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Heavyweight division has big openings for a new star in a few years

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With almost an entire division aging, and no top ten contender under the age of 31, there are wide open prospects for young heavyweight fighters in UFC.

Esther Lin, Sportsfile

On November 12, 2011, the UFC had its biggest event ever on U.S. television, the first FOX network live special, headlined by its two best heavyweights, Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, battling for the championship.

Some 8.8 million viewers on FOX — as well as another 700,000 watching on Fox Sports Deportes — watched what turned out to be a one-minute fight. In the battle of fighters who had each concealed recent knee injuries, Dos Santos landed a hard right and Velasquez was done in 64 seconds. The two have met twice more since then, both brutal destructions by Velasquez. In hindsight, either would have would have made for a far better network television debut than the first.

Four years later and after three fights against each other, Dos Santos and Velasquez are the division's two best young stars.

That sounds silly to say in combat sports, when Dos Santos is 31 and Velasquez is 33, but that's the state of the current heavyweight division.

In MMA, each division has its own fingerprints and necessary skill sets. The lighter the division, the more speed becomes a factor, meaning you have quicker and better conditioned athletes. As the competitors get heavier, the type of athlete at the top of the division changes. From middleweight on up, the top of the divisions are surprisingly older and stronger athletes. While most would figure in a fighting sport that the peak age would be around 27 or 28, in MMA — likely due to the learning curve of having to acquire skills in wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing and kickboxing as opposed to just one skill set — that's not the case.

If you look at the current top 11 middleweights in the UFC, the average age is 34. Light heavyweights is also 34 years old. Heavyweights at the top average 35, headed currently by 38-year-old world champion Fabricio Werdum.

But with the lighter weight fighters, those at the top are generally significantly younger. In the top 11 of the flyweight division, the average age is 26, and bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight top tier fighters seem peak at 29 or 30. What that seems to say is that adding to the skill sets with smaller fighters, and gaining more cage experience, doesn't make up for the loss of speed with age.

"The only thing that sticks in my head is that in this sport, we go from Mighty Mouse to King Kong," said Javier Mendez, who trains Velasquez, the often-injured but most dominant UFC heavyweight of the past five years, and current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. "It's something related to power. The heavyweight guys are the heavy hitters and power sticks with you longer than speed and agility. The little guys don't hit as hard."

Between current champions and everyone in the top ten, when it comes to the middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions in UFC, there is only one fighter under the age of 30, and that's Alexander Gustafsson. Granted, if Jon Jones wasn't suspended, that would make two of out 33 ranked athletes. At middleweight, not only is no top 11 athlete under the age of 30, but only two — Luke Rockhold and Gegard Mousasi — are 30, with Uriah Hall and Chris Weidman being 31. At welterweight, only Tarec Saffiedine and Rory MacDonald are under 30.

But with the heavyweight division, it's more of an issue. Dos Santos, now 31, is the baby of the top ten, yet with his wear and tear there is question as to whether he's seen better days. Velasquez, who won the championship five years ago, is now 33, and has had a number of surgeries. Velasquez is the third youngest of the top tier, three weeks older than Stipe Miocic, and 11 days younger than Travis Browne.

Besides Werdum, Mark Hunt is 41, Josh Barnett is 37, Frank Mir and Andrei Arlovski are 36, Alistair Overeem is 35 and Ben Rothwell is 34.

Even when you get to spots No. 11 to No. 15, the beards are graying — Antonio Silva (36), Matt Mitrione (37), Roy Nelson (39), Alexey Olynyk (38) and finally, the lone under-30 member of the top 16, 27-year-old Stefan Struve.

Throughout UFC history, the heavyweight division — whether it was Dan Severn, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Lesnar and Velasquez — has commonly been dominated by collegiate All-American wrestlers. But there aren't any young versions of them around at the contenders level in the UFC today, and some that came into MMA with impressive credentials didn't last. Former NCAA champion Cole Konrad was an unbeaten Bellator champion who quit the sport after a few years. Steve Mocco, the best American heavyweight wrestler of his era who also had a strong judo background, never got out of the small shows.

Mendez had experience with Mark Ellis, the 2009 NCAA heavyweight champion who is now 29, but Ellis has been out of the sport for four years.

