When the UFC swallowed up Pride FC, it irreparably altered the core of the sport and its future trajectory. Though it seems like eons have passed since the surreal announcement, the aftershock of the power-purchase still ripples through the global fighter rankings. This was not unlike the player that owned Boardwalk ponying up the cash to secure Park Place in a game of MMA Monopoly.
Measuring the career accomplishments of perennial overseas kingpin Fedor Emelianenko, for example, versus dominant UFC newcomers like Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Junior Dos Santos, and Cain Velasquez posed quite a challenge. However, the last quarter of MMA has invoked a significant shake-up in the worldwide heavyweight landscape, with the oft-debated top slot historically held by Emelianenko finally slipping from his grasp in the form of a shocking submission at the hands of Fabricio Werdum and Brock Lesnar clobbering Frank Mir to convincingly avenge his previous loss.
The UFC poached a large number of premiere Pride fighters, but a fractured band of inarguable talent still radiated from beyond the depths of the UFC’s grasp, particularly in the heavyweight division. The UFC featured the lion’s share of elite fighters within their ever-growing stable of thoroughbreds, but experienced veterans like Emelianenko, Josh Barnett, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira had thoroughly established themselves as the crème of the crop and still retained their lofty pedestal in the rankings.
With Big Nog joining forces with the UFC and slowly inching out of the heavyweight spotlight, Barnett fading into obscurity due to his lack of activity, and Fedor losing his invincible aura with his first undisputable loss, the meteoric rise of Lesnar secured the UFC’s position atop the heavyweight pile – an accomplishment that the American-based promotion has always yearned for, but never could lay outright claim to … until now.
Leading into last week’s collision between Lesnar and undefeated Cain Velasquez, one of the most intellectual and articulate MMA historians I’ve yet to encounter, Underground Forum member “whistleblower”, penned a beautiful piece relating the steps of this evolution in the heavyweight class. I hereby bestow you with the wisdom of whistleblower with his full illustration:
Brock was the first UFC fighter in over 12.5 years to become the consensus #1 HW in MMA. In fact, since the end of 1997, the UFC had not had a single HW fighting in its octagon who was either ranked #1 or generally recognized as the absolute best (i.e., the one who would have been favored to beat every other HW, or fighter, in the sport at that point).
After 1997, both the reigning UFC HW Champion in Randy and the reigning 2-time HW Tournament Champion in Mark Kerr (who was generally considered the best HW in NHB then) left the UFC during their reigns for Japan - and since then, no UFC HW titleholder, and no UFC HW at all, had ever reclaimed that top spot (whether in terms of rankings or being considered the best), until 2010.
It wasn't just Randy and Kerr, either. In fact, after the end of '97, EVERY single current and previous UFC HW/Open-weight champion had left the UFC, mostly for Japan - Randy, Kerr, Mo Smith, Coleman, Severn, Ken, and Royce - which highlighted an overall exodus of top talent from the U.S. NHB scene, especially at HW, and marked the beginning of an increasing shift of NHB's epicenter to Japan (especially with the emergence of Pride).
The end of 1997 was the last time that being a UFC HW champion of any kind had meant any kind of singular supremacy in the sport.
The UFC's HW titleholders since Randy and Kerr, and up until Brock-Carwin, had been Bas, Randleman, Randy, Barnett, Ricco, Sylvia, Mir, Arlovski, Sylvia, Randy, Nog, and Mir - and none of them were #1 or considered the best at that time. Actually, the most highly ranked and regarded UFC HW titleholders in that 12-year stretch had been ranked #2 at best and considered second-best at best (e.g., Barnett and Nog), while most were not even as high as that.
It took the combination of Brock Lesnar, a suddenly revitalized UFC HW division, the UFC's expanded brand prestige and influence, and ultimately, perennial #1 Fedor's decisive upset loss - who had previously monopolized the top spot for over 7 years straight as the universal #1 - to finally reverse over 12 years of accumulated history against HW supremacy in the UFC.
The UFC's recent HW revival has not been limited to just #1, though.
In the last couple of years, the UFC has also reversed the trend of most of the previous decade where, in addition to not having the #1 HW, the UFC perennially did not have most of the top-10 HW's in MMA - where the majority had instead perennially been in Pride up until 2007 (and the #1 HW in Pride had also been the universally #1 HW in MMA for the entire decade up to that point). Meanwhile, the UFC's own HW class was still not one of its premier divisions until 2008-2009, with the emergence of new monsters like Brock, Carwin, Cain, and Dos Santos.
