Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Big Issue: Heavyweights in MMA

This article was featured in the November 2009 Issue of Combat Magazine

51,390 people gathered at the Kyocera Dome that night in Osaka. K1-Dynamite 2006 was an exciting event that MMA fans from all over the world flocked to see. Traditionally eccentric performances from Genki Sudo and Kazushi Sakuraba whipped the crowd up into a frenzy, but one of the biggest crowd reactions all night was for another fight.

Giant Silva vs Akebono hardly had the makings of Clay Guida vs Diego Sanchez but for the few seconds that the behemoths collided, the whole arena was a sea of noise and energy. In the case of Silva and Akebono you could cynically point to a number of issues, primarily the fact that it looked like a scene from a Gozdilla movie, which promoted the interest of the ticket buying public. Traditionally the heavyweight divisions in any sport attract a lot of interest from fans and the general public alike. If you were to ask the man in the street about his favourite boxers you would expect to see vast percentages of his choices to be heavyweight fighters. Names like Tyson, Ali, Frazier and Marciano are the status quo in such debates. MMA has evolved and expanded into the mainstream consciousness and the heavyweight division and its relevance have changed almost as much as the sport has.

On November 12th 1993, when the first ever UFC made its way into the public spotlight on pay-per-view, it was immediately obvious the impact it would have on combat sports. A sport able to answer what had been previously nothing more than speculation and guess work over which fighting style was superior. Cross disciplined martial arts combat was not a new concept. “Booth Fighting” had been taking place in Brazilian circuses since the 1920’s and Helio Gracie’s legendary bout against Masahiko Kimura in 1955 had given 20,000 fans a small look at MMA in its embryonic stages.

The UFC’s approach to combat sports was so unique because of its early move away from regulated weight divisions. The idea that a true ultimate fighting champion could overcome any obstacle from a contrasting style to a 400lb weight deficit was at the heart of the gladiatorial nature of the UFC. A fighting spirit and belief that founder Rorion Gracie inherited from Helio and his legendary wars in the ring. From the chaotic beginnings of this great sport it seems that a lot of the fighters that people remember from that time overcame strength and size frequently.

The very first fight that the UFC ever aired showed Savate champion Gerard Gordeau demolish Teila Tuli in 20 seconds despite being outweighed by 190 lbs. Keith “Giant Killer” Hackney will be forever immortalized by his win over Sumo champion Emmanuel Yarborough as he overcame a colossal 400lb weight differential on his way to a TKO victory. Hackney went on to go 2-2 in the UFC, hardly a stellar record, but is still respected to this day by the MMA community for his warrior spirit and a victory in which he overcame such massive odds.

It was another Gracie who went on to influence public attitudes towards combat sports and challenge the old adage that a good big fighter would always beat a good small fighter. At 6’1 and 175lbs Royce Gracie was one of the smallest combatants in the UFC. However, what he lacked in size and strength he made up for in deadly technique.

Royce used Gracie Jiu-Jitsu to win 3 of the first 4 UFC Tournaments and his first 11 victories all came via submission. His record of 8 consecutive wins in the Octagon stood for nearly 15 years and was only recently surpassed by Anderson Silva. Gracie was living proof that superior technique could overcome size and strength. The wars that Royce had in the Octagon went on to become some of the most famous in the history of the sport and helped to both establish and immortalize the same values that Helio had fought for decades earlier.

The UFC thrived on this boundary free combat and developed both a following and a large amount of mainstream criticism following its February 1996 pay per view offering UFC 8: David vs Goliath. Senator John McCain’s now famous quote of “Human Cockfighting” and the campaign that followed forced the UFC to change by embracing stricter rules and regulations. UFC 12 took place in February 1997 and was the first event that the UFC had put on featuring weight classes. The event was split into 2 brackets, over 200lbs and under 199 lbs, and as basic a division as this was it forced the sport to change.

Over the next few years the UFC introduced more and more rulings and regulations to help the sport gain more mainstream acceptance and try and ensure survival. Fighters were now required to wear padded gloves, a number of more dangerous strikes were banned, 5 minute rounds were introduced and UFC abandoned the tournament format in favour of single matches in properly categorised weight divisions. The heavyweight champions of this era have gone on to become hall of famers and icons and both Mark Coleman and Randy Couture are still contracted in active competition with the UFC to this day.

As the UFC was changing and moving away from the anything goes attitude that had gained it so much popularity and notoriety in seemingly equal amounts, a new promotion in Japan was preparing to put on its first show. Pride Fighting Championships was conceived in 1997 with the sole purpose of promoting the match between Japanese Pro Wrestling legend Nobuhiko Takada and purported champion of Brazilian Vale Tudo Rickson Gracie. 47,000 fans made it to the Tokyo Dome that night to see Rickson defeat Takada but it was clear from the energy that night that this was the start of a special promotion.

Pride continued to hold events and just as the sport of MMA was moving towards its most regulated incarnation in early 2000, an event was announced that would once again ignite the debate that the UFC had originally sought the answer to. At the start of the new millennium Pride FC began with the preliminary rounds of Pride 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix. This event captivated worldwide audiences and, once again, the mixed martial arts world was hit with a tidal wave of questions and arguments about superior styles, weight advantages and fighting spirit. The Japanese Bushido culture accommodated this form of combat perfectly and the Pride OWGP became one of the most talked about Mixed Martial Arts events of all time. It was a former UFC Heavyweight Champion Mark “The Hammer” Coleman who went on to win the tournament and cement his legendary reputation in Japan. In a match perhaps just as famous for the post fight celebrations, Coleman was able to administer his trademark ground and pound to Igor Vovchanchyn and become Pride’s first ever OWGP Champion.

