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When we break down the purpose of organized competition into its most basic parts, past the platitudes of fun and entertainment, we get a glimpse into the human psyche. Sports -- both participating and watching -- are indeed fun and entertaining, mostly because we all understand that such physical feats are really, really difficult. Somewhere in the heart of man there is a relentless curiosity to know the limits of our species. A core part of all of us wants to see a concrete demarcation of what those limits are even though they rarely have much to do with our own personal limitations, which tend to be pretty unimpressive in the grand scheme of things. It’s why we idolize and admire great people: They show us what can be done while simultaneously making us wonder how they did it. The visual aesthetic of greatness is only part of it; actually seeing the best is obviously great, but we also want to simply know. Competition is a mechanism of exploration.
The appeal of heavyweight fighters is as pure a distillation of this dynamic as there is in sports. In the name of fair play, fighting has been broken down into weight divisions, each champion representing the best fighter in a particular range of size. However, if we were to exist in the world as it just is, it would stand to reason that the biggest best fighter would simply be the best fighter. It’s what we expect of our heavyweight champions and why we tend to label them the “Baddest Men on the Planet.” The heavyweight champ is supposed to be the last one standing if every single person in the world fought in a tournament. Theoretically, the heavyweight division should compose the majority of the final few rounds.
Yet, when we look at the current heavyweight landscape in MMA, that ideal doesn’t quite seem to materialize. At the very least, it doesn’t resonate much. Four of the division’s elite did little to change that at UFC 203 on Saturday in Cleveland (online betting).
Much has been said about the woes of the heavyweight division. They’re too old; they gas out too quickly; they get knocked out too easily; and nobody can hold onto the belt. The fact that Stipe Miocic is now one fight away from tying the all-time consecutive title defense record, having been a champion for all of 121 days, says it all.
Compare the parity of the perpetually thin heavyweight division to the shark tanks of the lightweight and welterweight divisions, which are relatively young and brimming with talent from the top of the roster on down. There’s a demographic explanation for this. There are simply more 160- to 180-pounders in the general population than there are heavyweight-sized people. On top of that, the most freakish physical specimens in the general population tend to get funneled into other, more profitable sports at a much higher ratio. This is especially pronounced in America, where the behemoths among us have multi-million NFL and NBA contracts to which to aspire from day one.
It’s not easy to be a heavyweight MMA fan. It seems to be something hardwired into people; you either have an affinity for the ridiculous, carnival-esque nature of it, or you can’t stand slow, plodding, out-of-breath, clinch-ready, thin-chinned, one-punch combination kind of fights. My choice of words does little to hide my feelings on the matter. Almost every time a random heavyweight fight comes up on a card, I take it as my cue to make coffee or tidy up around my apartment.
Even so, I was particularly cheered by the two heavyweight fights at the top of the billing going into UFC 203. Good MMA is good MMA at any weight class, and these were two of the best matchups in the division. With reservations, my spirits were high. In the pre-fight promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship played up the “anything can happen at heavyweight” angle. It’s a line that has been said ad nauseam in every discussion of heavyweight MMA, but at UFC 203, it was truer than anyone could have predicted.
First was the rematch between former champion Fabricio Werdum and former “he could one day be champion” Travis Browne. Werdum was in rare form. From the flying side kick at the opening bell to the “just keep a distance” push kick to Edmond Tarverdyan after the final bell and everything in between, no one could have predicted how the fight unfolded -- aside from the result. Werdum showcased every flying, spinning, twirling and diving maneuver in his arsenal en route to a clear unanimous decision. Meanwhile, Browne demonstrated the classic “chill dawg” timeout call in the middle of the fight, which confused viewers and referee alike, but not Werdum, who promptly brought reality back into the mix when he cracked Browne clean across the jaw. That wasn’t the only unorthodox technique coming out of Browne’s camp, though. We were also privy to Tarverdyan’s signature blend of pseudo-coaching, offering Browne such technical advice as “He’s a baby!” and “Win so we don’t have to cry later!” Somewhere deep down, he has to be upset that “Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter?” is already taken.
Three rounds of bizarre ridiculous naturally gave way to a single round of exciting ridiculous. Alistair Overeem, who once rocked the underrated nickname “The Demolition Man,” would have his shot to finally cinch UFC gold against the lovably goofy hometown hero Stipe Miocic, the Wreck It Ralph of the UFC. Usually a master of distance, Overeem was forced to turn tail and head for the hills on several occasions. In all fairness, it’s an effective way to create separation, but the visual appearance of it is undeniably silly, especially when a monster of a man like Overeem does it. Still, there was a moment where it looked like Overeem would complete his championship collection, as he knocked down Miocic and jumped on a guillotine choke. Miocic kept his composure, evaded the choke and proceeded to bounce Overeem’s head off the canvas until the referee intervened.
Miocic was understandably overcome by the moment during his in-cage interview, putting on for his home state of Ohio in an endearing “I don’t know what we’re yelling about!” tone. Overeem, however, didn’t play to the Cleveland audience quite as well, stating that Miocic tapped on the guillotine choke. Whether he was fishing for a controversy to try and set up a future rematch or he was simply remembering incorrectly after getting knocked out, he certainly was not intending to review the footage right then and there. Yet that’s exactly what UFC commentator Joe Rogan did, over and over in front of an increasingly cringing crowd. The absolute embarrassment of the scene was palpable. Somehow, it was the perfect ending for the event.
In very different ways, the four top-10 heavyweights alternated between moments of high-level technique and moments of complete absurdity, and it was eminently watchable all the way through. What’s there to complain about? They may or may not be the “Baddest Men on the Planet,” and that’s OK. There’s a difference between what we want to like about heavyweight MMA and what is actually there to like about it. This is a sport-spectacle hybrid, and it’s manifesting more appropriately and unexpectedly in the heavyweight division than anywhere else. Whatever happens next, I look forward to all the ways I’ll be surprised and wrong. It’s heavyweight MMA, right? Anything can happen.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.