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It’s not your imagination.
If it feels like the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title has been passed around like a hot potato since its creation, that’s because it largely has been. Much has been made in the past year over the volume of title changes across the board in the UFC. In most divisions, that’s a break from the past. In the heavyweight division, that’s par for the course. As Stipe Miocic attempts his first title defense against Alistair Overeem in the UFC 203 main event (offshore sportsbooks) on Saturday, Cleveland’s native son shouldn’t get too comfortable with the gold around his waist. History suggests his run won’t last very long.
UFC heavyweight and interim heavyweight champions defending their titles -- including in unification bouts -- are just 16-15, barely over .500. Heavyweight champions eke out the all-time series over challengers thanks to successful defenses against the likes of David Abbott, Gan McGee and Justin Eilers. That is far and away the worst success rate for champions in any division.
Every other UFC division has a significantly better winning percentage for defending champions. Defending light heavyweight champions are 25-10 (.714 winning percentage), middleweights 16-6 (.727), welterweights 23-9 (.718), lightweights 13-5-1 (.722), featherweights 8-1 (.888), bantamweights 8-2 (.800), flyweights 8-0 (1.000), women’s bantamweights 6-3 (.667) and women’s strawweights are 3-1 (.750). Collectively, non-heavyweight UFC champions are 110-37-1 in title defenses (.748). If you based the odds for upcoming title fights solely on those past results, a generic heavyweight challenger would basically be even odds while the non-heavyweight challenger would be a 3-to-1 underdog.
It isn’t just that there’s a trend against longer title runs in the UFC heavyweight division; there is no outlier in the history of the company. No UFC heavyweight champion has ever defended his title more than twice during an individual title run. That has happened 16 times in the other divisions and not once in the company’s oldest weight class. Every other division has a title reign with at least three defenses except the bantamweight division, which was founded over 13 years after the heavyweight division and likely would have anyway if Dominick Cruz hadn’t been injured. The women’s strawweight division accomplished the trick in 19 months, while the heavyweight division hasn’t in 19 years.
Why has the heavyweight title bounced around so much? That’s surely a question to which Miocic would like an answer as he embarks on a quest to create a new history. Part of it is just injuries. For whatever reason, the UFC’s heavyweight champions haven’t been as durable as champions in other divisions. Injuries have ended title runs (Bas Rutten, Frank Mir), limited effectiveness (Brock Lesnar, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira) and diminished fight regularity (Cain Velasquez). Still, those injuries speak more to longer title runs not taking place and less to the weak overall record of heavyweight champions when they step into the Octagon.
Two other major factors that affect heavyweight MMA are power and cardio. Power gets brought up more often. Larger fighters historically have higher finishing rates. The ability to end the fight at any moment means less of a margin for error. That was evident in Miocic’s title win over Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198. Werdum got reckless, and in a matter of seconds, the fight was over. That game-changing power benefitted Miocic in Brazil, but it could in the future prove to be his downfall. There are few UFC-level heavyweights without knockout power and few who can’t be knocked out by the right shot. Miocic is a perfect example: He knocked out Werdum but was also knocked out by Stefan Struve.
Cardio is another significant factor for heavyweight title fights. In lighter divisions, elite fighters are usually confident they can go the full 25 minutes without difficulty and thus can play it safe and outclass their opponent over time. Keeping a grueling pace for 25 minutes at 245 pounds is a much trickier task. It makes heavyweights less likely to play it safe and more likely to go for the certainty of a finish when they have the opportunity. Caution can backfire for heavyweights in a way it rarely ever will for flyweights.
While history doesn’t bode well for Miocic, there are reasons to believe he may be able to succeed where others have failed. He’s younger than most of the top heavyweight contenders, and more importantly, his body is fresher because he hasn’t been through as many wars. Those positives are augmented by his natural athleticism, which leaves him with stronger physical tools than most of his opponents. He’ll need that given the MMA credentials of the fighters he’ll be up against.
Overeem on paper is as tough as it gets for Miocic. The former Strikeforce, Dream and K-1 champion has four straight wins over quality opposition and has clearly earned his opportunity at the gold. Still, it is not an accident that Miocic is favored by the oddsmakers. Overeem even in victory hasn’t looked like the fearsome force of his prime. The memories of knockout losses to Antonio Silva, Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell are still relatively fresh. Overeem’s resume may be more intimidating than the fighter that steps into the cage at UFC 203. This is a fight Miocic should be able to win, as he fights at home for the first time since joining the UFC.
Of course, there have been a lot of UFC heavyweight champions that have come into title fights expecting big things, only to have their hopes dashed in a hurry. That history goes back to Mark Coleman, the first UFC heavyweight champion, thought to be unbeatable before he lost the title in his first defense and never held it again. Ricco Rodriguez and Werdum among others met similar fates. Miocic could become part of that history. Then again, he’ll stand out all the more if he breaks from it when so many others could not.