Earlier this week, Bloodyelbow.com's Kid Nate sparked some thoughts inside myself concerning which MMA promotion has the greatest heavyweights. He concluded by saying that, "unless the tournament is a complete fiasco of epic proportions I'm prepared to treat the winner as the best in the world."
Yet when I look at his argument, one particular pattern emerged in my mind.
"The UFC's old line heavyweights -- #9 Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Frank Mir and #20 Mirko Filopovic -- are diminishing fast. The newest wave of rising contenders -- #13 Brendan Schaub and #27 Matt Mitrione -- frankly just doesn't match up to the last crop.... Any tournament that includes #3 Fedor Emelianenko #4 Fabricio Werdum, #7 Alistair Overeem, #10 Antonio Silva, #11 Josh Barnett, #12 Brett Rogers, #17 Andrei Arlovski and long-time top 10 fighter Sergei Kharitonov is going to produce a winner who will have to be taken seriously as a possible #1 in the world."
Of course, Kid Nate is an old hat at making arguments for argument sake, but still, although the topic has been done to death, I feel like I can provide a fresh perspective on the debate.
Looking at Strikeforce's heavyweight roster reminds me of one of the greatest collections of hockey talent I can remember having been assembled in recent NHL history:
#7 Gary Roberts, #10 Ron Francis, #11 Owen Nolan, #13 Mats Sundin, #19 Mikael Renberg, #20 Ed Belfour, #24 Bryan McCabe, #25 Joe Nieuwendyk, #89 Alexander Mogilny.
In my mind, these were all some of the greatest players of the entire 90's decade, all gathered on one fearsome roster.
There was only one problem.
It was the wrong decade.
Yes, these were the 2003-2004 Toronto Maple Leafs.
How MMA Hides The Effects Of Aging
As I was saying... the 2003-2004 Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hockey is a much different sport from MMA, in that the effects of aging cannot be hidden over the course of an 82 game season plus playoffs. In MMA, the effects of aging on performance can be hidden for years in MMA, when fighters are fighting only two or three times a year.
An active hockey player has 82 games a year to rack up statistics to prove his worth, and if his numbers drop off over the course of a few years, the result is often very simply attributed to a physical decline.
An MMA fighter has maybe three fights a year at best, and if things go badly, a loss can always be written off as a result of a poor training camp, staph infection, injury, bad weight cut, or dengue fever. It's a lot harder to pin it down on physical decline.
That lack of clarity is compounded when declining fighters are only fighting each other. Couture's battle with Nogueira, or Liddell's better-late-than-never fight with Wanderlei Silva come to mind as examples of this. Since those fights the declines of these fighters have been quite evident, but when facing each other, they all came off looking like winners.
The declines of Mirko Filipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are undeniable.
But those declines are undeniable only because they've been fighting younger athletes with more left in the tank who could shine a spotlight on their current states.
Compare that to Strikeforce.
Josh Barnett is riding a six fight win streak, but none of those recent wins are over guys considered to be even remotely relevant in modern MMA. His last two fights against relevant opposition resulted in losses to the aforementioned Minotauro and Cro Cop.
Of course, Minotauro and Cro Cop have perhaps declined more than Barnett, but can we really be so certain that he'd beat Cro Cop even now? Filipovic beat Barnett for the third time in late 2006.
Arlovski hasn't won a fight since 2008.
Kharitonov beat Overeem in 2007, but looked awful in K-1 this winter in a loss to Singh Jaideep.
Brett Rogers' entire claim to relevance comes from his victory over Arlovski, a man generally considered far past his prime, and a bad style matchup to boot.
The case of Emelianenko is the most debated case of all, when it comes to recent achievements.
Aside from his win over Rogers, Emelianenko's recent wins have only come at the expense of other fighters who have already been written off and sent to collections. For the record, those guys are Tim Sylvia, Arlovski, Mark Coleman, Mark Hunt, Matt Lindland, and Hong Man Choi.
With the exception of Werdum, the man with the most relevant victories in the last year is Overeem - the guy who we always lament for not fighting relevant opposition.
There is the narrative out there that not only are Werdum and Overeem not declining, they're getting better and better with every fight (I guess that explains why they're fighting each other in the first round).
The Reality Of The Heavyweight Division
Of course, even if Barnett, Arlovski, and Fedor are declining, we are talking about the notoriously shallow heavyweight division. Even a declining Arlovski is still probably good enough to beat Roy Nelson and Stefan Struve, and generally, no matter how bad things get, these guys are going to stick around in the rankings for a while no matter what happens in the tournament.
But will beating men who may have peaked in 2005 say anything about how well they would stack up against the new crop of heavyweight stars in Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez?