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For someone not so hot at remembering birthdays or even major holidays, I’ve got a real fetish for anniversaries. When I was younger, I loved novelty desk calendars on the “This Day in History” tip, and as a grown-ish person, it’s a ritual in some small, nonsensical way to hit the Wikipedia entry for that calendar date to see if I’m living amidst a moment in history.
I suppose that what I really crave is that moment of reflection when you can size up a historical event and consider what things were like in that moment and how they differ from the present. Since I chose to cover a sport as anarchic as MMA for a living, I get to wax poetic on frozen moments in fighting time, shouting and tweeting things like “Can you believe it? Ten years ago today!”
When I realized that today was the five-year anniversary of Strikeforce kicking off its historic heavyweight grand prix, it was a different sort of feeling. For once, I wasn’t filled with the familiar sense of “Wow, that long ago?” No, instead, it was the feeling of, “Oh, heavyweight MMA. Of course.” The division might be a sore spot for MMA hardcores and it might be the casual butt of jokes, but just as most good humor is built on a kernel of truth, these gags are well-founded. Heavyweight MMA is dynamic only in the sense that its outcomes are predictably chaotic; its distinguishing feature is how much happens but how little actually seems to change over time.
The messy birth of Scott Coker’s brainchild a half decade ago was the beginning of the end for Strikeforce in many ways. The company’s multi-million dollar signings of Fedor Emelianenko -- and to a lesser, non-divisional extent, Dan Henderson -- made it a necessity to draw dollars with “The Last Emperor.” After a promotional pitch based on invincibility, his back-to-back losses to Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva made that infinitely harder. On top of that, the shambolic scheduling, fighter posturing and withdrawals -- I’m looking at you, Alistair Overeem -- concretized the idea of Strikeforce’s asylum being run by its inmates, a critical narrative in the company’s downfall. It’s instructive that in the end Strikeforce’s heavyweight grand prix is best remembered for the emergence of Daniel Cormier, now a light heavyweight, whose stardom only materialized inside the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
If you need a temporal compass, allow me. We’re talking about February 2011 here. Cain Velasquez just defeated Brock Lesnar and is a human gestation period away from being clunked by Junior dos Santos; Bellator MMA has just moved off of MTV2 and is waiting to debut on Spike; Anderson Silva is fresh off of front kicking in Vitor Belfort’s teeth; and Demetrious Johnson has just made his Octagon debut but sits over a year away from a UFC flyweight division actually existing.
Like I said before, these are the sorts of events that make you step back and wonder how much of your own lifetime you’ve spent poring over this sport. When you go back and watch Silva sitting on Emelianenko’s chest as he pounds him senseless at the Izod Center in New Jersey, you might have nostalgic pangs of disbelief, a profound recall of what that shock was like at the time; and you might appreciate everything in the sport that has happened since. On this night, this card seemed like a proof of sea change, so it’s remarkable to see how the most anticipated outcomes have defied expectations and helped keep the heavyweight division stuck in place.
Emelianenko teased retirement after getting pummeled by “Bigfoot,” yet he had four fights afterward, retired for three years and has since returned, making millions of dollars to fight in Japan, with both Rizin Fighting Federation boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara and current Bellator MMA frontman Coker expressing interest in having him face disgraced former superstar Wanderlei Silva. It’s 2016, but within this narrative, it might as well be 2004.
At 31 years old, Silva was seemingly coming into his own with his seminal win over Emelianenko, but since that bout, he’s 3-6 with one no-contest. He has been brutally knocked out in all of those losses, and that no-contest was a gruelling 25-minute slugfest with Mark Hunt after which he testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone -- Silva’s second PED test failure in his career. After getting effortlessly clubbed by Hunt in their rematch in November, the immediate reaction across the MMA sphere was for the Brazilian to hang up his gloves.
In that same tournament bracket, heavy-hitting Russian Sergei Kharitonov wasted former UFC champ Andrei Arlovski in less than three minutes, punctuating a four-fight losing streak for Arlovski, after which said he seriously contemplated suicide. As you’d expect, Arlovski would lose just once in his next 12 bouts, coming to the precipice of another UFC heavyweight title shot before being knocked out by Stipe Miocic at UFC 195 in January. Kharitonov, now 35 years old to Arlovski’s 37, got tapped easily by Josh Barnett in the Strikeforce tournament semifinals and drifted aimlessly between kickboxing and MMA for the last five years. Again, as you’d expect, he just got signed to a deal by Bellator.
