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MMA's Greatest Journey -- UFC 252 may mark the end of the 23-year lineage of UFC's original Heavyweight Championship

THE MAIN EVENT OF UFC 252 is being heralded as a rubber match to decide who is the MMA heavyweight GOAT.

Whether or not that's an accurate description of the statkes at hand is very much up for debate. But even UFC President Dana White has pitched in saying the winner of this fight will be the greatest heavyweight in UFC history.

Although White does not believe this will be Daniel Cormier's last fight, the former double champ has repeatedly insisted that this is his last song, and he wants to go out on top with the belt and a legitimate claim in the GOAT debate.

This aspect of "walking away with the belt" is a significant part of the hype around the bout, because many MMA hardcore fans regard the UFC Heavyweight belt as the Lineal Heavyweight Championship of the world; and for good reason.

From the very first UFC Heavyweight Championship awarded at UFC 12 back in 1997, the belt has had an unbroken journey from fighter to fighter, from promotion to promotion, over 23 years. And if Daniel Cormier decides to call it quits after this fight, it will mark the end of the lineage of the original UFC Heavyweight Championship.

Let's take a look at the original UFC Heavyweight belt's epic journey that on Saturday night (or Sunday morning, if you're located further East) may come to a thilling culmination, 8590 days after it began.

On 7th February 1997, Mark Coleman beat Dan Savern at UFC 12, in a bout that unified the UFC Superfight Championship with the UFC tournament championship, to become the inaugural UFC Heavyweight champion.

Photo Courtesy - UFC

In July that year, Maurice Smith defeated Coleman to claim the belt and defended it against Tank Abbott. But in December, Randy Coutoure took it from him at the Ultimate Japan event.

This is where the original belt's lineage began its journey away from the promotion where it was born. Randy Coutoure had a contract dispute with the UFC. He vacated the title and went over to Vale Tudo Japan 1998 event in October 1998. There, he was submitted by Enson Inoue.

Inoue carried on the belt's lineage in PRIDE where he faced Soichi Nishida in April 1999, submitting him in just 24 seconds. He would then go on to face Mark Kerr at the Opening Round of the PRIDE Openweight Grand Prix 2000. He would lose by unanimous decision. In May 2000, Kerr would go on to face Kazuyuki Fujita at the quarter finals of the tournament in May that year, and lose by decision. Later in the same evening, Fujita would face Mark Coleman at the semi-finals. He would lose by corner stoppage in just 2 seconds.

Coleman would go on to win the Pride Openweight Grand Prix 2000 tournament, stopping Igor Vovchanchyn at the final later that night. He would return to the PRIDE ring in March 2001 and stop Allan Goes, too. Both TKOs came via his vicious knees.

But the belt's lineage would change hands again when Coleman would face Antonio Rodrigo Nougeira at PRIDE 16 in Osaka. Coleman would lose by a triangle armbar 6 minutes into the fight.

Then, in the very next PRIDE event, Nougeira would take on Heath Herring for the inaugural PRIDE Heavyweight Championship. He would win by a nunanimous decsion after 3 five minute rounds, and that's how the famed PRIDE Heavyweight Championship came into existence, blessed with the lineage of the original UFC Heavyweight Championship.

Antonio Rodrigo Nougeira at PRIDE

It was the heyday of the Japan-based promotion. They were considered the best MMA promotion in the world and as their inaugural Heavyweight champ, Nougeira put together a brilliant title run.

Over the next year, he submitted Enson Inoue, knocked out Sanae Kikuta (at a non-PRIDE bout in 'UFO-Legend'), armbar-ed Bob Sapp, triangle-choked Semmy Schilt and submitted Dan Henderson to keep his reign going. But things took a turn when anothre GOAT contender, Fedor Emelianenko, entered the picture.

At PRIDE 25 on 16th March 2003, Nougeira took Fedor to the distance but lost by unanimous decision. And that's when The Last Emperor's fearsome run with the PRIDE belt, and the UFC's lineage, began.

Fedor Emelianenko

Just a couple of weeks later, in an off-promotion bout at Rings Lithuania, Fedor submitted Egidijus Valvacius in April. He returned to PRIDE in June 2003, catcing Kazuyuki Fujita in a tight rean-naked choke. In August, he soccer kicked Gary Goodridge to get a TKO. In December, he ended the year by knocking out Yuji Nagata at 'Inoki  Bom-Ba-Ye 2003.'

Fedor's reign continued in full force for over 6 years. He began 2004 at PRIDE Total Elimination 2004, submitting Mark Coleman. 2 months later he caught Kevin Randleman in a kimura. In August, at PRIDE Final Conflict 2004, he submitted Naoya Ogawa quickly before re-matching with Antonio Nougeira, the man he originally won the belt from. The bout was declared a No Contest due to an accidental headbutt.

