The UFC’s greatest champions

Sports are defined by their stars, and in the case of combat sports, stardom is best achieved by capturing a championship.

In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as difficult as it is getting to the top, it is just as difficult to stay there.

Since the UFC started recognizing singles championships in 1995, when Ken Shamrock defeated Dan Severn in Casper, Wyo., with a guillotine submission to become the Superfight champion (the lineal predecessor to the current heavyweight championship), there have been 41 championship reigns in five weight classes. Nearly half, 20 of the 41, failed to successfully defend their title once.

In looking at the greatest champions in history, the top five names, for very different reasons, all seem to stand out.

In this listing, Randy Couture was a unanimous No. 1 pick. Couture is the only five-time champion in company history, having won three championships as a heavyweight and two as a light heavyweight. No other fighter has won more than two championships. Couture’s most amazing feat, though, is that he won his first title at the age of 34, in only his fourth fight, and held three championships past his 40th birthday.

List compiled by Kevin Iole, Dave Meltzer, and Dave Doyle.

1. Randy Couture: Couture first captured the heavyweight title with a decision win over Maurice Smith on December 21, 1997, in Yokohama, Japan. He vacated the title in October, 1998 after a contract dispute. He returned to win a second heavyweight title on November 17, 2000, stopping Kevin Randleman via TKO in Atlantic City. He dropped the title on March 22, 2002, to Josh Barnett in Las Vegas, but Barnett tested positive for steroids afterward. UFC was going to return the title to Couture, but he refused, saying he did not want the title handed to him after he was beaten.

His third heavyweight title reign came from beating Tim Sylvia by decision on March 3, 2007, in Columbus, Ohio, before losing to current champion Brock Lesnar on November 15, 2008, in Las Vegas. Couture won what was billed as the interim light heavyweight title in a match where he stopped Chuck Liddell on June 6, 2003, in Las Vegas, and followed with a five-round decision over champion Tito Ortiz on September 26, 2003, to unify the crown. He lost the title via fluke when his eyelid was cut by the seam of a glove on February 1, 2004, in Las Vegas, in a match with Vitor Belfort, causing the fight’s stoppage. Couture regained it from Belfort on April 21, 2004, before losing to Liddell on April 16, 2005.

All told, Couture has spent nearly five years as champion, and was a huge figure in company growth as he headlined the first $1 million, $2 million and $3 million gates.

2. Matt Hughes: The two-time welterweight champion, Hughes tied the record with five successful title defenses, also held by Tito Ortiz and Anderson Silva, in his first reign. That started beating Carlos Newton on November 2, 2001, in Las Vegas, before losing to B.J. Penn on February 1, 2004. After Penn left the promotion, Hughes became the only fighter ever to submit Georges St. Pierre to capture the vacant title on October 22, 2004, in Atlantic City. St. Pierre stopped Hughes on November 18, 2006, in Sacramento, Calif. Hughes also is in a tie with Couture with nine wins in championship matches, and tied with Chuck Liddell for most career UFC wins with 16.

3. Anderson Silva: Depending upon how the next year or two goes, Silva may be No. 1 if this list is re-compiled after UFC 150. The current middleweight champion, who captured the title from Rich Franklin on October 14, 2005, in Las Vegas, holds the UFC record with nine consecutive wins. His 6-0 championship match record, with five stoppages, is also the best in company history. He also won an unofficial unification match over PRIDE champion in the same weight class, Dan Henderson.

4. Royce Gracie: Generally viewed as the UFC’s original champion, the 180-pound Brazilian, whose father popularized the sport in Brazil dating back to the 1920s, was the champion of a different era. In its first few years, UFC didn’t have weight class champions, but instead ran eight- or 16-man one-night tournaments on pay-per-view a few times per year. Gracie entered the first four unlimited weight class tournaments in 1993 and 1994, winning three. His only loss in the early years came via forfeit, when he couldn’t continue in a tournament due to dehydration, as opposed to an opponent beating him. While he had an advantage because he came into the early tournaments knowing what his style of fighting was really about, as opposed to opponents who largely came in cold, he was outweighed in of his 11 UFC victories.

5. Chuck Liddell: The light heavyweight champion from April 16, 2005, when he beat Couture in Las Vegas, until losing to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson on May 26, 2007, also in Las Vegas. Liddell was the sport’s biggest star in North America when it first hit it big, defending the title four times successfully, all via KO or TKO.

Note: No other fighters received a vote.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jul 6, 2009