Under the UFC banner the heavyweight division has been a "work in progress" for some time.
The days of Brock Lesnar reigning supreme as a pay-per-view draw have passed, and in the void, fighters have slung the heavy leather to establish a new hierarchy in the weight class.
As Junior dos Santos and company have helped to usher in a new generation for the organization, the next wave or future contenders have been doing their best to break through. The process has been a knockout-filled extravaganza, and when the dust settles at the end of 2012 the divisional picture will finally develop.
Over the final four months of the year fans will see prospects tested, veterans attempt to hold their ground and a champion defend his title. While the UFC hasn't promoted the bouts as a tournament format, the manner in which the current schedule is laid out,will certainly decide who steps up and who is ultimately rolled back into the fold.
It is a crucial time for the weight class.
Judging from the action which has already occurred over the past two weekends, the fighters involved understand the opportunity before them.
Veterans Hold Strong as the Next Wave Rises
The two most recent cards have put a spotlight on the division as heavyweights have filled the main event slots. In both matchups, veterans have faced surging prospects and in both cases have pulled off upsets in stunning fashion. Two weekends ago in Nottingham, England, Stefan Struve launched himself into the mix of contenders by halting the momentum of Stipe Miocic via a second-round TKO.
Last night at UFC on FX 5, a resilient Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva made good on his pledge of "all or nothing" by earning a first-round stoppage victory over the previously undefeated Travis Browne. Both battles yielded similar results as the victor saw his stock rise and the defeated were rolled back for the time being.
The interesting aspect of these particular fights is what the picture would have looked like if the results were different. While Struve is young, the Dutch "Skyscraper" has attempted to break into contention before, and had been Miocic's hand raised, the brand of unfulfilled potential may have been officially stamped. Stuve would have none of this as he finally appeared to understand his range advantage and battered Miocic for the stoppage.
Same goes for "Bigfoot" Silva. The glimmer of defeating Fedor Emelianenko has faded and in his two previous outings he found disastrous results. Had Browne found victory in last night's throwdown, the idea of Silva being a top heavyweight would have exited the cage with him. Instead, Silva came into the fight knowing the weight of the moment and pulled out the impressive victory.
Stuve and Silva will go further into the fire while Miocic and Browne will have to regain their footing.
A Rematch One Year in the Making
The UFC has made no secret about its expectation of the heavyweights. The organization fully intends on the weight class becoming one of their premier divisions, solidifying that notion by making a heavyweight title fight the main event of the first showing on Fox. The bout featured a previously undefeated champion in Cain Velasquez against the devastating knockout power of rising star Junior dos Santos.
It only took 64 seconds for "Cigano" to claim the position of heavyweight king as he scored the knockout victory.
While the loss was a setback for Velasquez, it didn't reshuffle him completely.
He was eager to earn another title shot and the cards played out in his favor. Velasquez was originally slated to face Frank Mir at UFC 146, but following the situation with Alistair Overeem being pulled from the card, Mir was bumped up to fight dos Santos and Velasquez would face Antonio Silva. Both fights would end in dramatic fashion as Velasquez beat Silva to a bloody mess and dos Santos starched Mir in the second round.
Following their victories at UFC 146, UFC President Dana White deemed the timing right for a rematch. The bout was originally slated for UFC 152 in Toronto, but has since been pushed back to the end of the year at UFC 155.
The rematch will serve to answer questions which swirled around the MMA community following their first bout. Velasquez had spent an extensive amount of time on the shelf due to shoulder surgery and dos Santos came into the fight nursing an injured knee. With both men at the top of their game it will be a clear look at two of the division's best.
Nelson vs. Carwin to Decide Who Stays in the Mix
In the current state of the division one would be hard-pressed to find two fighters with more high-profile experience than Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin.
Both have been inside the Octagon with the division's best and are set to square-off on Dec. 15 at the TUF 16 Finale. They were originally slated to fight at UFC 125, but an injury to Carwin forced the bout to be scrapped. Now they will have the opportunity to let their heavy hands fly when they step into the cage at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in December.
