For the last several months, the UFC heavyweight division was in very real limbo as its ruler, Brock Lesnar, battled a mysterious illness that momentarily threatened his career. The illness was later revealed to be diverticulitis, and the champ recently received a clean bill of health and is champing at the bit to lay the two cinder blocks he calls fists into someone’s dome. Things are therefore back to normal in the Land of the Giants.
Well, almost. The 2010 version of the sport’s ruling class is a vast improvement over what it was just a year ago.
A lot has happened since we last surveyed the division nine months ago. Former three-time champion Randy Couture is back at 205 lbs. Former champion Frank Mir has reinvented himself physically. A monstrous prospect is preparing for his first (interim) title opportunity. And some guy named “Cain” is making his case as the best in the division.
Almost a year ago, I wrote about the heavyweight division that “it may not be the deepest division in the UFC, but there are plenty of current, former and future superstars competing.” Now, the heavyweight division is flush with legitimate title contenders, solid workers and a crop of young fellas ready to carry the division for the next decade.
We don’t have sufficient space to review them all, so let’s take an updated look at a representative cross section of the land of the giants.
Interim title to be contested in March or not, this guy is the king of the mountain. There is no credible argument to the contrary.
Brock Lesnar: The champ erased any doubt about the legitimacy of his title reign when he methodically pounded out former conqueror Mir in two rounds at UFC 100 back in July. Lesnar’s game plan, which he executed masterfully, showed his tremendous improvement as a fighter since the first time the pair squared off. Rather than come out like an angry Tasmanian Devil with instant takedowns and wild ground-and-pound attacks, the champ executed a takedown, expertly moved into side control during the transition, took his time to make sure that he had the proper position, and then unloaded the most devastating series of arm punches in UFC history in a way that left him wholly unexposed to submission attempts or sweeps. It was as dominant of a performance as we have seen in the heavyweight division in quite a long time. Now that Lesnar is back in training following his bout with that pesky little bacteria, he finally has what appears to be a clear number one contender in undefeated Mexican-American superstar Cain Velasquez. The only hitch in that plan is the fact that fellow undefeated top contender Shane Carwin, who was twice scheduled to fight Lesnar for the title, faces Mir for the interim title at UFC 111 on March 27. Interim champs are supposed to get the first crack at a returning champion—that is the whole point of an interim championship. Thus, it seems likely that the winner of Mir-Carwin will be Lesnar’s next opponent, and it is tough to argue that the winner of that fight hasn’t earned a crack at Lesnar. Still, Velasquez doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. Whoever Lesnar fights is less important than seeing the champ healthy and back in action, which should happen this summer. Last: Sub2 over Frank Mir at UFC 100. Next: TBA.
After Lesnar, four men stand above the rest. They are the division’s Preferiti—the front runners to unseat the champion. It is all but certain that the next title challenger, if not the next two or more title challengers, will come from these four men.
Cain Velasquez: Talk about getting thrown to the wolves. Cain Velasquez was anointed by many as the future of the heavyweight division before he ever stepped foot inside the Octagon. Nearly two years and six impressive UFC wins later and Velasquez is no longer the can’t-miss prospect that everyone had to watch fight. He is now possibly the biggest current threat to the reign of Lesnar after demolishing all-time great Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira in 140 seconds at UFC 110. He showed in that fight that his standup game should be feared by all but the very best strikers. The question that still exists for this guy is his size. At 6’1, 240 lbs, many question whether he is a little small to compete with the division’s monsters like Lesnar and Carwin. Would Velasquez be well served to follow in the footsteps of Mir and pack on a few pounds of extra muscle in the near future? That is a tough question to answer until we see him square off against one of the division’s giants. In the interim, what this guy lacks in size, he more than makes up for with unyielding determination, seemingly endless gas and excellent technique. Velasquez should be preparing as if he will next fight Lesnar for the title. Assuming that the champion is planning a midsummer return, there is a very real possibility that the winner of Carwin-Mir won’t be ready to go that soon, particularly if their bout is the war that many expect it to be. Last: TKO1 over Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira at UFC 110. Next: TBA.
Frank Mir: Back in April, I wrote that a “focused, well-prepared Mir is at worst even money to defeat any heavyweight in the world.” I still stand by those words. Simply put, this guy has completely redefined himself as a heavyweight. Athletes routinely talk about coming back from a loss bigger, stronger and faster. They rarely live up to those words. Mir, on the other hand, did just that after losing to Lesnar at UFC 100. Training with former legendary strongman competitor Mark Philippi, the former champion added approximately 25 lbs of lean muscle to his already hulking frame in the months leading up to his bout against Cheick Kongo at UFC 107. Mir felt like he needed the added mass in order to better handle the giants that roam around at the top of the division. Many thought the extra weight would slow him down. It didn’t. The former champ showed tremendous speed and his vastly improved hands against Kongo, knocking down the fearsome Frenchman in the opening seconds of their fight and then quickly choking him out. The bout proved that his amazing performance against Minotauro Nogueira at UFC 92 was no fluke. Frank Mir version 3.0 truly is one of the best heavyweights in the world. But he must overcome one more test in order to secure a much desired rubber match with Lesnar later this year. That test is no small task. Last: Sub1 over Cheick Kongo at UFC 107. Next: Shane Carwin at UFC 111 on March 27.
