It’s hard to determine the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time (GOAT), since it mostly comes down to opinion. There are as many opinions in this world as there are people, so it might actually not be possible to determine the GOAT.
The best we can do is try to narrow down the list by taking into account the fighters record, their wins and losses, as well as their level of competition.
It’s worth keeping in mind that heavyweight has always been one of the most shallow divisions in MMA compared to the lighter weight classes. Still, this doesn’t mean that the heavyweight hasn’t produced some of the greatest talent and fights ever witnessed in the sport of MMA. And afterall, being the heavyweight champion of the world does make you the “baddest man on the planet”.
Here are 5 potential GOAT heavyweight fighters in the sport of MMA in no particular order:
The son of two Croatian immigrants, Stipe Miocic is living proof of the American Dream. The current UFC heavyweight champion made his promotional debut against Joey Beltran all the way back at UFC 136 in October, 2011 winning by a comfortable unanimous decision. Miocic picked up back-to-back stoppage victories in his next 2 fights, before being stopped himself via TKO (punches) by Stefan Struve at UFC on Fuel TV 5.
Following his loss to Struve, he put together 3 impressive victories over fighters like Roy Nelson, Gabriel Gonzaga and Fabio Maldonado – improving his professional MMA record to 12-1. His impressive run came to a halt in his next fight, where he lost a unanimous decision in a “Fight of the Night” to the former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. This was not too much of a setback for the heavyweight champion, as he went on the best run of his career collecting the heads (and the UFC heavyweight title) of fighters like Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Junior dos Santos and Francis Ngannou.
During this time, Miocic set the record for the most consecutive UFC heavyweight title defences in history (3). He also holds the UFC heavyweight record for the most fight-night bonus awards, with 9.
Miocic’s championship run was ended by Daniel Cormier at UFC 226 in 2018. Cormier caught him with a punch in the clinch that buckled the champions legs and the rest is history. He went on to rematch Cormier in his next fight at UFC 241, reclaiming the UFC heavyweight title with a great comeback victory via TKO in the 4th round.
Notable victories: Roy Nelson, Gabriel Gonzaga, Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Junior dos Santos, Francis Ngannou and Daniel Cormier.
Junior Dos Santos
When you hold victories over 5 UFC heavyweight champions it’s hard to deny you a place in the GOAT conversation. Junior dos Santos had one of the most impressive runs in modern-MMA heavyweight history leading up to him capturing the UFC heavyweight title.
He made his UFC debut against the future UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, nearly knocking his head clean off his shoulders with one of the most brutal uppercuts ever landed in MMA, in the very 1st round. The victory earned JDS a Knockout of the Night bonus, which he clearly liked the taste of. He went on to demolish such fighters as Stefan Struve, Mirko Cro Cop, Gilbert Yvel, Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin before getting a shot at the UFC heavyweight title against Cain Velasquez.
JDS rearranged Shane Carwin’s face in a title eliminator bout, when Carwin was seen as one of the scariest heavyweight fighters in the world. When the title shot came against Cain Velasquez on the very 1st UFC on Fox card, JDS didn’t waste any time. He managed to land a wild overhand right behind the champion’s ear, sending him down facedown to canvas in just over 1 minute in the 1st-round. This victory earned him the UFC heavyweight title, as well as a nice Knockout of the Night bonus. He went on to make his 1st title defence against Frank Mir at UFC 146, stopping the former UFC heavyweight champion via TKO (punches) in the 2nd round. With his first successful title defence under his belt, JDS improved his professional MMA record to 15-1 and the future was looking bright for the Brazilian star.
His run was stopped after he lost his title to Cain Velasquez in a rematch at UFC 166. JDS got himself right back into title contention with a spectacular spinning hook kick knockout victory over Mark Hunt at UFC 160. Unfortunately, Velasquez truly had his number and when the pair met for the third time at UFC 166, Velasquez laid one of the worst beatings ever seen in the Octagon on the Brazilian bruiser, eventually stopping JDS via TKO (slam and punches) in the 5th round.
Following his 2nd loss to Velasquez, JDS has not been consistent in his Octagon performances. He bounced back with a unanimous decision victory over future UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, but then lost his next fight to Alistair Overeem via TKO (punches) in the 2nd round, before picking up a good win over Ben Rothwell in his next fight. This earned JDS another title shot and a rematch, this time against Stipe Miocic. He lost the fight to Miocic via TKO (punches) in the 1st round, but managed to string together 3 wins against Blagoy Ivanov, Tai Tuivasa and Derrick Lewis. JDS has lost in his last 2 Octagon appearances against Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes.
Notable victories: Stefan Struve, Mirko Cro Cop, Fabricio Werdum, Gilbert Yvel, Gabriel Gonzaga, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, Roy Nelson, Frank Mir, Mark Hunt, Stipe Miocic, Ben Rothwell, Blagoy Ivanov and Derrick Lewis.
