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Does UFC 146's Success Signal a New Era for MMA's Heavyweights?

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If you’d told me five or six years ago that the UFC was planning an event where the main card was nothing but heavyweight fights, I’d have told you it was probably a mafia movie-style plan to get all the heavies in one place for a decisive hit that would eradicate the division altogether.

Back then, leaning so heavily on the big men would have been unthinkable. The UFC didn’t have enough of them, and the ones it did have were mostly on the mediocre end of the scale. Remember 2006, when Tim Sylvia was the heavyweight champ? He got to the top by beating Assuerio Silva, Andrei Arlovski (twice), and Jeff Monson. That run was so impressive it prompted Randy Couture to come out of retirement as a 220-pound heavyweight just to fight him.

And yet now, in 2012, the UFC felt so confident in its big men that it asked them to carry the load for the entire UFC 146 main card. More amazingly, it actually worked. It worked better than anyone had any right to hope for, providing all the fireworks we’ve come to expect from heavyweights with none of the plodding wheeze-fests we’ve come to dread. UFC president Dana White thinks "bad s--t" happens to him every day? Outside the cage, maybe. On the police blotters? Definitely, at least recently.

But in the cage, White and the UFC caught a major break on Saturday night. The heavyweights on the UFC 146 card delivered in a big way, making me wonder if maybe White is on to something when he says that we’ve reached a new age for MMA’s biggest competitors.

More Coverage: UFC 146 Results | UFC News

"The heavyweight division was lacking in our early days, and it’s not now. It’s flourishing," White said at the post-fight press conference. "Lot of good talent, lot of up-and-coming talent. I think the bigger the sports’re going to see bigger, athletic guys that would have played other sports getting into mixed martial arts."

At first, I admit, that claim sounded dubious to me. It smacked of promoter-speak, like when White insists that MMA will be bigger than soccer soon. With stuff like that, not only is there no reason to believe it, there’s not even many good reasons to believe that White believes it. It’s just stuff that a fight promoter has to say. It’s right there in the job description.

But when I looked around last night and saw guys like Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez -- not to mention a golden gloves boxer like Stipe Miocic and a seven-foot submissions wiz like Stefan Struve -- I had to admit that White might have a point. It’s not just that the UFC has collected more of the best heavyweights now that Pride is no longer around to monopolize them -- though, certainly, that is part of it. But whether it’s the money or the fame or the slow train to mainstream legitimacy, it also seems clear that MMA in general is drawing more and better big men to its ranks.

That’s not to say that I expect too many blue-chip football prospects or future NBA stars to look at the UFC and decide to say the hell with that college scholarship or disgustingly lucrative signing bonus -- they’d rather get punched in the face for a living. Sure, being the heavyweight champion is cool, but it’s also a bad gamble for most athletes.

Think about it: if you’re the tenth-best defensive lineman in the NFL, you’re still a millionaire pro athlete, still getting your picture on SportsCenter every now and then, still sipping champagne on yachts in the off-season. If you’re the tenth-best heavyweight in MMA, however, you’re busting your hand on other men’s skulls year-round, bleeding for your cash and trying to sock away as much of it as you can while the ride lasts. As much of an ego boost as it might be to call yourself the heavyweight champ of the world, how many people would really choose to reach for the brass ring instead of taking a full ride to one of those football vocational schools in the SEC where they’ll be treated like royalty just for making the team?

My point is, it takes a certain kind of human being to want to do this. The good news is, now MMA (and, specifically, the UFC) is finally profitable enough to reward those humans accordingly. Guys like Daniel Cormier, who, ten years ago, would have had few viable athletic avenues after his Olympic hopes ran aground, now have a chance and a reason to prove themselves in the cage. The money and the respect still aren’t good enough to attract too many athletes who have other options, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.

Saturday night’s main card showed us a glimpse of what that can look like. It gave us not just big, lumbering bone-breakers, but real athletes -- real martial artists. The heavyweight division is still a lot thinner than the lightweight class, where the dudes who were deemed too short for basketball and too small for football are constantly battling it out in a crowded field choking with talent, and maybe that’s the way MMA will always be to some extent. That doesn’t change the fact that the UFC currently has the best heavyweight roster it’s ever had, and there are still more names to add to it in the very near future.

On Saturday, the UFC gambled on the quality of its heavies, and it paid off big time. White might not have had much luck lately with injuries and illnesses and arrests, but at least on pay-per-view -- at least on this night -- fortune is still smiling on him.