Shane Carwin: This monstrous competitor remains one of only two active UFC heavyweights with a perfect professional record and at least three trips to the Octagon. The other is fellow Fantastic Four fraternity member Cain Velasquez. As a bit of icing on that cake, each of his four wins came inside the first round, the last of which was a come-from-behind knockout victory over perennial contender Gabriel Gonzaga. It was an awesome display of punching power and an even better display of the thickness of his whiskers. Heavyweights with big power and granite jaws are a difficult puzzle to solve, unless said heavyweight has a weak ground game. Unfortunately for the rest of the division, that isn’t the case with Carwin. He has excellent takedown defense and solid hips from his days as a Division II collegiate wrestling champion. Carwin was originally supposed to face Lesnar for the title at UFC 106 last November. He will instead face Mir for the interim strap in March as Lesnar works his way back to top form after his bout with diverticulitis. Facing a well-rounded fighter like Mir is tough for anyone. Facing him after spending more than a year away from active competition is downright crazy. Then again, great fighters find a way to win when facing seemingly insurmountable odds. Is Carwin truly a great heavyweight? We’ll all find out next month. Last: KO1 over Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 96. Next: Frank Mir at UFC 111 on March 27.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: It’s hard to believe that Minotauro Nogueira is only 33 years old because he is already a legend in the sport. The longtime PRIDE heavyweight champion made history when he added the interim UFC heavyweight crown to his resume back in 2008, becoming the only man to date to ever hold heavyweight titles in both promotions. But he has definitely hit a rough patch in his career. After fighting for nearly a decade without getting stopped, Minotauro has dropped two of his last three fights by technical knockout. The saving grace remains his 2009 domination of active Hall of Famer Randy Couture. That win shows that the Brazilian is still at the top of his game, despite suffering losses to Mir and Velasquez. The fact remains, though, that he now has losses against two of his three fellow Preferiti, which leaves him at risk of being replaced in the exclusive fraternity of top contenders by his protégé, young gun Junior Dos Santos. Last: TKO1 by Cain Velasquez at UFC 110. Next: TBA.
ON THE CUSP
He hasn’t quite elevated himself to Preferiti status. But this guy isn’t far away, either. Another win or two and it will be impossible to ignore this guy any longer as deserving title challenger.
Junior Dos Santos: Has any heavyweight looked better in his last four UFC fights than Dos Santos? With four dominant performances, all stoppages, against Gilbert Yvel, Mirko Cro Cop, Stefan Struve and Fabricio Werdum, this guy is on a serious hot streak to start off his UFC career. During that reign, he demonstrated that he can stand up and strike with just about any heavyweight in the world. The question, though, is whether he can defend the takedown or survive on the ground against ground-and-pound specialists like Lesnar or submission wizards like Mir. Another question is whether he is able to take a punch on the button against a guy with legitimate one-punch knockout power. Some of those questions will sort themselves out, while Dos Santos continues progressing toward the getting recognized as one of the division’s big boys. He needs a win in his next fight to keep the tremendous momentum that he generated in 2009. Otherwise, he could get lost among the weeds in what is rapidly becoming one of the UFC’s deeper talent pools. Last: TKO1 over Gilbert Yvel at UFC 108. Next: Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC Live: Vera vs. Jones on March 21.
A couple of tough losses have knocked these three heavyweight monsters from short-term title contention. Yet, all three have the ability to turn things around and put themselves back into the heavyweight mix with a single impressive win.
Mirko Cro Cop: When Cro Cop first signed with the UFC, most thought it was just a matter of time—maybe a fight or two—before he took his rightful place at the top of the division. That obviously did not happen, as the Croatian superstar has struggled to acclimate his game to the Octagon. Cro Cop’s aura of invincibility and his fearsome left high kick both seem to have disappeared. He needs to find both if he wants to regain his reputation as the most dangerous striker in the heavyweight division. UFC 110 was a step in the right direction for him as he methodically bludgeoned a determined Anthony Perosh. He still ignored his kicks, ostensibly to minimize the chance of getting taken down. That is a legitimate concern for the former K-1 striker, but he doesn’t need to completely abandon his kicks to keep the fight on the feet. He should be finishing his combinations with kicks to the legs and body, both of which are fight-ending weapons for Cro Cop. Last: TKO2 over Anthony Perosh at UFC 110. Next: TBA.
Cheick Kongo: One year ago, Kongo was banging loudly on the door to a title shot. He then owned seven wins in nine trips to the Octagon, including his last three. That places him among the most experienced and accomplished UFC heavyweights yet to fight for the title. But, alas, that was early 2009. As 2010 finishes its first month, Kongo sits with back-to-back losses on his record for the first time in his entertaining career. Two consecutive losses isn’t the end of the world, nor a recipe to automatically drop a fighter from contention. A loss in his next bout, however, would be a huge step in that direction. In other words, Kongo needs to right the ship, and he needs to right it now. Nonetheless, with 11 trips to the Octagon, he remains one of the division’s more experienced competitors and dangerous tests. What will 2010 hold for the Parisian kickboxer? Will he return to heavyweight prominence or will he continue his slide? Last: Sub1 loss to Frank Mir. Next: Paul Buentello at UFC Live: Vera vs Jones on March 21.
Gabriel Gonzaga: On paper at least, this guy has all the tools to win a championship. He is a former Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion with good takedown defense, one-punch knockout power and excellent size. He had the opportunity to fight for the title back in 2007 at UFC 74, but he was stopped in the third round by Couture. There is no shame in losing to the living legend. But Gonzaga inexplicably laid an egg in his very next bout against Fabricio Werdum, sending his standing in the division into a tailspin. Back-to-back wins in 2008 got the Brazilian back into the heavyweight mix. Yet, the loss to Shane Carwin last March sets him back yet again. A recent win against a relatively unknown Chris Tuchscherer didn’t do much to reestablish his top tier credentials. A win in his next bout will solve that problem and more, instantly propelling him back into contention. Last: TKO1 over Chris Tuchscherer. Next: Junior Dos Santos at UFC Live: Vera vs Jones on March 21.
To come in Part II: The lunch pail crew, heavyweights with big question marks hanging over their heads, the current crop of hot prospects and an Internet sensation.