One thing was certain -- UFC 146 would feature heavyweights. Some big, some small, some great, some not so great. That was the plan from the get-go. A main card dominated by heavyweights, with bouts carrying varying degrees of importance, from pivotal title scraps down to thrilling three-rounders with little impact on the division. Then something happened. The lumbering giants became restless and the ground started to shake.
Cast your minds back to the original announcement of the card, when we were told Alistair Overeem would receive a shot at Junior dos Santos' UFC world heavyweight crown, and former champion Cain Velasquez would attempt to get back to winning ways against another former kingpin, Frank Mir. Bouts were also announced between Roy Nelson and Antonio Silva, Stefan Struve and Mark Hunt, as well as Gabriel Gonzaga and Shane Del Rosario.
Remember, though, these are the heavyweights. Expect the unexpected. And so, weeks later, only Struve against Hunt remained from the original menu, and UFC 146 took on an altogether different, but no less fascinating appearance.
Overeem's abnormal testosterone levels created a domino effect that saw Mir fill his void in the title fight, Silva slip into Mir's shoes and face Velasquez, Nelson adjust to face Gonzaga -- only for 'Gabe' to pull out and make way for Dave Herman -- and Del Rosario lock horns with fellow unbeaten Stipe Miočić.
Keeping up? If so, you'll realise the only fight that stayed intact for any length of time was the little-and-large combination of Struve and Hunt, though that also appeared on the brink of collapse when Hunt's self-styled 'Army of Doom' took to Twitter to petition for their man to receive a title shot following Overeem's withdrawal. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and Mir was favoured. Nevertheless, last Thursday Hunt also went the way of the rest, struck down by injury and no longer able to fight Struve. American puncher Lavar Johnson duly stepped forward as a replacement.
In hindsight, it's a mark of the depth of the division and, indeed, the UFC's desire to stick to their guns, that the heavyweight hoedown destined to fail actually held up and goes ahead this coming Saturday. Furthermore, despite numerous pull-outs and substitutions, the remaining match-ups still intrigue and promise much in the way drama.
Take the main event between dos Santos and Mir, for example. Sure, the American southpaw may be unable to kick and punch the way Overeem can, but he certainly boasts a wealth of knowledge and threat if the fight hits the ground at any point and, ultimately, boasts options Overeem would have been without if his patented kickboxing came up short. This fact alone exposes the fight to a potential second or third dimension.
Yes, there is every chance Mir gets lit up on his feet and can do nothing to stop dos Santos' superior striking, but there is also the distinct possibility that the savvy former champion finds a way to drag the Brazilian from his comfort zone and ask a question or two of his so-far-untested ground game. Remember, Mir is as good as it gets when it comes to heavyweight grappling, and if he can take home the arm of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, then he can sure as hell do something similar to dos Santos, a comparative rookie and somebody who learnt everything he knows from 'Big Nog'.
As you might be able to tell, I like the new main event. It raises questions otherwise ignored by its predecessor. Don't get me wrong, the coming together of Overeem and dos Santos would have been delightfully violent for as long as it lasted, but I'd hazard a guess there will be better heavyweight boxing matches this year. Okay, that might be a stretch, but the point being, two strikers were likely to strike until one dropped, a thrilling sight, but one that can also be witnessed elsewhere.
The new pairing of Mir and Dos Santos, on the other hand, encapsulates everything that is so beguiling and unpredictable about mixed martial arts. Boxing's heavyweight division won't be able to boast a heavyweight title match-up that asks as many questions as this one will come Saturday night, that's for sure. This scrap could be decided by a punch, kick, arm-bar, knee-bar, leg-lock or choke, a blackout via punch or broken bone via submission. Many methods, many intangibles and many reasons why this is the most interesting fight in the heavyweight division right now. If it doesn't work out that way, and ends up being a damp squib, blame me or, better still, Alistair Overeem.
We may even seen an improved co-main event, too. With Mir promoted to main event status, Velasquez and Silva now seek redemption and a return to winning ways by facing one another, and Frank admitted to me only last week that he's happier with the way things worked out.
"I do think Dos Santos is better suited to me," he said. "He's a very good striker and very dangerous if you let him stand and bang, but he doesn't have the all-round game that Cain possesses. Cain isn't going to be worried about being taken down or spending long periods of the fight on the floor. We can't say the same about Dos Santos yet, and I plan to test him in all areas come May 26. Everybody knows how good Cain is -- and he is very good -- whereas I still feel we're waiting to find out how good Dos Santos is, especially on the ground.
"This is a better fight for me, and Velasquez against Silva will still be very interesting."
It's not very often you see a fight between two men coming off first-round knockout defeats described as 'interesting'. However, in the case of Velasquez and Silva it's safe to go there and, more importantly, it's true. These top tier heavyweights were in the midst of a rich vein of form before succumbing to heavy punches in their biggest fights to date. Velasquez wound up getting dropped and stopped by Dos Santos last December, while Silva went the same way against wrestler Daniel Cormier in September.
Neither fighter has stepped into battle since their most recent setback. This alone fills the upcoming contest with intrigue, as nobody can be sure how Velasquez or Silva will react to what were crushing losses. The pair went from a sustained period of glory to instant despair, and it will be fun seeing how they respond on May 26. Velasquez, a man once dubbed the future of the division, will obviously start as favourite, but Silva, slayer of Fedor Emelianenko, is a big, strong and determined slab eager to prove himself in the UFC from day one. This is day one.
It's also day one for Del Rosario, a prospect who owns a submission victory over Lavar Johnson, and is currently undefeated in eleven MMA bouts. One of the most promising heavyweight talents out there right now, Del Rosario became the first American Muay-Thai fighter to ever win the WBC world heavyweight title in 2008, and has since excelled in his mixed martial arts career, winning ten of his eleven bouts inside the very first round.
He takes on Croatia's hard-hitting Stipe Miočić at UFC 146 and, with both men deemed prospects with considerable upside, this fight should tell us plenty about the long-term future of the heavyweight division. As for the present, one word springs to mind - unpredictable.
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