The Ultimate Fighting Championship has attained business goals that would have seemed unimaginable even a few years ago, as the company went from near-dead to one of sport’s true success stories in the new millennium.
But through it all, one goal has remained elusive: complete control of the elite fighters in the heavyweight division and crowning of a champion that no reasonable detractor can question as being the person who deserves the top position in the sport.
For years, the top heavyweight talent fought in Japan, mainly in the PRIDE organization. In 2006, though, the balance of power started changing.
Coming off revenue from pay-per-view blockbuster fights like Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture, Royce Gracie vs. Matt Hughes and Ken Shamrock vs. Tito Ortiz, UFC suddenly became the financial alpha male of the mixed martial arts industry. By late 2006, company officials set the goal of signing every major heavyweight in the world to have them battle to see who deserved to be No. 1.
Immediately, the UFC inked Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, generally considered No. 2 and No. 3 in the world at the time. And then, in 2007, UFC closed the deal to apparently finish that quest, purchasing PRIDE, whose heavyweight champion, Fedor Emelianenko had been considered No. 1 in the world for four years. UFC president Dana White, at the time, promised that we would finally end the debates over who was No. 1 and decide it inside the cage.
But Emelianenko and his management spurned the UFC’s contract offers, and as long as Emelianenko was fighting outside the UFC and didn’t lose, no UFC fighter, no matter how impressive they looked, could, in many people’s eyes, be the true No. 1 fighter.
At times, both the short-lived Affliction promotion and more recently Strikeforce claimed that with Emelianenko and names like former UFC champions Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski, they had superior heavyweight rosters to the industry leader.
But Affliction went down in flames, Emelianenko lost three times in a row in Strikeforce, Arlovski lost four fights in a row, and Zuffa purchased Strikeforce.
So as 2011 winds toward 2012, the UFC’s dream of having an inarguable heavyweight No. 1 for the first time in MMA’s modern history has a solid shot at becoming reality.
Three bouts will set stage for 2012
Once Emelianenko faded, the consensus top fighter has been UFC champion Cain Velasquez (9-0). The first in a chain of events, which should hypothetically settle the debate over who is the world’s true best heavyweight, occurs on Nov. 12, when Velasquez defends his heavyweight title in Anaheim, Calif., against Junior Dos Santos (13-1). The bout headlined the first UFC show on Fox.
“Junior in my opinion poses a problem to us in every area,” said Velasquez’s coach, Javier Mendez. “I’m not being blindsided by this idea that Junior only has hands. That’s baloney. He’ll kick, he’ll knee, he’ll take you down. He hasn’t shown jiu-jitsu, but neither has Cain, and Cain has it, because Cain has always done what we’ve asked him and we’ve never told him to go for a submission, not once. Junior in my opinion is the biggest threat because of his overall ability to fight everywhere.”
Emelianenko’s downfall spawned a new message-board meme, which claims Alistair Overeem (35-11, 1 no contest) is the world’s best heavyweight. Overeem looked the part with a 6-foot-5, 260-pound bodybuilder physique. A victory in the 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix tournament, the showcase event for heavyweight kickboxers established a strong claim to having the best striking of the big men in the sport.
He also held the heavyweight title in Dream and Strikeforce, and has gone unbeaten since 2007.
But it’s put-up time for Overeem – on Dec. 30 in Las Vegas, he’ll face former UFC champion Brock Lesnar (5-2) in a fight that will determine which of two of the most talked about and debated fighters in the sport will be established as the real deal, and which will be cast as the pretender.
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“To me, it’s an obvious situation in that there is no way I see Brock doing anything to Alistair standing,” Mendes said. “On the ground, I do see Alistair being dangerous in more than one way to Brock. The question is, when Alistair gets taken down, how quick can he get up without sustaining damage? How long can Brock keep him down and how much damage can he do? I don’t see Alistair stopping Brock from taking him down. I don’t see anybody stopping Brock from taking them down with the exception of Daniel Cormier. Cormier may be the only one who can stop him because he’s that good a wrestler. Maybe Lesnar can take Daniel down, but that’s the only guy I’d bet Brock couldn’t take down.”
