The hottest topic of discussion in the world of MMA this week stems from Max Holloway’s UFC 231 victory over Brian Ortega and the ever-growing merit to his argument as the greatest featherweight of all-time.
And what a masterful display it was.
Facing one of the most dangerous finishers in the UFC today, Holloway’s pace, precision, and consistent intensity saw Ortega subdued for the most part until the fourth-round closed and the doctors decided he had taken enough punishment for one night.
It was a result that once again brought up the debate surrounding Max’s claim to being the greatest fighter that the 145lb weight-class has ever seen – an honour that he himself still feels undeserving of.
At 27-years-old, time is well and truly on his side but for the sake of having a good ol’ debate, I’m going to give my own take on the hot topic that is the featherweight G.O.A.T argument.
First of all, in my eyes, there are only three contenders to this throne.
This is no slight on the various other fighters who have made waves within the weight-class over the years but as much as you could make an argument for their inclusion in the top-5, none of them have a case for being #1.
And that’s the first point I want to make myself clear on.
All of these guys have a fantastic argument at being the best to ever do it.
It really depends on what you’re judging them on.
Some take the easy route. Conor McGregor fought and beat both men so technically speaking, he’s the G.O.A.T.
It’s hard to argue against that logic. And if you’re the type of fan who makes judgements that are as one-dimensional as that, then by all means, feel free to bask in the conclusive, indisputable fact that yes, Conor defeated both Aldo and Holloway.
But don’t you think there’s a better way of arguing for McGregor’s status as the G.O.A.T? One that doesn’t gloss over all of the great things he did in the division in favour of a simple and ultimately shallow point.
We shall begin with Conor McGregor’s case.
Firstly, he beat both of the other contenders to the throne – and just to be clear, I don’t believe this to be the strongest part of Conor’s claim at all.
He fought and defeated a 21-year-old Max Holloway in a fight that was marred by an injury he sustained to his ACL mid-round, a fight that quite literally was a completely unintentional piece of matchmaking from the UFC brass that later grew to have some serious significance.
Conor was supposed to fight Andy Ogle at UFC Fight Night 26 and if his originally scheduled opponent hadn’t pulled out due to injury – Holloway wouldn’t have stepped up on short-notice to take on one of the UFC’s fastest rising stars.
This wasn’t some amazing prospect-versus-prospect showdown that the promotion put together in an attempt to establish one as a shoo-in for top-15 opportunities, this was Max Holloway taking a fight because it was offered and it suited him to do so.
Again, he was 21 and completely underdeveloped as a fighter.
Yes, nothing can touch McGregor’s 13-second KO of the legendary José Aldo at UFC 194 but to call Conor the G.O.A.T based only off of those two wins ignores everything else he did in the division.
He blasted through Dustin Poirier, Dennis Siver, Diego Brandao, and Marcus Brimage with an air of invincibility and inevitability to him that is still a joy to behold if you watch them back now.
When he faced Chad Mendes, it was a stunning display of heart and one that earned him his shot at the title beyond any doubt.
But Conor was in and out and on to greater things before we had a chance to watch him clear out the division or face a rising force within the rankings as champion.
That is not a knock on McGregor – the man is an absolute beast but with a featherweight record of 7-0, in my opinion, he just didn’t hang around for long enough to place any higher than third in this discussion.
In one amazing stroke of brilliance he dismantled Aldo on the biggest stage the sport has ever seen but calling him the greatest fighter the weight-class has ever seen as a result of that may only ring through in one category – and that is skill.
Conor may well be the most-talented fighter the division has ever known.
Tyron Woodley might also match up horribly with Georges St-Pierre, though, but based on his accomplishments, it’s a stretch to call him the 170lb G.O.A.T – even if they did fight and he came out on top.
In my view, you can put too much emphasis on the fights between these guys in this discussion. Yes, they absolutely should be taken into account, but at the same time, it’s close to impossible for us to be aware of all of the factors that led to one fighter beating another.
Did Conor’s mental warfare rattle José to a greater extent that the remarkable precision and timing of that left-hard? Maybe.
But does that make Conor’s body of work within the featherweight division greater than Aldo’s? Absolutely not.
So when Holloway managed to defeat Aldo on two consecutive occasions at both UFC 212 and UFC 218, does the same logic apply?
Max was able to step in there against the reinstated champ and beat him more conclusively than Conor McGregor did in terms of the overall domination across the two fights.
Holloway sat in there with Aldo at length and looked every bit as comfortable as you would expect given the ten fight win-streak he brought with him into the octagon that night.
But it’s no secret that Aldo’s greatest years were long beyond him.
He’s still a fantastic fighter, don’t get me wrong. He was able to finish the notoriously tough Jeremy Stephens with a body-shot out of nowhere earlier this year and with a showdown against his fellow veteran Cub Swanson set for early 2019, it’s hard not to consider him the favourite.
But I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Aldo’s grip on the featherweight belt wasn’t loosening before McGregor’s knockout win at UFC 194.
We saw it in the fight just prior to his fight with the Irishman – where José went to war with Chad Mendes over five furiously aggressive rounds, rounds in which the Brazilian was tagged more than perhaps we had ever seen before.
People seem to forget that everyone loses in this sport. The great saying stating that everyone ends up on someone else’s highlight reel one day is almost an exact science.
And that’s exactly what happened with Aldo.
This is not to downplay either McGregor or Holloway’s victories but at the same time, ten years unbeaten and an 18-fight win-streak does not just vanish as a result.
Dominance, consistency, and a surgical ability to get the job done against the very best 145lb-rs on the rise for a decade. Aldo was the guy beating down the rising prospects who were coming to steal away his belt. He was the man taming the hungry lions and we would do well not to forget that.
McGregor’s road to the top saw him take on some established threats to the title but he never sat on the throne with the target on his back and dealt with it.
It could be argued that Holloway faced his first challenge in that sense in the form of Brian Ortega last weekend – passing it with flying colours, but even he admitted that he is still chasing José Aldo.
His work in this journey is just beginning.
In my opinion, José Aldo is the greatest featherweight to ever do it but make no mistake, Max Holloway will take that mantle comfortably if he continues to do what he does.
I just need to see him blossom at the top of the mountain before I make that claim.
And I think he is well aware of that too.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena