While the idea that heavyweight has always been the key division during boom periods in combat sports is a myth, it is true that interesting fights and fighters in the heavyweight division has always been good for business in boxing and mixed martial arts. While PRIDE featured a great heavyweight division it has been a fairly long time since the division was this strong in terms of general fan interest. Now we have news of a Strikeforce tournament and the quickly changing landscape at 206 pounds and over in the UFC boosting the division to arguably the most interesting in the sport for the coming year.
Over the past few years the UFC has received a big boost in what had long been a sorely lacking heavyweight division. The UFC's heavyweight boom really began with Randy Couture's 2007 return to the UFC's heavyweight division from a "retirement" led to one of the sport's greatest moments when he upset Tim Sylvia to win the heavyweight title. Sylvia had been a force in the UFC since taking the title from Ricco Rodriguez in 2003. While Tim was talented he was also fairly boring and generally unlikeable. In 2004 Frank Mir won the title by breaking Sylvia's arm with an armbar but crashed his motorcycle and suffered severe injuries which forced a potentially huge star onto the sidelines. Andrei Arlovski had a fun run with the belt but he was beating guys who were far from the world's best and ended up losing two out of three fights with Sylvia prior to Couture playing Superman to rescue a mostly dead division.
Couture defended his title with another exciting win over Gabriel Gonzaga before Brock Lesnar won the title at UFC 91 in 2008. The Couture/Lesnar bout was part of a unification tournament where a broken arm suffered by Randy in the Gonzaga fight had sidelined him. Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira battled over the interim title with the winner to face the Couture/Lesnar winner. The mini-tournament between four of the most intriguing personalities in the sport provided the UFC with a huge boost in the big boy division. And while the mess was being sorted out new heavyweights were emerging as challengers.
Velasquez appears to be the perfect heavyweight mixed martial artist; Fast, agile, hard hitting, possessing a tremendous wrestling background and always willing to work hard and improve. He was set to make his first title defense against rising star Junior dos Santos but a shoulder injury has forced Velasquez to the sidelines for at least 6-8 months. This is an unfortunate development as Velasquez's stock has never been higher than it is now coming off the drubbing of Brock Lesnar. Still, there are exciting options out there involving fights such as Brock Lesnar vs. Junior dos Santos or even throwing Shane Carwin or Frank Mir back in the mix. It's a far cry from 2004 when the champion can go down but there are still plenty of interesting UFC heavyweight fights to be had.
Now we have the news of Strikeforce deciding to run an eight man heavyweight tournament with their best fighters. This is one of the absolute most intriguing things in the sport for 2011 in my eyes. The bracket breaks down as follows:
Some fans are down on the fact that the "left" side appears much more stacked than the right but there is good reason. Strikeforce is trying to ensure that we'll see some of the absolute most marquee fights that fans have been demanding for years. If Fedor Emelianenko beats Antonio Silva we're going to see him either rematch Fabricio Werdum or fight Alistair Overeem in a "dream fight." While Strikeforce has had a solid heavyweight roster, the fact remains that Overeem won the Strikeforce heavyweight crown in 2007 and didn't defend it until his 2010 drubbing of Brett Rogers. The lack of champion and top contenders meeting has muddied the waters for establishing a "top dog" in Strikeforce. This tournament will rectify that.
At Bloody Elbow, Jonathan Snowden went into details on the way that the UFC used to build tournaments to try to get a desired fight in the finals but the risk often outweighed the reward. As was the case with the UFC trying to make the long anticipated fight between Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott happen at Ultimate Ultimate 2:
More problematic was the matchmaking designed to set up money fights. Fourteen years later, little has changed. It's a quandary clearly facing Strikeforce matchmakers today. In 1996, the money match in all of mixed martial arts was Ken Shamrock versus David "Tank" Abbott. The two were the most popular and charismatic stars on the circuit and backstage they absolutely despised each other. After years of yapping, the match finally seemed to be on the table.
The UFC booked an "Ultimate Ultimate 2" kind of an all star game for the promotion's top talent. They set up the brackets of an eight man tournament (sound familiar Strikeforce fans?) so that Shamrock would meet Abbott in the semi-finals, right after each dispatched with perfunctory opening round opponents. I explained the situation in The MMA Encyclopedia:
The two had been itching to fight for some time and the two entourages had gotten into scraps on more than one occasion. The fight seemed set after Shamrock beat Brian Johnston, but with Shamrock, there's always a catastrophe waiting around the corner. He broke his hand on Johnston's head and couldn't face Abbott in the semi-finals. It would be his last fight in the Octagon for six years.
Mike Fagan also broke down the tournament odds and here are his top four favorites to run the table:
Fedor Emelianenko +250 - Still the most talented fighter in this tournament. He's in the "Group of Death," but I have him penciled in as a significant favorite over everyone in the tournament not named "Overeem." Emelianenko does have a few intangibles that could come into play against him here: his paper-thin facial tissue, brittle, old-man hands, and a management company that never passes on the chance to utilize negotiating leverage.
Alistair Overeem +250 - Winning the K-1 World Grand Prix and following that with the Strikeforce's MMA version would be one of the most impressive accomplishments in combat sports. Like Fedor, I have Overeem as an ample favorite over the other six tournament entrants, including his opening round opponent, Fabricio Werdum, who defeated Overeem before his horsemeat days.
Josh Barnett +550 - Strikeforce is doing all sorts of favors for Barnett. If gracing him with the easiest path to the finals wasn't enough, it sounds like Scott Coker is all but admitting that they will be tailoring their shows to fit around Barnett's licensing issues. Good deal for him. Bad deal for him? I have a hard time seeing him beating either of the tournament favorites.
Fabricio Werdum +1200 - Who's the only fighter with wins over each of the other fighters in his bracket? It's Fabricio Werdum. Why else would I ask that question in his blurb? I still think he's a big dog to both Overeem and Fedor coming into this tournament though. Werdum can make it an interesting fight if he finds a way to land on top of Overeem, but wading through a bombardment from all eight points of Overeem's limbs does not sound like a fruitful effort.
Seeing a fighter emerge from a tournament like this is always something special, assuming that nothing happens to upset the purity of the tournament (contract holdouts, injuries..etc). Mark Coleman's return at the 2000 PRIDE Grand Prix, Wanderlei Silva emerging from the stacked 2003 Grand Prix, Mauricio Rua using the PRIDE Grand Prix to launch himself to the #1 world ranking..etc.
This is an exciting time to be an MMA fan and an exciting time to be a rather large heavyweight competing in the biggest promotions around.