One week ago, the UFC’s heavyweight division looked refined in its outline. Cain Velasquez holds the belt, former champion Junior dos Santos has a few wins to put together before he'll be back in contention and Alistair Overeem was practically a lock as the next challenger to Velasquez’s belt.
Then along came UFC 156, and in just over 10 minutes, the entire future of the division was left a crumpled mess supported only by the Octagon’s fencing.
Apparently, no one informed Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva that “The Reem” was supposed to keep the division’s picture in focus. Silva upset the multi-sport champion early in the third round after being dominated for two full frames.
A quick shot caught a rushing Overeem in the opening seconds of the third stanza. Hurt, the Dutchman essentially shut down, back to the cage. Silva swarmed and roughly 10 (unanswered) punches later, Velasquez’s future was left hazy.
So where exactly does Velasquez go from here? Who now challenges the champion? Has Silva earned a second crack at the Team AKA standout?
It’s unlikely that “Bigfoot” meets Velasquez, having been stopped by the versatile champ less than one year ago. Silva’s compiled just two consecutive victories in the division since his first encounter with Velasquez, and stylistically, there’s little to suggest that Silva’s patched up his game enough to justify a rematch with Velasquez.
It’s more likely that we see Silva offered a few more top-10 foes before a return to championship competition. A bout with Josh Barnett seems to be the only viable option at this point. Silva holds a more prominent position in the top-10 rankings, but Barnett’s a diverse fighter with marquee pull behind his name, and a fight between the two presents interesting challenges for each man.
If Silva can topple Barnett, he’ll position himself for a title eliminator inside the calendar year. If Barnett can halt Silva’s momentum, he’ll make a massive statement and help to continue cooling the still-burning memory of the one-sided trouncing Daniel Cormier handed him at Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will meet Fabricio Werdum this June in Brazil. Should Werdum emerge victorious, he’ll have picked up three consecutive victories inside the Octagon, and he’ll tote the division’s best case for a deserved title shot.
If Nogueira once again outworks Werdum (“Minotauro” defeated his countryman via decision back at Pride: Critical Countdown Absolute), we’re back to examining a Rubik’s cube of a puzzle. Nogueira is 3-3 in his last six bouts, having failed to piece together two consecutive wins in the same stretch. The man won’t be in position to pine for a title shot until he’s picked up another 2-4 victories.
Regardless of the outcome of Nogueira versus Werdum, both men are far distanced from Cain’s current schedule, unless the champion opts to sit on the sidelines until the third quarter of the year. It isn’t likely that Velasquez allows 9-11 months to pass before defending his crown.
So who remains in the hunt, and who presents a realistic threat to the champion?
Unfortunately, there aren’t many who fit the bill.
Frank Mir’s got some fights to win if he hopes to once more challenge for the title. As it is, he’ll be plenty busy with Velasquez’s training partner, Daniel Cormier, whom he’ll meet at UFC on Fox 7 in April.
I don’t think we even need to discuss Cormier’s current standing in the division, given the fact that both Velasquez and Cormier have made it publicly known that they will not be meeting inside the Octagon.
That’s a shame, because with a win over Mir, Cormier will clearly emerge as the most qualified contender in the heavyweight division.
So, who remains in the mix? Roy Nelson and Stefan Struve.
“The Skyscraper” has major momentum on his side, having pieced together four consecutive victories. The problem here is Struve’s questionable durability and the level of opposition the massive 7' prospect has eliminated as of late.
Pat Barry, Dave Herman, Lavar Johnson and Stipe Miocic are dangerous opponents. They make for great experience builders, but they’re not of the caliber that prepares a man for a bout with the best heavyweight in the world.
Struve needs to eliminate a few highly ranked foes before his name deserves to be thrown in the mix for a title fight.
Nelson has a bout with Cheick Kongo booked for UFC 159, which unfolds in April. If “Big Country” can put Kongo away within the allotted time frame, he’ll ride the momentum produced by three consecutive stoppage victories. He’ll also establish himself as one of two heavyweights (the other being the aforementioned Struve) with an impressive current win-streak.
Is Nelson deserving of a title shot? No, he’s not. But this is one of those tricky situations in which timing and surprising divisional stumbles could open an unexpected door for the fan-friendly belly rubber.
Unless Velasquez intends on taking another lengthy hiatus, Roy Nelson may emerge as the only plausible fight for the champion in the immediate future.
The UFC’s heaviest division looked absolutely stacked just six months ago. Today, it’s a jumbled mess that’s left a quality champion with little in the way of quality contenders. We’ll see how UFC president Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva handle this sudden conundrum in the months to come.
As it stands, the heavyweight division looks like a bad mystery movie with no fitting conclusion on the horizon.
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