Where Have All the Heavyweights Gone?
By Matthew Degonzaque (July 19, 2008) Doghouse Boxing
Indeed, where have all the Heavyweights gone? Not just in the UFC, but in MMA.

It seemed at the end of 2006, that the UFC promotion had fully taken over the world wide MMA market. Its biggest competition, Pride Fighting Championships, had lost a major television deal in Japan that summer and the promotion had been losing money since. Pride’s attempts to find a place in the American market failed and Dream Stage Entertainment, the parent company of Pride, began negotiations with Zuffa LLC, the parent company of the UFC, to sell the promotion. On April 8th 2007, at Pride 34, it was announced that Zuffa LLC had purchased Pride Fighting Championships with the rumored price tag to be somewhere between $60-$70 million. Afterwards, Dana White and the Fertitta brothers promised that all of the dream fights that fans had hoped for would finally come to fruition. For awhile it appeared as if those words would ring true as top Pride stars Mirko Cro Cop, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua all signed with the UFC. Several other Pride veterans like Heath Herring (although he debuted with the UFC before Pride was purchased), Marcus Aurelio, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and others would come into the fray as well.

Top fights between major stars from both promotions were occurring in the UFC; Dan Henderson vs. Quentin Jackson (UFC 75), Forrest Griffin vs. Mauricio Rua (UFC 76), Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva (UFC 79), Lyoto Machida vs. Sokoudjou (UFC 76), Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Tim Sylvia (UFC 81), Dan Henderson vs. Anderson Silva (UFC 82). Fans had finally been getting the chance to see what they had always wanted, top stars challenging one another in different weight classes.

Except in the Heavyweight division, that is.

Arguably the weight class the UFC, with the exception of the Light Heavyweight division, that had the most name power never had a major dream fight that occurred in the division. For a majority of the UFC’s history it has had a lackluster division, but during the summer of 2006 to the spring of 2008 they had about as stacked a division as you could get. Randy Couture? Check. Mirko Cro Cop? Check. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira? Check. Tim Sylvia? Check. Brendon Vera? Check. Heath Herring? Check. With the exception of Fedor Emelianenko, the UFC pretty much had a monopoly on the entire Heavyweight division

But despite having all of these names, UFC never managed to pull off any major fights within the division. Even more upsetting, after UFC had nearly every heavyweight available and complete control over the MMA market, they started to lose several of their top heavyweight stars to rival promotions including Mirko Cro Cop and UFC veterans Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski. Suddenly the division is no longer stacked. Let’s take a look at each situation with all of these top Heavyweights.

Despite arriving with a great load of promotion and fan fare, Mirko Cro Cop was a massive bust in the UFC. He debuted at UFC 67 in February of 2007 and squashed journeyman Eddie Sanchez. Instead of pushing Cro Cop into a big money fight, they instead put him up against Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70 two months later. To much shock, the massive underdog destroyed Cro Cop and knocked him out in the 1st round.

Cro Cop would comeback that September at UFC 75 against Cheick Kongo, another unknown. Despite a dominant 1st round, Cro Cop appeared to be reluctant to engage as the fight continued and he was outworked by Kongo and lost a decision as a result. Afterwards, Cro Cop would leave the UFC (despite making $350,000 guaranteed per fight) and return to Japan. He has since fought once in DREAM and defeated Tatsuya Mizuno in 56 seconds. He promises to return to the UFC someday after getting a couple more wins under his belt. Yeah. Sure.

Andrei Arlovski was the guy who was supposed to lead the UFC heavyweight division into the future. After the motorcycle accident that sidelined Frank Mir, Arlovski won a bout against Tim Sylvia to become Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion and was soon declared the legitimate champion after Mir would need more time away from the sport than expected. Arlovski was a vicious striker and it didn’t appear as if anyone would be able to take the title away from him. Truth be told, Arlovski was king of a small yard. While champion, he defended his championship against career journeyman Justin Eilers and Paul Buentello before losing his title to Tim Sylvia in April of 2006 at UFC 59. It has been downhill for Arlovski since then; he lost a dull decision to Sylvia in the rematch at UFC 61, after an initial struggle he defeated Marcio Cruz (2-1) at UFC 66 and then won a boring decision against Fabricio Werdum at UFC 70. Contract problems saw Arlovski sit on the sidelines for an entire year and he returned for the final fight on his contract where he defeated Jake O’Brien at UFC 82 in a fight that was not even televised. Due to disputes in negotiations, Arlovski has left the UFC and signed with Affliction.

