my fallacious argument to say, “Well what do you think of Bill Russell? The man has more finals wins than Lebron and Jordan combined.”

You might bring up, “Bill Russell played in the 60’s against unspecialized athletes and often towered over the entire court. That’s not a fair comparison – it’s hardly the same game. When Bill Russell retired there were only 14 NBA teams! We need to put an asterisk next to his titles.”

That’s kind of my point.

Qualifiers, Asterisks, And Asininity

June 17, 2023, Atlanta, Georgia, USA: Atlanta, GA - June 16: MMA GOATS Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones face off during PFL Atlanta 5 on June 16, 2023 at the Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta USA - ZUMAp175 20230617_zsa_p175_005 Copyright: xAaronxLitzx
IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE by Aaron Litz

Jon Jones is the UFC heavyweight champion of the world. This comes after a three year layoff, an almost effortless first round finish in his UFC heavyweight debut, and a virtually undefeated record (save a terrible foul call). The fight itself seemed almost ceremonial for Jones.

Jones took his opponent Cyril Gane down, choked him out, and cut a promo for a giddy Joe Rogan in less than five minutes. Even Gane looked more matter of fact than depressed sitting slumped against the cage.

Jones might as well be the light heavyweight champion as well – he lost his title to the three year lay off, not inside the octagon. His noteworthy feats warranted this response.

Out of context the tweet makes no sense. “The heavyweight king”? It might be confusing, but it’s not complicated.

Francis Ngannou, the reigning, defending, and undisputed heavyweight champion of the UFC and lineal MMA champion is on a six-fight winning streak. Over those six wins, he has five stoppages, with three of them coming against former heavyweight title holders. He, like Jones, never lost his belt in the octagon.

Ngannou lost his title because he allegedly asked for more money, health insurance, and the ability to wear his own sponsors. Now Ngannou is fighting outside of the UFC.

A simple asterisk * does not seem to sum up the footnotes necessary for that situation.

Asterisks are common in Jones’s career. The two division title holder has tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, dropped out of fights, and even had an events moved on his behalf so he could still compete in the highly anticipated rematch against Alexander Gustafsson.

Can an asterisk accurately summarize the controversial context that says, “This competitor has likely cheated on more than one occasion”.

One year before Jones retired Georges St-Pierre accomplished a similar feat to what Jones did this year. After a three year hiatus the former champion moved up in weight, finished his opponent, and claimed a second weight class belt. The similarity of these two situations has become a lightning rod for limiting arguments.

One round is less than three, so Jones is the GOAT. Bisping is better than Gane, so GSP is the GOAT.

Are either of these points valid? I guess.

Is it this simple? I don’t think so.

Are either of them definitively the GOAT? I couldn’t care less.

I think a better question is, can we more appropriately define criteria, or constrain our thoughts to ask a more concrete question about the athletes we watch?

Asterisks are a tricky element in sports. Generally they’re used to provide context to wins and losses. They can be seen as a competitor’s scarlet letter. They create the context necessary to simplify stats.

The most famous astericizing in sports is probably Barry Bonds. The all time home runs leader will forever be marred, wrongly, in my opinion, by his choice to use performance enhancing drugs. But if you go one layer deeper on his record you see he was a first ballot hall fame player long before he became the face of steroid abuse in baseball.

Bonds has hit more home runs than any other baseball player. He also holds the honor of being the sole member of the 500/500 Club. That is, Bonds hit 500 home runs and stole 500 bases. Bonds is also the only member of the 400/400 Club, and he entered the 400/400 club 9 years before he retired.

Bonds had a hall of fame career before his mid end of career PED scandal started. Can an asterisk explain that?

I grew up in the suburbs of the Bay Area. I was never really a baseball fan, but, I remember watching Bonds crush home runs for the San Francisco Giants. It was awesome in the literal sense of the word in that it inspired great admiration. Bonds was a larger than life figure when I was a child and no asterisk can erase that persona from my memory.

Summing up an athlete’s entire life and career with a single number, or trying to erase one with an asterisk, negates why we enjoy sports in the first place, the performance. Titles and numbers are fine for selling points, but once you’re sold just enjoy the show.

Obsessing over numbers prevents us from watching, enjoying, and learning from the performances that make humans into heroes.

Over a long enough time horizon everyone loses and no one is without critic so why be one?

GOATs Don’t Even Fight

Consciously acknowledging the tone of this writing, I am trying to avoid preaching. If no one likes an arm chair quarterback I can’t imagine how they feel about a lecturing fan. Acknowledging that doesn’t help me though. I started writing this feeling annoyed and now I am confused. I’m not alone in my critique, but solidarity provides no answers.

The sheer volume of GOAT adjacent athletes and arguments should point to how silly and flawed the whole conversation thing is. Still, is there a more concrete reason that don’t people like GOAT debates? I think it’s because GOAT’s never compete.

The beauty of combat sports is in the purity of competition. Two people agree to a few rules and then they run at each other until the other quits. It’s definitive. There is generally an acknowledging by the loser that the other was better.

When we talk about match-ups like Jon Jones vs Francis Ngannou there is a chance that it will happen. We still might see two of the biggest baddest men in the world fight each other to see who is the best. When we talk about greats of bygone eras squaring off against men twice their age we can make some arguments about how the fight might go. But when we talk about people from different weight classes and time periods fighting one another it gets silly.

Arguing about anyone’s qualifiers and accomplishments will never end. It’s a race to the bottom until you’re arguing with anonymous Twitter trolls that have Russian MMA fighters as their avatar. It is truly a waste of my time and I invite you to realize it is a waste of yours as well.

I’m finishing this piece in September, before two self-proclaimed GOATs from separate sports compete again this weekend. Next month two more combat sports GOAT adjacent athletes will square off as Charles Oliveira rematches Islam Makhachev. Before the year ends, another GOAT, Jon Jones, will return to action once. I will happily watch all of these to see what new tricks I can steal from these events and ignore all debates about why one is now the best ever at something.

Obsessing over labeling athletes with single numbers and asterisks prevents us from learning from them to advance the craft further. Greatness is rare by definition and I intend on learning from it while I can. Anything else is a waste of time.

This post is a free preview of Open Note Grappling, the personal Substack of Bloody Elbow contributor Williams Watts. Subscribe to Open Note Grappling on Substack to support Trent’s work and receive his pieces directly in your inbox.

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About the author
William Watts
William Watts

BJJ black belt coaching in Austin and writing online. Get better at BJJ & MMA faster by reading my work at https://www.opennotegrappling.com/

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