At the time of this writing, there are 11 Championships in the UFC, with a possible 12th on the way in the form of a Women’s Flyweight Championship. Nine of them are held by men, three of them by women. In total, not counting interim titleholders and repeat champions, there have been 67 different individuals to hold UFC championship gold. Due to the UFC’s much toted meritocracy, which has recently gone by the wayside a bit in favor of big money fights and “dream matches,” almost every single one of these men and women has been deserving of carrying one of the fight game’s most precious trophies. When the only way to reach the sport’s mountaintop is to physically batter one its greatest competitors, there’s not a lot of room for anyone but the very best to reign supreme.
With that said, not all UFC champions are created equal. Some go on to have dominant title reigns, taking out the promotion’s best and brightest until they’re eventually dethroned by a better fighter (or crazy luck), whereas others win the belt and then lose it in their next fight. While any run with a UFC championship is an impressive feat, a champion’s legacy is defined more by how well they defend the belt, not just by having it. Without further ado, this list is dedicated to the best and worst champions in UFC history, a history splattered with blood and battered with the punches and kicks of a thousand impossibly powerful men and women.
Honorable Mentions for the Best (There are a lot; this list was hard): Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Frankie Edgar, Robbie Lawler, Dominick Cruz, Tito Ortiz, Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar.
15. Best – Ronda Rousey
Whatever your opinion on Ronda Rousey, and many people very much dislike her, it’s impossible to deny her effect on the UFC and the sport of MMA as a whole. Her popularity in Strikeforce prompted Dana White to bring women’s MMA into the UFC, something he had been vehemently against, and her success in the cage made her one of the most popular figures the sport had ever seen. As a champion, she achieved a level of dominance reminiscent of a young Mike Tyson, racking up six title defenses, many vicious, near instant finishes, before dropping the belt in stunning fashion to Holly Holm. While it’s fair to note that WMMA is still evolving and many of her opponents were underdeveloped, one-dimensional fighters, it’s impossible to ignore the success Ronda Rousey had as a champion for the premiere fight brand.
14. Worst – Germaine de Randamie
When the UFC created the Women’s Featherweight Championship, the general assumption was that Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, the best featherweight in the world, would be competing for the inaugural belt. Instead, that honor went to Holly Holm, who had never fought at featherweight before, and Germaine de Randamie, who hadn’t fought at featherweight in five years. De Randamie would go on to win the belt by controversial decision, in which she throw some legally dubious elbows after the bell, and immediately distanced herself from a possible Cyborg fight, citing an old injury that needed fixing. Today, it’s not known when she’ll defend the belt next, if at all. De Randamie isn’t a bad fighter, but she’s, at best, a sketchy champion, and she’s more or less holding the belt hostage from its perceived rightful owner.
13. Best – B.J. Penn
Try to erase the 2017 version of B.J. Penn from your mind, the over the hill veteran who keeps coming back even though he hasn’t won a round since 2011. The old B.J. Penn was a world-beater and stands as maybe the best champion in the history of the lightweight division. Although he only defended the belt three times, tied with Benson Henderson for most in history, his title fights are renowned as brutal, one-sided beat downs. He famously licked Diego Sanchez’s blood off his gloves and smeared it on his forehead after beating The Dream into an injury TKO. He also won the welterweight title from Matt Hughes in 2004, but dropped the belt to compete in K1. B.J. Penn was one of the most vicious, unique, brilliant, and successful champions in UFC history, and he should be remembered as such.
12. Worst – Conor McGregor (Featherweight)
There’s no getting around the fact that Conor McGregor was a terrible Featherweight Champion. After defeating all-time great Jose Aldo via incredible, 13-second knockout, the Notorious One simply never bothered with the division again. He took three more fights after December 12, 2015, none of them in the division that he technically ruled over. He fought Nate Diaz twice at welterweight and then Eddie Alvarez for the Lightweight Championship, which he won. He never showed any interest or intent in defending the 145-pound belt and mainly used it as a gaudy prop. He brushed away a rematch with Aldo and ignored anyone from the division who challenged him. The UFC had to strip him of the belt because it was becoming increasingly obvious that he was never going back to 145 pounds. Being a dual champion is impressive and McGregor’s the only person to ever do it, but what does it really matter if he can’t even be bothered to defend the championships he wins? Hopefully his run with the Lightweight Championship will be better, but the book is closed on his featherweight run and it was largely a waste of time.
