When UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic walks to the Octagon on Saturday to face Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC 260, he’ll be accompanied by two sides of a debate that he might finally be able to settle.
Is he the greatest heavyweight fighter in MMA history? The old-schoolers say no, arguing their era was deeper and more talented and that Fedor Emelianenko is the GOAT. Current fans say Miocic already has proven himself with a UFC-record four heavyweight title defenses.
Would another win over Ngannou settle things? Maybe.
But one thing that is not up for debate is that Miocic belongs on the Mount Rushmore of heavyweight greats, along with three (or maybe two?) other legends. While Miocic, Emelianenko and Cain Velasquez are widely accepted as the best of the best, the fourth spot drives more debate. Even Daniel Cormier, at first, wasn’t sure he belonged, considering he did some of his best work at light heavyweight.
ESPN’s 13-member panel — names below — put together its list, and the following were the top four vote-getters, in order. There was also an argument made as to why this Mount Rushmore should be one face short of its namesake.
Ariel Helwani: The guy from Ohio is king of the mountain
Miocic isn’t one to puff his chest out.
He will rarely, if ever, refer to himself as the most decorated heavyweight champion in the history of the UFC. When I asked him recently if he was the greatest heavyweight champion ever, he deflected in typical, lovable Miocic fashion.
So, I’ll state it loudly and clearly for him: Miocic is the most decorated and successful heavyweight to ever compete in the UFC. And it’s starting to not even be a close competition anymore.
He holds the record for most successful title defenses at heavyweight and most heavyweight title victories (6).
He holds multiple wins over Cormier, whom I consider to be one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport. No one else can claim that (remember, the second Jon Jones win over Cormier was overturned to a no contest).
He also holds wins over legends such as Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Mark Hunt, Roy Nelson and Andrei Arlovski. And many of those wins came when his opponents were in their primes.
He handed Ngannou his first UFC loss three years ago when it appeared as though Ngannou was the most-feared human being to ever step foot inside the Octagon. He weathered an early storm from the big man and then dominated his way to a one-sided unanimous decision victory.
And now, on Saturday, he’ll attempt to replicate that victory. Imagine that. Not one, but two wins over — once again — the most-feared man in the UFC.
And then, if he wins, he’s staring at a super fight against Jones. Imagine the hype around that fight?
And then, if he beats Jones, who would be next? I actually don’t think a fight against Tyson Fury or Anthony Joshua would be completely out of the question. This is something he wants really badly, and his desire to fight one of those men — in boxing, no less — has already been expressed to the UFC brass on multiple occasions. They aren’t dismissing it either, I’m told.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. He doesn’t need those wins to cement his spot atop MMA’s Heavyweight Mt. Rushmore. That work is already done.
In fact, dare I say, his face should be the very first on that proverbial mountain.
But this isn’t about what kind of a draw you are or were. It’s about the results in the UFC’s most competitive division over the years.
And no one has enjoyed more success within that division than Ohio’s own.
Phil Murphy: Never forget the greatness of Fedor
Fedor Emelianenko catches Frank Mir and flattens him with a left hand. The former PRIDE heavyweight champ then finishes the fight with a few more punches.
It’s rare to get an assignment as easy as “Explain why Fedor is an all-time great heavyweight.” He is the gold standard for dominance in MMA’s most volatile weight class. Large men and small gloves leave no margin for error, yet “The Last Emperor” spent the better part of a decade as the reflexive answer to “Who is the best heavyweight on the planet?”
From 2001-09, Fedor went 27-0 with 1 no contest. His career spanned several promotions, but his legend was built in Pride, where 10 of his 14 wins rendered moot the services of ringside judges. And it was hardly cans he smashed. Fedor beat the best at their best. His run included wins — all finishes — over former UFC heavyweight champions Andrei Arlovski, Tim Sylvia, Kevin Randleman and Mark Coleman, twice. Randleman and Coleman are UFC Hall of Famers, and Arlovski will likely someday follow. Fedor also beat former UFC title challengers Mark Hunt and Mirko Cro Cop. The unanimous decision win over Cro Cop — one of Emelianenko’s rare times seeing scorecards in that era — is widely considered among the greatest Pride fights ever. The kimura against Randleman is considered among the wildest.
UFC Hall of Famer and former Pride heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira went on a run of 22-2 (1 NC) spanning a similar time frame. That’s 0-2 (1 NC) against Fedor and 22-0 against everyone else for Big Nog, later the UFC interim heavyweight champ. The aforementioned Cro Cop was in the midst of an 18-month tear with an 8-1 record — Fedor was the 1. Even after his peak years, Fedor beat former UFC champions Pedro Rizzo, Frank Mir and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
It’s a shame the business side of the sport barred Fedor from the “ultimate proving ground” that is the UFC. But the effortless run of brutality through a litany of the period’s great heavyweights removes any doubt that Fedor should be etched permanently on the shortest list of great fighters we’ve ever seen — in any promotion.
Marc Raimondi: Velasquez could have been the best ever
When Cormier beat Miocic to win the title on July 7, 2018, he was considered the best heavyweight on the planet, except by one person. Cormier deferred to Velasquez, the guy who had been training with him at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, for the better part of a decade.
“He’s still the best,” Cormier said at the time. “He’s the best heavyweight the UFC has ever seen.”
Cormier left heavyweight before he was put in a position to challenge for Velasquez’s title, and he returned after Velasquez’s run was over. Cormier had been candid about not wanting to fight Velasquez, and not just because the two are good friends. Cormier acknowledged he would not have beaten Velasquez, based on what happened between the two of them in sparring.
