Continuing our series of articles focusing on the free agent market as well as taking a look at some of the most promising rising stars, our focus will now turn to the heavyweight division. Many fans have taken shots at the UFC and Strikeforce for their lack of depth near the bottom of their heavyweight talent pools, but as I found out through my research and digging -- the worldwide search for heavyweight talent remains rather sparse even in the free agent market.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that Josh Barnett (24-5) tops the list as the best free agent fighter in the heavyweight division. In terms of actual mixed martial arts skill, Barnett is the cream of the crop among free agents. His appeal as an attractive acquisition for U.S. promotions, however, has dropped substantially due to the positive steroid test that sunk Affliction: Trilogy and canceled the highly anticipated match-up with Fedor Emelianenko.
Japanese promotions like DREAM and World Victory Road are currently the primary suitors of Josh Barnett, but there are plenty of rumors circulating that Strikeforce might create a Fedor Emelianenko vs. Josh Barnett showdown in February of 2010 as part of the DREAM/Strikeforce alliance. In any case, you can bet good money that the UFC and Strikeforce will stay away from exclusively signing Barnett as he's a risky bet with a history of positive steroid tests. Barnett may fight a Strikeforce fighter as part of the partnership, but DREAM would more than likely be the promotion who pays out the salary.
Other names that immediately trigger some old memories for fans that are still in the mix as legitimate free agent acquisitions include Pedro Rizzo (17-9), Sergei Kharitonov (16-4), Marcio "Pe De Pano" Cruz (6-2), and Aleksander Emelianenko (15-3). Rizzo and Kharitonov hold the most value as Rizzo still has the striking prowess to entertain fans and pummel lesser competition. He could make for some interesting rematches in the UFC, or act as an upper-echelon gatekeeper in Strikeforce. Kharitonov might have more appeal because he's only 29 years old, and the Strikeforce/DREAM alliance will probably be very interesting despite FEG allowing him to fight out his contract with a stint in K-1 at the K-1 World Grand Prix 2009.
Aleksander is probably the best free agent fighter with the exception of Josh Barnett, but like Barnett -- he has some issues that will probably hinder him from ever seeking a fight in the United States. The Japanese promotions seem to be skeptical as well. If he truly does have Hepatitis B in his blood as was the suggested reason why he was denied a license in California, he'll probably be confined to regional promotions in Europe and Asia who won't test him. Rumors are circulating that KSW will pit Emelianenko against former Strongman champion Mariusz Pudzianowski.
One of Brazilian jiu-jitsu's elite in Marcio "Pe De Pano" Cruz rounds out the list of top veteran acquisitions for promotions. Many of you might remember his bout against Frank Mir at UFC 57, and his two subsequent losses to Jeff Monson and Andrei Arlovski at UFC 59 and UFC 66 respectively. He's managed to rattle off four straight victories since his loss to Arlovski, defeating Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante, Choi Mu Bae, Dan Christison, and Tom Sauer. From all indications, he's looked pretty good in his most recent fights. Could the UFC come calling? I wouldn't be surprised, but Strikeforce might pick him up as well. He'd be a good acquisition for both promotions. The only concern is that he has stated he wants to drop to 205 pounds, so he might not be suitable for heavyweight anymore.
Damian "The Polish Pitbull" Grabowski (10-0) is likely on every major promotions' radar as he's one of Europe's top heavyweight prospects. His strength of record isn't that impressive, but he has managed to dominate some decent veteran fighters and other rising prospects during his ten-fight undefeated streak. Unfortunately, he's currently on hiatus due to a shoulder injury he suffered in preparation for a bout with Valentijn Overeem scheduled back in November. He should gain interest from the UFC due to his rising fame in Europe, but I'm sure he'll talk with every major promotion involved in the sport before a deal is struck. (Per Venom77 of mmarocks.pl, Grabowski is in talks with the UFC and Sengoku)
Chad Corvin (6-0) is another young prospect with a huge 6'5" frame sitting at roughly 250 pounds. He has a background in wrestling as he placed second in his state during his senior year in high school and was offered D-I and D-II scholarships, but his academics didn't allow him to accept as he fell short of the graduation requirements. He's known for his massive striking power, and he managed to defeat Rico Hattingh, one of Africa's best BJJ practitioners who submitted Trevor Prangley in his sixth MMA bout. At only 23 years of age, Corvin will likely find himself in a major promotion like Strikeforce or the UFC in the coming year if he doesn't have a setback.
