The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
With most of the MMA world in hiatus due to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, Mike Chiappetta and Alexander K. Lee look to the past at crossroads moments in the sport where a zig instead of a zag could have changed everything. Over the years, many dream fights have been proposed, and while several of them came to fruition, many never did, leaving fans to wonder what could have been.
But when it comes to the biggest superfight that never was, which one takes the mantle?
GEORGES ST-PIERRE vs. ANDERSON SILVA
Chiappetta: Back in the olden days when superfights were actually a rarity, we really only got fired up about the ones that would mean something. Someone who had just won a championship for the first time, for instance, wasn’t really a candidate for a superfight. You had to have a belt, a profile and gravitas to force your way into that discussion.
The first true one took place in 2009, when UFC lightweight B.J. Penn moved up to challenge welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre at UFC 94. That, my friends, was a happening, an event that drew a sellout crowd to Las Vegas, nearly hit one million pay-per-view buys, and captured the imaginations of fight fans worldwide.
The fight itself was fairly one-sided. Aside from a close first round, GSP battered Penn so thoroughly that Penn’s corner eventually stopped the match prior to the start of the fifth. Although the match itself proved anticlimactic, St-Pierre’s dominance was eye-opening.
Even prior to that bout, a match between St-Pierre and middleweight champion Anderson Silva had been speculated about in MMA circles, but GSP’s dominance brought that talk out into the open. If he could so easily dominate an all-time great like Penn, the thinking went, he certainly had a chance against another one in Silva.
Unfortunately, St-Pierre seemed to balk at every mention, saying that if he were to do that, he’d have to take time off to bulk up to give himself the best chance of winning. And surprisingly, UFC President Dana White never really pushed for it either, calling it a “fantasy” as it eventually fell into the void.
Now that some time has passed since we begged and pleaded for that matchup to no avail, it’s hard to remember how big it would have been. Silva for a time held the record for the most consecutive UFC title defenses with 10, and St-Pierre finished right behind him with nine.
These were two of the winningest fighters in UFC history but they also were among the most charismatic and electric fighters ever to walk into the Octagon.
If you never saw either do his thing in person, you truly missed out on a special experience. For a while, St-Pierre was the king of Canada, and drew a massive crowd of supporters wherever he fought, exploding at every takedown and popping at every ground strike. Meanwhile, Silva was a showman of the highest order, playing with his opponents as if they were children before mercifully ending things with dazzling combinations of speed, power and accuracy.
Just as compelling as their skills was how they would have used them against each other. Oddsmakers made Silva a slight favorite in betting lines released during that time, mostly because of the size disparity between the two men. Silva was long and powerful, and for St-Pierre to get inside for a takedown, he would have had to navigate a treacherous stretch of territory where Silva’s fists and knees could have reached him before St-Pierre got there. For Silva, one pinpoint strike often meant the end or the beginning of the end, and given GSP’s risk aversion in his later days, it would have been fascinating to see how it played out.
Silva was an incredibly gifted offensive fighter, and GSP was perhaps the best defensive fighter of his era. A lot of that relied upon the threat of his takedown. It was a weapon so potent, it would often freeze fighters who were so hyper focused on defending it, they became offensively paralyzed.
Despite their best efforts, most fighters eventually found themselves on their backs against St-Pierre, but even here, the fight would have stayed interesting. As Chael Sonnen can attest, Silva remained a major threat off of his back, even in the dying moments of a bout. Thus, we couldn’t assume that GSP’s swarming ground game would be a sure thing.
There are so many elements that would have been riveting viewing. Could Silva overwhelm St-Pierre in the clinch as he’d done to so many others? How would GSP have adjusted his offense in a reach deficit with limited use of his trademark jab? Could Silva enter the matrix against one of the sport’s all-time greats standing across from him? Would GSP’s carefully created game plan or Silva’s improvisational genius win the day?
Alas, we’ll never know. For all time, it will be a hypothetical for the ages, just like the men within. Silva and St-Pierre will forever be among the best to ever do it, and the sport will forever rue the inability to get them into the cage against each other, even as their primes ran in parallel.
RONDA ROUSEY vs. CRIS CYBORG
Lee: Neither Ronda Rousey nor Cris Cyborg had anywhere near the sustained excellence in the UFC as Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva, but at its a peak a dream bout between the two was as hot as any in MMA history and Cyborg wasn’t even in the UFC until Rousey had one foot out the door.
