Opinion: Best and Worst of UFC’s Heavyweight Division

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What the hell did I watch Saturday?

I’m honestly not sure if, even by Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight standards, Derrick Lewis is actually good. He has skills, and he may just be incredibly worn out from his schedule in the last two years, but I just watched him beat someone in Travis Browne who is, in many ways, the better fighter, and I’m not even sure how he did it.

Browne looked the best he has in years, quickly hurting Lewis with body kicks before...not really doing anything? He was right not to rush in against Lewis, but he just kind of...stopped fighting with any kind of plan, which was always the story with him. Even with Lewis constantly clutching his abdomen in a fashion that resembled a child who ate too much ice cream more than a hurt prize fighter, Browne didn’t look to finish with kicks the way he did against Alistair Overeem.

Wait, that guy who lost to Lewis beat Overeem and Josh Barnett? And now this happened, a year after he basically cheated to beat Matt Mitrione, when he started to lose the fight? And Lewis is now ranked ahead of an expert striker like Mark Hunt because he actually has the higher-ranked signature win? What the hell is going on?

Heavyweight is, confusingly, simultaneously the best and worst that it’s been in a long time. In the positive column, there’s a decent amount of parity, to the point that Junior dos Santos getting a title shot with no win streak hasn’t elicited the kind of complaints that his and Cain Velasquez’s previous title shots under similar circumstances did. Plus, that his shot at Stipe Miocic is a rematch of possibly the best headliner in the entire run of “UFC on Fox” cards certainly helps. The champion, Miocic, is incredibly likable and marketable, plus he has spectacular fights, and might have the stylistic attributes to be the first UFC heavyweight champion with three consecutive successful title defenses. Ben Rothwell, while often sidelined by injuries, has put things together to the point that he’s in the mix at the top of the division, and he’s coming off the most impressive submission in all of MMA in 2016. Plus, finally, there’s actually some light at the end of the tunnel in the rapidly-aging division, as Lewis, Francis Ngannou, and former Bellator MMA champion Alexander Volkov all have legitimate spots in the rankings.

On the other hand, this is a division where Aleksei Oleinik and Timothy Johnson, who are both very much career journeymen, are ranked, and they absolutely deserve it. Nothing against them: they’re skilled fighters, often fun to watch, and seem like swell guys to hang out with. But they’re also the types of fighters who would not be ranked in just about any other division. Oleinik just won a fight by submission while he was mounted, for crying out loud.

Even if you set aside the depth issues, there’s a more immediate problem: The UFC brass, both former and current, clearly has no idea how to leverage the most marketable fighters in the division. This is a problem in every division, but it’s especially pronounced at heavyweight.

Let’s look at the champion, Miocic. He has exciting fights, with his last tepid performance being against Gabriel Gonzaga over three years ago. When Miocic is not in camp for a fight, he’s still working as a firefighter as often as possible even though he no longer needs to. On Twitter, he’s a quick-witted, underrated follow, although not nearly as funny as Lewis. And when he won the title, it was a gigantic event in his hometown of Cleveland.

The UFC didn’t drum up any additional publicity for Miocic’s victory celebration in Cleveland. There’s been no effort to promote his personality, or, outside of token shots on “Countdown” shows, the fact that he goes out of his way to save people’s lives even though he’s a full time fighter now. And in spite of being in at least two of the best heavyweight fights in UFC history with Dos Santos and Overeem, those fights haven’t been pushed as such, which is puzzling when the former came a year after the incumbent “best heavyweight fight” was tarnished by a doping test failure. If you were going to use the mythical lab to build a marketable heavyweight, he’d look something like Miocic.

That said, this is heavyweight. Maybe they’re just worried that if they invest too much time in Miocic, he’ll get knocked out before long by that guy who won the other night. You know, the one who used the post-fight interview to talk about Ronda Rousey, domestic violence allegations against his opponent and his need to poop.
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