This is why you play to the final moment.
This Sunday’s UFC 131 was meant to feature The Ultimate Fighter 13 coaches, Brock Lesnar and Junior Dos Santos squaring off for a shot at Cain Velasquez’s heavyweight title. However, Lesnar’s diverticulitis reared its head again and he had to be replaced by once beaten powerhouse, Shane Carwin.
While the match-up may have changed, the stakes have not.
The winner, barring injury, will most definitely meet Velasquez in the headlining bout of October’s UFC 136. But what’s after that?
The short list of UFC heavyweight contenders is very much that; a short list. You have a sick Lesnar and then Dos Santos and Carwin.
This is followed by Frank Mir who has held the title before but was demolished by Lesnar in his attempt to regain the title at UFC 100 and then knocked out cold by Carwin in his bid for the interim title at UFC 111.
After Mir, there is pretty much dead air.
“Big Country” Roy Nelson was labelled as a top contender but he looked downright woeful against Mir at UFC 130.
Prospects like Brendan Schaub, Travis Browne and Matt Mitrione are still a number of fights away from title contention and old dogs like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira are having enough trouble making it back into the cage from injury.
Looking at this list, the question changes from “what’s next?” to “does anyone care?”
Even looking at this Sunday’s event, that question could very well pop-up if Carwin is victorious.
The Lesnar/Carwin title bout was a great fight but it left fans with the image of an exhausted Carwin being unable to manage any sort of defence to Lesnar’s ground control.
A devastating KO of Dos Santos could very well change that on Sunday, but I have my doubts that the casual fan will be excited by a Velasquez/Carwin title bout.
It is pretty amazing when you remember how the heavyweight division was perceived prior to Lesnar being toppled back in October.
Lesnar as champion polarised the MMA fanbase and instantly gave a boost to any potential challengers as half the fans were now rooting for them by default.
A Lesnar-free heavyweight division almost sends the weight-class back to before 2007 and the Tim Sylvia-era of heavyweights, where a monotonous cycle of recycled or undercooked contenders almost killed fan interest entirely.
The cycle was only broken by the fairytale return of Randy Couture who dethroned Sylvia and held the title until Lesnar emerged.
If you look at the UFC’s other divisions at the moment the best comparison you can find is the Georges St. Pierre ruled welterweight division. GSP’s reign of – in recent bouts – tedious dominance has led to him clearing out the division as well as a lot of fan interest.
The UFC perceived this droop in interest after GSP’s bizarre unanimous decision win over Jakes Shields and reacted by importing wild-man and current Strikeforce welterweight champion, Nick Diaz to meet him later this year.
This decision made rekindled life in the division and in doing so bought time for the division’s up-and-comers such as Ricky Story, Carlos Condit and Rory MacDonald to string some wins together and establish themselves as top contenders.
The same option is available for the heavyweight division, as Strikeforce contains a number of elite marketable heavyweights such as recent K-1 Grand Prix champion, Alistair Overeem, the legendary Fedor Emelianenko and the two men to defeat him, Fabricio Werdum and Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva.
If these fighters were to be merged into the UFC it would undoubtedly inject the heavyweight division with life.
Of course this is not to overlook Junior Dos Santos who, if victorious on Sunday, is a more than worthy challenger that is riding a six fight winning streak in the Octagon as well as the promotional vehicle that is the Ultimate Fighter.
However, a UFC heavyweight division without Lesnar is a very dull and unmarketable place.
If new blood does not emerge or is not brought in, the UFC’s heavyweight division could very well find itself in the same place it was prior to 2007.