Given the rate at which the sport has grown of late, many fans of mixed martial arts might not be aware of a dark period in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's heavyweight history. Strange but true given that the gloom was deep less than four years ago.
Even after the UFC's initial explosion from reality-show curiosity to legitimate sport in the eyes of the public, the biggest boppers were a pretty vanilla group.
Back in 2006, Georges "Rush" St. Pierre was enjoying his first brief stint as the organization's Welterweight Champion. Anderson "The Spider" Silva would begin his reign as Middleweight Champion in October. Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell was spear-heading the UFC assault on pop culture and well into his lengthy ride atop the weight class.
Even the little guys had a distinct buzz as B.J. "The Prodigy" Penn—an absolute nightmare at any size—made his return to the UFC in '06.
Granted, it was as unsuccessful war at welterweight with GSP, but you get the idea. We all knew Baby J would eventually fight at lightweight so the division had sizzle.
During all this excitement and despite the meteoric trajectory of the UFC, Dana White's heavyweights were ruled by...drum roll please...Tim "The Maine-iac" Sylvia.
Look, Sylvia was never a terrible fighter and he would utterly destroy me at any point in his career or, possibly, retirement. I'm not a frail dude and the 6'8" monster could literally tear me limb from limb. Yet Sylvia becomes utterly suspect when examined as an elite mixed martial artist.
Nevertheless, he controlled the division in 2006 and it was his second lounge in the throne.
The Maine-iac (that's just awful) took the title from another good-not-great competitor in Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski. These were the Heavyweight Champions , usually the pride of any fight club and the primary press in its money-printing operation.
Even more condemning, however, were the "contenders" at 265 pounds way back then.
That illustrious list included such terrors as Dan Christison, Brandon Lee Hinkle, Marcio Cruz, Jeff "The Snowman" Monson (who actually is terrifying), Paul Buentello, the deceased Justin Eilers, Assuerio Silva, and a more convincing Brandon Vera.
Randy "The Natural" Couture would return to heavyweight in 2007 and begin to restore order in the form of hysteria. Additionally, Frank Mir was circling the waters, but it was a much different version.
Shoot, this version of Frank Mir is substantially different than the one that lost to Brock Lesnar about eight months ago.
Regardless, the UFC's heavyweight division was nothing short of an eyesore in those ancient times. One made infinitely more unappealing by the dynasty of Fedor "The Last Emperor" Emelianenko in Pride Fighting Championships and its stable of heavyweight thoroughbreds.
Flash forward to the current crop of UFC ferocity.
Mir Version 2010 is a physical sight to behold. I don't know how he got so shredded so quickly without losing any apparent mobility or agility nor do I particularly care. All I'm interested in is seeing what he does at UFC 111.
He's always been one of the premier grapplers at any weight and his striking has been steadily improving. Now, he's an utter beast to boot.
Yes, I'm excited.
So is the rest of the fight world because the battle for the Interim Heavyweight Championship is threatening to steal all the thunder from the actual championship bout.
St. Pierre's tete-a-tete with Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy is for the real thing at 170, no "interim" strings attached. Furthermore, GSP—one of the best warriors on the planet—hasn't fought for almost a year and, still, there's almost as much heat coming from the heavyweight confrontation.
That's because Mir's counterpart, Shane Carwin, is another one of the shiny new forces of nature at 265.
The Denver native lacks depth on his resume, but he has more than enough style, boasting three stoppages in his three-fight UFC career. A career that consists of exactly three minutes and 24 seconds in actual Octagon time, three concussive finishes, and a jaw-dropping performance opposite Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga (himself a load in the division).
The uproar is justified, especially since the winner should get the king.
Everyone knows the champ, Lesnar, is still early in his development as an MMA practitioner. There's a truly scary proposition if I've ever heard one since the big fella is already no trifle.
I think we can call Brock Lesnar's transition to the sport a success.
To go with these three brutes—four if you include Gonzaga and I do because he would eat 2006 Tim Sylvia's lunch and then 2006 Andrei Arlovski's dessert—you can suddenly find all sorts of names:
* Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic —an admitted stretch, but one of the all-time greats.
* Antonio "Minotauro" Rodrigo Nogueira —an admitted stretch, but one of the all-time greats.
* Cheick Kongo —the Frenchman makes the list because of his effort against Buentello at UFC Live on Versus. If the commitment to a ground game is real, Kongo might have a startling second wind in him.
* Stefan "The Skyscraper" Struve —this talented tyke just turned 22 and is being brought along slowly for the time being, which is a good idea. My man is 6'11" and moves fluidly; he could be a huge player if they don't rush him.
* Cain Velasquez —the 27-year-old is the contingency plan to face Lesnar at UFC 116 in the event that Mir and Carwin pulverize each other too badly. Rightly so because the former All-American wrestler proved his striking power, the one question left, by dispatching Minotauro quickly at UFC 110.
* Junior "Cigano" dos Santos —the 25-year-old Brazilian phenom possesses the most star-studded hit-list of any newcomer. He's stopped the likes of Gonzaga, Gilbert "The Hurricane" Yvel, Cro Cop, Struve, and Fabricio "Vai Cavalo" Werdum without so much as breaking a sweat since arriving in the UFC.
If you'd allow me to mix metaphors (or allusions or whichever literary device)—where the cupboard was once bare, our heavyweight cup now runneth over.
There are big names in demolition and gifted youngsters at the same pastime about to be climbing over each other just to get a shot at a title held by a certifiable wrecking ball.
A belt that was once the possession of would-be gatekeepers.
The frenzy officially begins Saturday night at UFC 111 when Frank Mir taps gloves with Shane Carwin. Once that happens, we're passed the point of no return.
And not a moment too soon.