Tim Sylvia was a fighter that was pretty much regarded as the bad guy of the division and received little respect by the fans. He had been a fixture of the division since 2002 and is one of only two UFC fighters to hold the Heavyweight Championship more than once, the other being Randy Couture. After winning some less than exciting fights, Sylvia lost the championship and was booed out of the building against Couture at UFC 68. Sylvia defeated Brendon Vera at UFC 77 in another fight where he was despised by the crowd. He got a shot at UFC 81 for an ‘interim’ championship against Minotauro Nogueira and was dominating the fight until he was taken down and submitted in the 3rd round. Afterwards, Sylvia decided to leave the UFC and will next fight for Affliction on July 19th against Fedor Emelianenko in a fight that he has been wanting for years.

Randy Couture was/is arguably the most beloved fighter in UFC history. He came out of retirement and defeated Tim Sylvia at UFC 68 to win the UFC Heavyweight title for a 3rd time. He then fought Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 74 and won a one sided battle in his 1st title defense. Only weeks afterwards, Couture announced that he was leaving the UFC, forfeiting his championship, to pursue a fight against Emelianenko. Fed up with the politics involved at the highest level of MMA, Couture decided that he was tired of waiting for the UFC to get Fedor and that he would pursue the former Pride Heavyweight Champion himself. Couture also said that he was offered millions to fight Emelianenko by Bodog after his 2006 retirement and instead of taking it, he went to UFC who offered him a contract and an immediate title shot that was apparently not as lucrative as the Bodog deal (said to be worth $3 million dollars for the single fight with Emelianenko) but took it out of loyalty and faith that UFC would bring Fedor to the Octagon like they done with so many above mentioned Pride stars already. When the UFC failed and instead began a public relations swear campaign of Emelianenko (which still continues to this day), Couture decided to take matters into his own hands.

UFC was not about to let go of one of their most popular fighters without a fight though and instead chose to spin Couture’s resignation as a retirement and that he was done fighting. Couture declared that he was not done fighting, just done fighting in the UFC. Dana White told the media that Couture could not leave the UFC until he had fulfilled the remaining 2 fights on his contract and continued to acknowledge Couture as the UFC Heavyweight Champion (which is why technically Minotauro Nogueira is called the UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion today). Couture said that the timeframe of his contract would expire during the summer of 2008 and afterwards he would be free to pursue the single Emelianenko fight and retire. HD Net fights owner Mark Cuban has since gotten involved and thrown his support behind Couture. The situation has now gone to court and Couture, now 45 years old, will have to wait to see if he can capture his dream fight.

As also been alluded to, UFC also failed to pick up world wide #1 ranked heavyweight fighter Fedor Emelianenko. Negotiations began in 2007 after Pride folded, but they could not come to terms on with the fighter. Emelianenko wanted concessions in his contract that UFC would not allow, like the option to fight in Sambo tournaments and the ability to work with other fight promotions in Russia, a similar concession he was given in Pride. Instead Emelianenko decided to sign non-exclusive agreements with other promotions and will fight for Affliction on July 19th against Tim Sylvia.

In a matter of months UFC goes from having nearly all of the major players in the division to losing Couture, Arlovski, Cro Cop and Sylvia all within a span of months and the biggest free agent in the sport snubs them in favor of smaller, unproven promotions that have left the promotion barren with talent at their highest weight class. The lack of depth in the heavyweight division is evident since UFC’s next major title fight is going to be Nogueira defending his championship against Frank Mir.

Frank Mir was once the UFC’s golden heavyweight goose. He originally came into the UFC on fire and fought his way to a title shot against Tim Sylvia at UFC 48 for the vacant UFC Heavyweight Championship. The fight lasted only 50 seconds as the fight hit the ground and Mir locked on an armbar and broke Sylvia’s right forearm to end the fight. Mir was pegged to be a major player in the Heavyweight division for years to come with his wizard Jiu Jitsu skills. But on September 17, 2004, Mir was involved in a bad motorcycle accident that broke his femur and tore all of the ligaments in his knee. Mir was inactive for the next 18 months and had to surrender his title as a result. After coming back, Mir wasn’t the same fighter and has gone 3-2 and showing up for half of his fights in horrible condition. UFC was going to use Mir’s status as an ex-champion to give Brock Lesnar some credibility in his 1st UFC fight at the UFC 81 PPV. Mir was expected to get steamrolled, but instead surprised everyone by submitting Lesnar with a knee bar 90 seconds into the 1st round. At this point in Lesnar’s career he was only 1-0 and as a former WWE champion, this fight got a lot of publicity and did 650,000 buys on PPV. Normally, defeating a guy in only his second pro fight wouldn’t be able to get you a title shot in a major organization, but with the lackluster heavyweight division, Mir is getting moved into position for a title shot at the end of the year after completion of the 8th season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ airs, which he and Nogueira will be coaches on.