That night’s main draw had five heavyweight fights in total, the other three serving as reserve bouts, should any hijinks occur in the tournament going forward. This is even crazier considering that Cormier, the eventual winner, was an alternate in the tournament, yet wasn’t one of the six fighters placed in a reserve bout on this card. Nonetheless, we still got treated to the surreal sight of Valentijn Overeem’s 97-second novice neck crank win over Ray Sefo, who likely could have made the elder Overeem brother tap with a single punch to the face. How could we have known it would be Overeem’s penultimate win or that Sefo would go on to become the woefully ill-equipped figurehead of a shambolic MMA start-up like the World Series of Fighting? Heavyweight MMA can surprise you, but it’s seldom in the way that you want.
That same night, one of MMA’s all-time great, heartwarming flash in the pans, Chad Griggs, stopped Gian Villante in under three minutes. Griggs was an Arizona firefighter thrust into MMA relevance after terrible officiating helped him notch a win over pro wrestler Bobby Lashley in the Strikeforce cage. However, the Villante win is his greatest MMA accomplishment, the crown jewel of his wacky, spurious hot streak. A year later, when Griggs got a UFC shot, he lasted less than five minutes combined in submission losses to Travis Browne and Cyrille Diabate. The younger, more dynamic Villante recovered from his knockout loss to become an Octagon mainstay at 205 pounds. This is heavyweight MMA, where an impressive winning streak is no proof of skill or staying power and where superior athletes still cut to 205 pounds to face largely more competent foes.
The card actually takes on a legitimately tragic quality, watching Shane del Rosario style on Lavar Johnson with a first-round armbar. Del Rosario was 27 years old and had just moved to 11-0 as a pro. He would be knocked out twice in his next and last two MMA bouts, suffering KOs from Miocic and Pat Barry in the UFC. Del Rosario died on Dec. 9, 2013, after suffering catastrophic cardiac failure -- a situation exacerbated by cocaine and opiates in his system. He was 30.
Meanwhile, the vastly less skilled Johnson, six years del Rosario’s senior, would go on to four UFC appearances and four Bellator appearances, even knocking out Barry on network television under the UFC on Fox banner. Johnson’s career was interrupted last summer when he was arrested and charged with beating his girlfriend. He now faces nearly 11 years in prison, if convicted.
By the sport’s nature, all divisions are prone to upsets, drama and even tragedy, but typically upheaval comes with those occurrences. This is what principally confounds and frustrates the MMA public about the heavyweight division: Even when its gears spin the fastest, the heavyweight machine proceeds at the speed of molasses, and even when a major promotion tries to stage a magnetic showcase of heavyweight talent to move the division forward, the gears find a perverse way to grind until they stop, leaving nothing but the same holding pattern.
Five years ago, there was a legitimate thought that the Strikeforce grand prix could be seen as the destination for the sport’s top heavyweights and that, at bare minimum, its collection of talent would create a series of fights that would intimately shape and mold the division’s future. In hindsight, none of that is remotely true. In 2016, our heavyweight ruler is the man who toppled Emelianenko prior to the Silva bout, the 38-year-old Werdum. The world thirsts for a rematch with Velasquez, who back in February 2011 seemed like a mortal lock to take the mantle of greatest heavyweight of all-time but is now terrorized by injuries in training. Resultantly, Werdum’s next foil is the aforementioned Miocic, a 33-year-old prospect whose incubation in the anemic UFC heavyweight division has taken nearly that same five years.
Beyond that, the next UFC heavyweight title challenger is likely to be determined by former champion Junior dos Santos and a 34-year-old Ben Rothwell, who first came to prominence 10 years ago in the International Fight League. The JDS-Rothwell matchup, set for April 10 in Zagreb, Croatia, is heavyweight MMA in microcosm, both sides of a twisted coin. As charming as it is for the folksy Rothwell to rescue himself from the scrap heap and emerge as a contender, it is twice as harrowing to see dos Santos, having just turned 32, looking more and more physically dilapidated every time he competes. Five years ago, dos Santos represented the hyper-rare heavyweight athletic ideal, the man who could serve as a foil for fellow freakish specimen Velasquez. Now, they’re ailing warhorses far before their time, and yet there’s no one out there to even take their place. The gears stay stuck.
It’s not that nothing happens in the heavyweight division; it’s that it almost never feels like it means anything. A hot prospect triumphing over a former champion means markedly less when history suggests the young lion may unexpectedly die soon. That precedent suggests the old lion may actually be a top-10 competitor until he’s 40. The heavyweight division is one sold on its horsepower, but even when the engine starts revving, it’s disconcerting to look around and see how little we have traveled in five years.
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