The following is MMATorch columnist Shawn Ennis’s breakdown of the UFC Heavyweight Division ten years ago this week with a look at the contenders on the rise and on the fall and on the verge in the then-maligned UFC Heavyweight Division.
I just profiled the UFC lightweight division a couple of weeks ago, and now we move from perhaps the deepest division in the organization to what is unarguably the shallowest: the heavyweights.
Tim Sylvia: Say what you will about Sylvia, and I have expressed my opinion about his last couple of fights already, but the man keeps winning. It’s not as if Big Tim isn’t an excellent fighter, because he is. And it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy being champion, because we’ve heard the stories about how the big man sleeps with the belt and wears it to the grocery store. But since he beat Arlovski for the title, I haven’t seen that killer instinct in Tim Sylvia. He’s just survived his first two defenses when he’s had so much to gain by going out there and attacking. Arlovski was hurt in the last three rounds of their second fight, but Sylvia was content to ride out the decision. Last Saturday night, Monson was obviously frustrated, and Sylvia was even getting the better of the ground aspect at times, but again, Sylvia didn’t push the action. That’s not what we saw when he fought Ricco Rodriguez and Gan McGee, and “The Maine-iac” has improved tremendously in the three years since those fights. I want to see what Sylvia can really do now.
Brandon Vera: It’s hard to have a more impressive showing in your first four UFC fights than what Vera has done. After a successful debut against Fabiano Scherner, Vera made short work of Justin Eilers, Assuerio Silva, and former champ Frank Mir. None of those three could be considered easy fights. Not top-flight competition, but certainly not no-names. “The Truth” made an emphatic statement with his brutal knockout win over Mir last week that he is the consensus number one contender to the title. He may not have risen to the top so quickly in a deeper division, but Vera is certainly a legitimate contender.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Hello? Anybody here? If I’m putting people in this category that actually deserve to be here, then it’s empty. That’s not a knock on the up-and-comers, mind you. But no one’s been around long enough to justify a shot at the title after a couple more fights. That having been said, the situation essentially eliminates this category, making the up and comers themselves a step or two away from contendership.
UP AND COMERS
Carmello Marrero: The New Jersey native didn’t thrill anyone with his decision victory over Cheick Kongo at UFC 64, but taking out the tough Frenchman is no small task indeed. He’ll need to show a bit more variety in his attack before he can be seriously considered as a contender. His ground attack (I use that term loosely), which was on display against Kongo, will be put to the test on December 30th when he faces jiu Jitsu ace Marcio Cruz.
Cheick Kongo: Kongo’s stock didn’t fall far in my opinion when he lost to Marrero, as he’s shown that he can be an explosive and entertaining fighter when matched with the right kind of opponent. However, he’ll need to work on his takedown defense (or his grappling) to get to the next level. He showed that he’s got some solid submission defense against Christian Wellisch, but he was taken down at will by Marrero.
Eddie Sanchez: Sanchez and his big right hand made an explosive debut at UFC 63 against Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Mario Neto. It was a big win over a veteran that hadn’t lost in five years, and it’ll be very interesting to see what Sanchez can do in the UFC. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him matched up against Kongo somewhere down the line.
Antoni Hardonk: Dutch kickboxers are not to be taken lightly. If there was any doubt of that fact, Hardonk erased it with some crushing leg kicks that floored Sherman Pendergarst at UFC 65 last week. He did land some punches on the big man at the end, but it was a leg kick that finished the job. He’s another interesting guy to watch whom we’ll hopefully see again soon, and maybe against the oft-injured Brad Imes (he was originally scheduled to face Imes last week instead of Pendergarst).
Jake O’Brien: In his fight with Josh Shockman, O’Brien got takedown after takedown, but never capitalized once on the ground. This was evidenced by the fight being brought back to the feet seven or eight times (I lost count). While he’s got solid grappling and some potential, O’Brien has a long way to go before he can be considered a threat to any big name talent.
ON THE REBOUND
Andre Arlovski: The ever popular Belarusian has not fought since his second straight loss to the champion Sylvia at UFC 61. He makes his return to the Octagon on December 30 when he faces Marcio Cruz. Should he be able to best “Pe de Pano”, Arlovski will be right back in the thick of things. Of course, he won’t get a title shot as long as Sylvia is champion, since he’s lost two straight to Big Tim. But once Sylvia drops the title, Arlovski will have to be on the short list of contenders.
