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With Cain Velasquez Out, How Will the UFC Heavyweight Division Take Shape in 2011?

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Will the UFC heavyweight division be directionless without its champion?  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Will the UFC heavyweight division be directionless without its champion? (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Yesterday, it was reported that UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez would be out for most of next year with a severely torn rotator cuff. This obviously throws a wrench into any plans Joe Silva had begun to lay down. With the title on hold, #1 contender Junior dos Santos in limbo, and superstar Brock Lesnar on hiatus, there could be a few surprises for the division in the coming year.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Junior dos Santos is given an interim title fight, but against whom? The UFC can't possibly want the top of two divisions on ice for extended periods of time in an 18-month span; Rashad Evans, the top light-heavyweight contender, has been holding out the entire second half of the year for champion Mauricio Rua to recover from a knee injury. I think it's likely that dos Santos -who hasn't fought since slicing up Roy Nelson in August - will take a fight next spring and it will be for the Interim Heavyweight Championship. I think the likeliest opponent for dos Santos in a contender fight would be Frank Mir, who is one of the few credible UFC heavyweights who isn't coming off a loss; even then, it's not a very exciting title matchup. We could, however, see dos Santos have a bout with Brendan Schaub if he gets past Mirko Filipovic in March.
  • The UFC could launch the "largest" season of TUF yet. Perhaps the only "buzzworthy" pairing the UFC can make in the division is having Mir and Lesnar meet once more as Ultimate Fighter coaches. No one really wants to see a third fight between the two, but no one would really be opposed seeing them squawk at each other on a season of television, either. It'd be big-time ratings for the stagnant reality show, and the winner of the eventual fight would instantly be a top contender in the shallow heavyweight division. The problem here is convincing Lesnar to come down to Las Vegas and be on camera for two months.
  • A few old faces might be handed golden opportunities. If Cro Cop can pull out the win against Schaub, there is a potential money fight with Randy Couture, an old dream match I think "The Natural" wouldn't mind taking. Another fight for which fans have long desired - Cro Cop/Nogueira II - could come to fruition. And we might just see the return of a guy like Tim Sylvia to square off with young lions in the vein of Schaub and Stefan Struve. A match between Sylvia and a returning Shane Carwin could also prove compelling. If Roy Nelson can sort out his legal troubles, he could round out the division with a couple of compelling matches.

Even with these options the division seems utterly directionless, with few storylines organically forming and no obvious ways to craft fresh contenders. Now more than ever, we realize the significance of folding in the WEC featherweight and bantamweight divisions, gaining those two championships to headline various cards. But while more knowledgeable fans know the smaller fighters rarely fail to excite, they don't draw the attention nor have the aura of heavyweights. Lesnar's drubbing at the hands of Velasquez and his reluctance to return to the Octagon already had me guessing the UFC's business would dip a bit in 2011, and having a severely crippled heavyweight division only reaffirms that theory.

Still, fights must be made. I just wouldn't want to be Joe Silva right about now.