Roundtable: Who is the greatest heavyweight of all time?
This weekend, the legendary Fedor Emelianenko fights for the final time.
Sure, we’ve heard this before, but there is an air of finality around the 46-year-old legend announcing his retirement this time as he heads into a heavyweight championship rematch opposite Ryan Bader in the main event of Bellator 290 on Feb. 4. Win or lose, “The Last Emperor” leaves MMA with an unimpeachable résumé and a lengthy list of memorable moments. But is he the greatest heavyweight of all-time?
For much of MMA’s brief history, Emelianenko was the default answer in heavyweight GOAT conversations, but we are now over 15 years removed from his PRIDE prime and the game has changed since then with a new breed of big men ushering in the modern era. So it has to be asked again, who is the baddest of the elite group to hold the title of “Baddest Man on the Planet” and how do you define it? In no division are the parameters of greatness more difficult to define than in the chaos dimension that is heavyweight.
The MMA Fighting panel of Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew are here to offer their answers on the eve of Fedor’s farewell, in the vain hope of settling this debate for good (or at least until Emelianenko books his next comeback fight).
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Lee: As someone whose MMA fandom kicked off in earnest well after the prime Fedor era, it would be easy for me to favor the modern heavyweight over the undersized Russian whose career feels like it exists in alternate timeline at this point. But I broke it down and reasonably, I can’t come to any other conclusion: The GOAT is still the GOAT.
Here’s what I’m looking at:
- Peak performance
- Who would win if the heavyweights in consideration fought in their prime?
Emelianenko wins the first two categories easily.
During his legendary PRIDE run (at this point guys like Fedor, Shogun, and Wanderlei Silva should share a copyright on the phrase “legendary PRIDE run”), Emelianenko went 14-0 (1 NC) with wins Mirko Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (twice), Mark Coleman (twice), Kevin Randleman, and Mark Hunt among others. Make no mistake, at the time, this was the best heavyweight division in the world and Emelianenko was its undisputed king. Those 15 fights comprised the body of a 28-fight unbeaten streak that is still spoken of in hushed tones to this day.
Longevity? Well, Emelianenko is fighting for the Bellator heavyweight championship in less than a week, which should give you some idea of how long he’s managed to stay relevant. Even just viewing that as a token gesture to send him off in style, the fact is that Fedor has remained competitive in his 40s. He’s 9-2 since 2011 (let’s call that 8-3 since he definitely did NOT win a 2016 contest against Fabio Maldonado) and that includes wins over relevant — if a tad shopworn — names like Quinton Jackson, Chael Sonnen, and Frank Mir. Criticize the competition all you want, many heavyweights have looked far worse against lesser opposition than Fedor has in his twilight years.
Hypothetical head-to-heads are where this argument gets tricky (and fun!), but you know what? I like Emelianenko’s chances against anyone you can name. Brock Lesnar? Not skilled enough and chinny. Stipe Miocic? Great matchup, Emelianenko works him on the feet and on the ground. Francis Ngannou? As dangerous as he is, we saw Miocic control him with grappling in their first fight and Emelianenko can execute that strategy even better. Cain Velasquez? Got me there, but Emelianenko trumps him in peak performance and longevity by a mile.
It’s not an airtight case. We’re talking about heavyweight, after all, the most volatile division in the game, especially the closer you get to the top. But only one man ever brought universal stability to these ranks, knocking off the best that PRIDE and the UFC had to offer (at the time), and he did so during MMA’s boom decade. And that man is Fedor Emelianenko.
Meshew: It’s Fedor and it’s not close.
In the heavyweight GOAT conversation, Stipe Miocic is generally the guy some (incorrect) people claim has surpassed Fedor, and God love Stipe, but that’s ridiculous. From a purely numbers stand point, Miocic was the consensus Baddest Man on the Planet from 2016-2021, minus a year during which Daniel Cormier held the title. That’s four years total atop the mountain. Fedor was the consensus top heavyweight in the world for seven years and change. That’s almost twice as long. What are we even doing here?
People also like to parrot a common Dana White refrain of “He’s beating cans!” and to some extent, that’s true. Zuluzinho and Matt Lindland aren’t stellar wins, but Fedor was also supremely active during that time, and they aren’t all going to be winners. During his seven-plus year reign, Fedor fought 19 times. The UFC heavyweight title and multiple interim belts were collectively defended 16 times. And if you go back and look through the track record, this “Fedor fought cans” argument starts to fall apart when you consider that Justin Eilers, Paul Buentello, and Jeff Monson all fought for the UFC title during that stretch. There’s also definitely some revisionist history about Fedor’s wins over Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia. Both men were top 10 guys at the time, and Arlovski was the No. 2 heavyweight in the world! Even White begrudgingly admitted those were quality wins.
Here is where I will also note that the most infuriating part of GOAT conversations are how heavy post-prime fights weigh. For guys like Fedor and Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo, who stuck around longer than they “should have,” newer fans just look at the numbers and say, “Well, they lost a bunch. They weren’t very good.” That’s insane. If Fedor had retired after knocking out Andrei Arlovski, no one would doubt his greatness. And yet, here we are.
Which brings me to the real reason Fedor is the GOAT (though they frankly are more than good enough). The true reason Fedor holds the top spot is because during his peak, everyone, be it fan or fighter, viewed him as the best guy in the world, and that lasted for nearly a decade. I don’t think people recognize how truly insane that is. There were first-graders in 2009 who had never lived in a world where Fedor wasn’t the best fighter in the world. That doesn’t happen. And the unanimous respect and adoration of his peers is unparalleled. Talk to any fighter who came up during Fedor’s reign, and all of them will speak about him with reverence the same way they do with Aldo and Silva. Do people hold Stipe in the same esteem? No. They respect him, and acknowledge his greatness, but it’s not with awe in their voices. And that’s the difference.
Stipe Miocic is the best heavyweight ever. If prime Stipe fought prime Fedor, Stipe wins, because time moves forward and the sport inexorably progresses. And Stipe is a legend in his own right and a future Hall of Famer, but there’s a difference between legends and gods, and Fedor is one of the very few people MMA has ever produced that are the latter. Praise be to him.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Al-Shatti: There is no division in MMA with a more nebulous GOAT conversation than heavyweight. Full stop. People can (and will) try to argue, but for the most part every other weight class has a fairly consensus answer (Jones, Silva, St-Pierre, Nurmagomedov, Aldo, Cruz, Johnson, Nunes, Shevchenko, Jedrzejczyk). Not so for the big boys. Why? Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast. When 260-pound monsters are throwing hammers at one another with four-ounce gloves, the margins between victory and defeat are so impossibly thin, it’s a minor miracle for anyone to achieve any modicum of sustained success.
If you break it down by eras, Fedor Emelianenko was heavyweight’s first extinction level event. He was the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. He was the first heavyweight who came along and legitimized the division in the way it needed to be legitimized. And he held that crown longer than anyone. Emelianenko was the Fighter of the Decade in the 2000s for a reason. Twenty-eight fights without a loss. Nearly a full decade undefeated. In a division dominated by volatility, his run was unheard of, and remains so to this day.
By that measure, no other résumé compares. Emelianenko beat the best of his generation and strung together the longest run of sustained dominance in MMA history as the world’s No. 1 ranked heavyweight. He was the shoo-in answer as the greatest for the sport’s first two decades. But is he the best ever? That’s a different question. Probably not. At his peak, the indomitable Russian was basically a blown-up light heavyweight — barely 6-foot tall, barely 230 pounds. I’d pick a number of this era’s super-sized heavies to beat him (Ngannou, Gane, Miocic, Blaydes), and I’d probably pick peak Velasquez and Cormier as well.
Then you look at the crop over the last decade and a half, and one viable GOAT name sticks out: Miocic. For as great as Velasquez and Ngannou are/were, neither boasts the same level of sustained success at the top. Miocic’s three consecutive UFC title defenses remain the benchmark for UFC heavyweight greatness, and his hit list includes nearly every worthwhile name of his era — an era that boasts far better talent than the golden era of Pride FC heavyweights, as much as it pains my soul to admit. That’s just how things work in a young sport — the level of talent rises over time. Is Miocic the best heavyweight ever up to this point? Yeah, he probably is. But does that make him the greatest? I’m not so sure.
