5 fighters with a claim to being MMA's heavyweight GOAT

Cain Velasquez (left), Fedor Emelianenko (centre), Stipe Miocic (right)
Cain Velasquez (left), Fedor Emelianenko (center), Stipe Miocic (right)

The retirement of Fedor Emelianenko, widely considered the greatest fighter to have never fought in the UFC, has reopened an old question: who is MMA’s greatest heavyweight of all time?

Former UFC champion Daniel Cormier recently claimed that Stipe Miocic and not Fedor Emelianenko is MMA’s heavyweight GOAT, but is he right?

Or, could another fighter other than Miocic or Fedor lay claim to this title? It’s a fair question. With that in mind, here are five fighters who each present a valid claim to being MMA’s heavyweight GOAT.

#5. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – former UFC and PRIDE heavyweight champion

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira won gold in the UFC and PRIDE
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira won gold in the UFC and PRIDE

It might be a slightly tenuous claim, but Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira could still call himself MMA’s heavyweight GOAT for one simple reason: he’s the only fighter in MMA history to win gold as a heavyweight in both PRIDE and the UFC.

Japan’s PRIDE promotion was famously home to the majority of MMA’s great heavyweights in the early to mid 2000’s. Nogueira set himself apart during that period, defeating the likes of Mark Coleman, Mirko Cro Cop and Heath Herring.

He claimed PRIDE’s title by beating Herring in 2001 and held it until 2003, when he was dethroned by Fedor Emelianenko.

After arriving in the UFC in 2007, he submitted Tim Sylvia to claim an interim UFC heavyweight championship.


Nogueira’s title reign did not go so well, as he lost the gold in his first defense against Frank Mir. He never really bounced back from this loss and didn't come close to regaining his title, ending his MMA career with a string of bad losses.

Most of those losses can’t be held against him, as he was past his prime. However, the fact that he never dominated either promotion for a lengthy period stands against him here.

Still, being the champion of both PRIDE and the UFC, is an impressive achievement.

#4. Francis Ngannou – former UFC heavyweight champion

Francis Ngannou's resume stands up against any of the greats
Francis Ngannou's resume stands up against any of the greats

Some observers would probably claim it’s too early to suggest that Francis Ngannou could be considered MMA’s heavyweight GOAT, particularly given the fact that he recently gave up his UFC title and exited the promotion.

However, it’s arguable that no heavyweight fighter in MMA history has beaten the same caliber of opponents that ‘The Predator’ has over the years. More remarkably, the native of Cameroon was able to stop the majority of them, something that even his fellow greats were often unable to do.

Ngannou’s impressive ledger includes wins over no fewer than five former UFC champions (Ciryl Gane, Stipe Miocic, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos and Andrei Arlovski).

He also knocked out a former Strikeforce titleholder in Alistair Overeem.

The fact that he never lost his UFC title inside the octagon, and instead gave it up voluntarily after a financial disagreement, further bolsters his claim.

However, on the other hand, Ngannou lacks the longevity of some of the other fighters contending for the same position. His title reign only began in March 2021 and, largely due to injuries, he was only able to complete one title defense before vacating. That puts him behind the likes of Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture, who both managed two retentions.

Overall, Ngannou can still mark himself out as the GOAT, but while he does have a claim to the spot, he probably isn’t there just yet. Now that he has left the UFC, it remains to be seen if he can cement his position.

#3. Cain Velasquez – former UFC heavyweight champion

Cain Velasquez was often considered MMA's most talented big man
Cain Velasquez was often considered MMA's most talented big man

According to Daniel Cormier, a great in his own right, the best big man in MMA history in terms of talent was former UFC champion Cain Velasquez.

In Cormier’s words:

“In terms of skill, there’s no one that ever matched Cain Velasquez at heavyweight”.

It’s probably fair to take the opinion of ‘DC’ pretty seriously. After all, he trained with Velasquez for years and reportedly never got the better of him in their sparring sessions. Inside the octagon, meanwhile, he fought Stipe Miocic three times and also beat the likes of Josh Barnett and Antonio Silva in Strikeforce.

How much of a claim to being MMA’s heavyweight GOAT does Velasquez really have, then? Well, he held the UFC title on two occasions, first unseating Brock Lesnar and then regaining his crown from Junior dos Santos.

