Saturday marks the first pure UFC heavyweight main card, a lineup that speaks plenty to the depth of the division.
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The president of the MMA sanctioning body, however, took it a step further before UFC 146.
"This is the best we’ve ever had," Dana White told FOXSports.com. "Look at what’s happened over the last couple of years. Brock Lesnar was here, and then there were a lot of other guys who came in it and it kept getting better and better. Since the UFC has gotten as big as it is, guys are making some serious money. We’re getting guys who normally would have gone into baseball, basketball and football. Now they’re going into MMA."
The days of the more, well, corpulent fighters like Tank Abbott are over. These fighters in the 206-265 pound category are certainly more athletic than those early days of UFC, which Frank Mir — who takes on heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos in the main event — can recall.
"Typically, the heavyweight division is not the most stacked in depth," said Mir, who assumed the heavyweight belt for the first time in 2004. "We might have the top five or 10 guys who are extremely talented, but the talent usually seems to drop off pretty quick. Guys who are talented athletes and our size and are willing to go fight and be hit in the face are not all that common. Whereas the guys at the 170, 185, 155 weight classes, there’s a ton of those guys out there that are great athletes, that are tough."
The heavyweight division began in 1997 and had its share of champs who sojourned between the heavyweight and light heavyweight division, including Randy Couture. The influx of fighters like Brazil’s 6-foot-3, 238-pound Dos Santos could mean the end of that practice, even if UFC lacks a cruiserweight division that could split the difference between heavyweight and light heavyweight.
"There are so many big guys, but there are also some guys who are 245 and haven’t even began cutting (weight) yet," said Neil Melanson, Couture’s trainer and a grappling coach at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. "Those fighters don’t know where to go. They feel the pressure to go down to (light heavyweight) since some of the guys are cutting down to 265. It’s hard to do two divisions."
Weigh-ins for UFC 146 are set for Friday, although it appears unlikely that any of the 10 heavyweights on the main card will tip the scales within 20 pounds of the heavyweight basement weight. Antonio Silva, who faces Cain Velasquez, is likely to come closest to its ceiling.
"No doubt if you are a heavyweight, you want to stay a heavyweight," White said. "There’s no bouncing around. Guys like (light heavyweight champ) Jon Jones, who is just a young kid, could stay the path and we might see him as one of the top four heavyweights someday."
The division only stands to get stronger. There are only a few accomplished heavyweights — including Daniel Cormier, who beat Josh Barnett in the championship of the Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament of the UFC-owned Strikeforce promotion last weekend — who aren’t currently in the fold.
Melanson said there are more than a few on the horizon, including some of those athletes who made their living in other professional sports who are about to ascend to the top of the division. One example is Matt Mitrione, a former journeyman defensive tackle in the NFL who will be on the UFC on FOX 4 card on Aug 4.
"The sport is attracting much more powerful athletes," Melanson said. "Working with Mitrione, it’s clear that he’s an athlete who is powerful and crazy athletic. He keeps getting better, and if that trend continues he’s going to become a scary guy. Guys who have certain injuries and can’t continue in their sport, like football, can keep competing (in MMA)."
MMA editor Scott Wilson contributed to this report.