For too long, our writers’ hyper-specific arguments have been confined to the private corridors of the Internet. Welcome to The List, where we take their instant message bickerings, add a little polish, and make them public. Today, ahead of current title holder Stipe Miocic’s rematch with former champ Junior Dos Santos at UFC 211, we make a case for the greatest UFC heavyweight champion off all time.
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Ben Fowlkes: Pop quiz, hot shots. Who’s the only person to win the UFC heavyweight title three times? For extra credit, who was the oldest person to ever defend a UFC title, as well as the person with the most overall title reigns and title fights in UFC history? If you haven’t guessed by now, the answer to all those questions is the same, and it’s your boy Randy Couture (19-11 MMA, 16-8 UFC).
I’m not going to try to convince you that Couture was the most fearsome heavyweight champ. He lacked the pure terror factor of a Brock Lesnar or Cain Velasquez, and he didn’t have as many finishing options as, say, Fabricio Werdum or even Frank Mir.
What Couture did have was longevity and consistency, all in a weight class where he really had no business even competing. At just a shade over 6 feet and usually weighing somewhere in the 220-pound range, Couture was one of the smallest heavyweight champs in UFC history. He was also in his mid-30s before he even started his MMA career, and he was giving up nearly 15 years and over 40 pounds to Lesnar when he lost his title for the last time in November 2008 at UFC 91.
Prior to that, Couture won the heavyweight title three times and the light heavyweight strap twice. He also bucked management in an early battle over contractual rights. At 44 he was on some real pre-Conor McGregor stuff, trying to forge a cross-promotional superfight with Fedor Emelianenko, his greatest heavyweight rival.
Did he ever hold the title for any considerable length of time? Well, no, but neither did anyone else. What he did do is win it over and over again, which is more than you can say for most champs. That he did it at an age when most people need a couple tries just to get out of bed is even more impressive.
Steven Marrocco: As my colleague Mr. Fowlkes has previously noted, the heavyweight belt isn’t so much owned as merely rented in a division where one punch changes everything. If you can hang on to the strap more than once, you’ve already distinguished yourself.
Only three guys have defended the undisputed title more than once: Couture, Tim Sylvia and Cain Velasquez (14-2 MMA, 12-2 UFC). But when you look at those names, is there any doubt which was the most feared of his time?
Here’s one measure of Velasquez’s concussive abilities: Even with meteor-sized gaps in his record, he’s still the No. 4 fighter on Fight Metric’s SLpM (strikes landed per minute) list. He’s stopped 10 opponents with his fists, more than any other in the big-man division. The fact is, if you sign up to fight Velasquez, you’re going to get hurt … a lot.
Like all great UFC heavyweights, he isn’t perfect. An overhand right from Junior Dos Santos ended his ridiculous seven-fight run and first title reign. His second one ended in the thin air of Mexico City as he drastically underestimated the effects of elevation. And a great cloud of what-if accompanies his legacy given the injuries he seemed to accumulate with his knockouts.
But when healthy, Velasquez is the most terrifying heavyweight in UFC history. He can knock you out, he can take you down, and he can pound you out – faster than anybody else. With all the miles on his body, we may have seen his best in the octagon. But we might not see someone like him ever again.
John Morgan: When Brock Lesnar (5-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC) entered the UFC, I can’t begin to describe how much I hated the idea. By the time he walked away, I can’t begin to describe how much I hated to see him go.
Lesnar is an absolute specimen of a human being, and while he was best known as a professional wrestler at the time he made his way to MMA, his collegiate wrestling credentials – including an NCAA Division I championship – stand as proof of his legitimate athletic abilities.
Still, Lesnar being invited to the sport’s biggest promotion in just his second professional fight at first seemed like a carnival act. At UFC 81, Mir took advantage of Lesnar’s inexperience, not to mention Steve Mazzagatti’s oft-criticized handling of fighters, and seemingly put an end to the hype train before it ever began.
But that was just the beginning.
Lesnar would battle back to rattle off wins over Heath Herring, Couture, Mir and – in one of my favorite heavyweight title fights of all time – Shane Carwin. Along the way, the entire feel of the division changed.
Couture knew he no longer had a chance to cherry pick heavyweight fights against the new-look monsters of the class. Veterans such as Mir, who had competed in the octagon for seven years before Lesnar’s arrival, knew they had to pack on muscle to remain on even ground.
And let’s not forget the pay-per-view buys that came along the way. Lesnar was (heck, still is) a superstar.
Velasquez would certainly expose Lesnar’s flaws in taking the belt at UFC 121, and ensuing battles with diverticulitis robbed him of a chance to evolve as a martial artist. By the time he showed back up at UFC 200, it seemed clear Lesnar was just taking part in a cash grab – though he still went on to render one of the sport’s most dangerous fighters utterly pedestrian.
He has just eight total fights to his name, but his reign on the UFC’s heavyweight division was equal parts terrifying and brilliant – and he is one of just four men to have defended the UFC title twice consecutively (unifying the title against an interim champ each time). It’s easy to dismiss Lesnar as a simple sideshow, but one should also admire what he accomplished in such a short period of time, and what he could have done had the big bucks of pro wrasslin’ not claimed his prime years.
Sustained brilliance in the UFC’s heavyweight division has proven impossible since its inception, but Lesnar’s star, however short lived, burned brighter than anyone else’s.
Fernanda Prates: I know what you’re thinking: Yes, Fabricio Werdum (21-6-1 MMA, 9-3 UFC) wasn’t even champion for a full year. That is, if you discount his interim reign, which is a fair addendum. But then again, Werdum’s entire career has been constantly plastered with similar “but he …” caveats. And ignoring them was the key behind his improbable, incredible run.
The Werdum that first came to the UFC back in 2007 was an exceedingly talented grappler. But, in spite of carrying a PRIDE stamp, that’s basically all everyone saw. While big enough to hang with his colleagues, he never carried a six-pack like Alistar Overeem’s or gargantuan biceps like Dos Santos’. He instilled little fear.
That is, of course, until the fight that changed it all. In a June 2010 bout under the Strikeforce banner, Werdum submitted all-time-great Emelianenko in a little over a minute in one of the sport’s biggest upsets to date. Never mind that he lost his next fight. Werdum had already cemented his place in heavyweight history.
Back in the UFC, Werdum made his way to a title shot in exemplary fashion, going on a five-fight tear that included a submission over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and an impeccable display over an on-a-roll favorite in Travis Browne. With each fight, Werdum’s striking seemed crisper. Werdum’s rise inside the octagon was matched by the one outside of it, with the heavyweight quickly becoming a media and fan favorite with his charisma, kindness and sense of humor.
Once again, now with a UFC title on the line, a 37-year-old Werdum saw himself a big underdog in a highly-watched encounter. And, once again, he pulled the upset – this time using a smart approach to beat Mexico City’s altitude and finish the dominant Cain Velasquez.
His failure to defend the belt, in a division where champions have historically struggled to do so, is hardly a big argument against a man who’s made a habit of rising to the occasion. And who, if history is any indication, may very well end up doing it again.
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