Now that UFC 166 is over, the heavyweight division can return to abstraction

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

UFC 166 was the coronation of the current heavyweight champion, Cain Velasquez. He not only won the rubber match between him and the second best heavyweight in the division, Junior dos Santos, he made it clear that Junior dos Santos is the second best heavyweight. That was the piece of drama that the always riveting but never quite competitive trilogy hinged on.

Now the thing is definitive: Cain es el mejor. He enters the rarified space as the best heavyweight champion the UFC has ever known. Yet he’s the only thing definitive in a division that churns bodies like a cement mixer just below him.

And in the fight game’s deepest urge to get at the heart of "what’s next," we find ourselves in familiar territory when it comes to the company big men. The truth of the matter is, there’s Fabricio Werdum, who has exercised the patience of a yogi waiting for his title shot…then there’s the sea of distant thirds. You can literally roll up your pant legs and wade right across.

With Jon Jones now seemingly entrenched in the light heavyweight division that just a few weeks ago felt as if he’d cleaned out, there’s no mega-challenge for Velasquez on the immediate horizon. He won’t fight his AKA teammate Daniel Cormier, and really, that in itself feels like warm-blooded magic. Rather than get caught up in the teammate-versus-teammate conflict, Cormier -- who beat Roy Nelson at UFC 166 in his heavyweight swan song -- began to whittle himself down bodily while throwing Jon Jones’ name out there.

As far as diversions go, this one worked to perfection. Even Dana White was okay with Cormier deflecting attention to Jones from the earliest conception, even though Cormier was much more useful in the heavyweight division. So no Jones, and no Cormier, at least not for Velasquez, and not at this point in time.

For Jones? For Jones there is food for days with Glover Teixeira, Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson all queued up. The light heavyweight division’s stock for big title fights is suddenly soaring. What a difference a Swede makes.

The closest the UFC has to a radar-contender at heavyweight is Travis Browne, who was the latest to beat the hatches off of Alistair Overeem (the false groom). Browne has a fight with Josh Barnett in late December, and should he win, there’s at least another viable challenge hovering nearby. If it’s Barnett, then the "War Master" becomes that guy. Neither is bad, but beyond that small circuit of names, it’s steep drop off. It’s Frank Mir, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Hunt, Antonio Silva, Stipe Miocic, Roy Nelson, Alistair Overeem and anyone’s guess. It’s a full pantry of recycled goods.

Which includes Dos Santos.

"Cigano" remains the undisputed second best heavyweight, and it feels like he could hold that post for as long as it takes to force a fourth encounter with Velasquez. And if the big game hunters are asked to get through dos Santos en-route to Velasquez, it’ll start to get very lonely at the top. This is the strange thing that’s happened with the heavyweight division. When there’s a clear One and Two, and One and Two can’t get together anymore, it becomes a choose your own adventure for the Thirds. Die by Mexico at the top, or die by Brazil on the voyage north.

What does all of this mean? Maybe nothing. Things happen so fast in the UFC that it’s impossible to look six months into the future without getting dizzy. But the UFC’s heavyweight division has always had a problem with depth. Guys take each other out of contention faster than they get there. And that’s why, even though Velasquez put a bloody red bow on Dos Santos and sent him off at UFC 166, he didn’t send him far.

And it definitely didn’t feel like goodbye.

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