MMA's main man

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – He's Babe Ruth in 1925 or George Mikan in 1950.

Still, since his sport has such a short history, Chuck Liddell isn't sure the tag of best mixed martial artist ever can be properly determined just yet.

"It's such a young sport," said Liddell, the UFC's light heavyweight champion, who defends his belt Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden in a rematch with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Jackson is the last man to have beaten Liddell.

Liddell's dominance of the early years of MMA is not as obvious as Ruth's rule over baseball. But if he defeats Jackson, he'll have beaten every man he's ever faced and made a convincing argument for himself.

He's defeated Randy Couture, who currently holds the UFC’s heavyweight title, in two of three matches. He's dominated Tito Ortiz in two fights. He's also beaten notables such as Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman, Babalu Sobral, Murilo Bustamante, Alistair Overeem, Jeremy Horn and Jeff Monson.

UFC president Dana White, who once managed Liddell and maintains a friendship with him, believes Liddell is the greatest in the nearly 14-year history of MMA.

"He's nearly cleaned out the division and he's beaten a who's who of the best guys out there," White said. "How many guys have beaten everyone who has ever beaten them? I think it has to be Chuck."

In the early years of the sport, fighters were only skilled in one discipline. Liddell's background is as a kickboxer, but he was a college wrestler and has a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Monte Cox, one of the game's most prominent managers, suggests either Liddell or his own Matt Hughes, as the greatest ever. They have developed the all-around skills the early stars lacked.

"The sport has evolved so quickly in such a short period of time," said Cox, who argues that Hughes has beaten more top five fighters than Liddell. "But I think anybody in the top five in any division now would have won everything back then (when the UFC started)."

MMA was born in 1993, ostensibly to settle a barroom argument regarding which fighting style was the best.

UFC 1 was an eight-man tournament in which the champion had to win three fights in the same night with very few rules. The winner was perhaps the most unlikely entrant, the 175-pound Royce Gracie.

Gracie was less than half the size of one of the entrants, 415-pound sumo wrestler Teila Tuli, but scored three wins, none of which took longer than two minutes, 18 seconds.

There was nothing mixed about his style of fighting, though. Gracie was an expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which none of the other fighters had a clue how to defend against.

Gracie is a member of the UFC Hall of Fame, but it's largely for his performance in those early shows. He's still an active fighter and will meet Kazushi Sakuraba on June 2 in Los Angeles. But he was dominated in a non-title fight last year by then-UFC welterweight Matt Hughes.

"Royce had wins that were set up over guys who didn't know anything," Cox said. "Even if you take him in his prime, he couldn't compete with these guys today. His standup was horrid, his wrestling was horrible. Chuck would KO Royce 100 times of 100.

"That's no knock against Royce. It's just a point about the way this sport has evolved."

There are some who would insist that the greatest MMA fighter of all-time is neither Liddell, Couture nor Hughes, but current Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko.

Emelianenko is 26-1 and his only loss came when he was cut by an elbow just 17 seconds into a fight with Tsuyoshi Kohsaka.

Mark Coleman, a former UFC heavyweight champion who was beaten by Emelianenko in October, raves about the Russian's skills.

"Whatever you've heard about him? Well, it's all that and more," Coleman said. "He is a one-man fighting machine. He's good in all areas: Stand-up, on the ground. You name it, he can do it."

White, though, argues that Emelianenko hasn't fought the same level of competition as Liddell.

Keith Jardine, a light heavyweight contender who rates Liddell and Couture 1-2 as the greatest of all-time, said there are questions surrounding many of the heavyweights who fought primarily in Pride.

The consensus was that Pride's heavyweights were far superior to UFC's, but some who have moved over recently have been beaten.

Mirko CroCop was expected to dominate the UFC when he moved from Pride, but he was knocked out in the first round last month by Gabriel Gonzaga. Heath Herring joined the UFC with a big reputation built in Pride, but was beaten convincingly in his UFC debut by Jake O’Brien.

"We don't know right know because Pride and UFC were separated for so long," Jardine said. "Look at what happened to CroCop recently. We don't know how good those Pride guys really were."

There's little doubt, though, about Liddell's quality. At 37, he insists he's far from finished and said he'd be motivated by fights against Pride champion Dan Henderson and Shogun Rua if he gets past Jackson.

White believes the quality of fighters is going to increase dramatically over the next 10 years because the athletes are training in multiple disciplines from the start.

None of the current crop has added skills better than Liddell.

And until that true multi-dimensional fighter comes along, Liddell stands alone at the top of the MMA world.

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