Ranking the Greatest Heavyweights in MMA History

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2018

Ranking the Greatest Heavyweights in MMA History

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    The UFC heavyweight division is better than it ever has been.

    For the first time in almost its entire history, the biggest weight class in the promotion has a legitimate blend of steely former champions, young up-and-comers and hardened veterans. It has a multitude of fresh matchups available for its matchmakers. And most of all? It has a vast majority of MMA's elite talent.

    Sitting atop this boom has been Stipe Miocic.

    Already the most successful heavyweight champion in UFC history, Miocic has established himself as the man to beat in a way nobody else in the promotion's history has. With his fourth title defense, opposite Daniel Cormier at UFC 226 on Saturday, it's worth taking a look back to see how the Clevelander stacks up among the all-time greats of the division.

    So who is the greatest of all time? How good is Miocic? And what other active fighters make the cut?

    Read on and find out!

10. Cain Velasquez

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    Record: 14-2

    Achievements:

    • Two-Time UFC Heavyweight Champion

            

    What Made Him Great

    For a brief time, Cain Velasquez seemed poised to build up a resume of becoming the greatest heavyweight fighter ever. 

    Transitioning directly from NCAA Division I wrestling to MMA, he made his UFC debut after just two fights and looked amazing in his debut, knocking out Brad Morris in just two minutes. Even at that early stage of his career, it was clear he was a snowball rolling downhill and he proved as much by steamrolling his way to a top contender's bout just three years after his pro debut.

    From there, he defeated Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, which earned him both credibility with hardcore fans as well as a golden ticket in the form of a fight with Brock Lesnar. To say he cashed in that ticket would be an understatement.

    Velasquez absolutely smashed Lesnar when they fought at UFC 121 to earn the UFC heavyweight title. He lost the belt in his first defense to Junior dos Santos in 2011, but he righted that wrong by utterly dominating him in both the 2012 rematch and 2013 rubber match.

    He's already had a great career at this point but injuries cost him the ability to compete with any regularity since then. He has just seven fights since defeating Lesnar in 2011, and unfortunately nearly two years removed from his last bout, it's unclear if he will ever get back into the Octagon again.

9. Mark Coleman

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    Record: 16-10

    Achievements:

    • Winner of UFC 10, UFC 11 Tournaments
    • First UFC Heavyweight Champion
    • 2000 Pride FC Openweight Grand Prix Winner

              

    What Made Him Great

    The early days of the UFC were built around pitting different combat sports against one another to determine the best. As time went on, fighters began to add techniques to their arsenals that weren't kosher in their traditional competitive background.

    Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners began boxing, karateka began wrestling, and kickboxers began learning submissions. The martial arts began to mix together in the cage. 

    Mark Coleman took a different approach to the Octagon, though. Rather than looking to other styles, he instead began exploring something that was only possible in MMA. Specifically, ground-and-pound.

    In the formative days of the UFC, Coleman was a particularly terrifying force as he would leverage his Olympic wrestling background to score a double-leg takedown, advance to mount position and repeatedly headbutt and hammerfist his hapless foe. And if they didn't wilt under that pressure? He had enough of a submission game to force a tap.

    That unique skill set and style carried him through two UFC tournaments and eventually led to his coronation as the first-ever UFC heavyweight champion. He left the promotion in 1999 following a three-fight losing skid, but Coleman found new life in Japan by steamrolling his way through the 2000 Pride FC Openweight Grand Prix, capped with a brutal win over top-ranked Igor Vovchanchyn.

    His time at the top ended shortly thereafter as he began splitting time between MMA and pro wrestling, but by that point, Coleman had already established himself as the best in the business and had permanently changed the game.

8. Josh Barnett

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    Record: 35-8

    Achievements:

    • UFC Heavyweight Champion
    • Pancrase Openweight Champion
    • 2006 Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix Finalist
    • Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Finalist

           

    What Made Him Great

    Lots of the fighters on this list have had long careers. Heavyweight combat sports are often defined by power, which tends to stick around even as speed and durability go out the door. That allows bigger fighters to stick around and pick up wins for a long time.

    In MMA, that often translates to former champions fighting young upstarts on UFC undercards or hitting the road to be stars of random shows on the international circuit. Former UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett isn't completely exempt from that, but what truly separates him from the lot is how he did so while still competing against the cream of the crop.

    Barnett's MMA record includes elite-level names from throughout MMA history. During his 21-year career, he has fought bona fide pioneers like Randy Couture and Dan Severn, legends of yesteryear like Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and even relevant names of today like Daniel Cormier and Mark Hunt.

    He didn't necessarily win all those fights, but that's to be expected. While many veterans become more choosy as they advance in their careers, Barnett has always been an "anyone, anywhere" fighter. The fact that he's been able to stick around this long with that approach speaks to how great he truly is.

