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UFC's heavyweight division is big again

On Saturday night in Las Vegas, the drought is over.

Sure, there was some notable heavyweight news in 2015, from Fabricio Werdum defeating Cain Velasquez for the undisputed title and Andrei Arlovski besting good buddy Travis Browne in a Fight of the Year candidate, to the retirement of “Minotauro” Nogueira and Alistair Overeem’s December knockout of Junior Dos Santos. But for the most part, the thunder that used to be solely possessed by combat sports’ glamour division was stolen by other weight classes in the past 12 months.

That changes this weekend. Beginning with the UFC 195 co-main event between Arlovski and Stipe Miocic and ending with UFC 196’s main event championship rematch between Werdum and Velasquez on Feb. 6, 10 of the top 16 big men in the world will step into the Octagon.
 


That’s five matchups between the best of the best in the division, and by the time the first kickoff of Super Bowl 50 takes place in Levi’s Stadium, there will be a shakeup worthy of such a storied weight class.

From the time the first UFC heavyweight champion, Mark Coleman, was crowned in February of 1997, 16 men have worn that gold belt around their waist. Three (Coleman, Randy Couture, Bas Rutten) are UFC Hall of Famers, Nogueira is likely to join that group, and over the next month, four of those titleholders (Werdum, Velasquez, Arlovski, Josh Barnett) will be in action, one trying to keep his belt, three others looking to either take it or earn the next shot at it.

That’s a lot of talent and a lot of history for the weight class. Yet what has made the UFC’s heavyweight division so intriguing over the years is that for all the great fighters who have passed through, no one has been able to dominate like Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Georges St-Pierre, Jose Aldo or Demetrious Johnson did in their respective weight classes.

Two successful consecutive title defenses is the current high water mark among the big boys, a number shared by Couture, Arlovski, Tim Sylvia, Brock Lesnar and Velasquez. That’s not to say the heavyweight champions didn’t have their moments of brilliance. In fact, during the reigns of Arlovski, Lesnar and Velasquez, there were those that believed those fighters would never lose the belt.

That’s not the way it works in mixed martial arts though. And while various circumstances outside of competition have played a part in fighters losing their place at the top of the mountain, such as the motorcycle accident that ended Frank Mir’s reign or the diverticulitis that shortened Lesnar’s career, when 250-pound men hit each other with four-ounce gloves, there is little chance of anyone staying champion for too long.

But then there’s Fabricio Werdum. The current holder of the belt, Werdum, despite being 38 years old, may be the man to break that two defense threshold and establish himself as the best heavyweight to ever wear the crown. Some would say that with his wins over Velasquez, Fedor Emelianenko and Nogueira that he has already achieved that goal. I asked Werdum about that topic earlier this year after his win over Velasquez. Sure, it was a loaded question, but he found his way around it.

“I believe that if you beat the best you are the best,” he said. “They are all great fighters and champions but my hand was raised when we fought.”

His longtime coach, Rafael Cordeiro, was more direct when asked the same question.

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“I don’t want to be arrogant, but I believe Fabricio is the best of all-time,” he said. “He beat all those legends, and for me, he became a legend after that. I believe Fabricio is the G.O.A.T. and he deserves all the best.”

The Feb. 6 rematch with Velasquez will go a long way in writing the legacy for Werdum, especially since many have pointed to the altitude in Mexico City as being a major factor in Velasquez’ submission loss in June. And should Velasquez turn the tide and regain the title, he will join Couture as the only men in UFC history to hold the heavyweight crown three times, a major factor in being called an all-time great as well.

But before the Octagon gate closes on Werdum and Velasquez, the rest of a hungry bunch of veterans and up-and-comers will fight for their place in the title picture, with Arlovski and Miocic, ranked Nos. 2 and 3 respectively, presumably being the next in line.

Arlovski’s story is obviously the most compelling, as he once held the belt and looked invincible, only to lose the belt and subsequently lose his way outside the UFC. A refocusing put “The Pit Bull” back on track, and he has won four straight since returning to the UFC in 2014.

Ohio’s Miocic has taken a more conventional route to his Saturday night bout, battling through a couple of tough losses to Stefan Struve and Dos Santos to win seven Octagon bouts, including victories over Roy Nelson and Mark Hunt.

On paper, it’s an explosive matchup, and it will likely deliver on that promise for the simple reason that the longer anyone is allowed to stick around in a heavyweight fight, the potential for disaster grows. So expect Arlovski and Miocic to try and make a statement to leave no doubt as to their worthiness for a shot at the Werdum-Velasquez II winner.
 


And such a statement needs to be made, because Barnett (No. 7) and Ben Rothwell (No. 8) will be heading into Newark on Jan. 30 to try and make their own case for a title fight in a nationally televised FOX showcase. And let’s not forget Travis Browne (No. 6) and Matt Mitrione (No. 14) throwing hands in Boston on Jan. 17, Nelson (No. 11) and Jared Rosholt (No. 13) meeting up at UFC 196, and even popular knockout artist Derrick Lewis returning to take on newcomer Damian Grabowski on the same Las Vegas show.

Once again, it’s a good time to be a heavyweight in the UFC. But it’s even better to be a fan of the UFC heavyweights, as 2016 is shaping up to be one of the division’s best years ever.

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