Heavy Is The Head That Wears The Pound-For-Pound Crown
You can feel it, can’t you? That feeling like you can’t stop what’s coming. That feeling like history is being made. Like it's very, very close.
Everything that is past is history, but it is the events we feel that become the history that define. The Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years, for example – we felt its significance, we saw it unfolding. Can you remember the teams that have won the World Series since the Red Sox broke their own curse (other than San Francisco)? Probably not, because their wins weren’t history-defining moments.
In MMA, we are the brink of one of those moments. If Conor McGregor defeats Eddie Alvarez this weekend, he will have done something no one has ever done: hold two UFC belts at the same time. This is a moment we could feel coming - even if we couldn’t predict it - ever since McGregor's ascent in the UFC began. He’ll be the undisputed best fighter in the sport by measure of gold.
The defining history of MMA is by who is the best and when. If you remember the Cubs and Red Sox wins for their rarity, you remember the Giants for their dominance. The opposite of Michael Bisping winning the Middleweight belt is watching Anderson Silva defend it 72 times (or ten, whatever the number) – because The Spider was the best fighter alive.
Who was the first best? Who is the latest? Who reigned the shortest?
Here are the rules. This list sticks to MMA, as we know it, and begins in the Pancrase/UFC 1 era. Heavier weight classes are not weighed (pun!) more heavily (double pun!). Country of origin is irrelevant and so is the promotion. If the best fighter on the planet was a 115-pound from Ecuador fighting in the UFL, that still counts.
We start at the beginning.
November 12, 1993 – April 7, 1995
The idea of MMA started with a Gracie.
Most often, the person who wears the P4P crown is someone people have seen coming, like an heir to the throne. Not so with Royce Gracie. The era he fought in was too fractured by the various disciplines for anyone outside of the country of Brazil or from outside the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community to anticipate. We know now that Gracie represented the greatest martial arts family, perhaps ever, and he showed it at UFC 1 on November 12, 1993.
Royce was picked to represent his famous family over his brother, Helio (who in hindsight many consider better and, were he to have picked MMA full-time, may very well have been on this list). No one suspected the skinny Brazilian in the white gi would be able to stand with the muscular grapplers and strikers he faced. But once the fight inevitably hit the mat, that size became irrelevant.
Gracie forged the first P4P crown. Interestingly, Gracie’s fall from the throne was his doing. After a draw against Ken Shamrock, Gracie wouldn’t compete for five years and ostensibly in that time, the throne he sat on was essentially vacated.
April 7, 1995 – May 13, 1995
While it's not the shortest reign on this list, it's close. Ken Shamrock was on a nine fight-winning streak (with nine finishes) and was considered the hottest fighter in the sport when he re-matched Gracie at UFC 5. But while he didn’t exactly defend his first loss to Gracie, he beat and bloodied Gracie en route to a Draw which many considered a victory (not the Gracie’s, of course).
The good times wouldn’t last. Shamrock would lose his very next fight, a match against Minoru Suzuki in Pancrase, and that was that. The crown would fall to a Dutchman.
May 13, 1995 – October 8, 1996
On April 7, 1995, Gracie’s second matchup with Ken Shamrock at UFC 5 saw the rise of Bas Rutten.
Rutten’s reign began in dispute. Maybe the P4P king was Gracie, who was only two months ago considered the best in the business, but his glean of invincibility was smothered in the draw to Shamrock. Like any monarchy, when the king dies, someone must take the throne from the crowd. In this case, worthy or no, it was Rutten. There was no one else.
Once on the throne, Rutten defended it with force. He would roll to ten straight victories in a year-and-a-half, which included avenging a loss to Frank Shamrock and then taking the rubber match, as well (that’s what a king does - lose a country? Take it back and one of theirs for good measure).
While he had proven over time his P4P claim, the end of his reign was bloody. A debutante suitor stood up and beat the crown from his hands.
July 12, 1996 – July 27, 1997
Mark Coleman debuted in the sport of MMA with a claim as the rightful heir to the throne vacated by Gracie a year earlier. He proved this claim through violent, brutal assault.
On July 12, 1996 – in the midst of Rutten’s greatest career run – Coleman pummeled Moti Horenstein, Gary Goodridge, and Don Frye with first round finishes. It wasn’t so much that he looked terrifying in those victories – it was how swiftly he did it, winning all three in just over twenty minutes combined.
Coleman’s time as the P4P king is akin to that of a tyrant. He won the crown swiftly and then defended it with a vengeance, putting down uprisings in the form of first-round beatings of Julian Sanchez, Brian Johnston, and Dan Severn – each of which he took less than three minutes to do.
