5 Fighters Poised to Make a Run in the UFC's Heavyweight Division

Nate Lawson@NateLawsonCorrespondent IJune 20, 2013

5 Fighters Poised to Make a Run in the UFC's Heavyweight Division

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    The UFC heavyweight division is as exciting as it's ever been.

    The top 10 features a list of competitive, competent fighters, and the top two guys, champion Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, are currently in the process of penning one the greatest rivalries in heavyweight history; they've already surpassed Andrei Arlovski-Tim Sylvia (by a long shot), and their third meeting, which takes place this October, should set them ahead of Brock Lesnar-Frank Mir.

    But there's a major problem: Velasquez and dos Santos are in a league of their own.

    "Cigano" is currently ranked the No. 1 heavyweight contender following his knockout win over Mark Hunt at UFC 160, while Fabricio Werdum is ranked No. 3, though he is really No. 2 considering Daniel Cormier won't fight Velasquez (his teammate) and is on the way down to light heavyweight. The trouble is, the numbers don't truly represent the disparity that exists between dos Santos and Werdum. 

    At least for now, the heavyweight division is Velasquez and dos Santos, and then everybody else. And unless the UFC plans on having those two fight one another exclusively over the next two or three years, it's going to need some young talent to climb up the heavyweight ranks. 

    Fortunately, there are several guys who are young enough, or new enough to the UFC scene, that are capable of making a run into or up the top-10 ranks in the next year. 

    Striking/takedown statistics courtesy of FightMetric.com.

Travis Browne

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    Travis Browne's technical knockout loss to Antonio Silva last fall was perplexing.

    Browne had won his three previous fights, and a majority draw was the closest he'd come to a loss in his entire professional career. Silva, on the other hand, was fresh of his UFC debut loss to Cain Velasquez in a fight that didn't even mature past the first round. 

    So, needless to say, I was a little surprised when "Bigfoot" handed Browne his first loss last October (though I do believe Browne injuring his leg during the fight was the genesis of his demise). 

    Now, one fight and one win later, "Hapa" is prepared to make a run up the heavyweight ladder, and he is the most likely fighter to do it. 

    At 6'7", Browne is an enormous fighter, and he's got the athleticism to go with the frame. His striking isn't the division's best, not by a long shot, but it's far better than what he showed in his loss to Silva.

    His wrestling, however, is very good. "Hapa" boasts a takedown accuracy of 78 percent and has yet to be taken down. 

    While Browne's biggest win thus far came against Stefan Struve, meaning he's yet to defeat a top-10 heavyweight, he has the tools and athleticism to accomplish a lot in this division. 

    He meets Alistair Overeem, who once was the division's top contender, at UFC on Fox Sports 1 1. A win over "The Demolition Man" would be the biggest of his career and catapult him into contention.   

Alistair Overeem

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    The other half of the Travis Browne argument—the half that does not believe he will get past Overeem later this year—insists that the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion will recover from his improbable loss to Antonio Silva in his second UFC fight after devastating Brock Lesnar at UFC 141. 

    Overeem is a vicious striker, arguably the best in the division, who was dominating Silva all the way up until the third-round knockout. He had not lost since 2007 prior to the "Bigfoot" loss, and he holds a win over No. 3-ranked heavyweight contender Fabricio Werdum.

    Now, I won't call Silva's win a total fluke, but I will say that Overeem is the better fighter. He got caught, as all fighters tend to do at some point (including champion Cain Velasquez). However, he dominated Lesnar and has the striking prowess to make waves when he returns to the cage against Browne. 

    If he wins that fight, Overeem would likely be one victory away from a shot at Velasquez or dos Santos, whoever should win the third fight of their trilogy. 

    He undeniably has the quickest route to the top contender's slot out of anyone on this list. He's just going to have to get through a very game Browne in order to reach that spot. If he can't, Browne will find himself deep in contention. 

Stipe Miocic

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    After the third round expired on the co-main event of UFC 161, I decided to never doubt Stipe Miocic unless one of two things happens:

    1. He fights Cain Velasquez
    2. He fights Junior dos Santos

    That's how impressive his unanimous decision win over Roy Nelson earlier in June was.

    Now, Nelson isn't a heavyweight contender and, for my money, never was. He was way over-ranked as the No. 5 heavyweight in the official UFC rankings, mostly because just about every heavyweight on that list would more than likely defeat him, and three already have. 

    Also, I am not saying I would necessarily pick Miocic against all of the fighters in the top 10—I simply believe he has the tools and athleticism to give anyone aside from the champion and "Cigano" a legitimate challenge (read: I'm not betting against him). 

    Regardless of whether or not Miocic would have even a marginal shot against Velasquez or dos Santos, he will be a factor in terms of contention.

    He did lose to Stefan Struve last September via technical knockout, but his cardio seemed to fail him after a successful first round. Against Nelson, it appeared that issue was resolved. Also against Nelson, Miocic's striking looked exponentially better than I'd ever seen it before; he used good footwork, his reach and good angles to land his three- and four-punch combinations almost at will.

    Miocic should be in line for a significant challenge in his next go-round, or at least a rematch against Struve (that is, if Stefan's done calling out a long over-the-hill Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira). We'll learn more about Miocic's capability when he steps back into the cage, likely once more before the end of the year. By this time next year, he could be knocking on the door to a title shot, though I think a one-and-a-half or two-year plan is more realistic. 

Josh Barnett

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    The problem with Josh Barnett is that we already saw the trouble he had against final Strikeforce heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. He's a talented wrestler with a strong submission game, but plenty of UFC heavyweights could serve him a tough time in the striking department.

