Land of the Giants - Part I
Ruling over the UFC heavyweight division is priceless.
Pound-for-pound discussions are great. Record-setting winning streaks are even better. Winning titles in two divisions is spectacular.
Ruling over the UFC heavyweight division is priceless.
The UFC Heavyweight Champion is a killer whale, Bengal tiger, African lion, saltwater crocodile, and Kodiak bear all rolled into one. He is the king of the UFC food chain, a man with no combat equal. He is the sport’s apex predator—one who isn’t preyed upon by any man other than fellow heavyweights.
Think about it for a moment. Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre are universally recognized as the two best fighters in the UFC. But it’s probable that neither of them would last more than a few moments inside the cage with Brock Lesnar. The size and power disparities are so great that they overcome any skill deficiencies Lesnar might have when facing such smaller foes. He would basically maul them into submission.
It may not be the deepest division in the UFC, but there are plenty of current, future and former superstars competing. Let’s take a look at the land of the giants.
Brock Lesnar: Lesnar is a scary human for several reasons. Chief among them is his freakish combination of size and athleticism. The 6’3 former collegiate wrestling champion must cut upwards of 15 lbs from his massively muscled frame in order to make the heavyweight limit of 265 lbs; yet he moves with the nimbleness of a 230 lb NFL football player. Lesnar is such a great athlete that he was able to win the heavyweight championship in his fourth professional fight, tying Hall of Fame inductee Randy Couture for the fewest professional fights before donning UFC divisional gold. Appropriately enough, he accomplished that feat by defeating none other than the legend himself by second round TKO last November at UFC 91. Next up for Lesnar is another significant career milestone, as he squares off with the only man to defeat him, Frank Mir, at UFC 100. The champ is not shy about admitting that his need to avenge that loss burns white hot in his gut. He will have the opportunity to permanently stamp out that flame in July.
Frank Mir: Before the flood of emails begins, I know full well that Mir is the current “interim” heavyweight champ. But there can only be one true champion at any point in time, and that distinction belongs to Lesnar until someone pries the title from his kung fu grip. Mir may be just the man to do it. Not so much because he already owns a 90-second submission victory over the champ. More so because Mir appears to have finally evolved into the elite fighter that the world expected him to become back when he first broke onto the scene with an impressive submission win over Roberto Travern at UFC 34. His win over Antonio Rodrigo ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira at UFC 92 was a career-altering performance. It forever erased the notion that Mir is incapable of getting into great shape. It shattered the prevailing misconception that his standup skills were rudimentary. And it finally put to rest questions about his commitment to the game. A focused, well-prepared Mir is at worst even money to defeat any heavyweight in the world.
Randy Couture: It’s not often that an athlete returns from retirement and a Hall of Fame induction to soar back to the top of the food chain in his particular sport, but Randy Couture is no ordinary athlete. In fact, he holds so many UFC firsts that he has rightfully become a living legend. But there is no hiding from the fact that Father Time is pounding on the door. Couture turns 46 on June 22, and his next bout will be his 20th trip to the Octagon. Thus, age and accumulated mileage could be a factor. In fact, Couture’s critics will point to the fact that the five-time former champion, is a mere 6-6 over the last seven years. That may be true, but Couture has risen from his athletic grave more times than I care to recall. His permanent fall from grace will happen sooner rather than later. There is no doubt about it. The adverse affects of age will be both sudden and extreme. One day, Couture just won’t “have it” anymore. Will his next bout be that night? If this were any other 46 year old on the planet, I’d give him no chance at defeating any truly elite heavyweight. But this is Randy Couture we’re talking about. Beating down Father Time while simultaneously handling a world class opponent inside the Octagon is right in his wheelhouse.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: When it is all said and done, Minotauro will go down as a legend in the sport. He remains the only man to win heavyweight titles in both PRIDE and the UFC, assuming one considers the “interim” heavyweight title to be a legitimate championship. But mixed martial arts is a “what have you done for me lately” sport. Fans and pundits alike quickly forget a combatant’s pedigree after a bad loss. Minotauro faces that reality today after getting thoroughly dominated by Mir in his last bout. The bout raised questions about the amount of mileage on the ex-champion. Despite the fact that he is only 32 years old, Minotauro has been in far more than his share of drop-down, drag-out wars. And fights like that take a toll on even the best fighters, accumulating over time to age a man far more rapidly than Mother Nature intended. Was Minotauro damaged goods when he stepped into the Octagon to face Mir last December? Or was it just a bad night brought about by injuries suffered in training and longest layoff of his career? He has a golden opportunity to answer those questions in his next bout in the Octagon.