The prospects don’t look so good in other promotions as well. Elite XC, a promotion which currently airs fight specials on CBS, has only a few heavyweight contracted fighters, although that is pretty much the same story for every division in their promotion. The Elite XC heavyweight scene is so bad that on the pre-show for their next CBS television special on July 26th, they are going to air a Heavyweight Championship bout between Antonio Silva (10-0) and Justin Eilers (19-6-1, 1-3 in the UFC). It’s a bout that is clearly designed to put the gold on Silva. Eilers is a journey man who most is known for his lackluster run in the UFC where he suffered three stoppage losses in a row. I mean, Elite XC has exposure on CBS and their last show picked up over 4 million viewers but this is the best heavyweight title fight they can put together. I’m guessing this is the best they put together because Antonio Silva is an exclusive Elite XC heavyweight and they are giving him and the undeserving Eilers a title fight so Silva can destroy him easily and impressively.

Other promotions look even less impressive. The Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion is currently Alistair Overeem. Overeem was a journeyman in Pride who went 6-7 in the promotion and has spent his career as a Light Heavyweight. He won his championship by defeating Paul Buentello, another journeyman who is famous for getting knocked out in 15 seconds by Andrei Arlovski. The WEC specializes in smaller weight divisions and doesn’t even carry a heavyweight division.

Months ago I would have told you that there just is no home for the heavyweights in MMA right now. That there are just too many stars in other weight divisions right now for UFC, Elite XC, Strikeforce etc. to focus on building a heavyweight division. A couple of months ago I would’ve told you that big fights would never happen in the heavyweight division.

But all of that changed when Affliction decided to get into the fight promotion business. They announced their 1st show for July 19th, this upcoming Friday, and have announced their card and revealed what is going to be the most important heavyweight card seen in along time. As I already said, Fedor Emelianenko snubbed the UFC so he could sign with Affliction and Tim Sylvia left the UFC after 6 years with the UFC and is going to fight Emelianenko in the main event. That is not all that Affliction has to offer on the card though. Here are some of the rest of the heavyweight fights on the card.

-Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Andrei Arlovski (13-5) will face IFL Heavyweight Prospect Ben Rothwell (27-5).
-Former UFC Heavyweight Champion and Pride 2006 Grand Prix Runner up Josh Barnett (22-5) will fight another former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Pedro Rizzo (16-7).
-Pride veteran Aleksander Emelianenko (13-3) will fight Paul Buentello (23-10) in a pre-show bout on Fox Sports Network before the PPV.

Impressive right? You have 4 heavyweight bouts and 4 former UFC Heavyweight Champions fighting as well as the most sought after fighter in the world, Fedor.

Affliction seems to be the promotion that is interested in the Heavyweight business. Other shows, usually did not show much heavyweight action in their debuting shows. Both Elite XC and Strikeforce had debut featuring Frank Shamrock fighting aging Gracie’s at 205 and 185. Meanwhile, Affliction is coming out with several top 10 Heavyweights (Fedor, Sylvia, Arlovski and Barnett), Veterans (Rizzo and Aleksander) and an up and coming fighter who has never had a chance to fight on a big stage before (Rothwell). It looks like Affliction is looking to make the heavyweight division their signature division and has already is already thinking of the winner of Fedor/Sylvia facing either the Rothwell/Arlovski or the Barnett/Rizzo winner for their next show. Hopefully, Affliction and investor Donald Trump have the knowledge to run and MMA promotion and have the desire to truly be in the MMA business for the long run and not just make a quick buck. If Affliction is here to stay, then things could get a lot more interesting in the heavyweight division.

Where have all the Heavyweights Gone? Affliction, for now. Do MMA and yourselves a favor and check out the show this Saturday night on PPV. Let’s give Affliction the chance it deserves to be something special.

Questions or comments,
Matthew at: mdegonzaque@hotmail.com
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