This time last year, the UFC heavyweight division looked poised for a renaissance.
Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez were preparing to face off for a second time, “Cigano” entering as champion off a knockout win over Frank Mir, Velasquez eager to reclaim gold after bludgeoning Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.
Over in Strikeforce, Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett would fight in the finals of the long and drawn out Heavyweight Grand Prix before transitioning to the UFC, although the latter’s return to the Octagon was anything but assured.
The division was teeming with talent – exciting names old and new presenting a multitude of match-up possibilities that had fight fans salivating about the future of the heavyweight ranks. There was depth, experience, and emerging competitors.
One year later, the beautiful oasis on the horizon is no more – a mirage, vanished into thin air as another new year is upon us.
The champion is going to be sidelined for roughly a year.
After battering dos Santos in September in the final chapter of their three-fight series, Velasquez went under the knife earlier this month to repair persistent issues with his shoulder. Two months after the emphatic performance that was supposed to mark the start of his extended reign atop the heavyweight division, the 31-year-old titleholder already has to press pause, delaying his next defence until next fall at the earliest.
Despite still being the only man to best the current champion, dos Santos is no longer the “1B” to Velasquez’ “1A” in the heavyweight division. That’s what happens when you’re beaten into a swollen state of unrecognizability in consecutive meetings with your chief rival.
What complicates matters more is that “Cigano” has proven himself to be superior to everyone else in the division, save for Velasquez, having already turned aside challenges from three other members of the heavyweight top 10, including Fabricio Werdum.
Since submitting Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira this past June, Werdum has been quietly sitting on the sidelines, waiting for his opportunity to fight for UFC gold. Having won three straight since returning to the Octagon, “Vai Cavalo” certainly merits consideration, but that opportunity is now lost as Velasquez recovers from surgery, which means Werdum has to re-enter the fray.
How he’s remained in line to challenge for the title all this time is perplexing. While his three wins have been dominant, they’ve come against a three-pack of non-contenders – Roy Nelson, Mike Russow, and Nogueira – with the last two coming off the radar on events in Brazil that failed to generate much interest. Though few in the division can boast three consecutive victories, there are others that have bested better competition that will surely look to take advantage of Velasquez’ absence and force Werdum from his place at the head of the line.
Travis Browne and the aforementioned Josh Barnett are probably battling for the opportunity to face Werdum Saturday night at UFC 168—a pairing between the winner and the Brazilian contender the only logical next step in the stalled division.
Barnett emerged at this point with wins over Nandor Guelmino and Frank Mir — the former having already finished his cup of coffee in the UFC, the latter staring down the worst losing streak of his career heading into 2014.
Impressive as he has been, there is no greater upside to the man known as “The Warmaster” — he’s a great fighter and wildly entertaining, in the cage and on the mic, but he’s no longer elite.
Where Barnett has seemingly topped out, Browne carries potential. An agile big man with 15 wins in 17 fights, fresh off a pair of first-round knockout wins, “Hapa” might be the only fighter on the roster that could lead fans to get excited about a heavyweight title fight in the future.
With a win over Barnett, the 31-year-old Team Jackson-Winkeljohn representative will bring himself one step closer to fighting for the title, but the distance between this fight and that fight is significant.
Beyond those four – dos Santos, Werdum, Barnett, and Browne – the division is a hodgepodge of former contenders, perennial gatekeepers, and a scant number of emerging talents that have yet to assert themselves against the cast of established veteran names that line the upper tier of the heavyweight ranks.
Mir is reeling, having lost three straight fights for the first time in his career. Despite every subsequent bout coming with the standard “best shape of my career, still chasing that title” clichés, the reality is that the former champion hasn’t looked truly dominant since his victory over Cheick Kongo at UFC 107 four years ago.
The last man he beat, Nogueira, has alternated wins and losses for almost six years and is trading on his name at this point. An icon in his native Brazil and a legend in the sport thanks to his days in Pride, Nogueira is 37 going on 52, his best days far behind him.
Fan favourite Roy Nelson is a one-trick pony with two straight losses and zero conditioning. Can he fill a main card position knocking out middle tier talent and put together a couple wins like he did for a year after losing to Werdum? Absolutely, but he’s already turned aside a lot of the names in that section of the division, and no one – save for maybe the fighters he beat – are eager to see those fights a second time.
Stipe Miocic shows promise, but for whatever reason, his climb up the heavyweight rankings has been much slower than anticipated. The Cleveland native hasn’t fought since handing Nelson a beating in June, and when he does step back into the Octagon next month, he’ll face resurgent former title challenger Gabriel Gonzaga in a bout that doesn’t really change the pecking order in the division one way or the other.
When he came over from Strikeforce, Alistair Overeem was supposed to be a dominant force that challenged for the title and injected a new name into an all-too-familiar list of contenders at the top of the weight class. Two years later, “The Reem” has as many nine-month suspensions as he does UFC wins, and twice as many losses. In his last two outings — both defeats — the former mass of humanity that ran roughshod over the competition has been replaced by a less chiseled, less powerful version of Overeem, one that is likely facing a do-or-die situation when he faces off with fellow struggling former contender Mir in February.
Antonio Silva and Mark Hunt just battled to an entertaining “majority draw,” the result enclosed in quotations because the scoring was suspect, even if it felt like the right decision. It was a wildly entertaining fight — potentially the Fight of the Year — but doesn’t change the fact that Silva has already been bludgeoned by the champion twice and Hunt was knocked out by dos Santos in May.
Hunt can remain a main card fixture against fellow veterans and sacrificial newcomers, and Silva can return to those ranks once his nine-month suspension (elevated testosterone levels) is up next year, but like Nelson, that’s as far up the divisional ladder as these two can go.
In one year, the heavyweight ranks went from potential powder keg to a collection of question marks, with the champion sidelined until next fall at the earliest.
There will still be entertaining fights and competitors jockeying for position on the list of contenders, but the triumphant return to prominence that appeared destined to happen this time last year failed to materialize, and it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon either.