The Rear Naked Column 06.24.11: The State of the Heavyweight Division
Posted by Samer Kadi on 06.24.2011
In the wake of the disappointing main event last weekend between Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum, 411's Samer Kadi takes a look at the state of the heavyweight division in MMA and the challenges that the division faces!
It is admittedly harsh to put a label on an entire division based on an isolated bout. After all, Anderson Silva's train wrecks against Thales Leites and Demian Maia were hardly an indicator of a worthless middleweight division (though it remains among MMA's weakest), and certainly did little to take away from the fact that the common denominator in both fights is arguably the greatest fighter this sport has ever seen. As such, both Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum deserve to be cut some slack following last Saturday's dismaying main event.
In fact, in an overall exiguous heavyweight division that is severely lacking true high caliber athletes, Overeem and Werdum are some of the few with legitimately sterling credentials. Their exploits in K-1 and grappling tournaments respectively, mean this was one of the rare cases where the overused expression of "world-class" in MMA held true. Therefore, however depressing their contest may have been, both fighters remain some of the division's true elite. That right there however, is the biggest beacon as to just how defective the heavyweight division truly is.
Prior to his lackluster triumph on Saturday, Overeem's biggest win in the heavyweight division came at the expense of Brett Rogers, a fighter whose only claim to fame is knocking out Andre Arlovski. And yet, Overeem was – quite rightly – ranked in the top 10. While his talents are undeniable, it is quite a testament to the shallow nature of the division that doing so little can mean so much when you're over 205 pounds. For his part, Werdum had accomplished far more than beating a fighter who happened to be fixing tires for a living just a year earlier. He managed to topple the division's all-time crowning jewel, in what will go down as one of the sport's most memorable upsets. Indeed, Werdum's submission of Fedor Emelianenko won't soon be forgotten, but the Brazilian's fight with Overeem last week shows just how hapless he can be when he can't take the fight to his element.
Perhaps no fighter highlights the state of the heavyweight division better than the aforementioned Brett Rogers. After early wins against overmatched competition, Rogers was set to lock horns with former UFC heavyweight champion Andre Arlovski. An undeniably skillful heavyweight, Arlovski has long suffered from having one of the worst chins in MMA; a disastrous chink in the armor of a fighter competing in the hardest hitting division. Sure enough, it took Rogers just 19 seconds to dispose of Arlovski, as the moment "The Grim" connected, the Belarusian folded. Ironically, this may have been the worst thing to have happened to Rogers' career as instead of being brought up slowly in order to develop his skills, he was immediately thrown to the wolves. A first round in which he managed not to get completely blown out of the water against Fedor was treated as a momentous achievement, to where the subsequent crushing knockout loss was curiously ignored. In fact, it bizarrely got him a shot at the Strikeforce heavyweight title, where he was completely demolished by Alistair Overeem. A dreadful – yet victorious – performance against Ruben "Warpath" Villareal was thankfully witnessed by very few, but Rogers' next showing against Josh Barnett – in which he did a worse job than James Toney at defending the arm triangle – cannot be ignored. Yet, until the most recent Barnett loss, Rogers was widely ranked in the top 10/top 15.
This is not exclusive to Strikeforce heavyweights, as the UFC heavyweight talent pool is hardly exempt from such problems. Outside of the champion and the number one contender, who are, by a country mile, the best two heavyweights on the planet and a true breath of fresh air in the division, the quality of UFC heavyweights isn't exactly beyond dispute. Brock Lesnar's rise to the top at such a rapid pace was impressive to say the least, but there simply is no feasible way for a 3-1 fighter to have captured a title in any other weight class. Shane Carwin may have been inches away from winning the gold, but it is hard to envision a fighter whose cardio can't hold up past the five-minute mark coming close to such a feat in a different division.
The cardio issue is a staple in most heavyweight fights. Outside of the machine that is Cain Velasquez, most heavyweights gasp for air midway through a fifteen-minute fight. From Overeem, Werdum and Nelson to the gatekeepers of the division, having good cardio at heavyweight is almost nonexistent. This is of course somewhat understandable given their large frame, but is nonetheless a major drawback. Watching an entertaining battle go downhill after the first round is a constant feature, and the fight quality suffers immensely as a result.
The mess lies in the fact that there are very few good B-level heavyweights. No disrespect intended towards any of them, but it is unfortunate to see the likes of Stefan Struve, Travis Browne and Pat Barry get more recognition than the Jake Ellenbergers, Mike Pierces, and Johny Hendricks' of the world, when the latter group is simply far more skilled and has a much bigger upside. For any hardcore fan, naming twenty-five highly skilled lightweights should be no problem whatsoever, but naming the same amount of good heavyweights is nothing short of arduous.
The decline of Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko "Cro Cop", and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, coupled with the retirement of Randy Couture means arguably the best four fighters in the history of the division are now non-factors. That of course, is inevitable, but the heavyweight division doesn't seem to be producing enough talent to compensate. The upcoming mega-fight between Velasquez and Dos Santos could very well be the biggest since Emelianenko took on Cro Cop, but the picking gets somewhat slim after that.
Of course, the state of the division wouldn't look so gloomy if all heavyweights were competing under the same promotion. After all, the addition of Overeem, "Big Foot" Silva, and Josh Barnett to the UFC heavyweight division would make way for some much-needed fresh match-ups. This however, will not solve the "mid-card" problem. Emerging talent like Brendan Schaub is a welcome addition, and it might not be long before he finds himself fighting for a shot at the title, but the division needs more athletes of his caliber. For his part, Matt Mitrione is doing surprisingly well and his improvement is one few could have predicted following his stint on season 10 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Unfortunately, such instances remain few and far in between.
In time, I can only hope that elite athletes like "King Mo" Lawal and Jon Jones will make a trip up in weight. Daniel Cormier is already competing at heavyweight, and for the sake of the division, let's all hope he stays put. However, as it stands, the heavyweight division remains the weakest in MMA.
REMINDER: Be sure to check out the latest edition of the 411 Ground and Pound radio show. Mark Radulich was doing his usual hosting duties and was joined by Scott Kuczkowski and yours truly to review Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Wederdum. Join us again this Sunday as we will preview the UFC on Versus card as well as UFC 132.