It’s remarkable how quickly the landscape can change in the world of mixed martial arts.
At the start of this year it appeared that the UFC’s heavyweight division was set to be dominated by a new influx of real-life giants – men like Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Roy Nelson and Todd Duffee who had to cut weight just to reach the 265lb limit, and were proving to much to handle for the rest of the division.
As the year has progressed though these behemoths grip on the upper reaches of the heavyweight ladder has began to lessen.
Todd Duffee may not have been a major player yet in the weight-class leading into his fight with Mike Russow at UFC 114 back in may, but with a physique fitting of a comic-book hero and a record-breaking 7 second KO in his debut under his belt, he looked to be one of the stars of the future for the UFC.
A third round knockout loss quickly derailed his hype train however, and after behind the scenes issues with the promotion Duffee later found himself ejected from the UFC altogether.
Two months later the cracks really began to show though when the two biggest forces in the division, Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin collided at UFC 116.
Both men had looked like unstoppable forces in their recent fights in the octagon, but during the fight they exposed each others achilles heel’s, with Lesnar’s major weakness in the striking and inability to take a punch revealed clearly, while Carwin’s cardiovascular issues, which had previously been concealed by a series of first round victories, suddenly came to light.
Though TUF Season 10 winner Roy Nelson’s physique was the exact opposite of the fighters mentioned above, he was still another fighter who was tipping the scale at 265lbs and finding major success in the octagon as a result, finishing his first two opponents in the first round with his heavy hands.
At UFC 117 in August Nelson faced Junior Dos Santos, a different breed of young, up and coming heavyweight fighter who at 240lbs focused less on size and more on technique. That clearly paid dividends in the fight as he comfortably outboxed Nelson to win by unanimous decision and earn the next shot at the title.
Last night’s UFC 121 event was however the perfect example of how size can’t overcome technique. Lesnar dwarfed Cain Velasquez at the weigh-ins, but in the fight the Mexican-American’s speed, technique and endless cardio proved to be a perfect storm that the former pro-wrestler had no answer for.
So is the era of the UFC ‘giant’ really over?
I wouldn’t go quite that far – Shane Carwin in particular is still a serious threat thanks in particular to his devastating punching power that can end any fight in an instant. Lesnar is also still a force of nature, though his aversion to getting hit will be a major concern going forward.
I think the mixture of athleticism and well-rounded, ever-evolving skills of Cain Velasquez is going to make him difficult to dislodge from his new perch at the top of the heavyweight ladder though, while others like Junior Dos Santos and even an up and comer like Brendan Schaub are going to continue to pose significant problems regardless of the size of opponent they come across.
Overall I think this is a good thing for the sport. Emphasizing skill and technique over size and strength has always been at the heart of the martial arts code, and hopefully this will inspire others to follow a similar path.
At the same time I still live in hope that one day we’ll see a fighter with the size of Lesnar and skill of Velasquez. That truly would be something to behold.