When 2012 began, Cain Velasquez was the worst kind of mixed martial arts memory; a symbol for the collective anticlimax known as the Heavyweight Division. The promise of a sturdy, marketable, exciting young heavyweight disintegrated with Junior dos Santos' right hand caressing Cain's temporal lobe with the force of a shotgun, and into the fog of Dana's bizarre, sweaty criticisms in response.
It was Cain's first loss, but the defeat felt like so much more. After all, it was the UFC's first show on the biggest stage. But we got more in dialogue among pundits, and announcers than fisticuffs. It wasn't a failure per se, but certainly a disappointment.
Fast forward to May 26th. UfC 146 brought us Cain's return, and with it, the excitement of watching the promising young HW we knew he had always been. His fight with Antonio Silva didn't last long. For over three minutes, Velasquez blooded a competent HW in his own right, allowing us a glimpse into what a fantasy fight might look like between Thor and Biff Tannen.
It was a brilliant performance, and one we saw replicated at UFC 155 when Cain Velasquez morphed Junior's face into a California raisin over the course of five rounds.
Despite this (or perhaps because of), it's very hard to get excited about the HW division. No other division is more erratic, or more volatile. Nowhere else in MMA is it more difficult to discern the pretenders from the contenders. Just consider some of the matchups in 2012. Dave Herman's presence is inexplicable enough, but for his persistent vegetative state to be on display against veritable contenders in Roy Nelson, and Stefan Struve? Sure none of his opponents were ever in danger of losing, but what does it say about HW that these matchups even happened?
Still, as someone that tends to believe that the glass is half-full of hungry, capable pugilists instead of being half-empty in uncoordinated, apathetic stoners, here's a short list of reasons to be optimistic for the new year:
-Cain Velasquez will meet Junior dos Santos for a third time. And this is a great thing. There's a good argument to be made, as Brent articulated, that Cain proved he was always the best HW, and that we learn more from prolonged beatdowns than sudden stoppages. But if Cain's real achievement was a right hand that flushed Junior's brain down the toilet, then isn't this as much a "fluke" as the first fight (in the same way I'd argue Mirko's submission win over Kevin Randleman was as much a fluke as Kevin's knockout win over Mirko)? I don't know. And that's what makes HW exciting.
-The presence of Alistair Overeem. I consider myself an Overeem skeptic, but this should not be construed as "hating". I just find it difficult to think that Alistair's newfound chiseled exterior has thoroughly hidden the same guy who literally ran away from a Russian during a fight; the real concern being that running away wasn't enough to get knocked out mid-flight. Kidding aside, he's a massive HW, and since both Cain and Junior have proven to be crackable, Overeem is as much a contender on paper as he is in real life. If he can stay away from that dreaded anti-inflammatory medication, he'll be a mainstay.
-The man that time forgot; back in 2010 Fabricio Werdum pulled off the unthinkable by submitting Fedor Emelianenko. His only major loss since 2008 against Junior was a dud of a fight against Overeem. What makes Werdum dangerous is that he's made quiet improvements in his game that seem to have yielded large-scale gains. The fact that he's turned into a feisty, and rather scrappy jiu jitsu ace makes him the real dark horse in the HW race.
-The Strikeforce influx; Daniel Cormier is a genuine contender, but it's hard to say where his future lies if Cain is still champ. Nonetheless, should Cain lose, Cormier's presence becomes the commodity many consider him to be. Josh Barnett is worth nothing as well, and even though his best days are behind him, I can think of few non-title fights more entertaining than Josh versus Roy Nelson.
In addition to the aforementioned, guys like Roy Nelson, Frank Mir, Stefan Struve, and Antonio Silva should keep the division credible. And who knows whether or not we're surprised with the addition of Jon Jones...