The UFC has returned to Minneapolis this week for the first time in more than four years, but it’s a much lower-profile card than the last time.
The organization first visited the Twin Cities on August 9, 2008, when UFC 87: Seek and Destroy was headlined by the welterweight title fight between champion Georges St-Pierre champion and Jon Fitch. It was a typical one-sided five-round decision victory by GSP, but was deemed exciting enough for Fight of the Night honours. The co-main event was a tilt between top lightweight contenders Kenny Florian and Roger Huerta, which Florian won handily, and sportsnet.ca blogger Jason (The Athlete) MacDonald was also in competition, giving jiu-jitsu wizard Demian Maia nearly all he could handle before finally falling to rear-naked choke in the third round.
But the third fight on the first Minneapolis fight card featured the second Octagon appearance by heavyweight superstar Brock Lesnar, who earned his first UFC victory when he beat Heath Herring by unanimous decision in the only fight in which he has ever gone the distance. Lesnar went on to defeat Hall of Famer Randy Couture by second-round TKO at UFC 91 three months later to capture the heavyweight belt.
Such was the case of the heavyweight division back then — a man with a 1-1 record in the UFC and just 2-1 overall in his professional career was given a shot at the title and actually won it. Whether he deserved it or not at that point in his early career wasn’t really a concern — the division was just that thin.
Well things have certainly changed in four years. Lesnar went on to successfully defend the belt twice, but he is now retired — seemingly for good — after a two-fight losing streak to stronger all-around fighters Cain Velasquez and Alistair Overeem. And while the UFC did mourn the loss of a pay-per-view superstar, the heavyweight division hasn’t really suffered. In fact, it’s stronger than ever.
In May, the UFC held its first ever all-heavyweight main card, and even though a failed drug test for Overeem forced the organization to reshuffle the matchups, it still was a great success. Dos Santos, who became champion when he defeated Velasquez in the showcase fight on the UFC’s first ever event on FOX last November, will meet him in a rematch on their big year-end show in December.
There is a lot of talent at the top, but there is also a long list of contenders. Friday night’s UFC on FX: Browne vs. Bigfoot is the second straight free card on consecutive weekends to be headlined by a five-round heavyweight fight between fighters with very strong credentials. And none are even in the top 10 (or weren’t before their fights).
Watch UFC Live: Browne vs. Bigfoot this Friday starting with one live preliminary fight streamed on Sportsnet.ca at 4:30 p.m. ET / 1:30 p.m. PT. This is followed by the televised undercard and main card both on Sportsnet ONE starting at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT.
Stefan Struve defeated Stipe Miocic last Saturday in Nottingham, England, and he said the win put him in the top five of the division. That is debatable, but there’s no question it puts him on the cusp of the top 10.
This Friday the unbeaten Travis Browne, who owns a win over Struve, meets Antonio (Bigfoot) Silva in a matchup that could do the same for the winner. Silva was one of the many fighters who came over from Strikeforce when the latter’s heavyweight division was discontinued, which helped beef up the UFC’s roster of big men.
“The heavyweight division is more stacked than ever, it is so hard to get into the top five right now, and everyone is looking so impressive, so you have to be consistently impressive,” Browne said.
The American Browne (13-0-1) is probably in a better position to get a title shot in the near future than Silva. The younger Browne is on a hot streak and has looked very impressive in his first five fights in the Octagon. Apart from a draw against Cheick Kongo, which came as a result of a point deduction for Kongo for grabbing Browne’s shorts, Browne has three stoppages — including a Knockout of the Night when he KO’ed Struve with a superman punch in May 2011, and a Submission of the Night in his last outing in April for an arm triangle choke of Chad Griggs.
Meanwhile, his Brazilian opponent has had a stellar MMA career outside the UFC, including stints in EliteXC and Strikeforce, where he started his career on a 16-2 run that was capped by a stunning stoppage of legend Fedor Emelianenko in the opener of the Strikeforce Grand Prix tournament in February 2011.
But Silva (16-4) was put to sleep by Daniel Cormier in his next bout, and after Strikeforce’s heavyweight roster was folded into the UFC, he was dominated by Cain Velasquez in his Octagon debut in September. That gave him back-to-back knockout losses, and he can ill afford a third straight defeat.
“This is a very important fight for me, and I won’t let it go past the second round,” Silva said. “He is a very tough guy, undefeated, but I am so, so confident I will beat him inside two rounds.”
While a loss for either Browne or Silva will be costly for his career, the winner will likely find himself in a great position in the UFC’s suddenly deep heavyweight division.
But one this is clear: the time of getting a title shot after just two fights is gone.