If you go back to February 2011, when the Strikeforce Grand Prix kicked off with Fedor Emelianenko vs. Antonio Silva headlining what was supposed to be a tournament to crown the best heavyweight in the world, you’d barely recognize the landscape now in the division.
On one hand, Cain Velasquez was only a couple months removed from stopping Brock Lesnar in the UFC, but one could argue that Strikeforce had the deeper division at the top with Alistair Overeem, Fedor and Josh Barnett. Junior dos Santos was on the horizon, Frank Mir a threat, but whoever won the Grand Prix would have a legitimate claim to the No. 1 ranking in the division in all of MMA.
Nearly 18 months later, Dos Santos stands supreme and the Grand Prix appears to be more of a novelty than anything else. And it’s poetic in a way that UFC 146, with an all heavyweight card, would be the crowning jewel of a grand reshaping of the heavyweight division that has taken place in the past year or so.
At the top lie Dos Santos and Velasquez, a rematch of their historic UFC on FOX fight seemingly on the horizon. Overeem is on suspension but in the picture for a title shot once he’s back. Outside of Mir, though, the entire landscape of the division has changed. There is a depth in the UFC we’ve never seen before and with Strikeforce’s heavyweights being expected to be folded into the UFC now that the Grand Prix concluded a week ago, we’re looking at a radically different landscape that is beginning with this weekend’s all-heavyweight main card.
And it’s a good thing.
Fifteen months ago it would’ve been the worst possible scenario if Daniel Cormier fought anyone in the Grand Prix final, having been an alternate and not even the highest ranked prospect. Now he’s probably the No. 3- or No. 4-ranked heavyweight in the world after wrecking Silva earlier and dominating Barnett last week. First-rate athleticism has given him an edge, but developing a skill set has propelled him upward. People want to see him in the UFC as opposed to the fulfilling the remaining fight he has on his Strikeforce contract.
It’s been quite a week for the big guys. In the seven days since he beat Barnett, Cormier has moved to the cusp of becoming a star, an eloquent former U.S. Olympic wrestling team captain. This weekend UFC 146 managed to pull off what seemed to be impossible with an all-heavyweight card that delivered one of the most violent, and most entertaining, cards of the year with all five fights being finished in spectacular fashion. Even Cole Konrad, the best heavyweight outside of the UFC or Strikeforce who isn’t Fedor, dismantled Eric Prindle Friday night in defense of the Bellator heavyweight title.
The heavyweight division has been fairly lackluster, to be kind, for a long time because of the lack of talent. There was a time when the heavyweight title was an afterthought; even in Pride’s heyday there wasn’t the sort of depth the UFC has right now. The Pride promotion couldn’t have put on an all-heavyweight event without sacrificing quality in many aspects due to the thinness of the division then, even though they were the place with the best heavyweights in the world at the time. The UFC would never been able to credibly pull off a heavyweight-only event just 18 months ago; they may have had many quality heavyweights but not enough to do what they just did Saturday night.
The last eight days of heavyweight MMA are a watershed time in this new sport. Nearly every major heavyweight was in action under the Zuffa (parent company of UFC and Strikeforce) banner and it wasn’t three or four talented guys and a number of untalented ones; we had an entire main card of a major pay-per-view with 10 talented fighters who all deserved to be on the main card.
Looking back, it’s amazing to see how far the biggest men in the sport have come.