Jeff Monson: Monson was hardly able to do anything against the champion, and given the physical disparity between the two fighters, that’s not really surprising. At the same time, while Arlovski was injured during his five round snoozefest with Sylvia, Monson has no such excuse. His UFC stock dropped quite a bit with this loss, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go elsewhere temporarily to get some steam back.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Frank Mir: Mir has done himself no favors since returning from the horrific motorcycle accident that sidelined him for nearly two years. He came into his first two fights woefully under-conditioned and went 1-1. He didn’t last long enough against Brandon Vera to show whether he’d improved his training, but it’s hard to believe that he was any more ready for this fight than any other. All that having been said, a Frank Mir that can show the same kind of fire that he had before the accident could be extremely dangerous. (Of course, he’d still have to finish fights quickly, as conditioning has always been a problem for him.) Mir is still quite young and if he shows some desire to get back to where he was, he shouldn’t be counted out just yet.
WHO CAN HELP
Heath Herring: He’s been slightly inconsistent, but he’s fought and hung with the best in the world. He could make a lot of noise in the right situation. Of course, he did sign with the WFA, but with that promotion’s next event postponed indefinitely, who knows what’s happening with them? Herring would be a nice addition to the thin division for sure.
Aleksander Emelianenko: If you’ve followed mixed martial arts on a global scale at all, you know the last name. Fedor’s little brother has expressed interest in fighting in the UFC, and Dana and the UFC brass would be nuts not to go after him if that is indeed the case. Aleks has little to gain by staying in Pride as long as his brother is champion, because they won’t be fighting each other. He’s got everything to gain by coming to the States to bolster a weak division while simultaneously getting a lot of exposure. Fedor he may not be, but his only losses in 12 fights are to Josh Barnett, Fabricio Werdum, and Mirko Filipovic. Not too shabby.
Josh Barnett: I know he’s deeply entrenched in Pride, and probably on the short list of future contenders to the throne, but how big a star could Barnett be here if he were to come back to the Octagon?
Antonio Silva: This is a very large man who has ended each of his seven fights inside the first round, six times by knockout and once by verbal submission. He may even have to cut weight a little to come in under the 265 pound limit, but at 6’4”, that’s hardly an impossibility. He’s an up and comer with a lot of potential that hasn’t seen the mainstream outside of Cage Rage (although I believe he has a fight scheduled with Bodog Fight for their initial PPV.)
There’s any number of fighters who could come in from other promotions and make an immediate impact. You’ve got other Pride fighters in Sergei Kharitonov and Fabricio Werdum, and IFL standouts like Ben Rothwell and Krystof Soszynski who could contend right away (Werdum especially out of those four). I’m not sure what everyone’s contract status is, but these guys aren’t the only ones who could make some noise. It’s good for the UFC to develop young fighters like they’ve been doing.
It’s important to bring in the young guys to be the future of the division. But at the same time, they need to get out there and spend some money to get the upper and upper-middle tier fighters that could really fill out and strengthen the heavyweight division right now. It’s the only way the division will be taken seriously. The argument to the contrary is that the casual fans who maybe don’t follow Pride won’t know the difference, but that’s not true.
People know good fighters when they see them. Especially if you’ve got four other divisions within the UFC that have a lot of talent to compare and contrast. If you don’t strengthen the heavyweight division, the casual fans will just figure that the weight class is generally thin. While that may not be far from the truth relatively speaking, there’s certainly a lot that can be done to make the heavyweight fights a big money draw.
It’s not a coincidence that the last two heavyweight title defenses have needed to be held up by a co-main event, but that doesn’t have to be the case if you’ve got good fighters that people will pay to see. Just ask an organization with the best heavyweight division in the world.
NOW CHECK OUT THE PREVIOUS 10 YEARS AGO FLASHBACK ON UFC 65: 10 YRS AGO: ROWLES: The Aftermath – Ramblings from a Post UFC 65 MMA World including GSP’s Welterweight Championship victory