The apparent grudge which has developed between the two fighters will be front and center for the bout, but the real story will be in what comes after.
Carwin has lost his last two fights, and when he steps into the Octagon with Nelson it will come at the end of nearly year-and-a-half layoff. It is doubtful a third consecutive loss would cost the former interim champion his job with the UFC, but it would certainly be enough to push him out of contender waters for the foreseeable future.
Carwin isn't getting any younger, and with the amount of injuries which have piled up over the past few years, now is his time to make a stand. While a victory over Nelson most likely won't result in another title shot, it will keep his slot as one of the division's best intact.
"Big Country" has spent a career in the UFC throwing hands with the best of the best and Carwin is the next step on that journey. Following a rough patch which saw him drop back to back fights against dos Santos and Mir, Nelson has battled back to claim two of his last three fights, with his most recent showing coming by way of one-punch devastation at the expense of Dave Herman at UFC 146.
In facing Carwin at the Finale, Nelson will have the opportunity to take another big step up on the divisional ladder. Should he find victory, Nelson will solidify himself in the divisional upper tier where a defeat would push him back into the lower deck.
The Wild Cards
While the division plays out, there are certainly variables that exist in the fringe.
A handful of the world's top heavyweights find themselves at the mercy of circumstance, and the eventuality of their inclusion in the weight class serves to bolster a bright future for the division.
The current Strikeforce Grand Prix champion and rising star Daniel Cormier has made quite the impact over the past year. Big wins over Silva and Josh Barnett launched Cormier's name onto Top 10 lists around the sport, and his trajectory only appeared to be rising. With the UFC absorbing Strikeforce's heavyweight roster, it looked as if "DC" was going to hit the ground running with the world's top heavyweights.
Following the conclusion of Grand Prix, it was announced Cormier had one final fight to fulfill on his Strikeforce contract before coming over. The rumor of a potential opponent floated around for months, but when the UFC announced former champion Frank Mir would be coming over, a high-profile throwdown was set for Nov. 3 in Oklahoma.
Unfortunately Mir would succumb to injury, which left Cormier once again without an opponent. Over the past several weeks, multiple names have surfaced as replacements but all have been shot down before coming to fruition. Less than a month remains until fight night, and Cormier still has no idea who he will be facing. While a future facing the UFC's best is a near certainty, getting there appears to be the hardest part.
You can't talk about top heavyweights in the sport of MMA without mentioning Alistair Overeem. "The Reem" has been a wrecking machine, going nearly five years without a notch in the loss column. Over this time he has championed multiple organizations and made an impressive debut by scoring a TKO victory over Brock Lesnar at UFC 141.
The good vibes faded for Overeem following his smashing of Lesnar.
His title shot against dos Santos was revoked when he failed a pre-fight drug test for elevated levels of testosterone. Overeem would eventually go in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission to explain the reason's behind the failed test, but NSAC's decision left him unable to re-apply for licensing until December of this year. Once Overeem returns to the action the divisional race will only become that much more exciting.
Another top heavyweight on the "limbo" list is Fabricio Werdum.
The Brazilian submission ace cannot seem to find a direct path to contention since coming over to the UFC from Strikeforce. Despite an impressive debut showing against Nelson at UFC 143, Werdum was then matched up with Mike Russow in one of the year's most lopsided affairs. It was a pairing which made very little sense in regard to the big picture, and Werdum dispatched of the Chicago Police officer in quick fashion.
Werdum is sitting on back-to-back victories since crossing over, and it appears as if he will remain sitting for a bit longer. With all of the top heavyweights currently locked into fights, the King's MMA-trained fighter will most likely have to sit on the shelf.
Following his victory over Miocic, Struve requested Werdum for his next opponent, and while that matchup makes sense, it would most likely come in early 2013, if it gets put together. That is a long time for Werdum to wait, but if he intends to stay amongst the top of his weight class, it may be the best option he has.
The year will conclude with several high-profile, action-packed matchups that will ultimately set the table for what could be an incredible run for the heavyweight division in 2013.