This victory sparked a renewed interest in Heavyweight MMA in Japan and Pride FC went on to create a Heavyweight division and crowned Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira as champion in November 2001 as he defeated Heath Herring. The UFC was emerging from a period that very nearly saw the company go out of business as struggling SEG Sports could not secure home video releases for the events which were drawing only 5,000 live fans. By the time that Zuffa had intervened in 2001 to buy out the struggling promotion Pride FC had taken heavyweight mixed martial arts to the next level.

Over the next few years the UFC struggled with losses that totalled $34,000,000 and it looked for fighters with marketable personalities to help sell pay per views. The feud between veteran fighter and pro wrestling personality Ken Shamrock and the ever controversial Tito Ortiz was the biggest fight that the UFC could offer at that time. Pride however was going from strength to strength and had the most formidable heavyweight division in the world. Global MMA fans were drawn to the Pride because its heavyweights were the best from all over the world. In September 2003 Tim Sylvia battled Gan McGee for the Heavyweight title at UFC 44, just 3 months before 67,500 people saw Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira submit the undefeated Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic for the Interim Pride Heavyweight belt. The contrast in quality was there for all to see and the informed MMA community quickly flocked to Pride FC as its ranks of the world’s best fighters grew and grew. Anyone who had to suffer the Tim Sylvia title fights in the UFC was aware of the lack of talent that in their heavyweight division. Pride had Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Filipovic, Sergei Kharitonov, Mark Hunt, Josh Barnett, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and many more. The UFC, by stark contrast, had Tim Sylvia vs Jeff Monson. Fans were once again enamoured with heavyweight fighters within MMA. The invincible aura, that the likes of Mike Tyson had all those years ago, now surrounded a new generation of heavyweight fighters. The Pride FC Heavyweight division of this period is largely considered the deepest and most talent rich heavyweight division in modern MMA history.

Pride’s demise however, was as spectacular as its genesis. By 2006 they had not only lost the television deal to Fuji Network but the president of the parent company of Pride, Dream Stage Entertainment, had committed suicide in bizarre circumstances. The UFC by comparison was riding the crest of a new wave of popularity and interest in MMA that had been started by their fledgling reality television show “The Ultimate Fighter”. The UFC went on to buy out Pride in March 2007 and quickly went about bolstering their ranks with the talent that they were able to negotiate with. Pride mainstays Heath Herring, Mirko Fillipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira soon signed on the dotted line and began renewing the fans interest in the more stoic ranks of the UFC.

The renaissance in the UFC heavyweight division was effectively rekindled by the man who had established it many years ago. Hall of Famer Randy “The Natural” Couture had recently retired after suffering two tough knockout losses at light heavyweight at the hands of Chuck “The Iceman” Lidell. Couture was inspired to come out of retirement and challenge Tim Sylvia for the title after watching Sylvia’s series of lacklustre performances in defending his belt. In one of the most memorable heavyweight encounters of recent years Couture systematically dominated Sylvia from bell to bell to become a three time heavyweight champion at the age of 43. Despite legal issues that stalled Couture’s career for 12 months the heavyweight division continued to grow in profile and excitement until Dana White made one of his trademark announcements that would change the face of the UFC heavyweight division forever.

Rumours had been flying around the MMA world about one man for some time but when the camera panned to Joe Rogan at UFC 77 conducting a special interview it was plain for all to see. Brock Lesnar was a former NCAA wrestling champion but was known to the world for his work in the WWE. He had recently made the transition to MMA destroying Min Soo Kim in 69 seconds for K1 Dynamite and his profile and his freakish size and athletic ability made him a much sought after commodity. Lesnar is a gigantic athlete who cuts down from 300lbs to make the 265lb heavyweight limit yet displays explosive athleticism for a man his size. After a controversial loss to former heavyweight champ Frank Mir at UFC 81 Lesnar went on a rampage. He destroyed Heath Herring, brutally knocked out Randy Couture to win the heavyweight title and mauled Frank Mir in a rematch for the undisputed heavyweight championship at UFC 100.

Brock Lesnar had ushered in the era of the super heavyweight in mixed martial arts. UFC 100 recorded more than 1.6 million pay per view buys and broke the UFC’s own record for live gate receipts. The heavyweight division in the UFC is now healthier than it has ever been and heavyweight MMA is in a similar position. The latest season of The Ultimate Fighter features an all heavyweight cast for the first time in its history and there is more interest in other promotions such as Strikeforce and Dream as they both continue to expand. The invincible Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko has not yet committed to the UFC due to management issues, but even this doesn’t seem able to stop the momentum that heavyweight MMA has at the moment.

There truly are great heavyweights fighting all over the world and the UFC, and other organizations, are committed to putting on great fights in this division. Today’s giant heavyweights are a world away from the lumbering behemoths that first competed in MMA. The smaller heavyweights now don’t necessarily have the huge speed advantage that they once had as the levels of athleticism evolve with the sport. Fighters who had fought at the bottom end of the weight bracket immediately began to re-evaluate the cut to light heavyweight. Fighters like Brandon Vera, Randy Couture and Mark Coleman have all realised that in this era of in MMA, size really does matter.

By Ben Cartlidge 2009

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