“To be the champ, you’ve got to beat the champ.”
That quote has been thrown around in conversations about MMA for many years, and boxing for many more, in a variety of different contexts. While some of the arguments it’s used to prop up are specious—please spare me the idea that an incumbent belt holder should receive the benefit of the doubt in close fights—I do have an appreciation for the historical heft and unassailable validity of a lineal approach to championships. With that in mind, here is the first of a series of infographics tracing the wanderings of famous belts long thought defunct.
Pride Fighting Championships graced the planet from 1997 to 2007 and was arguably the world’s premier mixed martial arts promotion for much of that time, but it did not crown its first heavyweight champion until nearly halfway into its existence.
The rules of this series will be few, and based on a simple principle: To the extent possible, the title can only be passed from one fighter to another in the ring or cage. The belt cannot be stripped or abandoned, and there’s no such thing as a “non-title fight.” Fedor Emelianenko, the man basically synonymous with the Pride heavyweight belt, only notched five official title defenses despite winning 18 straight fights (with one no-contest) after becoming champ, which was silly even in the real world. Promotions don’t matter; if Emelianenko had lost one of his one-off fights in Inoki Genome Federation or Rings…well, that would have been a problem. If a fighter retires while holding the lineal belt, the belt is retired.
Here is a lineal history of the Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight title, from its inception in November 2001 until the present day or, more accurately, until it merged with the UFC heavyweight title in 2013. Even if the promotion shuttered its doors well over a decade ago, to coin another famous phrase sometimes twisted into unintended meanings: Pride never die, baby.
Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration