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After UFC's Dos Santos Vs. Velasquez, MMA's Heavyweight Division, Once Red Hot, Has Cooled

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A year and a half ago MMA's heavyweight division was brimming with prospects, proven talent and veterans at the top of their games. Now after the decline and fall of Fedor Emelianenko, Brock Lesnar, Cain Velasquez and others, the division looks to be on the down swing again.

PHOTO CREDIT: Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com
PHOTO CREDIT: Esther Lin, MMAFighting.com

New UFC heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos has crushed the previously undefeated Cain Velasquez, amid rumors both men were dealing with serious injuries. Having seen how diminished Velasquez -- pudgy, slow, tentative -- appeared on his return from a year off for rotator cuff surgery, fans are right to worry that dos Santos won't be the same when he returns from knee surgery for a torn meniscus.

While the division is certainly still strong, it's dramatically diminished from its all-time peak a mere 20 months ago. In 2010 we had a superstar UFC champ that was universally feared. We had a still-undefeated legend ruling in Strikeforce. We had a bevy of up and coming prospects and a strong roster of formidable and well-known veterans. Today, not so much.

Sixteen months ago MMA's heavyweight division was the hottest division in mixed martial arts. Superstar champion Brock Lesnar was not only the biggest popular attraction in the sport's history, he also had a fearsome aura of intimidation. In June 2010, when Brock Lesnar said he was the baddest, people believed him.

Sure he'd survived a scary bout of diverticulitis, but he was ramping up for his return to the Octagon and anticipation was running high.


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And sure Lesnar had lost one fight at that point, a kneebar submission to Frank Mir in his second pro fight, but as of June, 2010, Brock Lesnar had physically dominated every opponent he'd been locked in the cage with. 

It wasn't just Lesnar either, rising contenders Shane Carwin,Velasquez, dos Santos,  The Ultimate Fighter winner Roy Nelson and Brendan Schaub were all building momentum and winning fights.

Outside the UFC, long-time Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko was still undefeated. Strikeforce had built a heavyweight division around Fedor that many felt was as good or better than the UFC's. Fighters like Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett, Fabricio Werdum and Andrei Arlovski had fans buzzing with excitement at the prospect of a Strikeforce heavyweight tournament.

Time changes everything.

Today Brock Lesnar has survived not just the removal of about a foot of his colon after a diverticulitis relapse necessitated surgery, but also two in-cage thrashings that have dramatically diminished his mystique. He got past Shane Carwin at UFC 116, but not before Carwin showed Lesnar is decidedly uncomfortable when he gets hit. At UFC 121, Cain Velasquez finished what Carwin started and not only made Lesnar look flinchy when punched, he definitively beat him by TKO. 

Unfortunately, Velasquez was unable to quickly capitalize on the momentum due to a very serious rotator cuff injury. According to reports, Cain endured a 90% tear of his right rotator cuff which required surgery and kept him out of the cage for nearly a year. When he returned he was not the same fighter. Possibly due to a minor knee sprain a few weeks before the fight, but more ominously it could be that his shoulder still isn't the same and never will be. That kind of rotator cuff tear has been the end of many an athletic career. 

As for Lesnar, he is still a very compelling attraction to fans, but there's no denying that the aura of invincibility has been destroyed. He'll have a chance to redeem himself against Alistair Overeem at UFC 141. 

Dos Santos is one of the few heavyweights whose reputation and prospects have only improved in the last year and a half, but a serious knee injury could change everything. Former light heavyweight champ Mauricio Rua is a walking, make that limping, cautionary tale for what knee injuries and surgery can do to a fighter.

Fedor Emelianenko's career and reputation are in tatters after three straight losses. Thanks to the overly aggressive negotiating tactics of his management which destroyed his working relationship with Zuffa (who bought Strikeforce in April, 2011), Fedor's next fight probably won't even be aired in the U.S. At age 35 and with a scorched Earth relationship with the UFC there's almost no chance of Fedor returning to the top of the sport. 

Shane Carwin's been brought low by a vicious trifecta of age (36), injuries and a brutal, brutal loss to dos Santos at UFC 131. He endured a serious neck surgery after nearly taking the title at UFC 116 and just recently he's announced that he'll be going under the knife for back surgery. 

Nelson is another victim of JDS, but unlike Carwin, he at least looked competitive against dos Santos. It was Nelson's listless performance against Frank Mir at UFC 130 that really sunk him as a viable contender. Nelson got back on track against Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic at UFC 137 but beating the aging Cro Cop is only so impressive.

As for Schaub, he's plenty young (28) and talented enough to bounce back from his shocking KO loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira but it will take at least a year for him to rebuild the 4-straight-win momentum he had going into that bout. If he'd beaten Big Nog, Schaub was a lock for a title shot. 

Then there's the carnage that is the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix. Fedor and Arlovski lost in the first round, Arlovski has lost so much that he's been bumped down to the MMA minor leagues and it's doubtful he ever returns. The "Fedor-slayer" Fabricio Werdum lost to Overeem in the quarter-final round and made both fighters look bad in the process.

The new talent that has come into the division more recently is distinctly limited: Dave Herman, who had to sit out his second UFC fight at UFC 136 due to a failed drug test; Travis Browne, whose turgid performance at UFC 135 did anything but get fans talking; and Daniel Cormier, who's very talented but very very small for the division.

It just goes to show that in the ultra-dangerous world of MMA change is the only constant.