One of the most decorated grapplers to ever compete in MMA, Werdum has left his mark on the sport forever. He first came to prominence after becoming the first man to decisively beat the legendary heavyweight MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko.
At the beginning of his career Werdum wasn’t exactly the most impressive heavyweight fighter, despite his amazing grappling credentials. He quickly picked up notable wins in PRIDE over fighters like Alistair Overeem and Alexander Emelianenko, but also lost important fights to the likes of Sergei Kharitonov and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Werdum eventually earned himself a spot on the UFC roster, making his debut against Andrei Arlovski at UFC 70. He lost the fight via unanimous decision, but picked up back-to-back TKO victories over Gabriel Gonzaga and Brandon Vera. Riding a 2-fight winning streak, Werdum was matched up against UFC newcomer and future champion Junior dos Santos. He lost the fight via one of the most beautiful knockouts in MMA history in just over a minute into the 1st-round.
Following his loss to JDS, Werdum made his way over to Strikeforce, winning his next 3 fights. These victories included a submission (guillotine choke) over Mike Kyle, a unanimous decision over Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and his legendary submission stoppage (triangle armbar) over Fedor Emelianenko, which earned him a Submission of the Year award. The hype train had to be briefly stopped after Werdum lost his next fight to Alistair Overeem via unanimous decision. This was Werdum’s last fight under the Strikeforce banner as the promotion was acquired by the UFC, who wanted to add Werdum to its roster.
This is when Werdum truly came to prominence as he started to put together impressive victories on the biggest stage in the world of MMA. Werdum started his 2nd UFC run with a 6-fight winning streak, which also saw him capture the UFC heavyweight title. He beat notable fighters like Roy Nelson, Big Nog, Travis Browne and Mark Hunt, before capturing the undisputed UFC heavyweight title from Cain Velasquez at UFC 188. He submitted the reigning champion via guillotine choke in the 3rd round and went on to make his 1st title defence against Stipe Miocic at UFC 198.
Werdum’s run as UFC heavyweight champion was short, as he was defeated by Miocic via KO (punch) in the 1st round. He bounced back with a victory over Travis Browne, before losing a close majority decision to Alistair Overeem. Werdum has competed 3 times since then, picking up victories over Walt Harris and Marcin Tybura, before losing to Alexander Volkov via KO (punches) in the 4th-round in his last Octagon appearance.
Notable victories: Gabriel Gonzaga 2x, Alistair Overeem, Alexander Emelianenko, Brandon Vera, Antonio Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Roy Nelson, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Travis Browne 2x, Mark Hunt, Cain Velasquez and Walt Harris.
Arguably the greatest pound-for-pound MMA fighter of the 2000s era, “The Last Emperor” had one of the most impressive runs in history. The quiet Russian was a complete destroyer in the ring, essentially remaining undefeated for 10 years in over 30 professional MMA fights. During his reign, Emelianenko won the RINGS tournament, became the PRIDE heavyweight champion and made several defences against high calibre opponents of that era.
He was an undersized heavyweight, standing at 6’0 and entered PRIDE Championship with a professional MMA record of 10-1, with his only “loss” being due to a cut sustained from an accidental headbut. Emelianenko wasted no time, picking up a unanimous decision victory over the legendary K1 fighter Semmy Schilt, followed by a beatdown of the “Texas Crazy Horse” Heath Herring. This win earned him a title shot against the best heavyweight fighter in the world at the time – Antonio “Big Nog” Rodrigo Nougeira. Emelianenko entered the bout as an underdog, but ended up dominating the fight, eventually capturing the PRIDE heavyweight title.
He more or less continued his dominant reign from that point onwards, collecting dominant victories over the top fighters of that era and making champs look like chumps. Who can forget the beating he laid on Mark Coleman in front of his two young daughters? Or the suplex performed by Kevin Randleman that would have most likely killed a regular person, but saw Emelianenko win by submission just moments after? Not to mention his Fight of the Decade against prime Mirko Cro Cop. Cro Cop was one of the scariest heavyweight fighters in the world at the time, knocking people senseless with his famed kicks. Emelianenko showed a master class in MMA, shutting down Cro Cop’s ability to throw his kicks and landing flurries of wild punches, takedowns and heavy ground-and-pound on the Croat.
He remained in PRIDE all the way till the end, eventually signing with Affliction, where he took out 2 former UFC heavyweight champions in Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia.
Emelianenko suffered the first decisive loss of his career just a year later at the hands of future UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum under the Strikeforce banner. This loss more or less marked the end of “The Last Emperor’s” reign in MMA, as he went on to suffer another brutal loss in his next fight at the hands of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva. It’s worth mentioning that Silva outweighed him by over 50 lbs and capitalised on his size advantage by dominating Emelianenko with heavy ground-and-pound. Emelianenko then suffered another defeat via TKO in the very 1st-round at the hands of Dan Henderson in his next fight.
