UFC heavyweights at impasse heading into 2015


Stipe Miocic in action. (Paul Beaty/AP)

By the time the sun comes up on Sunday morning, fight fans are going to have a pretty clear picture of how things shake out in the heavyweight division. Once Saturday’s event is through, nine of the 15 ranked fighters in the weight class will have stepped into the Octagon in a four-week span, presenting an excellent opportunity to determine where how the different tiers break down.

And make no mistake about it, there are tiers that exist in every division, even if we don’t talk about them enough.

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One of the selling points of MMA as a whole is the idea that anyone can beat anyone else on any given night. In theory, it’s true – all it takes is one shot, one mistake and the fight is over – but the reality is that save for landing the perfect punch or capitalizing on a catastrophic error, there are some matchups where one fighter is clearly superior to another and should emerge victorious.

Heavyweight just makes for a great case study right now because (1) the division has been extremely active in recent weeks and (2) Joe Rogan’s raw assessment of Brendan Schaub’s place in the pecking order speaks to this very issue.

For those that missed it earlier in the week, the UFC commentator had Schaub and Bryan Callan on his podcast just a couple days after “Big Brown” lost to Travis Browne at UFC 181. They agreed to speak candidly about Schaub’s fight and his position in the division on air and, much to Schaub’s dismay, Rogan hit him with an unfiltered analysis of where he thinks The Ultimate Fighter 10 finalist fits in the division.

Basically, Rogan told Schaub he doesn’t think he has what it takes to beat the elite fighters in the division, an assessment that is both brutally honest when coming from a friend and completely accurate.

If we’re breaking the heavyweight division down into tiers, this is what it would look like right now using the latest UFC rankings:

Tier 1: Cain Velasquez
Tier 2: Fabricio Werdum, Junior dos Santos
Tier 3: Travis Browne, Mark Hunt
Tier 4: Stipe Miocic, Josh Barnett, Andrei Arlovski, Bigfoot Silva, Roy Nelson, Ben Rothwell, Alistair Overeem
Tier 5: Gabriel Gonzaga, Frank Mir, Matt Mitrione, Stefan Struve

Velaquez is in a class unto himself – he’s the reigning champion, manhandled dos Santos twice to avenge the only loss of his career and outside of getting clipped behind the ear by “Cigano” that one time, his most challenging opponent to date has been health.

Interim champion Werdum rises to the second tier alongside dos Santos on the strength of his growth and development since his first stint in the UFC, while dos Santos separated himself from the rest of the pack over the course of his three-fight series with Velasquez.

Where things start to get interesting – and the potential for movement begins to appears – is in Tier 3 and below.

Over his last five fights, Browne has picked up wins over Gonzaga, Overeem, Barnett and Schaub, and lost to Werdum, so the middle tier is the right spot for him right now. That being said, the athletic Hawaiian was the favourite heading into his fight with the current interim champion and when he’s on-point, he certainly looks capable of hanging with the residents of Tier 2.

Despite being ranked No. 5, Hunt has shown he’s just a notch below the championship class, having only lost to Werdum and dos Santos since beginning his climb into contention. He may not have the potential upside of his level mate, but “The Super Samoan” would be favoured against anyone from Tier 4 and below.

Miocic should move up one tier following his fight with dos Santos on Saturday night and could skip over Tier 3 entirely if he’s able to earn a statement victory over the former champion in Phoenix. He’s a well-rounded, technically sound fighter, but he’s yet to face any truly elite competition, so until he earns a signature victory, it’s hard to place him any higher up than Tier 4, despite his being ranked in the Top 5.

The rest of Tier 4 seems pretty self-explanatory – a collection of veteran talents that have all been around the block a time or two, lost to the fighters in the upper tiers and show any further room for growth. Could Barnett or Overeem beat Hunt? Could Nelson catch Browne with a winging overhand right? Sure, but you wouldn’t be banking on it.

As for the guys in Tier 5, Struve has the greatest upside – and a win over Miocic – but he’s coming off a lengthy hiatus due to a heart ailment, so it’s best to take a wait-and-see approach. The rest of the men at this level could feasibly pick up wins over the colleagues at Tier 4 as well, but for the most part, they’re beyond the point where you can see them developing into Top 10 fighters.

Schaub belongs in that Tier 5 group and you could even make a case for him picking up enough wins to climb to Tier 4.

But his fight with Browne showed that he doesn’t have what it takes to join “Hapa” in Tier 3. Browne manhandled him, flicked him away like an annoying bug when he tried to clinch and put him on the canvas with a clean uppercut to begin the finishing sequence. He’s had his chin checked a couple times in the UFC and didn’t look particularly good against Arlovski in Vancouver either, regardless of whether you think he won or lost that fight.

And that is essentially what Rogan told Schaub earlier in the week. It’s a tough assessment to hear from a friend and a bitter pill to swallow as a fighter, but the reality of sport is that not everyone is on the same level.

Tiers like this exist in all of the UFC divisions – they’re just not necessarily as pronounced because of the amount of fighters that populate some of the other weight classes. While the first two tiers – champions and legitimate title challengers – might be obvious, figuring out Tiers 3-5 can be complicated.

This isn’t just a UFC thing either; there are obvious tiers in other sports as well. Labeling players as MVP candidates, all-stars, starters, contributors off the bench (or on the third line) and the guys that just fill out the roster is just another way of placing them into tiers.

The difference, of course, is the individual nature of fighting and why Rogan telling Schaub he doesn’t think he can beat the best heavyweights in the UFC stings the confident fighter even more. You can be on the fourth line and still win a championship in the NHL, but you can’t win UFC gold from Tier 3.

With six of the Top 15 heavyweights hitting the cage on Saturday, we could see some movement this weekend… or maybe everyone is slotted in the correct position and we’ve entered a period with only a couple truly elite heavyweight competitors.

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