It has been known for some time and for several reasons that November 15, 2014 will be remembered as an important day in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The date will mark the UFC's debut event in the long desired, potentially lucrative market of Mexico and will be held in the nation's capital, Mexico City. UFC 180 will air live from the Mexico City Arena, a building capable of accommodating more than 20,000 fans.
It is the perfect opportunity to stage a pivotal bout between Mexican American superstar Cain Velasquez and Brazilian ace Fabricio Werdum, especially since both men are coming off a stint as competing coaches on the highly rated Ultimate Fighter: Latin America reality show and the contest would also see Velasquez seeking to defend his title an unprecedented 3rd time in a row. Achieving this in front of a Mexican crowd would be monumental for Velasquez's career and would create a scenario that would allow the UFC to reap the benefits of a much needed blockbuster event and possibly kickoff a brand new boom period in another new market, something that would be a godsend to both the promotion and its fans after suffering through a disappointed 2014 plagued by various setbacks.
Yep, November 15, 2014 would definitely be the perfect opportunity for all of that. Apparently the Mexican fans agreed, as it took a mere 8 hours for the event to sell out after these exact plans were announced. Success was all but guaranteed. That was, of course, until it was all rendered fucking impossible just days ago......
As anyone reading this has almost certainly heard by now, Cain Velasquez has been replaced by Mark Hunt due to a knee injury and subsequent surgery that has forced the Champion onto the sidelines for the foreseeable future. Now, instead of using their biggest Mexican star as the headliner in a historically significant Heavyweight Championship bout, the UFC will be forced to make their long awaited debut in Mexico featuring a main event consisting of a Brazilian taking on a Samoan from New Zealand for an interim prop. Even though Hunt's popularity has helped to lessen the initial blow, this is hardly how Dana White would have envisioned marching his company into Mexico for the first time.
But hey, fuck it, right? This certainly isn't the first time the UFC has suffered through a division stalling or derailing incident. As Anderson would say, "Is normal, is normal...." This is just par for the course when it comes to the UFC's big guys. The UFC has been dealing with this kind of stuff from this division for the better part of two decades now. Honestly, considering how the majority of the division's history has been an absolute train wreck, fans of the UFC's Heavyweight Division should probably just be happy that Dana & Co. didn't just wash their hands of the division years ago when it was a laughing stock and a massive source of bad PR for the company.
Admittedly, things have turned around for the division in recent years, at least compared to its prior condition, and it isn't the three ring circus that it use to be. Still, though, most of the defining moments in the history of the UFC Heavyweight Division are not exactly ones that the promotion wants to celebrate, or even recollect. For the sake of history, though, they are the ones that need to be remembered and examined the most when discussing the UFC Heavyweight Division because they are the moments that had the most affect in shaping it. So, starting with the early days of the division, and running up to current day, lets examine a few of these dark segments in Heavyweight history and see what they can tell us about how the UFC was operating at that time and what, if any, affect these moments had on the future of the division.
- Captain America is Stripped of More Than Just the Championship in 1998 - The first sign of future problems for the division began with an unlikely source early in the belts history. After winning the championship from Maurice Smith in December of 1997, Randy Couture chose to sign with rival promotion Vale Tudo Japan resulting in the UFC's decision to strip him of the title only one month later in January of 1998. While simply stripping the champion was damaging enough to the title, Couture's failure to win his next bout with Enson Inoue was truly disastrous to the UFC Heavyweight Championship's credibility. Inoue would relinquish the lineal championship to Mark Kerr in January of 2000, who would then lose to Kazuyuki Fujita in May of 2000 during the Pride Grand Prix. Fujita fell to Mark Coleman on the same night, bringing the lineal title back to the first man to win the UFC title. Coleman would hold the lineal belt until Sept of 2001 when Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would claim it via submission. It would be Nogueira's next victory, however, that would prove the most damning to the UFC Heavyweight Division's credibility. On November 3, 2001, Nogueira became the 1st Pride FC Heavyweight Champion, effectively unifying the lineage of the UFC Heavyweight Championship with the Heavyweight Championship of the UFC's biggest competitor. This would remain a stain on the UFC's overall credibility for nearly 12 years before they were finally able stake a true claim to having the top Heavyweight Championship in the sport.
- Rutten Drops Down, Then Drops Out - It would take more than a year and a half, but finally, at UFC 20, Bas Rutten would be the first man to be declared the UFC Heavyweight Champion since Randy Couture had been stripped of it. Rutten, however, would vacate the belt in June of 1999, only 1 month after claiming it. His reason for relinquishing the belt at the time was his desire to move down to the Light Heavyweight Division. Rutten would never fight in the UFC again......For the second time in as many champions, the belt would be relinquished without even so much as a contract signed.
