(See? It’s not as easy as it looks. / Photo via Getty)
By Matt Saccaro
Ask yourself this question: Within the next two years, will the UFC heavyweight title be held by anyone whose last name isn’t Dos Santos or Velasquez?
That’s the scenario the UFC heavyweight division currently faces. The division is like the grim days of old, when Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia traded the belt back and forth, stomping “top contenders” like Justin Eilers, Paul Buentello, and Tra Telligman along the way.
The only difference is that now, instead of a hairy Belorussian feuding with an overweight hunting enthusiast, we have a personality-challenged Mexican feuding against a Brazilian with a badly receding hairline.
This isn’t to disparage Cain Velasquez or Junior Dos Santos as fighters, though. Both men are insanely talented. But that’s the problem — they’re both so talented that the rest of the fighters in the division aren’t a match for them. The only challenge to Velasquez is Dos Santos. The only challenge to Dos Santos is Velasquez.
Before you run to the comments screaming about Alistair Overeem and other heavyweight fighters, hear me out.
The UFC heavyweight top ten isn’t what it used to be…well actually; it’s exactly what it used to be: A list of overrated fighters who people think are top-notch because of the UFC label, as well as a division with the UFC’s least athletically gifted fighters.
The UFC’s official rankings rightfully have Dos Santos as the number one contender. After him comes Daniel Cormier, Fabricio Werdum, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Alistair Overeem, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Stipe Miocic, Travis Browne, and Josh Barnett.
Bigfoot Silva spectacularly derailed the hype train of Overeem, whose days of being viewed as an invincible killing machine are over. Silva showed that once you start hitting the former K-1 champ back, he becomes a kitten. Silva also put down one of MMA’s Next Big Things™ in Travis Browne, who evidently still needs work before he’ll be a real threat to the division’s top two fighters, Velasquez and Dos Santos.
But Silva, himself, is no threat to Dos Santos or Velasquez. Velasquez ran through Silva twice and it’s probable that Dos Santos’ fast hands and footwork would decimate the slow, plodding, Silva.
Werdum was no match for Dos Santos in the past and wouldn’t be now. It’s also unlikely that he’d be able to threaten Velasquez. Werdum’s strength is BJJ but he possesses no way of bringing Velasquez to the ground, save for endlessly butt-flopping and then looking confused.
Stipe Miocic, with a loss to Stefan Struve and his biggest win coming over a Roy Nelson who looked like he was trying to do a Kimbo Slice vs. Houston Alexander re-enactment, is too green and quite frankly too unskilled to be relevant in the discussion of the heavyweight title.
And Mir? He’s had his shot multiple times and failed. As has Roy Nelson, who decided that the “fat guy” gimmick was more important than beating upper echelon fighters.
Outside of Dos Santos and Velasquez, there are only two men who can make the division interesting: Daniel Cormier and Josh Barnett. But Cormier is leaving the weight class specifically to avoid fighting his longtime training partner Velasquez, and Barnett, at age 35, has seen better days, unless you consider submitting the mighty Nandor Guelmino to be a feat worth boasting about.
So…who’s left in the UFC’s top ten that can beat Velasquez?
Junior Dos Santos.
He’s the only one in the top ten that has a good chance at beating Velasquez. And Velasquez is the only other fighter in the division with a good chance at beating Dos Santos. They have wins over one another. While the optimistic among MMA fans and UFC marketing might present this as a good thing — as an epic rivalry that deserves a special place in MMA history — it’s a terrible thing.
It means that the division only has two good guys in it; the rest of it is full of fodder.
The UFC heavyweight division is in a dark age.
The winner of Velasquez-Dos Santos III in October will crush unworthy contenders while the loser strings together wins over fighters beneath his skill level. But since the fight happened three times, Uncle Dana & Co. will be unlikely to book a fourth match even though it makes sense. Thus, the division will be boring and useless until an injection of new blood resets the pecking order and makes the heavyweights worth paying attention to again.
Remember the old Mortal Kombat arcade ladders where the last two guys on the ladder where the final boss and the second to last boss (Shang Tsung and Goro in MK1, Shao Kahn and Kintaro in MK2 and so on)? That’s what the UFC heavyweight division is like. The two toughest, most important, most relevant guys are on a completely different level than anyone else. They’re the unplayable characters that everyone else in the division wishes they could be. But there’s no cheat code to unlocking them and no secret trick to besting them in the cage. They’re just better, and it looks like nobody else is coming along who will change this fact any time soon.