In light of the excellent article by BloodyElbow's Jonathan Snowden, Lineal Title History, I thought it was appropriate to opine on the concept of lineal championships, the problems they've faced in boxing and MMA, how relevant some of their issues are to MMA, and then to illustrate another viable option for MMA's heavyweight championship lineage: that of UFC 1 crowning the first ever MMA champion.
Combat sports fans have often served as the custodians of its history. Because God did not declare an original champion in his 10 commandments, it was up to them to decide an original champion, and then, to demand that he - and more recently she - get in tough with whomever was deemed the most threatening opponent. Number One versus Number Two, ad infinitum. The algorithm is largely complete, save for a few factors. Among them: money, the public's desire, the fighter's desire, bitterness and even retirement.
More after the break...
One of the ideas associated with lineal championship is that the champion cannot lose his title unless he retires or loses it in the ring. However, there is no landmark judgment a la Roe v. Wade to have declared any such thing. Rather, this is simply a largely agreed upon principle by the media and public. And depending on who you ask, retirement can mean two things: retirement from the sport, or from the weight class in which said fighter competes.
Boxing's most famous example of a retired champion is Rocky Marciano, who left the sport in 1955, undefeated. The public (and The Ring Magazine) largely thought of the 1956 bout between Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore as of enough significance to declare its winner the rightful heavyweight champion. We were to have a new heavyweight champion, the youngest ever at the time, Floyd Patterson, who would then go on to a meaningful bouts against Ingemar Johansson and Sonny Liston, dropping his title to Liston and losing the rematch. But what if, in the mist of his reign, a champion like Patterson retires not from the sport, but from meaningful competition?
What happens when the lineal championship is being hijacked, say, by George Foreman, to be fought for in a convention center against Lou Saverese? And what happens if there's no Shannon Briggs (along with 2 New Jersey judges) to save us from the squalor of our situation? In boxing this is an open question. Mike Tyson was largely thought of as the champion in 1987, but many of the boxing media were not in step with the idea until he defeated Michael Spinks in 1988. In May of 2009, Manny Pacquiao won the lineal 140lb title from Ricky Hatton, hasn't fought there since, and won't be fighting there anytime soon. But when Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander fought in a summit fight at 140lbs Saturday night, it was not for the lineal title. At least not the one The Ring hands out.
In the UFC, we've seen what happens when a title gets hijacked: a brand new title is created of out thin air, and a match between the two most noteworthy challengers is held, an idea also known as UFC 43. But is the championship won by Randy Couture at UFC 43 any more legitimate than one of the many interim championships the disgusting WBA offers? Again, this is for the fans to decide. In hindsight, it is certain that the first Couture/Liddell bout was the deciding bout for the championship, as Ortiz would go on to lose to both Couture and Liddell.
Since UFC 43, contractual enforcements and shoring up a large of contingent of the world's best fighters (and just as importantly, having them fight each other) have made the endeavor of crowning a "true" champion by the UFC much simpler. If Georges St. Pierre were to retire today, Jon Fitch and somebody out of the group of BJ Penn, Jake Shields or Thiago Alves would fight for the vacated title (sorry Nick Diaz fans, he needs to step up his level of competition to crack the top 10 - this isn't the "What if" Top 10). The winner would then, inevitably, fight the others, just in case we all got it wrong the first time.
The funhouse mirror version of the Ortiz/UFC situation is the Strikeforce heavyweight situation. In the Ortiz saga, it was Ortiz at fault. He declared Liddell his friend, saying anything that would put inevitable knockout off for the time being. In the Strikeforce dilemna, it appears as if the two promoters of the would-be bout, M-1 and Strikeforce, are at fault for keeping the combat at bay. This is not unheard of in combat sports.
Due to the capricious nature of bout outcomes, promoters have a myriad of reasons for not acquiescing to the demand of their buying public: money and control over future bouts are two examples. A few renegade promoters, wholly unsatisfied with their situation, went so far as to create pro wrestling. It's much easier to promote an unstoppable champion if he is truly unstoppable, competition be damned.
The importance is to realize that, for whatever reason, if the champion isn't fulfilling his duty, not in the way we want him to, then how we think of him is up to us. His title is a commodity on the open market, worth whatever we're willing to pay.
To establish the modern champions, we must ask, then, who was MMA's first champion?
Because of the explicit nature of the bout, Snowden decides that Mark Coleman vs. Dan Severn at UFC 12 is good enough for him. I go four years earlier, and hold UFC 1 as the de-facto championship tournament. You may decide that, at some point along his journey, Rickson Gracie merited the title of champion. In that case, I'd argue that some version of Fedor/Nogueira, Fedor/Filipovic is the Patterson/Moore bout for this era of heavyweight after Gracie's retirement. What follows is a post I had originally placed on sherdog's forums here, with some explanations.
Hey all... decided to do a lineal champ a'la boxing, beginning with UFC 1... surprisingly, many mma legends are on this list, even though half of this history takes place in mma's wild west era, as i thought that that perhaps somewhere down the line, a loss to a unheralded opponent would've occurred, and that opponent never getting another big fight or retiring, not the case though.
|Howard Timeline||Sakuraba Timeline|
|Royce Gracie UFC 1||Royce Gracie UFC 1|
|Harold Howard UFC 3||(Royce Gracie and Howard did not actually fight... and Royce's next loss in the ring was against Sakuraba..the lineal champ will realign with this list after Royce's loss to Sakuraba)|
|Steve Jennum UFC 3|
|Tank Abbot UFC Ultimate Ultimate 95|
|Dan Severn UFC Ultimate Ultimate 95|
|Mark Coleman UFC 12 (Snowden's lineage)|
|Maurice Smith UFC 14|
|Randy Couture UFC Ultimate Japan|
|Enson Inoue Vale Tudo Japan 1998|
|Mark Kerr PRIDE GP 2000||Kazushi Sakuraba PRIDE GP 2000|
|Kazuyuki Fujita PRIDE GP 2000||Igor Vovchanchyn PRIDE GP 2000|
|Mark Coleman PRIDE GP 2000 (Snowden's lineage does not consider this a win, his version has Fujita still champ until losing to Filipovic).||Coleman defeats Vovchanchyn, lineages merged.|
|Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira PRIDE 16|
|Fedor Emelianenko PRIDE 25|