The UFC Heavyweight Title: A Visual History

By Ben Duffy Feb 2, 2021
This weekend, Alistair Overeem and Alexander Volkov will square off, with the winner set to inch closer to one of the most exclusive clubs in MMA history.

First and foremost, of course, the winner of the UFC Fight Night 184 headliner will be on the short list of contenders for the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title, with the chance to join the 16 men who have left the Octagon with that belt. And if either one manages to pull that off, they will join an even more select group: fighters who have won heavyweight titles in three major promotions. Overeem’s Strikeforce and Dream titles are cornerstones of his historically impressive career, while Volkov’s Bellator MMA and M-1 Global hardware almost bely the fact that he is still only 32—a spring chicken, by heavyweight standards. While both the Dutchman and the Russian seem like long shots to win a UFC belt, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. After all, if there is one thing that can almost always be said about the UFC heavyweight title, it is: “Well, crazier things have happened.”

Founded in 1997, the division spent its first decade in a state of near-constant turmoil. There were three different champions in the first year. Multiple champs abandoned the title to fight elsewhere. Two champions, Tim Sylvia and Josh Barnett, lost their belts in the testing lab rather than the Octagon. The UFC’s heavyweight title was also a clear second fiddle to its Pride Fighting Championships counterpart for most of that first decade. With the 2007 absorption of Pride and, a few years later, the acquisition of Strikeforce, the UFC heavyweight division eventually gained the preeminent status it still enjoys. Today, the fighter wearing UFC heavyweight gold can lay a claim to “baddest man on the planet” status that is hard to dispute.

Here is a graphic representation of the 24-year history of the UFC heavyweight title and the times it was won, lost or defended. Interim title fights are omitted with the exception of Andrei Arlovski vs. Tim Sylvia 1, since the winner of that fight ended up inheriting the undisputed title without a unification bout. From 6-foot-10 giants to 5-foot-9 monsters, from larger-than-life pro wrestlers to humble firefighters, from drug scandals to grisly injuries in and out of the cage, the picture tells a story as strange and amazing as the sport itself.

Ben Duffy/ illustration

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