In combat sports, the title of Heavyweight Champion carries a special mystique. Whether it’s due to exceptional skill or stature or both, heavyweights are magnets for fame. Boxing has its Muhammad Alis and Mike Tysons; wrestling has its Aleksandr Karelins and Bruce Baumgartners. Mixed Martial Arts is no exception. Below, a complete list of UFC Heavyweight Champions since the inception of the division.
Mark Coleman (16-10 MMA, 7-5 UFC)
Feb. 7th, 1997 – Jul. 27th 1997
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Def. Dan Severn at UFC 12
Mark Coleman was–is–a maniac! (I mean that in the best way; I’ve met him and he’s awesome). After an accomplished amateur career that included two Ohio high school state titles, an NCAA championship and an appearance in the 1992 Summer Olympics, Coleman devoted himself to the then-new sport of MMA after stumbling onto a broadcast of UFC 1.
Coleman started his combat sports career in his teens as a wrestler for Saint Joseph Central Catholic High School. After winning two state championships, he went on to wrestle at Miami University, in Ohio, before transferring to The Ohio State University and winning an NCAA championship. After placing 7th at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Mark happened to see the broadcast of UFC 1. From there, he dove headfirst into this new sport of MMA.
From the outset, Coleman dominated, thanks to a style that earned him the nickname, “The Godfather of Ground and Pound”. It was clear from the start of every fight that Coleman’s one goal was to take the action to the ground and strike his opponent unconscious or until they submitted. Thanks to his elite wrestling and ground and pound ability, he earned the first ever UFC Heavyweight Championship belt by defeating Dan Severn (101-19-7 MMA, 9-4 UFC) in a fight to unify the UFC Superfight Champion and UFC Tournament Champion titles.
Though he was dominant early, his reign was short; Coleman lost his first and only title defense to a kickboxer named Maurice Smith. His stay may have been short-lived, but his impact is still felt to this day as one of the OG’s of MMA and one of the sport’s tactical trailblazers.
Maurice Smith (14-17 MMA, 4-3 UFC)
Jul. 27th 1997 – Dec. 21st, 1997
Def. Mark Coleman at UFC 14
Maurcie Smith’s title reign lasted just a little bit longer than Mark Coleman’s, as Smith notched one title defense against fan-favorite, Tank Abbott (10-15 MMA, 8-10 UFC).
Prior to joining the UFC, “Mo” was an avid kickboxer. Although he didn’t officially make his kickboxing debut until he was 30 years old, Smith began training at 18. After nine kickboxing matches, a little Pancrase, and a stint on the regional MMA scene, Smith defeated Heavyweight Champion Mark Coleman in his UFC debut, taking the title belt from Coleman and handing him the first loss of his UFC career in the process.Though he ended his career with more losses than wins, Smith etched his name into the history books by delivering one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
Another (not so favorable) reason he’s going to be remembered is for his controversial loss to Randy Couture in his second title defense.
(1) Dec. 21st, 1997 – Jan. 1998, (2) Nov 17th, 2000 – Mar. 22nd 2002, (3) Mar. 3rd 2007 – Feb. 2nd, 2008
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Def. Maurice Smith at UFC Japan
“The Natural” Randy Couture captured the UFC heavyweight strap three times over his 14 year career and also defended it three times. Since August 2007, only one other heavyweight has reigned victorious in six title bouts (more on that guy later), and none more than that.
Randy’s style was reminiscent of Mark Coleman’s, albeit with Couture being much more well rounded and technical than the “smash heavy” Coleman. Couture became champion for the first time by defeating Maurice Smith in a close, slow-paced fight, but didn’t hold the title for very long.
In January 1998, Couture signed with Vale Tudo Japan and was stripped of his UFC title. In his return nearly three years later, Couture faced and defeated storied wrestler, Kevin Randleman. After defeating Randleman, Couture successfully defended his title against Pedro Rizzo (20-11 MMA, 10-4 UFC) not once, but twice in a row, as Rizzo was awarded an immediate rematch after a tightly contested first fight. After losing the title to Josh Barnett in March 2002, Couture regained the belt five years later for the third and final time, defeating Tim Sylvia. Couture managed to successfully defend his title for the last time against Gabriel Gonzaga (17-12 MMA, 12-10 UFC), but Couture’s title reign finally reached its end when he faced the ultimate hype train that is Brock Lesnar.
Though he never fought for a title again, Randy Couture remains one of the most legendary and successful heavyweights in the short history of the UFC.
