The UFC heavyweight championship. The greatest prize in sport. The title everybody wants but nobody, it seems, is able to keep.
Two successful defences remains the goal, the objective, the height of the bar raised by the likes of Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia, Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez. Make three and you make history in the process. An absurd idea, I know, especially in the context of flyweight Demetrious Johnson recently equalling Anderson Silva’s ten successful middleweight title defences, but it’s also the truth. The sad, bizarre truth.
That no one has been able to muster more than two successful defences of the UFC heavyweight title speaks to a couple of things. It speaks to the fragility of the heavyweight and shines a light on the fact that one punch in the heavyweight division can change the course of not only a fight but history. One punch is all it takes. Momentum can swing, a fight can end, a title can change hands. The two defence issue also speaks to the revolving door nature of the heavyweights; few show signs of being able to stick around and dominate the way Silva did at middleweight, Jon Jones did at light-heavyweight, Georges St-Pierre did at welterweight or Johnson now does at flyweight. The heavyweights haven’t been blessed that way.
There have been good fighters frequenting the weight class, no doubt, and some larger-than-life characters, but there has yet to be that one game-changing talent. Junior dos Santos had the punch power, Brock Lesnar had the star power, and Cain Velasquez, it could be argued, was the closest thing to an elite-level talent, yet even Cain’s staying power was sullied by injury and inconsistency.
Some positivity: amid this confusion and chaos, it’s often dramatic. The heavyweight division, that is. Proper upsets rarely exist because the division is just so damn unpredictable and any number of heavyweights have the size and the power to change their life in an instant. It’s why, I suppose, we keep coming back. It’s why we remain loyal to the division despite its sometimes merry-go-round staleness. We romanticise it. We yearn for a golden age.
The latest heavyweight in the hot seat is Stipe Miocic, a 34-year-old from Euclid, Ohio, who won the belt with a first-round knockout of Fabricio Werdum in May 2016. Four months later, he repeated the trick on Alistair Overeem, stopping him inside five minutes, and now he prepares to go where only a few before him have gone. He’s preparing for – drum roll – heavyweight title defence number two.
Saturday’s (May 13) UFC 211 opponent, Junior dos Santos, himself a former champion, is a man Miocic knows well. He is a man he has already faced, in fact (another nod to the merry-go-round nature of the division). The pair met for the first time in December 2014 and that night dos Santos got the better of Miocic to the tune of a unanimous decision. It was the last defeat Miocic suffered. Since then, he has won four fights in a row, conquering Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski and the aforementioned Werdum and Overeem.
Dos Santos, meanwhile, was your archetypal UFC heavyweight champion. He won the belt in November 2011, stunning Velasquez in the first round, then successfully defended it against Frank Mir the following year. After that was the inevitable rematch with Velasquez, defence number two, and off went the belt. Velasquez, desperate for revenge, keener still to show fight one was a fluke, rag-dolled the Brazilian around the Octagon for a full five rounds. That was December 2012. Velasquez didn’t stop there, either. He bashed dos Santos up for another five rounds ten months later.
Dos Santos, in many ways, typifies the heavyweight division circa 2017. Capable of beating most if not all his peers, he is equally hamstrung by just enough flaws to colour him vulnerable every time he sets foot in the Octagon. Get your game plan right, avoid his vaunted power, and you stand a chance. Get it wrong, though, play into his heavy and destructive hands and, well, you’ll join a victim list consisting of Hunt, Velasquez, Mir and Werdum, all of whom were knocked out by ‘Cigano’.
No need to relay this information to Miocic, mind. He knows all that and a whole lot more.
“The lesson I learned (from fight one) was just knowing that I belong, that I can hang with anyone,” he said. “I went five rounds with a former champ, a guy who has been a knockout artist. I know I belong. I know that I’m not going anywhere, and look at where I’m at now.
“We both know someone’s getting KO’d,” Miocic said. “I’m walking out with the belt still, so, it’s going to happen. I’m not going to predict what round, but I’m walking out with the belt.”
Dos Santos shares the view that the pair’s fight on Saturday will end via knockout. Violent and emphatic, it’s something they both expect. It’s what their audience expect. It is the foundation and promise on which the heavyweight division is built. The thing that keeps us coming back. Yet he’s also adamant he will be the one left standing at UFC 211 and that Stipe Miocic, like those who came before him, will come to remember his heavyweight title reign as one that was ultimately short-lived.
“I’m a very confident guy; I like to be positive,” dos Santos said. “In my dreams, the way I see things going in the fight, I can see myself beating him before the end of the second round. I’m very well prepared. I’m living a great moment. I’m stronger, I’m smarter, I have more experience now.
“This is my time. Things are working well for me. I put in good work in the gym and now I’m ready for this fight. I respect Miocic a lot, and the way I’m going to show this respect for him is giving my best during the fight.
“I have no doubts I’m going to become champion. What I miss most is the feeling of being the baddest man on the planet, the number one in my division, the champion, living as the champion and enjoying it. We all work for that, and when we reach that point, it’s amazing. I’ve been there before, and I want to be there again.”
So short is the shelf-life of a UFC heavyweight champion, it’s only when it passes – in the blink of an eye or the flash of a punch to the jaw – that a former champion realises quite what it all meant. Junior dos Santos knows this now, just as Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar begrudgingly also came to understand this.
Stipe Miocic has been warned.