Top 10 Heavyweight Title Fights of All Time

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2012

Top 10 Heavyweight Title Fights of All Time

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    Tomorrow, fans will be blessed with seeing two of the most purely talented heavyweights in MMA history go at it in the UFC 155 headliner between Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez.

    With such a compelling title fight, it is hard not to look back on other great bouts of this ilk from years past. In the storied heavyweight division, which has seen fighters reach near-mythical status, how do the greatest fights from the likes of Brock Lesnar, Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko all stack up?

    Find out right here!

    (This is part of a series on the top title fights by division. You can check out the previous installments here and here.)

No. 10: Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo I

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    This is undeniably a bit of a sentimental pick. That said, this is, perhaps, the gutsiest fight seen in the heavyweight division ever.

    While Couture never became the sort of drag to watch that Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were towards the end of their career, there is no arguing that the Randy Couture of 2001 was a vastly different specimen from the Randy Couture of 2010.

    At 37 years old, Randy Couture still had plenty of fight in him. Seeing him drive through Pedro Rizzo on takedown attempts, turn the corner on single-legs and pour on punches when he smelled blood were sights to behold.

    That isn't to dismiss Pedro Rizzo's efforts here. Rizzo peppered Couture with heavy leather and hard kicks. He demonstrated amazing heart and strong takedown defense. Wins over the likes of Mark Coleman, Tank Abbott, Dan Severn and Josh Barnett (he would also go on to beat Ricco Rodriguez and Andrei Arlovski) showed that he was a scary opponent for Couture.

    The fight was razor-thin. Much like in Ben Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar II, the first round saw the defending champion dominate the challenger with superior ground-and-pound, while the second round saw the challenger out-strike the champion.

    The third and fourth rounds were quite close, with the final round going in favor of the challenger.

    Couture got the nod in the end, which was met with jeers from some fans. Still, Couture weathered the storm and put forth one of the UFC's all-time gutsiest performances. A rematch would come shortly thereafter, but it is impossible to dismiss this fight and what was displayed by both fighters.

No. 9: Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir II

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    The UFC's biggest pay-per-view main event ever makes it on this list partly for the fight and partly for the hype surrounding it. Regardless, it more than deserves a spot here.

    The UFC, to commemorate 100 events, assembled the most thoroughly stacked card in UFC history.

    The main card featured the promotional debut of Japanese superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama against hotshot prospect Alan Belcher. It had Paulo Thiago, fresh off his knockout of Josh Koscheck, against welterweight mainstay Jon Fitch. It had the TUF 9 coaches' fight between Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping.

    On top of all that, there were two championship bouts in Georges St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves and, of course, Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir II.

    None of the fights on the card would disappoint, and the main event followed suit.

    Lesnar, as you surely remember, dominated Mir in as thorough a way imaginable. He took him down, held him there with one hand and freely punched him with the other. At the end of the first round, Mir would be badly bruised and bloody.

    He would not reach the end of Round 2.

    While Lesnar would, in some ways, sour the occasion with some post-fight theatrics (and some finger-pointing and yelling), it remains a fight to look back on fondly.

No. 8: Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos I

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    Much like the previous fight, this one had a huge amount of historical significance.

    To commemorate the UFC's historic TV deal with Fox, the UFC put together a full card headlined by a huge heavyweight title bout between Cain Velasquez, then an A-list fighter for taking down Brock Lesnar, and knockout artist Junior dos Santos.

    The amazing buildup became the centerpiece advertisement for Fox's NFL coverage.

    The buildup for the fight included a 45-minute introduction to the general concept of MMA, former Strikeforce champ Gina Carano plugging her upcoming film Haywire and Brock Lesnar promoting his upcoming fight with Alistair Overeem at UFC 141.

    While there was nary a mention of the other bouts on the card, which included fighters like Benson Henderson, Clay Guida, Dustin Poirier, Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson and Norifumi Yamamoto, it was still a solid night of fights.

    The main event was short-lived but still a worthy addition to this list. After a brief period of feeling each other out, dos Santos landed a huge right hand behind Velasquez's ear. The champ was rocked and finished shortly thereafter.

    It was still quite the occasion and a night to remember and featured one of the sweetest fast knockouts in the division's title history.

    The two of them will be facing off again this Saturday. Make sure to check out our coverage of UFC 155!

No. 7: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Fedor Emelianenko I

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    When picking out the all-time greats in each weight class, the most clear-cut one-two punch at the top of the rankings is in the heavyweight division. That's because Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira reigned over the division so mightily for so long.

    Much like in Matt Hughes vs. Georges St-Pierre or Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva, Nogueira vs. Emelianenko had the excitement of watching two of the best in the sport's history collide. 

    When you're dealing with two fighters who became popular based on their ability to finish fights, any given action could bring about the end of the bout. While the majority of the bout was spent with Emelianenko perched in Nogueira's guard, it was a dynamic nail-biter of a fight.

