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There's something special about the heavyweights. Just ask the 90,000 fans who packed Wembley Stadium to see boxing's Anthony Joshua stake his claim to the crown in April.
The heavyweight kingpin isn't just one champion among many—he's the most dangerous unarmed combatant on the planet, bigger, badder and tougher than his peers.
In the Ultimate Fight Championship, the title of "world's most dangerous man" has come with a curse of sorts. In the 20 years since Mark Coleman won the inaugural heavyweight championship, no one has managed to defend the title more than twice in a single reign.
That lack of exceptionalism makes parsing any best of list an extraordinarily subjective undertaking. With no dominant runs inside the promotion, a look beyond the Octagon is in order. So is an analysis of a fighter's career both before and after sitting the throne.
On Saturday Stipe Miocic will attempt to defend his UFC championship for a second time against former champion Junior dos Santos. The stakes are high—historical legacy up for grabs along with a title belt. Where do the two men rank among the best ever? Read on to find out!
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20. Ricco Rodriguez
Record: 53-24 (1 NC)
Record Against Quality Opponents (Considered among the best in the world at the time): 8-7
Finishes: 41 (77%)
Analysis: By 25 Rodriguez was the heavyweight champion of the world. But substance abuse problems had already crept into his life. Today he's a cautionary tale, fighting on independent cards and dreaming of what might have been.
19. Shane Carwin
Record Against Quality Opponents: 2-2
Finishes: 12 (100%)
Analysis: Carwin was a former college wrestling standout who discovered iron in his fists as a professional. Best remembered for the first round shellacking he gave Brock Lesnar in a fight he'd eventually go on to lose, Carwin's career was too short to earn a place higher on this list.
18. Sergei Kharitonov
Record Against Quality Opponents: 6-5
Finishes: 23 (95.8%)
Analysis: Kharitonov, who is still slinging haymakers for Bellator, was a standout in Pride Fighting Championship when that promotion was home to the best heavyweights in the world. It gave him an opportunity to see where he truly stood—and that's somewhere below the best of the best.
17. Dan Severn
Record Against Quality Opponents: 8-7-3
Finishes: 77 (76%)
Analysis: Severn's longevity was something remarkable to behold. Unfortunately, most of his wins and even the majority of his losses came against regional of local level fighters. He was the first standout amateur wrestler in the history of MMA. That matters. But he was also almost immediately replaced by the newer, younger model that follows him on this list.
16. Mark Coleman
Record Against Quality Opponents: 7-9
Finishes: 12 (75%)
Analysis: Coleman was so scary during his prime that no one would come out to fight him in the finals of the UFC 9 tournament. Instead, he engaged in an amateur wrestling demonstration with protege Kevin Randleman. That says a lot about how he was perceived at the height of his powers.
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15. Brock Lesnar
Record: 5-3 (1 NC)
Record Against Quality Opponents: 4-3 (1 NC)
Finishes: 3 (60%)
Analysis: What might have been? Lesnar was one of the most dominant physical presences in the history of MMA. Had he not battled diverticulitis throughout his career, there's no telling how many fighters he would have leapfrogged here. Instead, fans have to be content with his entertaining run as a professional wrestler for WWE.
14. Alistair Overeem
Record Against Quality Opponents: 12-13
Finishes: 38 (90%)
Analysis: Watching Overeem evolve from a gangly light heavyweight to a monster disguised as a man was one of the great pleasures of being an MMA fan in the aughts. Overeem would be competitive against any heavyweight in history. But, looking closely at his record, he's the kind of fighter who finds a way to lose rather than one who pulls victory from the flames of defeat.
13. Andrei Arlovski
Record Against Quality Opponents: 14-13
Finishes: 20 (80%)
Analysis: At some point judging these great fighters becomes difficult. Why Arlovski over Overeem? It was close, but it comes down to intangibles. Arlovski was UFC heavyweight champion. Overeem never earned a title that prestigious. When measuring legacies, those things matter.
12. Frank Mir
Record Against Quality Opponents: 9-10
Finishes: 14 (77%)
Analysis: There are two different Frank Mirs—the one who submitted multiple fighters on this list and won the UFC title and the one who sleep walked through much of his career. Mir was a bone breaking beyond compare. But, if he couldn't find a way to get his opponent to the mat, he was lethargic and often dreadfully dull. That's the difference between a true legend and just another great fighter.
11. Daniel Cormier
Record Against Quality Opponents: 9-1
Finishes: 12 (63%)
Analysis: Cormier was on his way to being the best heavyweight of all-time. He was undefeated in the weight class, winner of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix and well on his way to a UFC title shot. Instead, because his teammate Cain Velasquez was also competing in the division, he dropped down to 205 pounds, cheating us all out of what might have been the best heavyweight fight of their generation.
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10. Stipe Miocic
Record Against Quality Opponents: 6-2
Finishes: 13 (81%)
Analysis: We'll learn a lot about where Miocic stands historically at UFC 211. The two best heavyweight fighters of his era are Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez. Beating one of them would do a lot to launch him up this list, arguably even into the top five.