He also defeated highly rated foes like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Cheick Kongo and Ben Rothwell during his time in the octagon. He defended the gold twice, beating Antonio Silva and dos Santos in their trilogy bout before falling to Fabricio Werdum in 2015.

Longevity is also not on Velasquez’s side in this debate. His time at the top realistically lasted for just five years and he spent plenty of time on the shelf with injuries during that time – something Cormier also acknowledged while praising him.

Overall, had Velasquez remained healthy, he would likely be seen as MMA’s heavyweight GOAT. As it is, however, there remains somewhat of a debate around it.

#2. Stipe Miocic – former UFC heavyweight champion

Stipe Miocic has more UFC heavyweight title defenses than any other fighter
Stipe Miocic has more UFC heavyweight title defenses than any other fighter

The fighter that most observers consider to be the greatest heavyweight in UFC history, albeit with a handful of caveats, is Stipe Miocic. But is the former UFC titleholder really MMA’s GOAT of the weight class?

He’s definitely got a fair claim to the title, and it’s largely based around the success he had whilst holding the UFC title, with his two reigns largely dominating the period between 2016 and 2021.

Miocic was a hot prospect before he hit the UFC in 2011. After reeling off six wins in his first seven appearances, he quickly rose up the rankings.

It was his 2014 bout with Junior dos Santos that really put him on the map, though. In one of the best heavyweight fights in UFC history, Miocic appeared to be on course for a decision win, only for the judges to go the other way.

The loss seemed to anger Miocic more than anything. After destroying Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski, he claimed the UFC title by knocking out Fabricio Werdum in 2016.

Miocic went onto set a promotional record by defending his title successfully three times, beating Alistair Overeem, dos Santos in a rematch, and Francis Ngannou.

He eventually fell to Daniel Cormier in 2018, but regained his crown from him a year later and then beat him in their trilogy bout. More recently, Miocic was knocked out by Ngannou, losing his title in the process.

Essentially, his GOAT credentials come from the fact that he still holds the record for most UFC heavyweight title defenses and that he held the title on two occasions.

Add in his pre-title wins over the likes of Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga, and there’s an argument that, outside of Cain Velasquez, he beat every worthy foe of his generation.

Should he be remembered as better than Velasquez? Perhaps not, as prime Velasquez would’ve been heavily favored to win a fight between them, but his accomplishments stack up. That alone makes him a contender for MMA’s heavyweight GOAT.

#1. Fedor Emelianenko – former PRIDE heavyweight champion

The only knock on Fedor Emelianenko is the fact that he never fought in the UFC
The only knock on Fedor Emelianenko is the fact that he never fought in the UFC

While he never fought for the UFC, it’s hard to argue with the idea that former PRIDE champion Fedor Emelianenko remains MMA’s heavyweight GOAT.

The Russian famously joined PRIDE in 2002 after building a 10-1 record and won the promotion’s title shortly after, beating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

‘The Last Emperor’ held onto his title until PRIDE was bought out by the UFC in 2007. Along the way, he defeated a number of the world’s top big men, including Mark Hunt, Mirko Cro Cop and Kevin Randleman.

By 2008, after turning the UFC down, Fedor became MMA’s hottest free agent. He defeated a pair of former UFC champions in Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski before embarking on his ill-fated stint in Strikeforce.

It was there, where, in 2010, his decade-long unbeaten run came to an end at the hands of Fabricio Werdum.

It’s probably fair to draw a line under his career from there. After two more losses, ‘The Last Emperor’ departed Strikeforce in 2011 as a shadow of the fighter he once was. At the age of 36, he hung up his gloves.

Of course, 2015 saw him make an ill-advised return. While there was still time for him to pick up a respectable win over another former UFC champ in Frank Mir, he was clearly past his best years.

Essentially, whether you believe Fedor can be viewed as MMA’s heavyweight GOAT comes down to one question: how much should the fact that he never joined the UFC count against him?

In all honesty, it shouldn’t be used as a major knock on him. Despite not fighting in the octagon, he still beat the majority of the best fighters of his era, including the top three from the UFC in Sylvia, Arlovski and Mir.

In his prime, whether he would’ve beaten Miocic or Velasquez is up for debate, but any fighter with a ledger like that of ‘The Last Emperor’ has most definitely earned consideration.

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Edited by Harvey Leonard
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