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The Monsters That Challenged the World

The irresistible allure and all-too-common failure of giants in the MMA world

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the very first UFC, held at McNichols Arena in Denver in 1993, the sumo wrestler Teila Tuli took on a Dutch fighter named Gerard Gordeau. It was a martial arts movie brought to life. Gordeau emerged through a tunnel of fog to meet his fate, while the 410-pound Tuli walked out in island garb, like he’d been issued from the very depths of a Samoan volcano. The fascination was obvious—Tuli outweighed Gordeau by 200 pounds. People wanted to see what happens when you cross a giant against a skilled average-sized man. The trend continued with the 600-pound Emmanuel Yarborough, whom Keith Hackney orbited at UFC 3, and later in Japan with the 7-foot-2 Choi Hong-man—dubbed the “Techno Goliath”—who competed in the “Super Hulk Grand Prix.”

Yet the old adage that “the bigger they are the harder they fall” has never been truer than in MMA, where modern weight divisions have mostly done away with such David vs. Goliath setups. There have been plenty of big men over the years—strongmen, imposing men, Everests in fight trunks—but very few of them have met with success.

Here’s a look at some of the more memorable giants, past and present, that found their way into the prize cage, along with a Richter scale rating of how much damage they did.

Giant Silva

His real name was Paulo César da Silva, but in the mid-aughts he was known in MMA circles more ominously as Giant Silva — a 7-foot-2, 385-pound creature from São Paulo. A former basketball player who competed in the 1988 Olympics for Brazil, he had long curly brown hair that parted at the middle and cascaded down each side like Weird Al Yankovic’s. He walked with a forward-leaning hunch, as if the top half was a little too heavy for his legs to carry. He looked like a supersized biker Hun in sweatpants, whose fighting style fell between that of an old woman swinging a purse and an angry bear.

In fact, in his first fight at Pride Shockwave 2003, against Heath Herring, Silva introduced the “bear slap” — a wobbly, straight-down, open-palmed slap that stunned Herring like a rude gesture. Silva would end up losing to Herring via a third-round rear-naked choke, and it would register as one of his more impressive showings. He did beat Henry Miller in his next fight (the sumo from St. Louis, not the author of Tropic of Cancer), but ended up losing five of his next six—all five in the first round. I can remember Naoya Ogawa mounting him like he was a frizzy-haired mechanical bull in 2004, and sensing then that his best skill might be his immensity.

Final record in MMA: 2-6

Cage magnitude on the giant Richter scale: Low rumble


People in MMA knew all about the 400-plus-pound Butterbean, Eric Esch, from his long career in boxing. They also knew that him competing in MMA was as big a stretch of the imagination as the waistband on those American trunks he preferred to wear — especially given that he was already 37 when he debuted against Genki Sudo in K-1 (a fight he lost via second-round heel hook).

Butterbean was actually decent enough to hang with the likes of James Thompson and “Cabbage” Correira, both of whom he scored victories over (the “Cabbage” one courtesy of a broken arm, but still!). He was always more of a second-life spectacle from boxing, a rotund oddity that presented problems to anybody given his generous girth and mean streak. He had his moments, but he lost to the likes of strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski, which isn’t a good look, even under the coverage of a circus tent.

Final record in MMA: 17-10-1

Cage magnitude: A picture fell off the wall, but it didn’t break

Mariusz Pudzianowski

Maybe Pudzianowski isn’t a giant by normal standards (he’s 6-foot-1, 255 pounds), but he was the World’s Strongest Man five times running and could make his pecs bounce, so he qualifies. It’s funny with Pudzian; he was the butt of many jokes among stateside MMA purists, especially after he succumbed to Tim Sylvia’s punches at Moosin in Worcester, Massachusetts, back in 2010. (More on Sylvia later.) But in Poland he remains a national hero. He can main event to this day any of the Polish promotion KSW’s chandelier affairs, and his countrymen will turn up in droves.

Let’s be clear: Pudzianowski has fed on semirecognizable castoffs, has-beens and never-weres for most of his career — people like Sean McCorkle, a former UFC heavyweight who dealt Mark Hunt a loss back at UFC 119, and Oli Thompson, the Bellator veteran — but he’s made a nice second career of it. He’s won seven of his last nine fights, and at 41 that’s not too shabby. He’s not knocking out the best heavyweights in the world, but he’s found a niche within the niche — and he can lift up a cage and throw it through the ceiling, so that means something (whatever that is).

Current record in MMA: 12-5-(1)

Cage magnitude: The neighbors said they felt something

Bob Sapp

As a 375-pound super heavyweight, Bob Sapp is a specimen alright. He was a fan favorite while competing in K-1 in Japan in the early aughts, where he had a few pretty good showings against the likes of Ernesto Hoost and Kimo Leopoldo. But with an uninspired 10-fight losing streak between 2005 and 2011—and a 2-15 record over the last 17 fights—perhaps the less said here the better. The nicest thing you can say about the former pro wrestler’s MMA career was that he got to travel around and see some fun places. Romania, Japan, Germany, Hungary, hey, Sapp even showed up in Turkey in January of this year for a fight with Selcuk Ustabasi (which he lost in 56 seconds).

