The words, ‘Golden Age’ conjure up images of times gone by, when gas cost pennies, morals existed, life was easier, and people were prettier. Aside from empirical evidence that things did cost less (unless you adjust for inflation, and, well, that’s a different story), it’s all crap. Days gone by weren’t typically better, and this time, right here, right now, could be argued to be the best time to be alive. That rosy view of life in older times holds true for fight sports. We are absolutely in the single best era for fighting.
I’ll get a few things out of the way right now. Rocky Marciano was undersized, slow and fought at least a few fights that were either fixed or honest to god duds. Muhammad Ali, a great fighter who laid the ground work for modern boxing, would 100% be killed by the top three modern heavyweights. Royce Gracie, the godfather of MMA, would get taken apart by (in no particular order): Robert Whitaker, Tyron Woodley, and Tony Ferguson (let’s throw Ben Askren in there for funsies). We don’t have to look that far back to see that modern fighting has surpassed the skill set of its forefathers. The recent Rampage Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen fight illustrated this – Rampage stuck to what worked for him, Sonnen evolved, and the stagnant fighter lost. Caveat, Sonnen, one of my favorites, would killed by the same people who would kill Royce. It’s progress, people.
Before you get too butt hurt about the sacred cows being slaughtered en masse, stay with me. Each of the above men were great…for their time. It’s absurd to think that just because they were champions in their own time that they somehow transcended years and progress to forever stay the preeminent fighters. They just haven’t. That’s not a bad thing, especially in fighting. Progress is good.
We are absolutely in the golden age of fighting, across disciplines. Women’s MMA has never had more talent and that pool is rising steadily – see Rose Najamunas, Johanna Jerdecysck, Cris Cyborg and Holly Holm. Ronda Rousey, the chosen one of female fighting, the Mike Tyson of her time, nope’d right on out of her division when fighters skill sets evolved past her one weapon. Amanda Nunes knocks people clean out, and is a black belt on the ground. Sure, female MMA is in its infancy, but it’s light years ahead of where it started.
The current UFC heavyweight champion is a true mixed martial artist, the first real mixed martial artist, it could be said, to hold the belt. Stipe Miocic proved that big power and stature in and of themselves no longer rule the day in the heavyweight ranks. By dint of the fact that heavyweights in the UFC apparently have tenured positions, he will get his chance to fight the other ‘best heavy weight of all time’ and prove progress has been made. Sure Cain Valasquez is a stud, so is Dos Santos, but are they on the same level? Arguably no; mixed martial arts is about being good at all disciplines, not one or two.
The light heavyweight champion may be the best fighter ever not named Jon Jones. Daniel Cormier has beat everybody (except Jones); he has won with his hands, he’s won with cardio, he’s won by submission. Cormier has weathered knockouts and takedowns and freak athletes. In his last win he essentially noogied his opponent to a TKO, because he could. Do you think Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell or, hell, Ken Shamrock could have done that? No. The skill set has evolved too far past them. Alexander Gustafson could beat any champion at any weight he wanted to cut to 10 years ago, and he’s the third best light heavyweight on the planet….
The lineup below light heavy is stacked with people who have been training their entire lives to be true mixed marital artists. Aaron Picco (Bellator) is a guy who chose to forgo college and a promising wrestling career to become a marquee fighter. If you watched his last fight, he’s well on his way. The talent level is better, the competition is better, the training is better. The time and training today is simply the best it’s ever been.
What about boxing, you say?
If you haven’t been paying attention, go watch the Anthony Joshua vs. Vladimir Klitschko fight and tell me you’ve seen a better heavyweight bout since Rocky II? Oh, and guess who’s waiting for Joshua? Deonte Wilder, a native Alabama kid with legitimate dynamite in either hand. He could knock out a bull moose with a glancing blow. Add in the cartoon character that is Tyson ‘The Gypsy King’ Fury and you have the best heavyweight division since before drug testing was making sure you didn’t pee neon.
George Foreman was amazing. Mike Tyson was a demon. Lennox Lewis was the prototype for all who have come since. They all lose against any of the top three today.
If heavyweights aren’t your thing, you’ve got Triple G, an Eastern European mad man that’s never seen a hammer he can’t take to the face. There’s Canello Alvarez, a Mexican dynamo who looks like he’s from south Boston and who hits hard enough to remove your soul from your body. Any of the four horsemen (Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, and Ray Leonard) lose to those guys. Period. All great fighters, but not the best today, even in their prime.
If those aren’t enough for you look up Vasyl Lomachenko. Remember all those arcade games you’d play as a kid, and how you would just mash buttons to make your character go nuts throwing all sorts of wacky combos? Yeah, that’s Lomachenko, except all his punches land and no one hits him.
Just one more. Kovalev vs. Ward? Ring any bells? If it doesn’t, that sucks, because Andre Ward, arguably one of the most talented fighters of all time, took on Sergey Kovalev before he retired, in two of the best fights in the last fifty years. Kovalev? He killed a guy. Not a metaphor; he is Ivan Drago, and he’s not done yet.
This is the best time to be a fight fan. Ever. Better, more frequent fights, between better trained, more talented, fighters. Too often we ascribe permanent greatness to those who have done great things, and never take into account that time passes. But time passes and life evolves, and it’s childish to think that improvements haven’t been made, skills haven’t evolved, and the game itself hasn’t changed. If you’re more interested in holding on to fairy tales and burying your head in the sand, YouTube has a great selection of classic fights, binge away, fella. I’m more interested in how fighting will change going forward than I am in falsely glorifying past idols for deeds done in inferior eras.
We are fighters covering fighters.
Jens Nestingen is a family man with the bad habit of continual fight training. When not found being an animatronic punching bag he can be found questioning his choice to adopt a 90lb moron disguised as a dog. Follow him on Instagram at your own peril at @jens_nestingen