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The Countdown to No. 1: Nos. 11-15

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We're six fighters deep into what should really be called the Top 21 Greatest UFC Fighters list (Vitor Belfort and Lyoto Machida were tied for 20th place). Here's a recap of the list so far:

No. 20 (tie): Lyoto Machida - 38 points
No. 20 (tie): Vitor Belfort - 38 points
No. 18 (tie): Junior dos Santos - 40 points
No. 18 (tie): Benson Henderson - 40 points
No. 17: Frankie Edgar - 41 points
No. 16: Andrei Arlovski - 43 points

Now on to the next five fighters on the list:

No. 15 Tim Sylvia - 44 points

Tim Sylvia could conceivably show up in three different places on this list depending on how you treat his fight against Gan McGee at UFC 44. Sylvia successfully defended his title in that fight, but subsequently tested positive for steroids and was stripped of the belt. At the time, there was no mechanism to overturn the decision to a no-contest, so the fight remains a win on his record. If we treat that fight normally as if he never got stripped, he winds up with 51 points and would be tied for 10th place. If we pretend that the fight did get overturned, he ends up with 43 points and would be tied with Andrei Arlovski for 15th place. That would be revisionist history, though, since the fight remains a stoppage win for posterity.

We've chosen a third, more nuanced approach. Sylvia gets the points for beating McGee by stoppage, but this fight would not be considered a successful title defense, since he was stripped of the belt directly because of his actions in the fight and wasn't the champion anymore in his next UFC bout. This stands opposed to a case where a fighter defended his title and was stripped for other reasons, such as when Murilo Bustamante vacated his title to leave for PRIDE. In that case, Bustamante would still get credit for his title defense against Matt Lindland, while Sylvia would not.

You can see from the preamble why Sylvia is not a popular choice for such a high ranking. His reign over the heavyweight division was complicated by a few missteps and a fighting style that wasn't always visually appealing. But there can be no denying his output.

Outlook: Sylvia keeps pleading for another stint in the UFC, although it seems unlikely to occur. Like Arlovski, he will probably go down as the best of a historically weak crop of heavyweights during his era.

No. 14 Jose Aldo - 47 points

How do you defend a UFC title that you never won? When Jose Aldo squared off against Mark Hominick at UFC 129, it was Aldo's first defense of the featherweight title he was granted when the UF C subsumed the remaining WEC weight classes. Aldo had an immediate two-point advantage over any other fighter (except Dominick Cruz) because he never had to win that title in the first place.

But the real reason Aldo shows up at No. 15 is because he's 5-0 in the UFC with all five fights acting as title defenses. The odd thing about Aldo is that he's only finished two of those fights, with one of them only happening because of an injury to Chan Sung Jung. While in the WEC, Aldo finished seven of his eight opponents. He's certainly faced stiffer competition in the UFC, but he's also looked human in later rounds, making the decisions closer than they probably needed to be.

Outlook: As long as he stays healthy, expect Aldo to keep climbing. He's clearly the class of a featherweight division that lacks serious competition. The prospect of more fighters dropping from 155 or Aldo going up to lightweight could throw a wrench in the works. But his trajectory is steeper than almost anyone above him on the list. By the time he's done, he could be among the top few fighters ever.

No. 12 (tie) Frank Shamrock and Rich Franklin - 48 points

The story with Frank Shamrock is familiar. He was undoubtedly the greatest fighter of his time; his time was only too brief and too early in the UFC's history to make a larger impact. There was no one left to challenge him and not enough money to justify continuing his career back in 1999. However, his line is flawless: Five fights, all for the title, five wins, all by stoppage. You can't get any more perfect than that. The potential was there for him to go down among the greatest ever. The issue is that his UFC career simply wasn't long enough to make a bigger mark on the organization.

Franklin, on the other hand, came along at just the right time in the UFC's arc. He returned to the UFC in 2005 at 185 pounds shortly after the end of a three-year period without a middleweight champion. Then season one of The Ultimate Fighter happened. Franklin beat Ken Shamrock in the main event of the finale, setting himself up for a title shot. With the eyes of a newfound audience upon the UFC, Franklin solidified himself as a champion and new golden boy by taking the belt from Evan Tanner at UFC 53. Since his second loss to Anderson Silva, Franklin has wandered between light heavyweight and catchweight affairs, but he still has 14 wins, 10 by stoppage, with two title defenses, and a seven-fight longest win streak.

Outlook: Shamrock may move down some over time. He will always have a truncated portion of the UFC's history book and not just because of politics. His short career was a vision of what a modern fighter should look like and he is the exceptional fighter who got to walk away while still a champion. Franklin may yet pick up a few points here and there before hanging up the gloves for good.

No. 11 Royce Gracie - 50 points

To be fair, Royce Gracie is the reason why this list even exists in the first place. If not for the original "greatest fighter in the UFC," there would not have been any subsequent ones. Gracie's line is not quite as perfect at Frank Shamrock's, but it is close: 11 wins in a row, all by stoppage, three tournaments won (two of them consecutive), and only one stoppage loss in his late-career fight against Matt Hughes.

There are a couple of alternate histories that would have changed Gracie's standing on this list. The first is a universe where he is able to continue fighting at UFC 3 and wins that tournament as well, making it four in a row. The second is a world where the judges could have given him the decision against Ken Shamrock in the first Superfight Title fight at UFC 5 where he outlanded Shamrock 355-98 in total strikes. The draw he earned in that fight spelled the end of his UFC career (minus the Hughes comeback fight). With a win instead, he might have continued to rule the sport for as long as it took for the other fighters to catch up.

Outlook: No one will ever win more UFC tournaments than Royce Gracie's three. He holds the all-time record for most submission victories, which might also never be broken. He may drop a few spaces over time if guys like Aldo remain dominant champions, but his place in the top 20 fighters is as solid as anyone's.

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