In and of itself, it was not especially remarkable this week when Fabio Maldonado agreed to step up in weight to fight Stipe Miocic on 25 days' notice.
Desperate times, and all that.
Maldonado has long been regarded as a light heavyweight too tough for his own good, so his willingness to put a three-fight win streak on the line for an impromptu bout against the potential heavyweight No. 1 contender is not a shock.
Nor is it a huge surprise that, in their desperation, UFC matchmakers would tab him as an emergency opponent for Miocic at the The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 finale.
Maldonado is from Sao Paulo—where the event will be held on May 31—and each of his last four Octagon appearances have been in the motherland. Also, his punch-first-ask-questions-later style will make him a fitting, if surely doomed, replacement for Junior dos Santos.
Welp. We’re about to find out just how tough Fabio Maldonado is. Stipie Miocic is a bad dude.— Marc Raimondi (@marc_raimondi) May 6, 2014
No, the most remarkable thing about the events of the last 48 hours is that they remind us how easily the UFC heavyweight division can fall into chaos.
All it took this time was Dos Santos breaking his hand nearly a month out from a bout that’s been on the books since March, and the entire 265-pound class was rendered helpless to respond.
A main event fight against Miocic seems like a pretty tasty gig for some opportunistic heavyweight looking for a shortcut to the top, but none were willing or available to accept the challenge.
With all due respect to the 31-year-old Ohio native—who has looked pretty good while marching to a 5-1 record in the UFC—it probably wasn’t because they were all so terrified of him.
This was a straightforward numbers game. The UFC likely had to insert the 205-pound Maldonado into the most compelling, high-profile heavyweight fight of the next month merely because there wasn’t a single 265-pounder on the roster who was ready to take the job.
That’s the hard truth about the UFC heavyweight division: It’s never been the deepest or most talent-rich class out there.
It has always been a catchall for misfits and spectacle attractions, its sordid history littered with instability and regrettable turns.
It’s the division where Tim Sylvia once reigned. The division where Brock Lesnar won the title in his fourth professional appearance, got diverticulitis and left the sport with fewer than 10 career fights. It’s the place where Kimbo Slice, James Toney and Tank Abbott all once passed as the genuine article.
In fairness, there’s a prouder history buried in there, too.
Heavyweight is the division of Dan Severn, Bas Rutten, Cain Velasquez and—up until recently—Daniel Cormier.
But for every one of those guys, there’s always been a Wes Sims, Greg Stott or Sean Gannon hanging around to make it seem as though the UFC would let just about anybody into this weight class.
There’s obviously a good reason for that: In the modern sports landscape, elite-level heavyweight MMA fighters aren’t easy to come by.
If you’re 6’4”, 280 pounds and endowed with the physical gifts necessary to make it as a professional athlete, chances are somebody’s going to make you a better offer. For big guys, there’s a litany of easier, more lucrative options out there, many of which don’t even require getting punched in the face by other 6’4”, 280-pound behemoths.
Even today, the heavyweight division lags behind the lighter weight classes in sheer numbers—and often in sheer action.
With just 36 265-pound fighters listed on the UFC’s official website—and only six of them under 30 years old—it leaves the impression of a shallow, aging division stretched to the breaking point by the fight company’s hard-charging 2014 event schedule.
With most of the rest of the heavyweight top 15 otherwise engaged—read: already booked elsewhere, injured, suspended or coming off recent appearances—there weren’t a lot of options to replace Dos Santos on an international event when he snapped a metacarpal four weeks out.
And so we get Maldonado in a bout that will no doubt stoke the Brazilian live crowd into a frenzy—not that it typically needs an excuse—but which doesn’t figure to be overly competitive from bell to bell.
"The only thing I promise the fans is that it’s going to be a bloody, violent fight,” Maldonado told MMA Fighting.com’s Guilherme Cruz after accepting the bout. "I can’t promise the win because anything can happen, but I will do my best."
It’s a great opportunity for a 34-year-old with a 4-3 record in the Octagon. Maldonado fought at heavyweight in independent Brazilian promotions before the UFC and good sense came calling.
If he somehow manages to unseat Miocic, then the shallow nature of the heavyweight division will suddenly work very much to his benefit.
He’d be forged as an instant contender.
On the other hand, if this fight turns as ugly as we fear it might, we’ll likely all be left wondering what a light heavyweight was doing there in the first place.