A Beginner’s Guide to UFC Heavyweights

We used to hate UFC and MMA (mixed martial arts). It wasn’t always that way, as we saw it from the very beginning, when the fledgling UFC introduced us to the legendary Gracie family, Ken and Frank Shamrock, Don Frye. Dan Severn, and the cult bar room brawler Tank Abbott. It was new and exciting, but lost its luster after the Severn-Shamrock ’96 snoozefest in Detroit, and later changes in the PPV and political marketplace that all but killed UFC for good.

And around that time, WCW was taking off. The nWo was the cool thing, and the Monday night wars held wrestling fans spellbound for years.

What made me detest MMA was how I was forced to read about it in wrestling magazines and newsletters. Here I was, paying a lot of money for insider newsletters on wrestling, and pages were wasted on a sport that wasn’t even on TV, was hardly sanctioned by any states, and quite frankly, it wasn’t wrestling. If you’re going to have a newsletter on wrestling, logic says you should cover wrestling… and only wrestling.

Unfortunately, wrestling started to suck again. It was wrestling sucking that made everyone crave UFC in 1993 and 1994, and in 2005, the time was ripe for MMA to make a splash. WCW was gone, ECW was gone, and WWE was a shell of its former self.

So after disgruntled wrestling fans finished sleeping through Raw, Spike TV advertised a new reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. The show was a hit, and UFC showed signs of life. Some wrestling fans made the switch and became UFC fans, but not everyone did.

A year passed, and while UFC was still growing, it was nowhere near what it is today. What took UFC to the next level were two men named Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock.

Suddenly, more wrestling fans took notice. Ken Shamrock had spent years on top of the WWF during its highest rated period, and Ortiz was at least someone wrestling fans had heard of. While Ortiz and Shamrock had fought before, now it was different because their feud was on free TV. The PPV fight last year between the two was extremely successful, but a disaster once the bell rang. Shamrock was grounded immediately and fight was stopped in seconds. Many expected this, because Shamrock was nowhere near the caliber of fighter Ortiz was, just as Ortiz had nowhere near the star power among wrestling fans that Ken did. But to fringe fans who didn’t know better, they expected a good, even fight. 

Shamrock popped right up and complained that he was fine and wondered why the fight was stopped. He had a point, even though most likely, the fight would’ve been stopped anyway because no way was Ken escaping the position he was in. The ref simply knew Ken was older, and acted prematurely out of concern for his own safety.

The crowd crapped all over the finish, and Dana White did the right thing and put the two in a rematch… on free TV. The idea came from Dave Meltzer, and it was the turning point UFC needed.

The rematch was more of the same, but it lasted awhile longer and no one was complaining about a premature stoppage. Two men saved UFC and put it back on the map. The fight scored a huge rating, and a few months later, UFC did a whopping 1 million PPV buys for Ortiz’ fight with Chuck Liddell on December 30, 2006.

The irony is that MMA had become wrestling, and this is why they stole so many wrestling fans. Heel (Ortiz) feuds with face (Shamrock) for 12 weeks on a reality Ultimate Fighter show. Tension builds. The heel (Ortiz) soundly defeats the legend (Shamrock), firmly establishing him as the real deal in fans’ eyes, and building UFC’s future around younger stars. Heel (Ortiz), now with the new credibility, challenges the charismatic champ (Liddell). The same charismatic champ (Liddell) who had established his own credibility when he defeated the legendary babyface (Randy Couture) earlier that year after 12 weeks of buildup on the Ultimate Fighter reality show.

Simple, smart booking. Just like wrestling used to be.

But wrestling stopped booking smart a long time ago. In wrestling, the legends never put over the newer stars, and thus no new stars were created. This resulted in great short term success (WCW in late 90s), but absolutely no future to speak of (WCW in 1999-2001). WWE made the same mistakes, but since they didn’t spend as stupidly as WCW, and since they’ve organized their finances to the point they can last much longer and make money no matter what, they survived.

But UFC is doing much more than surviving; they’re thriving. We now love it, gobble up every show, and are currently gobbling up all the shows we missed for several years in order to build our MMA expertise to match our wrestling expertise. It takes time, but we’re thoroughly enjoying it as it happens.

Since some of you are still not full-time UFC viewers, but have shown some interest, we’ll walk you through all the major fighters and weight classes. We did this before with OVW and TNA, and people told us they found them useful. We hope you enjoy this as well, and we hope it helps you become bigger UFC fans.

We’ll start with the heavyweight class (206 – 265 lbs) this week.

Randy Couture

In the most amazing sports comeback story of all-time, Randy Couture stepped back into the octagon at age 43 to take on then-champ Tim Sylvia. Sylvia is a huge, 6′-8″ monster with long arms that can hit you from miles away. Tim’s a great fighter, but not an exciting fighter, and as a result, he isn’t very popular.

Couture, on the other hand, is the most beloved fighter in UFC history. He’s a mature, polite, intelligent, well-mannered representative of UFC who is impossible to dislike. You just have to love the guy, and even though no one expected him to beat Sylvia, we all wanted him to.

