When Anderson Silva knocked out Vitor Belfort with a front kick to the jaw while not even deigning to look at him this past weekend, you had to just throw your hands up and admit that this is the best fighter we've yet seen.
Fedor Emelianenko will fight this weekend, though, and there is every chance that he'll do something to Antonio Silva that will make you just throw your hands up and admit that this is the best fighter we've yet seen. Which leads to the natural question: Who's better?
You can argue the point either way, and people have, and will, and I don't have any fixed opinion on the matter other than that I would like to see the two fight at light heavyweight. What's actually interesting is that when you run down their records the two are even closer than you might think.
This wasn't what I expected to find. As mythically great as Emelianenko has been -- there will probably never be another fighter who goes undefeated for a full decade while fighting at the highest levels -- there has always been one real problem with what he's done, which is that it has been mythic in more senses than just the one. His record is padded with conquests of the likes of pro wrestler Yuji Nagata, pituitary case Hong-Man Choi and judoka Naoya Ogawa. Imagine Cain Velasquez taking fights against John Cena, Butterbean and Shaquille O'Neal and you'll have an idea of the absurdity of some of these bouts.
Silva, by contrast, has always faced professional fighters. It may be that no one was praying to see him defend the middleweight title against, say, Demian Maia or Thales Leites, but there is a vast, yawning chasm between taking on a legitimate if outclassed mixed martial artist and fighting someone named Zulu.
Wondering just how big a difference the level of their opponents made, I went through each man's record, assigning the fighters they faced to one of five categories. These are a bit arbitrary, but the point is just to get a general idea of the level of competition they've faced.
The top category is fighters who were elite at the time they faced Silva or Emelianenko, like Mirko Cro Cop and Dan Henderson. By my count, each man had four such fights.
The next category is legitimate fighters who were reasonably successful coming into the fights, like Heath Herring or Belfort. Emelianenko has gone 11-1 in such fights, Silva 15-1.
After that are legitimate fighters who were on bad runs, washed up, green or obviously overmatched in some way: Mark Coleman, say, or Roan Carneiro. Emelianenko won nine fights at this level. Silva won one and lost another.
The fourth category is cans, who are probably best defined by the Justice Stewart standard. ("I know it when I see it," he wrote of obscenity.) As I have it, Emelianenko has fought two -- Tim Sylvia doesn't count -- while Silva has fought seven and lost to two of them.
Finally you have opponents with very few career fights and those who just aren't fighters. Emelianenko racked up eight wins here; Silva, two.
Seeing as the second and third categories bleed into one another, as do the fourth and fifth, there isn't as much of a distinction as I had thought there would be. Emelianenko has had 21 fights against legitimate but non-elite competition, and 10 fights against lesser opponents; those numbers are 18 and nine, respectively, for Silva. Emelianenko takes a fair amount of scoffing for his fights against the likes of Nagata, but there is plenty of chaff on Silva's record, wins over guys like Alexander Otsuka, owner of a 4-13 career record.
Giving each fight a point value -- five for a win over an elite opponent, one for a win over a non-fighter, and so on -- and deducting for losses, I have Emelianenko at 90 and Silva at 86. There is some slack in there -- you might assign Sylvia to the second category, rather than the third, for instance -- but it seems about right, and fighting is a sport of imperfect measures anyway. One day you might say that Fedor was the best you ever saw, the other Anderson. It would depend on who you'd seen fight more recently, and what you'd had to drink recently.
What you can say for Silva is this: In the four most important fights he had, against Henderson, Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin, he won in devastating style. He doesn't just finish elite opponents, but makes them seem as if they're competing in a different and lesser sport. It's a gift. In his four most important fights, Emelianenko won three decisions and took a no-contest. This is no cause for shame, but it's a fact.
Before he was caught in a bad position against Fabricio Werdum, though, Emelianenko had never lost, while Silva has lost to some deeply sketchy opponents. Nor has he ever spent several rounds breakdancing when faced with an opponent too terrified to engage him or one he feels is beneath his talents, as Silva has.
Which gets to why this question matters. Whether Silva or Emelianenko is the greatest of all time isn't anything much worth bothering about; MMA is a young sport, and the greatest of all time probably hasn't yet been born. These two aren't competing to be the Michael Jordan of MMA, but the George Mikan. What does matter is whether we value brilliance or relentlessness, force or solidity, solitary moments of genius or the weight of years of near-perfection. Whether you think Silva or Emelianenko is greater tells a lot about why you watch fights, and what you think counts in them. For my part, I'm just not sure, but I'm hoping Fedor does something this weekend to settle the question.