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Couture's 2007 return changed course of UFC heavyweight division

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The focus in mixed martial arts during the past few weeks has been on the heavyweights, and with good reason.

Of course, Fedor Emelianenko stepped into the cage June 26 and was upset by Fabricio Werdum, setting off a gigantic wave of talk about the division. This transitioned directly into the June 3 fight between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin for the undisputed UFC heavyweight championship and these two fights, and all the subsequent discussion, has led me to come to the realization that the heavyweight division is the healthiest its ever been in mixed martial arts, and more specifically, the UFC.

The man to thank for this? Randy Couture.

Let's go back to the dog days of 2005-06, where two straight Tim Sylvia heavyweight title fights (against Andrei Arlovski and Jeff Monson) were so bad that Couture, with the division reeling with no real contenders, came out of retirement, moved up from the light-heavyweight class and challenged Sylvia for the title.

Couture's unanimous decision win changed the direction of the division. Him becoming champion took the division off life support and allowed new blood to come in. After Couture's win against Sylvia at UFC 68 in March 2007, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira debuted in the company, Frank Mir's career was rejuvenated, mainly because of the debut of Brock Lesnar. In 2008, Cain Velasquez (April, UFC 83), Shane Carwin (May, UFC 84) and Junior dos Santos (October, UFC 90) all debuted and are all in the title picture today. The division also has benefitted from the presence of Cheick Kongo and Gabriel Gonzaga, two capable fighters who today are almost the gatekeepers of the division. And you can't forget about Roy Nelson, either, a fighter who is a win against dos Santos away from challenging for the title.

Couture's return kept the floundering division relevant long enough for it to rejuvenate itself rather than continuing the slippery slope it was on. Because if nothing else, even if his fights aren't the most exciting, Couture fights have that "it factor," because the crowd is so into it. By having someone as popular as Couture as champion, the division had new life.

By the time dos Santos debuted, each fighter that either held or challenged for the heavyweight title starting when Andrei Arlovski won the interim title (that became the real title) at UFC 51 was gone. That's Arlovski, Sylvia, Justin Eilers, Paul Buentello and Monson. 

The recent runs of Sylvia and Arlovski specifically have shown how weak the heavyweight division truly was when those two were on top. There was no question the PRIDE heavyweights were better at that time, but now, the UFC has built a division that is very close to challenging the best PRIDE heavyweight division for best heavyweight division of all-time in MMA.

Of course, as the sport has exploded and fresh faces debut, it goes without saying that the division will only keep getting stronger. There is a new level of athlete debuting, people like Todd Duffee, for instance. This will only continue.

Now, don't get me wrong, I know a long line of occurrences have happened since Couture won the belt, and obviously a lot of these things would've happened regardless. But he played a significant role in many of those, some of which led to Brock Lesnar being the biggest drawing card in the sport.

First, Couture bought the division and the UFC some time to get its act together, which occurred. Next, Couture leaving the UFC helped both Lesnar and Mir. Mir became bigger by coaching on The Ultimate Fighter 8 and beating Nogueira decisively. And because the UFC had its top two contenders locked up in an interim title fight and television show, Lesnar was able to step in and beat Couture for the title, which afforded Lesnar instant credibility as champion and led to one of the biggest grudge matches of recent years when Mir and Lesnar rematched.

So let's all sit back and enjoy what currently is an unprecedented run of heavyweight MMA. The next two years, if not longer, will feature some of the most relevant heavyweight fights in UFC, if not MMA, history. It's a good time to be a fan.