Stipe Miocic Can Revive UFC's Flagging Heavyweight Division

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Last Saturday night at UFC 195 in Las Vegas, Stipe Miocic provided a timely reminder of the undying appeal of heavyweight MMA. Heading into battle with a revered foe and household-name in Andrei Arlovski, predictions were as diverse as they were debated, with the fight acknowledged as having potential to play out in a multitude of exciting ways. On the night, Stipe Miocic emerged victorious with a crushing knockout win, cementing his status as next in line for the UFC Heavyweight Championship and revitalizing the division in the process.

High-level heavyweight fights are like gold dust these days. Not because the elite calibre fighters are not out there, but because the fights, for whatever reason, only seem to take place once every blue moon. Injuries are more prevalent for “the big guys” than they are for any other weight-class of fighters, limiting most fighters to two fights a year if they are so lucky. It doesn’t help that UFC keeps a relatively small pool of fighters on-hand, despite a reasonable pool of talent existing and competing on the world level already. Andrei “Pitbull” Arlovski was one of the lucky ones, boasting a whopping four fights inside his first two years back in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization. Stipe Miocic also boasted four fights within 2014 and 2015, although only managed one bout last year due to a minor back injury which forced him to pull out of an autumn bout with “Big” Ben Rothwell. “That’s life as a Heavyweight MMA fighter” he will have thought to himself, and though disappointed, he found himself back in action shortly thereafter.

Injuries and inactivity are the bane of heavyweight MMA’s existence and a reason for its sharp decline since it peaked in 2010. Its decline unexpectedly coincided with Cain Velasquez famously toppling money-making-machine Brock Lesnar at UFC 121 and taking control of the most coveted championship belt in the sport, as well as the rightful claim to being the baddest man on the planet. Said claim, it is generally accepted, applies to whomever owns the heavyweight championship, with logic generally dictating that the man in possession of the belt sits atop the MMA food chain. Only Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier can challenge that notion, with the two having heavyweight relevance in their own unique way. Despite being, unquestionably, that man until summer 2015, Cain Velasquez inadvertently put the brakes on UFC’s heavyweight division and as a consequence we saw its luster diminish rather drastically. Despite the former champion and current number one contenders monstrous appeal and marketability, not to mention undeniable talent which saw many recognize him as the sport’s pound-for-pound king, his injury track record meant that his talents were only showcased on rare occasions. In a fast-moving sport where fans are expected to keep track of ranked fighters across ten different divisions, irrelevance can come around rather quickly to those out of the spotlight.

As if Velasquez’s injury troubles weren’t enough, UFC is culpable of booking his opponents poorly and with little regard for the health of the division. The most damning fact of all is between October 2010 and June 2015 Cain Velasquez had fought all of TWO opponents – Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Junior Dos Santos, the latter he traded championship losses with in the process. In a division where champions are expected to enforce their machismo and dominance over all that stand before them, the unavoidable truth was that Cain Velasquez had only proven himself against two opponents in over four and a half years. After brutalizing “Bigfoot” Silva in May 2012, it seemed unthinkable that a rematch would ever occur – barring a remarkable win-streak from the Brazilian. Low and behold, two fights later, they fought again. Predictably Cain Velasquez made short work of his foe, and predictably, very few people cared. 380,000 fans put forth their money and ordered the pay-per-view. All who watched knew full well that Velasquez was the man atop the heavyweight hill, but questioned why he wasn’t fighting fresh opponents and names.

His next fight led to the same questions and a similarly disappointing pay-per-view number, with a trilogy fight with Junior Dos Santos taking place at UFC 166 in October 2013. Somehow, the biggest fight that the UFC’s marquee division could muster recorded an even lower buyrate of 330,000, essentially killing any mainstream appeal for a fourth bout between the two kingpins in the future. That alone is shame, and all for a measly 330,000 buys. If that didn’t tell the UFC that rematches and trilogy fights were unwanted, surely nothing else would. Fresh match-ups were the order of the day and have been for some time. Enter Fabricio Werdum, a solution to the Velasquez dilemma, or at least so many hoped.

