Sometime in mid-January, shortly after Junior dos Santos demolished Gilbert Yvel, I found myself in a bar discussing the intricacies of the UFC heavyweight division with my nearest and dearest MMA friend. “Well, the match I really wanna see is Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos” he says. Well yea, we all did and we all still do and now, a mere 10 months later and we are on the verge of finally having our collective wish granted. Since then Brock Lesnar has returned from a near death illness, became a top 10 fighter in the world only to come crashing down to Earth in a bloody heap. Stocks have risen and fallen and somehow the landscape looks radically different than it did at the turn of the new year. How did we get here and what will be the lasting images and themes to come out of 2010? Granted it’s not over yet but one glimpse into the near future will show that there isn’t much to look forward to (Stefan Struve vs. Sean McCorkle anyone?) in the next two months. So as premature as it may be here are the top 10 moments from this year in the UFC heavyweight division
10. Frank Mir vs. Mirko Cro Cop (Sep 25)
The worst of the worse and wholly deserving of a place on this list. To the delight of nobody this was booked as a main event for a PPV card and we got to see two legends of the sport and the division dance and chuckle their way through three rounds wherein they forgot what they were there to do. Neither one of them allowed their fighting spirit to tag along so instead they basically sparred while Joe Rogan ragged on them mercilessly from the announce booth. They both knew that their real moment in the sun had passed them by, that this fight meant next to nothing, so why not just sandbag it and collect the paycheck. To his credit Mir did score a four star knockout via knee lift but Dana White, presumably pissed, gave the knockout of the night award to nobody after the show.
9. Shane Carwin named in Alabama steroid probe (Aug 14)
The implications, if there will ever be any, are not yet known but their possible existence is still squatting at the rear of the division letting off a peculiar odor. In August US Attorney Donna Dobbins released a list of names of pro athletes who had used convicted felon J. Michael Bennett to obtain steroids. Since then Carwin has remained, Chael Sonnen style, silent on the issue. As luck would have it the findings were released shortly after his huge fight with Brock Lesnar and he just recently canceled his January match with Roy Nelson. My sense is that this whole ordeal will probably just evaporate but if on the outside chance it doesn’t then the UFC faces seeing another one of their main eventers embroiled in a performance enhancing drug scandal.
8. Mike Russow vs. Todd Duffee (May 29)
For sheer outrageous hilarity and unpredictability this is a must. Mike Russow was bringing his 8 fight win streak into the cage which meant nothing the second the bell rang and the Todd Duffee beatdown began. Joe Rogan correctly pointed out that together they looked like a before and after photo with Duffee’s hulking physique obliterating the dough boy Russow. This went on for almost two and a half rounds. Duffee seemed frustrated that he couldn’t seal the deal, Russow seemed content to survive the offensive and take the decision loss. Then with one punch, or swipe, or paw. . .whatever you want to call it Russow KO’d Duffee. The camera swung around the show Dana White from a distance, his big bald head shining under the lights and his greedy grin stretched all the way across his face.
7. UFC Releases Todd Duffee (Sep 7)
Which led, indirectly at least, to this. Duffee had been booked to face Jon Madsen, a fight yours truly was salivating over. Then, out of the clear blue sky, word came that Duffee had been released from the UFC. Nothing about it made any sense. At the beginning of the year it seemed as though he was being fast tracked towards a title shot now, after one fluke loss, he was gone. He has a pro wrestling style body and a career record of 6-1. That blemish via Russow is unfortunate but hardly a reason to toss a guy out on his can. I mean Tito Ortiz hasn’t won since 2006 but there he is coaching The Ultimate Fighter and collecting the second biggest pay check at UFC 121. Rumors and theories rang out through cyber space. Some said he was having emotional problems surrounding the death of his dad, others said that the UFC chafed over him constantly talking about how broke he was. One can only imagine that he will be back at some point but he’ll probably have to score a few victories in politically safe organizations before that can happen.
