Opinion: Debunking the Myth of Heavyweight Exceptionalism

By Jordan Breen May 5, 2016


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Wednesday was the 15-year anniversary of UFC 31 -- the second Ultimate Fighting Championship event for the promotion under Zuffa ownership and the new company’s first great one. Most MMA fights, regardless of promotional banner or fighters involved, don’t hold up in 2016 after a decade and a half of crucial technical and athletic evolution, but UFC 31 does across the board.

B.J. Penn’s brilliant MMA debut? Check. Matt Lindland characteristically gaming the system, dropping to a knee while Ricardo Almeida upkicked him and eventually getting “The Big Dog” disqualified in shambolic fashion? Check. Semmy Schilt front kicking Pete Williams in the liver? It’s in there. Shonie Carter puts the spinning back fist on the map as a legit technique against Matt Serra, while Carlos Newton does the same for the humble bulldog choke, taking the UFC welterweight title from Pat Miletich in an upset. Future legend Chuck Liddell even jumps into the elite level of competition, punching out former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman in 78 seconds.

And there in the main event is Randy Couture-Pedro Rizzo 1. It’s a fight that is by no means perfect; after essentially trading 10-8 rounds on one another in the opening 10 minutes, Couture and Rizzo slow considerably in rounds three and four before a quality finish. Nonetheless, it remains an incredible fight. The narrative is a great story in itself: Couture defending his UFC title after seeking more money in Japan and fighting under Zuffa ownership for the first time, only to knock off its preferred poster boy Rizzo. However, the fact that the fight is so damn good, so damn close and so damn violent -- remember, we are talking about a Couture fight -- seals its place in the MMA canon.

As Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem prepare to headline the UFC’s first trip to the Netherlands on Sunday, it occurred to me how little Couture-Rizzo 1 embodies any of the things that people associate with heavyweight MMA. Both fighters get tired after 10 minutes, which I suppose is prototypical of the division. Then again, it’s on account of Couture savagely battering Rizzo for five minutes against the cage in the best offensive salvo of his career before eating a million leg kicks and counters from (a) possibly the best leg kicker in MMA history and (b) one of the best heavyweight counterpunchers of all-time; it’s not like they threw haymakers for three minutes and each had a heart attack. There was plenty of damage done, but there were no blistering, single-shot knockdowns. Two grueling rounds gave way to three clever, strategic ones between two fighters who were at their best between 225 and 235 pounds.

It continues to strike me how the most popular conceptions of heavyweight MMA simply don’t align with history and reality. It’s seductive and simple to imagine classic heavyweight battles look like Mark Hunt-Antonio Silva 1, but the division’s best fights have tended not to be bloody car crashes but more like thrilling car chases. Fights like Rizzo-Couture 1, Josh Barnett-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira 1 and Fedor Emelianenko-Mirko Filipovic typify the best heavyweight MMA history has to offer. These are not knockdown-laden fights between giant bruisers but well-blended clashes that put an emphasis on strategy, tactics and adjustments in the cage and ring. Of those six fighters I just mentioned, Barnett is the only one who was over 240 pounds throughout his prime, and he earned the decision in that first Nogueira bout in a thrilling climax where he dove for a kneebar in the fight’s final seconds. That is certainly not the way people envision heavyweight MMA.

Is it surprising? You would think when you dealt with high-stakes, in-fight comebacks in heavyweight MMA history that they would look like Tim Sylvia desperately cracking Arlovski in an act of self-preservation in their second fight. In reality, the heavyweight fights that always get brought up first in this context are Brock Lesnar-Shane Carwin and Nogueira-Frank Mir 2: One fighter gets smashed for a minute and then submits his opponent … or breaks his arm in half. I will also remind you that while he has become a formidable striker, the best heavyweight in the world, Fabricio Werdum, is a grappler first. In fact, Werdum is probably the greatest heavyweight grappler ever when you consider his achievements across gi and no-gi grappling and his accomplishments within the context of MMA.

All of this to say, sure, heavyweights tend to have more power and your average heavyweight bout between free swingers will probably end viciously, but your prototypical “great heavyweight” is probably 20 pounds lighter, half the puncher and, in some cases twice the grappler that you’d expect based on the most casual stereotypes. It’s not only the athletic profile of the great heavyweight that the MMA world misreads, either, as the promotional exceptionalism of the sport’s largest men is also highly dubious.