Bas Rutten (28-4-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC)
May 7th, 1999 – June 1999
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Def. Kevin Randleman at UFC 20
If you’re a fan of MMA, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen an ad with this incredibly spirited gentleman beating the shit out of this crazy-looking pad covered machine. If you haven’t seen it, you’re welcome (see Body Action System).
Bas Rutten’s UFC career may have been short lived, but he was an astute veteran of combat having had 30 professional fights (all with pancrase) going into his debut. After he battered Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (41-33-2 MMA, 3-3 UFC), Bas got a title shot against Kevin Randleman. In a fight where position was dominated by Randleman, it was the accumulation of strikes that won the fight for Rutten who was fighting off his back nearly the entire fight. This split decision was met with heated controversy and resulted in the change of the judges official scoring system.
Bas vacated the title to drop to middleweight (now light heavyweight) to challenge to be the UFC’s first double champ, however, multiple injuries in preparation for his return led to the end of his UFC career.
His stint in the UFC was short, but his impact on the sport is still felt today as he was recognized as one of the sports first great technicians, and was regarded for a time as the world’s greatest martial artist.
Kevin Randleman (17-16 MMA, 4-3 UFC)
Nov. 19, 1999 – Nov. 17th, 2000
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Def. Pete Williams at UFC 23
Cue DJ Khalad. It’s time for “another one” with our next wrestler-turned-UFC Heavyweight Champion, Kevin “The Monster” Randleman. Like his mentor, former UFC heavyweight champ Mark Coleman, Randleman was a high school state champion in Ohio who then won two NCAA titles at The Ohio State University. Under Coleman’s tutelage at Team Hammer House, Randleman quickly climbed the ladder after making his UFC debut in 1999.
After defeating former champ Maurice Smith in his debut and taking the controversial loss to Bas Rutten in his first attempt at gold, Randleman was awarded a second chance to fight for the crown once Rutten abdicated the throne. In his second attempt for the title, Randleman decisively defeated pete Williams in five rounds.
As champion, Randleman successfully defended the belt against Pedro Rizzo (unanimous decision) before losing to multiple time champ, Randy Couture by TKO. Over the next 10 years he fought for the UFC, PRIDE and Strikeforce before retiring at the age of 39. In 2016, he tragically passed away due to heart failure, but his legacy as one of the UFC’s toughest fighters lives on.
Josh Barnett (35-8 MMA, 7-3 UFC)
Mar. 22nd, 2002 – Jul 26th, 2002
Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Def. Randy Couture at UFC 36
Josh Barnett has been wildly successful in his time as a martial artist, but his career has been marred by controversy.
With 29 of his 35 wins coming by KO/TKO or submission, Barnett has been able to put away most of his opponents, including a TKO of Randy Couture to claim the title belt in March, 2002. Still, Barnett would be stripped of the title a few months after the fight after flunking his second steroid test of that year.
This would be a common occurrence for Barnett throughout his career as he would go on to fail several more times. Although Barnett was one of the most prominent fighters to be caught juicing, he was hardly an anomaly; the UFC had rampant steroid usage problems during its early years, which has since necessitated the intervention of USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency).
In 2009, Barnett, now on the Affliction circuit, again tested positive for steroids, spoiling a prospective fight against Fedor Emelianenko (40-6 MMA).
Josh Barnett is a great fighter, there’s no debating that. He has defeated the likes of Mark Hunt (13-14-1 MMA, 8-10 UFC), and former champions Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir. The dude can fight, but he never had the chance to fully live up to his potential because he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stay clean.
Ricco Rodriguez (54-27-1 MMA, 5-2 UFC)
Sep 27th, 2002 – Feb. 28th, 2003
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Def. Randy Couture at UFC 39
Ricco “Suave” Rodriguiez had his first fight in 1999 with his last coming in 2019. He’s successfully fought in three separate decades and, even at the relatively ancient age of 44-years-old, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he fought in fourth.
After growing up between New Jersey and Staten Island, Ricco later relocated to California to train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. After a few years of competing in BJJ tournaments, he made his MMA debut in 1999. Within two years of starting in MMA, Rodriguezed amassed a 9-1 record before joining the chance to join the UFC. In his early UFC fights, Rodriguez took out perennial warriors Andrei Arlovski, Pete Williams and Tsuyoshi Kosaka, earning the right to challenge for the vacant UFC Heavyweight Championship against none other than the legendary Randy Couture.
