When it comes to discussing who is the best fighter in MMA history up to this point, there are only two fighters who enter into the equation. Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko. However, there should not even be that much debate.
Between these two fighters, only one of them consistently fought top competition at the highest levels of the sport their entire career. Only one of them consistently finished others, who people wrongly assumed to stand a chance. Only one of them has left no question about who would have won if they fought X.
Anderson Silva is the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts history so far.
This writer is not a Fedor Emelianenko naysayer. Fedor Emelianenko was the best heavyweight in MMA for a very long time, and there is no getting around that. However, as the linked article points out, mixed martial artists have gotten progressively better over the past 10 years, and continue getting better even now.
The best fighters from today are better than the best fighters from 2002. This is true in any weight class. Hell, it is true of any sport. Again, there is no question about this.
Just think about Tim Sylvia and Ricco Rodriguez compared to Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez. Fighters simply were not as athletic then as they are today. For a long time, Emelianenko kept squaring off with previous generation fighters like Tim Sylvia and Mark Coleman.
During his heyday, “The Last Emperor” spent far too much time opening cans like Kazuyuki Fujita and Yuji Nagata, and participating in Japanese “circus fights” against the likes of Hong-Man Choi.
When Emelianenko finally did start battling great athletes with great technique—something the heavyweight division lacked for a long while—the results were disastrous for him. He lost to Fabricio Werdum via a first-round triangle choke. While some brushed it off as a fluke, that talk was completely silenced when Emelianenko got bullied by Antonio Silva, who beat him badly enough to have the fight doctor call it off between the second and third rounds.
From there, he went back to his days of fighting light heavyweights who did not want to cut weight anymore. First losing to Dan Henderson, then fighting overseas against former B-list fighters (current D-list) before calling it a career.
All of this came at the expense of Fedor Emelianenko fighting top fighters. That, no matter what anybody claims, was a plain and simple disappointment.
Anderson Silva, meanwhile, has about as many fights as Emelianenko over roughly the same length of time. The difference between the two is that, upon entering the UFC, Silva has fought nothing but the best the promotion had to offer in the middleweight division. He started by beating Chris Leben, who was on a four-fight winning streak at the time. Then he beat Rich Franklin to become champion and, from there, the rest is history.
There is no debate that the vast majority of the best middleweights reside in the UFC. There is also no denying that Silva has beaten each and every top contender that has been thrown at him.
For the last six years, in his division, Anderson Silva has fought nothing but the best. Emelianenko could not have made this claim at any point in his career. Yes, Emelianenko beat many of the best heavyweights from 2003 to 2009. But Anderson Silva has beaten every potentially challenging opponent since he joined the UFC.
Emelianenko never joined the UFC and, therefore, never fought Randy Couture in his prime or pre-accident Frank Mir. Even in Strikeforce, he never fought Alistair Overeem or Josh Barnett, who most assumed to be the best heavyweights in the promotion.
Had he consistently fought top fighters in his division, Emelianenko would get the nod here. But he did not. Because of this, Silva ends up being the only real choice for the greatest mixed martial artist to this point.