Due to the influx of alphabet soup sanctioning bodies in the 1980’s, lineal champions have been a staple of the boxing world for decades. Frustrated by a bevy of “champions” in an ever growing number of weight classes, boxing aficionados concocted a method of determining the “real” singular champion of each weight class by using the simplified method of “the man who beat the man”. Ignoring the politically crowned champions of the promotional bodies, when the current recognized “man” would lose, despite whether a tangible title belt was on the line or not, the man who beat him would assume the lineal championship of that weight class. This practice of lineal champions was taken a step further when Ring magazine, who arguably had been tracking lineal champions longer than anyone, actually created title belts and crowned their own champions based on the lineal premise.
In the relatively young sport of mixed martial arts, there hasn’t been much of a need for lineal champions. In the early days, you had one major promotional body in the Unites States, the UFC. Japan had groups like Pancrase and Shooto, and later PRIDE Fighting Championships. There wasn’t much dispute over the “real” world champions in each weight class, as a majority of the world’s best fighters were fighting for a small handful of promotional entities.
But as the sport has grown, so has the number of promotional bodies recognizing world champions. Which begs the question — which of these champions has a rightful claim as the “real” world champion in each weight class?
The process for determining this is the same as what was done in boxing in the 80’s. Who beat the man, who beat the man? And when you trace this line for the heavyweight division, the answer might be a surprising one – Fabricio Werdum.
The path to Werdum as the lineal world champion of the heavyweight division begins at UFC 12 in 1997, when Mark Coleman defeated Dan Severn to become the first recognized UFC heavyweight champion. Coleman was universally regarded as the best heavyweight in the world at this time, so this is the widely accepted starting point for the heavyweight lineage.
Coleman lost the title to Maurice Smith at UFC 14 a few months later. Smith lost the title to Randy Couture in December of the same year at UFC Japan. Couture then quit the UFC due to a contract dispute, vacating the UFC title in the process. As a result, the lineal world championship left the UFC with him.
Couture lost his next fight to Enson Inoue in October 1998. Inoue then lost to Mark Kerr in the first round of the PRIDE 2000 Grand Prix. Kerr lost to Kazuyuki Fujita four months later in the semi finals, and Fujita lost later that same night to Mark Coleman. Coleman would go on to win the Grand Prix, becoming not only the World Grand Prix champion, but also the first two time lineal world champion.
Coleman would go on to lose to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at PRIDE 16 in September 2001. Nogueira would successfully defend the lineal title a record six times, including wins over former champion Inoue, Bob Sapp, kickboxing legend Sammy Schilt, and Dan Henderson, before losing to Fedor Emelianenko at PRIDE 25 in 2003.
Fedor would eventually shatter Big Nog’s record with an amazing 18 successful title defenses (19 if you count one no contest, ironically against Nogueira), over a who’s who of elite heavyweights (and to be fair, an assortment of cans as well), including Nogueira, Coleman (twice), Fujita, Kevin Randleman, Mirko Cro Cop, Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, & Brett Rogers, most of which he dispatched via KO in devastating fashion. This brings us to Werdum.
Do you consider Fabricio Werdum the lineal heavyweight champion?
On June 26, 2010, live on national television, the MMA world was stunned when the seemingly unstoppable Fedor got caught in a tight triangle and tapped in just over one minute. In one of the biggest upsets in MMA history, the unheralded Werdum, cut roughly one year earlier from the UFC with a modest 11-4 record, had defeated the almost mythical figure of Fedor, and won the lineal heavyweight title in the process.
Coleman to Smith to Couture to Inoue to Kerr to Fujita to Coleman to Nogueira to Fedor to Werdum, the man, who beat the man, who beat the man...
This leads us to the upcoming Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, where Werdum takes on the red hot Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem in round one. Assuming all winners continue, without suffering injury and being replaced, the winner of this tournament will be the new lineal world heavyweight champion. And with a field that includes the likes of Werdum, Overeem, Fedor, Bigfoot Silva, Josh Barnett, Andrei Arlovski, Brett Rogers, and Sergei Kharitonov, the winner will no doubt be a worthy successor of the lineage.
To take things a step further, in addition to the original lineal UFC heavyweight title, no less than seven other lineal lines will be merged by this Strikeforce Grand Prix.
Overeem brings two lineal lines to the tournament, as the current and reigning Strikeforce and DREAM champion.
In addition to the original UFC line, Werdum carries no less than five other lines as well, including the PRIDE (by defeating Fedor), WAMMA (Fedor again), IFL (Fedor, via Arlovski, via Roy Nelson), EliteXC (by defeating Bigfoot Silva), and even the BET Iron Ring (Fedor, via Rogers, via Abongo Humphrey).
With no less than eight lineal championships beings merged into one, including the original recognized MMA world heavyweight title, the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix hold even more importance than anyone initially realized when the concept was conceived several weeks ago. This is an exciting time in mixed martial arts history, and we have Strikeforce to thank.