"Mark Ellis was rushed too quickly," he said. "He needed more time. Due to his financial situation, Bob Cook had to put him in a tournament he wasn't ready for and that doomed him. And all the heavyweight wrestlers, they're not like Cain and Daniel. Cain's attitude from the start is that, 'I can't wait to punch somebody in the face.' How many Division I wrestlers come in with that?

"With Daniel, the difference is he was fearless," said Mendez. "It's not something you'd ever think about. He's always goofing around. Normally the top wrestlers come here and they have an attitude. They strut around and think, 'Here I come.' Not Daniel. He was silent. There aren't many wrestlers who are fearless. They don't like being hit. I'm sure Daniel doesn't like being hit either, and he doesn't want to get hit, but if he gets hit, it doesn't bother him. Cain came in with the attitude that if you hit him, he wanted to hit you back ten times and he wasn't going to stop until he did."

Jared Rosholt is 29, and placed second in the NCAA tournament in 2010. He was the winningest heavyweight ever at Oklahoma State, a very impressive accomplishment given the wrestling history at that school. But he's yet to break out of the mid-card in MMA.

Add it all up, and you've got an entire division that is starting to age out. Struve is the closest thing to a ranked young heavyweight, but he's shown no signs of being a future world champion. He's 7-feet tall, which makes him unique, but with the exception of his 2012 TKO of Miocic, he has never beaten a top fighter. And he's been knocked out five times — by Dos Santos, Browne, Hunt, Overeem and Nelson — so he's not exactly in mint condition.

"I don't think he has the athletic ability to be a world champion," said Mendez. "He doesn't have a great chin. He's a decent fighter, but he's not a great fighter."

Mendez is involved with the training of Ruslan Magomedov, who is the closest thing to what you might call a rising star in the division. Magomedov, 28, just defeated Shawn Jordan at UFC 192 in Houston, and with a 14-1 record is the rare heavyweight prospect in the UFC. He's got size and is a skilled technical kickboxer, as he showed in his last fight.

"The only (young heavyweight prospect) you've got is Ruslan, and he's not ready yet to be a world champion," said Mendez. "He needs more maturity. He needs more wrestling. Stand-up wise, he doesn't need anything more. He's probably the best all-around kickboxer in the heavyweight division, good hands, good kicks, everything. He's the best kickboxer."

Perhaps the most intriguing heavyweight prospect out there is someone that has never fought.

UFC has signed a contract with Biyal Makhov, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound Russian heavyweight who placed third on both freestyle and Greco-Roman in the recent world championships held in Las Vegas this past September. The plan, similar to Bellator's freshly-signed wrestlers Ed Ruth and Aaron Pico, is for him to compete in the 2016 Olympics and then come to UFC. Makhov, 27, has the wrestling background which has historically been a key component of UFC success. Even still, it's a different sport. There's no guarantee.

Then again, Makhov may be walking into a division that in two years' time might not have a lot of depth, so if he's got an aptitude for the sport, he may rise quickly.

Mendez also noted that when you look at the stats overall in the top three heaviest weight classes, what stands out with the benefit of hindsight is just how good — and rare — Jon Jones really is. Jones was a world champion at 24 as a light heavyweight, in a sport where it seems to take most until 30 to garner enough knowledge to even be top contenders.

"Jon Jones is a wonderkid," he said. "There aren't many like him."

Like with boxing, one of the weaknesses of the heavyweight division in the UFC is that the men most physically suited for it are playing other professional sports. For a fighter like Demetrious Johnson, no matter how great an athlete he is, he could not make money in a professional team sport that doesn't involve weight classes aside from perhaps being a jockey.

What seems to matter with older fighters is taking cumulative damage more than age itself. While Overeem was knocked out many times on his way up, guys like Nelson and Hunt were particularly noted for one punch power and durability. That gave them long careers, but both fell short of getting championship shots or beating the true elite. Cormier started at 30, so hasn't taken the years of damage a normal 36-year-old-fighter would have, although his body has gone through the wars of high-level wrestling since childhood. Velasquez also wrestled since childhood.

There seems to be an opening three or four years from now for an athletic big man with a wrestling or grappling background, who has aptitude for fighting. Heavyweight is the one weight class nearly devoid of guys that you can look at and say — with any real conviction — that they will be dominant fighters a few years down the road.