As all tyrants go so did Coleman. While he had usurped the throne form Rutten, he would lose to Maurice Smith and allow Rutten to return the throne he had lost.
July 27, 1997 – Sometime in 1999
Rutten returned from the shadow of Coleman in a new light. There was little on his resume to argue he had earned the crown in the first place, but once he had it, Rutten proved he deserved it. While Coleman ruled in his place, Rutten had continued to prove himself, winning four fights and drawing another.
Rutten’s second reign as the P4P king would see him live out his days with that distinction. He would win five more times, punctuated in his final fight under his reign against Kevin Randleman on May 7, 1999. After that victory, Rutten would not fight again for seven years and thus, he stood off the throne for the next field of challengers to battle over.
Sometime in 1999 – March 25, 2001
Times were desolate after Rutten abdicated the throne. Much of this was the result of the business struggles of the UFC and that Pride had not-as-of-yet ascended to replace it. The careers of many soon to top this list were only just beginning.
As such, there was a dearth of viable princes to vie for the P4P crown.
A candidate would emerge before the end of the year, however, in Japanese grappling star Kazushi Sakurba. The exact moment at which Sakuraba took the throne can be disputed but it was somewhere between his victories over Vitor Belfort and Royler Gracie. During that streak, Sakuraba extended his record to 7-1-1 with six submissions. More importantly, he won over the subjects that mattered – the Japanese fans, then the pre-eminent fighter fans in the world.
Sakuraba’s wins over Vitor Belfort, then a 6-1- flurry of punches and considered the next great star at a fresh 22-years-old, and then a Gracie (the beginning of his ‘Gracie Killer’ reputation) cemented his ability to turn away contenders with ruthless efficiency.
Most impressively, Sakuraba’s reign would even persevere through not one, but two defeats. The first loss was due to exhaustion, which came the same night after his grueling 90 minute fight against Royce Gracie. The second was to Wanderlei Silva, who would rise to top this list in the years to come.
Those two losses didn’t hurt him immediately. But they would contribute to end his reign in favor of another, the rise of another Brazliian jiu-jitsu expert.
Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera
September 24, 2001 – August 28, 2002
Though Big Nog was an impressive 13-1-1 when he rose to the mantle of P4P king on September 24, 2001, it wasn’t just his record that won him the crown. Nor was it his five submissions in his last seven bouts. It was the symbolism in who he defeated.
Mark Coleman’s reign as the P4P king was brutish and short – but it was a reign of dominance not seen before. When he met Nogueira in 2001, much had changed. The four losses that signaled the end of Coleman's reign had been followed by a six fight win streak and reinvigorated hopes that he was back to his old self. Not so. Nogueira tapped him in the first round and with the victory, the MMA world saw two ships passed in the night. The end of Coleman’s time in the P4P discussion was permanent. Nogueira’s voice would become one the loudest in the room for the next decade.
Big Nog would continue his claim through four more victories. However, circumstances would be just right for him to lose the crown. Another fighter’s brutal conquest of the lighter weight classes came just around the time as it Nogueira’s oddity fight against the infamous Bob Sapp. One would undermine him and allow the other to unseat him.
August 28, 2002 – December 31, 2004
The Axe Murderer was like no other P4P king before him. While some had long reigns and others have violent, short ones – none combined the two into a maelstrom that razed the land around him.
Hailing from the legendary Chute Box camp in Brazil, Silva’s record when he won the crown was an extensive 20-3-1 (including the final nail in the coffin for the reign of Kazushi Sakurba). It was Silva's crushing of Kiyoshi Tamura for his eighth straight victory (and seventh knockout in as many fights), that officially gave him the crown.
There were few fighters are scary during that time than Silva. Silva's activity - he would fight 13 times in the same span that Nogueira would fight six - made him a scary proposition. As one king appeared to languish in his castle, another was warring conquest, knocking out opponents across the land. Silva’s had a fearsome penchant for violence. When he wasn’t ruthlessly knocking out opponents with soccer kicks, referees were mercifully stopping fights for him.
Silva’s conquest saw it’s end as most conquerors do. Eventually, he was drawn too thin, seeking too great a challenge, moving up to heavyweight to fight Mark Hunt where he was defeated. His loss, however, would hail the reign of the first (but not last, as his nickname would suggest) emperor the sport has seen.
December 31, 2004 - June 26, 2010
Emelianenko’s reign began as he matched the accomplishments of a former king and then surpassed him. Before the moment he took the throne, Emelianenko had dispatched a pair of fighter’s that Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera had defeated to stake his claim as the king – Semmy Schilt and Heath Herring. This led to a showdown between the Russian and the Brazilian. Emelianenko would defeat Noguiera (handing him his first loss since the P4P crown passed to Wanderlei Silva) and, while not give him the crown, begin his campaign to take it.
