It didn't take long for the original owners of the UFC to realize that their growing sport needed a complete paradigm shift in order to make it as a long-term enterprise. By 1995, just two years into the sport's development, it was clear that things couldn't continue along the path they had been walking.
Mixed martial arts started as a battle of styles, an infomercial of sorts for founder Rorion Gracie and his family's grappling system called Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Two men, famously, would enter the UFC's Octagon, each representing a unique and sometimes ancient style of fighting. It didn't take long for Rorion's brother Royce to establish his art's primacy. But it was a victory for a formula and an art, a testament to the system and not the athlete.
Within five events, the UFC brass realized that the Gracie family's mission to spread their art form wasn't enough to drive an entire sport. Rorion was out. So was Royce. And in their places came a renewed focus on the athletes.
Enter the heavyweights. Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock, carryovers from the Gracie era, set the stage, and Mark Coleman followed in their footsteps, eventually becoming the undisputed king of MMA on two continents.
Today a new breed of heavyweight rules the Octagon. Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez in particular have taken the big men into uncharted waters. Far from being overgrown bar brawlers, their combination of skills is every bit as compelling as their pipsqueak peers.
When their fight is over on Saturday night at UFC 166, a new kingpin will reign, joining the best of all time on the MMA heavyweight Mount Rushmore.
Let's explore, together, the men who make up this elite group. Who are the best big men in the sport's short history? Bleacher Report has created our own Mount Rushmore in their honor.
Disagree? Share your list in the comments.
Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic
A formidable striker, it was said his right leg would send you to the hospital. His left leg? The cemetary.
Cro Cop defeated all of Pride's top heavyweights during his prime, save the ones who mattered most. He fell short against Antonio Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko, losses that have kept him from assuming his place among the immortals.
The former UFC champion fell short against Cro Cop on three occasions. Those losses, combined with the specter of three failed drug tests, will forever tarnish how we think about Barnett.
But, at his best, Barnett was a compelling fighter, especially on the mat where his catch wrestling inspired submissions could end an opponent's night in remarkably premature fashion.
Without a motorcycle injury that cost him his prime years, who knows how we'd think about Mir? Even with the injury, he's established a resume that certainly makes him a candidate for a list like this.
He's beaten some of the best fighters in the game, men like Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Had those wins happened when the men were all in the their primes, it would be Mir's face engraved on that fictional mountaintop.
Brock was the biggest star ever to step into the Octagon. No one, before or since, could match his pay-per-view drawing power. Unfortunately injury forced an early retirement.
I firmly believe, had Brock never suffered from diverticulitis, he would have ended up the best ever. Legacies, however, aren't written in hopes and dreams. They are built on accomplishments. And Lesnar's, as important as they were, aren't significant enough to warrant inclusion.
In a world of guppies, doughy martial artists in judogis and true believers still trying to prove the efficacy of their art forms, Mark Coleman was a shark.
There was something different about Coleman and his contemporary Mark Kerr. They weren't just the toughest guys at the bar, musclebound behemoths who could easily snap you in half on a whim. They were the toughest guys at the bar who also happened to be Olympic-class athletes.
It was this athletic pedigree, as well as a brutal mean streak, that separated 1992 Olympic wrestler Coleman from the pack. Coleman was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the heavyweight division, so good that after demolishing the field at UFC 11, the promotion couldn't even get anyone to come out and face him in the tournament finals. That he would win, and in devastating fashion, was such a given that no one even wanted to take him on.
Eventually the Coleman riddle was solved. Maurice Smith showed that Coleman could be bested with tenacity and razor-sharp striking technique. The UFC's growing rulebook also slowed the Coleman train. Headbutts on the ground, a key part of his arsenal, were banned starting with UFC 15. Coleman's career, in the Octagon at least, would never be the same.
Of course he still had enough in the tank to win the inaugural Pride World Grand Prix at the turn of the century. But even as he celebrated, dusk had fallen on his final days at the top.
The revolution he started, the emergence of the athlete in MMA, caught up with him quickly. A class of fighter emerged that combined Coleman's athleticism with the stellar technique of true artists. He was very soon a dinosaur in the sport he helped create.
But dinosaurs once ruled the world, too.
"Big Nog," as he is affectionately called by the hardcore fans who love him unconditionally, is a great fighter for many reasons. Odes have been written to his heart, courage and submission prowess.
It was the subtle things, however, that truly separated him from his peers, most notably a vise-like grip.
Punching power is easy to see and quantify. A powerful double-leg takedown or a big slam has a visceral impact on both the viewer and the opponent. Neither was Nog's strong suit.
Instead, he controlled the fight from the bottom with that iron grip. Years after Royce Gracie had introduced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the world, Nogueira still made the techniques work. He did it not with the element of surprise, but with this key physical advantage that not only negated his opponent's striking from the top position, but also easily controlled both wrists, opening up basic submissions like the armbar and triangle choke.
So fearsome was Nog's ground fighting that eventually he was forced to develop a rounded striking game to match it. Otherwise, savvy opponents would simply refuse to engage him on the ground. If that was your game, well, it had to be a pretty potent one. Otherwise, Nogueira would box you up just as easily as he'd submit you on the mat.
In the end, it was a lack of offensive wrestling that prevented the great Nog from truly dominating the heavyweight scene for years; he couldn't dictate where the fight took place. Ultimately, that was the difference between being the second-best of his generation and the GOAT—the greatest of all time.
Fedor Emelianenko had the kind of hubris you only find in the truly great ones, a simple and straight-forward confidence that acknowledged in front of everyone what was already obvious to all—he was the best.
The same ego that allowed Michael Jordan to shoot free throws with his eyes closed drove Emelianenko to test himself and his opponents in their area of greatest strength.
He didn't just take the Pride heavyweight championship from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria. He met Nog inside the champion's fearsome guard and survived three times in the belly of the beast, beating him twice.
Fedor didn't merely beat top contender Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in what was, at the time, the biggest heavyweight fight in MMA history. He took it to the kickboxer standing, defying all expectations and logic to retain his status as world champion.
In recent years, Emelianenko's decision to eschew the UFC in favor of the American independent scene has created a bit of a backlash. Fans who didn't see him compete are quick to find reasons to dismiss his amazing success that included, at one point, a nine-year undefeated streak.
But all who saw him in his prime know full well that the rotund Russian ranks among the very best fighters ever to lace up the gloves.
It all comes down to one night. At UFC 166, Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez will meet in the cage for the third time.
What's at stake? The UFC heavyweight championship—but also something bigger.
The two men are fighting for their position in history, to assume a place among the greatest who have ever done it.
In their first fight, Dos Santos took heavyweight gold in a matter of moments. Just 64 seconds after the bell rang to start the contest, Velasquez was on the mat, the adjective "former" suddenly inserted in front of "UFC champion."
Whispers, however, soon emerged that Velasquez's torn rotator cuff hadn't quite healed before the fight. That he wasn't at his best. That, although he would never say it, Dos Santos was on borrowed time.
It was a point proven, emphatically, at UFC 155. By the end of the night, Dos Santos was barely recognizable, his face battered by an unyielding Velasquez assault. Both standing and on the mat, where he took the fight at will, Velasquez was clearly the better fighter.
Can Velasquez repeat the feat this weekend in Houston at UFC 166?
There's no reason to believe otherwise. While Dos Santos does have a puncher's chance, something he proved emphatically in their first fight, Velasquez has a more well-rounded game.
He's the perfect successor to Fedor Emelianenko, a heavyweight who can do it all, one just as skilled as any lightweight. Cain Velasquez is the next great heavyweight. And he intends to prove it in the Octagon Saturday on pay-per-view.