The UFC Heavyweight division has been thinning out of late. Former champions of the division Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia are on their way out. Current Heavyweight Champion Randy Couture remains in a contract dispute.
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir now sit atop the division. The two will be the coaches for TUF 8, culminating with a fight for the interim heavyweight championship sometime late in '08 or early '09.
The field of fighters behind them varies greatly. Many fighters can legitimately aspire to be the next to reach the top of the ladder.
The list of most immediate potential title contenders include: Fabricio Werdum, Brandon Vera, Gabriel Gonzaga, Cheick Kongo, Mark Coleman, and the biggest and most inexperienced name in the division, Brock Lesnar.
Brock Lesnar attracts much dispute between fans and his fighting future. The 265-pound, former D-1 College Wrestling National Champion, is an athletic beast who seems to have all the potential in the world. His amazing headlining ability already set him to fight in a co-main event against former UFC Champion Frank Mir in his first fight in the UFC, and only his second fight overall.
Many people want to see him fight four or five more fights in the UFC against other top competitors before receiving a title shot. However, others see Lesnar as the man who renders any current champion as a man merely warming the throne for a new reign. They look for him to fight a couple more times and receive his title shot.
Lesnar's next fight is currently scheduled for August 9th against fellow D-1 College Wrestling National Champion Mark Coleman—the man given credit for inventing ground-and-pound in MMA, and a UFC Hall of Famer.
However, Coleman is now over 40, and seems to be on his way out of the sport if he does not defeat Lesnar, who is expected to win. If he does win, there are many paths open for his UFC career moving forward.
But a worthy and competitive opponent would need to first be determined, a fighter with proper size and style...
Cheick Kongo has been recognized as a rising star in the Heavyweight Division. A true physical specimen in his own rights, Kongo had won four of his five fights in the UFC before losing to Heath Herring at UFC 82 in March.
He was coming off a three-round decision win over Mirko Cro Crop, but with this loss has fallen back to the pack.
Another fighter that has fallen back to the pack after a victory over Cro Crop is Gabriel Gonzaga. Gonzaga defeated Cro Crop by a first round KO kick to the head, receiving the No. 1 contender spot to fight Randy Couture with this victory.
However, the back-to-back TKO losses (to Randy Couture and Fabricio Werdum) following have left some calling him a "one-kick wonder."
I see Gonzaga vs. Kongo as an ideal upcoming fight. It would set up the winner as the man ready to move into the top of this UFC division and stay there. The loser would have to start from square one.
In this match up, there would be a clear advantage on the ground for BJJ black belt Gabriel Gonzaga, and there would be a clear advantage in the striking game for Muay Thai and kickboxing practitioner Cheick Kongo. Deciding who the wrestling game favors in this matchup is the difficult task, and wrestling would seem to be the determining factor in the fight.
Kongo should look to stuff takedowns from Gonzaga and keep it on the feet, while Gonzaga would want to achieve the takedown and work from the top, utilizing ground-and-pound as he did versus Cro Cop, and hopefully work for a submission.
Kongo's wrestling seemed improved against Herring in his last fight, and I'd expect it to be more improved coming into this match up. If I were to pick a winner here I'd favor Kongo.
Either way, I'd look for the winner of this match to have a similar opponent in the future.
But what about Heath Herring, the man who pulled off an impressive win over Cheick Kongo back in March?
After winning the fight with his ground game, he seemed very disappointed. He admitted he had not trained for a fight on the ground at all versus Kongo; he was hoping to stand and bang with the man who had just beat Cro Cop in the striking game.
However, winning in light of such training, it should be a learning experience. He has been working on his striking game and fitness extensively since coming into the Kongo fight, and looks to be ready to make the transition to a big time top-notch UFC Heavyweight.
I look for Herring to fight the winner of Brandon Vera vs. Fabricio Werdum in his next fight. These two contenders fight on June 7th at UFC 85.
Vera won his first six fights in the UFC, including an impressive first-round TKO over Frank Mir. However, his streak came to an end against Heavyweight giant Tim Sylvia in the toughest fight of his career. Vera is a small Heavyweight and the Sylvia fight was not a favorable matchup for him.
Meanwhile, Werdum made his debut at UFC 70, where he was no match for Andrei Arlovski's speed, takedown defense, and striking ability. Werdum is a renowned former Jui-Jitsu black belt World Champion (two times), but he could not take the fight to the ground against the cautious Arlovski.
However, he returned at UFC 80 vs Gabriel Gonzaga, and scored a surprising TKO victory late in the second round.
This fight should set up well for Vera to take another step up in the division, as I expect his striking to be too good for Werdum, and his takedown defense and Jui-Jitsu to be satisfactory.
Over this set of matchups, it is fortunate that the TUF 8 competition is really putting the Heavyweight division on hold for a while. The UFC needs time to sort out the hectic division.
With all the headlining names for the division over the past few years leaving or inactive, it is necessary to establish a type of Heavyweight eliminator in the division to popularize and familiarize these top contenders.
With the aforementioned matchups planned out, this leaves me with two big fights to go: Lesnar vs. Kongo, and Herring vs. Vera.
Both fights would likely be occurring in early '09, around the time the Interim Heavyweight title is awarded to Mir or Nogueira. The winner of the Herring vs. Vera fight, which is a toss-up, should become the No. 1 contender for the title.
The only hindrance to this setup may be the potential Nogueira vs Herring fight. Nogueira has already defeated Herring three times, twice in Pride and once in the UFC. The UFC would have the angle that Herring very nearly KO'd Nogueira in the last fight, and that Herring has continued to improve since, but the fight would still have pause before promoting.
Vera vs. Mir, Herring vs. Mir, and Vera vs. Nogueira would seem to go off without a hitch, though.
In the meantime, the winner of Lesnar vs. Kongo should be just one fight away from a title shot—with the winner perhaps facing the loser of Mir vs. Nogueira or Vera vs. Herring, or rather another up-and-coming Heavyweight contender that has yet to show himself as of this date, but may have by the middle of '09.
Perhaps another huge Heavyweight, like the 6'4", 265-pound Shane Carwin, will have made some waves by then. Carwin is a two-time Division II national wrestling champion and is currently 8-0 as a professional MMA fighter. He fights Christian Wellisch at UFC 84 and I look for him to win there.
Ultimately, the landscape of the UFC Heavyweight division comes down to Lesnar's path to the title.
I see him fighting Coleman, Kongo, and another unnamed contender before getting a title shot, and I'm not sure if any of these fighters has the ability to stop him.