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For over 100 years, boxing’s heavyweight championship was lauded as the richest prize in sports. During “The Golden Age of Sports” in the 1920s, Jack Dempsey was the most famous man in America outside of the president, as he became the first millionaire athlete in history and performed in front of a staggering 145,000 spectators in his rematch against Gene Tunney in Jersey City. Successors to Dempsey’s throne, among them Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, were exalted as gods among men, their victories chronicled on the front page of newspapers and immortalized in the history books. When Muhammad Ali did his thing in the 1960s and 1970s, he became the most celebrated person on the planet, carving out a legacy as one of the greatest prizefighters ever and an enduring hero of the civil rights and anti-war movements; and when Mike Tyson smashed his way to unify the heavyweight titles in the 1980s and 1990s, he singlehandedly revived the pay-per-view industry. Today Anthony Joshua -- the man who holds the WBA (Super), IBF, IBO and WBO heavyweight championships -- regularly attracts crowds of 80,000 people in the United Kingdom, and is said to have courted contract offers of up to $500 million to compete in the United States.
The heavyweight division in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, by contrast, has never quite reached the lofty status of its pugilistic forefather. Whereas giants like Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock tended to dominate the early years of No Holds Barred before there were weight classes and Brock Lesnar was a pay-per-view star from 2008-2010, these men have proven to be the exception rather than the rule. The marquee weight class the UFC showcased when it broke out of the “dark ages” was light heavyweight, with talents like Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell setting early company benchmarks; today, the lightweight and welterweight divisions are arguably the most exciting and prestigious.
Big men playing second fiddle to their lighter counterparts can be attributed in part to the era in which MMA emerged. Whereas earlier in the 20th century, boxing was considered to be the highest-profile sport alongside baseball, over the last three decades athletes of large size and stature in North America have had a wealth of opportunities in unionized league sports such as baseball, football, hockey and basketball. In contrast to combat sports -- especially MMA, where the risk of serious injury is high and the rewards are reserved for those in the top few percentile -- entry-level contracts in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA start somewhere at $500,000 annually and only go up from there.
This has thinned the herd of large, high-caliber athletes pursuing a career inside the cage or a boxing ring, and it has created a corresponding need to elevate less-than-stellar talent. Such was the paucity of heavyweights in the early 2000s that Tim Sylvia walked into a heavyweight title shot in with only one fight under the UFC banner and barely two years of professional experience. Meanwhile, athletic talents like Georges St. Pierre literally had to beg the UFC for a shot at the 170-pound strap.
One might also point to the lack of a divisional flagbearer as a reason the weight class was never able to attract the kind of sustained attention one might have expected. Although the UFC does what it can to promote its brand over the individual athletes to maintain leverage and ensure it’s not dependant on any single athlete, it goes without saying that the exploits of dominant champions -- think St. Pierre, Matt Hughes, Anderson Silva or Jon Jones -- cultivate intrigue and investment from the fan base. Unlike its lighter peers, however, heavyweight has really never had “that guy.” Until 2018, the record for heavyweight title defenses was two, and in the early days of the company a record number of heavyweight champions either vacated the belt or were stripped under weird circumstances. This resulted in a succession of paper champions who never earned the strap from the lineal titleholder, and those that did try their luck at defending the throne were typically unsuccessful.
It seems that every time a fighter comes along who looks capable of establishing some stability in the top of the division, the fight gods have other plans. When Josh Barnett stopped Randy Couture for the belt and became Zuffa’s first heavyweight champion in 2002, he tested positive for anabolic steroids and vacated the championship to go compete in Japan. When Brock Lesnar, the former professional wrestler who won the championship after just three fights and brought millions of crossover fans with him, looked unbeatable in wins over Couture, Frank Mir and Shane Carwin, a life-threatening bout with diverticulitis begged to differ. When his successor, Cain Velasquez, was meant to definitively claim the mantle of greatest heavyweight ever, a litany of back injuries robbed him of his competitive prime.
That brings us to Stipe Miocic, the reigning heavyweight champion who splits his time between being a full-time face-puncher and a part-time firefighter. Against the odds, Miocic has risen to be the UFC’s most successful heavyweight champion to date, with three successful title defenses and a 12-2 record with the organization since his debut in 2011. The proud Ohio native knocked out Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198 in May 2016 to start his title reign before posting first-round knockouts over Alistair Overeem and Junior dos Santos and derailing the Francis Ngannou hype train over five rounds in January.
Miocic has blended deceiving power, insane athleticism and the agility of a much lighter man to do what no one before him has done, and he stands at the precipice of a historic fourth title defense against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 226 next month. If he should do what the oddsmakers expect him to and beat the 39-year old former Olympian, he will have doubled the title defense record; and for the first time in years, he will have no shortage of young challengers -- 27-year-old Curtis Blaydes, 29-year-old Alexander Volkov and 25-year-old Tai Tuivasa among them -- to fend off in future contests.
Coming fresh off a stint on what could be the final season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and heading into the biggest card of the year, Miocic threatens to break the mold by establishing himself and the heavyweight division at the apex of the UFC organization. After 25 years, it’s about damn time.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA Industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.