D.J. Linderman (7-1) isn't Zak Jensen's alter ego as Kimbo's moniker'ed him. He's a real fighter who has defeated fellow prospects Mario Rinaldi, Mike Hayes, and Devin Cole with his lone loss coming in a rematch with Cole back in May. At 6'2", 250 pounds, Linderman also has a decent gas tank for a big man as he miraculously came back to beat a much larger Rinaldi after being dominated for two rounds.
John Devine (5-1) is one of the biggest prospects on the list as he's 6'4" 260 pounds with his only loss coming in his first professional MMA bout against current UFC fighter Chase Gormley. Devine has an impressive jiu-jitsu ground game as he's trained by Saulo Ribeiro. High level grappling skills coupled with a huge frame could vault him into the UFC or Strikeforce with some bigger wins.
Hae Joon Yang (4-0) is a stocky 5'11" 240 pound Korean fighter who's been making waves with his impressive power and a granite chin. He has four wins that all ended within the first frame by knockout, and he managed to crush Joaquim Ferreira in only 0:14 seconds at M-1 Challenge 17. He's apparently enrolled in the Korean Army reserves, so he's currently limited to fighting in Korea.
Geronimo "Mondragon" dos Santos (15-7) doesn't have the impressive record you would have hoped for, but he's riding a six-fight win streak that included a 1:01 finish of Assuerio Silva at Jungle Fight 15. Junior Dos Santos was able to defeat the 6'3" 265 pound fighter during his reign in Brazil, but "Mondragon" might have some serious potential as he's a very well-rounded fighter who's proficient in the grappling and striking departments.
Karlos Vemola (6-0) sits at 6'4" 243 pounds, and he's managed to crush all six of his opponents in quick fashion. His most notable win is over Stav Economou in the British promotion Cage Fighters Championship. We definitely need to see him against some better competition, but Economou was a nice step up from his previous opponents. He has huge power and solid wrestling ability that should propel him to become a top European prospect. (HT: Michaelthebox)
Fighters to Keep a Close Eye on
Michal "Massacre" Kita (9-3) is currently one of the top Polish prospects who has had his stock rise substantially after winning the IAFC Mayor's Cup tournament with a win over Alexey Oleinik in the finals on November 27th. His losses come against Rogent Lloret and Gilbert Yvel, but he's managed to win six straight following those losses. At 5'11" 230 pounds, he has a disadvantage against the top heavyweights, and I'd like to see how he would fair against fellow Polish prospect Damian Grabowski. (Per Venom77 of mmarocks.pl, Strikeforce may be interested in Kita)
Alexey Oleinik (26-5-1) may have lost the IAFC tournament to Michal Kita, but he has an impressive background as a Judo black belt with similar Combat Sambo experience to Fedor Emelianenko. He isn't the same fighter as the "The Last Emperor" in terms of explosiveness or success, but he does have a vast array of submissions in his repertoire. He's finished fights via the Ezekiel choke, the Scarf Hold, and the heel hook in past fights. Those aren't exactly run-of-the-mill submissions by any means, and he may find himself in victory lane against better competition because of his unorthodox techniques.
Dan "The Sandman" Christison (17-7) is probably best known for his stint on the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. He lost his first match-up on the show to Seth Petruzelli, and his following bout against Frank Mir at UFC 61 didn't go well for him either as he dropped an unanimous decision. He took two fights with the IFL following his stint with the UFC in which he dropped decisions to Krzysztof Soszynski and Antoine Jaoude. Since then, he's rattled off a 9-1 record with a lone loss coming against BJJ ace Marcio Cruz. He's only been finished once in competition, and he's never been submitted. He's definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially since he's training out of Greg Jackson's gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rogent Lloret (7-1-1) is a Spanish mixed martial artist currently training under Robin Gracie in Barcelona. He's a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a 6'3" 236 pound frame who has a notable victory over Michal Kita and a draw result against Alexey Oleinik. The only blemish on his record is probably one of the reason why he hasn't gained a contract from a major promotion. He was knocked out by Jared Hamman back in July of '07.
Alexander Volkov (5-1) is one of the tallest heavyweights in the field at 6'7" 213 pounds. He's won via TKO in four of his five wins with his most significant win coming against Ibragim Magomedov on December 3rd via unanimous decision. We'll want to keep an eye on whether or not he tries to drop down to the light heavyweight division, and at only 21 years of age, he looks to have a bright future ahead of him.
