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Days before the back-to-back Bellator MMA bonanza went down, Matt Matrione said that if the heavyweight grand prix final ended up being between Ryan Bader and Chael Sonnen -- neither of whom competed at heavyweight a single time before this tournament -- it would discredit the promotion’s heavyweight division. Sonnen had some choice thoughts on the state of the heavyweights:
“Yeah, I think that’s right. I think it discredits all the heavyweights completely. The best thing to do with heavyweights is to keep them the hell away from any other weight class. They’re the worst athletes in the room, they’re the slowest guys in the room, they’re the laziest guys in the room, which is why they weigh so goddamn much, and if you want to keep the mystique going on to the public that size matters and the big guys are better just because they’re bigger, if you want to keep that false narrative out there, keep us real athletes away from the heavyweights. I think it was a risky move. They tried it on the other side of the tracks, and a light heavyweight now has that strap, too. Heavyweights suck. Mitrione is right.”
Let’s investigate the veracity of that statement, as much as it’s possible to objectively assess whether or not something “sucks.”
Both Mitrione and Sonnen can breathe easy knowing that their defeats have ensured the legitimacy of the division for the time being. Now, instead of a final between a career light heavyweight and a fighter who spent most of his career at middleweight, we have a fight between a career light heavyweight and a past-prime heavyweight who got to the final by beating a middleweight. Crisis averted.
Though this may seem to be just a Bellator problem, it’s not. As Sonnen mentioned, Daniel Cormier flattened the all-time title defense holder in Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight history, Stipe Miocic, within a round to win the heavyweight crown. While most people are aware that Cormier started his MMA career at heavyweight -- and was an undefeated one at that -- the fact that he is physically capable of cutting down to 205 pounds validates part of what Sonnen was saying: Cormier is simply a better athlete and fighter than the majority of the current heavyweight roster, despite being significantly smaller. His physical frame is obviously better suited for light heavyweight, and if it weren’t for Jon Jones, he’d likely be considered the consensus Greatest of All-Time in that division. His success against men much larger than him doesn’t speak well of the UFC heavyweights, either.
Speaking of Jones, much of the conversation about his return has focused on a potential heavyweight run. Frankly, it’s not absurd to think that Jones could become a reigning heavyweight champion, partly because he’s that good and partly because heavyweight is that bad. That’s to say nothing of former light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Randy Couture, whose success at heavyweight was equally an inspiration and an indictment.
Is it then accurate, as Sonnen said, that it is a “false narrative” to claim that “big guys are better just because they’re bigger?” Not exactly. Sonnen found this out firsthand within seconds of his fight against Fedor Emelianenko, when a left hook from the Russian sent him crumpling to the canvas. Unless you believe that power doesn’t matter in a fight -- in which case I don’t hold your opinion in high regard -- you have to believe that size does alter a matchup in a substantial way. Otherwise, why not pit Henry Cejudo against Robert Whittaker? Why bother with weight classes at all?
Of course, part of the allure of fighting is that size isn’t everything. When Genki Sudo heel hooked Eric Esch, it was every bit as entertaining and predictable as a Jedi defeating Jabba the Hutt. Technical disparities can be every bit as large as 300-pound weight differences. When Couture dropped Tim Sylvia within 10 seconds of their title fight, it proved that big tree fall hard. There is no other sport that illustrates as dramatically both the significance and limitations of physical size in athletic competition. Alas, those are the exceptions to the rule, and there are countless more examples of bigger fighters smashing smaller ones when they are in roughly the same technical range.
Perhaps the most important distinction to make when parsing through Sonnen’s statement is that even if you believe “heavyweights suck,” it is impossible to believe that heavyweight, singular, sucks. A large part of the heavyweight appeal is the enormity. If the world descended into a Mortal Kombat-esque tournament to determine the best fighter on the planet, it’s almost a guarantee that the last man standing would be a much larger-than-average person. There’s a reason why heavyweight champions are considered “the baddest men on the planet.” When heavyweight fighting is good, it’s phenomenal.
Why, though, is heavyweight talent in MMA so consistently thin? Part of it is obvious demographics: There are simply less heavyweight-sized people walking around in regular life. From that pool, only so many go into professional athletics, and those that do are almost certainly put into more traditional stick-and-ball sports early on. When you look at the average fighter salary compared to the average rookie salaries in the NFL or NBA, it’s easy to understand why. Even if MMA becomes a more mainstream sport and greater numbers of athletes enter the talent pool, you’d be a fool to get punched in the face by other big dudes for five figures when football or basketball can typically get you a college degree and a starting professional salary comparable to the biggest stars in MMA; and even if the UFC were to attempt to match those salaries, there is still too much cultural inertia, not to mention visceral revulsion, to believe that MMA will ever garner much traction among elite-level athletes. The major sports will continue to be the go-to youth sports in America. This is why so many heavyweights hail from outside North America. There aren’t as many athletic outlets to compete with combat sports.
Whenever a great heavyweight comes along, it will only make him that much more special. These realities appear to be the cost of the extreme polarities of heavyweight fights, from the plodding breathlessness to the blink-of-the-eye surprises endowed by massive power. Perhaps I’m just too cynical. There are, without question, a number of excellent heavyweight fighters in the UFC and Bellator. However, many of them are knocking on retirement’s door, and there are very few exciting heavyweight prospects on the horizon. These issues with the division in general seem to be intractable.
Yet hope abounds. When all else fails, just cut a Derrick Lewis post-fight interview and everything will be forgiven.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.