11. Best – Randy Couture
Not counting his run as interim Light Heavyweight Champion, Randy Couture won five UFC Championships in his career: three in the heavyweight division and two at light heavyweight. No one else in UFC history has more than two, but Randy Couture has stinkin’ five. Between 2001 and 2008, he only fought in one non-title match. That’s absurd. What’s most impressive about his success is that Couture was generally undersized for a heavyweight, but still managed to defend the belt on three separate, non-consecutive occasions (Which is important when discussing the heavyweight division), tied with Tim Sylvia for most all-time. It didn’t matter how much smaller he was than some of his opponents, he was so impossibly talented that he could find a way to win against anyone. There’s simply no one else in MMA history like Randy Couture. He was a true original.
10. Worst – Josh Barnett
It’s hard to dislike Josh Barnett in 2017. Today, he’s the super likable, charismatic guy who gives great post-fight interviews and occasionally calls professional wrestling shows. However, back in 2002, he made himself persona non grata in the UFC when he tested positive for steroids after winning the Heavyweight Championship from Randy Couture. After a somewhat shocking second round knockout of The Natural, Barnett seemed to be on top of the MMA world. Unfortunately, once he pissed hot, the UFC stripped him of the heavyweight belt, kicked him out of the promotion, and he wouldn’t return until 2013. He never got to defend the title and on his return, he never managed to secure a fight to earn it back. What could have been one of the most exciting championship reigns in heavyweight history was decimated because of bad choices.
9. Best – Jose Aldo
Jose Aldo is a difficult fighter to like. On one hand, his rags to riches story, about how he escaped poverty in Brazil to become an MMA icon, is very inspiring, his distant personality and disdain for the press make it hard for him to build sympathy and popularity. However, it’s impossible to deny his success as a champion. Aldo originally won the WEC Featherweight Championship in 2009 from Mike Brown and he defended it twice before the promotion was absorbed into the UFC. As UFC Featherweight Champion, Aldo defended the belt seven more times, ripping through top fighters like Chan Sung Jung, Chad Mendes (twice), and Frankie Edgar. Although he lost the title to Conor McGregor in jaw-dropping fashion in 2015, he was promoted back to champion after McGregor was stripped of the title. All signs point to a return to dominance for Scarface.
8. Worst – Holly Holm
Holly Holm touched the sky, then immediately fell back down to Earth. Everyone knows the story of how Holm changed MMA forever: at UFC 193, in front of 56,000 screaming Australians, Holly Holm kicked Ronda Rousey into another dimension, putting the longtime Bantamweight Champion to sleep and taking the title off her, seemingly for good. It was shocking, to say the least. To that point, Holm had only won two fights in the UFC, both via unconvincing decision. She made herself into a megastar by usurping Ronda Rousey, then lost it all in her next fight, when Miesha Tate submitted her in the fifth round of a fight she was winning, up to that point. She never got a rematch and, worst of all, she’s lost her last two fights since dropping the belt, putting her way out of title contention. It’s looking like nothing will come from the most shocking upset in UFC history.
7. Best – Jon Jones
Say what you want about Jon Jones, and many of us already have, but it takes a special kind of fighter to cement yourself as a legend in a sport, maybe even the best ever, before you collapse as a person and nearly light your career on fire at the age of 27. He wasn’t kidding when he said if he retired today, he’d be the best light heavyweight ever. Jones won the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in 2011 at the age of 23, making him the youngest champion in UFC history. From that point, he went on to defend the belt eight times, absolutely eviscerating fighters like Lyoto Machida, Chael Sonnen, and Daniel Cormier, the current champion. He was phenomenally dominant, barely ever looking weak against some of the best fighters in the world. He was stripped of the belt in 2015, when trouble with the law forced him out of action, but he’s returning in July for a rematch against Cormier. If he can keep himself clean, odds are that Bones will regain the title he never truly lost.
6. Worst – Luke Rockhold
The story of how Luke Rockhold won and lost the UFC Middleweight Championship is tragic, if your definition of tragic is: infuriating, baffling, dumb, and/or ridiculous. Rockhold was the last-ever Strikeforce Middleweight Champion, but his title hopes were put on pause when he was knocked out by Vitor “The Oldest Lion” Belfort. However, he climbed his way up the middleweight ladder, decimating opponents along the way, until he earned a title fight against Chris Weidman, which he won via resounding fourth round TKO. Rockhold looked like the next big megastar for the UFC, until he got knocked out by perennial gatekeeper Michael Bisping last summer, a man he had already brutally defeated in 2014. He hasn’t fought since and may be on indefinite hiatus to peruse a modeling career. What a way to go out.
