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The Most Dangerous Division in Sports

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Here’s a trivia question that feels particularly relevant heading into UFC 146’s all-heavyweight main card -- and don’t cheat by looking it up, either. You ready? Okay, here goes: who is the last man to successfully defend the UFC heavyweight title more than two consecutive times? Think hard. I’ll give you a moment.

Answer: nobody. It’s never been done. Not even Randy Couture, who won the title three separate times, managed to defend it three times in a row. He got close, thanks to successive wins over Pedro Rizzo. Tim Sylvia also notched two in a row before he dropped the belt for the second and (so far) final time. Brock Lesnar tied that mark with wins over Frank Mir and Shane Carwin before Cain Velasquez got to him. And Velasquez? He gave it up to Junior dos Santos in his first attempt at a title defense.

Maybe you want to write this off as proof of the unpredictability of MMA in general, but stop right there. The fact is that no other UFC title has proven as difficult to hold onto. All the other established divisions (i.e. the ones that existed in the UFC before the WEC merger) have at least one long-reigning champ in their history. But not heavyweight. There it’s been a game of musical chairs since the beginning. But why?

The easy answer is power. As AKA trainer Javier Mendez put it when I spoke to him at Wednesday’s UFC 146 media workouts: "The only thing I can think of for why the belt keeps switching in the heavyweight division is: these guys punch like heavyweights."

Mendez should know. Between Velasquez and Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner Daniel Cormier, his gym has a couple of the best big men around. Watching those two go at it in sparring gives him an accurate gauge of where each is at in his development, Mendez said, but there are some inherent problems with pitting two top heavyweights against one another week after week.

"They get hurt all the time," Mendez said. "That’s the problem. What people don’t know is that Daniel got knocked out in sparring for his fight with Josh Barnett. He got knocked out, got a concussion, the whole bit. We were worried the fight wasn’t going to go through, but that’s part of the territory."

According to current champion dos Santos, it’s also something that every heavyweight lives with, no matter what he’s done in the past.

"Sometimes you’ve got favorites for the fights, but it doesn’t matter with heavyweights," he said, calling the 265-pound class "the most dangerous division in sports."

"Because when the punch land on your face or your body, you go down," he added. "It’s too much power involved."

Then again, it’s not as if the other divisions are pillow-fighting in there. There are plenty of big men throwing heavy leather at light heavyweight, and yet it hasn’t stopped champions like Jon Jones or Chuck Liddell before him from establishing their dominance. So what gives?

At a certain point, maybe you could have argued that the talent pool was too shallow. Heavyweight was one of the UFC’s weaker divisions for many years, and no one seemed able to hold the top spot for very long. Some had too many flaws in their games. Others were just unlucky, like Mir, whose title run was interrupted by a motorcycle accident, or Lesnar, who spent a good chunk of his career battling diverticulitis. Maybe this is the "most dangerous division in sports" for more than one reason.

Even with Velasquez there were whispers of injuries and distractions heading into his first title defense on the UFC’s FOX debut. Though don’t expect Velasquez to offer a theory on why the heavyweight strap is so difficult to keep a grip on.

"For me, I think it’s coincidence," he said. "There isn’t a reason for it. I’m definitely a strong believer that you’re in charge of your own destiny...that luck and everything else has nothing to do with it. You’re in charge of everything."

Everything, that is, except what will happen to your equilibrium when the large man standing across from you connects with a solid blow. In a sport where everybody will eventually take a punch or two -- and with only four ounces of leather to dampen heavyweight power -- staying champ proves a lot harder than becoming champ.

Can dos Santos be the one to change all that? Can he establish something resembling a dynasty in the heavyweight class, or at least bring us a little consistency at the top? And if he can't, is that necessarily a bad thing? Depends on your perspective, perhaps. Maybe it also depends on whether you think it's sheer power, bad luck, or just the nature of the division at work.

"If you ask me if there’s any two guys who can dominate that division over time, I don't know," said AKA coach Mendez. "But if any of the guys [currently in the UFC] can do it, it’s Junior and it’s Cain."

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