As old school sportswriters bemoan Boxing's fall from prominence and rail against the emergence of Mixed Martial Arts in its place, they point to the lack of star power and excitement in the Heavyweight division as a catalyst. Any combat sport is at its most compelling when the big boys are at their best. It is the reason why Boxing's Heavyweight Championship is accompanied by the unofficial title of "Baddest Man on the Planet".
Boxing's Golden Age featured a murderer's row of Heavyweight champions; Ali, Frazier, Norton, Liston, Foremanand Holmes, the likes of which will never be seen again. When Kickboxing reached it's pinnacle in the '90s and early '00s throughout Europe and Asia under the banner of K-1, it was because of the star power of Ernesto Hoost, PeterAerts, Andy Hug, Mike Bernardo, Ray Sefo and Jerome LeBanner; men of size, skill and most importantly, knockout power. Even in the early days of MMA, there was a divide between fans of PRIDE and the UFC as to which was better, mostly due to the fact that PRIDE had Fedor Emilianenko; the man almost universally regarded as the best Heavyweight on the planet at the time.
While the UFC has fended of all challengers to its supremacy as the premier organization in MMA, they have been able to slowly but surely amass the best roster of Heavyweights in the history of the sport. In May of 2012 the UFCdid something that would have been unthinkable 5 years earlier; they created a Pay-Per-View card featuring only Heavyweight bouts. UFC 146 was plagued with injuries and complications and even though 4 of the 5 original bouts had to be changed on relatively short notice, the card was a resounding success. Every fight ended in either a KO or a submission, and the crowd was roaring their approval thoughout. That PPV signaled the end of the days when two out of shape, ham-fisted brutes would stand in the center of the octagon huffing and puffing after one minute of lackluster fighting, desperately waiting for the round to end, and ushered in a new era of big, athletic and highly skilled fighters who demanded the spotlight. A division that had once been a refuge for big-bellied tough guys is now the home of All-American and Olympic wrestlers, former NFL and NCAA football players, World Champion Kick boxers and Abu Dhabi grappling champions.
This Saturday, at UFC 166, the depth of the UFC's Heavyweight division will be on full display again with 3 of the 5 fights on the Pay-Per-View card featuring the big fellas, including the 3rd fight between Cain Velasquez and JuniorDos Santos for the UFC Heavyweight title. In their first meeting, Dos Santos landed a thunderous overhand right and followed up with some ground and pound earning a TKO victory in just 64 seconds. The second fight played out very differently with Velasquez battering Dos Santos on the feet and controlling him on the ground, winning a totally one-sided decision and leaving Dos Santos' face a swollen, bloody mess. These are the two best Heavyweights in the world and the winner of this third match-up will have a stranglehold on the Championship and will be able to finally put his opponent in the rearview mirror. Here are my thoughts on who will win this rubber match as well as the other 4 fights on the Pay-Per-View card:
John Dodson vs. Darrell Montague - Flyweight Division
This fight appears to be a huge mismatch with Montague making his UFC debut against Dodson, who's previous fight was for the Flyweight title. Dodson is the rare Flyweight with one-punch KO power to go along with his freakish athleticism, but he has shown he can be beaten with good footwork and well-timed grappling. Montaguehas both KOs and submissions in equal measure, but I think he isn't ready for such a huge jump in the level of competition and Dodson will use his strength and speed to make Montague's debut a forgettable one. Dodson wins via 2nd round TKO.
Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Shawn Jordan - Heavyweight Division
Gonzaga is far removed from his days as the #1 contender and brightest young prospect in the UFC's Heavyweight division, and he has become something of a gatekeeper. Young fighters face him to determine where they belong; a win means they move on to top ranked opponents and a loss means they go back to the bottom of the ladder. Jordan, a starting fullback on LSU's National Championship team, is as powerful and athletic as anyone in the division, but he was viewed as something of a project before his impressive KO victory over Pat Barry. Gonzaga is significantly more skilled but if he get pulled into a slugfest with Jordan, his night will be over before he knows it. Gonzaga wins via 1st round Submission.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez - Lightweight Division
I will be stunned if this is not the Fight of the Night. Both of these fighters are aggressive, relentless and durable, but I think there is a significant disparity in technique with the edge going to Melendez. Sanchez tries to use his pressure to break the will of his opponent, but Melendez is indomitable and his slick striking combinations will batter Sanchez through all 3 rounds. It is unlikely that either fighter will be KO'd or submitted but I believe the outcome will be very decisive. Melendez wins via Unanimous Decision.
Daniel Cormier vs. Roy Nelson - Heavyweight Division
Nelson had a reputation as an elite submission specialist when he first started his MMA career, but lately he has become more famous for his iron chin and incredible punching power. Cormier is a former Olympic wrestler who improves by leaps and bounds with every fight and could possibly be a title contender in two weight classes. Nelson will only win this fight if he can land one of his signature overhand rights. Cormier is faster, stronger, the better grappler and better conditioned. Expect Cormier to strike with Nelson early but take the fight to the ground the moment he feels any danger. Nelson needs to test Cormier's chin early, because Nelson get progressively less dangerous as fatigue sets in. Cormier wins via Unanimous Decision.
Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos - Heavyweight Championship
It is difficult to know what to expect in this rubber match. Analysts have tried to simplify this match-up by saying that it is Dos Santos' punching power and boxing skills versus Velasquez's conditioning and wrestling, but both fighters are so skilled in so many ways that it is hard to pick any single determining factor. If Velasquez can avoid early damage and make Dos Santos backpedal he will be able to use his transitions to dictate where the fight takes place, whereas if Dos Santos can cut off Velasquez's movement he will be able to fire off his devastating combinations. Ultimately, my feeling is that in the nearly two years since they first squared off Velasquez has made the larger improvements in his overall skills, while Dos Santos is much the same fighter. This means that, like in the second fight, Velasquez will stay a half step ahead of Dos Santos and fight the fight on his terms. I don't see anyone beating Velasquez in the foreseeable future. Velasquez wins by 4th round TKO.