Cain Velasquez, for all of his hard-work behind closed doors and sporadic dominance in the cage, held onto his championship gold for twenty months without defending it a single time, this in spite of calls for him to be stripped of the championship for the good of the division. UFC had different ideas, refusing to give up on their key to Mexico, and booked an eventual title defense against a fresh face and a deserving one at that. Progress, you may have dared to think! In his first fight since “the JDS/Bigfoot era” Velasquez suffered a lopsided, surprising defeat to the vibrant and charismatic Brazilian Fabricio Werdum. While one star fell, another emerged to take his place, and the optimists among us hoped that that this star would shine bright on a more consistent basis. Despite his exciting re-entry into the heavyweight elite which culminated in a dominant win over the unfortunate Velasquez, early hopes that Fabricio Werdum would revitalise the division and get it moving again have proven to be premature. Despite walking away from his June 2015 triumph in relatively unblemished health, and even going on record to state his intention of fighting again that year, UFC had other ideas. The prospect of the UFC Heavyweight Title being defended twice in a year was just too good to be true, as it turned out. UFC brass elected to hold up the division yet again and instead book what is a needless rematch, which assuming it takes place next month, will have marked eight months since their initial clash.

While awaiting Cain Velasquez’s green light Werdum could have fought Junior Dos Santos in what would have been a comparatively fresh (though ironically also a rematch from days gone by), compelling heavyweight fight. Alternatively, UFC could have capitalised on Arlovski’s incredible winning streak and feel-good story and book a bought between the two long-time foes. Stipe Miocic, on the back of a massive win over Mark Hunt at the time, was also worthy of challenging for the belt, as his performance at UFC 195 came as no surprise to those who have observed his worldly talents for some time. Instead, the division cannibalized itself as it often does, with Dos Santos falling to Alistair Overeem in a title eliminator bout last month. Overeem walked away a viable challenger, but also a free agent – the title eliminator that was deemed so necessary may well have resulted in BOTH fighters being eliminated from contention, depending on Overeem’s contractual decision. Overeem is not blameless from the division’s decline either – far from it, in fact. His 2011 failed drug test in April of 2012 scuppered plans for a mega-fight with Dos Santos, resulting in Frank Mir stepping in on short-notice and an expedited rematch with Cain Velasquez shortly thereafter. When you consider Brock Lesnar’s unexpected and rather cruel demise at the hands of diverticulitis, it really speaks to the ill-fortune that has plagued the land of the giants in recent time.

Stipe Miocic’s win on Saturday night and subsequent demand that UFC cough up and give him a title shot could figuratively speak for a lot of fighters in the division, much less the fans that crave exciting heavyweight bouts. Miocic is not the only heavyweight to have done enough in recent years to warrant a championship opportunity, only to be snubbed in favour of what I would deem to be a nonsensical rematch, but right now he is the most relevant and is riding a crest of momentum with tangible support from fans. They may yet give his championship opportunity to Overeem in an attempt to re-sign him to the organization, and although it would be cruel and downright dishonest, it would at least ensure that the division gains some traction. I for one hope that they stick to their word and reward Miocic with his rightful opportunity, and in the process breathe new life into the division.

The others to have been in Miocic’s current position of viable contender near the top of this self-consuming, black-hole of a division have all fallen by the wayside in one way or another and in the process UFC has lost out on countless fights which would have headlined successful pay-per-view events. Travis Browne was, until recently, a legitimate title contender riding a streak of three consecutive knockouts over ranked opponents. He since fell to two of his divisional peers, an inevitability when fighting elite fighters, but entirely avoidable with different match-making. Had UFC elected to protect their asset and provide lesser opponents to hold him over until a title shot arose, they would have one more viable option right now.

A particular example that I believe is very poignant, albeit one which may seem unthinkable in 2016, revolves around the recent misfortunes of Stefan Struve. Cast your mind back to 2012, at which time Struve was riding a four-fight winning streak with four consecutive finishes – and among them was Stipe Miocic. The Miocic win deserved to solidify Struve’s claims as a top fighter in the division at the time and an extremely viable, intriguing match up for any heavyweight champion. At an athletic 6’11” and speaking with the utmost eloquence, the Skyscraper has always had the potential to be a marketable, money-making star in the UFC. Rather than make Dos Santos vs Struve – a fresh fight which would have preserved the value of the Dos Santos/Velasquez rematch and subsequent trilogy – UFC displayed its propensity to disregard its future and made the unnecessary rematch. Struve, like the previously mentioned Travis Browne, was instead paired with another elite fighter – fan favourite Mark Hunt. The rest is history, as instead of pitting his talents against the champion or instead continuing his surge against somebody incapable of derailing a hype train, Struve suffered a violent knockout loss from which he has never truly recovered. Add to that his considerable misfortune including the discovery of a heart condition which threatened to curtail his career, he has faced numerous obstacles and seems to have fallen by the wayside. It’s hard not to believe in momentum in mixed martial arts, and as a result of UFC’s match-making he has been on a downward spiral for some time. Even after his loss he was again paired with a top-five opponent in Alistair Overeem, displaying a lack of interest in helping a prospect “bounce back”. You might argue that UFC is simply “trying to put on the most competitive matches that it can, and that only the strong will survive. This is in essence a thoroughly admirable approach, but in a division which is comparatively when looking at welterweight for example, it is not a smart game-plan with longevity in mind. As a result he will likely never find himself in such a position again – strike him from the list of compelling title fights that the UFC’s heavyweight division could offer. I’d argue that this was a bigger blow to the UFC than it was to Struve. It seems that we will never know.