    Every time Nogueira shifted his legs—every time Emelianenko got postured—each and every action, no matter how seemingly small, was something that could bring about the end of the fight. Because of that, there wasn't a single moment you could safely look away without running a risk of missing a huge knockout or wild submission.

    The fight, ultimately, would go to decision with Emelianenko getting the nod and receiving the Pride heavyweight belt.

    It remains one of the biggest fights in MMA history and one of the very few matchups between all-time greats still in their prime.

No. 6: Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin

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    The matchup between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin was one of the most unique in MMA history. It was one of the very few heavyweight title fights between really, really big guys—in this case, two accomplished college wrestlers who each weighed in at 265 pounds.

    Both fighters had some impressive knockouts to their name.

    Lesnar beat Randy Couture with a big hook behind the ear that put the all-time great to the mat. Carwin, through four UFC fights, had only spent about seven minutes in the cage and became the interim heavyweight champ by punching out Frank Mir.

    The two of them combined? Guaranteed fireworks.

    Early on, Carwin caught Lesnar with a big uppercut. Lesnar was rocked and brought to the mat. For about 90 seconds, Carwin threw kitchen sinks at Lesnar, who covered himself up but still got bloodied and battered by the heavy-handed Carwin.

    Remarkably, with a minute left in the first round, Lesnar would work back to his feet and keep Carwin pressed to the cage for the rest of the round.

    The second round, though, showed just how much energy Carwin spent on his barrage.

    As soon as Carwin threw his first big punch in the second round, he was breathing heavily. Lesnar would capitalize, taking Carwin down and entering half-guard. He worked to side control and quickly wrapped an arm triangle around Carwin.

    Carwin would defend for a bit, but as Lesnar worked his way sideways, the choke got tighter until Carwin could no longer resist tapping.

    This is a crazy turnaround that ranks among the best comeback victories in MMA.

No. 5: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Mirko Cro Cop

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    The interim championship bout between Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira saw one of the heavyweight division's all-time best strikers face off with one of its all-time best grapplers.

    The result? The fifth-best heavyweight title fight ever.

    The first round predominantly saw Cro Cop working over Nogueira in his guard. When Nogueira wasn't on his back, he was dodging Cro Cop's still-fearsome striking. (At this point, Cro Cop had a 7-0-2 MMA record with six of those seven victories coming via knockout.)

    Things did not seem likely to turn around for "Big Nog."

    Then came the second round. Nogueira shot in for a takedown and got it near the ropes. He then quickly hopped into mount. He started landing strong ground-and-pound and hooked his legs under Cro Cop.

    The kickboxer tried to keep Nogueira from posturing in order to draw a referee separation but could not hold down the famed grappler for any length of time. Cro Cop tried to explode out of Nogueira's mount, but Nogueira brought his leg up around Cro Cop's face and secured a belly-down armbar for the ages.

    It was among Nogueira's best submissions, and the fight was widely regarded as one of the greatest comeback victories seen in Pride.

No. 4: Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Tim Sylvia

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    Tim Sylvia, perhaps unfairly, has always been criticized throughout his MMA career. The reasons for this are many.

    Out of the cage, he seemed gawky and socially awkward, but he was still arrogant and jerky enough to talk smack about your favorite fighter.

    In the cage, the dude always seemed to skate by with no training or skills, relying on his huge size advantage and broad frame to coast to a title shot in the 2005-2007 Dark Age of the heavyweight division.

    Right or wrong, this was the bout that seemed to validate this notion. Whether you hate Tim Sylvia or not, however, it's still a solid bout.

    As you may have noticed, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has a lot of great fights to his name.

    Given Big Nog's wealth of experience and top-flight Brazilian jiu-jitsu, people figured he was going to dunk Sylvia hard. When Sylvia started lighting up Nogueira on his feet and opened a big cut over his eye, it seemed like Nogueira might end up being the stepping stool for Sylvia to claim, "I'm actually pretty good at this."

    The fight wore on, and Sylvia kept landing that right hand. Both fighters were breathing heavily by the third round until, surprisingly, Nogueira exploded around Sylvia's leg, pulling him into his guard.

    He would show off his strong sweeps and went from having Sylvia in his half-guard into gaining side control. From there, he masterfully baited Sylvia into a guillotine choke and scored the tap.

    It was Nogueira's 20th submission win, and the victory would make him the first fighter to have held belts in both Pride and the UFC.

    You can check out the fight here on the official UFC YouTube page for Big Nog.

No. 3: Andrei Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia II

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    The heavyweight division is popular in large part because first-round knockouts are common.

    The second meeting between Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski brought us one of the sweetest finishes of this ilk ever seen.

    Arlovski and Sylvia had met previously when Arlovski earned a quick victory with a powerful punch followed by an Achilles lock submission. Sylvia, though, would not let it happen again.

    The two began the fight spryly, bouncing in place and throwing jabs and leg kicks. Just before the midway point of the first round, Arlovski landed an oddly nostalgic right cross that rocked Sylvia and put him on the mat. Sylvia worked his way back to his feet oddly quickly but remained visibly rocked.

