Land of the Giants - Part II
In Part I, we looked at the champion, top contenders, and unbeaten prospects in the UFC heavyweight division. Now it’s on to the rest of the field in an increasingly crowded and competitive weight class.
ON THE CUSP
Heath Herring: ‘The Texas Crazy Horse’ is the most experienced member of the UFC heavyweight division with more than 40 professional fights under his belt, despite his relatively young age of 31. He is a well-rounded fighter, but he prefers to stand and bang. Few opponents will play that game with Herring because his Thai boxing skills are fluid and his right hand is downright dangerous. That may change when he steps into the Octagon with rising superstar Cain Velasquez at UFC 99. Herring has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride during his five-fight run in the UFC, winning every other fight since his debut loss to Jake O’Brien at Ultimate Fight Night. Herring hopes that pattern continues since he is coming off a loss to Brock Lesnar in his last bout. A win over Velasquez will reaffirm Herring as one of the division’s top contenders.
THE JURY IS STILL OUT
Junior Dos Santos: Dos Santos looked absolutely ferocious knocking out Fabricio Werdum in just 81 seconds in his Octagon debut at UFC 90 and followed that up with a savage display of striking against Stefan Struve in a 54-second win at UFC 95. Those sorts of performances are enough to get anyone’s attention. So, the buzz surrounding Dos Santos is well deserved. Nevertheless, it is a bit too early to consider him a legitimate contender. Where do we put him? He has a lone loss on his non-UFC resume, so he cannot claim residence among the undefeated. He certainly stands far above the unknown commodities. Well, one thing we know for certain is that Dos Santos is the reigning Brazilian kickboxing champion, but he is neither a wrestler nor an accomplished submission artist (he currently holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). Questions therefore exist about whether he can stop takedowns from an accomplished wrestler or defend effectively on the ground against a slick submission guy. The answers to those questions will go a long way toward determining his proper standing within the division.
Antoni Hardonk: This guy stands alone atop the list of UFC heavyweight strikers. Watching him throw leg kicks is a thing of beauty. There is no hitch. No step. No movements that telegraph the incoming bomb. And he doesn’t land the shot with his foot in an ineffective slapping motion that is so common among converted strikers. It’s all shin thrown in a whipping motion from his hips, which makes it as effective as a baseball bat to the legs. But one should expect nothing less of an Ernesto Hoost student. Striking isn’t Hardonk’s problem. He can stand and trade with anyone. It’s his inability to stop the takedown that gets him into trouble. Hardonk has been working hard on his ground game, but all three of his losses occurred after takedowns. If he can either dramatically improve his takedown defense or develop an excellent defensive guard, then the sky is the limit for this guy. If not, he will be relegated to the role of heavyweight gatekeeper because there is no room among the heavyweight elite for a one trick pony.
Justin McCully: McCully is one of the better submission artists in the division. But a lack of true heavyweight size and power mean and average wrestling skills leave him at a disadvantage when stepping in against the UFC’s elite heavyweights. In fact, his frame is better suited for the light heavyweight division. Nevertheless, McCully has two wins, both by unanimous decision, in three trips to the Octagon, a respectable achievement. His next fight will determine where he stands in the division though. A win should vault him into the division’s upper echelon. A loss, by contrast, raises further questions about whether the heavyweight division is the best home for him.
Mostapha Al Turk: A fighter’s first trip to the Octagon is nerve wracking enough. When one’s opponent for his inaugural UFC bout is Cheick Kongo, the experience probably borders on frightening. That is the situation that Al Turk faced at UFC 92 last December. The result was what most expected—Kongo won by TKO near the end of the first round after a brutal display of ground and pound. Is the London native better than that? It is tough to say because Kongo was the first A-list opponent of Al Turk’s career. His second opportunity inside the Octagon takes place in less than two months at UFC 99. He will face UFC newcomer Todd Duffee, a relatively green, albeit undefeated, member of the American Top Team. Suffice to say, this is a big fight for Al Turk. Starting 1-1 is far better than 0-2.
Todd Duffee: Duffee is undefeated in five professional fights, with all bouts ending with either a knockout or technical knockout. His last fight was the most noteworthy of his short career, an impressive second-round TKO win over former UFC competitor Assuerio Silva in Brazil’s Jungle Fight promotion. But Silva is the only noteworthy opponent on Duffee’s resume, so there are a ton of questions hovering over him as he prepares for his UFC debut against Al Turk. Is he truly ready for life inside the Octagon after only a handful of professional fights? Is he the destructive striker that his perfect knockout record suggests? Fighting out of the American Top Team gives him a measure of credibility, but his performance at UFC 99 is when the rubber really hits the road for Duffee.
Stefan Struve: 21 years old. 6’11. Extremely long, flexible limbs. Solid submissions, particularly from his guard. Good kickboxing skills. 20 wins against just two losses prior to stepping into the Octagon. Sounds like a heavyweight prospect with a ton of potential, doesn’t it? Struve is one of the more interesting prospects to come out of Europe in the last few years. But like his brethren in this section, he came up short in his UFC debut, suffering a technical knockout loss to Junior Dos Santos in 54 seconds at UFC 95. It was clear during the fight that Struve was outgunned against the stronger, more explosive Dos Santos. He will receive a second shot at finding success inside the Octagon at UFC 99. This time he will face Denis Stojnic, who is a full foot shorter than him. If Struve can avoid getting hit with a bomb on the feet and steer clear of leg locks on the ground, he should do well against Stojnic. Nevertheless, if he wants to find long-term success in the UFC heavyweight division, he needs to add 30 lbs to his 235-lb frame over the next few years so that he can effectively deal with the monstrous powerhouses who currently rule the division.
Denis Stojnic: After spending three years building his mixed martial arts resume in Europe, Stojnic finally made his UFC debut back in February at Ultimate Fight Night 17. Unfortunately for the team Golden Glory member, his debut turned out to be a nightmare as he was thoroughly dominated by Cain Velasquez. A thrashing at the hands of a rising superstar like Cain is nothing to be ashamed of, but the bout highlighted Stojnic’s biggest obstacle in successfully competing in the UFC heavyweight division. Stojnic is extremely small by heavyweight standards. He stands only 5’11, which is an average height for a middleweight, not a heavyweight. Dominant wrestlers overcome such disadvantages by taking the fight to the ground, but Stojnic doesn’t have explosive takedowns. Thus, he is forced to stand and strike with guys with naturally bigger men who hold significant reach advantages. That is a recipe for disaster. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility for the 235-lb Bosnian to really focus on his diet and drop down to 185-lbs, where he would be one of the bigger, stronger competitors. If he is stopped by Struve at UFC 99, Stojnic may want to consider such a move in the near future.