The title of “best pound for pound fighter” is possibly the highest accolade an MMA exponent could ever earn. It’s a divisive title because there is no single definition for what makes a fighter the best overall in their martial art. In this article, we unpack what it means. We also explore it specifically in the context of the UFC.

What is pound for pound?

The phrase carries different meanings for different people, and different defining characteristics depending on the combat sport. Broadly speaking, “pound for pound” acceptably refers to how good fighters are based on their skill and technique, regardless of weight class.

It’s a phrase that pundits use to rate fighters across different weight classes, and is a deeply subjective monicker given that some candidates will never fight each other. It has certainly fueled many boozy pub conversations since it was first bandied about. Any fight fan can remember hypothetical conversations about “who would win out of x and y?”

A century of history

Fight literature has featured the phrase “pound for pound” for well over a 100 years. Unsurprisingly, boxers frequently feature in its history, given the popularity of the sport for most of the 20th century.

In the early 1900s, the designation was attached to pro boxer Oscar Matthew “Battling” Nelson, a Danish-American light heavyweight. The Hall of Fame inductee, one of the toughest professional boxers ever to enter the ring, started his fight career at the age of 14 and logged 134 official fights.

Fight fans today may struggle to recognise Nelson, but they would have no trouble with Sugar Ray Robinson, whose style and skill inspired awe in legends like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis.

In boxing lore, it’s Robinson’s name that is most frequently attached to the title of “best pound for pound,” and he remains in the conversation today. That’s phenomenal considering that since he retired in 1965, the boxing world has seen incredible champions come and go. Names like Mayweather, Pacquiao, Jones Jr, Tyson and Ali. Sugar Ray Robinson is still up there.

Video source: ESPN Classic

UFC GOATs

In the same way, fans of the UFC and mixed martial arts also give their sport’s legends the “pound for pound” treatment. As with boxing, these MMA fighters have dominated their weight class to such an extent that fans start fantasising how they would fare against other greats across the league. 

The UFC discussion necessarily begins with Jon Jones, the former UFC light heavyweight champion. A controversial character, Jones is essentially unbeaten in the UFC, with his one loss coming from a disqualification for breaking the “12 to 6” elbow rule in a fight. 

As of August 2021, Jones is mired in a contract dispute with the UFC where he is holding out for higher fighter pay. He hasn’t fought since February 2020 and it might be some months before we see this pound for pound king return to the Octagon.

Other fighters typically mentioned in the GOAT conversation for the UFC: Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Georges St. Pierre, Ronda Rousey, to name a few. Khabib Nurmagomedov has in recent years emerged as a strong contender with his unbroken streak of 29 UFC wins.

Defining characteristics

We said earlier that “best pound for pound” is a deeply subjective title, which is to say there is no one definition set in stone. As a result, the phrase has a mystical, reverential quality for fans of combat sports.

Still, there are some broad parameters that most pundits consider in evaluating a fighter’s greatness. One can argue these apply universally across all combat sports.

  • Fight record: Clearly, wins matter. Championships matter. The quality of opposition. A fighter with a winning record only against lower-ranked opponents surely doesn’t deserve extraordinary recognition.
  • Technique and skill set: Results matter, but so does the way in which fighters execute their wins. There is an aesthetic quality attached to how a fighter goes about their business which is underpinned by the work they put into honing their craft and rounding out their skillset.
  • Method of victory: A win is a win, but how fighters close out their bouts is a consideration. Are they one-punch merchants or just rely on getting on the floor? Maybe the answer is in between. Some greats are multi-dimensional combatants who have demonstrated their ability to fight in different ways and styles in response to whoever they’re fighting. In the UFC, Georges St-Pierre exemplifies this versatility in his ability to adapt his style to beat his opponent at his own game.

Why does pound for pound matter in the UFC?

There is no formal “best pound for pound” ranking or title for the UFC, or any other combat league. Some authoritative MMA publications maintain and update their own standing, but none of the leagues issue belts or trophies officially. So why does it matter so much to fighters and fans alike?

For some fighters, it’s about inspiration and ambition. To be considered as one of the greats in their sport, if not the best. It’s a force that drives a combat athlete to greater and greater heights. To push themselves more and more in their journey to the top.

Jose Aldo gave the Bleacher Report some insight into the fighter’s odyssey in 2013:

“Of course, I keep looking to the pound-for-pound ranking, and when I see those guys I keep chasing to be the best. That’s my main goal. That’s what motivates me.”

Darren is the editorial director of The AllStar and a retired championship-winning point guard who dropped dimes and broke ankles in recreational leagues across the Asia Pacific. A former APAC markets and banking editor with Bloomberg News, Darren has written about the NBA and UFC. Personal sporting highlight: Being courtside under the backboard (and a little to the left) when Vince Carter did THAT DUNK on Frederic Weis at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.