7. Junior Dos Santos

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    Record: 18-5

    Achievements:

    • UFC Heavyweight Champion

            

    What Made Him Great

    Junior dos Santos' reign at the top of the heavyweight division was short, but during that time he carved a path of destruction unlike anything ever seen.

    He debuted in the UFC in 2008 with a stunning first-round knockout of Pride import and future UFC champion Fabricio Werdum. While a case could have been made for making him a contender then and there, the UFC put the Brazilian on a slow burn, making him work his way through an at-the-time stacked heavyweight division.

    He had little room for error as he faced fellow fast-rising contenders like Stefan Struve and Roy Nelson as well as hardened veterans like Mirko Cro Cop and Gilbert Yvel, but with each outing, he further cemented his spot as the heavyweight division's most lethal fighter. A thrashing of Shane Carwin set him up with a crack at the belt, and he made the most of that opportunity by knocking out Cain Velasquez in 69 seconds at UFC on Fox 1.

    That aura of invincibility was dispelled a year later when Velasquez reclaimed his title with a vicious unanimous decision win, but Dos Santos has managed to maintain elite status in the years since. He has a win over every single heavyweight champion—interim and undisputed—since Brock Lesnar.

6. Alistair Overeem

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    Record: 43-17 (1 NC)

    Achievements:

    • Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion
    • Dream Heavyweight Champion
    • 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix Winner

            

    What Made Him Great

    For a long while, Alistair Overeem was a man caught between the middleweight and heavyweight divisions in Pride FC. He picked up some big wins here and there, beating the likes of Vitor Belfort, Igor Vovchanchyn and Sergei Kharitonov. For the most part, though, he just couldn't get it done against the better big men of the promotion.

    In 2007, he committed to being a full-time heavyweight fighter and began one of the biggest career (and body) transformations ever seen in MMA history.

    Competing across the world in Dream, Strikeforce and various European promotions, Overeem went on the best run of his MMA career, going undefeated across 12 fights and besting a number of his old rivals along the way. More impressively, during this time he also recommitted himself to kickboxing, winning the 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix.

    After years as a mercenary, he found something of a permanent home in the UFC in 2010, debuting with a vicious knockout of Brock Lesnar. Things seemingly went off the rails from there after an ugly 1-3 skid, but he lived up to any and all expectations as he broke off a 6-1 run that cemented him as an elite-level heavyweight once again.

    Though there were plenty of ups and downs over the years, Overeem stands as one of the most enduring names in the heavyweight division, one of its most well-rounded talents and someone who owns wins over a long list of former champions. Even now, at 38 years old, it's a real possibility that he can put another run to the top together.

5. Mirko Cro Cop

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    Record: 36-11-2 (1)

    Achievements:

    • 2006 Pride FC Openweight Grand Prix Winner
    • 2012 K-1 World Grand Prix Winner
    • 2016 Rizin FF Openweight Grand Prix Winner

             

    What Made Him Great

    Catchphrases and slogans aren't really much of a thing in MMA. Sometimes, a fighter can say something that becomes a bit of a meme in certain circles ("who the f--k is that guy" being the best recent example), but almost every fighter who has tried to take that particular page out of the pro wrestling playbook has had it blow up in their faces.

    One of the only exceptions to that is Mirko Cro Cop.

    Opponents who found themselves lined up to face the Croatian kickboxer heard one thing from fans and commentators going in: right leg hospital, left leg cemetery. It was an ominous warning about the pure power behind his kicking game, but even though everyone was well aware of what Cro Cop was capable of, few foes were able to avoid a devastating outcome.

    Capable of attacking the legs, body and head with kicks, he was able to crush almost anyone he came across in the ring. In Pride FC, where soccer kicks, stomps and knees to downed opponents were all legal, Cro Cop managed to produce some of the most brutal moments in the promotion's history. 

    Unfortunately, he struggled to emulate that success in the cage. With only a few months to learn the differences between the Pride FC ring and the UFC's Octagon, he was visibly less comfortable in his new environment. This was exacerbated further by his on-again-off-again relationship with the UFC, which resulted in him making frequent returns to Japan between three separate runs with the promotion before leaving for good in 2015.

    In 2016 he kicked off what has been an ongoing career resurgence in Rizin FF, winning the 2016 Openweight Grand Prix with four consecutive stoppage victories and following that up with another big victory at the promotion's 2017 year-end show over Tsuyoshi Kohsaka.

    Cro Cop's not done, either, as he has been sizing up returns on both ends of the Pacific Ocean, so look for him to continue building up his legacy in the near future.