The Brock-Carwin fight formally finalized an historic shift in the division in that, in the wake of Fedor's loss (and with an improved UFC HW division), it was now known that - for the first time since the end of '97 - the winner of a HW fight in the UFC, the UFC HW champion, would be the consensus #1 HW in MMA.
With Brock becoming #1, this was now also the first time in Zuffa history - again the first time in over 12 years, and the first time since the UFC had more than 2 weight classes - that the UFC has the consensus #1's in every single one of its weight classes.
(Where HW had been the longest hold-out - while 205 had now been consolidated in the UFC after the Pride purchase, and an undisputed #1 crowned there since 2007-2008 - Anderson has been the dominant #1 at 185 since 2006, 170 has been the UFC's domain with the #1 spot monopolized since Hughes-Sakurai, and LW was claimed after the UFC brought the division back and BJ Penn came back down to it and became the consensus #1 in 2008.)
Another historic milestone that Brock represents is that he was also the first HW in over a decade, since Kerr, to become the new consensus #1 without having to face and beat - or at least beat up (a la Igor over Kerr) - anyone who was even arguably #1 or considered the single absolute best at the time.
(Where, unlike Brock - before him, Fedor, Nog, Coleman, and Igor had all had to face, outfight, and go through the previous #1 to become #1 themselves.)
Another very telling fact is that Brock was already named #1 at HW on some rankings, including arguably the two most prominent ones in MMAWeekly and Sherdog - immediately in the week following Fedor's loss, even BEFORE his fight with Carwin. Which was the first time in MMA history that a fighter - in any weight class - had ever ascended to the top spot without fighting, let alone winning, a single fight in virtually a year.
That in itself speaks to the power and influence of the UFC brand name now - and even just the sheer nominal force of its title. (Even though the UFC's title at HW had not signified being #1 or the best in over 12 years.) The rankings just could not wait to crown the official UFC champion as their new #1.
(Where, while most fighters usually drop in the rankings after that kind of inactivity, Brock not only did not drop, but rose - and not only rose, but rose as high as a fighter could possibly go - which was completely unprecedented. So not only did Brock not have to fight the previous #1 to become #1 - Brock did not even have to fight at all for a year to rise to #1, because of his formally retained position as the champion of the preeminent brand.)
Another interesting fact to note, however, is that when Brock first became UFC champion after beating Randy - going into 2009, he was not even generally ranked top-5 yet, and not ranked as high as #2 on even a SINGLE major ranking, despite already being UFC champion. Which goes to show just how far the perception of the UFC's HW division and its title had come in just a year and a half, and even during Brock's reign itself.
(Where even up through the beginning of Brock's own reign, the UFC HW title had not traditionally defined any preeminent status in the division.)
But in any case, regardless of the history and the established precedent it has defied - Brock becoming #1 reflected the new reality that just being the UFC HW champion in itself will almost automatically be enough to make someone the consensus #1 from now on, with Brock serving as the new starting-point - following the Fedor loss and cemented with his win over Carwin - which will then follow on to whoever beats Brock, and so on.
Brock has made history, reversed history, and been a significant historical exception in more ways than one. But ultimately, in addition to embodying the ultimate brand power and influence of the UFC now, the most lastingly significant consequence of all will be that - after over a 12-year absence during its 17-year history - Brock has finally brought the ultimate symbol of HW supremacy back to where it originated: To the UFC and its title.
There will always be some semblance of logic to appoint either of the latter as the top heavyweight, but as time ticks on – and Werdum and Emelianenko will ride out the tail-end of their storied careers outside the Octagon, while Velasquez will ascend to the apex of his inside of it – the arguments for any non-UFC heavyweight to stake claim as “the best” will continue to deplete.UFC 121 marked a historic and most likely irreversible change in the global heavyweight rankings, from both a traditional and linear standpoint. UFC fighter Cain Velasquez has risen to a status of outright control to the prestigious title of the world’s best heavyweight, triggering an achievement that no UFC fighter has earned in the 21st century … unfolding the dawn of a new heavyweight era in the sport of mixed martial arts.
(Editor's Note: Special thanks to whistleblower for giving me permission to feature his exemplary work)