On March 27th, Frank Mir and Shane Carwin will fight for the interim UFC Heavyweight title in the co-main event of UFC 111 at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center. If Mir wins, it will be the third time the belt has been strapped to his waist; for Carwin, the first.
The title’s history hasn’t been exactly linear, and the division has been prone to mishap more than the other four. But some of the sport’s icons have held the belt, and it’s that history, in part, that makes it what every MMA fighter over 205 pounds is chasing.
1997 - UFC 12 - the belt’s inception. Future Hall-of-Famers Mark Coleman and Dan Severn clashed, and Coleman became the belt’s first owner after a victory by neck crank.
A decorated amateur wrestler, Coleman pioneered the ground and pound strategy, and undefeated and with his fearsome reputation at its peak, he took on Maurice Smith at UFC 14.
Initially, the fight looked like a vintage Coleman performance, as he double-legged Smith to the mat and worked him over. But where others wilted, Smith persevered, and in the overtime period he turned the tables on Coleman. Smith easily evaded an exhausted Coleman’s takedown attempts and picked him apart standing.
The fans looked on at Birmingham, Alabama’s 5,000 seat Boutwell Auditorium, at a time when the UFC's attendance suffered from a pay-per-view ban and political resistance to the then unregulated sport. Production values suffered as well and the overhead lights went out in the overtime period, but the dimly lit Octagon wasn't distraction enough to make Smith relent, and he battered Coleman en route to a unanimous decision victory.
But the belt wasn’t Mo’s for long. He lost it to Randy “The Natural” Couture, who was fresh off an upset TKO victory over Vitor Belfort in a title eliminator. After a contract dispute, Couture vacated his title. SEG, the then owners of the UFC, selected Bas Rutten, a Dutchman who rose to fame fighting in Japan and Kevin Randleman, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion, to fight for the coveted belt.
Randleman had no problem taking Rutten to the mat at will, but Rutten was prepared, striking effectively off his back and keeping Randleman busy with submission attempts. He won a close decision that divided fans and enraged Randleman. Rutten retired thereafter due to injuries, and the belt was vacant again.
Randleman got another shot at the title, beating Pete Williams for the belt at UFC 23 in 1999. Hungry to reclaim the championship, Couture returned to the UFC for a fight with Randleman at UFC 28 in November 2000, and he overwhelmed Randleman for a 3rd round TKO victory and the belt.
Couture’s first defense came against Brazilian knockout artist Pedro “The Rock” Rizzo at UFC 31 in 2001. Their first fight was a five round epic. Rizzo was nearly finished in the first round by Couture’s ground and pound. But the Brazilian bounced back in the second, dominating with heavy leg kicks. The final three rounds were a back and forth tussle between the men, who were exhausted by the fight’s end. Couture won the decision, but Rizzo’s performance earned him an immediate rematch. But by their second fight it seemed that Couture had figured Rizzo out, as he controlled Rizzo before stopping him with ground and pound in the third.
‘The Natural’s UFC record was 7-0 before his fight with Josh Barnett. Barnett was 14 years younger, and possessed a 17 pound weight advantage. Couture had built a career on winning fights where the tale-of-the-tape was skewed against him, but he lost via a ground and pound TKO in the second. Barnett’s reign ended when he tested positive for anabolic steroids and was stripped of his title in the Zuffa-owned and state-regulated UFC.
The UFC matched Couture against Ricco Rodriguez for the vacant title, and the former champion controlled Rodriguez in the early rounds, but the talented grappler survived, finishing Couture in the 5th via ground and pound. After two straight TKO losses, at 39, Couture’s career was widely thought to be nearing its conclusion – a sentiment proved misguided when he went on to win the light heavyweight belt the following year.
Champion Rodriguez took on 6’8 Tim "The Maine-iac" Sylvia in his first title defense. It soon became apparent that Rodriguez was in over his head, as Sylvia bullied the champion and powered his way out of an armbar attempt. Guest commentator Ken Shamrock noted that Rodriguez was “backing up and not covering up”, a mistake Sylvia capitalized on, catching a retreating Rodriguez with a big right hand for a KO victory in the first.
Sylvia’s next win over Gan McGee was marred when he tested positive for steroids. Sylvia made no effort to deny guilt, instead admitting fault and waiting for his Octagon ban to expire.
UFC 48, June 19, 2004 – Sylvia returned from his six month ban, intending to reclaim his title against Frank Mir. But it was no triumphant return. Jiu-jitsu black belt Mir lured Sylvia into his guard early in the first round, and snared him in an armbar soon after. Sylvia attempted to slam his way out, but Mir didn’t let go, snapping Sylvia’s forearm and winning the heavyweight Championship in the process.
The 25-year old Mir’s title reign looked promising. At 6’3 and 253 pounds, he moved like no other heavyweight on the mat. But before Mir could defend his crown, misfortune intervened, as he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident that left him with a broken femur. With a long rehabilitation ahead, a title defense was a distant prospect. The UFC had no choice but to create an interim title.
Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski fought for the vacant belt at UFC 51 in 2005. Arlovski made quick work of Sylvia, dropping him with a right hand before catching him in a heel hook.
Arlovski defended his title twice against Paul Buentello and Justin Eilers, winning both fights by knockout. In their UFC 59 rematch, Arlovski again dropped Sylvia with a right hand in the first - but the deja vu was short lived, and Sylvia got back to his feet almost immediately to knock Arlovski (whose chin proved to be his Achilles heel) out with a right of his own. Sylvia and Arlovski (who fought once more in 2006, with Sylvia winning a decision) were dominant presences in the UFC heavyweight division, albeit before the recent heavyweight talent renaissance.