- Randleman Loses Via KO.....Before the Fight - After becoming champion in November of 1999, Kevin Randleman was schedule to defend against Pedro Rizzo at UFC 24. While warming up backstage on the night of the fight, however, Randleman would slip, hit his head, and be knocked unconscious. The resulting concussion would force him out of the main event, something that the UFC neglected to mention to its audience until the bout was scheduled to begin. Another shining moment for the UFC's Heavyweight piece of tin at the time......
- Barnett Kills Two Birds with One Stone and then Kills a Company- Simply becoming the youngest Heavyweight champion in the history of the UFC wasn't enough for Josh Barnett. He went for two records and became the youngest man to be stripped of the title, as well, after drug test results showed he had used anabolic steroids before his victory over then champion Randy Couture. And this was after he had been warned by the NSAC for failing a drug test taken before his previous fight. Even though it cost him the title, Barnett learned his lesson and was never busted for illegal substances again.....except for that time a few years later when his getting popped again was the final nail in Affliction's coffin.....But he swears that was the last and only other time, so its all good.
- Sylvia Got Stripped for Steroids and No One Gave a Shit - Fedor was the Pride FC Heavyweight Champion by this point. Tim Sylvia was defending a belt he had won from Ricco Rodriguez against Gan McGee.....Yeah, this didn't really matter....A good example of what the UFC belt meant in those days.....
- Frank Mir Loses the Title on the Highway - Out of all the ways to lose a championship, Frank Mir's method is by far the worst and is a poignant reminder of just how fucking cursed this division really has been in the past and probably will be again someday in the near future. Seriously, who ever suspects to lose a belt via motorcycle accident? Thankfully, Mir was able to recover but he wouldn't return to top form for years after the accident. There isn't a whole lot to say about this other than it really fucking sucked for everyone involved.
- Cro Cop Enters the UFC and Made Us all Wish He Had Just Retired - Man, talk about a supposedly can't miss signing that just blows up in a promotions face......At the time, though, everyone was pumped and thought that Cro Cop would cruise straight to the championship in the UFC's weak Heavyweight class. Even after he looked rusty in his debut, no one worried to much about his fight with Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70. Yeah, we all looked like assholes after that one....In retrospect, the UFC probably should've just made the Cro Cop/Couture fight when they had the chance. A dream fight died that night and that's a shame because it didn't have to be that way.....He never made it anywhere near the championship again and was probably the biggest competitive bust in the history of the division. Just another example of how the UFC just could not win when it came to the Heavyweights around this time.
- Couture Up to His Old Tricks Again - After pulling an astronomical upset at UFC 68 against Tim Sylvia to regain the Heavyweight title and smashing Gabriel Gonzaga later that year in the main event of UFC 74, Couture once again began to grow restless in his current environment and began looking elsewhere. Eying Affliction and a mega fight with Fedor, Couture once again attempted to abscond with UFC gold, and once again succeeded in throwing the entire division into chaos. This time, however, unlike in 1998, the UFC was successful in keeping Couture out of competition while still under contract and still a UFC champion. In the end, all Couture was able to achieve by attempting to run out on his contract was to unnecessarily hold up the division and sacrifice a year of his career at a time when most already considered it a minor miracle that he was still fighting at his age. He made his return at UFC 91 and was thoroughly thumped by Brock Lesnar in a championship match.
- Lesnar Becomes the Largest Draw in History and Then, Of Course, Nearly Dies - Love him or hate him, it cannot be denied that Brock Lesnar is the most successful draw in the history of the UFC. With the championship around his waist after bouts with Randy Couture and Frank Mir, Lesnar appeared to be nothing less than an unstoppable monster that would likely run roughshod over the division for years. He had the look, he had the attitude, he had the charisma, and he had just enough fighting skills to back it all up. He was the epitome of what a promoter wants a heavyweight draw to be. And then he developed diverticulitis......Have I mentioned that the Heavyweight division is fucking cursed yet? After spending roughly a year in and out of hospitals and going under the knife to remove more than slight amounts of his intestines, Lesnar returned to defend his title. It was clear, however, that the lost time was going to be too much for even a freak like Lesnar to overcome. After squeaking out a victory over Shane Carwin, Lesnar was embarrassed in his final title defense by Cain Velasquez. After another bout with diverticulitis, The Beast returned one last time to take on Alistair Overeem, but was thoroughly thrashed again, prompting Lesnar's retirement from the cage. Lesnar certainly had a successful career with the UFC, but wondering what he could have done with his time in the sport had he not developed such a debilitating condition will be one the biggest "What if?" questions the UFC will ever know.