But that is the story of Couture’s career: no one expects him to win, and he always does. He beat an unstoppable Vitor Belfort early in his UFC career, beat a huge Kevin Randleman, ground and pounded Chuck Liddell in 2003, and the list goes on. When he’s the underdog, he always comes through.

The fight with Sylvia was rather dull, but it was also the most thrilling fight of the year. How is that possible? Because it’s all about emotion, and there was emotion in those 5 rounds than you’ll ever see in any arena at any time in history. Couture came out swinging and knocked the giant down immediately. Sylvia is a big boy and was able to recover, and in later rounds, Sylvia, the striker, was getting outstruck by Couture, the wrestler who wasn’t supposed to know how to strike. Randy bobbed his head around like a female porn star, leaving Sylvia to feel like an amusement park patron trying to hit the pop-up head with a hammer, but keeps missing. No one expected this. Couture won all 5 rounds solidly, and became champ in a real-life Rocky Balboa moment. It was an awesome scene, and the fight is replayed often on Spike.

Randy’s next challenge was Gabriel Gonzaga, who months earlier shocked the world with a brutal kick to the head of the guy we all thought was the #2 best fighter in the world, Mirko Cro Cop (the #1 fighter is Fedor Emelianenko, by the way, and he doesn’t fight for UFC.. yet). That knockout was downright scary, and once again, few expected Couture to win.

And once again, he did. Decisively. Randy took Gabriel down, broke his nose, and had him huffing and puffing, swallowing his own blood for 2 rounds. Couture was tattooing Gonzaga’s face in the 3rd round until it was mercifully stopped. As amazing as Randy’s win over Sylvia was, this was even more unbelievable. We’re still in shock that a 44-year-old bald guy is our heavyweight champion. Not only that, he looks better than ever.

Expect Couture to fight twice more in 2008, but we don’t yet know his opponents. Randy does not get the media love that Chuck Liddell does, but every real fight fan loves Couture the way every wrestling fan loves Ric Flair. He’s that good, and he’s our hero.

Mirko Cro Cop

Cro Cop signed with UFC earlier this year to much fanfare, and as the year ends, people are already saying it’s time for him to retire.

Cro Cop earned his reputation in PRIDE, which was a major MMA organization in Japan that drew huge crowds and huge ratings until a scandal last year caused them to lose TV and eventually go out of business. UFC purchased PRIDE earlier this year, but Cro Cop signed with UFC before then.

Cro Cop is known for his lethal ground and pound and devastating high kick. He was thought to be the only serious contender to Fedor Emelianenko, and when the two met in 2005, a bruised Fedor won by decision. PRIDE was like the NWA in the 80s, in that it was thought to have the better fighters, but didn’t get the American recognition UFC fighters did. So when PRIDE’s top guys came to UFC, it was expected they’d wipe the floor with them.

And it started off well. Cro Cop debuted early in 2007, soundly defeated Eddie Sanchez, and showed the world he was a different class of fighter. The problem was, Cro Cop had some real tough fights in PRIDE, and those beatings eventually wear on you. Cro Cop faced Gabe Gonzaga a few months later, and he didn’t do one thing right. His kick was caught by Gonzaga, who took him down and threw wicked elbows to the head. The ref stood them up, and Gonzaga delivered the kick from Hell. Cro Cop collapsed, out cold, and hasn’t been the same since.

Cro Cop fought again three weeks ago, this time to feared striker (and not-at-all feared wrestler) Cheik Kongo. Mirko was doing okay until Kongo broke his ribs, at which point Cro Cop became human again. After 3 rounds, Kongo had won a well deserved victory, and Cro Cop looked like a different man.

Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess. Cro Cop is still dangerous and should not be counted out, but as far as being in the heavyweight title picture, it ain’t happening in 2008 unless there is a severe shortage of contenders for whatever reason. Cro Cop has 3 fights remaining on his contract. UFC could always release him early, but with all the competing fight organizations out there, it’s unlikely. When those 3 fights are up, expect Cro Cop to retire and return to Parliament in Croatia, where he currently works. It would be a whimpering end to a great career, but Cro Cop has done enough in his career to where he’ll always be seen as an all-time great.

Gabriel Gonzaga

A virtual unknown a year ago, Gonzaga became a feared heavyweight contender instantly when he rendered Mirko Cro Cop unconscious after a vicious kick to the skull. It’s a strike that no one who saw it will ever forget. No one had ever seen Cro Cop motionless before, and any man who could do that was someone to take seriously.

That win spoiled the coveted Couture vs. Cro Cop superfight UFC had planned for August. Thanks to Gonzaga, that dream fight will probably never happen (even if it did, the aura of Cro Cop has been destroyed). Not only that, but for years people thought PRIDE fighters (especially heavyweights) were superior to UFC’s. So PRIDE’s second best heavyweight comes to UFC and gets dropped in the first round by an unknown UFC prelim guy.