To remember where it all began, you have to go back at the halcyon days of Strikeforce when an August 2009 fight between Cyborg and Gina Carano rocketed women’s MMA into the mainstream. Carano was a budding star in her own right, a vibrant personality that would later make a name for herself in Hollywood, while Cyborg had already developed the reputation of a berserker just four years into her pro career. Hot on Cyborg’s heels was a rising featherweight named Ronda Rousey.
Rousey, a bronze medal winner in judo at the 2008 Olympics, absolutely disintegrated her first four MMA opponents—all of whom would go on to have respectable careers of their own—including future Bellator champion Julia Budd. None of them lasted longer than 50 seconds with Rousey.
Cyborg vs. Rousey. Inevitable, right? Not exactly.
Rather than continue on at 145, Rousey dropped down to bantamweight for a title fight with Miesha Tate. It was hard to argue with the move as Rousey picked up another first-round submission and the first championship of her career. She then won her next seven title fights, including six straight in the UFC.
As for Cyborg, a failed drug test in 2011 cost her the Strikeforce belt and all but killed any notion that Rousey would consider returning to featherweight to face her. Cyborg rebounded with another championship run in Invicta FC, but ironically, the more successful they both were the less likely it was that they would cross paths given that Rousey’s fame grew with every defense of her 135-pound title and Cyborg had no reason to even sign with the UFC since they had no featherweight division for her to compete in.
And yet, the two continued to snipe at each other through the media, with Rousey daring Cyborg to drop an extra 10 pounds and meet her at bantamweight, and Cyborg’s camp wondering why the former 145-pound prospect was unwilling to move back up for a once-in-a-lifetime fight. It should be noted that Rousey was one of the highest-paid fighters in the world at the time and had zero reason to accommodate any opponent, especially one she openly despised.
It’s that animosity that would have made this matchup the stuff of legends though. Cyborg, the unstoppable force who would eventually compile a 20-fight winning streak with few of her opponents looking like they belonged in the same cage as her; Rousey, the immovable object that dominated seasoned competition like no woman before her, even Cyborg herself. Before the rise of Amanda Nunes, Rousey and Cyborg were among the top-3 all-time when it came to WMMA GOATs (shout-out to Megumi Fujii).
It wasn’t her fault by any means, but Cyborg’s level of competition was always questioned. Even Rousey was a victim of her own success as her lightning-fast dismissals of the likes of Cat Zingano and Sara McMann caused them to be labeled retroactively as unworthy challengers. These two would have completed each other.
Who would have won? It’s hard to bet against Cyborg, physically one of the strongest featherweights ever to compete in MMA and an excellent grappler as well. The thought of Rousey trucking her as she had so many others is unfathomable. But Rousey made a career out of proving people wrong and in her prime was the definition of a world-beater. Could she have been the one to snap Cyborg’s legendary streak?
What really hurts about this one is the late—one could argue, half-hearted—effort to make this fight happen in 2016 as Cyborg was entering the UFC and Rousey was exiting. Cyborg’s first two octagon appearances were 140-pound catchweight affairs, an absurd test to see if she could reasonably make the cut down to bantamweight (spoiler: she couldn’t). The matchmakers were doing what they could to put the gears in motion for Cyborg vs. Rousey even if those gears were loudly grinding in futility.
It didn’t matter. Rousey lost some of her mystique after being knocked out by Holly Holm, then headed to the greener pastures of the WWE after her comeback attempt was brutally stifled by Nunes. Cyborg finally reigned as the UFC’s featherweight champion before she too fell to Nunes. Any remnants of a Cyborg-Rousey matchup are dust in the wind now.
There’s still an outside shot that the WWE books an angle for the two to work together someday or that the matchup is zombified for a quick cash grab a la Chuck-Tito III. For fight fans, either outcome would likely be infuriating more than anything else, especially compared to what we could have had: Two unique and gifted fighters with a genuine dislike for each other settling their score in the cage.
What is the most intriguing dream match?
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Georges St-Pierre vs. Anderson Silva
Ronda Rousey vs. Cris Cyborg
Other (leave a suggestion in the comments)