Baseball, Mixed Martial Arts and great champions
In both sports and life, we love great champions.
But athletic dominance alone isn’t what makes a champion great. Character is what elevates some to the greatness. Humility, integrity, sportsmanship and respect for others are what set some champions apart.
That’s why we think more highly of Greg Maddux than Roger Clemens. Maddux was all class all the time, while Clemens was full of ego, aggression and controversy.
During their playing days, Maddux was the best pitcher in the National League while Clemens held that status in the American League. Maddux was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the league in four consecutive seasons, while Clemens amassed seven over the course of his career.
Clemens’ reputation as an egotist and hothead began long before he was connected to steroid use and serial marital infidelity. He removed himself from Game six of the 1986 World Series complaining of a finger blister, but then took time to shave before the game ended so he’d look good for the celebration photos afterwards. Meanwhile, his team collapsed after he left the game and they wound up losing the Series.
In the 2000 World Series, Clemens threw a broken bat at the unassuming (but great) Mike Piazza of the Mets for no apparent reason. This was just months after unapologetically beaning Piazza in the head with a fastball and knocking him unconscious.
A different kind of anecdote highlights Maddux’s sublime disposition and character. In his final year, Maddux was acquired by the Dodgers to help with their stretch run. When the Dodgers got to the playoffs, the 42-year-old Maddux was moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen – a move widely viewed as a sign of disrespect for his accomplishments. But when asked in a post-game interview if he felt insulted by having to come out of the bullpen, a calm and genuine smile appeared on the legend’s face as he quietly replied, “No. It was an honor.”
Clemens’ behavior often gained him a brighter media spotlight. But as time passes, our fondness for Maddux, the mild-mannered man from Las Vegas, continues to grow as Clemens’ rep wanes.
Likewise, we see the same distinctions among champions in Geoff’s favorite pastime, mixed martial arts.
Conor McGregor is the current UFC featherweight champion. While McGregor is extremely talented on his feet, you might get the impression from watching him that he is the only fighter in the UFC. The Irish star doesn’t lack for ego, swagger or self-promotion, but Geoff doesn’t even consider him in the conversation for best pound-for-pound fighter.
To be sure, egotism is a common attribute among many fighters. Oddly to us, though, fighters who fall far short of the elite level are often worst offenders.
The ones who stand out most to us and earn our respect are those who show respect to their opponents and quietly display their skill. Three-time heavyweight champ Randy Couture jumps to mind along with current flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson.
Geoff considers Johnson to be the best all-around fighter he’s ever seen. “Mighty Mouse,” as he’s called, has mastered almost flawless technique in multiple disciplines, including boxing, wrestling, muay thai and jui jitsu. Johnson’s skill isn’t just limited to those techniques, however. His transitions from one move or one discipline to the next are smooth and seamless. Combine all that with amazing speed, and “Mighty Mouse” has been unbeatable.
Out of his first 10 bouts, all victories, Johnson won seven in the first round. He’s still the only fighter ever to hold the flyweight title, which was created in 2012. No challenger has even been competitive. That led the UFC to change this season’s format of its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, into a tournament of flyweight champions from all over the world in hopes of finding a legitimate contender to oppose him.
And yet, you wouldn’t glean Johnson’s unworldly dominance from his demeanor. Instead of self-promotion, Johnson always shows great respect and compliments each of his opponents for what they did well in facing him.
Traits like that elevate a champion from memorable to great. And that’s a lesson we can apply in life as well as sports.
Ron Knecht is Nevada’s elected controller and Geoffrey Lawrence is assistant controller.