Mark “The Hammer” Coleman, the first Heavyweight champion in the UFC’s history, officially announced his retirement at the age of 48. Also known as “The Godfather of Ground and Pound”, Coleman was one of the sport’s preeminent figures in the late 90’s, and managed to resurrect his career with Pride in the 2000’s before returning to the UFC in 2009 to finish out his days as an active competitor.
Coleman entered the sport as a decorated collegiate wrestler from Ohio State University, where he won a NCAA championship in his senior year. From there he went on to compete at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, finishing seventh in freestyle wrestling.
It was 1996 when Coleman made his UFC debut, running the table with three victories in the same night to win the UFC 10 tournament. The finals saw Coleman defeat Don Frye, who had won the UFC 8 tournament and was the prohibitive favourite. But after seeing Coleman take down Frye repeatedly and brutalize him with punches, elbows and headbutts for almost twelve minutes Big John McCarthy had seen enough and declared Coleman the victor.
That fight ushered in the era of ground and pound. While Dan Severn was the first decorated wrestler to achieve success in the fledgling UFC, Coleman’s vicious top game and punishing assault revolutionized the template for a wrestler’s success. Coleman was able to use his top control to rain down blows and beat his opponents into submission. His use of headbutts devastated opponents and led to the implementation of the “Coleman rule” in 1997 which banned them on the grounds of excessive brutality.
Coleman returned for the UFC 11 tournament and steamrolled the field, walking away the winner in just three minutes and five seconds of cage time. His dominance in back-to-back tournaments set the stage for a showdown with the dominant wrestler that preceded him, the reigning UFC Superfight champion Severn.
While the hype and anticipation for the Severn fight loomed large, Coleman was able to continue his run of UFC dominance with ease and submitted “The Beast” with one of his favourite manoeuvres, a neck crank from the headlock position, in just over three minutes. The victory forever enshrined Coleman in the history of the sport, as it made him the UFC’s first ever true Heavyweight champion.
His championship reign would prove to be short-lived however, as his first defense came against kickboxer Maurice Smith. Smith had formed “The Alliance” with Frank Shamrock, and the two began the cross-training in other arts that has since come to define the sport. Despite coming into the fight as the underdog, Smith was able to nullify Coleman’s top game with jiu-jitsu, and take Coleman apart on the feet with his superior striking skills.
Coleman never again reached the pinnacle of the UFC, as his lack of cardiovascular conditioning and inability to adapt to the changes withing the sport caught up with him. He was scheduled to face-off against Randy Couture at UFC 17, but Couture was forced to withdraw from the fight due to injury. Couture’s replacement was Lions’ Den fighter Pete Williams, who was able to outlast Coleman, wearing the larger Coleman down until he was exhausted, then finishing him off with a head kick KO that has lived on through countless appearances in highlight videos.
The final appearance in Coleman’s initial tenure with the Ufc was against Pedro Rizzo in the opening round of a 4 man tournament to crown the new heavyweight champion. Rizzo was able to edge out a split decision win over Coleman in a fight that Coleman insists he won to this day. Regardless, after three straight losses Coleman was now looking for greener pastures.
The best offer that came Coleman’s way was to go to Japan and fight Pride’s biggest star, Nobuhiko Takada, the pro wrestler turned somewhat MMA fighter. The fight itself was one of the clearer examples of the fix being in, as Coleman seemingly had the ability to finish Takada at any time he wanted during the fight but held off until he gave up a heel hook to Takada in the second round. Coleman has basically admitted to throwing the fight, saying that he received a greater offer for losing that fight than he did winning and had a lot of debts to pay at the time.
More important to Coleman was that the agreement gave him further (non-fixed) fights in Pride. Coleman took full advantage of the opportunity, defeating 6’8 Ricardo Morais to gain entry into the Pride Grand Prix tournament. From there, Coleman shocked fans and pundits alike who had written him off as washed up and stormed through the field, culminating in a win over Igor Vovchanchyn in the finals to become the Pride 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix champion.