Despite being dominated by Couture for the bulk of the fight, Ricco Suave secured an early takedown with three minutes left in the fifth round, breaking Couture’s orbital bone with vicious elbows and forcing Couture to verbally tap out.
Rodriguez was now a champion, but not for long—after defeating Randy Couture, Rodriguez lost his title less than 6-months later when he faced an undefeated Tim Sylvia. Sylvia KO’d in the first round and Rodriguez’s time in the UFC came to an end shortly thereafter once his contract expired in 2004. For the next 16 years, Rodriguez bounced around a variety of smaller circuits (even briefly transitioning to boxing), before retiring in 2018.
Tim Sylvia (31-10 MMA, 9-4 UFC)
(1) Feb. 28th, 2003 – Oct. 15th 2003, (2) Apr. 15th 2006 – Mar. 3rd, 2007
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Def. Ricco Rodriguez at UFC 41
Two fights and three rounds. That is all it took for “The Maine-iac” Tim Sylvia to capture UFC gold.
Well, kind-of… While it only took him the first round of his second UFC event, Sylvia had fought 16 times before joining the promotion. Originally a Karate kid who wrestled in high school, Sylvia played semi-pro football upon graduation until he fully committed himself to MMA.
After a brief three-fight stint on the amatuer circuit, Sylvia won his first 16 professional fights, with 10 of those victories coming either via TKO/KO or a submission. In his 15th pro fight, he KO’d Ricco Rodriguez to become the Heavyweight Champion and managed to successfully defend the title against Gan McGee in February, 2003. Unfortunately for Sylvia, he lost his belt to Frank Mir in his next fight, submitting after being put in an armbar in the first round.
In 2005, Sylvia faced off against Andrei Arlovski for the vacant belt, but succumbed to an Achilles lock. However, Sylvia got his revenge against Arlovski the next year, knocking out the Belrusian in a rematch and reclaiming the title. Sylvia defended his throne against Arlovski (the final installment of their trilogy) and Jeff Monson, but eventually lost a unanimous decision to Randy Couture, who captured his fifth UFC Championship in a unanimous decision.
After his departure from the UFC, Tim fought another 14 times against varying competition, including another fight against Arlovski and one against Fedor Emelianenko (40-6 MMA).
In 2015, Sylvia was denied medical clearance to fight and announced his retirement in the cage alongside his potential opponent. Although Sylvia hadn’t had enough, the doctors had.
Frank Mir (19-13 MMA, 16-11 UFC)
(1) Jun. 19th, 2004 – Aug. 12th, 2005, (Interim) Dec. 27th, 2008 – Mar. 27th, 2010
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Def. Tim Sylvia at UFC 48, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 92 (Interim)
Like Randy Couture, Frank Mir is a recognizable name, fighting in the UFC 26 times over 16 years.
A 16 year vet of the UFC, Mir got his start training at the American Kenpo school that his parents owned and then later turned to wrestling as a way to improve his American Kenpo performance. After high school, Frank met UFC matchmaker Joe Silva while training BJJ, who convinced Mir to try out MMA. Two fights and two wins later, Mir earned a shot with the UFC.
After 6 UFC fights spanning 3 years (2001-04), he got a chance at gold in 2004, squaring off against Tim Sylvia for the vacant UFC Heavyweight title. Mir broke Sylvia arm in the first round. Yes, you read that right. Even though Mir had Sylvia locked up in a straight armbar, Sylvia refused to tap; for his troubles, Sylvia had his arm snapped into four pieces. F*ck that!
Unfortunately, Mir broke his femur and torn multiple ligaments in his leg. Unable to unify and defend his interim title, Mir was stripped of his belt.
When he finally came back a year and a half later in February, 2006, Mir was upset by BJJ blackbelt Marcio Cruz (8-3 MMA, 2-2 UFC), losing by TKO in the first round. After a turbulent two years, Mir spoiled Brock Lesnar’s UFC debut in 2008, earning him a chance to once again fight for the Heavyweight belt. Battling for the interim title against Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, Mir knocked out the Brazilian with a flurry of punches. Sadly, Mir’s second attempt at defending his title only went marginally better than his first, with Brock Lesnar ground-and-pounding him during their rematch.
Mir again fought for the interim title (2010), and then the undisputed title (2011), losing both bouts to Shane Carwin and Junior Dos Santos respectively. Since then, Mir is 3-7 in MMA and 0-2 in boxing (kinda – see Triad Combat).
Andrei Arlovski (32-20 MMA, 21-15 UFC)
(Interim Promoted to Undisputed Champion) Feb. 5th, 2005 – Apr. 15th, 2006
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Def. Tim Sylvia at UFC 51 (Interim, promoted to undisputed)
“The Pitbull” Andrei Arlovski is the first fighter on this list who’s still actively competing in the UFC. At 42, Arlovski has won 4 of his last 5 fights, most recently notching a victory in October, 2021
Bullied as a kid, Arlovski started Sambo, Judo, and Kickboxing at the age of 16, eventually winning the European Youth Sambo Championships. Shortly after his success in Sambo, Arlovski developed an interest in MMA, which inspired him to develop other skills and become a more well-rounded martial artist.
Winning seven of his first 10 fights, Arlovski matched up against Sylvia in 2005 to fight for the UFC Interim Heavyweight Championship that was created following Frank Mir’s motorcycle accident. In this fight, Arlovski faced Tim Sylvia and finished him with a straight ankle lock after dropping him with a vicious right hand. Arlovski now had gold around his waist!
While waiting for a unification bout against Mir, Arlovski defended his title twice, TKO-ing Justin Eilers (19-7-1 MMA, 1-3 UFC) in the first round and then doing the same to Paul Buentello (35-17 MMA, 3-3 UFC) in the second. As a result of these dominating performances and Mir’s continued absence, Arlovski was promoted and became the undisputed champion.
By this point, though, Sylvia had rebounded from his earlier loss to Arlovski, winning three consecutive fights and setting up a rematch between the two rivals. Ultimately, Sylvia would seize the belt by beating Arlovski in consecutive fights. Although Arlovski has remained a strong presence on the circuit after those losses to Sylvia and undoubtedly still has gas left in the tank (he wants to fight until at least 45), he hasn’t participated in any championship fights since he last lost to Arlovski. Let’s hope he can keep up his strong form and avoid a downward spiral to round out his career as many before him have.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (34-10-1 MMA, 5-6 UFC)
(Interim) Feb. 2nd, 2008 – Dec. 27th, 2008
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Def. Tim Sylvia at UFC 81 (Interim)
“Big Nog” Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira practiced judô, boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in his time growing up in Vitoria da Conquista, Brazil. By the age of 25, he was set to make his mixed martial arts debut. Most of his early career was spent fighting for PRIDE, where he faced quite a few of MMA’s top contenders, notching wins over Dan Henderson (32-15 MMA, 9-9 UFC), former champ Ricco Rodriguez and Fabricio Werdum (24-9-1 MMA, 12-6 UFC).
In 2008, nine years and 35 fights into his MMA career, Antonio met and defeated Tim Sylvia (this dude, again??) to capture the UFC Interim Heavyweight Championship in comeback fashion, pulling a guillotine choke shortly after being knocked down with strikes late in the third round. After winning the title, Nog and former UFC Champion Frank Mir appeared as coaches on the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter. After the season, Nogueira and Mir fought for the interim title where Mir won the lopsided affair by TKO in the second round.
Since then, Big Nog traded wins for losses until hitting a three-fight skid that led to his retirement. Nogueira’s career was marked with him being a dominant force on the ground, with skills exceeding that of any other fighters at the time – and that’s how he should be remembered.
Brock Lesnar (5-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC)
Nov. 15th, 2008 – Oct. 23rd, 2010
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Def. Randy Couture at UFC 91
Our next champion is the WWE’s long-tenured bad boy, Brock Lesnar. Lesnar, like many before and after him, grew up an amatuer wrestler. He went on to compete at Bismarck State College, winning a national junior college title (NJCAA) in his sophomore year before transferring to the University of Minnesota. There, Lesnar became a two-time Big Ten Champion and a one time NCAA Champion. After college, Lesnar transitioned into professional wrestling where he made his debut for the WWE in 2002, just two years into his career.
Lesnar rose to stardom quickly, defeating Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson later that year to become the youngest WWE champion at age 25. Lesnar would spend five more years headlining WWE events before eventually making and winning his MMA debut in 2007.