Now that unknown UFC prelim guy is a legit top heavyweight, and he earned it. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for UFC’s accountants), Gonzaga lost to champ Randy Couture last month in a one-sided fight that few expected Randy to win. In Gonzaga’s defense, he was not used to the pressure and stress of main eventing such a huge PPV. Couture had done it numerous times and was able to focus. In other words, once Gonzaga gets used to the media circus, he’s still going to be a force in MMA. He’s still big, strong, fast, young, and well rounded. Never count this man out.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

Nogueira is another PRIDE heavyweight star who has been through the trenches and spent his 20s fighting the best fighters in the world. He’s now in UFC, and by the time you read this, he may have just defeated Forrest Griffin (in the light heavyweight division).

Nogueira, like Cro Cop, is a victim of years of physical abuse that may have begun taking their toll. His UFC debut saw him victorious (over former PRIDE heavyweight Heath Herring), but it was not an overwhelming, convincing defeat.

Herring nearly won the fight early, catching Nogueira with a strong kick and was on the verge of having the fight stopped until he inexplicably didn’t follow through with more aggression. Nogueira recovered, won the next 2 rounds, and won the decision.

Nogueira was seen as potentially Couture’s next opponent, and he may very well be, depending how his fight with Griffin goes. Since you’ll be reading this after the fight happens, you should know the answer.

Brandon Vera

Vera, Vera, on the wall. Is Brandon Vera the best heavyweight fighter of them all?

Before the UFC purchase of PRIDE, he may have been. During the Tim Sylvia days, UFC’s heavyweight division had little respect. Sylvia was not a crowd pleaser, and Dana White was desperate to get the belt off him, but no one could do it. Vera was seen as the guy to do it, but he was embroiled in a contract dispute with his management that tied him up for almost a year. During that lull, Randy Couture came out of retirement and put an end to the Sylvia reign.

The contract dispute is over, and Vera is back with UFC. And he’s scheduled to fight Sylvia in October, in Sylvia’s first fight since losing to Couture (and having back surgery). A win here might put Vera in serious title contention. However, winning against Tim Sylvia is easier said than done. Vera hasn’t fought in awhile, and how he performs will depend on how much Sylvia has recovered from his own injuries and title loss. A lot is riding on this fight for both men.

Tim Sylvia

Perhaps the least respected (and under appreciated) UFC heavyweight champ in history is Tim Sylvia. A huge, giant of a man, Tim is known for keeping his distance, jabbing with his long reach, and wearing out his opponent in long, drawn out fights that often go the distance. It’s a dull style, but it has worked for him. He has also brutally knocked out several opponents, and to categorize him as a safe, no-risk-taking puncher would be rather unfair.

Sylvia gets knocked for lacking the skills of the other top heavyweights, and instead relying on his genetics (tall, long reach, big boned). Of course, this idea is ridiculous because all the other top heavyweights have superior genetics as well.

In fact, to people reading this who are like me and under 155 pounds, a guy who weighs 160 lbs has superior genetics, let alone a heavyweight. So forgive me if I don’t cry foul for all those 220-pound monsters out there who complain that Tim Sylvia is lucky he’s so big and tall.

The fact is, if Sylvia is such a bad fighter, then why can almost no one beat him? Rumor has it that even the best fighter in the world, Fedor Emelianenko, specifically wanted to avoid fighting Tim Sylvia if he were to sign with UFC. As for Cro Cop, people thought he would come to UFC and obliterate Sylvia. And we all know how that turned out.

Yes, Sylvia often has boring fights. Everyone does. Is the goal to win fights, or to have exciting fights? In a perfect world, people would do both. But as you might have noticed, UFC is a lot more sports entertainment than it is pure sport. If it weren’t, Sylvia would be much more respected. But it is.

Sylvia has lost the title before, and then came back and won it. Will he do the same again? Well, we don’t even know if Dana White will even give him the chance, even though he deserves it. Tim Sylvia isn’t the best fighter for business and drawing fans, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

Andrei Arlovski

Arlovski is proof that no matter how menacing someone looks for a short period of time, nothing lasts forever.

Arlovski, a former UFC heavyweight champ, looked indestructable just a few years ago. He was on top during a time when UFC did not have the exposure or popularity it enjoys today. Still, he’s got a great look and fans still see him as something of a star. Not many men walk around looking like a wolf.

Arlovski was promised a shot at the title if he beat xxx at UFC 70. He won, but it was a very dull, 3-round circle-fest that saw both men afraid to touch each other. To prove a point to his fighters that winning dull fights works against you, Dana White did not grant Arlovski his title shot.

That’s too bad for Andrei, because that would’ve meant a shot at Randy Couture’s title next year. Instead, he’ll have to wait his turn and works his way back up a heavyweight division that is 10 times more competitive than it was a year ago. A year ago, there was no Vera, Nogueira, Cro Cop, or Couture (Gonzaga was there but no one considered him a threat like they do today). His arch nemesis, Tim Sylvia, is also still around. Playing it safe and winning a boring fight may have cost Arlovski his career, and in 2008, he’ll need to really step it up if he wants to be taken seriously again.

So there you have it for the heavyweights. Next week, we’ll examine the light heavyweight division (arguably the most exciting and star-studded weight class of all) and the middleweight division (which clearly needs some new stars).