The UFC title represents the highest potential accolade in MMA- it’s the ultimate prize at the pinnacle of the sport. Winning that title is impressive, but holding on to it for an extended period of time against the best challengers in the division is another thing altogether.
As the old adage goes; you’re not the true champion until you’ve defended the belt.
In this study, I looked at UFC championship reigns from 1997 to 2017, and created graphs to display successful title defenses across all weight divisions. I annotated the names of some (but not all) of the fighters with the most successful defenses in each division, excluding Interim, Superfight and Tournament champions.
It’s a well-known statistic amongst MMA fans at this point, but an astonishing one nonetheless; no heavyweight champion has ever successfully defended the UFC’s longest-running title more than twice consecutively.
A couple of honorable mentions must go to Tim Sylvia and Randy Couture, who both successfully defended the heavyweight belt on 3 occasions throughout their careers in total, just not all within the same title reign. No pressure Stipe!
Both the light heavyweight and welterweight titles have been successfully defended on 24 occasions- more than any other belt. The light heavyweight strap is also the only belt that has been defended 3 times or more by 4 different champions.
Unfortunately, we’ve not seen this title contested since October 2015, though champion Daniel Cormier is scheduled to defend his belt in a rematch against Anthony Johnson in April.
Here we see the most successful title reign in UFC history. Anderson Silva defended his title 10 times between 2006 and 2012, and also holds a record 16 consecutive UFC victories.
Not many would have predicted that in 2017 this belt would be around the waist of Michael Bisping, who has thus far made one successful title defense, against Dan Henderson.
The only title defended thus far in 2017, Tyron Woodley equaled predecessor Robbie Lawler’s tally of 2 defenses with a majority decision victory over Stephen Thompson at UFC 209.
No one from outside of North America has ever held the welterweight title. The only other division that can be said for is the men’s flyweight division, though that weight class has had just one champion so far (Demetrious Johnson) and was only introduced in 2012, as opposed to welterweight’s 9 champions since 1998.
The lightweight title had a tumultuous start to life. First introduced in February 2001, its inaugural champion Jens Pulver was stripped of the title after a little over a year following a contract dispute. In early 2003, B.J. Penn and Caol Uno fought to a draw in a bout that was meant to determine Pulver’s successor, and thus no champion was crowned.
The lightweight title would not be reintroduced until October 2006, with Sean Sherk claiming the vacant strap, before he himself was stripped of the belt after testing positive for anabolic steroids in December 2007. B.J. Penn would go on to win that vacant title, and fortunately it was relatively smooth sailing for the lightweight belt from there on in.
Recently dethroned champion Eddie Alvarez was the first lightweight champion in UFC history to fail to defend his title at least once.
The undisputed featherweight title has not been contested since Conor McGregor ended José Aldo’s title reign in December 2015. Only the light heavyweight belt has been dormant for longer, though that title was scheduled to be on the line at UFC 197, UFC 200, and UFC 206 before last-minute fight cancellations.
This drought would appear to be over soon, as reinstated champion José Aldo is booked for a unification fight with interim champion Max Holloway at UFC 212 in June.
Only four men have held the UFC’s bantamweight title; Dominick Cruz, Renan Barão, T.J. Dillashaw, and Cody Garbrandt. As is the case in the heavyweight division, no champion has managed to defend the bantamweight title more than twice consecutively, although the bantamweight title was only introduced in December 2010.
Barão did actually defend the interim belt on two occasions (and is the only man in UFC history to defend an interim belt twice), though I haven’t included interim titles in this data.
This streak sees Demetrious Johnson tied for second place with Georges St-Pierre in the list of all-time successful title defenses. ‘Mighty Mouse’ will have the opportunity to overtake the Canadian and level Anderson Silva’s record this April, as he prepares for his tenth title defense, against Wilson Reis.
The women’s featherweight division was only introduced last month, so we’ve not seen a defense of this title since Germaine de Randamie claimed the vacant belt by defeating Holly Holm. Apologies to whoever has to pay for Everlast’s bandwidth. Moving swiftly on…
Only five fighters in UFC history (Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, José Aldo and Demetrious Johnson) boast more consecutive title defenses than Ronda Rousey; the most successful female champion in UFC history.
Reigning champion Amanda Nunes’ victory over Rousey last December was the first time a fighter other than Rousey had successfully defended the women’s bantamweight title.
Inaugural women’s strawweight champion Carla Esparza holds the unwanted record for the shortest title reign this side of the year 2000; 92 days.
Since then, Joanna Jędrzejczyk has taken the title in her stride, and will be looking to make her fifth consecutive title defense against Jéssica Andrade in May, a win that would take her just one shy of Ronda Rousey’s record for female champions.
You can click here to see all this data on one graph, although it is a little clustered.
There we have it, every successful title defense across every weight class in UFC history. Of course, not every championship reign was a successful one. In total, 27 UFC title reigns have ended without the champion making a successful defense, and a further 14 ended after just 1 defense. Sustained dominance at the top of a division is extremely difficult to accomplish, and something relatively few champions can achieve.
To make multiple defenses, you have to routinely face the in-form contenders in your division and an array of different fighting styles. That’s what makes the records of Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Demetrious Johnson et al so impressive.
If Johnson keeps going the way he is at the moment, I may have to raise these Y-axes a few notches.