After losing 3 in a row, he returned to his winning ways and put together a 5 fight winning streak, before signing with Bellator MMA and losing in his debut against Matt Mitrione. Emelianenko was able to pick up reasonably good wins in Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen in the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix, before losing to Ryan Bader in the final. He last fought in December of 2019, stopping the former UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson via TKO in the 1st round.
Notable victories: Ricardo Arona, Renato Sobral, Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira 2x, Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman 2x, Kevin Randleman, Mirko Cro Cop, Mark Hunt, Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, Brett Rogers, Jeff Monson, Satoshi Ishii, Pedro Rizzo, Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen and Quinton Jackson.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
The Brazilian legend made more men submit to him than a Russian dominatrix, consistently competing 3-4 times a year against the top competition of his day. Big Nog had 11 submission victories in PRIDE alone, collecting necks and arms from fighters like Valentijn Overeem, Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman, Enson Inoue, Bob Sapp, Semmy Schilt, Dan Henderson, Mirko Cro Cop, Hirotaka Yokoi and Heath Herring.
That’s a really impressive resume for that time and these were just his submission victories. Big Nog picked up the PRIDE heavyweight championship along the way and put a beating on other prominent fighters, usually winning by decision if he didn’t submit them. When he eventually made his way to the UFC he got right in there against the best UFC heavyweight division had to offer. Big Nog won his promotional debut against Heath Herring at UFC 73 and went on to win the interim UFC heavyweight title in his next fight against Tim Sylvia at UFC 81.
He would lose it to Frank Mir in his next bout via TKO (punches) at UFC 92, but got back to his winning ways in a Fight of the Year (2009) against Randy Couture. Aged 31, but a veteran of nearly 40 professional MMA fights, Big Nog lost his next fight against the up and coming future UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.
Nogueira picked up a nice win over Brendan Schaub via knockout (punches) in the 1st round, before rematching and losing to Frank Mir at UFC 140 in what turned out to be one of the worst limb breaks in MMA history.A broken arm wasn’t the end of Big Nog as he returned a year later, beating Dave Herman via submission (armbar) at UFC 153. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the start of a great comeback run, as Big Nog lost his next 3 fights in the UFC and has not competed since.
Notable victories: Valentijn Overeem 2x, Jeremy Horn, Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman, Heath Herring 2x, Enson Inoue, Semmy Schilt, Dan Henderson, Ricco Rodriguez, Mirko Cro Cop, Hirotaka Yokoi, Sergei Kharitonov, Fabrício Werdum, Josh Barnett, Tim Sylvia, Randy Couture, Brendan Schaub, Dave Herman.
Honorable mention: Cain Valasquez
It would be wrong to not mention the first Mexican 2x UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. He made his UFC debut with just 2 professional MMA fights under his belt and left a trail of bodies behind him on his way to capturing the UFC heavyweight title.
He beat Cheick Kongo via unanimous decision in just his 6th professional MMA fight, then went on to put a beating on Ben Rothwell winning the fight via TKO (punches) in the 2nd-round. Velasquez impressed the fans around the world in his next fight, when he demonstrated one of the swiftest boxing combinations ever seen in MMA against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira that dropped the former PRIDE and UFC heavyweight champion early in the 1st-round. This cemented his position as the division’s number 1 contender, although many fans felt that his future rival Junior dos Santos was more deserving of the shot at the title.
Velasquez faced Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight title in his next fight, smashing the juggernaut inside the 1st-round. His first championship reign was short lived, as he faced dos Santos in his 1st-title defence and lost via knockout (punches) after JDS managed to land a monster overhand that sent the champion down to the canvas face first.
He bounced back with an impressive victory over Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in possibly the bloodiest fight in UFC history. He rematched JDS, recapturing the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 155 and went on to defend it twice. He faced Antonio Silva in his 1st-title defence, stopping the giant with punches in the 1st-round, followed by his 2nd-defence against Junior dos Santos. This fight completed the trilogy between the two men and was perhaps the best performance of Velasquez’s career. He put a beating on JDS for 5 rounds, before eventually earning a TKO stoppage with less than 2 minutes to go in the final round. Velasquez lost the title in his 3rd defence against Fabricio Werdum, before bouncing back with an impressive TKO victory over Travis Browne at UFC 200.
Unfortunately, due to injuries he was forced to take time away from the sport and would not be seen in the Octagon again for nearly 3 years. He faced Francis Ngannou in his return, only to lose via knockout (punches) in just over 20 seconds into the very 1st-round and has not competed since that last loss.
Notable victories: Cheick Kongo, Ben Rothwell, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Brock Lesnar, Antonio Silva 2x, Junior dos Santos 2x, Travis Browne.
This article first appeared on CLOSEDGUARDMEDIA.com on May 7, 2020.