The trilogy was on. On 31st December, at Pride Shockwave 2004, the two fought again at the main event. Once again the bout went the distance and Fedor won by unanimous decision.

Fedor then faced Tsuyoshi Kohsaka at Pride Bushido 6, and won by TKO when the doctor stopped Kohsaka after the first 10 minute round. His next fight was a legendary match-up between him and Mirko Cro Cop at Pride Final Conflict. Fedor won by unanimous decision in what has come to be regarded as the 'Fight of the Decade.'

At this point, Fedor was practically unstoppable. He submitted Zuluzinho next, then armbar-ed Mark Coleman in a rematch, before stopping another legendary figure Mark Hunt by a kimura at Pride Shockwave 2006. After this, he left the promotion.

In Over the next couple of years, Fedor tested the market, appearing for different promotions. In April 2007, he beat Matt Lindland at BodogFIGHT: Clash of the Nations. He then returned to Japan, appearing on new year's eve at the one-off event 'Yarrennoka!' where he submitted Choi Hong-man.

Meanwhile in the USA, the World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts, a sanctioning body, was conceiving its very first heavyweight title. And with the lineage Fedor was carrying of the inaugural UFC and PRIDE heavyweight belts made him an undispensable contender for it. So in July 2008, Fedor fought Tim Sylvia at 'Affliction: Banned.' The fight lasted just 36 seconds, with Fedor catching Sylvia in a rear-naked choke that was later called 'the Submission of the Year.' He became the original WAMMA Heavyweight Champion, uniting with it the lineage of the UFC and PRIDE heavyweight championships.

He would appear for Affliction again in January 2009 in yet another memorable bout with Andrei Arlovski. Fedor knocked him out in just over 3 minutes, and the performance was called 'knockout of the year.'

Later that year, Fedor joined Strikeforce, but he was able to officially carry forward the WAMMA Heavyweight Championship with him. He faced Brett Rogers in November 2009, winning by TKO and defending the title. This was the last time the WAMMA belt was officially defender; as the sanctioning body which was conceived in an effort to unify rules and championships across promotions in world MMA had already faded from existence due to lack of funding and support. But the WAMMA belt's lineage remains significant in MMA history due to it being unified with the lineage of original UFC and PRIDE heavyweight championships.

Next up was a fight between Fedor and Fabricio Werdum on 26th June 2010. Just a minute into the bout Werdum shocked the world when he caught Fedor in a triangle armbar, bringing his 28 fight unbeaten sreak to an end, out of which 20 included a record-setting run as arguable the lineal heavyweight champion of the world, carrying forward the lineage of the original UFC, PRIDE and WAMMA heavyweight belts.

It was due to this surreal streak that Fedor Emelianenko is still regarded as the GOAT by many; despite him never fighting at the UFC and his late-career losses at Strikeforce and Bellator.

In the story of the original UFC heavyweight championship, nothing comes close to his marvelous 20 fight winning streak that Fedor was able to put together. While it did include some tomato cans, he still got the best of many world class fighters, including a number of former and future UFC Heavyweight champions. That it took place entirely outside the promotion actually enriches the story of the belt's journey.

But Fabricio Werdum could not enjoy a run with the belt's lineage. After beating Fedor, he next faced Allistair Overeem in June 2011.

Now, Overeem was the original Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion. He won the belt beating Paul Buentello in 2007. The belt was vacated when he left the promotion right afterwards, going on to fight at DREAM.

He had come back to Strikeforce in 2010 where he stopped Brett Rogers to defend the Strikeforce belt. But right afterwards, he he fought at 'Dynamite!! 2020', where he knocked out Todd Duffee to win the inaugural DREAM Heavyweight Championship.

So when he came back to Strikeforce to take on Werdum at the quarter finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, he was bringing with him the lineages of the original Strikeforce and DREAM heavyweight belts.

The highly consequential bout, which represented the unification point of the original lineages of five major MMA heavyweight belts, went all 3 rounds and Allistair Overeem came out as the victor with a unanimous decison.

This happened on 18th June 2011. On 29th July, just just 41 days later, one of the most significant acquisitions in MMA history took place when the UFC purchased Strikeforce.

Suddenly, Allistair Overeem was in the UFC. And with him, the lineage of the original UFC heavyweight belt, was back in the promotion where it began, 14 long years after leaving it.

Overeem's first UFC bout took place at UFC 141; a highly anticipated match-up between him and Brock Lesnar. He stopped Lesnar with body kick and punches in the very first round to announce his arrival.

This time around, the fight had the same outcome. A first round TKO stoppage. Velasquez, another major name in the GOAT debate, got his hand raised; and became the de facto Lineal Heavyweight Champion of the World. The road to reunification for the original UFC Heavyweight championship was completed. 