The tournament win revitalized Coleman’s career and thrust him towards the top of Pride’s heavyweight division, which was considerably deeper than UFC’s at the time. Coleman spent the next few years battling it out against the best in the world, including Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, a rematch with Don Frye, Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop.
As time crept forwards, people again began to speculate on whether or not Coleman had anything left to offer the sport. A fight against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua was seen as sending Coleman to the slaughterhouse. Again, Coleman confounded the oddsmakers as he shot in for an ankle pick that caused Rua to land awkwardly, breaking his arm in the process and giving Coleman the win by TKO due to injury.
The Rua fight is also remembered for the post-fight melee. As the referee stopped the fight and attempted to pry Coleman away from Rua, a fired-up Coleman tossed the referee to the ground which caused Rua’s Chute Boxe teammates to storm the ring. Coleman’s Hammer House teammate and cornerman for the fight Phil Baroni jumped in to aid Coleman and a full-scale brawl ensued. Coleman later apologized to Chute Boxe for his post-fight reaction and he considered the incident water under the bridge.
The win over Rua gave Coleman a rematch against Fedor in Pride’s USA debut. The majority of the hype for the fight painted Coleman as a man fighting for his family and his love for his two young daughters. After suffering a second loss to Fedor, Coleman brought his girls into the ring to meet the man who had just laid a beating on their father. The girls were understandably frightened and crying, and a clearly uncomfortable Fedor apologized to them for what they had just seen. It was a grim reminder of what fighters’ families go through when watching their loved ones compete.
After a year and a half away from the sport, Coleman was enshrined in the UFC Hall of Fame when the UFC made their debut in Coleman’s home state of Ohio. Coleman announced at that event that he would be returning to the UFC to take on Brock Lesnar. An injury during training caused Coleman to re-evaluate his plans and he made the decision to drop to light heavyweight for a rematch with Shogun Rua.
The result was a resounding back and forth battle that saw both Coleman and Rua battling to the point of total exhaustion. Again, Rua was the heavy favourite and again Coleman paid that no mind. The fight was finally stopped with just twenty-four seconds remaining in the contest, and the TKO win was awarded to Rua. Although Coleman was extremely frustrated after the fight, there had to be at least a little solace in giving a man who was just over a year from winning the UFC light heavyweight championship all he could handle and coming within breaths of shocking the world one more time.
Up next on Coleman’s dance card was a date with the popular Stephan Bonnar at UFC 100. The historic event seemed a perfect place for one of the UFC’s “old guard” to face off with one of the most familiar faces of the TUF generation. To the surprise of many, “The Hammer” still had some tricks to teach “The American Psycho”, and walked away victorious.
That set up the fight that had been in the making for twelve years, as Coleman finally got his chance to do battle with Randy Couture. The bout marked the first time that two competitors who had already been enshrined in the UFC would compete against each other. In the end, Couture proved to be superior on that night, sending Coleman out with a second round rear naked choke.
Coleman didn’t compete after the fight with Couture, although never officially announcing his retirement. There were rumours of a possible encounter with Tito Ortiz, as the two had fired verbal shots back and forth. There were also whispers of a possible legends bout against Dan Severn or a bout with former NFL star Herschel Walker, but nothing came to fruition.
The official retirement announcement came at the beginning of March, along with the news that the uninsured Coleman was facing hip replacement surgery that stood to cost him $100,000 out of pocket. Fortunately for Coleman and in one of the true feel-good stories of the sport, sponsor MMA Elite volunteered to step up and pay for Coleman’s operation.
There is a lesson to be learned there. When a man like “The Hammer” who helped carry the sport on his massive shoulders through dark times needs a hand up: we as fans, media, promoters and sponsors alike should take the time to remember the sacrifices they made so that we can be in the positions we are in today and act accordingly. Coleman was one of the best, and whatever he decides to do from here, it’s a good feeling knowing that he will be able to do so in good health.