Mass Appeal

By Jake Rossen Sep 1, 2009
There was once no greater prize in sports than boxing’s heavyweight championship of the world. Men would lobby for years, sacrificing memories and cognitive functioning, in pursuit of concrete proof they were tough. Owning it meant that you were the best -- or at least the most durable -- in the most punishing athletic event allowed in civilized society.

Today, the title is a joke. Like boxing itself, it’s a fractured, incomprehensible mess, owned by no fewer than three fighters, including two brothers, the Klitschkos, who will never fight to unify the pieces. Champions of earlier eras were so broadly defined that grandmothers passing on the street could probably acknowledge Tyson or Ali. Who could identify Nikolay Valuev as anything but a monster in a B-movie?

Boxing is dying because what was once the most easily understood sport of all -- hit that guy -- now requires a flow chart to follow and appliance dolleys for the egos. It does everything wrong. And when it does something right -- awarding Mayweather/De La Hoya a record two-million-plus buyrate in 2007 -- it lacks the cohesion to follow up with another big bout to capitalize.

The UFC has no such problems. You like Brock Lesnar? You will get more Brock Lesnar. Shane Carwin has earned a title shot? Shane Carwin isn’t owned by a competing promoter. Shane Carwin can fight Brock Lesnar.

Thirty-two and with only five professional fights, Lesnar is already the UFC’s biggest star. That he also happens to own their version of the Toughest Man in the West branding is setting that division on a path similar to boxing’s in the 20th century.

No confusion, preamble or qualifiers: If you have the UFC’s heavyweight belt, you are not one to be messed with.

This cache is attributable partly to Lesnar’s athletic pedigree -- unlike sea monsters of the past, he has a legitimate combat sports education in collegiate wrestling -- and the growing pool of talent prepared to challenge him. Lesnar’s belt isn’t made of paper: If he’s still champion a year from now, it will have been earned.

This was not always the case. In 2005, the UFC promoted a bout between then-current champion Andrei Arlovski and Paul Buentello, possibly the weakest title main event in the company’s history. (Buentello was knocked out in 15 seconds.) Most of the dangerous big men were earning tax-free dollars in Japan’s Pride promotion: An ocean’s distance and a stateside disrespect for MMA kept that championship off radar.

Jeff Sherwood/

Heavyweight talent, once scarce,
is now looking quite plentiful.
With the UFC’s basic-cable popularity came financial freedom, and with that freedom came the ability to have a shelf populated by dangerous fighters. Carwin and Lesnar meet in the fall: The winner is likely to face the survivor of the Cain Velasquez/Ben Rothwell bout in October.

There’s your toughest guy. Until the next toughest guy comes along.

The debuting Todd Duffee made strides in that direction Saturday with a record knockout over Tim Hague; September’s “Ultimate Fighter” season is a heavyweight-exclusive affair, with one participant (Roy Nelson) a known headache. Even Pride’s old guard, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, are returning to some of their old form. Heavyweight talent, once scarce, is looking plentiful.

There’s the angle of the NFL monopolizing most of the bigger athletic talent in this country. While that’s not without merit, it ignores a growing concern in the football community over just how utterly demolishing that sport can be. Concussions -- more specifically, second-impact syndrome, or a concussion on top of a concussion -- is churning out more and more cognitively dysfunctional athletes. If you are a hardcore 250-pound body who enjoys contact, you may find the premise of fighting twice a year more appealing than getting sacked by 400-pound linemen for 17 weeks straight. (You may also have eaten your way into heart disease in an attempt to match his size.)

Talent is coming. The talent already here is shadowed by pink elephant Fedor Emelianenko, a bruising Russian with a 30-1 record who has been mythologized by media as the greatest heavyweight alive. Having been aligned with Strikeforce, he’s exempt from the UFC’s title picture. It would appear to be an infection of boxing’s chaotic promotion.

A small dose of that might be a good thing. Lesnar is the UFC’s absolute champion; Emelianenko is the stray who puts Lesnar’s dominance in some doubt. That’s watercooler talk that keeps energy and enthusiasm churning: The occasional hypothetical fight is fuel for the fire. (Ten or 20 of them, as in boxing, is just diffusing.)

Ultimately, one of two things will occur: Either Emelianenko will burn through Strikeforce’s opposition and sign with the UFC simply because he lacks any other human worth beating up, or someone -- possibly Brett Rogers, possibly Alistair Overeem, possibly someone we’ve not yet heard of -- will pull a Balboa and KO the invincible man.

At contract’s end, Strikeforce will be hard-pressed to match the UFC’s offer. And boxing will be hard-pressed to match a primary reason for MMA’s rapidly growing influence: the promise of a truly undisputed champion.

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