In 2007, 44 year old Randy Couture returned after a year-long retirement for a heavyweight title match against Tim Sylvia at UFC 68. His many fans feared for his welfare against the giant, but seven seconds into their fight, after Couture felled Sylvia with an overhand right, it became apparent their fears were misplaced, and ‘The Natural’ dominated en route to a five round decision victory.
Amid a contract dispute, Couture went on a hiatus after his title defense win over Gabriel Gonzaga in August of 2007, and the UFC created an interim title bout between ex-PRIDE heavyweight champion and MMA legend Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira and Tim Sylvia at UFC 81 in February 2008.
Nogueira was dropped in the first and unable to secure a takedown on Sylvia, who used his reach to sting Nogueira with punches. But in the third round, Nogueira dragged his foe down to the mat and quickly secured a guillotine choke, forcing Sylvia to tap. As usual, it was a come from behind victory for the Brazilian. Nogueira made history, becoming the first man to hold both PRIDE and UFC heavyweight titles.
In 2006, after brutal losses to ‘Pe De Pano’ Cruz and Brandon Vera, Mir had reached rock bottom professionally. Sluggish and out of shape in the Octagon, the consensus was that the Mir of old had been permanently lost in the 2004 motorcycle crash. But Mir kept fighting, and strung together victories over Antoni Hardonk (in 2007) and Brock Lesnar (in 2008). His wins earned him a spot as opposing coach to interim champ Nogueira on season 8 of the Ultimate Fighter and a title shot against the Brazilian at UFC 92 in December of 2008. Mir knew he was back, even if the doubters didn't yet.
Couture returned to active status in 2008. Couture's next title defense was set against a relative newcomer to the UFC roster - Brock Lesnar. The winner was to face the winner of Mir vs Nogueira to unite the heavyweight belts at UFC 100.
Lesnar's February 2008 match against Frank Mir was more publicized than most UFC debuts. His professional wrestling background earned scorn from some MMA elitists, but to paraphrase Joe Rogan, Brock is a giant 6’3 man who cuts to 265 pounds and moves with the agility and speed of a lightweight and was an NCAA wrestling champion with a record of 106-5. Anybody who dismissed him simply because of his previous career was way off base.
And though Mir submitted him with a kneebar in the first round, Lesnar’s early ground and pound showcased frightening raw ability. And in his August 2008 fight against Heath Herring, Lesnar showed that he was realizing that raw potential, as he thoroughly dominated the skilled veteran from start to finish, with newly developed grappling and striking skills. It was a performance impressive enough to convince all but the most hardened MMA snob that he was a legitimate contender, and it earned him his UFC 91 match against champion Couture.
Couture vs Lesnar, November 2008. Couture was competitive early and kept Lesnar on his toes with clinch work and takedown attempts. But the challenger wasn't flustered. He patiently defended Couture's attacks before catching him with a right hand and following up with ground strikes for a TKO victory midway through the second stanza to become champion.
In his UFC 92 match against Nogueira, Mir announced his return with an exclamation mark, dominating “Minotauro” standing before knocking him out early in the second to win the interim title. In 2007, Mir's career had been a sad tale of misfortune robbing him of his potential. But in 2008, the theme became ‘comeback’.
At UFC 100 on July 11, 2009 Mir and Lesnar met to determine who the true heavyweight champion was. The fight hit the mat quickly, but Lesnar was no longer a rookie, and he negated Mir's offense while landing heavy strikes. The Minnesotan opted to trade with Mir on the feet early in the second, before getting a taste of Mir's standup and thinking better of it. Lesnar planted Mir on his back against the fence and dropped punches on the interim champion. Two minutes in, the champion's ground and pound assault overwhelmed Mir, and Lesnar took a TKO victory, revenge and the undisputed heavyweight title.
At UFC 106 in November 2009, Lesnar was scheduled to take on Shane Carwin, one of the few fighters who comes close to Lesnar's physicality. The former amateur wrestler is undefeated at 11-0, and has finished all his bouts - most recently a first round knockout of Gabriel Gonzaga. It was going to be an extremely tough test for Lesnar. But in October 2009, the champion fell ill and was diagnosed with diverticulitis, an acute intestinal infection. For a time, there appeared to be a very real possibility Lesnar would never fight again, but on January 20, 2010 he announced that he was on the mend, and was going to fight later this year.
In place of Carwin vs Lesnar is Carwin vs Mir, for the interim heavyweight title. Mir, after his tough loss to Lesnar, earned a title shot with a victory over dangerous striker Chieck Kongo, knocking down the Frenchman and then submitting him with a guillotine choke in 72 seconds. It was a level of dominance never before exacted on Kongo, and it was the best Frank Mir performance yet.
Pending the date of Lesnar's return, he will likely fight the winner of Carwin and Mir to unite the heavyweight titles sometime in 2010. Close behind is Cain Velasquez, whose first round knockout of Nogueira proved that he's definitely title material. And with Junior Dos Santos and Nogueira (to name but a few) on the roster, the UFC heavyweight division is in its competitive golden age.
The heavyweight title's next chapter will be written at UFC 111 on March 27th. Mir looks to build on his existing championship legacy, and for Carwin, it's his first chance to add his name to the list of MMA icons that have held the greatest prize for any fighter north of 205 pounds. As for Lesnar, he’ll be waiting at the top of the mountain, ready to resume his championship reign against all comers.