Heavyweight picture to come into focus

Inside Fights Scott Sawitz
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After Friday night’s heavyweight battle between Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem is settled, and a winner has been declared, a handful of things will finally be able to be sorted out.

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Lensar’s overall fitness should be adequately judged after coming back from something no major professional athlete has come back from, for starters. Overeem’s ability to face the best of the best, especially coming off a near disastrous performance against Fabricio Werdum in his last fight, will also be tested.

But the one major development coming out of all of this will be this: The UFC heavyweight division will be out of limbo and back on track for 2012.

The downside to heavyweight fights in 2011 was that the title was never on the line and contenders were waiting for significant periods of time. Junior dos Santos parlayed a promised title shot against Cain Velasquez into an “Ultimate Fighter” coaching gig that was supposed to be against Lesnar and then changed to Shane Carwin due to Lesnar’s medical issues. The Strikeforce Grand Prix heavyweight tournament was hyped significantly but took Overeem out of any potential title picture in that division, as well. With the Strikeforce division being absorbed into the UFC, and dos Santos aiming for a late-spring title defense, heavyweight fights now will finally have a grander purpose in the UFC.

With both Velasquez’s shoulder injury and Lesnar’s battle with diverticulitis, the UFC title had significant periods of inactivity and as such heavyweight fights didn’t mean nearly as much as they should’ve. It was the same problem that the light heavyweight division had as Shogun Rua and Rashad Evans waited out injuries; having a title is one thing but defending it is much more important. It’s why the light heavyweight division felt more important in 2011 than it ever has because Jon Jones defended it twice after winning it earlier in the year.

It’ll also coincidentally give us a linear heavyweight champion tracing back to Ken Shamrock’s first Superfight title win over Royce Gracie. MMA rarely has a chance to come full circle in anything and sometime next year it will.

The light heavyweight division is the one that has always been the glory division for the UFC because of guys like Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell. With Lesnar’s arrival, and the addition of the armful of top heavyweights coming in from other promotions, the heavyweight division seemed to be en route to becoming something closer to boxing’s version of it. There may be more skilled fighters in lighter weight classes, but the phrase “heavyweight champion of the world” has a ring to it that no other division can match. It feels more important, even if it in actuality isn’t. And with the last two champions facing substantial layoffs due to significant medical issues, the heavyweights haven’t had the same sort of importance in the UFC as they rightfully should.

One only needs to look at the farce that is the Strikeforce Grand Prix to realize that heavyweight intrigue comes much more easily.

It’s why the Strikeforce Grand Prix felt important when it was announced despite a handful of fighters there who didn’t have the significance of the top guys in that promotion’s division. Having Fedor Emilianenko, Overeem, Fabricio Werdum and Josh Barnett in one tournament meant more than the UFC title did in a certain aspect. The lineal MMA champion would be in this tournament and the winner could have a stake in claiming to be the best heavyweight in the world.

The dream matchups in the semifinals caused plenty of diehard fans to really stand up and take notice; any other division with this gimmick and there isn’t nearly the same sort of intrigue. Tournaments in MMA don’t feel important as they used to but a heavyweight tournament always has some sort of pizzazz to it. The biggest men in combat sports have an importance to them that can’t be rivaled.

The UFC heavyweight title means the most; Brock Lesnar as champion was called the “baddest man on the planet” and it felt right. Heavyweights have an importance to them that smaller fighters can’t generate; the biggest men with the biggest leather make us pause much more than smaller fighters do. The year 2012 should finally make the UFC heavyweight title have greater significance and it starts this weekend with the biggest matchup of the year.

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