History in the Making: The UFC heavyweight title during the Zuffa era (Part two)

When Zuffa purchased Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) back in 2001, they surely had lofty goals for their acquisition and the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) in general.

Some of those hopes become realized this Saturday (Nov. 12, 2011) when UFC on Fox debuts with heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez taking on Junior Dos Santos in the promotion's first-ever fight on broadcast television.

It's been a rollercoaster ride for the company, one that mirrors the heavyweight division itself. Once as shallow as a kiddie pool, it now boasts a stable of fighters that could represent the future of the sport.

When last we left you, Randy Couture had returned to the Octagon to recapture the title he never lost. He became the promotion's first two-time champion and the face of the heavyweight division as it entered a new era under Zuffa management.

Since then, seven other men would be recognized as the champion along with an eighth holding an interim title. Couture himself would capture the title a third and final time, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Before Saturday's landmark fight, let's take a look at how the heavyweight title got there.

It's time!

After defeating Kevin Randleman, Couture went on to defend the title twice - a record for the heavyweight division - against Pedro Rizzo. The Brazilian took "The Natural" to the brink at UFC 31 and lost what many felt was a bogus decision. Their immediate rematch was at UFC 34 where Couture left nothing up to the judges as he stopped "The Rock" in the third round. It was Rizzo's third title shot in five fights and he failed to capitalize on each attempt.

Nearly five months later, the UFC Hall of Famer would be on the opposite end of a technical knockout (TKO) stoppage when he stepped inside the cage with Josh Barnett. The much larger heavyweight imposed his will on Couture and pounded him out in the main event of UFC 36 with less than a minute remaining in the second round.

The kudos for "The Baby Face Assassin" were short-lived, however, as a post-fight drug test came back hot and the newly crowned champ was stripped of his title. Barnett denied any wrongdoing and left the promotion.

Since the heavyweight title was officially introduced in 1997, there had been five champions and three vacancies in its lineage. First when Couture walked away during a contract dispute, second when Bas Rutten retired and now a third with Barnett.

Not wanting to keep the division without a champion for too long, a fight between "The Natural" and Ricco Rodriguez was booked three events later with the young Latino fighter coming out on top. For "Captain America," it was a sign that perhaps the division had gotten too big for him and he found a new home at 205-pounds soon after.

"Suave" entered 2003 as the champion but wouldn't even get a fourth of the way through the new year before he was usurped. At UFC 41, it only took Tim Sylvia three minutes to become the ninth heavyweight champion. At UFC 44, he successfully defended his title against Gan McGee and infamously called out Pride FC champion Fedor Emelianenko.

While he would eventually get that fight - albeit outside the UFC - the more pressing matter was the tainted urine sample he provided the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Like Barnett, "The Maine-iac" was popped for steroids but unlike the catch wrestler, Sylvia owned up to his wrongdoing. He said he wanted a more chiseled physique and threw himself at the mercy of the proverbial court.

When he returned from his suspension, he took on Frank Mir for the opportunity to win the title he was stripped of six months prior. He failed and as a consolation prize had his arm snapped by the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt in one of the more gruesome moments in MMA history.

Mir might have thought that winning UFC gold was cause for celebration but in the case of the heavyweight title, a curse seems to follow it wherever it goes. The curse fell upon Mir in the form of a motorcycle accident that nearly ended his career.

When it appeared as if the champion would be able to return after a brief recovery period, an interim title bout was set up between - you guessed it - Tim Sylvia and newcomer to the UFC heavyweight elite Andrei Arlovski. "The Pitbull" was able to take advantage of Sylvia's newfound apprehension towards submissions and earned a first round stoppage after dropping the former champ with punches.

What followed the next two years were some of the darkest days the heavyweight title would ever see. It survived multiple positive drugs tests, a retirement, and a contract dispute. But could it survive defenses against Justin Eilers and Paul Buentello?

When Mir sat on the shelf longer than expected, Arlovski was promoted from interim to undisputed champ. While the former, he took on Eilers and during his reign as the latter, he defeated Buentello. It took his old rival Sylvia to wrest the title away from the Belarusian. At UFC 59, Sylvia became the second two-time heavyweight champion when he knocked out "The Pitbull."

Their rubber match less than three months later remains near the top of many fans' "worst fight in history" list. Sylvia would go on to once again match an accomplishment of Couture's when he successfully defended the title a second time when he defeated Jeff Monson.

So who better than "The Natural" himself to come out of retirement to slay the goliath? In one of the most thrilling bouts in UFC history, the 43-year old became the first fighter to become a three-time champion within a single weight division. He caught Sylvia in a matter of seconds as the fight opened and never looked back.

"Captain America" defended against Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 and it seemed that maybe, just maybe, there would be some stability at the top of the heavyweight class. But old habits die hard, it would seem. Once again, Couture threatened to walk away from the promotion and the title, citing unhappiness with his contract.

In a legal maneuver, the UFC refused to strip him of the title and instead booked a second interim title match between recent Pride crossover Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and of course, Tim Sylvia. "The Maine-iac" seemed to be the go-to guy when the promotion needed a fighter for a title bout.

The Brazilian took a beating from his American opponent but in typical "Big Nog" fashion pulled off a come-from-behind submission to capture the belt. He would go on to lose it to Frank Mir after the two coached a season of The Ultimate Fighter.

But just to further complicate matters, Couture and the UFC had reconciled and "The Natural" was booked opposite Brock Lesnar just a month prior to the Mir/Nogueira fight. After Lesnar defeated Couture to win that particular belt, he sat in the audience 42 days later and saw Mir stop "Minotauro" to win another belt.

The matter was settled when both champions collided at UFC 100. Lesnar walked out of Las Vegas as the undisputed champion but once again, the curse reared its ugly head. The former WWE wrestler's first bout with diverticulitis threatened to end his career so a third - yes, a THIRD - interim title was created and contested between Mir and Shane Carwin.

To put that into perspective, across the other six weight classes, there have only been two other interim titles in the UFC's history.

"The Engineer" knocked Mir out and took on Lesnar at UFC 116 when the champion returned from his illness. For the second time, the former pro wrestler took on an interim champ to unify the heavyweight belts and for the second time came out on top. But less than four months later, he would lose the title to Cain Velasquez.

Over a year has passed since then without a single defense thanks to a shoulder injury the Mexican-American required surgery for, yet another case of the curse that has taken hold of the heavyweight title.

Can the young Velasquez end the curse on Saturday? Or will a victory by Dos Santos continue the revolving door that seems to be ever present at the top of the heavyweight division?

We will find out when the UFC makes it historic broadcast television debut.

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