On Saturday night at UFC 220, Stipe Miocic made history. The Ohio native became the first UFC heavyweight champion to make three successful defenses of his crown. The champ easily outpointed challenger Francis Ngannou to take the decision nod and retain his title. In doing so, Miocic quite possibly laid claim to the distinction of being the best heavyweight in the history of the UFC. After all, who else can compete for the UFC heavyweight “GOAT” (greatest of all time) title?
What about Fedor Emelianenko?
Well, Emelianenko never competed in the UFC, so scratch him off the list. The Russian great still has a solid argument as the world’s heavyweight GOAT. There are criticisms that he was protected in Pride and met a lot of freak-show opponents, but Emelianenko did compete in a time when the Japanese promotion’s heavyweight division was considerably better than that of the UFC. Emelianenko posted wins over the like of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (twice), Mark Coleman (twice), Kevin Randleman, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Mark Hunt. “The Last Emperor” still has Miocic beat, for sure, but in the UFC GOAT conversation, the Russian isn’t even an eligible contender.
Now, we’re talking contenders. Couture had three separate reigns over the UFC’s heavyweight division. His first championship came in 1997, but he never defended the title. Instead, Couture left the UFC over a contract dispute and was stripped of the crown. He won the belt again in the year 2000 with a victory over the aforementioned Randleman. “The Natural” made two defenses, but both came against Pedro Rizzo. He subsequently lost the belt to Josh Barnett and failed to regain it when he fought Ricco Rodriguez. Couture’s third reign came in 2007 when he perceived a weak heavyweight field and stepped up to ouster Tim Sylvia as the champ. Couture made a successful defense of the belt against Gabriel Gonzaga before relinquishing the title to Brock Lesnar.
While Couture enjoyed three stints at the top, he never dominated a wide field of heavyweights during any of those runs. His best chance for such an achievement was probably after his first title win, but disagreements over compensation ruined that opportunity. His second reign featured only one opponent against whom he successfully defended the crown, and his third tenure as the champ really demonstrated the lack of depth in a division where Sylvia held the belt prior to Couture and the UFC could only dig up Gonzaga as a “worthy” challenger before Lesnar stepped up. Lesnar’s raging-bull approach and his significant size allowed him to conquer Couture, when Couture should have been able to find holes in Lesnar’s game and secure the victory.
Simply put, Couture was a natural light heavyweight who often benefited from a weak heavyweight division to take home the title. There’s no denying Couture’s status as a legend and one of the best UFC heavyweights — and light heavyweights — of all time, but he’s certainly not the UFC’s heavyweight GOAT.
How about Frank Mir?
Mir certainly seemed poised to snag this distinction early in his career. The Las Vegas native challenged the aforementioned Sylvia for the crown in 2004 and snapped the champ’s arm. Just three months later, though, Mir was in a gruesome motorcycle accident that left him a broken femur and numerous torn ligaments.
It took Mir a long time to return to form. He was stripped of the belt while he recovered and didn’t regain gold until more than four years later when he claimed an interim championship. Mir, who had spoiled Lesnar’s UFC debut, dropped the belt to the former pro-wrestler in their rematch and unsuccessfully challenged for gold on two other occasions.
The motorcycle accident destroyed Mir’s best chance at the UFC GOAT distinction, but the decorated grappler tried and failed to stay at the top of the mountain several other times. His inability to do so knocks him out of the conversation.
Calm down, we’re kidding. While Sylvia did hold the title twice, he did so in an era where there was little competition in the division. Mir ended his first reign after one defense, which came against Gan McGee, which should reveal plenty about the lack of depth at heavyweight in 2003. Sylvia’s other reign featured a title-capturing victory over Andrei Arlovski and defenses against Arlovski and Jeff Monson before the title loss to Couture.
Lesnar’s size allowed him to steamroll his opponents en route to a title reign after stumbling in his debut outing against Mir. Lesnar defeated the much smaller Couture for the belt, avenged the loss to Mir in his first title defense and then survived a first-round ass-whooping at the hands of Shane Carwin to make a second successful defense. However, where Carwin’s gas tank failed him following his enormous first-round output, Velasquez took the same blueprint and decimated Lesnar to capture the belt.
Lesnar didn’t like getting punched, and once he fought someone who shared his size and also brought plenty of cardio to the cage, Lesnar was toast.
What about Velasquez then?
The American Kickboxing Academy phenom sure seemed like the man who would undeniably take the UFC GOAT honors in the division when he first rose to prominence and destroyed Lesnar. Velasquez couldn’t maintain his run at the top, however. He lost the belt in his very first defense against Junior dos Santos. Velasquez recaptured the belt from dos Santos a little over a year later and made successful defenses against Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and dos Santos before falling to Fabricio Werdum.
The real culprit in ruining Velasquez’s chances for the GOAT distinction is the injury bug. Velasquez fought and defeated some of the more solid competition any UFC heavyweight champ has seen, but he couldn’t stay healthy and defend his crown with any consistency. The loss to dos Santos could be considered a fluke — he thoroughly beat JDS in their other two meetings — but Velasquez didn’t look nearly as strong following a nearly two-year layoff when he returned against Werdum.
This brings us full circle to Miocic. He won the heavyweight title in May 2016 when he dropped Werdum in the opening round of their bout. In doing so, Miocic thwarted a world-class grappler who also had a decent striking arsenal.
Miocic’s first defense came against Alistair Overeem, a decorated kickboxer with an underrated grappling game. The Ohio native beat Overeem via strikes in the first round to show that he could overcome a striker with range and kickboxing prowess.
The champ’s next defense was a first-round drubbing of the aforementioned former champ dos Santos. Again, Miocic outperformed an elite talent whose striking abilities had allowed him to claim the crown from Velasquez years earlier. Miocic isn’t afraid to stand with the likes of JDS or Overeem, and he demonstrated this lack of fear in his early finish of the Brazilian.
Then came Ngannou. The Cameroonian fighter not only has the looks of an intimidating man, but he also brought a devastating highlight reel, including a knockout that nearly separated Overeem’s head from off his shoulders, that backed up that aura. Yet, Miocic wasn’t intimidated. The 35-year-old wasn’t able to stop Ngannou, but he didn’t give the huge beast of a striker many opportunities to swing away in the early rounds and he took away the big man’s weapons through the use of takedowns and ground control as the fight wore on.
With three successful defenses of the UFC heavyweight title, Miocic is in the record books. With the level of competition he’s faced, he certainly deserves consideration as the UFC’s heavyweight GOAT as well.
Where contract disputes and injury have stopped others, Miocic has remained healthy. Where other fighters have faltered, Miocic has remained consistent. Perhaps the current UFC heavyweight champ really is the greatest UFC heavyweight of all time.