- We Wanted to Believe in Ubereem, So We Did - And my God was that a mistake......Even though we had heard years worth of speculation about his possible PED use in Japan and there were plenty of questions about his cardio due to his Incredible Hulk like physique, we all decided to buy the "horse meat" stories and get behind The Reem after he was plucked from Strikeforce and inserted into a Heavyweight division desperate for new draws. After dealing with an outgunned Lesnar, however, Overeem has faltered mightily in the UFC. Since defeating Lesnar, the former Strikeforce champ lost a title shot opportunity and was utterly disgraced for running from commission representatives seeking a urine sample and has lost 3 out of 4 fights, all by highlight KO's. His current situation finds him booked in what is essentially a "Loser Leaves Town" match with Stefan Struve this December. Should he fail to emerge victorious against Struve, Overeem will be remembered as one of the biggest busts in the history of the UFC's Heavyweight Division.
- Velasquez/Dos Santos is the Heavyweight Rivalry of the Generation, but Far From a Rivalry for the Generations - Before both men made their way through the ranks and to the title, many were already looking at them as the two heavyweights that would carry the UFC into a Golden Age of Heavyweight competition through both their ability to dominate the field, and what was believed at the time to be a surefire money rivalry between them. Both have done their part to prove that they are head and shoulders above the rest of the division, but the legendary feud that was expected to blossom between them has failed to materialize as predicted. While I would hesitate to declare their trilogy a failure, I have no qualms in declaring that it did fall short of the hype. Their first encounter was hyped hard for months because of the debut on network FOX, but ended up becoming a quintessential "Is that it?" fight after Dos Santos's anticlimactic KO early in the 1st round of what was expected to be one of the best Heavyweight championship matches in history. While the next two bouts lasted longer, neither were entertaining fights and only ended up basically eliminating Dos Santos, the clear #2 fighter in the division, from challenging for the title again while Velasquez remains champion. While there is still plenty of time for these two to reinvigorate their feud and turn into something special, the chances of their being any interest in them entering the cage with one and other again anytime soon are severely limited.
When examining the full history of the UFC Heavyweight division, it becomes abundantly clear that its past is riddled with one promotional disaster after another. Time and time again, the UFC has fought to position their largest division for consistent success only to see their efforts thwarted repeatedly, almost predictably at this point, by a virtual cornucopia of unforeseeable misfortune and conflicting circumstance. Devastating injuries, acrimonious contract disputes, failed drug tests, and even debilitating illnesses have all hobbled the division and contributed greatly to preventing its progression almost every time any amount of momentum appeared to have been gained. This has essentially robbed the UFC of its ability to properly promote what could potentially be, and probably should be, its most lucrative division.
While the division also has its share of feel good moments like Randy Couture's victory over Tim Sylvia at UFC 68, Mark Hunt's resurgence from obscurity to acquire a shot at the interim Heavyweight title, the fact they were able to regain the lineage of their championship, and Frank Mir's return to the top of the heap after nearly losing his life, the division has obviously suffered more from the many setbacks at the top of the division, a chronic lack of depth, and the inability to capitalize on fleeting opportunities than they have gained from the few positive moments they have been able to muster. The UFC has proved that they can and will persevere with or without a strong Heavyweight division, so they are not being currently confronted with a do or die situation because of their Heavyweight class, but the promotion will never meet their full potential in popularity or marketability if they cannot combat the deficiencies that have been hampering the Heavyweights for years. Opportunities like November 15 must be taken full advantage of in the future if the UFC ever hopes to develop Velasquez and the rest of the top of the division into the legitimate, industry driving draws that Heavyweights have been traditionally expected to be. Until they prove that they are capable of consistently exploiting the resources and chances available to them to promote the most important division in combat sports, the UFC will continue to operate at a level that fails to maximize their ability to perform at their true potential.
I AM CURRENTLY IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING A SERIES OF POSTS THAT COVER AND DISCUS EVERY WEIGHT CLASS CURRENTLY EMPLOYED IN THE SPORT OF MMA, WHICH INCLUDES THIS POST. ANYONE INTERESTED IN THE POSTS IN THIS SERIES THAT I HAVE ALREADY COMPLETED CAN FIND THE LINKS BELOW.