HARRIS’S TAKE: The past, present, and future of the UFC Heavyweight Division

By John Harris, MMATorch contributor

Stipe Miocic (photo by Jason Silva © USA Today Sports)

Heavyweights have traditionally been the biggest draws in combat sports. There is an old saying that as the heavyweights go, so goes boxing.


During the 1960s and 1970s, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and other heavyweights boxers were not only the most recognizable athletes in combat sports, but in all of sports in the United States. Mike Tyson continued that tradition during the 1980s and 1990s as he became the king of the PPV. Professional wrestling has also had their greatest success when heavyweights were red hot such as Bruno Sammaartino, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, The Rock, and today with John Cena.

Unfortunately for fans of mixed martial arts and the UFC as a business, the heavyweight division has yet to have long term superstars who stay at the top of the division and generate interest from fans with PPV buys. We are currently at critical point at the history heavyweight divison in MMA, with only one fighter in the MMATorch.com Top 10 Heavyweights who is under the age 30 – Stefan Struve. We are at a crossroads that could be either the beginning of the end of the heavyweight division or the rise of a new era that can finally become the draw that other heavyweights in combat sports were before them.

Since its creation in February of 1997, the UFC has seen 19 different champions with Cain Velasquez having the longest reign of 896 days, but with only two title defenses. Throughout the years, several Hall of Fame level fighters have held the UFC Heavyweight Title including the first champion Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Andrei Arlovski, and former Pride Fighting Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

Unfortunately, perhaps the greatest heavyweight in the history of MMA, Fedor Emelianeko, never made it to the UFC. He dominated Pride throughout the early- and mid-2000s with wins of all comers including Nogueria. Fans often dreamed of Emelianeko coming to the UFC for dream fights against the company’s current champion. However, it was not meant to be as Emeliankeo never made it to the UFC and UFC continued to find consistency at the top of their Heavyweight Division.

UFC heavyweights continued to struggle to draw significant buyrates with Arlovoski and his long time rival Tim Sylvia at the top of the division. Their final fight of their trilogy at UFC 62 in July of 2006 was not even the main event as they played the role of co-headliner to the bigger starts Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. Even the returning fan favorite Randy Couture capturing the title at UFC 68 could not crack the 600,000 buy rate It was not until Brock Lesnar joined the UFC that the Heavyweight Division finally beaome the money maker the UFC had always hoped it would be.

Lesnar, a former NCAA National Champion in wrestling and breakout star in WWE, brought in a wave of new fans. With Lesnar at the top of the card, the UFC was able to break the 1 million PPV buyrates multiple times including UFC 91, UFC 100, UFC 116, and UFC 121.

Lesnar’s first run at the top of UFC was short lived as he was steamrolled by Cain Velasquez at UFC 121. Lesnar faded away as he battled serious illness in the form of diverticulitis. Many thought Velasquez would be a long-term dominate champion. He rebounded from a quick loss of his title to Junior Dos Santos on the first ever UFC on FOX card in 2011 with wins of Antonia Silva twice and Dos Santos twice.

Velasquez appeared to be next evolution of MMA heavyweights with the total package of size, speed, and technique. However, he was not able to achieve anywhere near the mainstream success of Lesnar or even Couture as the UFC struggled with Velasquez at the top of the card, often failing to even break 400,000 PPV buys. A series of nagging injuries slowed Velasquez down as he has only fought twice since June of 2015.

Fabricio Werdum was able to take the title from Velasquez in stunning fashion at UFC 188, but once again the trend of poor PPV performance continued with a buy rate of only 300,000. Werdum was not long for the title as he was quickly knocked out by Stipe Miocic at UFC 198.

That brings us to the present as Miocic has defended his title twice against veterans Dos Santos and Allistair Overeem. While both men are still near the top of any rankings, it’s clear they are not the fighters they once were. So this prompts the question: Where are they young challengers for Miocic?


Miocic seems to be on another level compared to rest of the aging heavyweight division. The former Cleveland Golden Gloves boxing champion and division wrestler at Cleveland State University has showed one the most well-rounded skills in MMA heavyweight history, especially with his striking. Miocic currently holds the record for most strikes landed in a single fight in UFC history with 361 vs. Mark Hunt as well as the second-most knockout victories in UFC heavyweight history.

It’s clear that inside the Octagon he’s elite, but can he become a superstar? In his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio he has become quite the celebrity with frequent appearances at Cavs and Indians games. But to become a mainstream success, it may take a great rival to emerge for Miocic. A showdown with Velasquez could create quite a bit of interest, but there is has been no sign of when Velasquez will be ready or interested in a return to the Octagon.

So who does that leave for Miocic? After the huge success of the Ultimate Fighter season 1 and the sudden boom interest in MMA I thought that ten years later the UFC Heavyweight Division would be stocked with young talent. A career in MMA seemed like it would be a great transition for many young athletes such as a Divison 1 defensive end who wasn’t going to make it to the NFL. Instead of going to professional wrestling, many thought that great college wrestlers such as Brock Lesnar, Shelton Benjamin, and Jack Swagger would make the transaction to MMA would be huge part of the current UFC heavyweight division. Unfortunately this has not been the case.

There are a few exceptions on the current UFC roster. Curtis Blaydes is a former Divison 1 wrestler at Northern Illinois who is showing some promise. Blaydes boast at 7-1 record, most recently earning a decision victory over veteran Daniel Omielanczuk. Another young prospect is Luis Henrique. The Brazilian Henrique was a part of his country’s national team and is currently 10-3 in his MMA career.

The man with the brightest future has already beaten both Blaydes and Henrique – Francis Ngannou, The Predator, a nickname that fits his fighting styles perfect, has looked extremely impressive since he mad his UFC debut back in December of 2015. His five straight wins in UFC bring his record to 10-1 overall. He recently earned Performance of the Night with a brutal first round TKO of former champion Andrei Arlovski. His next challenge will be on Sept. 9 of this year with another former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Junior Dos Santos. A win over Dos Santos could lead to a matchup for the title with Stipe Miocic. A rivalry between to exciting fighters like Miocic and Ngannou could be the shot in the arm the Heavyweight Division desperately needs.


Another solution would for the UFC Heavyweight Division to get anywhere near the PPV success they achieved with Brock Lesnar would be the number 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Jon Jones, to move to heavyweight.

Jones recently defeated long time rival Daniel Cormier in dominating fashion at UFC 214. After the fight Jones mentioned a potential super fight with former UFC Heavyweight Champion and current WWE champion Brock Lesnar. If this fight does occur it would have to be at heavyweight and could lead to Jones permanently moving up a weight class. A Jones vs Miocic title fight could potentially be a huge fight and would certainly give Miocic more mainstream attention than he has ever had. Jones has proven to be a consistent PPV draw; his fight last month against Cormier drew 800,000 buys.

Even with a potential move to heavyweight from Jones, the Heavyweight Division has never been more ready for some new blood. The top 10 even top 15 of the Heavyweight Division are mostly all 30-plus years old . Many of these fighters – including Overeem, Dos Santos, Josh Barnett, and Mark Hunt – are not the fighters they once were. Now is the time for the next generation to step up if they want to succeeded. It’s also time for the UFC to really increase their scouting and find the next crop of upcoming heavyweights before the division fades away.

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