MMA has taken its cues from boxing in this way, forever imparting a special, magnetic quality on heavyweights: “Everyone loves the heavyweights, the heavyweights always sell, heavyweights have the one-shot knockout power” and so on and so forth. Any seasoned prizefighting viewer can correctly identify that the significance placed on the heavyweight division is largely artificial, but are the alleged philosophical underpinnings of heavyweight exceptionalism even real?

As discussed above, “heavyweights are massive men, and big fights end with big strikes” is somewhat crucial to the idea of heavyweight exceptionalism and doesn’t really play well in MMA. Another one of the fundamental ideas of heavyweight exceptionalism, very much imported from boxing, is that at any time, the heavyweight champion of the world signifies the best, toughest fighter in the world. This logic might have worked 100 years ago when the next largest boxing champion was a legitimately 175-pound man and it may work in the boxing world today with a moribund and largely overlooked 200-pound cruiserweight division, but it doesn’t click in an MMA context.

Jon Jones is the pound-for-pound king of MMA, mostly due to his already-legendary resume and also because, in many folks’ minds, he could beat any fighter on the planet. It’s why so many people thirst to see him at heavyweight immediately. Even if you would appraise him as an underdog to Werdum or Cain Velasquez, how shocked is any person really going to be if “Jonny Bones” is UFC heavyweight champion one day?

While we’re talking about 205 pounds, we might as well talk about the supposedly inherent drawing power of the heavyweights. As far as the UFC goes -- and, as a result of competing promotions routinely using former UFC stars, the sport on the whole -- in the modern era, light heavyweight has always been its glamour division. Heavyweight might be a great refuge for a fighter like Overeem, who was suddenly able to get on the horse meat and turn into an offensive destroyer, but 205 pounds is where guys like Couture and Daniel Cormier were able to find relevant, famous rivals and become larger MMA stars.

Undoubtedly, the heavyweight division has drawn throughout MMA history. The pioneering era of MMA was largely open weight and essentially de facto heavyweight. Pride Fighting Championships’ product and its biggest stars were largely heavyweights, outside of Kazushi Sakuraba and Wanderlei Silva, who routinely fought heavyweights anyhow. Lesnar was a box-office game changer for the UFC, taking a simmering post-“Ultimate Fighter” product and putting it back on full boil. However, if the heavyweight division has a fundamental, essential, woven-in-its-DNA ability to draw, it should be able to produce money when there are weight classes, when a whole promotion isn’t tailored around it, when there isn’t an already mega-famous pro wrestler bringing a built-in audience to pay-per-view. Removed from these forces and left to its own devices, MMA’s heavyweight division hasn’t fared well.

With Lesnar retiring to end 2011, the post-Lesnar glow lasted through 2012. The all-heavyweight UFC 146 card, headlined by Mir-Junior dos Santos, did over $3.4 million at the gate and an estimated 560,000 PPV buys; meanwhile, dos Santos and Velasquez -- the two men who benefitted most from emerging in the Lesner era -- did similar business for their UFC 155 rematch. How about their third fight in October 2013, 10 months after the rematch? It resulted in an estimated $2.5 million gate in Houston, healthy but not outstanding, and a regression to the mean, with an estimated 330,000 buys.

UFC 188 in Mexico City did an estimated 300,000 buys with Velasquez-Werdum on the marquee. The UFC declined to release an official gate number for an attendance of 21,036, but look at the floor plan for Arena Ciudad de Mexico and tell me if you think the scant $585 cageside seats would add up quick in comparison to the $30 and $50 seats. The forthcoming UFC 198 card in Curitiba, Brazil, headlined by Werdum’s title defense against Stipe Miocic, may get some anchoring from Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort and Mauricio Rua all appearing on the main card, but 400,000-500,000 buys is probably a generous projection based on recent non-Conor McGregor business.

Here are the UFC on Fox ratings. UFC on Fox 11, headlined by Werdum-Travis Browne, has the lowest overnight rating for a UFC card on the network with 1.9 million viewers, while the overrun put it around 2.5 million; it’s worth noting Fox itself stopped recognizing live-same day ratings in November. UFC on Fox 13, with dos Santos-Miocic, Overeem-Stefan Struve and ripe, late National Football League season promotion, drew 2.27 million live, on the low side of average. Nothing about any of the heavyweight division’s numbers in the post-Lesnar UFC suggest any sort of inherent heavyweight magnetism at all.

