For longer than anyone can remember, Fedor Emelianenko has ruled the heavyweight ranks. His legendary battles in PRIDE combined with his unparalleled streak of victories has kept Fedor in the #1 position for several years now. There are questions about the level of competition that he’s faced in recent years, but as long as he’s kept winning in spectacular fashion then those concerns are kept in the minority.
That is about to change, and sooner than you think. Within the next year Fedor will be unseated from his spot atop the heavyweight rankings.
Before we can look ahead, we should take a quick look back. At the beginning of 2008 the UFC’s heavyweight division was in ruins. Their champion, Randy Couture, had left the company over frustrations with management and Zuffa’s inability to sign Emelianenko. The UFC needed to continue recognizing Couture as their champion to keep the upper hand in any upcoming legal battles, yet they still needed someone currently on their roster to represent the top of the division. Their solution was to match up their former champ Tim Sylvia and former PRIDE champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the interim heavyweight title. Sylvia was coming off a dreadfully boring decision win over Brandon Vera, while Nogueira had made a less-than-stellar octagon debut by nearly being knocked out by Heath Herring. Nogueira won the title, but from the beginning he wasn’t considered a true champion while Couture still had his belt.
While things may have been grim at the time, that same year would see the seeds being planted for an entirely new era in the heavyweight division. It started with former WWE superstar Brock Lesnar, who made his UFC debut on the same card as the Nogueira/Sylvia title fight. Lesnar got the bulk of fans’ attention before UFC 81 and his popularity has grown substantially since then, despite the loss in that first octagon appearance. He has since claimed the UFC Heavyweight Championship and is widely regarded as the #2 heavyweight in the world behind Fedor.
2008 was the same year that saw the debut of a few more fighters in the UFC heavyweight division. The preliminary portion of UFC 83 featured the then 2-0 Cain Velasquez making his debut in the octagon. One month later Shane Carwin picked up his ninth first-round stoppage on the undercard of UFC 84 (the bout lasted 44 seconds and was shown on the PPV broadcast). Junior Dos Santos was brought in to face rising contender Fabrico Werdum at UFC 90, but it was Dos Santos who got the win (and all of Werdum’s momentum) on that night.
Now these four men make up the very top of the UFC’s heavyweight ranks. Their win columns are filled with the names of those fighters that were previously considered amongst the best in the division. Names like Randy Couture, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Cro Cop, Frank Mir, Gabriel Gonzaga, Heath Herring, and Cheick Kongo. At the moment Lesnar is considered to be the best in the company, with Carwin, Velasquez, and Dos Santos following behind (usually in that order). However any attempts to rank these four fighters is entirely arbitrary, because all four men have yet to face one another. As such we don’t truly know who the best heavyweight in the UFC is, but it won’t be that way for too much longer.
Next weekend will see the long-awaited meeting between Lesnar and Carwin. The winner of that fight will become the Undisputed UFC Heavyweight Champion, and will then have to defend that belt against Velasquez later this year. Assuming he can get by Roy Nelson in August, it’s safe to assume that Dos Santos will be next in line for a shot at the title sometime in 2011.
Once we’ve seen this first round of match-ups between the UFC’s new breed of heavyweights, we’ll be left with one man standing. It’s all-but-impossible to predict who that man will be but one thing is for sure: By virtue of the competition that he’ll have faced to get there, that man will be the very best fighter in the heavyweight division.
Could you deny that honor to any one of these four fighters by that point? No matter how this series of fights shakes out, the man left standing at the end will have beaten several top ten fighters. That’s more than we can say for what Fedor stands to accomplish within that same amount of time.
It’s almost a given that Fedor will emerge victorious this Saturday night, but what exactly does a win over Werdum prove to anyone? Anyone ranking Werdum in the top ten has him towards the bottom half of the list, and the same can be said for Fedor’s last opponent Brett Rogers. Before that Fedor toppled Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, but one need only look at the trajectory of both men’s post-Fedor careers to see that those victories aren’t that big of an accomplishment.
Presumably, Fedor is heading towards a showdown with current Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem. Overeem is coming off a completely one-sided victory over Rogers, but other than that he hasn’t beaten anyone of consequence since moving to heavyweight. Most rankings have Overeem at #7, which seems a bit silly to me given the number of sub-par opponents that make up the majority of his win column. If Overeem can defeat Fedor that does not mean that he deserves to take over the #1 spot. Fedor has earned his place at the top by facing some of the best fighters to ever step into a ring, Overeem most certainly has not.
We know that Fedor doesn’t care about internet rankings, nor does he consider himself to be the best fighter in the world. We, the fans, will hold his legacy in high regard no matter what the future brings. There will never be another fighter like him, and that’s a fact. He’s been the best in the world for a long time, but all good things must come to an end.