In just his 2nd MMA fight, Lesnar faced former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Frank Mir, in a test he would not pass, losing by kneebar. Next, he had a scheduled bout with Mark Coleman that unfortunately never happened due to a Coleman injury (can you imagine how insane those two would look fighting one another??). His replacement, Heath Herring (28-16 MMA, 2-3 UFC) was a formidable opponent, but undoubtedly a step down from Mir. This fight managed to go the distance with Lesnar taking the win by unanimous decision, and was more than enough evidence for the UFC that they could put the WWE star in a fight for the title (plus, dollar signs…)
In a fight for the UFC Heavyweight Championship, we saw the sports most heralded heavyweight champion of the time, Randy Couture, fall in the second round to MMA newbie Lesnar. Brock was able to keep the fight standing and after knocking down Couture with strikes, was able to capitalize and finish the fight by raining down punches. Through 2010, we saw Brock defend his title in two unification bouts, one avenging a loss against Frank Mir with punches, and another by finishing Shane Carwin with an arm-triangle choke.
Though starting his career incredibly strong, Lesnar went on to lose his title to then-up-and-comer Cain Valezquez by first round TKO. After battling a bout of diverticulitis that required surgery, Lesnar returned to face Alistair Overeem and lost in the first round after taking multiple body shots. In his last fight with the UFC, he faced the storied Mark Hunt in a fight that he dominated, but was later overturned to a no-contest after Lesnar tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Though a comeback has been discussed, nothing has come to fruition and at this point, that’s likely a good thing. Lesnar’s time in the UFC was short lived, but nothing less than massively entertaining. With his showmanship and the experience he attained as a top WWE athlete, Lesnar certainly added some fun wrinkles to the UFC history books in the late 2000s.
Shane Carwin (12-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC)
(Interim) Mar. 27th, 2010 – Jul. 3rd, 2010
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Def. Frank Mir at UFC 111 (Interim)
Ding, another wrestler! Unlike his wrestling counterparts, though,“The Engineer ” Shane Carwin has a college degree and worked in mechanical engineering alongside his MMA career.
At Western State College, Shane pursued his degree while competing in both wrestling and football, becoming a NCAA D2 Heavyweight Champion and participating in the Senior Bowl in 1997. This guy can handle a lot at once!
That being the case, Carwin took his time and eventually made his debut in MMA in 2005. He took 8 fights over the course of two years, winning them all and earning his shot in the UFC. Between 2008-09, The Engineer fought Christain Wellisch, Neil Wain, and Gabriel Gonzaga, winning each fight in the first round and demonstrating spectacular punching power. This led to him having the opportunity to compete for the UFC Interim Heavyweight Championship against Frank Mir.
Carwin’s punching power reigned supreme in a fight where he smashed Mir against the fence and proceeded to hammer him with short punches before falling to the ground and being finished off with ground and pound from the back. Carwin captured a piece of UFC gold and was set to unify the title in a bout against out next champion, Brock Lesnar. This unification didn’t go Carwin’s way, and he lost his following bout to Junior dos Santos, but he remains as one of the more powerful punchers in UFC history.
Shane Carwin never fought MMA again, but did fight a modified rules boxing match against skateboarder Jason Ellis in 2016, where he had his right arm duct taped to his body. Nonetheless–surprise, surprise–he still won by knockout.
Cain Velasquez (14-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC)
(1) Oct. 23rd, 2010 – Nov. 12th, 2011, (2) Dec. 29th 2012 – Jun. 13th, 2015
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Def. Brock Lesnar at UFC 121
Cain Velasquez stands as one of the most intimidating forces to ever compete inside a UFC octagon. Sure, he has some blemishes to his record, but he still stands as one of the most gifted and awe-inspiring heavyweight fighters who ever was.
That said, can you guess what sport he started in? You might as well guess wrestling, because you’ll be right almost every time. After a high school career that saw him compile a record of 110-10, Velasquez went on to win an NJCAA National Championship for Iowa Central Community College before transferring to Arizona State University. There, he secured 5th and 4th place finishes at the NCAA tournament in his final two years (2005-06).
Right after college, Velasquez joined American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) and began training to take his first fight. That same year, he fought twice, winning his first two bouts within the first round due to strikes. That was enough to earn him a shot at the UFC; his domination continued as he rattled off eight wins in a row, including one over “Big Nog”, with only one of them not coming by KO/TKO.
Enter “The Next Big Thing” Brock Lesnar. Though Brock started strong by landing a takedown, Velasquez eventually made it back to his feet and ended the fight with elite striking. Not only did he derail the Lesnar hype train, he captured UFC gold! Unfortunately, he tore his rotator cuff in the midst of the fight and was sidelined for a year before making his first title defense, which was against a Brazilian up-and-comer named Junior dos Santos. This fight was billed as an exciting clash but many expected Velasquez to dominate in retaining his title. Just one minute into the skirmish, it was a sweeping overhand by dos Santos that connected, put Velasquez down and led to the finishing sequence of punches.
