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History in the Making: The early days of the UFC heavyweight title (Part one)

Kevin Randleman, UFC heavyweight champion from November 1999 to November 2000
Kevin Randleman, UFC heavyweight champion from November 1999 to November 2000

The early days of the UFC were like the wild west, a landscape of very few rules where the man with the biggest gun ruled. 

But a little over three years into the promotion's life, they knew something had to change. They realized there was a legitimate sport to be made from the bare-knuckle brawling scraps that remained from the first handful of events and while a fight between a 180-pound man soaking wet and another who tips the scales somewhere close to 250 pounds may fun, it's ultimately archaic if the UFC was to be kept from being labeled as a bloodsport.

At UFC 12, that began to change. It wasn't the meticulously planned weight classes we have now but it was a start. Two weight classes which amounted to everything at and above 200 pounds and then everything underneath was the first step to the sport we enjoy today.

That event also hosted the promotion's very first heavyweight title fight. More men have worn that title than any other in the UFC, giving it a rich and sometimes complicated history. This Saturday (Nov. 12) with the debut of UFC on Fox, the title takes center stage in another significant moment. 

Before current champion Cain Velasquez steps inside the Octagon against challenger Junior Dos Santos, we'll take a look at the lineage of the belt that they are fighting over.

Pay attention, Maniacs, it's time for a history lesson!

At UFC 12, Mark Coleman -- who had won the previous two tournaments -- was booked opposite Dan Severn who was the reigning Superfight champion to decide the company's first heavyweight champion. "The Beast" had defeated Ken Shamrock nearly a year prior for that honor which was regarded as somewhat of a de facto heavyweight crown.

That night in the small town of Dothan, Alabama, "The Hammer" continued his dominance and routed Severn. Sinking in a neck crank/choke-type submission less than three minutes into the bout, Coleman forced his opponent to tap and celebrated despite now having a giant bullseye on his back as the heavyweight champ.

His first defense should have been a cakewalk for "The Hammer." Maurice Smith was his opponent despite the fact the kickboxer was making his Octagon debut. "Mo" was the heavyweight kingpin with Extreme Fighting and in an early attempt at co-promotion, the two companies booked their champs against each other.

Smith was a huge underdog due to the combination of him having never fought in the UFC and his awful 4-7 record. Coleman, on the other hand, pretty much destroyed each opponent placed in front of him. The kickboxer was seen as simply a placeholder until "The Hammer" was able to take on a more deserving challenger.

Instead it was Smith who would be taking on those challengers. The Extreme Fighting champion used a modified rope-a-dope strategy to tire out his muscle-bound opponent during the regulation period before turning on the striking gas in overtime.

Coleman has Frank Shamrock to thank -- or condemn -- for Smith's performance as he had been training with the mixed martial arts (MMA) legend to prepare for the big title bout.

Smith won via decision and would later best Tank Abbott by pummeling the brawler with a litany of leg kicks. After eight minutes of having "Mo's" shin smacking against his leg, the original "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" could barely stand and had to give up.

Next up for the champ was a fighter that MMA fans are all duly familiar with, Randy Couture. "The Natural" had won the tournament at UFC 13 and upset Vitor Belfort two events later. It was enough to earn the wrestler a shot at the title and he made the most of it. He fought Smith for 21 minutes, showing hints of the impeccable gameplanning he would later become renowned for by using his wrestling acumen to control the bout. At UFC Japan, Couture earned the decision and with it, the heavyweight title.

The first test for "Captain America" was to be former champion Mark Coleman but an injury kept Couture out of the Octagon and "The Hammer" took on UFC debutee Pete Williams, losing in spectacular fashion. So another recently signed fighter, Bas Rutten, was then thrown around as a possible challenger but in a theme that would be no stranger to Couture's career, a contract dispute led to him dropping the title and putting the entire division on hold. 

The UFC then held an informal, unofficial heavyweight tournament dubbed "Road to the Heavyweight Title" which spanned a handful of events. At UFC Brazil, Williams took on Japanese fighter Tsuyoshi Kosaka and lost while Pedro Rizzo handed Tank Abbott his second knockout loss. 

"TK" then took on the debuting Rutten, a fight "El Guapo" won. The victory placed him in one half of the bout to determine a new champion. The other slot was seemingly Pedro Rizzo's for the taking as he defeated Mark Coleman at the same event but the Brazilian was skipped over in favor of Kevin Randleman who defeated Maurice Smith two months later.

There was very little rhyme or reason to justify either fighter getting the nod over "The Rock" but at UFC 20, Rutten defeated "The Monster" in a decision that is debated to this day. The UFC finally had a heavyweight champion.

And then suddenly, it didn't.

Despite spending his entire career at heavyweight, Rutten felt he was more suited for a lighter weight class and made his intention clear to drop down. Before he even could, however, he was forced to retire due to a laundry list of injuries that had accumulated over his career.

Not wanting to go through the trouble of another long, winding tournament to crown yet another new champion, the UFC simply booked Randleman against Williams who was now 3-1 inside the Octagon. "The Monster" walked away after 25 minutes with the heavyweight crown.

Randleman's title reign is best known for two things: the aborted main event of UFC 24 and having the first successful defense since Smith brutalized Abbott's leg way back at UFC 15.

At UFC 24, ironically dubbed "First Defense," Randleman was set to take on Rizzo but slipped on some pipes in the back, fell, and concussed himself. Ah, the early days of the UFC. He would eventually take on "The Rock" two events later, coming out on top.

Five months later, a familiar face was there to wrest the title away from him. It was none other than Randy Couture who had returned to the Octagon and was now the first-ever two-time champion in any weight class. It was only the last heavyweight title the original owners, SEG, promoted before the UFC was bought out and revived by Zuffa.

Next: The Zuffa-era begins! From Couture to Tim Sylvia to Velasquez, part two of the heavyweight title's history is up next!

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