4. Stipe Miocic

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    Record: 18-2

    Achievements:

    • UFC Heavyweight Champion
    • Owns Record for UFC Heavyweight Title Defenses (3)

            

    What Made Him Great

    Heavyweight MMA has had very few complete packages. Fans have seen athletic specimens who lack fight IQ, technicians with suspect raw physical prowess and single-style specialists who show up with a bang but fizzle over time.

    Stipe Miocic, in all likelihood, is the closest thing fans have seen to that elusive complete fighter. The reigning UFC heavyweight champion has basically anything a fan could ask of a fighter.

    Standing 6'4" tall and 245 pounds, Miocic is the kind of behemoth fans expect a heavyweight fighter to be. He isn't just big either, as he has legitimate athleticism that, in another universe, could have led him into stick-and-ball sports.

    From an X's and O's standpoint, he's capable of hanging with anyone and anywhere with the pure boxing chops to take on strikers and the grappling skills to contend with better-credentialed wrestlers. While some questioned whether he had the punching power to retain elite status for a prolonged period of time, he silenced any doubts in 2016 by breaking off back-to-back-to-back first-round knockouts.

    There are no obvious avenues to victory over Miocic, and frankly it's hard to imagine the current crop of heavyweight elites taking the belt from him.

3. Randy Couture

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    Record: 19-11

    Achievements:

    • UFC 13 Tournament Winner
    • Three-Time UFC Heavyweight Champion
    • Two-Time UFC Light Heavyweight Champion

            

    What Made Him Great

    Randy Couture inhabits an interesting space in MMA history.

    He never had an impressive record, hanging up his gloves at 19-11. He never had an amazing run at the top, with the longest winning streak of his career at four. Heck, he never even really established himself as the best fighter in his division at any given time.

    That said, Couture is a five-time UFC champion. 

    He didn't get there by chance, either. A remarkably quick learner, Couture leveraged his college wrestling expertise in at-the-time unique ways, introducing UFC fans and fighters to a multitude of new clinch techniques and takedowns. Despite not beginning his MMA career until he was 33 years old, those skills were still enough to carry him to victory against solid competition throughout his 14-year career, including the dramatic win over Tim Sylvia that saw the then-43-year-old capture his third heavyweight title.

    Had Couture spent the entirety of his career at heavyweight or been able to make fights like his dream match with Fedor Emelianenko a reality, he would likely appear higher on this list. Still, it's hard to complain about anything he did, given how many memories he has made for fans.

2. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

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    Record: 34-10-1 (1)

    Achievements:

    • 2000 Rings King of Kings Tournament Winner
    • First Pride FC Heavyweight Champion
    • Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion

             

    What Made Him Great

    Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will likely always be remembered as the second-best MMA heavyweight of his era. But you know what? That's still a pretty huge achievement. From 1999 to 2009, Nogueira used his extraordinary submission skills to build a trophy mantel that few can match and construct a resume that reads like a who's who of the decade.

    Josh Barnett, Dan Henderson, Mark Coleman, Fabricio Werdum, Randy Couture and Mirko Cro Cop all appear on his highlight reel. And when he wasn't fighting and defeating the best? He was taking part in some of the most memorable fights in the sport's history, particularly his 2002 showdown with Bob Sapp.

    He hit a wall in 2010 as the next generation of heavyweights started taking over, but by that point, his legacy was already bulletproof. His years as an elite of the Japanese scene, coupled with his early success in the UFC, come just a hair shy of cementing GOAT status.

1. Fedor Emelianenko

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    Record: 37-5 (1)

    Notable Achievements:

    • Rings 2001 Openweight Title Tournament Winner
    • Rings 2001 Absolute Class Tournament Winner
    • Pride Heavyweight Champion

              

    What Made Him Great

    Fedor Emelianenko isn't just the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. He's probably the greatest overall MMA talent, ever.

    Purely from a statistical standpoint, his 33-fight run from 2000 to 2009 stands as the greatest decade in MMA history. His 31-1 record (with one no-contest) therein—with the sole blemish coming via a dubious TKO via doctor's stoppage due to an illegal elbow—is beyond reproach. Just as importantly, his resume during this time is studded with an almost comprehensive list of all-time greats and former champions.

    On that alone, Emelianenko would have been one of the frontrunners for heavyweight GOAT status, but what truly made him special was everything between those lines.

    Smaller than many modern middleweights, the Last Emperor was a David in a land of Goliaths who managed to achieve victory with every single outing. But he didn't just seek to beat those giants—he sought to prove a point every time he got into the ring.

    He would outstrike strikers, outwrestle wrestlers and outgrapple grapplers with his peerlessly well-rounded game. If that didn't work? He had the sheer guts, determination and savvy to dig his way out of any hole he found himself in. 

    He is a fighter's fighter, a fan favorite and a pioneer of the sport, both in and out of competition. It's hard to imagine anyone ever being able to unseat him from this spot.