The Botterm Dollar on UFC: The Heavyweight Outlook

I thought I would take a few minutes to assess the UFC’s Heavyweight division and speculate on where I think they should take it during 2008. I’d planned on doing this in early January as part of an ongoing series, but wanted to wait until after UFC 81 since there were two heavyweight fights on the card that would heavily influence the rest of the year.

Let’s start at the top.

Randy Couture is your heavyweight champion, but at this point it’s only on paper. Dana White stated in the post-UFC 81 press conference that he would love to see Couture come back and defend the belt against new interim champ Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, and I actually believe we’ll see that fight happen at some point this year. Couture is going to realize that he doesn’t really have any other options; in order to get that fight with Fedor Emelianenko that he so desires, he’s going to have to fulfill the terms of his UFC contract and either hope he can get the fight once his contract expires or get Dana White to book it.

If Couture won’t return to face Noguiera, they need to give Frank Mir a title shot. He’s a former champ and his stock will never be higher than it is after his fantastic submission victory over Brock Lesnar at UFC 81. The company is rumored to have promised Fabricio Werdum a title shot after he beat Gabriel Gonzaga, but that fight will draw a dime on PPV. A Mir/Noguiera fight will never draw as much as a Couture/Noguiera fight would, but it’s the best option they have available right now. There’s other guys who, with one or two more wins, would be viable contenders and draws, but outside of Mir there are no ready-made contenders in the division.

Cheick Kongo is a guy who needs one or two more dominating wins before he can be marketing as a legit contender. He’s got a great look and has a victory over Mirko Cro Cop under his belt, though it remains to be seen if that even means anything in 2008. He’ll be facing Heath Herring at UFC 82 and he’ll probably be the favorite to win. Tim Sylvia has been campaigning to fight Kongo and will probably get his wish later this summer; the winner of that fight would instantly become a top contender for the belt, but only if Kongo beats Herring in dominating fashion.

Brock Lesnar proved at UFC 81 that he’s the real deal. He lost the fight by submission, but looked downright terrifying while doing so, and he’ll be a co-headliner on the London show in June that is rumored to feature a main event of Chuck Liddell taking on Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Who will Lesnar be matched up with?

There are two schools of thought.

Obviously, Lesnar needs a ton of work on submission defense before he’ll be ready to take on another top-flight BJJ specialist such as Gabriel Gonzaga or even Noguiera. Do they put Lesnar in the cage with someone who barely registers above the level of a tomato can, such as Eddie Sanchez? True, Lesnar would destroy Sanchez easily; but you’re also paying the guy $250,000 to fight and $200,000 to win. That’s a lot of cash for an Eddie Sanchez fight. If you look at it as an investment, that by paying Brock to destroy low-level fighters you’re guaranteeing a big PPV draw down the road, then it’s probably worthwhile.

You could also stick Lesnar in with Tim Sylvia. That’s a fight that I believe Lesnar would win; Sylvia’s main gift is the ability to stay on his feet when he so desires, and he uses his height and sprawl to keep the fight standing. He wouldn’t be able to do that against Lesnar, who would use his ungodly strength to take the fight down whenever he chose to. Sylvia is poor on the ground and would be no match for Lesnar’s ground and pound. The loss to Frank Mir didn’t hurt Lesnar’s standing one bit with UFC fans, but another loss would do some damage, so I don’t think this line of thinking is a good one at this point. I think they need to feed him some inexperienced guys (since he IS inexperienced, after all) and then match up him with someone like Brandon Vera. Just keep him away from jui-jitsu experts like Gabriel Gonzaga for a few years.

Mirko Cro Cop is an interesting facet of the division. One one hand, the guy is a legend. On the other hand, 90% of the UFC’s fans only view him as a guy who’s lost two straight fights. I still believe Cro Cop can deliver in the cage, and I’ve been hoping for the past few months that we’d see a Cro Cop/Andrei Arlovski fight. That one isn’t happening, as Arlvoski is facing Jake O’ Brien on the undercard of UFC 82 and it’s his last contracted fight with the organization.

If they’re intent on giving Fabricio Werdum the first shot at Noguiera, then I think the best move would be to put Cro Cop against Frank Mir, with the winner getting a shot at Noguiera’s interim title. Obviously, that would be predicated on a lot of factors, including Heath Herring beating Cheick Kongo and Randy Couture declining to fight Noguiera. And yeah, I realize that Cro Cop has lost two in a row and probably shouldn’t be fighting for a title, but Werdum shouldn’t be fighting for a belt, either, and they’re giving him a shot.

If Mir wins, he’s more than credible enough to get a shot at the belt, and if Cro Cop wins, then he beats a top five heavyweight. Plus, the upside to a Cro Cop/Noguiera fight is the history between the two. Noguiera beat Cro Cop at PRIDE Final Conflict 2003 with an armbar, but only after absorbing a gigantic amount of punishment from the striker.

Without a Couture return, the heavyweight outlook for 2008 is glaringly weak. If Lesnar had finished Frank Mir and destroyed one more opponent in quick fashion, you very likely would have seen him get a title shot by December of this year. Brock cut promos leading up to the Mir fight about people that are starved for a true heavyweight, and he’s partly right; the division is in terrible shape, and though they have a great (but unknown in the United States) champion in Noguiera and a good potential contender in Mir, there’s no one else who will draw a PPV buy when they fight for the belt right now.

NEXT WEEK: The Light Heavyweight Outlook