6. Junior dos Santos
The dream match proposed by my friend and countless others is only now a reality because Junior dos Santos held up his end of the bargain. He did that mainly by turning quality opponents Gabriel Gonzaga and Roy Nelson into blubbery punching bags. He made those fights look easy but it is important to remember that once upon a time Gonzaga challenged for the UFC heavyweight title and that the match with Nelson was for a shot at the title. We could argue that he is a step above Nelson and that White tossed him a semi-softball but he took the opportunity to pitch a shutout and then some (scoring a 10-8 on one scorecard). Few would dispute his claim as #1 contender and the reward for us fans is an intriguing contest between two evenly matched combatants with very similar skill sets.
5. Shane Carwin vs. Frank Mir for the interim Heavyweight Title (Mar 27)
If we can all agree that Frank Mir looked terrible in victory last month then we can also probably agree that he looked even worse in defeat. Back in March he and Shane Carwin battled for the interim (blah) title and Mir managed to be successful only at ducking and covering and protecting his pretty face better than when he got squashed by Brock Lesnar. We know now that had he survived that violent first round that Carwin’s gas tank would’ve emptied and that his knees would’ve locked up on him allowing Mir to submit him with his maneuver of choice, but as it were Carwin scored the TKO and earned first crack at Lesnar upon his return.
4. The Rise of TUF 10
Ok so they weren’t all gold (hello number 1 draft choice James McSweeney and celebrity fighter Kimbo Slice) but the class of TUF 10 has come to play a very large role near the top of the division. Winner Roy Nelson opened things up by destroying Stefan Struve and then moving directly into a title eliminator match with Junior dos Santos. As described above that wasn’t exactly his night. Runner up Brendan Schaub racked up two first round knockouts and then, on the main card of UFC 121, outclassed Gabriel Gonzaga for three rounds. There have been whispers that his next fight will be against Frank Mir which I think would make a lot of sense at this point. Also, Matt Mitrione (the one guy we all knew would never make it as a mixed martial artist) and Jon Madsen have compiled a combined 7-0 record since leaving the house.
3. Lesnar announces that he is healthy (Jan 20)
It seems like two lifetimes ago but for a while there we had no idea if Brock Lesnar was going to survive his bout with Diverticulitis much less make a return to the Octagon. And with Dana White seeming to have a monopoly on new information about his healthy fans didn’t know what to believe. Then on January 20th Lesnar and White appeared together on Sportscenter to give the fans an update on his condition and to announce that through a miracle he was going to return to fighting. Instantly the UFC heavyweight division, by no means the deepest or most stimulating, was on the forefront of everybody’s mind. The UFC could once again start their cash machine.
2. Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin for the UFC Heavyweight title (Jul 3)
The superfight that resulted from #5 and #3 found Shane Carwin putting his undefeated record on the line against Brock Lesnar and his real UFC heavyweight title. Because of the even higher drama that followed a month later in Oakland some of us have forgotten just how thrilling this brawl really was. It certainly wasn’t the most balletic of fights but it was just about the most exciting 10 minutes of the year. Carwin came out fists a-blazin’ and seemed to smash Lesnar with them at will. He had Lesnar on the ground, up against the cage and on the verge of going out. Some might argue that Lesnar was out and that he got a gift from referee Josh Rosenthal. Perhaps, but shouldn’t the champ be given the benefit of the doubt? And if it was a gift didn’t Lesnar vindicate himself by coming out in round 2, taking the exhausted Carwin down and choking him out with an arm triangle? Why take the easy route and use your world famous ground and pound when you can win style points and claim victory in the least likely way imaginable? Truly a special night for fans everywhere.
1. Brock Lesnar vs. Cain Velasquez for the UFC Heavyweight Title (Oct 23)
Hard to think of anything else that could possibly hold this spot. Undoubtedly the UFC would have rather seen their number one draw win the fight and retain the title, but if they had the choice of who he would lose to you would have to imagine that Cain Velasquez would be at the top of that list. Lesnar will still be there for them, main eventing and drawing huge money from casual fans, but now they have serious toe hold into the Latino market, one that has traditionally gone towards boxing. The fight itself was another thrill-fest, strikingly similar to the Lesnar/Carwin fight only with the opposite ending. Velasquez mauled Lesnar, demystified him, bloodied him, humanized him. And that is where we are today, Velasquez vs. Dos Santos sometime early next year.
Tags: Brendan Schaub, Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir, Gabriel Gonzaga, Junior dos Santos, Mixed Martial Arts, Roy Nelson, shane carwin, Todd Duffee, UFC Heavyweight Division