I’ll stop you right there. “Stefan Struve“, you are probably questioning? “Are you insane“, you may be wondering? Like you, I’d argue that Struve would have likely been ousted by Dos Santos, in spite of his considerable talents and long-heralded potential. Though mismatch is too extreme a term, it is agreeably a less competitive fight than Velasquez versus Dos Santos for the hundredth time. My argument is that the heavyweight division needs new names, whether they are a legitimate threat to the crown jewels or not. If not? The champion adds to his highlight reel and his stock increases with every successful defense. The opportunity to see a divisional titan do his thing and add to his highlight reel is nothing to be sniffed at and holds weight in both boxing and MMA’s heavyweight divisions. I’m not asking UFC to sign “cans” with no likelihood of ever succeeding in the Octagon, but rather to concede that the most competitive match-up is not always the best match-up to make. If it was, then Dos Santos, Velasquez and Werdum would likely all fight each other until the end of time and eliminate the prospects in and around them in the process.

Ronda Rousey’s UFC 190 demolition of Bethe Coreira serves as a reasonable example of the benefits of fresh challengers for the champions, as while the talent of Correia is not comparable to that of the Dutch Heavyweight, the concept of a fresh opponent being built up through considerate (not favourable, not cherry-picked) match-making remains entirely valid, and even more so when applied to the heavyweight division.

After his spectacular knock out of Andrei Arlovski, Dana White publicly informed the viewing public that Stipe Miocic was next in line for a shot at the title. Despite the organizations history of broken promises with regards to number one contender status, on this occasion I do not doubt their sincerity. The lack of buzz for UFC 196 has likely hit home and made them aware of the need for fresh competition and fresh marquee fights. Dos Santos is gone from the title scene, at least for the time being, and Overeem is effectively out of the picture, leaving Miocic the most logical and deserving challenger. I don’t doubt that Miocic will fight Werdum or Velasquez in their next fight – the prospect of which genuinely excites me. The optimist in me hopes for a Miocic vs Werdum or Miocic vs Velasquez title clash in August. At the same time, the pessimist in me expects Velasquez to win, suffer a typically cruel injury and subsequently hold up the division until the summer of 2017. The realist in me expects something in between.

As for Miocic’s eventual prospects? Whether it be against Cain Velasquez or Fabricio Werdum his chances are very good. He will enter the fight as an inevitable underdog but all hardened MMA observers will attest to his talent and ability to topple any fighter on any given night. His loss to Junior Dos Santos in December of 2014 was controversial, with many including himself believing that his tactical, efficient approach had won the fight. Alas he did not earn the judges’ favour, and has bounced back with consecutive stoppages to take it out of their hands. His versatility will allow him to battle for 25 minutes if necessary, but his fight-stopping power and sublime technique has already proven enough to stop elite foes. Regardless of the opponent he will allow for a fresh, exciting fight and one that may just be the catalyst to a new era in the UFC Heavyweight Division, one which allows the handful of prospects bubbling under the surface to finally break through.

Miocic will fight the champion and the fight will be a fantastic spectacle, reminding the world of all of the marvels of the 265 pound division, but the divisions track record of late would suggest that it won’t take place as soon as any of us would like. Despite gloomy clouds overhead there is a sense that the prospects of the heavyweight division is set to change for the better, and the emergence of Stipe Miocic is a major part in that. Two things are for sure though – Miocic loves to fight and wants to fight as soon as he can, and with the UFC’s blessing he will be a big part of the revival of their flagging heavyweight division.