Mario Rinaldi (10-4) is a 5'11" 280 pound grappler training out of American Top Team. He primarily uses his size to his advantage as he can control where the fight goes and use his grappling prowess to submit opponents. The only issue has been his conditioning level as it was one of the sole reasons why D.J. Linderman was able to mount a comeback against him in the third round of their bout on November 22nd.
Dong Yi Yang (8-0) is best known for defeating Pawel Nastula at Sengoku IV, but he's also a very heavy-handed Korean striker who should be ready for a step up in competition. I'm not exactly sure if he's built for continuing in the heavyweight division. Anybody want to try to figure out if Yang will fight LHW or HW? (HT: smoogy2)
On the Radar
Daniel Puder (8-0) was supposed to be the next big thing for Strikeforce in terms of heavyweight talent, but he fell off the face of the Earth after his decision victory over Richard Dalton at Strikeforce at the Playboy Mansion back in September of 2007. Later, we found out he signed on with Ring of Honor wrestling, but he's since fought two fights in 2009 for Call to Arms. He looks to be back in the MMA picture, and he might find his way back into bed with Strikeforce.
Joel Wyatt (5-1) is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt and a black belt in Judo out of Hybrid Martial Arts in Roanoke, Virginia. He doesn't have a record of impressive wins thus far in his career, but his grappling background is quite good. He's currently fighting in Shine Fights, so we should be seeing him against some better competition soon.
Nick Penner (9-1) is the former Canadian Junior Heavyweight kickboxing champion with a heavy background in the stand-up game. At only 6'0" 220 lbs., he'll need to start thinking about cutting down to light heavyweight to have a legitimate shot at being successful against stiffer competition, but he's someone to watch as he has good striking and is developing his ground game.
Cristiano Kaminishi (7-1) is the current HEAT heavyweight champion who is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. He's fairly small for the weight class at 6'1" 216 pounds, and he'll likely drop down to light heavyweight in the future. He's also been training at American Top Team as he's ramped up his level of competition, but he'll need to take some fights outside of HEAT to really test himself.
Jessie Gibbs (10-3) is a 6'5" 254 pound Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who has some notable victories over Denis Stojnic, Rob Broughton, and Charles Grigsby. He just recently lost to prospect Dion Staring on November 29th. He'll need to train a little harder in his striking game to push through some of the better competition he's faced in the past.
Other notables include Ty Lee (6-0, 6'2" 265), Scott Barrett (3-1, 6'0" 265), Joey Beltran (9-3, 6'2" 230), Jason Riley (6-2, 6'6" 250), Stav Economou (9-1, 6'1" 250), Fabio Maldonado (13-3, 220), Bret Kohan (4-0), (5-0, Gian Villante (6'2" 215), and the oddly unknown Guigao (8-0) who defeated "Mondragon" and "Zuluzinho" in first round TKO's. Someone find some information on him.
Mark Hunt (5-6) is always on the radar when it comes to heavyweights, but he has reportedly signed on with HUSTLE in Japan. He's more than likely going to fight both MMA and be a professional wrestler, but he's probably going to limit himself to completely irrelevant fights while being overly out-of-shape. It'd be nice to see him train with a legitimate camp and become a monster at heavyweight, but I think Hunt is done.
Another name that normally creates a heavy sigh from fans is Ricco Rodriguez (38-11). A victim of drug problems and a lack of discipline in his life has led to a somewhat mediocre career for Rodriguez, but he's turned it around as of late. He managed to drop a lot of weight for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club grappling tournament this year, and he did manage to defeat a solid prospect in Moise Rimbon in the IAFC Mayor's Cup tournament. Unfortunately, he was pulled from the next round of the tournament due to a fever. If he can make 205, it'd be much better for him, but I'm willing to bet he'll go where the money is.
Travis Wiuff (58-13), Justin McCully (10-5-2), and Eddie Sanchez (11-3) are also available fighters with some name recognition. Sanchez might be able to find his way back into the UFC with a solid win over a promising prospect, but I would bank on most of these guys being attractions to regional promotions. Promotions like MFC, XFC, Shine Fights, Shark Fights, and any other major regional promotions will more than likely want to pit some of their better heavyweight talent against any of these names.