He is the only MMA fighter who is both a globe-trotter and the Washington Generals all in one outsized frame.

Current record in MMA: 12-19

Cage magnitude: Children romping in the house make a louder clatter

Teila Tuli

The Hawaiian Tuli fought in exactly one professional MMA bout, and that was at UFC 1—back when it wasn’t even known as MMA. At the time, the sport was a spectacle that was trying to answer a basic question that had plagued mankind throughout the 1970s and 1980s: Which hand-to-hand combat style wins out in a no-holds-barred setting? We’d all seen Bloodsport. Frank Dux was the goddamn spirit of the endeavor. UFC 1 was the real life equivalent that asked questions like, Can a boxer beat a jiujitsu player? And would a sumo wrestler beat a savateur?

It turns out, no. No, he can’t.

The expansive Tuli lasted only 26 seconds against the Dutch fighter Gordeau, but he gave MMA a legend. When Gordeau landed the lethal head kick that spelled the end, one of Tuli’s teeth was said to have landed on media row. (Years later, Gordeau told me himself that another one was embedded in his foot). Tuli would go on to cameo in the reboot of Hawaii Five-0.

Final record in MMA: 0-1

Cage magnitude: Denver felt a tremor when he fell

Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva

Things were going pretty well for the 6-foot-4, 285-pound “Bigfoot” Silva up until around 2013. He had already taken out former UFC champion Andrei Arlovski, and bludgeoned Fedor Emelianenko in the quarterfinals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. He scored an upset knockout of Travis Browne in Minneapolis, and followed that up by derailing the Alistair Overeem hype train at UFC 156. Then it all began to fall apart.

Silva lost his UFC heavyweight title bid against Cain Velasquez, and by “lost” I mean he got bulldozed in 81 seconds. He came back and put on the fight of the year in late 2013 against Mark Hunt, a majority draw that should have served as the high-water mark of his career. But once it was learned that he had popped for high levels of testosterone, the fight took on a dark tint. Silva, who suffers from gigantism—a condition where the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone—had been granted a testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) therapeutic use exemption, but his levels charted too high in Australia, and the fallout took its toll. He got knocked out in five of his next six fights, leading to his release from the UFC.

The last we saw of Bigfoot was last June in Russia, when he got knocked out yet again by former Bellator champion Vitaly Minkanov. The back-and-forth Hunt fight is still one of the more jaw-dropping bouts of the past decade, but any Bigfoot sightings since then have been melancholy affairs worth forgetting.

Current record in MMA: 19-12

Cage magnitude: Strictly precautionary, but it was a mad dash to the door frame

Tim Sylvia

The David vs. Goliath narratives were rampant ahead of UFC 68 in 2007, and why not? The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia was quite literally a modern-day Paul Bunyan, just a barge of a man who carried a 23-2 record as naturally as he would an axe. Meanwhile, Randy Couture—a light heavyweight reemerging after a 12-month retirement—was nearly 44 years old and, by comparison, a relative homunculus at just 222 pounds.

Couture did what he did so many times throughout his career—he sprang an upset. He beat Sylvia via unanimous decision, and stole off with the UFC heavyweight title. And, of course, Sylvia slipped. He parted ways with the UFC after a loss against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 81, got paid $800,000 to lose in 36 seconds against Fedor Emelianenko at Affliction: Banned, then—lowest of the low—got knocked out by the 48-year-old former boxer Ray Mercer in a super heavyweight bout while fighting under the Adrenaline banner.

But before all those punch lines, Sylvia—who trained with a band of champions up in Bettendorf, including Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver—was a giant. Within two years of joining Pat Miletich’s team in Iowa, Sylvia won the UFC heavyweight title against Ricco Rodriguez at UFC 41. He would win it again at UFC 59 against Andrei Arlovski. He was 6 feet 8 inches of lumbering woodsman.

Later on, Sylvia played the super heavyweight circuit, racking up losses to Satoshi Ishii, Tony Johnson, and Ruslan Magomedov. In retrospect, he didn’t have any business winning as much as he did in his heyday, but—even though it wasn’t all that long ago—those were still the wild west days of the UFC heavyweight division. Somehow Sylvia ruled for a stretch there, and because he did he goes down as one of MMA’s greatest overachievers.