Velasquez, in his prime, was arguably the greatest heavyweight in MMA history. He combined technical boxing, knockout power and All-American-level wrestling with perhaps the best cardio the division had ever seen. To illustrate those things, Velasquez still holds the record for the most takedowns (34) and most total strikes (1,464) landed in UFC heavyweight history.
Velasquez is a two-time UFC heavyweight champion and sports a 12-3 UFC record with 10 knockouts (tied for second most in UFC heavyweight history). His mauling of Brock Lesnar in 2010 was one of the most memorable heavyweight fights ever. After getting knocked out on a bad leg against dos Santos in 2011, Velasquez came back to dominate dos Santos twice to cement himself as the best heavyweight of the era. In addition, his stardom in Mexico, the homeland of his parents, helped the UFC gain popularity in a country known more for boxing.
The issue for Velasquez was injuries. Velasquez fought just three times after 2013 despite being in his early 30s.
But Cormier knew. As he trained for his title defense against Derrick Lewis in 2018, it was Velasquez — who hadn’t fought in three years — putting his teammate through a tough camp.
“Because I knew what would happen in the training session where I had to fight Cain Velasquez, I never claimed him for the championship,” Cormier said on a recent episode of ESPN’s DC & Helwani. “I didn’t know what I could change to beat him.”
Jeff Wagenheim: Why we should limit our Mt. Rushmore to three
If I’m the one chiseling away at the mountainside, you’ll find me carving in the stoic faces of Miocic, Emelianenko, Velasquez and … no one else. With all apologies to the Fab Four monument design in the Black Hills of South Dakota, my homage to the greatest MMA heavyweights would feature only three indelible mugs.
Miocic is the greatest heavyweight ever, in my mind and in the opinions of many others who follow the sport. Most anyone who disagrees with us tends to favor Emelianenko, who was the popular pick before Miocic came along. And Velasquez belongs right up there with them, for winning 13 of his first 14 bouts and twice reigning as UFC champion. That trio has separated itself from the rest of the fight game’s large bodies.
Cormier? Great fighter and a total gentleman, to be sure, but much of his best work came in a different weight class. He won a Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix before beginning his UFC career with a pair of heavyweight wins, then fought nine times at light heavy before finishing up with a 2-2 run back with the big boys. His only losses came against the GOATs of two divisions, Miocic and Jones. And Cormier did reign as a champ-champ.
But when I was asked to submit a list of four names for this project, I struggled with my fourth pick before going with Werdum. He spent his entire 34-fight career at heavyweight and owns two of the greatest victories in the history of the weight class. His 2010 submission of Emelianenko ended the Russian’s 28-fight unbeaten streak extending back a decade. And five years later, Werdum tapped out Velasquez, who at the time was well on his way toward building an unsurpassed heavyweight résumé. What a 1-2 punch … or, rather, 1-2 grappling grip.
I can’t say definitively that Werdum has accomplished more than DC, but it’s a close enough call that neither has a granite-clad case for an eternal spot on the mountain. Some of our panelists even support Couture, a three-time UFC heavyweight champion, or Nogueira, the first Pride heavyweight champ. I would slot both of them a peg beneath Cormier and Werdum, though, just as I’d stack DC and Werdum below the Big Three.
So give me a three-face Rushmore. It’s not as if I’m looking at Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt and saying, “Sorry, fellas, one of you has to go.” Those four presidents secured their places in American history. MMA heavyweight history, on the other hand, is not yet ready to be fully set in stone. Let’s leave a spot open some big lug to hammer out his rightful place.
Brett Okamoto: Hold on, DC belongs with this group
The simplest case I can make for Cormier’s inclusion is that had he won the trilogy against Miocic in 2020, I would have considered him the greatest heavyweight of all time. Period. So, how in good faith can I say he was one win away from being the best ever, but since he came up short in that fight, he’s not even in the top four? I can’t argue that, because it would make no sense.
Look, you can’t discuss Cormier’s place in heavyweight lore without pointing out the fact he chose to compete outside of the weight class during the peak of his career. I would say Cormier’s prime was from 2015 to 2018. He turned 36 years old in 2015 — the same year he fought Jon Jones the first time at 205 pounds — but remember, he got into fighting late, so I believe his prime was probably from age 36 to 38. And he spent essentially all of that time fighting at light heavyweight.
Now, I’m not saying we should just assume Cormier would have been a great heavyweight during those years, but it should be noted he had less time than others to rack up achievements. And I’m sorry, you can’t ignore the fact that he left the division, undefeated, in 2014, returned in 2018 and immediately knocked out the undisputed champion in Miocic. That speaks volumes to what this man was capable of as a heavyweight, and it’s why I would have considered him the greatest of all time had he bested Miocic in a trilogy last year, at the age of 41.
Of the four heavyweights we have on our list, I imagine Cormier will be the most controversial. But that is because he is the only one who fought in any division other than heavyweight. I get it. Who are the best heavyweights of all time? Miocic, Emelianenko, Velasquez — they all roll off the tongue, with ease. But with DC, there’s definitely a tendency to categorize him more as a light heavyweight. Frankly, that’s a mistake. Cormier was a better heavyweight than a light heavyweight, and even though his body of work wasn’t as deep as the others, he proved, unequivocally, he was one of the best ever. Put that man on Mt. Rushmore.
Voting panel: Kel Dansby, Andrew Davis, Andrew Feldman, Andres Ferrari, Tim Fiorvanti, Ariel Helwani, Eric Jackman, Roman Modrowski, Phil Murphy, Arda Ocal, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Eric Tamiso, Jeff Wagenheim