Though his title reign ended quickly, it wasn’t long before he was fighting for gold once again, defeating Antonio Silva 6-months later to earn another shot at JDS. This time, the fight went much more as expected, seeing Velasquez dominate dos Santos for all five rounds on his way to a unanimous decision win, where he landed double digit takedowns, and triple digit significant strikes. Once again, one of the most imposing forces in MMA was the UFC Heavyweight Champion.
After capturing the title for a second time, Velasquez was back to his finishing ways, defending the title against Antonio Silva and JDS, winning both before the bell thanks to his heavy hands. Then came Fabricio Werdum. Werdum had won the Interim title a few months before, as Velasquez had gotten injured in preparation for their initial title fight. Once they finally met in the octagon, Werdum was able to finish Cain by guillotine choke in the third round, marking the first time he had lost via submission in his nearly 10-year career.
A rematch was scheduled for February of 2016, but both fighters needed more time as injuries arose. Upon his return, Velasquez faced and defeated Travis Browne (18-7-1 MMA, 10-7 UFC), but in another attempt to face Werdum, he was not cleared by the Nevada State Athletic Commission due to bone spurs in his back.
Velasquez took one last fight in February 2019 against Francis N’Gannou, where, in 26 short seconds, a short uppercut dropped him and led to him to being finished by ground and pound.
Though Velasquez has yet to fight again, he is currently competing as a professional wrestler for Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide and has made appearances in the WWE. He seems to be moving on from real fighting to opt more for entertainment, and good on him for continuing to use his athletic skills to bring something worth watching to the world.
Junior dos Santos (21-9 MMA, 15-8 UFC)
Nov. 12th, 2011 – Dec. 29th 2012
Def. Cain Velasquez at UFC on Fox: Velasquez vs. dos Santos
Finally, enough with the wrestlers! “Cigano”, Junior dos Santos or JDS for short, grew up in Brazil training in capoeira before committing to BJJ at the age of 21. He turned pro just one year later (2006), winning his first 5 fights in little over a year’s time. After winning six of his first seven fights, he made his debut for the UFC as a clear underdog against Fabricio Werdum. In a stunning turn of events, JDS knocked Werdum out in under two-minutes, earning him the knockout of the year for the UFC.
To follow the impressive start, Cigano followed with six wins in a row to fight for the title against the aforementioned Cain Velasquez. As we explored, it was a massive overhand that sent Velasquez tumbling and earned JDS his first UFC Heavyweight Championship. Six months later, he successfully defended his title against perennial contender, Frank Mir, defeating him with superior boxing and finishing the fight in the second round.
Seven months later, JDS faced Velasquez for a second time and lost his title by unanimous decision. Though he would go on to challenge for the title a few more times throughout his career, Dos Santos has yet to capture it again and is most recently riding a four-fight losing streak against a row of killers (Francis N’Gannou, Curtis Blaydes, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, and Ciryl Gane).
In March of 2021, it was announced that JDS was being released from the UFC and we have since seen him also compete in professional wrestling, but for an organization called All Elite Wrestling (AEW).
Fabricio Werdum (24-9-1 MMA, 12-6 UFC)
(Interim) Nov. 15th, 2014 – Jun. 13th 2015, (2) Jun. 13th, 2015 – May 14th, 2016
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Def. Mark Hunt at UFC 180 (Interim), Cain Velasquez at UFC 188 (Undisputed)
Fabricio “Vai Cavalo” Werdum’s venture into combat sports is unlike any others on this list; it started only after he was choked out in a triangle choke by his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend.
Ouch. Talk about a blow to the ego. Luckily for Werdum, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s way more successful than Mr. Steal Ya Girl.
Werdum made his professional debut in 2002, winning six of his first seven fights, the one blemish being a draw. At this time, Fabricio was competing in PRIDE, facing top competition pre-UFC (Alistair Overeem, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira). In 2007, Vai Cavalo made his UFC debut against Andrei Arlovski, losing by unanimous decision to the former UFC Heavyweight champ. Over the next seven years, Werdum would fight 11 times between the UFC and Strikeforce before putting together a four-fight win streak to earn the opportunity at the Heavyweight belt. Due to the fact that the champion of the time, Cain Velasquez, was injured, Werdum instead fought Mark Hunt for the UFC Interim Heavyweight Title. Werdum finished Mark halfway through the second round, throwing a long knee from range, connecting perfectly to send him to the canvas.