Outside of the UFC bubble and excluding the freak-show appeal of Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, Fedor Emelianenko is the only heavyweight that has drawn in North America. He produced an estimated 190,000 PPV buys with Affliction for fights against recent UFC champions in Sylvia and Arlovski. Those shows were seen as successes at the time due to no one having challenged the UFC in any meaningful way on PPV before. However, given the money going into Affliction’s relentless promotion, plus a large contingent of MMA fans who were well-tuned to Emelianenko’s overseas dominance, they don’t exactly ring out in 2016 as historical triumphs.

“The Last Emperor” did great in his Strikeforce debut on network TV, knocking out Brett Rogers on CBS. The show averaged 3.79 million viewers and, more importantly, peaked at 5.46 million for his main event with Rogers. Removed from network TV and settled in the more standard prizefighting realm of premium cable, he fought on Showtime eight months later and was upset by Werdum in just 69 seconds. The entire event averaged only 412,000 viewers live -- 550,000 after replays -- and while the fight was admittedly short, the main event peaked at 700,000. Emelianenko’s next bout in February 2011 against “Bigfoot” Silva generated Strikeforce’s all-time best rating on Showtime, with a 741,000 average and 1.1 million peak for the main event. Following the loss to Silva, Emelianenko’s final Strikeforce bout against Dan Henderson saw a 571,000 average, with a peak of 778,000.

These are all strong numbers, but are they truly exceptional? Do they comport with the idea of the all-time greatest MMA heavyweight, with all the steely dominance and Russian sangfroid of Emelianenko, coming to America and being a major draw? At the time, your average Nick Diaz event on Showtime was averaging 400,000-600,000 viewers, and Diaz was peaking with numbers like 806,000 and 853,000 for main events against Paul Daley and Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos. However, Strikeforce founder Scott Coker and his cohorts subscribed to the idea that heavyweights draw and went all-in on Emelianenko and a heavyweight grand prix, sealing the company’s fate.

Mentioning Slice and Coker, I can’t forget Bellator MMA. Mr. Ferguson is and continues to be the only heavyweight to draw money or television ratings for a promotion fans used to beg to drop the division entirely. In the Spike TV era, from Bjorn Rebney to Coker now, it has been standard practice to take cards with heavyweight main events -- usually headlined by Cheick Kongo, proving the MMA gods are both humorous and torturous -- and stick them immediately following a major promotional effort.

For instance, Bellator 106 featured a massive title tripleheader, which was only moved to Spike after the slated Tito Ortiz-Quinton Jackson headliner fell apart and nixed its chances to succeed on PPV. Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez went out, had a second epic fight for the ages, did a 1.1-million-viewer average and peaked at 1.4 million. Six days later, Kongo grinded out late replacement Peter Graham to the tune of 683,000 live and 782,000 average viewers after replays. No one knows what that number would look like without some hangover effect.

Bellator 115 was headlined by the Kongo-Vitaly Minakov heavyweight title fight, but when the promotion tried to run with Blagoy Ivanov vs. Lavar Johnson and Alexander Volkov vs. Siala-Mou Siliga a week later, live viewership before replays dropped 31 percent, from 830,000 to 572,000. Resultantly, we ended up back with Kongo-Volkov as a cable main event a week after Slice-Ken Shamrock, using the residual heat of that fight as camouflage for weak booking.

MMA’s heavyweight division is critiqued and bemoaned for its lack of depth and maligned and mocked for its lack of technique and well-rounded virtue. Yet somehow it retains a psychological hold on people who continue to believe in this fairy tale where seemingly all heavy-handed brawlers are a punch away from stardom, as if they’re true mythical giants, not just 265-pound genetic lottery winners.

If heavyweight exceptionalism is based on the idea that heavyweights are the biggest and baddest and that, in turn, captivates the public, what does it say that the division’s two biggest historical draws are a pro wrestler with a phallic sword on his chest and a cartoonish backyard brawler from YouTube? For all its warts, there is nothing wrong with the heavyweight division, but there’s nothing exceptional about it, either. Heavyweights are not by fighting birthright born under a star, not even all-time great ones. However, if they’re lucky, one day they might run into a Brock or a Kimbo and get to bask in the glow.

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