Since Mark Coleman was crowned UFC heavyweight champion in 1997, 17 men have held the belt, far beyond the numbers of any other weight class.
There has never been an Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson, Jon Jones, Matt Hughes, Georges St-Pierre or Jose Aldo among the big men, as these past and present stars piled up title defense after title defense, cementing their name among the legends of the sport.
Yet no UFC heavyweight champion has ever mustered more than two consecutive successful title defenses, a remarkable mark considering that the weight class has produced five UFC Hall of Famers (Coleman, Maurice Smith, Randy Couture, Bas Rutten, Minotauro Nogueira), and several modern era heroes.
Two of those modern heroes, current champion Stipe Miocic and former titleholder Junior Dos Santos, meet for the second time this Saturday in the main event of UFC 211. Miocic can join Couture, Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez should he even the score with Dos Santos, who lost his title back to Velasquez after successfully defending it once.
That’s history right there. And legitimate history at that, but it still has to be asked why no one has been able to hit that magic three successful consecutive heavyweight defense mark in 20 years.
Is it as simple as saying 240 to 250-pound men hitting each other with four-ounce gloves makes a long reign an impossibility? That could be a valid point if not for the fact that getting hit with the little gloves isn’t pleasant in any division, but particularly at 185 or 205 pounds, where Silva and Jones each had long title defense runs.
So let’s go back to the start.
The first champion, Coleman, was dethroned by Maurice Smith, whose superior conditioning and ability to weather the ground-and-pound attack of “The Hammer” caused the first title switch in UFC history.
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Smith would be dethroned by a wrestler in Randy Couture, but one whose conditioning was second to none. Couture’s first reign was ended by a contract dispute, and the next champ, Bas Rutten, vacated his belt.
Coleman’s longtime teammate, Kevin Randleman, took the belt in 1999, but lost it in his second defense against the returning Couture. “The Natural” successfully defended his belt twice against Pedro Rizzo, but the men he would lose the title to twice more – Josh Barnett and Ricco Rodriguez – were the prototype of the modern heavyweight – bigger, stronger and able to do even more in the Octagon – leaving the smaller Couture outgunned physically.
Barnett dropped his belt to a failed drug test and Rodriguez took 6-foot-8 challenger Tim Sylvia lightly in 2003, resulting in a knockout loss.
A failed drug test took Sylvia’s belt as well, and into the picture came Frank Mir, who won the vacant belt then lost it thanks to a motorcycle accident that sidelined him.
Notice a pattern here? Outside forces, whether failed drug tests, motorcycle accidents or contract disputes were having more of an effect on the heavyweight title than the fights were.
The next champion, Andrei Arlovski, looked to be someone who would reign for a while, but after two successful defenses, he lost the belt back to Sylvia, who lost it to Couture, who lost it to Brock Lesnar while Nogueira, Mir and Shane Carwin each held the interim title when Couture battled outside the Octagon with the UFC.
Was Lesnar going to save everything? It looked like it for a while until Velasquez came along. Even losing the belt to Dos Santos in 2011 didn’t dull the appeal of Velasquez, and after regaining the crown from JDS, he retained the crown twice. Then injuries reared their ugly head, opening the door for Werdum to jump in as interim champ before submitting Velasquez in 2015. The Brazilian didn’t stick around long though, as Miocic took the belt last May.
A year after that fight, Miocic has defeated Alistair Overeem and now he’s facing Dos Santos. That’s three fights in a year, and should he emerge victorious, we may have found the secret to heavyweight championship longevity. And it has more to do to taking away outside distractions and staying injury-free than with left hooks and armbars.
In Couture’s best year as champion, he fought and won three times. When Arlovski, Sylvia, Lesnar and Velasquez looked like untouchable wrecking balls, they did the same.
Does Miocic fit in? Couture was an undersized heavyweight whose striking didn’t match up to his wrestling. Arlovski could do it all, but he could also get hit. Sylvia’s Achilles heel was his submission defense. Lesnar’s was his striking and late start in the sport. Velasquez’ was his bouts with injuries.
So can Miocic, a former Division I wrestler with top-notch striking who has proven the ability to survive a five-round war as well as rebound from adversity, break the curse? His coach, Marcus Marinelli, firmly believes so.
“Anything can happen in a fight between big guys with small gloves, just like everybody says all the time, but Stipe’s very skilled at everything,” he said. “Because fights start on their feet and he’s very good with his hands, you only see part of his game. He’s very resilient, he’s got a very strong will to win, he’s very strong physically, and he’s got the ability to give the abuse and take some and keep on ticking.”
On April 29, the world may have seen boxing’s next great heavyweight in Anthony Joshua.
On May 13, Stipe Miocic has the chance to be MMA’s next great heavyweight.