Heavyweight pugilists have long been one of the biggest attractions in combative sports. Historically, some of the most significant and most lucrative fights in the history of boxing have taken place in the heavyweight division, and power punchers like Mike Tyson, Joe Louis, George Foreman, and Muhammed Ali attracted huge crowds due to their blazing fast speed and almost guaranteed delivery of entertainment. Much of the interest in heavyweight boxing has dwindled over the years due to the lack in talent, lacking not only in quantity, but quality as well. Quick combination punching, one punch knockout power, and speedy footwork are something we don't see often anymore in heavyweight battles, and interestingly enough -- we may see a decline in interest in heavyweights worldwide in mixed martial arts as well.
Waning interest stems from a shortage in talent. In researching some of the top heavyweight prospects currently in the market, the needle in the haystack of mediocre fighters is much harder to find than in any other weight class. Many current prospects weigh at what many would consider a "cruiser" weight of 230 pounds, and many prospects hail from countries in the infancy of the mixed martial arts boom.
Bellator's upcoming heavyweight tournament is easily the best group of prospects in the heavyweight division of mixed martial arts right now, and there are a couple of fighters in the mix that could fight in the upper-echelon of the UFC's heavyweight division with some seasoning. Eddie Sanchez and Neil Grove are UFC-tested fighters who were cut after losses, and nothing they showed in the UFC convinces me they'll make their way back. Damian Grabowski and Rogent Lloret, while quite good, sit in that "cruiser" weight range, and they've fought mostly European talent, not exactly a heavy indicator that they could compete with some of the top talents in the UFC. Scott Barrett and Mike Hayes may be able to surprise some fans, but I think Cole Konrad and Hae Joon Yang are the two talents to watch.
Konrad fits the profile of the prototypical new era heavyweight. He has a highly-credentialed background in wrestling, huge size, and massive power. He should be able to make his way through the tournament and blast his way into the UFC with some hype around him. Hae Joon Yang doesn't fit the profile, but he possesses the ultimate equalizer in one punch knockout power. He'll likely never compete at the top of the UFC without additional strength and size, but he does have the background to be one of the more well-rounded athletes in the division.
Why did I go through all of this trouble giving you an overview of one of the better talent pools in heavyweight mixed martial arts? Two or three heavyweights out of a field of potentially eight prospects have the foreseeable skills to make a run in the UFC. I'm not saying I'm going to be right or that we won't see the UFC give offers to multiple heavyweights after the tournament is over and contracts are finished, but the overall point is that there is a lack in the quantity of quality prospects.
On the other side of the coin, there is also the interesting problem in that the UFC's heavyweight division is already at a very high average age. From what I can gather and calculate, the division is very close to an average age of 31 years of age (Not including Randy Couture). The youngest fighters who are within our top 25 heavyweight rankings are Cain Velasquez (27), Junior Dos Santos (25), Ben Rothwell (28), and Stefan Struve (22). The rest of the field is at or above 30 years of age with Shane Carwin (35), Cheick Kongo (35), Roy Nelson (34), Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (34), and Brock Lesnar (33) topping the list.
While we aren't seeing these aging fighters exit the sport just yet, it's only a matter of two or three years before we begin to see the exodus begin. That brings about questions regarding the future of the division, the influx of new talent, and whether we'll see these enormous athletes like Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin replaced by able prospects.
Stemming from that question, will we see an influx of bigger heavyweight talents that mimic the mammoth sizes of a Lesnar or Carwin? Cole Konrad and Tony Johnson Jr. are two enormous heavyweights with world class wrestling credentials who will most likely make their way to the UFC, but will there be others? It's not too far-fetched to believe we'll see bigger wrestlers move into the sport. We've obviously seen an influx of ex-NFL talent that couldn't quite cut it in the pros, and collegiate wrestling stars are finding their way into MMA gyms and converting to MMA after successful wrestling careers. As the UFC continues to grow and purses begin to get larger, I have no doubt in my mind that it'll start attracting more "large" fighters to the sport.
I suppose the broader issue is whether or not the heavyweight division will see some sort of regression to mediocrity, something boxing has done with the absence of quality talent. To be perfectly honest, if enormous heavyweights begin to exit the sport without quality replacements -- it could be a blessing in disguise for the UFC and any other major promotion. I think the technical aspect of the sport would become more apparent with lighter heavyweights, and I think it would encourage more cruiserweights to stick around at heavyweight versus dropping down to light heavyweight to avoid being murdered by giants who mimic Brock Lesnar.
Of course, that blessing in disguise relies on some pretty lucky circumstances to occur, and I highly doubt those circumstances actually play out. Top heavyweight NCAA wrestlers would have to avoid the sport completely, and with the success of Brock Lesnar -- they'd be stupid not to try their luck at becoming a huge star in the UFC.
The next few years will be interesting in the landscape of heavyweights in mixed martial arts. We'll undoubtedly see some exits of aging legends and an influx of talent, but how big and how good will those new heavyweights be? As of right now, it doesn't look great, but I imagine Lesnar's success will correlate to a rise in prospects in the future.