    Still, he has enormous name value, which has a lot to do with how he managed to sneak into the top 10 UFC heavyweight rankings without winning a single fight in the promotion since he re-signed. And name-value goes a long way in determining who fights for a title after a few wins and who needs to notch five or six in a row. Stefan Struve won four straight fights at one point, and his next fight wasn't even against a contender.

    Again, if you didn't get it yet, name value is very important. 

    Barnett meets Frank Mir at UFC 164 at the end of August, and it's certainly a winnable fight for "The Warmaster," and a victory would go a long way in moving him into a fight against another top-10 guy, like the winner of Browne vs. Overeem. 

    A win in that fight could very well earn Barnett a title shot, simply because he's Josh Barnett and by this time next year, the division likely will be hurting for challengers against Velasquez; think about it as the heavyweight equivalent of middleweight title fights between 2008 and April of 2010, when Anderson Silva fought well-overmatched contenders Patrick Cote, Thales Leites and Demian Maia.

    With that in mind, two wins for Barnett against top-10 heavyweights may be just enough to get him into a five-round championship bout—unless, of course, the winner of Browne-Overeem goes on an absolute tear, or Velasquez-Dos Santos III is so close the UFC brass call for an immediate rematch, putting Fabricio Werdum on hold (again).

    It won't be an easy run for Barnett, but he's talented and experienced enough to make it happen. We'll certainly know more after August 31 as to the potential he has to return to a UFC title fight for the first time in over a decade. 

Stefan Struve

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    Stefan Struve took 46 significant strikes from power-puncher Mark Hunt at UFC on Fuel 8 before the 47th put him away, but "The Skyscraper" makes this list because he is the most likely heavyweight outside of the top 10 to make a run in the second half of 2013 and beyond (and because the list couldn't end at four).

    Prior to the loss to Hunt, Struve was on a dominant four-fight winning streak, featuring four stoppages. Prior to those wins, he was 2-1 with a loss to Travis Browne at UFC 130 and two more stoppage wins. Fun fact: Zero of the last nine fights Struve has been apart of have gone to the distance. 

    As nice is that is in terms of the entertainment aspect, it poses a large problem at the same time. 

    Struve is oftentimes more than willing to stand and bang with more powerful strikers, and, when he does, he normally pays for it dearly. His 7'0" frame gives him a long reach, but guys like Hunt and Roy Nelson were able to get to him anyway, blasting him against the cage.

    And he tends to avoid the fastest route to victory in order to stand and bang. He did not attempt one takedown against Hunt, a fighter who was submitted in the UFC by Sean McCorkle (let that sink in). Maybe he wouldn't have been able to get Hunt down, but at least pull guard or something. Is there any way Hunt survives even 15 seconds on the ground against the lanky Struve? Maybe.

    The more important message here is that Struve could be a top-10 guy by next year, but that depends on whether or not he can avoid getting in shootouts with better, more powerful strikers. Too often he's willing to risk the knockout. Sometimes it works out, like it did against a quick-to-tire Miocic. Sometimes it doesn't, like it didn't against Hunt, Nelson and Travis Browne. Once he becomes more willing to use his jiu-jitsu consistently and avoids taking damage on the feet, "The Skyscraper will be ready to make a run toward contention. 

    Do I think Struve will ever be a top contender? No, but that doesn't mean he can't be a competitive, ranked heavyweight by 2014. He earns too many stoppages and has too unique a physique to not be at least somewhat intimidating to a number of solid heavyweights.

    He's this list's dark horse.

Prospects Who Could Make a Run in 2014

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    While the five aforementioned fighters could all plausibly make a run deep into heavyweight contention, or, in Struve's and Miocic's cases, to the brink of contention in the next year, there are several heavyweights that could make a run in the not-so-distant future.

    Shawn Jordan

    Jordan's loss to Cheick Kongo at UFC 149 is the reason he can't truly be considered prepared to make a run up the heavyweight ranks right now, but he's getting there.

    Following that loss, he strung together back-to-back wins against Mike Russow and, most recently, Pat Barry, earning technical knockouts. He's also 3-1 in the UFC and should be in line to fight a better heavyweight in his next contest, which will presumably take place before the end of the year.

    By 2014, Jordan could find himself matched up with a top-10 opponent for the first time in his career, but he'll need to wait until that booking before finding himself on a list like this.

    Winner of Soa Palelei vs. Nikita Krylov

    I'm not sure what to expect when Soa Palelei and Nikita Kryloy debut at UFC 164 opposite one another, apart from a great fight.

    Palelei has won his last eight fights via technical knockout, and seven of those came in the opening round. His last loss came against Daniel Cormier back in 2010. 

    Meanwhile, Krylov is a perfect 14-0, with all of those wins coming by way of first-round stoppage. Perhaps the scariest thing about this fighter is that he's just 21 years of age.

    It's far too soon to suggest either fighter is capable of making a run next year or the year to follow, but we've seen guys dominate outside of the UFC and then jump into contention quickly. Glover Teixeira at light heavyweight is a pretty good example of this, as is Renan Barao at bantamweight. 

    Whoever wins this fight, especially if it's another brutal finish, should be ready to make a run sometime in 2014. 

    Todd Duffee

    Duffee is a physical specimen who can set your internal clock back a few time zones with one punch. However, we've never seen him beat, let alone dominate, a top-10 guy. And wins over Tim Hague and Phil De Fries put you in Matt Mitrione territory for the moment.

    But Duffee is a freak athlete with an alarmingly frightening physique. He's certainly yet to realize his potential, which means his best years are likely ahead of him. It's just difficult to pinpoint what kind of career he can have. 

    On one hand, his athleticism brings back memories of a pre-illness (and pre-Velasquez) Brock Lesnar. On the other, Alistair Overeem laid waste to him, while Mike Russow weathered his storm and earned the improbable knockout. 

    2014 could be a huge year for Duffee, or it could reveal his limitations. Only time will tell.