The UFC heavyweight title has proven to be the most difficult belt to hang onto since it was first introduced at UFC 12.
Eighteen different men have held the title, resulting in 23 different undisputed champions, with a handful of interim titleholders mixed in along the way for good measure. Eight of those reigns saw the belt change hands without being successfully defended, and another nine featuring only a single successful defense.
All those changes and all those championship matchups have resulted in a litany of memorable moments, and we’ve assembled a collection of the 10 best here for your enjoyment.
This is The 10.
Frank Mir defeats Tim Sylvia (UFC 48)
When Mir touched down in the UFC after just a pair of victories outside of the Octagon, the Brazilian jiu jitsu ace immediately felt like someone that could one day challenge for the heavyweight title.
Although he stumbled a couple fights in, the Las Vegas native won five of his first six appearances to push his record to 7-1 and position himself to challenge Sylvia for the vacant title at UFC 48. It took just 50 seconds for Mir to claim victory, as the champion spilled him to the canvas off a low kick, prompting the challenger to instantly attack an armbar off his back, using the fence to help him rotate his hips into position.
Mir clamped onto the right arm and extended, and while Sylvia didn’t tap, referee Herb Dean rightfully halted the action, recognizing that Mir had broken Sylvia’s arm.
At the time, it felt like the victory could be the start of an extended reign for Mir, but it wasn’t meant to be, as the new champion was involved in a motorcycle accident three months later that ultimately resulted in his being stripped of the title and spending 20 months on the sidelines.
He would eventually claim the interim title and once again challenge for the undisputed title later in his career, but we’ll have more on that later.
Randy Couture defeats Tim Sylvia (UFC 68)
One of the iconic moments in the wake of the UFC’s post-Ultimate Fighter boom period was this championship matchup between Couture and Sylvia.
“The Maine-iac” had re-established himself as the top heavyweight in the promotion in the two-plus years between his loss to Mir and this matchup, entering on a six-fight winning streak and consecutive successful championship defenses. A two-time heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, Couture had retired a little over a year prior following his UFC 57 loss to Chuck Liddell. It had been nearly four years since “The Natural” competed at heavyweight, and in addition to being 43 years old, he was considerably smaller than the towering titleholder.
None of it mattered.
The first punch Couture threw put Sylvia on the canvas, and the challenger never really relented, dominating the fight for all five rounds to claim a unanimous decision win and become a three-time heavyweight champion.
Brock Lesnar defeats Frank Mir (UFC 100)
Mir was tasked with welcoming the former NCAA National champion and WWE superstar to the Octagon at UFC 81 and spoiled his arrival, tapping out Lesnar 90 seconds into the fight with a kneebar.
The loss didn’t sit well with Lesnar and created a rivalry between the two that lingered and festered as they went their separate ways. Lesnar registered a win over Heath Herring before defeating a returning Randy Couture for the heavyweight title, while Mir followed his victory in their first meeting by claiming the interim title from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira after they served as opposing coaches on Season 8 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Their rematch and championship unification bout would headline UFC 100, which became a massive pay-per-view extravaganza and the precursor to International Fight Week. The build was captivating, as the tension between the two simmered as they headed into the Octagon for a second time.
Lesnar was the better man, using his sheer physicality and brute strength to manhandle Mir along the fence and ultimately pound out a second-round stoppage win to gain a measure of revenge. Even though a trilogy bout never materialized, this remains one of the most memorable rivalries in UFC history and an absolute must-add when building a list of the biggest heavyweight title fights to ever take place inside the Octagon.
Brock Lesnar defeats Shane Carwin (UFC 116)
It would be a year before Lesnar finally returned to action, as the heavyweight champion was sidelined with a couple different illnesses, most notably a bout with diverticulitis. With Lesnar out of action, Carwin blasted through Mir to register his 12th straight first-round stoppage victory and claim the interim title.
The championship unification bout was installed as the main event at UFC 116 in the summer of 2010 and felt like the proverbial meeting between the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Unlike the previous year’s title unification tilt, this one didn’t carry any bad blood or acrimony — it was just two quiet, powerful men going toe-to-toe with championship gold hanging in the balance.
Over the first five minutes, Carwin beat the heck out of Lesnar, smashing him with 40 significant strikes in an offensive assault that had many believing the fight could, would, and should have been stopped… but it wasn’t. As the two men ventured to their corners, Carwin was clearly exhausted while Lesnar still had gas in the tank, and as they readied to begin the second round, the two exchanged a little wink and a smile with one another.
Carwin was running on fumes, but he still carried big power, so Lesnar wisely changed levels and put the knockout artist on his back, and from there, it was academic. He methodically worked to set up and attack an arm triangle choke, eventually garnering the tap.
This was an incredible comeback both overall and within the fight itself, and another “moment in time” fight for the heavyweight title.
Junior Dos Santos defeats Cain Velasquez (UFC on FOX 1)
When the UFC unveiled its broadcast partnership with FOX in the fall of 2011, President Dana White also announced that even before the deal officially kicked off in 2012, the promotion would make a special appearance on the network, with a one-hour, one-fight show featuring heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez defending his title against surging challenger Junior Dos Santos.
The broadcast earned an average of 5.7 million viewers across the hour, with a ratings peak of 8.8 million viewers when the main event got underway.
