Throughout the week, MMA For Real will take a look at each of the UFC's classic five divisions while discussing the hierarchy in each division in regards to fighters are championship contention or could one day be. Today, we start with the big boys in the UFC heavyweight division. See things differently? Want to give your thoughts on which track the division should go? Express yourself in the comments section!
Cain Velasquez: Velasquez captured the UFC heavyweight championship in only his ninth professional fight, stopping Brock Lesnar in the first round of their fight at UFC 121 last month. The former Arizona State wrestler and American Kickboxing Academy product has stopped all but one of his opponents by KO or TKO. Velasquez has shown tremendous and appreciable improvement from one fight to the next and might still be far away from his full potential, an extremely scary thought for heavyweights. On top of that, Velasquez can fight at a pace that is tough for even the best-conditioned heavyweight to match, making him a tough out. Velasquez is undoubtedly the world's No. 1 heavyweight fighter but will have challenges lined up for him in the future.
Junior dos Santos: At 6-0 with five stoppage wins, Brazilian Junior dos Santos has undoubtedly earned the division's No. 1 contender slot and likely will meet Velasquez in the spring. Primarily a boxer, dos Santos dismantled Roy Nelson in August to earn the No. 1 contender spot, beating the portly Nelson by unanimous decision. He brings power, speed and technical stand-up prowess to a fight, but his ground game remains mostly untested in UFC action. He fought an obscenely out-of-shape Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90, but Werdum never got it to the ground as he was knocked out in 81 seconds. Dos Santos was able to stop Nelson's takedowns, but stopped Nelson's takedowns is not the same as stopping Velasquez's.
Brock Lesnar: Despite losing his championship in October, Lesnar remains a top contender and, considering what he does for business, is as close to a shoo-in as possible for a title shot if he wins his next fight. As it stands now, though, we just don't know who that'll be against. A fight with Frank Mir makes sense from both a fighting and business perspective. Lesnar has question marks now with how he handles getting hit and would undoubtedly be the underdog against Velasquez or dos Santos.
Don't forget about...:
Shane Carwin: A former UFC interim heavyweight champion, Carwin was scheduled for a Jan. 1 bout with Roy Nelson but had to bow out due to a back injury that required surgery. Carwin can be easily promoted to a title shot with just one devastating knockout, so that's a plus in his column. But he has some serious questions to answer after his all-time gas out against Lesnar at UFC 116. If a Carwin/Nelson fight can be made, that's the fight for both. If not, Carwin against the Velasquez/Dos Santos loser would be a new, meaningful fight. Even though he's high on age and low on cage experience, Carwin is a threat.
Frank Mir: It's probably going to take a lot for Mir to get a title shot, especially after his dud of a fight with Mirko Cro Cop in September. He's going to have to win two more fights to get a shot. If I had to guess, I'd say he'd rematch Lesnar and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in some order in those two fights. Or Lesnar and the loser of the Velasquez/Dos Santos fight. Or Lesnar and then Roy Nelson. Either way, Mir is going to have to do a lot to get the shot.
Roy Nelson: This is an interesting case because of his current contractual nightmare and his ability to fight in the UFC at the current moment. Right now, with his status up in the air, it's tough to project where he fits in because of the indefinite nature of his contractual situation. Nelson, though, brings a well-rounded game to the table and could literally fight anybody and be a challenge for them. He is a valued asset in this division.
In the future...:
Brendan Schaub: Since fighters like Velasquez, dos Santos and Carwin have risen to the top level, the UFC heavyweight division is now short on up-and-comers. The release of Todd Duffee makes "The Ultimate Fighter 10" finalist Brendan Schaub the division's top prospect. Schaub (7-1-0 MMA, 3-1 UFC) still has a lot to prove, at least to me. Beating Gabriel Gonzaga last month was a step in the right direction, but in that time, he showed some questionable tactics (going for takedowns and having his back taken right into a choke late) and couldn't do a ton of damage to a nearly zombie-like Gonzaga. His standup is good (but not at the level of those at the top and needs to be improved), his chin is largely untested and we don't know anything about his ground game. I want to see Schaub be tested on his back before touting him further.
Stefan Struve: Struve has had an up-and-down UFC career, already tallying a 4-2 record in less than two years in the promotion. His losses have come to dos Santos and Nelson but he's yet to have that signature win. Struve finds himself on this list because he's still very young (23 in February), he has good submission skills for the division and his size (6-foot-11) can pose problems for opponents if he can just find the ability to use it correctly. Right now, Struve gets in slugfests and doesn't use his reach to his advantage at all. That's a problem. He's been knocked out by both dos Santos and Nelson in under a minute each time. If he can work on his striking, both offensive and defensive, he'll be in a much better place. We'll see what he does next week at UFC 124 against Sean McCorkle.