    Arlovski tried to finish, but Sylvia evaded a big hook and delivered a counter right that put Arlovski onto the mat. He fell atop the Belarusian, started punching and forced the referee to separate them.

    Once again, while Sylvia is mercilessly hated on, the awkward heavyweight's career wasn't all wheezing and testing positive for Stanozolol. He delivered some big wins and some emphatic knockouts that are often forgotten.

    That said, Sylvia would erase all the goodwill generated by the fight at UFC 61, where his rubber match with Arlovski would be hampered by a five-round snoozer of a fight (caused by a concussion suffered in the first round by Sylvia and a leg injury suffered by Arlovski in the second).

    Still, this ranks as both the greatest moment in Sylvia's career and one of the best heavyweight title fights of all time.

No. 2: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko Cro Cop

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    You know those bouts you really want to see, but they never seem to come together? Back in 2004, this was that fight.

    Cro Cop was already a fan favorite when he entered the MMA world courtesy of his K-1 experience.

    When he started off his MMA career at 7-0-2, a title fight with Fedor Emelianenko seemed like an inevitability.

    Then, Fedor left Pride due to a contract dispute, which resulted in the interim title match between Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira from a few slides ago.

    Cro Cop wouldn't take "no" for an answer though and proceeded to rattle off fight after fight to amass a solid winning streak.

    Meanwhile Emelianenko would rejoin Pride, unify the belt and finally agree to face Cro Cop.

    The match did not disappoint.

    The two would spend a good bit of the first round feeling each other out.

    Eventually, though, Cro Cop landed two hard punches that opened up Emelianenko, causing him to bleed profusely from his nose. Cro Cop slipped while trying to clinch, and Emelianenko ended up in top position, where he would remain until the end of the round.

    The second round was no-nonsense striking. The two fighters swapped head kicks and big punches until Cro Cop started to gas. As Cro Cop got slower, Emelianenko started finding his range and again landed a big takedown, where he maintained top position until the bell.

    The third round was more of the same as Cro Cop's hands sunk lower and lower and his kicks got slower and slower. Emelianenko used his superior ground game to control Cro Cop.

    Emelianenko would earn the decision.

    With two wins over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and victories over Kevin Randleman, Mark Coleman, Heath Herring and Renato Sobral, Emelianenko had emptied out the entire Pride heavyweight division.

No. 1: Randy Couture vs. Pedro Rizzo II

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    Couture vs. Rizzo I, as you know, ended with Couture getting the nod from the judges in a close fight at UFC 31. With fans wanting more, an immediate rematch was booked between the two heavyweights for UFC 34.

    This time Couture would leave no doubt about who was the better fighter.

    As stated, a younger Couture was an amazing spectacle, and this was the most dominating performance we saw from him as the UFC's heavyweight champion.

    Couture showed his fearsome clinch, holding onto Rizzo and landing knees and punches.

    He showed his takedowns, lifting Rizzo off the ground and charging through him.

    We saw his scary ground-and-pound as he repeatedly got atop Rizzo, postured and landed merciless elbows and punches.

    By the third round, Rizzo was bloody and battered. Couture would land a hard right hook, take Rizzo down and begin landing punches.

    Rizzo tried to control the champ's hands from his back, but Couture lifted him off the ground and carried him from the middle of the Octagon all the way to the corner of the cage while on his knees.

    Couture stood over Rizzo from there and landed huge punches, forcing John McCarthy to separate them.

    It was one of the best wins in Couture's career and showed the world his wrestling prowess and sheer physical strength.

Superlatives and Honorable Mentions

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    One of the crazy things about doing these lists is seeing how each promotion has struggled with any given weight class. The heavyweight division, to this day, remains the toughest to maintain in the sport.

    The other two lists done in this series so far (lightweight and welterweight) featured fights from the UFC, WEC, Bellator and EliteXC, as well as shout-outs to Pride and Dream.

    This particular list exclusively features the UFC and Pride. Why?

    Well, none of the other promotions has had many heavyweight title fights for a variety of reasons.

    The WEC only had two heavyweight champions before the division was abolished when Zuffa bought the promotion out.

    Bellator, courtesy of its "you have to win a tournament to have a title fight" rule, has only had three heavyweight title fights in its history.

    Dream and Strikeforce both had Alistair Overeem as their sole champion.

    Overeem would win the Strikeforce belt by beating Paul Buentello in 2007 but would not defend it until three years later against Brett Rogers.

    In his third and final fight with Strikeforce, he defeated Fabricio Werdum in a non-title fight as part of the Heavyweight Grand Prix.

    Meanwhile, Overeem won the Dream heavyweight championship by knocking out Todd Duffee but never defended the belt before vacating it when he joined the UFC.

    On top of all that, apologies to Andrei Arlovski for not appearing here.

    The guy has, by my count, the record for shortest heavyweight title fight in a major MMA organization (when he knocked out Paul Buentello in 15 seconds) and possibly the shortest title fight, period, but did not quite make the list. Sorry!