There’s nothing wrong with Saturday night’s UFC heavyweight championship fight.
As heavyweight title fights go, it’s a crackerjack of a matchup. Challenger and former champion Junior dos Santos and current kingpin Stipe Miočić have already made beautiful music together, putting on a fight-of-the-year contender back in December 2014. Both are elite fighters, with Miočić riding a four-fight winning streak (all of them knockouts), and dos Santos getting the title shot on the strength of his long and illustrious career.
Despite being 34 and 33 years old, respectively, Miočić and dos Santos are relative pups in a division where the 39-year-old Fabricio Werdum is considered a prime fighter and the 43-year-old Mark Hunt is still a credible top-10 contender. Both Miočić and dos Santos are at the top of their games, in peak condition, and have proven that they can put on a great fight.
On the whole, UFC 211 is about as compelling an event as the promotion can put on these days sans interdimensional phenomenon Conor McGregor or faded superstar Ronda Rousey, featuring not just that heavyweight title tilt but also a strawweight championship fight featuring dominant violence machine Joanna Jędrzejczyk and a bevy of other former champions and contenders in well-matched bouts.
The problem isn’t with dos Santos or Miočić, with how they match up, or with the card as a whole. If you’re ever planning on plopping down $59.99 to watch a UFC pay-per-view, this card is as good an investment as you’ll find.
The question is about the UFC’s heavyweight title in general, and why two elite talents in what should be the sport’s marquee division aren’t automatically drawing huge interest from the viewing public. This event should be the crown jewel of MMA, of combat sports in general—look at the lineage and star power of boxing’s heavyweight champions, from John L. Sullivan to Anthony Joshua—but it’s not. This fight will probably draw no more interest than a generic middleweight title bout.
What went wrong with the heavyweight division?
Let’s step back in time to 2010. Once and future WWE superstar Brock Lesnar, a mountainous beast of a man with the stunning athleticism of an NFL defensive end and the wrestling skills of an NCAA champion, held the UFC heavyweight title. Lesnar routinely drew more than a million buys as a headliner, staggering numbers even by the standards of the UFC’s boom times. He was in the prime of his career despite missing time with a bout of diverticulitis and had come back from a brutal first round against challenger Shane Carwin to finish him with a choke in the second, cementing himself as a force of nature and rightful UFC champion.
In Lesnar’s second title defense of 2010, this time against rising star Cain Velasquez, the UFC seemed to be in a win-win situation. Lesnar was a huge and proven draw, but the Mexican-American Velasquez represented the promotion’s first real shot at breaking through with Latino fans, who routinely shelled out for Mexican and Mexican-American boxers but who had never been drawn to the UFC in large numbers.
To say Velasquez beat Lesnar is an understatement. He beat the crap out of him, shellacked him, wore him around the cage like a hat. Lesnar crumbled under Velasquez’s relentless assault and eventually told the referee he couldn’t fight back, at which point mercy intervened to stop the carnage. To this day, Lesnar carries a noticeable scar under his left eye as a legacy of the trouncing Velasquez put on him.
So far, so good, right? Lesnar was more guaranteed money, but in Velasquez, the UFC had a marketable new champion who appealed to a highly sought-after demographic. Velasquez then promptly sat out for a year with a shoulder injury, but when he returned in November 2011, he still carried all that hype with him.
I was there the day Velasquez’s nascent stardom died, strangled in its crib, and with it the momentum the heavyweight title had sucked from Lesnar’s considerable notoriety. It was the first UFC on Fox show, a bonus event the UFC put together to showcase its product after signing its groundbreaking seven-year deal with a major TV conglomerate, and Velasquez was set to be the centerpiece of that new era. For good measure, they booked the fight in Southern California, the perfect market to showcase a Mexican-American champion.
It took Junior dos Santos, then a fresh-faced challenger with little public profile, just 64 seconds to flatten Velasquez with a looping right hand. Dos Santos did that with 8.8 million people watching live on Fox, still a record for the UFC on Fox series. To make matters worse, the fight wasn’t even compelling: a few kicks, a bit of circling, and then boom, it was over. I’ve never been at a sporting event where the crowd was so disappointed in the result. The disappointment was palpable.
All the energy, everything Velasquez had built up by beating Lesnar, all the potential that he represented for himself as a star and the future of MMA, left the arena in an instant. It’s impossible to overstate what a huge inflection point this was. With so many millions of people watching, it could have been a launching pad for Velasquez, or even for dos Santos if the fight had been an epic one. Instead, we got 64 ho-hum seconds and Velasquez unconscious on the canvas.
While dos Santos had claimed an impressive scalp, he didn’t carry over the hype Velasquez had accrued from defeating Lesnar. This is the root issue that continues to plague the UFC heavyweight championship to this day.
Dos Santos could’ve been the star to rule the division, but Velasquez mauled him badly in two fights to reclaim the title. Injuries robbed Velasquez of the next 20 months after his second win over dos Santos, keeping him on the shelf from October 2013 to June 2015. When Velasquez returned to action in Mexico City—yet another attempt to make him a star to Mexican combat sports fans—dangerous veteran Fabricio Werdum beat him up and choked him out. Werdum got a big-time opportunity in front of a stadium crowd in his native Brazil in his first title defense, but Miočić blasted him with a counter right hand in less than three minutes to take the belt.
Nobody who has held the belt since Lesnar has managed to build anything like momentum. Of that group of champions, only Velasquez defended the belt more than once.
Could Miočić be the guy? Potentially. He’s a skilled, well-rounded fighter and a legitimate all-around athlete who wrestled and played baseball at Cleveland State. He hits hard and throws a lot of punches, which puts him in fun fights. Personality-wise, he’s a garrulous, friendly ur-bro and a true Ohioan who got a raucous response from the crowd when he defended his title for the first time in Cleveland. He’s also a full-time firefighter, which should make him a publicist’s dream. There’s nothing not to like about the guy, either as a fighter or as a promotable champion.
On the other hand, though, Miočić is hittable, and more worrisome, he’s a jack of all trades rather than a master of anything in particular. Miočić has already lost to dos Santos and could well lose to him a second time. The oft-injured Velasquez (a back injury this time) is lurking somewhere on the well-trodden path between an orthopedist’s office and the Octagon. Werdum turns 40 this year, but he’s still dangerous. The division has a couple of up-and-comers, namely Houston’s Derrick Lewis and Frenchman Francis Ngannou. Even if Miočić gets through Saturday’s challenge at UFC 211, there’s zero guarantee that he’ll hold onto the belt for long enough to establish himself as a name and draw.
And that’s precisely the problem with the UFC’s heavyweight division. The belt has never been defended more than twice. It’s never had anyone like Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, or even Wladimir Klitschko, a long-term champion who could gradually become part of the larger sports and culture conversation. The UFC heavyweight kingpin should be the baddest dude on the planet—that’s an easy sell to any generic sports fan or mainstream media booker—but it’s hard to build that reputation when the belt is either on the shelf with an injured champion or changes hands every other fight.
If you tune in for UFC 211, you’ll probably be entertained by everything from the undercard to the headliner. There’s little chance the main event between dos Santos and Miočić will be anything less than good, and a fight-of-the-year candidate is easily within the realm of possibility between two skilled, durable, athletic, and powerful strikers smack dab in the middle of their prime years.
But if you’re looking for something more, for that elusive “it” quality a heavyweight title tilt should have, you’ll have to wait for the next time Anthony Joshua or Brock Lesnar steps into a ring. Dos Santos and Miočić are intensely likable guys and elite talents, but at least for now, that kind of transcendence remains out of reach.