5. Best – Georges St-Pierre
For many people, Georges St-Pierre was one of the most infuriating champions in UFC history. He was supremely talented, but was often accused of being a points fighter, who preferred to grind his opponents to dominant decisions rather than seek out finishes. That may stem from his 2007 knockout loss to Matt Serra, where the underdog battered Rush with punches on-route to a first round upset. GSP got the belt back in the rematch, but never had the same explosiveness to his game. Regardless how he won, his resume as welterweight champion is impeccable: 1o total title defenses, nine consecutive, which ties Demetrious Johnson for second all time. He’s responsible for some of the most one sided championship fights in UFC history; he often went years without even losing a round. Now that he’s back, he’ll hopefully be able to return to his old form.
4. Worst – Johny Hendricks
Remember how much of a bummer Luke Rockhold’s championship reign was? Well, triple that and you’ll have Johny Hendricks’ extremely brief stint with the Welterweight Championship. Before winning the belt in 2014, Hendricks had an incredible title fight against Georges St-Pierre, giving the Canadian legend more trouble than anyone had in years, losing via extremely contentious split decision that many fans thought he won. When GSP dropped the belt after that fight, Hendricks and Robbie Lawler were tabbed to fight for the vacant title. After one of the greatest fights in UFC history, Bigg Rigg won the championship. However, instead of having a long title reign, he dropped the belt to Lawler in the rematch. Unfortunately, the man believed to be the heir apparent to GSP fell apart before he could fulfill his destiny with the belt.
3. Best – Demetrious Johnson
A case could be made for Demetrious Johnson to be #1 on this list and if he continues along his current trajectory, he will be before too long. No one has asserted their dominance over an entire division the way Mighty Mouse has. Over the past five years, Johnson has absolutely ravaged the flyweight division. He’s the only champion the UFC’s smallest weight class has ever known and he’s decimated every single fighter that’s ever stood before him. He’s defeated Joseph Benavidez twice, knocking him out cold the second time, he humiliated Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo, and he basically forced John Dodson back up to bantamweight. He’s defended his title nine times, tied second most all time, and if anyone’s going to break the all-time record, it’s going to be Mighty Mouse, possibly the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time.
2. Worst – Vitor Belfort
Vitor Belfort has left behind a complicated legacy. He was undoubtedly a great fighter, but in recent years, he became the poster boy for performance enhancing drugs in MMA, often appearing on fight night as a swole T-Rex with a body that didn’t correspond with his age. But whatever your view of Belfort’s career is, he is undoubtedly the worst champion in UFC history, simply because he’s possibly the only champion to ever not deserve his title. In 2004, Belfort faced Randy Couture for the Light Heavyweight Championship. Early in the first round, a loose seam on Belfort’s glove opened up a huge cut above Couture’s eye and the fight ended prematurely, with Vitor taking home the belt. It was clearly a huge fluke and in the rematch, Couture beat him into a third round doctor stoppage, but via an actual beating, not a faulty glove. The Phenom technically has a UFC Championship on his resume, but it’s one of the biggest black marks on the belt’s history.
1. Best – Anderson Silva
And now here we are: Anderson Silva, not only the greatest UFC Champion to ever live, but very likely the greatest fighter to ever step foot in a cage. Silva isn’t just the G.O.A.T., he’s a mythical figure in MMA, his legendary, brutal knockouts remaining some of the most awe inspiring finishes the sport has ever seen. His front kick K.O. of Vitor Belfort was so devastating, it ended up on the cover of a video game. The Spider won the belt in 2006 from Rich Franklin and he would hold onto it for roughly seven years (2,457 days). In that time, he would brutalize some of the best fighters in the world, such as Chael Sonnen (twice), Yushin Okami, and Dan Henderson. He was so amazing, he would occasionally just stop caring and spend entire fights taunting his opponents. Even when he wasn’t trying, no one could come close to beating him. He holds the record for most title defenses in UFC history with 10, and that doesn’t even count some of the several non-title fights he took during his reign, like when he went into the Matrix and decapitated Forrest Griffin with punches from the future. Other champions have been incredible, but none of them had or have the unstoppable aura that surrounded Silva for much of his career, and no one else probably ever will.
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