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2011: Year of the Heavyweight

If 2011 goes as planned, we'll see more good, competitive, high-level mixed martial arts fights than we've ever seen in any year of the sport's existence.

Strikeforce's eight-man heavyweight tournament was getting all the headlines last week, but the UFC did a nice job of bouncing back with the news that Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos will coach the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter, that Shane Carwin expects to return in June, and that Frank Mir vs. Roy Nelson and Stefan Struve vs. Travis Browne are slated for May.

Assuming a best-case scenario for both promotions, we'll have good heavyweight fights from Strikeforce, the UFC or both every month for the next 10 months or so, culminating with the return of Cain Velasquez and the Strikeforce tournament final toward the end of the year. Remember, I started this with an "If": Looking ahead to fights that we hope to see in the future is always risky business. But below we'll look at the fights that will make this the year of the heavyweight.

The UFC's Fight for the Troops will feature two heavyweight fights on Spike, Matt Mitrione vs. Tim Hague and Pat Barry vs. Joey Beltran. Mitrione is very green, but he's a former NFL player the UFC clearly thinks has star potential, and if he can beat Hague in his toughest fight yet, he's likely to get a quick turnaround and another step up in quality of competition.

Strikeforce's five-fight, all-heavyweight card on Feb. 12 features Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Silva in the main event, plus another heavyweight tournament fight in Andrei Arlovski and Sergei Kharitonov. The other three heavyweight fights that night are being positioned as the tournament reserve bouts, the best of which is the 10-0 Shane Del Rosario taking on Lavar Johnson. If things go well for Strikeforce they won't have to use those reserve fighters, and if things go really well both Fedor and Arlovski will win and advance to the tournament semifinals.

Mirko Cro Cop takes on Brendan Schaub at UFC 128 in a fight that seems destined to give Schaub his biggest win yet and send Cro Cop packing from the UFC. UFC Fight Night 24 later in the month will also feature a couple of heavyweight fights, Mike Russow vs. Jon Madsen and Sean McCorkle vs. Christian Morecraft

Strikeforce's other two first-round tournament fights, Fabricio Werdum vs. Alistair Overeem and Josh Barnett vs. Brett Rogers, are expected to take place early in the month. Werdum-Overeem is for the Strikeforce heavyweight title and will be the biggest heavyweight fight of the year so far.

Mir vs. Nelson and Struve vs. Browne at UFC 130 are a couple examples of great matchmaking, fights pretty well guaranteed to set the winners up for even bigger fights ahead: The Mir-Nelson winner will be close to heavyweight title contention, and the Struve-Browne winner will be positioned as one of the sport's best young heavyweights.

If they do a good job selling it though the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter, there's no telling how lucrative a Lesnar-dos Santos fight could be for the UFC. Suffice to say, this will do more pay-per-view business than any other fight in 2011 to date. Carwin's appearance on this card is gravy.

Strikeforce has suggested that the second round of the heavyweight tournament could happen as soon as July. That's awfully ambitious, but if the quarterfinals go well and they can pull it off, two semifinal fights as the main and co-main events would make for one of the best fight cards Strikeforce has ever assembled.

The UFC makes its return to Brazil in August, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira should finally make his return on this card. Age and injuries have taken a toll on Nogueira, and he's not in title contention anymore, but he can still be competitive with all but the best heavyweights. I think Cheick Kongo would be an ideal opponent for Nogueira in Brazil.

Strikeforce says the eight-man heavyweight tournament could be wrapped up as soon as September. Again, that's incredibly ambitious, but if the tournament goes off without a hitch we're going to get a thrilling final that could crown the No. 1 heavyweight in the sport.

Velasquez should be ready to return in October, after a year off, and face the winner of dos Santos vs. Lesnar. The return of Velasquez will be a big fight either way, but if Lesnar can beat dos Santos, then Lesnar-Velasquez 2 would be the biggest MMA fight of the year and one of the biggest ever in terms of pay-per-view buys and mainstream media attention.

And that's that. Ten months of non-stop entertainment from the heavyweight division, if all goes according to plan. The bad news is by the end of all this we'll all be clamoring to see the UFC champion against the Strikeforce champion, and that's not a fight we're going to get. But we'll certainly enjoy the fights that get us there.

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