Finally, on June 13th of 2015, Werdum challenged for the UFC Undisputed Heavyweight Championship, defeating Velasquez by guillotine choke in the third round, and was declared the unquestioned champion of the heavyweight division. In his first and only title defense, he faced first-time title challenger, Stipe Miocic. While charging forward and throwing a flurry, Werdum was caught with a counter right-hand that sent him crashing into the canvas. He was out cold.
Since then, Werdum traded wins and losses through his final contract with the UFC, and in 2021 decided to go fight for the PFL (Professional Fighters League). His first and only fight with them was met with controversy as it seemed his opponent tapped to a choke prior to a fight ending sequence that left Werdum on the losing end. The fight has since been reviewed and overturned to a no-contest.
Stipe Miocic (20-4 MMA, 14-4 UFC)
(1) May 14th, 2016 – Jul. 7th, 2018, (2) Aug. 17th 2019 – Mar. 27th, 2021
Def. Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198
Stipe Miocic is widely considered as the greatest UFC Heavyweight of all time. While capturing the title twice, he also defended it four times, including a record three in-a-row. No heavyweight in the world has dominated the top of the UFC Heavyweight division quite like Miocic. And guess what… we’ve got ourselves another wrestler!
Born in Euclid, OH, Miocic grew up a multi-sport athlete between football, baseball and wrestling. He went on to play baseball and wrestle between Cleveland State, Trevecca Nazarene, and Coker College. He was initially brought into Strong Style MMA to wrestle with former UFC contender, Dan Bobish, and soon began training himself. After becoming a Golden Gloves Champion and competing at nationals, the former NCAA Division I wrestler developed the tools to dominate those at his level, making his debut in 2006 and winning his first six fights by KO.
Such a run earned him a shot in the UFC. Between his UFC debut in 2011 and 2016, Miocic fought 10 times, winning eight fights, five of which were finished with strikes. This was enough to earn him a shot against the current champion, Fabricio Werdum.The fight was set in Werdum’s home country of Brazil and was attended by a notably hostile crowd that was eager to watch the challenger fall. Unfortunately for them, Miocic had other plans. Early in the fight, Werdum blitzed forward, leaving himself exposed. Miocic saw the opening and put Werdum out cold with one precise punch. A new champion was crowned, and Stipe brought a championship back to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964.
After defeating Werdum, Miocic defended his title three times against the often challenging Alistair Oveerm, Francis N’Gannou, and former champion Junior dos Santos. He then met UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Daniel Cormier. Late in the first round, while escaping the clinch, Miocic exited with his hands low and caught a short shot that put him on the ground. The fight was over shortly afterward and Daniel Cormier was crowned champion. More than a year later, the two fought a second time, with this fight being one of the toughest in Miocic’s career. Although he was outmatched for much of the fight, Miocic found an opening by way of body shots late into the fourth round. By taking advantage and hammering Cormier’s body, he was able to land some ferocious shots to the head and put Cormier to the canvas for the win and the championship. Since both fighters had just traded wins, the UFC booked the trilogy, a third fight between the two. This time, in a much less damaging fight for both men, we saw Miocic grind out a very tactical, hard fought win, coming by way of unanimous decision. This fight marked Miocic’s record-setting 6th win in UFC Heavyweight Title fights and cemented him in the record books.
Daniel Cormier (22-3 MMA, 11-3 UFC)
Jul. 7th, 2018 – Aug. 17th, 2019
Def. Stipe Miocic at UFC 226
Daniel Cormier’s successful career has been tied heavily to two individuals: Stipe Miocic and Jon Jones, the only two men to defeat DC over the course of his 11-year, 26-fight career. The last of his kind on this list, DC was an elite wrestler coming out of Lafayette, Louisiana. He started at Colby Community College, going 61-0, before transferring to Oklahoma State University. There he finished second in the country, losing in the NCAA finals to wrestling legend, Cael Sanderson. His final record at OSU was 53-10.
After college, Cormier competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, finding success as an Olympic level wrestler. Following his Olympic achievements, he turned to training MMA. Though he finished his career as a heavyweight, he fought most of his career at light heavyweight. Cormier dominated nearly everybody in his early MMA career, starting in Strikeforce and compiling an 11-0 record before getting called to the UFC. Even then, he faced little adversity in his first four fights with the UFC. Then came Jon Jones. If you’ve made it this far, chances are you know who Jon Jones is and the ups and downs that come with one of MMA’s most outstanding and chaotic fighters.