The picture will become clearer after Velasquez-dos Santos and Lesnar-Overeem play out, but then comes the next piece in the puzzle.
The aforementioned Cormier (9-0), a two-time Olympic wrestler, is slated to meet Barnett (31-5) in the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix tourney, on an as-yet-determined date expected to be sometime in early 2012. Barnett, who held the UFC title back in 2002 and was a headliner in the PRIDE era, has been considered a top heavyweight longer than any of the current crop. He hasn’t lost since 2006, but he also hasn’t been truly tested since the PRIDE heyday. Cormier is currently healing a broken hand, which has delayed the tourney final from being scheduled.
“I think for me, personally, the toughest fight out there is Cain because he can wrestle and he’s the best heavyweight in the world,” Cormier said.
“He’s the most difficult fight for me or for anyone else. The other toughest is Barnett. I think he beats Lesnar, he beats [Shane] Carwin, I think he beats all those guys.”
Roadblock in 2012 path?
In a perfect world, the winners of the two big upcoming UFC fights face each other next year to determine the consensus top ranking, with the Grand Prix winner waiting in the wings.
“I think Overeem’s a tough fighter, a really tough fighter,” Cormier said. “His stand-up is great. He won the K-1 World Grand Prix. I think with Alistair you have to look at when he was at 205 and people were testing his will. Nobody’s done that at heavyweight. We’ll see if he’s overcome that, because he’s been stopped a lot of times. We need to see him tested. I want to see if Brock can test him, because we’ve seen him check out. He was that guy who lost a lot of tough fights. You would think if he was mentally tougher, he wouldn’t have 11 losses, but he’s a very good fighter.
“Brock never had the luxury I did, fighting the level of guys I did to slowly work your way up. He was fighting the top guys from the start and then ran into Cain. Cain’s not a good matchup for Brock. A really good wrestler is going to be tough for Brock because Brock is a little behind the guys he’s fighting in stand-up, and if he can’t wrestle them, he’s in trouble. But he threw himself into the deep end from the start, and he won’t back down from anyone. I respect him a lot.”
Of course, the world isn’t perfect. There is a chance the survivors from this field could be Velasquez and Cormier, who are training partners at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. While the subject of training partners fighting each other has been talked about for years, and UFC president Dana White in particular has brought up matching AKA welterweights Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch, only once in modern MMA history has one camp had the clear-cut top two guys in a division, when Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua were tearing up PRIDE’s 205-pound class. And they never fought each other.
“My standpoint is it is up to the fighters,” said Mendez, who also trains Cormier. “I back both my fighters with whatever decision they make. If they both agree and the organizations want it, then it will happen and it’s nothing personal. We’ll have to set up separate camps and take care of them as best we can. Daniel has talked about it before. Whatever Daniel wants, I’ll back 100 percent. If Cain says, ‘No,’ guess what I’m going to do? I’ll be behind Cain.”
“He’s a friend,” said Cormier. “I’ve trained him for all of his recent fights. I cornered him. We face each other every day in sparring.
“It’ll be a very difficult fight for us to do. It will have to be worth it to us financially. We share the same coaches and the same management team. We’d have to address this as a group, with [manager] Bob Cook, Javier. I don’t want to be just a good fighter. I want to be the best in the world. I could be in line for a championship but if it came down to us, I’d much rather go to 205. That would eliminate a lot of things. We have a great thing going at AKA, to avoid a lot of negatives, to avoid people having to choose sides, I’d rather move to 205, maybe beat someone, and then face Jon Jones. I’d have to have that fight instead of Cain.”
And as such, the goal of settling who’s the best heavyweight inside the cage could remain elusive.