Who is the most accomplished heavyweight in MMA history? It's complicated

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports
(R-L) Stipe Miocic punches Daniel Cormier in their heavyweight championship bout during UFC 241 at the Honda Center on Aug. 17, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)
(R-L) Stipe Miocic punches Daniel Cormier in their heavyweight championship bout during UFC 241 at the Honda Center on Aug. 17, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Getty Images)

There are many ways to discuss all-time greatness. When it comes to thinking about which athletes are the “greatest,” it’s best to use an inexact and method plotting out where skill and accomplishments intersect.

Skill doesn’t necessarily translate into accomplishment (talent does not always develop into skill, either) once everything from luck, talent, dedication, mental fortitude and other factors have their say in a career. There are also athletes who have achieved more impressive victories, at the right time, than some of their more technically skilled counterparts.

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When it is good-natured, genuine and qualified, greatest of all-time (GOAT) discussions can be fun mental exercises that shine light on deserving athletes’ careers. Today we’re not going to discuss the full matrix of GOAT considerations, however.

Instead, let’s want to focus on an element of it — accomplishment — and how it is still a difficult thing to evaluate in and of itself. Before his 2018 first fight with Daniel Cormier, and this past week since his successful rematch with the two-division champ, conventional wisdom (based on a heavily pushed official narrative) was that Stipe Miocic was the “most accomplished” heavyweight in MMA history.

He might have been, and still is. He might also very well be the “greatest” heavyweight of all-time, with all the additional considerations that go into making an argument for that title.

Heaping justified praise on Miocic will likely never offend me. The heavyweight is an incredible fighter, well-rounded, skilled, gutsy, resilient, and mostly likable (the past year of sour grapes from him after Cormier knocked him out in 2018, notwithstanding).

Coming from behind after getting battered by Cormier for three rounds at UFC 241, making adjustments and technically picking apart “DC” only adds to Miocic’s luster.

Randy Couture (R) may very well have had the toughest career schedule of any MMA fighter in history. (Getty Images)
Randy Couture (R) may very well have had the toughest career schedule of any MMA fighter in history. (Getty Images)

What is bothersome is the uncritic

al way in which just about everyone in the MMAsphere, including his opponents, have picked up the “official” UFC line that the firefighter is undoubtedly and simply the “most accomplished” heavyweight in history.

Again, he might be, but there’s a lot of fun discussion that is missed out on when we don’t even examine what might be meant by the phrase “most accomplished” when we say and apply it. One impressive record of Miocic’s has been repeated over and over as seemingly the main support for the argument that he’s the most accomplished heavyweight fighter, ever — that he successfully defended the UFC heavyweight belt three times, more than any other previous UFC champion.

It’s been said by UFC commentators that Miocic has “all the records” in the heavyweight division, but of course he does not. It’s also silly to limit discussion of which MMA heavyweight has accomplished the most to those who have fought in the UFC, in a similar way to how we would never spend much time discussing records in boxing in the narrow frame of particular promotions or sanctioning bodies, i.e. the most accomplished fighter from Top Rank, or the best WBC cruiserweight champion.

There have always been and still are elite MMA promotions other than the UFC which possess great fighters. The UFC has bought up most of the globally significant ones, but they’re at least still a part of the archive, as are their fighters’ accomplishments.

So, assuming that even the short history of true MMA heavyweight world championships (a little over 20 years, in 2019) is rich enough to explore beyond soundbites, let’s take a deeper, though still survey, look at Miocic and other big men’s considerable accomplishments in comparison with one another.

The goal isn’t to provide clarity on who, in fact, is the most accomplished heavyweight MMA fighter, ever. The goal is to help illustrate just how impossible such objective clarity would be to attain on the matter.

Stipe Miocic has won more consecutive UFC title-defenses at heavyweight than any previous champion. Several other men have had two.

In the heavyweight division’s short history, it’s worth noting that people like Randy Couture had UFC careers and title reigns interrupted by legal hold-ups while standing up for their own rights against the UFC. The fact is that no one in UFC history has ever truly dominated the UFC’s heavyweight division for a long period of time.

Most UFC champions have at best won a couple or a few, then lost. Some elite UFC heavies have regained their titles for a second time.

Miocic added to his résumé last week by joining the two-time club that already counts as members guys like Frank Mir, Cain Velasquez, and Randy Couture.

The only heavyweight world champion to have yet reigned for years on end was Fedor Emelianenko. The Russian won a Pride world title, won 28-straight fights at one stretch in his career, and has beaten six other world champions.

Fedor Emelianenko (top) punches Mirko Crocop at a Pride heavyweight title match. (Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images)
Fedor Emelianenko (top) punches Mirko Crocop at a Pride heavyweight title match. (Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images)

For his part, Miocic has so far beaten four world champions. The man Emelianenko beat to earn his world title, Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, beat seven men who were, had been, or would go onto become world champions, over the course of his legendary career.

Nogueira was also a multiple-time Pride belt holder and also later became a heavyweight champion in the UFC. The champ Nogueira beat to become The Man in Pride, Mark Coleman, also won major championships in Pride and the UFC, both.

Coleman was the Pride Open Weight Grand Prix champion, which he added onto his previous UFC heavyweight title run.

Taking size into consideration matters a bit for legacy and accomplishment, one could argue. When we do so, it’s important to then cast Couture’s accomplishments at heavyweight in a specific light, considering that the former light heavyweight champion fought much bigger people than him to become heavyweight champ twice, the way Daniel Cormier has.

Like Couture, Cormier became light heavyweight and heavyweight champion. Unlike anyone else, however, he once held both titles simultaneously.

(L-R) Frank Mir punches Daniel Cormier in their heavyweight bout during the UFC on FOX event at the HP Pavilion on April 20, 2013 in San Jose, California. (Getty Images)
(L-R) Frank Mir punches Daniel Cormier in their heavyweight bout during the UFC on FOX event at the HP Pavilion on April 20, 2013 in San Jose, California. (Getty Images)

Additionally, Cormier has only lost once in his career at heavyweight. Cormier could make an argument for it (as could someone like BJ Penn), but perhaps no one in MMA history has fought a tougher schedule over the course of an entire career than “The Natural” Couture.

Couture has fought in 16 world title fights. He won the heavyweight strap twice and beat seven other world champions in his career.

Like his teammate Cormier, Cain Velasquez has rarely lost — just three times in his thirteen year career, in fact. The two-time heavyweight champ was dethroned by Werdum, who himself has beaten three world champions.

That number is less than many other top big-men we’ve discussed, but Werdum’s three were a doozy. All three of the champions Werdum has beaten — Nogueira, Emelianenko, and Velasquez — could rightly be considered the best and/or most skilled heavyweights ever.

What’s more, Werdum made all three of those men tap-out, beating them by submission.

If this trip down memory lane confuses matters, good. That’s the point.

It doesn’t demean any one champion to discuss their accomplishments within historical context and in a more detailed comparison to others than we typically get. Most news coverage and broadcast banter has a real recency bias, for a host of reasons.

Taking a breath between breathless declarations can allow us more opportunities to dig into this new sport’s already deep soil and better understand it.

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