Final record in MMA: 31-10-(1)

Cage magnitude: California was crumbling into the ocean for a while there

Emanuel Yarbrough

Yarbrough was actually an All-American wrestler at Morgan State in the early 1980s, but by the time he stepped in the octagon at UFC 3 as a representative of sumo, he was listed at 6-foot-8 and 616 pounds. He was bigger than any man to ever compete in the UFC (the equivalent of about five Demetrious Johnsons). To this day the image of him standing next to his opponent at UFC 3, Keith Hackney, is all you need to know about the UFC’s sordid roots.

Hackney, who was later dubbed “The Giant Killer,” flitted around Yarbrough, and landed a right hand that felled the big fella onto his side. Moments later Yarbrough pushed Hackney through the cage door, which added a great deal of WWE-esque excitement to the proceedings. With a look of wild-animal fear, Hackney came back in, his tank top now down to a single strap. Eventually he landed a shot that put Yarbrough on his back, and from there it was his fight — he just flung wild punches at Yarbrough’s head until referee Big John McCarthy stepped in.

Yarbrough fought twice more after that, including another funhouse-mirror fight at Pride 3 against Daiju Takase, who was less than a third of Yarbrough’s size. Takase submitted Yarbrough with punches, thus ending big Manny’s foray into the mixed martial arts.

Final record in MMA: 1-2

Cage magnitude: Did you feel that? Or was that my stomach growling?

Hong-man Choi

The 7-foot-2, 350-pound Choi had a few highly publicized fights that gained him a kind of cult status in the MMA ranks, and they all happened in a 15-month span. The first one—his showdown with the great Fedor Emelianenko at Yarennoka! in Saitama, Japan—was a New Year’s Eve affair, in which the undersized heavyweight Russian looked like Muggsy Bogues against the towering Choi when they touched gloves. Though the giant Choi was able to get Fedor on his back on two separate occasions, he had no defense against Fedor’s armbar.

Then there was the fight at Dynamite, when Choi fought Mirko Cro Cop. In that one, Cro Cop kicked away at his legs until an inside thigh kick late in the first round dropped him in a heap. Say what you want about Choi, but you couldn’t accuse him of taking easy fights.

Well, that is until he fought former baseball player Jose Canseco at Dream 9.

Canseco was fresh off a majority draw against Danny Bonaduce and feeling good heading into the Super Hulk Grand Prix. He went to Japan to challenge Choi as a kind of joke taken too far—just a lark that everyone knew would end badly. And it did. Canseco spent the bulk of the 77 seconds he lasted either throwing something wild, or running from getting hit. Choi got him to the ground finally and blasted him with punches. Believe it or not there was an audience that tuned in to see one of the original Bash Brothers—and baseball’s steroid poster boy—take a bashing.

Sadly, that was kind of the highlight of Choi’s pro MMA career. He fared decently as a kickboxer, but as a mixed martial artist he would be finished four more times in his final six bouts, all in the first round. If there’s a single lamentation to Choi’s career, it’s that he never got the chance to face Shaquille O’Neal, who had at one point expressed interest in pulling a Canseco. Seeing the 7-foot-2 Choi against the 7-foot-1, 350-pound O’Neal would have tapped into every emotional range.

At least we’ll always have Shaq versus the Big Show.

Final record in MMA: 4-5

Cage magnitude: A 5.2, based on the Canseco beatdown alone

Brock Lesnar

You know why the colossus who came over from the WWE became a top draw in the UFC? Because he looked like the fighter of our wildest imaginations. The sworded thorax. The flattop. A body that matched The Crusher’s from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. In the way that accidents on the highway speak to gawkers, Lesnar spoke to curiosity. He was the alpha in a land of alphas, a thick, menacing slab of ill will who looked devastating on a promotional poster.

The great thing (compared to most of his giant brethren) was that he could fight, too. Lesnar, who is one of the few men to ever have to cut weight to meet the 265-pound maximum afforded a UFC heavyweight, had an inauspicious start in the UFC, getting caught in a kneebar by Frank Mir. But he bounced back. He trampled Heath Herring, and then took the heavyweight title from Randy Couture at UFC 91. He avenged the loss against Mir at UFC 100 and broke the UFC’s all-time pay-per-view mark in the process, then came back from a first-round pummeling to beat Shane Carwin at UFC 116. People dreamed of Fedor vs. Brock and Jon Jones vs. Brock. They still dream about Brock vs. Francis Ngannou and Brock vs. Stipe Miocic.

A stomach condition (diverticulitis) hindered him from reaching greater heights in MMA, as he lost his title to Cain Velasquez at UFC 121 and followed that up with a TKO loss against Alistair Overeem. Still, as his return fight with Mark Hunt at UFC 200 showed us, he remains a marvel to this day. He tested positive for the fertility drug clomiphene in that fight, got suspended, and had his victory over Hunt overturned into a “no contest.” But you know what? MMA still welcomes him back, because he’s a ridiculous human being to behold. A specimen. The prototypical giant of MMA.

Current record in MMA: 5-3-(1)

Cage magnitude: He is the San Andreas Fault