In this first title challenge for the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship, we saw DC lose a unanimous decision to the undefeated Jones. Months later, Jones was stripped of the title due to a felony hit-and-run, and DC was set to challenge for the title once again, this time against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson (23-6 MMA, 13-6 UFC). After defeating Johnson by rear-naked choke, DC went on to defend his title three times, including a second time against Rumble Johnson. In between came another heartbreaking loss to Jon Jones, which was overturned to a no-contest, because Jones tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. As such, the title stayed in DC’s hands.
After such a dominant reign at LHW, DC wanted to move up and challenge Stipe for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. In their first meeting, DC was able to capitalize on that short right hand when leaving the clinch to put down Miocic and secure the victory to win Heavyweight gold. Soon after, he defended his title successfully against “The Black Beast”, Derrick Lewis, winning by rear-naked choke. Then came the final two fights against Stipe that resulted in two subsequent losses and the retirement of one Daniel Cormier.
DC had a storied and successful career, a career marked by being on the other side of two extremely dominant champions. This does not denote his achievements, but many will remember him by being the other side of Jon Jones–and in my opinion, that’s a lot better than being Jon Jones.
Francis Ngannou (16-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC)
Mar. 27th, 2021 – Present
Def. Stipe Miocic at UFC 260
One of the most terrifying men to walk this earth, Francis “The Predator” N’Gannou is not a man from whom anyone wants to line up across the cage. Born and raised in a village in Cameroon, Francis worked in sand quarries, harboring dreams of pursuing professional boxing. By the age of 22, he started training and by 26, he took off to Paris, France to pursue professional fighting.
Once he arrived in Paris, he ended up at the MMA factory where he trained and lived at no cost. This is where Fernand Lopez, the MMA Factory’s head coach, convinced N’Gannou to pursue MMA instead. In 2013, Francis made his MMA debut. He won five of his first six bouts before garnering the attention of the UFC. Once there, he rattled off six wins in a row, many by landing huge strikes that sent his opponents crumbling. Thus, his title shot had arrived. In his first try at gold, he was tasked with facing Stipe Miocic. Although N’Gannou unloaded his full arsenal, he was unable to secure the victory, losing a unanimous decision to Miocic.
He then had one of the most slow-paced, not action packed fights in the UFC’s history against Derrick Lewis. Both being known for having insane knockout power, neither guy was willing to get too close or do too much in a fight that saw Lewis come out with the win (they should’ve both been given an L). Since then, he put together 4 wins in a row, all in the first round, where he connected with brutal punches that no man has been able to handle. Again, he earned an opportunity to challenge Miocic for the title. In this title challenge, we saw N’Gannou come out much more measured and calculated. He still threw the big shots, but he was charging forward and throwing less, opting to stay patient and pick his shots. A very scary sight indeed. This time around he was able to find the punch that would put Miocic down and garner him the UFC Heavyweight Championship.
N’Gannou is scary, with nobody seemingly able to match the power he has in his hands. However, the newest UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion may have the recipe.
Cyril Gane (10-0 MMA, 7-0 UFC)
(Interim) Aug. 7th, 2021 – Jan. 22nd, 2022
Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images
Hailing from La Roche-sur-Yon, France, Ciryl Gane grew up playing proper football and basketball but didn’t pursue either at a higher level. While working at a furniture store, he was introduced to Muay Thai and subsequently made his professional Muay Thai debut in 2016, winning by second round knockout. After winning four more in a row, he faced multiple time WBC MuayThai champion Yassine Boughanem and won the fight by decision–particularly impressive considering he had started fighting for only a few years.
In 2018, Gane made his professional MMA debut. He won three in a row before signing with the UFC. Under the UFC’s banner, Gane has won seven fights in a row, including a finish against Derrick Lewis, to capture the UFC Interim Heavyweight Championship. We have since found out that Gane is a former sparring partner of Francis NGannou and possesses the physical tools to move in and around the Cameroonian–to land strikes and not be struck. Ultimately, though, Gane lost the belt to his former sparring partner.
Jan 22., 2022 – present
By defeating Gane in an unanimous decision at UFC 270, Ngannou unified the belts and became the undisputed best heavyweight in the sport. Already the best African fighter of all-time, the Cameroonian will add to his legacy whenever he fights again, which should be some time early next year.