A wildly anticipated contest, Velasquez was 9-0, having claimed the title the previous October by running through Lesnar, while “Cigano” was 7-0 inside the Octagon and 13-1 overall, having beaten Carwin five months earlier in Vancouver to earn his championship opportunity. Everyone anticipated an instant classic between the duo, who rose through the ranks on parallel tracks and always seemed destined to be long-time rivals.
Instead, Dos Santos felled Velasquez in just 64 seconds, bouncing him from the ranks of the unbeaten and claiming the heavyweight title at the same time.
Some at the time wondered if the rapid finish was a less-than-stellar outcome given the build to the contest, but personally, I always thought it was perfect — a true encapsulation of how unpredictable every single matchup can be, even when there is championship gold on the line.
Cain Velasquez defeats Junior Dos Santos (UFC 155)
Thirteen months after their first meeting, Dos Santos and Velasquez faced off for a second time.
The champion had dispatched Mir in his first title defense, while Velasquez tore through Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva in his return to action on the same card, setting up the rematch.
After making relatively quick work of everyone he’d beaten on his way to his second appearance as a title challenger, Velasquez finally showcased the insane conditioning, incredible pace, and unmatched output he was able to deliver. For 25 minutes, “Cardio Cain” put a hurting on Dos Santos, dominating the champion from the opening bell and never relenting.
Velasquez would successfully defend the title twice in his second reign, blowing out Silva and Dos Santos while struggling to stay healthy and maintain his momentum before losing the title to Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188 in Mexico City in the summer of 2015.
Stipe Miocic defeats Francis Ngannou (UFC 220)
Miocic became the 19th heavyweight champion in UFC history by knocking out Werdum midway through the first round of their UFC 198 main event clash in Curitiba, Brazil.
After successfully defending the title against Alistair Overeem at home in “The Land” and stopping Dos Santos at UFC 211, the reigning champion was paired off with ascending finisher Francis Ngannou, a monstrous powerhouse who had punched his ticket to a championship opportunity my launching Overeem’s head into the 47th row at UFC 218 just a few months earlier.
Seven months before Thanos told The Avengers that he was inevitable, Ngannou was framed the same way — an undeniable force with incalculable power that was going to keep blowing through the competition — except no one seemed to tell Miocic, and if they did, the low-key standout wasn’t having any of it anyway.
Miocic successfully navigated the opening frame, avoiding the challenger’s death touch during the first five minutes before turning the competitive affair into a one-sided matchup, showing his championship mettle, his grit, and his experience in one outstanding effort.
The win gave Miocic a third consecutive successful title defense, establishing a new record for the division in the process.
Daniel Cormier defeats Stipe Miocic (UFC 226)
Cormier began his MMA career with 13 consecutive victories in the heavyweight division before opting to move down to the 205-pound ranks to ensure a clear lane to the top for his teammate and close friend Velasquez.
A rivalry with Jon Jones built and boiled over a few different times, with the tandem meeting inside the Octagon twice. Cormier claimed the divisional title while his nemesis was sidelined with myriad “off-field issues,” and then retained the belt through their second meeting when the result was overturned and Jones was suspended again. After successfully defending the light heavyweight strap on the same night Miocic bested Ngannou, a meeting between the two was the only matchup that made sense for each next.
Moving back up to heavyweight for the first time in 10 fights, Cormier etched his name in the history books by becoming the second “Champ-Champ” in UFC history, connecting with a short, sharp right hand coming out of the clinch that put Miocic on the deck.
Francis Ngannou defeats Stipe Miocic (UFC 260)
Thirteen months after losing to Cormier in their first meeting, Miocic reclaimed the belt with a fourth-round finish in the rematch before out-hustling “DC” to win the rubber match and retain the heavyweight title.
But he wasn’t done with rematches.
Three years and two months after their initial encounter, Miocic and Ngannou faced off for a second time after “The Predator” had put together a four-fight winning streak featuring stoppage wins over Curtis Blaydes, Velasquez, Dos Santos, and Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
The four fights took 162 seconds combined.
Much like their first bout, the questions heading into the sequel centered on whether Ngannou had shored up his takedown defense and what he would do if Miocic didn’t fall when the first big shot landed.
The challenger answered both questions in the opening minutes of the fight, sprawling well when the champion looked to take the fight to the canvas and fighting with greater poise and patience than he did in their first bout. He was measured, while still brandishing unmatched physical power, and just 52 seconds into the second round, he earned the finish and the heavyweight title.
The two-fight series between Miocic and Ngannou stands as one of my favorites in quite some time, as it illustrates so much about this sport that I love, including the value and importance of experience, how athletes can grow and learn from early setbacks, and that nothing is ever certain inside the Octagon, especially when heavyweights are involved.
Jon Jones defeats Ciryl Gane (UFC 285)
Throughout his career, Jones was asked about a future move to heavyweight, and we finally got it earlier this year.
After a three-year hiatus, Jones finally returned to action, making his highly anticipated debut in the heavyweight ranks, facing off with former interim champion Gane in a battle for the vacant heavyweight title at UFC 285.
It took all of two minutes and four seconds for “Bones” to show that he was still an absolute force, as he quickly put Gane on the canvas with a very simplistic takedown, climbed into a mounted position, and wrapped up his neck, forcing “Bon Gamin” to tap to a guillotine choke. All the questions about how Jones would look at heavyweight and if he would still be able to dominate up a division were answered so quickly that they looked ridiculous in hindsight.
The most talented fighter to grace the Octagon was back, and now he was a two-division champion.
UFC 295: Procházka vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 11, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!