The 2009 NBA finals have recently come to an end, with the L.A Lakers besting the Orlando Magic in five games. The series’ star, Kobe Bryant, has been heralded by many as the rightful heir to Michael Jordan’s throne, before he could legally purchase a drink.
MJ’s illustrious career was crucially important to Basketball’s peak in popularity.
With the significant additions of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as a launching pad, Jordan transcended the sport, and became a cultural icon. To legions of fans worldwide, his name is synonymous with the sport of Basketball.
Babe Ruth may hold a similar distinction in Baseball, Pele in Soccer, and perhaps Ali in Boxing.
Sports fandom always longs for exceptional athletes who best define and represent their respective sport. That very need is no less rampant in Mixed Martial Arts [MMA], as evidenced by the frequent and hotly debated pound-for-pound lists.
It would be precariously bold to attempt a comparison of both sports at this time. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that MMA is quite possibly on the verge of a major burst in prevalence. For the third consecutive year, mixed martial artists are featured alongside boxers in the ESPY Awards’ Best Fighter category.
Never before have we borne witness to athletes with a wider array of skills. The prolific cross-training in Boxing, Thai Boxing, Wrestling, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu among other arts, has induced an acute level of competition in the cage, or ring.
Acknowledging the present day dominant champions is a logical step in determining the best representatives of the sport, as it inches towards mainstream legitimacy.
Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre [GSP] are currently the consensus best in MMA. They consistently leave viewers and opponents reeling from superior demonstrations of steadfastness, technique and strategy.
Claiming a Jordan-esque stature however, goes beyond a pound-for-pound best appellation. It encompasses criteria such as talent, popularity, performance at the pinnacle of the sport, and marketability.
Fedor’s mastery of Sambo and Judo makes him one of the fiercest competitors in MMA. This Russian terminator usually leaves his opponents wishing for the cinematic android…as they pray to the referee for salvation.
In a highly competitive sport, the fact that "the emperor" hasn’t lost in thirty fights is a true testament to his determination and supremacy. Or is it not?
Jordan may never have become the icon he is, had he not competed in the NBA. In MMA, the premier stage is unequivocally thought to be the octagon, in the UFC. Rightfully so or not, Fedor’s relative lack of exposure can greatly be attributed to him not competing in the UFC.
Anderson Silva, on the other hand, has been the UFC middleweight champion since 2006, and his supremacy in that division is unquestionable.
“When I see the things that [Silva] does, I realize how much I have to learn in this sport”, said UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. As impressive as "the spider’s" “ballets of violence” are, he remarkably happens to be one of the least hit fighters in MMA.
Unfortunately, the most lethal striker in the sport is yet to be a consistent major draw for pay-per-view buys in the UFC. Between Anderson Silva and superstardom likely stands an unforgiving language barrier, especially in the realm of marketing.
In comparison to his pound-for-pound contemporaries, Georges St-Pierre is widely viewed as the prototypical fighter. MMA legend Frank Shamrock perhaps said it best, in an April, 2009 interview with BleacherReport.com’s Brian Oswald.
“We are in the midst of an evolution in the sport…Georges St-Pierre is the perfect example. The evolution of the athlete and the evolution of the art go hand in hand.”
That synergy has allowed GSP to seamlessly execute mixed martial arts clinics against the very best welterweights in the world.
Interestingly, St-Pierre’s commanding presence is noticeable far beyond his octagon prowess. Marketability is of the utmost significance to any athlete's career, and GSP seems to endorse that philosophy just as extensively as Jordan does Nike sneakers.
He was highly instrumental in drawing the largest UFC live attendance at the time, when the promotion first treaded north to Montreal, Canada, in April of 2008.
Shortly after a Best Fighter nomination for the ESPY Awards last summer, the Canadian star was the first mixed martial artist to sign with CAA Sports—an agency that represents the likes of Derek Jeter, David Beckham, and LeBron James—in October of last year.
“Beyond being a fierce competitor and a tremendously skilled fighter, Georges St-Pierre’s class, integrity and humility also make him a terrific ambassador for the sport," said co-head of CAA Sports, Howard Nuchow.
The implications of this strategic alliance could be monumental for St-Pierre, and mixed martial arts as a whole, specifically in terms of endorsement deals and general exposure.
To cap off an exceptional year, Georges was overwhelmingly named Canadian Athlete of the Year in 2008, becoming the first MMA fighter to capture the impressive title in the yearly vote held by Roger’s Sportsnet; a great tribute to the sport’s legitimacy.
St-Pierre is off to a terrific start this year. Akin to HBO’s 24/7 series, the UFC’s first ever primetime show on Spike TV—which featured his mega-fight with BJ Penn—likely subjected GSP’s fan base to an exponential growth.
Even more impressive, Georges joined an outstanding list of athletes, by participating in Gatorade’s latest "G" campaign in March; another milestone in the sport’s authenticity, and a confirmation of Georges’s broad allure.
One of St-Pierre’s most relatable attributes may be his perceived vulnerability. In fact, his uncharacteristic attempts at showmanship –i.e. “I am not impressed by your performance”- often resemble scenes from a casting tape. Fittingly so perhaps, as the image-conscious athlete is, at times, reminiscent of -what his childhood idol, Jean-Claude Van Damme, has failed to remain- a Hollywood star.
In a sport replete with hardened “tough guy” personas, St-Pierre’s refreshing demeanor appeals to the masses, while his progressive blend of fighting arts and athleticism are vastly celebrated by sports enthusiasts.
“That kid is such a home run for sponsors” said UFC President, Dana White, in a January, 2008 news conference.
MMA’s de facto commissioner’s statement has since been validated, and the 28 year old athlete looks to further enhance his profile at the heavily promoted UFC 100, on July 11. He will take on another pound-for-pound entrant in Thiago Alves.
Pioneers such as Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, BJ Penn, Matt Hughes, Forrest Griffin, and Gina Carano have all effected the sport’s growth a great deal. With their contributions as a platform, Georges St-Pierre may just be the total package needed to spearhead MMA’s "rush" to mainstream embrace.
It may not be long before many begin to echo [former UFC light heavyweight champion] Quinton "Rampage" Jackson’s sentiments on wanting to be “like GSP.”