Emelianenko's official reign would start as his campaign had began: crushing Noguiera. One fight removed from a No Contest against Big Nog, The Last Emperor would surpass him unequivocally by defeating the former P4P king for a second time. Coinciding with Silva’s loss to Hunt, there was no doubt that The Last Emperor was now the Emperor of them all.
Emelianenko would immediately crush the notion there was another choice. Two fights after his second victory against Nogueira, he pumped the brakes on a second P4P campaign. In August of 2005, Emelianenko faced Mirko ‘Crop Cop’ Filipovic, the fearsome knockout artist who was riding 16-2-2 record littered with 11 vicious knockouts. The Russian defeated him with ease.
As his reign continued, Emelianenko would dispatch the enemies at his gate with stone-cold efficiency. He would cruise to six consecutive submission victories. He would officially put to bed the notion of Mark Coleman as a high-level fighter, submitting him in under two-and-a-half minutes. He would choke out Tim Sylvia, who was barely a year removed from being a defending UFC Heavyweight champion.
It was his January 24, 2009 bout against Andrei Arlovski which would cement his status as the greatest P4P king of them all. With 11 knockouts in his 15 victories and a former defending UFC Heavyweight champion, Arlovski was a formidable foe. For that, Emelianenko would turn him into a king’s trophy. Emelianenko knocked Arlovski out as the Belarusian was in mid jump, a highlight reel finish.
There was no doubt. The Last Empreror was unlike any that sat on the throne before him.
June 26, 2010 – April 21, 2012
If not for Fedor Emilienenko, Anderson Silva’s time as the P4P king would have been longer. Alas, as one great king rules, another cannot. For Silva his time came and it was a glorious rule.
One must consider Silva’s P4P reign almost as if it was in succession with Emilienenko’s, as if he ruled an as-great continent on the other side of narrow sea. Silva’s campaign for P4P greatness began its initial run after he dominated for a second time the at-the-time greatest Middleweight in UFC history, Rich Franklin, on October 20, 2007. It gave him eight finishes in as many fights (not including his disqualification for an illegal upkick against Yushin Okami in 2006).
For the next three years, Silva kept an iron grip on his kingdom. He would dispatch all-time great like Dan Henderson (who amazingly had fought or would go on to fight nearly everyone on this list. Think bout that), jump up in weight to annihilate James Irvin at Light heavyweight, and then make a fool of a former UFC Light heavyweight champion, Forrest Griffin. It was the kind of feats great kings are remembered for.
Then the other king died. Emilienenko’s loss to Fabricio Werdum in Strikeforce signaled the end of his reign and official start to Silva’s. His first test was a stout one, nearly losing until a last-round submission of Chael Sonnen, who was easily cruising to a decision victory. For Silva, this was almost like showing off his credentials.
Silva then went on the most spectacular stretch of his career. It began when he sent Vitor Belfort’s senses into the roof of the MGM Grand. Why few seemed to be thinking it until Joe Rogan said it (“He’s the best there’s ever been…”) didn’t matter, Silva had long ago proven his greatness. He followed that up by making Yushin Okami’s ass close friends with the UFC mat by dropping him twice with counter straights.
The pure spectacle of Silva’s reign as the P4P greatest may be surpassed by another one day – but it is doubtful. How can any punctuate their own reign with the magnetic flair that Silva did during his time at the top? The man to follow would be in many ways the other side of the coin. Spectacular in many ways, but one so with a ruthless efficiency.
April 21, 2012 - August 1, 2015
There was no doubt Jones' ascent to the Light heavyweight strap was meteoric and unlike anything the MMA world had ever seen. By annihilating the likes of Brandon Vera and Ryan Bader to earn his crack at the title (as a replacement for his friend, Rashad Evans), Jones signaled he was no simple contender. When he put champion Shogun Rua out to pasture with ease, it was undeniable: this was something special. Even so, as impressive as he had been, Anderson Silva was still rolling through challengers in March of 2011.
It would require of Jones another feat never before seen in the sport. Jones' first three title defences came against all-time greats Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, and Rashad Evans. In the span of four fights, he had defeated four former UFC champions champions, two of whom were Pride legends. Jones was the king who beheaded every great knight in the land, leaving no challengers to face him.