Cheick Kongo: Kongo is banging loudly on the door to a title shot. The Parisian kickboxer owns seven wins in nine trips to the Octagon, including his last three. That places him among the most experienced and accomplished UFC heavyweights yet to fight for the title. Stopping Dan Evensen, Mostapha Al Turk and Antoni Hardonk in consecutive fights probably isn’t enough by itself to warrant a title shot. Mix in a razor-close split-decision loss to Heath Herring and back-to-back wins over Mirko Cro Cop and Assuerio Silva and Kongo has as good of an argument as anyone that he deserves to be next in line. But he must wait until Lesnar and Mir resolve a bit of unfinished business in July before he can begin thinking of a title shot. His long, lean frame and lack of a deep amateur wrestling background probably makes Lesnar a very difficult puzzle to solve, assuming Lesnar shoots for takedowns early and often. A bout with Mir, on the other hand, is much more difficult to handicap because the current “interim” champion doesn’t have the greatest takedowns in the world, which means he could be forced to stand and kickbox with one of the scariest physical specimens in the sport. Anyone, other than true top-of-the-food-chain strikers, forced to stand and bang with Kongo are almost certainly in for a short night and a lasting headache.
Gabriel Gonzaga: On paper at least, this guy has all the tools to win a championship. He is a former Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion with good takedown defense, one-punch knockout power and excellent size. He had the opportunity to fight for the title back in 2007 at UFC 74. He was stopped in the third round by Couture. There is no shame in losing to the living legend. But Gonzaga inexplicably laid an egg in his very next bout against Fabricio Werdum, sending his standing in the division into a tailspin. Back-to-back wins over Justin McCully and Josh Hendricks in 2008 got the Brazilian back into the heavyweight mix. Yet, his loss to Shane Carwin last March sets him back yet again. Regardless, Gonzaga is an extremely dangerous test for any heavyweight in the world, and he is capable of beating just about anyone on any given night, which leaves him sitting firmly among the top contenders for now, though he needs a win in his next bout to truly keep pace with the division’s top guys.
Shane Carwin: Very few heavyweights with at least one fight inside the Octagon boast an undefeated record. Carwin is not only a member of that select fraternity, he is its leader with four wins in the UFC. As a bit of icing on that cupcake, each of his four wins came inside the first round, the last of which was a come-from-behind knockout victory over perennial contender Gabriel Gonzaga. It was an awesome display of punching power and an even better display of the thickness of his whiskers. Heavyweights with big power and granite jaws are a difficult puzzle to solve, unless said heavyweight has a weak ground game. Unfortunately for the rest of the division, that isn’t the case with Carwin. He has excellent takedown defense and solid hips from his days as a Division II collegiate wrestling champion. The reality is that Carwin’s accomplishments demand that I rank him among the top contenders, rather than mix him in with two hot prospects. At 34, he isn’t a spring chicken and needs to contend soon. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him face off against another elite heavyweight next time out in an attempt to jump into title contention.
Cain Velasquez: Despite having roughly half the number of fights under his belt, Velasquez is probably the guy that most point to as the future of the heavyweight division. Those are lofty expectations for a guy with a scant five professional fights on his record, albeit amassing a perfect record in those five fights. But it is difficult not to like the 26-year-old prospect’s chances. He is cut from the same cloth as fellow former collegiate wrestler Chuck Liddell in that he prefers to use his wrestling skills to keep the fight on the feet where he relies on his rapidly improving kickboxing skills. For a guy without a deep kickboxing or Thai boxing background, Velasquez has surprisingly good technique on the feet to go along with decent power in his hands and devastating power in his kicks. Next up for the rising star is a critical bout with veteran tough guy Heath Herring. A win over Herring will propel Velasquez into the rarified air of undefeated contenders, right behind Carwin.
Pat Barry: Speaking of devastating strikers, Barry isn’t shy about preaching from the pulpit about his striking prowess. The K-1 veteran likes to refer to himself as a “pure striker,” which suggests that he lets his shots go naturally and generates power without forcing the issue. It’s tough to argue with the guy. He is perfect in four professional fights. Like Velasquez, each of them ended inside the distance thanks to strikes. But it was his lone bout in the UFC that served as the biggest endorsement for his standup abilities. Facing one-fight UFC veteran Dan Evensen at UFC 92, Barry stopped him with a handful of leg kicks in the opening round. Barry’s sensational kickboxing skills notwithstanding, Barry faces a severely uphill battle in his quest to rise to the top of the heavyweight division because he stands a mere 5’11, which is extremely short for a heavyweight, and does not have overly long limbs. That puts him at a very real disadvantage unless he can avoid takedowns and getting smothered against the cage. Then again, I’m sure he spends most of his time in the training room working on those exact skills.
To come in Part II: Heavyweights on the cusp of contention, guys with big question marks hanging over their heads and more.