Photo Courtesy - UFC

Cain stayed busy. At UFC 166, he stopped Junior dos Santos to defend the title. He was supposed to fight again at UFC 180 but an injury forced him out, so an Interim Champion was crowned in a bout between Fabricio Werdum and Mark Hunt. Werdum knocked hunt out with a flying knee followed by vicous fists, and set up a unification bout with Cain.

At UFC 188, the two faced off in a memorable battle of grit. The outcome came about in the third round when Werdum, who had shocked the world in 2010 submitting Fedor Emelianenko, did it again; this time catching Velasquez in a guillotine in the third round. Werdum had finally realised his dream of becoming the UFC Heavyweight Champion, and regained the lineal title which he had briefly held 5 years ago.

But once again, his tryst with MMA's ultimate prize would be a limited one. In June 2018 at UFC 198, he faced a certain part-time firefighter named Stipe Miocic. He went in as the favourite, and got knocked out cold in the very first round. The Stipe Miocic era had arrived.

Miocic, soft spoken and uninterested in manufacturing beefs to sell a fight, was not considered to be an exciting star for the promotion despite his top tier record littered with high profile knockout victories. He wasn't the most active champion that UFC had either. It wasn't until May 2017 that he finally defended his title; against Junior dos Santos who had previously beaten him by decision. This time, however, Stipe exacted revenge with interest, knocking him out in the very first round.

This set up Stipe for a challenge from the fearsome Francis Ngannou, who was coming in with an 11-1 record with 11 stoppage victories, including high profile and vicious knockout wins over the likes of Curtis Blaydes, Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem. He came in as a betting favourite and the fight was seen as a potential coronation of this budding global superstar.

But the fight turned out to be the opposite of what everybody thought it would be. Stipe used his superior wrestling to hold Ngannou and tire him out. The fight went all 5 rounds, and Miocic came away with a unanimous decision victory.

With 3 title defences to his name, Miocic established himself as the UFC Heavyweight title defence record holder, and a GOAT contender. As far as the original belt's lineage is concerned, Fedor's run remains the longest; but that doesn't take away from Stipe's accomplishments; in a new and arguably much more competitive era of the sport.

This brings us to the crux of the current matter. At UFC 226, Light Heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier challenged Stipe Miocic in a champ vs champ superfight. This time, while Stipe was seen as the favourite and began the bout controlling the action on the feet, Cormier would bring about the latest 'shock the world' moment in the title's history. Towards the end of the first round, his right hand folded Miocic, and he finished the fight with punches. The first round KO crowned him as the first ever UFC Light Heavyweight - Heavyweight Double Champ. It was the moment he, too, became a major contender in the MMA GOAT debate.

DC defended the belt against Derrick Lewis and waited for a high profile fight against Brock Lesnar which never materialised. So in August 2019, just over a year after Stipe vs DC 1, decided to rematch him at UFC 241.

This bout didn't disappoint either. But it went the exact opposite way of the first one. Daniel Cormier dominated the stand-up exchange almost to the point of not respecting Stipe's finishing power. He was clearly leading on the judges' scorecards after the first three rounds. But then, Stipe came in with an adjusted game plan and discovered a vital hole in DC's defence. When a left hand to the body drew a subtle response of pain from DC, Stipe decided to keep doing it. He kept digging away until DC finally couldn't take it any more.

Just like in the case of Junior dos Santos, Stipe Miocic had exacted revenge once again. He was back at the top of UFC's heavyweight division.

This brings us to the fight week of UFC 252, where the UFC Heavyweight Championship, complete with a 23 year unbroken lineage of the original heavyweight championship over 49 fights at multiple promotions around the world.

This is the 50th fight in the lineage of the original belt, and it may be its last.

UFC 252 event poster

The UFC Heavyweight belt carries with itself the lineage of not only its own promotion but also those of PRIDE, Strikeforce, DREAM, WAMMA and many other smaller & regional promotions. Its lineage journey is arguably the most glorious saga in MMA history, and a fighter walking away from the sport after winning this belt marks the end of that chapter for good.

For Daniel Cormier, who throughout his career has had to deal with the asterisk of falling just short of ultimate greatness, it will be the biggest vindication imaginable to make himself the culmination of the original belt's journey; which is an era unto itself.

Whether he makes for a fitting finale for this story, or whether it's in the sport's interest for this story to continue with a Stipe win and subsequent defences where he may pass on the torch, has the MMA fans divided.

But what's for sure is that this weekend's main event may be the most important fight not only in UFC's heavyweight division, but also in world MMA regardless of weight classes.

It's quite possible that the smaller Octagon at UFC Apex, with its 25 feet dimeter and devoid of fan presence, may witness the end of much more than just a trilogy between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier.

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