All of this is a long-winded way to say that I’m torn. For me, Emelianenko and Miocic are the 1A and 1B of this conversation. If we’re sitting here and I’m being forced to make a pick by Mr. Lee, I suppose I side with Miocic — though I’m not sure I feel very good about it.
Martin: There is no tougher division in all of mixed martial arts to determine the greatest of all-time than at heavyweight. Some might say the easy answer is Fedor Emelianenko — he did put together an unprecedented 28-fight undefeated streak — but his entire record can’t be ignored with a lot of wins over overmatched, outsized or simply outgunned competition not to mention some emphatic losses along the way.
That’s why Stipe Miocic edges past Emelianenko as the best heavyweight in history because his biggest wins match the legendary Russian but perhaps, more importantly, his losses just don’t diminish his résumé as much.
Yes, Miocic has the most title defenses in UFC heavyweight history with three, which is more than Randy Couture, Mark Coleman, or even Cain Velasquez could muster. It’s not a staggering number like what Demetrious Johnson did at flyweight but it’s been well documented that heavyweight is the most dangerous and unpredictable division in the sport and that stands across every promotion.
At his best, Miocic scored finishes over names like Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem and Junior dos Santos. He went 2-1 against Daniel Cormier, who might have been able to enter the GOAT conversation himself at heavyweight if he hadn’t left the division out of respect for Velasquez, his friend and teammate.
The only truly notable loss on Miocic’s record came against Stefan Struve back in 2012 but his other three defeats came again a trio of UFC champions (Ngannou, dos Santos and Cormier). There’s no shame in that. Even his most recent loss against Francis Ngannou doesn’t seem nearly as bad considering Miocic washed him in lopsided fashion in their first encounter.
The only thing Miocic could have done differently to truly separate himself would be staying more active, which became a problem once he won the UFC heavyweight title. He competed only once per year over the past three years or maybe he could have picked up a few more marquee wins to build up his resume a bit more.
That said, Miocic’s record stands firm with victories over five former UFC champions and there’s no padding in his win streak. He faced nothing but top competition for the past eight years and that record helps him secure GOAT status … for now.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Marrocco: There is no doubt that, for his time, Fedor Emelianenko was the greatest heavyweight in the world. But to me, the best example of all-around talent is Cain Velasquez, and so he gets my vote as the Baddest Man on the Planet.
I’m fully aware this is a choice based more on emotion and “matchup projection” than rationality. Velasquez didn’t fight in PRIDE’s glory days, so he didn’t face a murderer’s row of heavyweights in their prime. He didn’t defend the UFC belt more than Miocic. You could fit several Bellator tournaments through the injury gaps in his résumé. Then there’s his toughest-ever opponent: Altitude. And yet, when I think of all the usual selections for heavyweight GOAT, I’ll take Velasquez in his prime.
Ground-and-pound? Give me Velasquez any day over Fedor. Striking? I’ll take him over Miocic. Power? OK, that obviously goes to Ngannou. But let’s say Velasquez faces the current No. 1 heavyweight in 2011 instead of 2019, when a career’s worth of injuries and damage from his wars with Junior dos Santos had caught up, and Velasquez finishes him in three rounds or less.
There is simply just no one who was better when he was at his best. Velasquez’s wrestling would have smothered a prime Fedor. His tighter, more technical striking would have shut down the Russian’s looping hooks. His aggression would have overwhelmed “The Last Emperor.” If we’re talking Miocic, yeah, that’s a tougher fight, but I still think Velasquez is the better version of the boxer/wrestler. Don’t @ me.
The asterisks in Velasquez’s career are tough to overcome, and alas, that’s why the best-ever debate centers around criteria. Were it not for a knockout loss to dos Santos and a sea-level drowning against Fabricio Werdum, I don’t think this would be much of an argument. You can poke a lot of holes in what I’m saying here, but if you take peak performance and apply it to all the candidates, hopefully you see why Velasquez is the best.