9. Tim Sylvia
Record Against Quality Opponents: 8-6
Finishes: 24 (77%)
Analysis: Forgotten to history, Sylvia was an effective, if not lovable, heavyweight fighter. Unfortunately for Sylvia, he's best remembered for his shocking knockout loss to boxer Ray Mercer and a nauseating Frank Mir submission that left him with a broken arm. Pure size was one of his main attributes and he eventually ate his way right out of the division.
8. Randy Couture
Record Against Quality Opponents: 13-9
Finishes: 11 (57.8%)
Analysis: Couture is the only three-time heavyweight champion in UFC history. Even more remarkable? He might have been even better as a light heavyweight, where he also won gold.
7. Josh Barnett
Record Against Quality Opponents: 13-8
Finishes: 29 (82.8%)
Analysis: Barnett holds victories over six fighter on this list. The first came in 2000 against Dan Severn. The last was in September of 2016 against Andrei Arlovski. That should tell you everything you need to know, both about Barnett's longevity and his time-tested talent.
6. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic
Record Against Quality Opponents: 15-10
Finishes: 32 (91%)
Analysis: In 2006, Cro Cop won the Pride Openweight Grand Prix. Ten years later, he won a similar tournament for Rizin. It's the time in between, including a disappointing run in the UFC, that prevents him from joining the heavyweight Mount Rushmore.
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5. Fabricio Werdum
Record Against Quality Opponents: 15-6
Finishes: 16 (76%)
Analysis: For years Werdum was best known as Cro Cop's training partner, the jiu jitsu expert brought in to teach the kickboxing sensation how to defend himself against the like of Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
But Werdum just kept getting better and better as a fighter, capping off a sensational career by winning the UFC heavyweight title in 2015. Along the way he has added sensational striking to his dangerous submissions, becoming on the most well-rounded fighters in the division's history.
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4. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Record Against Quality Opponents: 20-10
Finishes: 24 (70.5%)
Analysis: For years Nogueira was considered the second best heavyweight of all time. The years, perhaps, have dulled memories of his greatness among many, especially North American fans who only saw him in his declining years in the UFC Octagon.
Even a faded Nogueira, however, was good enough to capture a UFC interim championship to go alongside his Pride title belt on the mantle. These championship reigns, along with legendary bouts against Emelianenko, Heath Herring and Couture, have cemented Nogueira's place on any list of the sport's true legends.
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3. Junior Dos Santos
Record Against Quality Opponents: 12-3
Finishes: 14 (77.7%)
Analysis: On November 12, 2011, Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez headlined a fight card that truly pushed the UFC into the mainstream. For the first time ever the promotion was live on national terrestrial television, in front of almost nine million viewers on Fox.
Dos Santos didn't make these new fans wait long to get a taste of what MMA is all about. Just 64 seconds after the opening bell, Velasquez was flat on his back and Dos Santos was the new champion of the world.
Ranking fighters in the heart of their career is a tough challenge. Both Velasquez and Dos Santos may still do plenty to either bolster or tarnish their cases. Right now, this position feels right. But, should Dos Santos beat Miocic at UFC 211 to earn a second championship reign, he could easily move up this list—perhaps all the way to the top.
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2. Cain Velasquez
Record Against Quality Opponents: 9-2
Finishes: 12 (85.7%)
Analysis: For years Velasquez's fearsome reputation preceded him. After making his debut in 2006, his team spent all of 2007 attempting in vain to line up a fight. After trying, and failing, they eventually secured him a spot in the UFC. The idea was to build him up slowly—but no one but the very best would even dare step into a cage with him.
In this case, the legend of Cain Velasquez failed to live up to the reality. He demolished everyone he fought, including Noguiera and the formidable Ben Rothwell en route to a title shot. Even the great Brock Lesnar had no chance against a heavyweight who fought at a lightweight's pace.
Unfortunately, though opponents rarely could, injuries had no problem stopping Velasquez in his tracks. He's fought just twice since 2013 and his ascension to the top of the historical heavyweight hierarchy, once considered a mere matter of time, seems increasingly unlikely.
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1. Fedor Emelianenko
Record: 36-4 (1 NC)
Record Against Quality Opponents: 17-4
Finishes: 27 (79%)
Analysis: Emelianenko remains one of the most controversial fighters in MMA history. Despite a track record of success that is second to none and an unprecedented reign on top of a division that typically chews champions up and spits them up, Fedor will always be hard for some to accept.
His glory days came before the UFC emerged as the world's top MMA promotion. And, when it did absorb Pride and become the only game in town, Emelianenko refused to play. Bitter negotiations bore no fruit and it's looking more and more likely that Emelianenko will never step inside the cage for UFC.
There's no doubting, however, that Emelianenko was the best heavyweight of his era. Emelianenko, likely a natural light heavyweight or middleweight, who carried a noticeable belly into the ring for much of his title run, belied his less than fearsome visage with heavy hands, nimble feet and the most dangerous ground and pound the sport had ever seen.
Undefeated for an amazing 10 years, the former Pride champion dispatched former UFC, Pride and K-1 champions a whopping 11 times in his career. Like it or not, the burly, barrel-chested Russian remains the greatest heavyweight in MMA history.
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