It was simple then: Jon Jones was the P4P king, not Anderson Silva. If there was any debate lingering, Jones silenced it quickly. During Silva's reign, The Spider beat two former UFC champion, Forrest Griffin and Vitor Belfort. After smashing four champions in a row (one of whom, Rampage Jackson, was the man who defeated Griffin for the Light heavyweight title), Jones dispatched Belfort, as well. Silva’s toughest test came against Chael Sonnen. After Belfort, Jones brutalized Sonnen (the only scratch he emerged with was a broken toe - that he broke himself). Jones would then make a push to unseat Fedor Emelianenko as the greatest ruler of all time. He would show his class with back-to-back victories, a gritty victory over Alexander Gustafsson and a manhandling of Glover Teixera. These would set up his coup d'grace.
As all great P4P kings before him have done, Jones would derail the P4P campaign of another. What's different, is that Jones would do it to a fighter moving down in weight solely to come after him. Long had Jones toyed with the idea of a Heavyweight fight, instead, a Heavyweight fighter instead would come to him. Daniel Cormier was by all purposes a P4P candidate. He had dominated Heavyweights before dropping in weight to dominate Light heavyweight competition. Jones would stimy any momentum Cormier had for a bid as the P4P king. He brutalized the Olympian for five rounds. In the end, there was no debate. If Jones wasn't the greatest P4P fighter ever, who was?
Jones's reign as P4P king was unprecedented. Fittingly, it wouldn't be another king to end his reign. It would be a queen.
August 1, 2015 – November 15, 2015
This is one of the few times the P4P strap wasn’t lost by its holder so much as given away. While Jones' legal troubles hadn't voided him from the conversation, Ronda Rousey had raised her voice too loud to be ignored. Otherwise, Jones would still have been the king.
It may have come after Rousey annihilated Bethe Correira when her hype hit the stratosphere and the crown became hers, but her greatness was hinted much earlier than that.
Beginning with her domination of Miesha Tate from bell-to-bell, Rousey was a formidable champion. But it was her sudden, ferocious and record-breaking KO over Alexis Davis that had the whole MMA world picking their jaws up off the floor. Followed up by a similarly sudden submission over Cat Zingano, whom many considered (and still consider) a viable threat to Rousey and the stage was set for a passing of the crown.
That moment came five months later when she blasted Correria in Brazil. Few could deny the merits of going into an opponent’s backyard in a emotional, personal tilt and leaving a mark as definitive as Rousey had. It was a performance queens are made of. It wouldn't last long.
November 15, 2015 – December 12, 2015
Considered by many to be Jones’ greatest competition for the P4P designation for most of the Light heavyweight champions reign, Aldo was passed over by Rousey because of her gravitating force and sudden finishes. When the queen was defeated by Holly Holm in Australia, Aldo was finally able to snatch the crown for himself. It’s unfortunate, isn’t it, that Aldo only makes this list for the briefest of time by default. It is the shortest reign on this list.
While few discussions were taking place vouching for Aldo as the P4P king, invariably lost in the hype of his upcoming fight with Conor McGregor (which would rob him of this belt), Aldo was the choice. He hadn’t lost in ten years and cruised through every challenger he faced in that time (albeit a shaky round or two against Mark Hominik in 2010 and a uber-competitive scrap with Chad Mendes). You could consider Aldo MMA’s first true all-terrain fighter, capable of winning against virtually any style – out-boxing the boxers, evading the brawlers, pressuring the outfighters.
Ironically, the crown was ripped from his head in 13-seconds by McGregor – nearly as quickly as McGregor had snatched Aldo’s belt at a press conference months earlier. While he contended for years with Jon Jones for the P4P crown, his loss inevitably handed it to an afterthought and perhaps most overlooked fighter on this list and our current P4P king.
December 12, 2015 - present
Through sheer longevity, DJ is our current wearer of the P4P crown. Years fighting in obscurity thanks to his weight and marketing by the UFC, Johnson lived in the shadow of Jones, Rousey, and Aldo. But as it was, DJ’s resume has become too hard to deny.
Mighty Mouse's P4P campaign began in earnest in December of 2013 with a thunderous knockout of Joseph Benevidez. Up to that point, Johnson had been a decision fighter - dominant but unspectacular. After the Benevidez fight, DJ became like clockwork. Foe after foe was lined up only for DJ to send them tumbling back down. By the time he defeated John Dodson for the second time and he had extended his consecutive title defences to seven, his victories were becoming predictable. That's what king are made of.
Johnson has been so dominant relative to his competition that the UFC had to build an entire tournament around him, the current – and merciful - final season of TUF to find his next challenger. But there is a reason Johnson is the P4P king now. He doesn't suffer upstarts lightly.
While there is little doubt Johnson sits on the throne, he nonetheless faces a perfect challenger. Conor McGregor can do something no one has ever done. Should he be victorious this weekend, remember the day. We may just look back on it as the day the throne sat a new king.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.