The UFC heavyweight division, and all promotion’s heavyweight divisions for that matter, are in a state of crisis. Finding good, sustainable talent that will fill out the division and make for good competition has been in crisis for a while. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be clearing up anytime soon.
The UFC, at this point, has 34 heavyweights signed to the roster. Five have yet to debut. Four have fought in the UFC but have yet to score a win (Walt Harris, Konstantin Erokhin, Chris de la Rocha and Shamil Abdurahimov). That means nine of the 34, or over one-fourth of the roster, has yet to compete or succeed even once inside the Octagon.
Three solidified veterans who should have a spot on the roster are no longer contracted with the company. Shawn Jordan has not re-signed with the UFC and is currently a free agent. He was a middle-of-the-road heavyweight that was good for a Fight Night main card or a featured prelim on a pay-per-view. He looks to be looking for greener pastures elsewhere.
Mirko “Cro Cop,” Soa Palelei and Brendan Schaub have all retired in the past month or two.
Schaub, a TUF 10 original and a surprisingly popular fighter, cited financial changes in the UFC and damage to his body not being worth it anymore as a reason for his retirement. It seems he does well enough hosting his current podcast, so that entertaining heavyweight is off the roster.
Palelei is in his late 30s and also looks to be satisfied with calling it a career. He has been in the fight game a long time and it didn’t appear as he was breaking into the top 10, so that might have influenced his departure (along with endeavors outside the cage).
Lastly, “Cro Cop” is well past his prime, has been retired before and finally had to give into his body breaking down.
These recent cuts leave the UFC in the hole.
There has also been a revolving door of heavyweight talent coming and going with the promotion. Some of the fighters were questionable signings and others just simply did not pan out. Four recent heavyweights that made brief stays and couldn’t hang were Nandor Guelmino, Ruan Potts, Jack May and Josh Copeland. These four men represent the huge gap between the talent at the top of the division and the rest who inhabit it. It’s not a gap you see in most divisions. Take a look at lightweight and welterweight. The ranks are always changing and new faces seem to arrive frequently. That hasn’t been the case with heavyweight and these men show the talent gap. They came, they saw and they were vanquished.
The revolving door of talent doesn’t seem like it’s letting up soon either. Take a look at their five most recent signings. They signed undefeated Jarjis Danho, who looks good on paper until you realize that his best win was against a blown-up light heavyweight who failed in Bellator against lower-mid tier talent in Marcus Vanttinen. They signed Luiz Henrique, who looks serviceable, but is really a natural light heavyweight who will likely drop a weight class after debuting against Francis Ngannou, another debuting heavyweight. Ngannou is another fighter, like Danho, who has a good record on paper until you examine his strength of schedule over in Europe.
The two good “catches” they got out of those signings were a mid-30s aged Damian Grabowski and Olympic wrestling hopeful Bilyal Makhov. Grabowski was a solid signing that will likely hang around the midcard, but he wasn’t even the biggest grab the UFC could have got out of the M-1 heavyweights. Makhov is a very intriguing prospect, but has yet to have a professional MMA fight and won’t be available to the UFC until he’s either ousted from the Russian Olympic trials (unlikely) or after the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He’s an investment for the future, and a murky one at that.
So, why does the heavyweight division constantly find itself in dire need of talent that just doesn’t seem to pop up?
Well, the biggest reason this writer can think of is the lack of popularity for MMA as opposed to mainstream sports, such as football. Not only do a significantly greater amount of people watch football, but they also take the sport up at a young age. Football probably has the most athletic men weighing over 206 pounds. As much as people say you don’t have to be very athletic to be successful in fighting, it’s simply evident that the more athletic a fighter is, the better off they are.
Most of the current top fighters in the UFC heavyweight division are relics of the past. They are PRIDE veterans or men who have graced the cage for a good part of the last decade, save for guys like Stipe Miocic and Travis Browne. Names like Frank Mir, Andrei Arlovski, Mark Hunt, Josh Barnett and even champion Fabricio Werdum are incredibly seasoned, non-rookie types who grew up during the early “golden era” of MMA, aka PRIDE.
Even when the UFC does sign heavyweights to their division, they are not youngsters. A lot of the time, they hire men in their 30s, which may not seem old in theory, but they’re approaching the end of their athletic peak. I even remember when the UFC briefly signed Richard Odoms for a card last year, who was 39 years old at the time. When he dropped out due to injury, he was immediately gotten rid of. Why sign a 39-year-old likely past his prime when they had some intriguing 20-something prospects that they could have built.
The funny thing is that there is good talent out there. Vitaly Minakov appears unwilling to fight for Bellator again, as he’s been throwing down in the UFC-backed Fight Nights promotion. When he’s waited out his Bellator contract, one has to think he will be in the UFC and be an instantaneous contender. M-1 champ Marcin Tybura has just one blemish to his record (a loss via a cut on his head) and is a youthful destroyer that would thrive on the UFC roster for years to come. Hell, throw money at Sergei Kharitonov, who although isn’t a young man anymore, still a top heavyweight in the world outside the UFC and has name recognition.
The MMA heavyweight problem will not be solved overnight. Men are just not built to be monsters over 206 pounds with pure muscle. That’s a part of the steroid era, where that was more abundant. Now, with PEDs off the table, fighters are the size they are supposed to be. However, with more exposure and more options for athletes who don’t go pro in other sports after college, maybe we will finally see an increase in the near future.