The Regression of the UFC Heavyweight Division

Frank Mir

Nate Lawson analyzes what he believes is the UFC’s most stagnant weight class

What to do with the UFC heavyweight division …

As the all-heavyweight main card of UFC 146 approaches, the woes of the weight class continue. Top contender Alistair Overeem, who was set to meet Junior dos Santos in the main event of the May 26 card, tested positive for enhanced testosterone levels and is likely to be declined a license to fight, leaving that card – for now – without a its proper main event heavyweight championship bout.

I imagine the promotion is currently scouring the division for a replacement, or perhaps they will just shelve dos Santos until contenders Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez do battle to determine the next contender. But regardless of the decision, there is no denying that Overeem’s colossal screw up is just another unfortunate occurrence in a division regressing at a quick rate. And, quite honestly, it was the last thing the division needed.

As much as I hate to admit it, the heavyweight division is caught in limbo, having regressed in a major way since the days when Brock Lesnar was plastered on the cover of “UFC Undisputed 2010” after changing the landscape of Mir’s face at UFC 100. The change is obvious when the current state of the division is compared to only three years ago.

In mid-2009, the weight class was filled with competitive prospects, most notably dos Santos and Velasquez, while staples like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Shane Carwin, and Mir filled out the top tier of the weight class, and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic had returned, ready to prove himself against the sport’s best. At the forefront, superstar Lesnar served as the face of the promotion and the division.

Yet even with a healthy roster, the UFC was not done building up the heavyweight division, as Dana White announced shortly before UFC 100 that taping had begun for “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights,” featuring some of mixed martial arts’ top prospects in the weight class, including veteran Roy Nelson, former NFL athletes and even Kimbo Slice. It seemed the heavyweight division was only going to get better with the incoming class of talent.

Then everything went south, beginning shortly after UFC 100, with the severe health issues that sidelined Lesnar for a lengthy period of time and even threatened his life. In his absence, the division continued on as a shadow of what it would have been, as Carwin and Mir faced off for the interim heavyweight title, while dos Santos and Velasquez continued to rise in the division. Without its biggest star, the division was still moving forward and certainly wasn’t derailed at that point, and when Lesnar announced on ESPN that he would return to action, it seemed the weight class was ready to continue progressing from where it left off before his illness.

Fast forward to spring 2012, just under two months before the all-heavyweight main card of UFC 146, this division has officially been derailed, and Overeem’s screw up from earlier this week is just one of the numerous problems that have plagued the weight class since the decline began less than three years ago. But the decline should not be incredibly shocking, as a couple of the causes of the lack of progression are unavoidable.

For instance, over the past several years, immense amounts of talent have been lost to age and retirement, as Lesnar, Randy Couture, and Filipovic can no longer be found on the UFC roster – though the latter two have not been a factor in the division for some time. And Nogueira fails to compete on an elite level as retirement lingers in the near future, earning wins against middle-tier fighters exclusively. The division’s landscape is changing, but not unlike how all other divisions change over the years.

However, unlike many other divisions, the heavyweight contenders have also been noticeably absent. The heavy-handed Carwin has been out of action for some time and is currently recovering from back surgery, while Velasquez recently lost his heavyweight title a year after earning it with a victory over Lesnar, but not before suffering injuries that limited his training. The two contenders have combined for four bouts in the past two years. Meanwhile, Nogueira has also suffered from health issues, most notably staph infections, which have plagued him for quite some time. Essentially the only contender not suffering from injury is Mir, who, in his next fight, meets a contender for the first time since he lost to Carwin in 2010 – unless the UFC elevates him into Overeem’s spot to face dos Santos for the title, which White has alluded on Twitter is a possibility. But, like the issue of aging, injuries are an unfortunate, yet unavoidable aspect of this sport.

So, why the lack of progression in the division? With a now-healthy champion and an upcoming event focused exclusively on its top fighters, why can’t this division recover from losing fighters to age and injury like every other division has?

It’s very easy to point the finger at Overeem’s positive test as a clear-cut reason, especially considering his bout with dos Santos was something the division really needed. After all, I wouldn’t be writing this if he tested negative. I would merely be waiting for UFC 146, hoping that this bad dream would finally end. Overeem is not the only problem here.

Instead, the division’s regression stems from the middle-tier heavyweights and the current prospects, with neither group producing true contenders for some time now. Just look at the class of fighters that entered the heavyweight division following the aforementioned season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights,” the same fighters that seemed ready to take over as the next generation of the division.

Nelson, the season’s winner, entered the promotion with more experience than his fellow competitors and has since faced some of the division’s top fighters, taking punishment and never quitting. Still, he has not progressed in terms of rank since coming to the UFC and isn’t earning victories over anyone on the short list of contenders, though he’s had his fair share of opportunities to do so. The season’s runner-up, Brendan Schaub, a freak athlete with loads of potential, has also been competitive in the division and there is little doubt that he belongs in the UFC, but his failure to defeat top-level fighters such as Nogueira call to question whether or not he is cut out to be a contender at any point in the future.

The only member of that season that has made truly distinct leaps forward as a fighter is Matt Mitrione, and even he is still well short of the division’s list of contenders, still attempting to build his way up the ranks. As for the remainder of the season’s contestants, all 13 are either no longer employed by the UFC or have retired from competition altogether. To say that particular season of the highly-successful reality series was a failure is certainly a fair statement to make.

While that list of 16 heavyweights failed to live up to nearly all expectations, heavyweights in the middle tier of the division have also failed to find any significant level of progression, while many have completely fallen on the wayside. Fighters such as Joey Beltran and Tim Hague were never able to capitalize on their opportunities in Zuffa. Todd Duffee, who seemed primed to take the division by storm with his Lesnar-esque physic and mad power, is nowhere to be found when he isn’t accepting terrible matchups overseas after being released by the UFC. And fighters still under the promotion’s banner, most notably Stefan Struve, Cheick Kongo, Pat Barry, Christian Morecraft and the other fighters who seem just on the brink of a major breakthrough, string together solid victories, only to see their winning streaks cut short before any major progress was complete, falling back into the pack.

In terms of prospects, the division is also experiencing a vast shortage, as no one has yet been able to fill the shoes of Velasquez or dos Santos as future stars. Of course, there are “prospects,” but that term is relative. Travis Browne has shown a good deal of promise, but he fought Kongo to a draw, and if Kongo could control the urge to grab hold of his opponent’s shorts, Browne would have lost that fight. But what about Stipe Miocic, the highly-touted prospect fighting out of Croatia? You mean the same guy that struggled against Beltran in his UFC debut? Face it, the title of prospect at this point pales in comparison to the standard held when Velasquez and dos Santos were in that position.

This may sound like a challenge to the heavyweight roster, a demand for its fighters to step up while the elite are down and out. But I am not calling out Schaub, Nelson or any other fighter who steps foot into the cage in the division. Instead, this is an effort to bring some level of understanding as to why this division just can’t seem to take off. While the elite recover or are forced out of action merely due to irresponsibility and stupidity, the middle tier fighters continue to battle one another, no one able to make the leap up in competition.

Until that happens, and an average heavyweight with potential puts together enough wins to fill the void left at the top of the division, the heavyweights won’t be taking any major steps forward. With Mir, Velasquez, and Carwin the only true contenders of a division headed by champion dos Santos, the opportunity is certainly there. At UFC 146, hopefully we will find a few heavyweights willing and able to rise to contender status.