In MMA, we are regularly exposed to talented and technical fighters who maintain a high pace and output. From flyweight to middleweight, we are introduced to new and exciting talent and reintroduced to seasoned but still fresh established talents. With each year that passes, we get to discover some new up-and-comer, see the continued excellence of the elite, or witness underachievers make a run that belies their rank, skill and physical tools. Unfortunately, in the two biggest weight classes, that trend does not exist.
In the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, there is no circle of life. There is no cycle of introduction, development, excellence and eventual decline. In other divisions, there really is no place for old men. However, in these two flagship divisions, there is no room for the young men.
Instead of the divisions following the circle of life, they have stagnated. The fresh talent is never able to fully ascend into the position of the elite. The declining elite still rule, and they do so with an iron fist.
The heavyweight division has historically had a warm place in the hearts of fans. At one point, the best title that one could have in sports was to be the heavyweight champion of the world in boxing. Whoever had that title essentially ran sports and, to a certain degree, ran the world of entertainment. Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali — what do they have in common? All were huge stars that to varying degrees transcended their sport. These guys influenced so many fighters in other sports and especially in MMA.
The same trend followed in the world of mixed martial arts, where Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Randy Couture, Frank Mir and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic are still able to draw checks, media and fighting opportunities as a result of the status they achieved years ago. Even in the face of embarrassing losses and questions about quality of opposition, these guys still maintain a high position in the MMA world. These fighters are given the kind of props that are not provided to better athletes and more accomplished fighters who fight at lower weights.
Historically, the light heavyweights haven’t had the cache in combat sports that the heavyweights have had. However, in MMA, that all changed as some of the biggest stars and most notable fighters of all time competed in the division. Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, the aforementioned Couture, Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva and Jon Jones shaped the sport through athletic dominance and, in the cases of Liddell and Ortiz, as crossover stars who carried the sport before popularizing it to the masses.
With the exception of Jones, the large majority of these fighters, though considered Hall of Famers, were not viewed as all-time greats in regards to skills, athletic ability, ability to adjust or the quality of their opposition. Yet, they were the ones that buoyed the division and fueled the explosion of popularity for MMA. Though the light heavyweights were popular in boxing, which was the premier combat sport for the large majority of the world, the division’s champion never had the cache of being “the man” in the world of sports or the world in general. Mixed martial arts changed that. At multiple times in MMA’s abbreviated history, the baddest and most popular man in the world fought in the light heavyweight division.
Currently, both divisions are considered the weakest, not just in the UFC, but in the world. Bellator MMA, ONE Championship, Rizin Fighting Federation — regardless of the reach of the organization or the amount of money invested, none of these leagues have developed a particularly deep and young stash of heavyweights or light heavyweights.
Instead of the vicious cycle that exists where guys come in, develop, establish themselves, peak and then decline, these two divisions have stagnated. They are anomalies in that there is less of a cycle and more of a recycle trend. We repeatedly see the same names in the top 15 that were there five and 10 years ago. Cain Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum, Andrei Arlovski, Roy Nelson, Junior dos Santos, Cheick Kongo, Mark Hunt, Brock Lesnar, Ben Rothwell and the aforementioned Cro Cop, Mir and Emelianenko are the same guys who were at or near the top of the heavyweight division a decade ago. All have competed within the last year. Most of them are still ranked and coming off wins. The same goes for the light heavyweight division, where Glover Teixeira, Phil Davis, Alexander Gustafsson, Ryan Bader, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Ovince St. Preux and Daniel Cormier have ruled for years. In no other division do you have guys who have been around that long but are still considered elite in their divisions. Other divisions have had major changes, if not complete overhauls.
The long and short of the success or failure of these divisions is the simple fact that the fighters who fit into the size, weight and build necessary to be a world-class athlete all compete in other sports. It’s a problem that has hit other combat sports, such as wrestling, boxing, judo and jiu-jitsu. The very best athletes of that size, height, weight and build are playing in the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL. These are all careers that have insurance, pay millions of dollars, and open the door for a variety of sponsorship and media opportunities. Most importantly, none of them require you to split your pay. None of them have limited options to be developed by experience and through work with world-class coaches and staff. None of them significantly limit sponsorship opportunities. Most importantly, none of them require you to get punched in the face.
This is not to say the other sports aren’t difficult. The sheer number of participants and level of skill and athleticism tells that story. However, none of them have the uncertainty in health, healthcare, or pay that come in the field of combat sports. At the lighter weights, the options for legitimate life-changing money in sports outside of the combat arena is a lot smaller. There are many more examples of high-class athletes in the lighter weights, which is a direct result of the limited opportunities outside of combat sports for these guys to make money and to achieve stardom.
To really flesh out a division, you have to have an array of fighters. You need prospects, legit fighters, fringe contenders, elite contenders and journeymen. You need each and every type to help guys grow strategically, learn to execute technically, and develop a sense of situational awareness through the seasoning of fights. In the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions, three of these four categories are held by old and, in many cases, declining fighters. This means that while the division is stable due to the extensive amount of experience, quality of opposition and level of accomplishment, it can’t grow or expand.
For an organization to develop a fighter, it has to be able to move them along slowly, presenting them with different calibers of athlete, levels of experience and skill sets. You put a prospect into as many different situations as possible to help them get seasoning and develop the poise and preparatory habits so that they are fully formed or close to fully formed fighters by the time they get to the ranked guys and eventually the elite guys.
Think of how Max Holloway was moved up the ladder. He had enough time to acclimate himself to the jump in talent when being brought into the UFC. Due to the depth of the featherweight division, Holloway was able to gain experience, refine his skills and develop his cage IQ. By the time he started facing the likes of Jeremy Stephens, Cub Swanson, Ricardo Lamas, Anthony Pettis and eventually José Aldo, he was ready to not just fight, but to compete and win. Unfortunately, in both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions, that type of progression doesn’t exist.
The depth of the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions isn’t established at all. All the legitimate experience and skills reside at the top end. The only thing the elite guys don’t have is top-end athleticism. However, all the “elite” guys in both divisions at one point were elite athletes. Some still are close enough to their prime where they can compete physically with the best athletes. More importantly, they have all been the top athlete or faced the top athlete, and they know how to handle that situation. Look at what happened to Jared Cannonier when he faced a faded and clearly vulnerable Teixeira — he lost a decision. Look at what happened when Corey Anderson faced longtime light heavyweight stalwart Ovince St. Preux — a knockout loss for Anderson. Or when Gian Villante met Hall of Famer Shogun Rua — a TKO defeat for Villante. All these guys held advantages in youth, mileage and stylistic match-ups in these fights, but each and every one of them were soundly outworked, outsmarted, outfought and beaten.
The heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions have some potential. At some point, there will inevitably be some forward motion in both weight classes. The problem is that they both lack the numbers of participants and the quality in regards to athleticism in the participants. Until the money improves, and until they get a fighter who resonates like Liddell or Fedor did, we won’t see a resurgence in these divisions. Instead, we will be forced to deal with top-heavy divisions ruled by declining fighters who have the skills, experience and situational awareness necessary to navigate the unproven, underdeveloped fighters attempting to make the jump from prospect to legitimate fighter and on to champion.