Todd Duffee's surprising release from the UFC puts the promising young fighter in with an interesting mix of non-UFC prospects. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
Last week our own Matt Bishop concluded his look at the talent throughout the UFC's divisions. This week we evaluate the talent, division-by-division, outside of the UFC. Look for new installments throughout the week.
For most of the past decade, the best talent in MMA's heavyweight division was largely outside of the UFC. With PRIDE's collapse in 2007, however, a reshuffling of the deck saw the UFC in a strengthened position with Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, Mirko Cro Cop, Fabricio Werdum, and Heath Herring all arriving on the scene in North America. In subsequent years, the UFC had Brock Lesnar storm the division with Frank Mir and Shane Carwin in tow, and a bevy of other gatekeepers and prospects thrown in.
As 2011 approaches, however, it's becoming clear that Strikeforce has quietly assembled a solid stable of heavyweights. If Scott Coker can actually produce matchups among his fighters, the preeminence of the UFC Heavyweight Division might by called into question.
Here's how the non-UFC heavyweight talent stacks up.
The Known Commodities:
For years, it was all about Fedor Emelianenko, who has never really come close to joining the UFC. For a decade he was the sport's top fighter and heavyweight and even now, after being submitted by Fabricio Werdum, is a top-5 fighter. Strikeforce is home to Fedor and his vanquisher Werdum, as well as a slew of PRIDE holdovers like Josh Barnett and Sergei Kharitonov. Barnett likely has more relevance left than Kharitonov, but he hasn't fought a decent heavyweight in 2 years. Andrei Arlovski is also around, but his string of bad losses has rendered him nothing more than a "name" fighter. Tim Sylvia is roaming the wilderness and probably would be a contender in either Strikeforce or the UFC right now if he hadn't ran into Ray Mercer's fist last year.
Antonio Silva has quickly risen in the division and is probably the next contender to Strikeforce's champ Alistair Overeem. I may be getting ahead of myself, but I think Overeem is perhaps the most dangerous fighter in the division. He's a more-than-competent grappler but in recent years has bulked up and developed into the greatest striker the division has ever seen. He is a K-1 Grand Prix winner who toyed with Brett Rogers earlier this year, the same Brett Rogers who knocked out top-10 Arlovski and acquitted himself quite well against Fedor. If Overeem commits to defending his Strikeforce championship in 2011, and all signs suggest he will, then look out.
The Fresh Faces:
There is, perhaps, a definitive advantage for the collection of non-UFC heavyweights in regard to up-and-comers. After being surprisingly cut from the UFC, Todd Duffee joined a relative shark-tank among the younger end of the heavyweight talent pool. Strikeforce has both of the division's finest prospects with the brutal striker Shane del Rosario and the powerful wrestler Daniel Cormier ascending the ranks.
Japanese-based Satoshi Ishii is extremely inexperienced but was one of MMA's hottest free agents just last year before having ever competed in the sport. He was thrown in the deepwater in his first bout, against grizzled veteran Hidehiko Yoshida, but has since reeled off consecutive victories against overmatched opponents (including Minowaman). The Olympic gold medalist judoka could develop into a more dynamic version of his predecessor Yoshida, who wasn't a shabby fighter in his own prime. Also making waves with a few fights is NCAA wrestling champion Cole Konrad, who is the same sort of immovable wall he was during his collegiate days. If Konrad can develop moderate striking or a decent submission game, the Bellator champion could be more than a handful for any fighter at heavyweight.
In our next installment, we look at light-heavyweight.