The UFC heavyweight division was one of the first to be implemented to the promotion's portfolio. But the championship initially had a different format to the one we know nowadays. For determining who would have the honor of being the first UFC heavyweight champion, the promotion decided to unify the Superfight Championship and the Tournament Championship.
The bout that presented the first UFC heavyweight champion happened in 1997 when the UFC first introduced weight classes. UFC 12: Judgement Day took place on February 7 of that year at the Dothan Civic Center in Dothan, Alabama. Besides the heavyweight category, which was for fighters over 200 lb, the UFC also included the lightweight division for athletes under 200 lb.
The UFC Hall of Fame's Mark Coleman and Dan Severn were the names involved in the super-fight. Although Coleman was not the first choice for the bout - Don Frye was unable to participate because of injuries - he went on to win the belt with a first-round submission.
UFC 12 was also marked for the first appearances of UFC legends Joe Rogan and Vitor Belfort, who won the heavyweight tournament at only 19 years of age.
Coleman (16-10) would retain the UFC heavyweight belt for 170 days until he was eventually defeated by Maurice Smith at UFC 14. After leaving the UFC for PRIDE, where he would become PRIDE's open weight champion, Coleman returned to the promotion that saw him become the first-ever UFC heavyweight champion in 2009. He retired two years later after a defeat to Randy Couture.
'The Hammer' Coleman is regarded as the 'Godfather of ground-and-pound,' a name that he coined for himself inspired by the strategy of taking opponents to the ground with a takedown or throw and then, once on the top of the floored adversary, striking punches, hammerfists, and elbows. Chael Sonnen, Glover Teixeira, Cain Velazques, Fedor Emelianenko, Jon Jones, and Khabib Nurmagomedov are other relevant fighters to adopt such a fighting approach.
The third UFC heavyweight champion, Randy Couture, would be the first of seven fighters to become a UFC double champion when capturing the UFC light heavyweight belt in 2003. Couture is tied with current UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic for the most championship wins in the division.
What happened to the first-ever UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman?
The UFC released Mark Coleman in 2010 following his defeat to UFC heavyweight legend Randy Couture in UFC 109, which was the sixth loss in his last ten bouts. After scouting for other options, he finally announced his retirement in 2013, when he was 48 years old.
The last time the first champion in UFC heavyweight's history made headlines was in November 2020 when it was reported that Coleman suffered a heart attack.
"Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay strong. Team Hammerhouse for life," his daughter Morgan Coleman wrote. "Thank you for all the kind words and support. Mark Coleman is recovering well from his heart attack but still has more tests to be done. We love you all!"
But it would be in 2018 that Coleman would open up about one of the most hard-fought battles of his personal life. Following the sexual misconduct scandal concerning one of Ohio State doctors with accusations from more than 100 former students, Coleman spoke up on the matter, declaring he had also been a victim.
When Coleman was 22 years old, he had one of his most challenging encounters when he went to see the official doctor of Ohio State University, Dr. Strauss. The doctor asked Coleman to take his clothes off with the pretext of a medical examination before touching the professional athlete inappropriately.
"He examined me pretty good. It was an eye-opener," remembered Coleman. "We never thought a man could sexually abuse a man. We just played it off. We joked about it. But I don't think we were really joking."
The issue was not developed further, even with Coleman's interrogations about Strauss' conduct. More than 20 years later, when hundreds of victims finally brought the subject forward, the former UFC heavyweight champion decided to use his fame to influence the matter.
When Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, an assistant coach at Ohio State at the time, said he didn't recollect any issues regarding Dr. Strauss' behavior, Coleman disagreed.
"There's no way, unless he's got dementia or something, that he's got no recollection of what was going on [sexual abuse by team doctor] at Ohio State... he knew as far as I'm concerned."
Jordan defended himself, saying his accusers were "pawns in a political plot"; he is now the House Judiciary Committee's ranking member. Dr. Strauss committed suicide in 2005.