(Randy Couture in simpler times, when size wasn’t always an advantage.)
by FIGHT! contributor Larry Pepe
Randy Couture’s recent fights against a somewhat larger Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and a dramatically larger Brock Lesnar, both resulting in losses for “The Natural,” again raise an interesting debate. Is another division necessary to encourage fair, quality competition for those fighters who couldn’t make 205 without cutting off a limb? And what about fighter safety? Is it just about competition or are there marketing reasons that make the addition of another class problematic?
With the current structure of weight classes in the WEC and UFC, the largest jump in weight occurs when we go from the 185-pound middleweight limit to the 205-pound light heavyweight cutoff. The largest, that is, until you get to the 60-pound swing in the heavyweight division, which shoots all the way up to 265 pounds. If you’re a fan of the ‘technique trumps size and strength’ argument I have bad news for you. When the skill sets of two fighters are very close, size matters. Does anyone believe that Brock Lesnar is a more technically skilled fighter than Frank Mir? Mir beat Lesnar when the behemoth’s skill set was just too raw, too far behind. 17 months later when the gap between their respective tool boxes lessened, Brock dominated every minute of the fight. Like I said, size matters.
It begs the question. Is it time to cut that division down the middle and create a new division with a 235-pound weight limit and let the big boys play in their own reinforced sandbox? Not yet, but we’re getting awfully close.
It wasn’t that long ago that UFC President Dana White was admitting that the heavyweight division was far from stacked and less than intriguing. So bad in fact that the aforementioned Couture surveyed the depleted heavyweight landscape and came out of retirement to detach Tim Sylvia from the belt he dearly loved.
But that was eighteen months ago and a LOT has changed since then. 265-pound Brock Lesnar (after the weight cut), 260-pound Shane Carwin, a healthy 250-pound Frank Mir, soon to be debuting 265-pounder Ben Rothwell and others have beefed up the division. UFC 102 saw 257-pound Gabriel Gonzaga, 251-pound UFC KO record holder Todd Duffee and 260-pound Mike Russow all get their hand raised. Add in the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter that will showcase Roy “Big Country” Nelson and Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, four former footballers and a few more giants and the heavyweight division could be bursting at the seems.
And there’s no reason to believe that the heavyweight division’s growth spurt will do anything but continue. The popularity and growth of mixed martial arts, complete with television exposure, more sponsors and greater overall financial opportunity will continue to draw larger (pun intended) numbers of gifted athletes. There is a generation coming of those who choose to fight rather than play more conventional sports instead of finding MMA after their basketball or football careers come to a close.
Is it too much to expect the smaller crop of heavyweights, a la Couture, to remain competitive as the skill sets of MMA fighters across the board progress and the idea that size doesn’t matter slowly starts to disappear?
In a word, yes.
The last twelve calendar months have seen a total of eight fights contested in the UFC Heavyweight division where there was at least a ten-pound difference between the fighters on the day of the weigh in. The heavier fighters posted an impressive record of 6-2 against their smaller counterparts. The only two losses by the heavier combatant were suffered by Neil Grove and Eddie Sanchez, neither of whom have fought in the UFC since those losses. And you wouldn’t expect to see either of them dining at the top of the MMA food chain.
So why not create the new division right now? It’s a matter of numbers. Not weight, numbers. While the once weak heavyweight division is deeper and better than it’s been in years, it isn’t at the point just yet where it can survive an extraction of all the talent that could compete at 235 and continue to flourish. While Couture might already be on his way to 205, a cruiserweight division that would gobble up the likes of top, marketable fighters like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko Cro Cop, rising stars like Cain Velasquez, Cheick Kongo and Junior Dos Santos and guys that the jury is still out on like Pat Barry, Mustapha Al Turk and Stefan Struve might be too much to handle, for now.
And yes, the new division has to be at cruiserweight, not super heavyweight. The “Heavyweight Champion of the World” means something in combat sports. He’s the biggest, baddest fighter on the planet and it’s imperative for the continued mainstream assent of mixed martial arts to reserve that recognizable and marketable title for its biggest champion. A cruiserweight division with a 235-pound limit and a heavyweight division that tops out at 265 serves that goal. If this season’s TUF produces enough talent, you may see it sooner than you think. And you should.