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The heavyweight division wasn’t always bad. In its heyday, it boasted some of the sport’s most iconic, enigmatic, dangerous and inspiring fighters. They rightfully anchored the biggest events in the biggest organizations, captivating our curiosities more naturally and, frankly, more morbidly than any other division.
The problem: Most of those heyday heavyweights are still fighting. The morbid fascination of those extremely large and extremely tough men is not exciting so much as it is depressing. The heavyweight fights that decorate undercards are almost always sloppy, gassy affairs. At best they end quickly; at worst, the sheer mass in the cage seems to puncture space-time itself and bouts drag on for an eternity. It has become increasingly rare to see good, technical fighting occur when more than 410 pounds are in the cage. Even the most diehard fight fans see “heavyweight” on the tale of the tape and immediately think “smoke break.”
Of course, that description doesn’t apply to everyone, so you can delete the #notallheavyweights tweet you were drafting. Even the weakest, thinnest divisions are still talented at the top, and current champion Stipe Miocic is an underrated all-around talent without question. However, the sign of a healthy division is not a good champion or even a good handful of contenders. A healthy division has a strong middle class of skilled if not yet elite fighters. This gives a division a horizon to look out into, a future backdrop against which even dominant champions can eventually meet their match. That’s what keeps a division moving. That’s what keeps us interested.
Aside from Francis Ngannou and to a much lesser extent Derrick Lewis, heavyweight hasn’t had any exciting prospects in a long time. Everyone in the top five has fought for the title at least once already, and Andrei Arlovski -- who first won the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight crown in 2005 -- is still in the top 15. It makes sense why this division would be in particularly dire straits: If you’re a heavyweight-sized athlete, you’re far more likely to have better options in other sports. The big-and-tall section of professional sports is understandably dominated by the NFL and NBA. Why tolerate the physical punishment of combat for thousands of dollars when you can potentially experience less punishment for millions?
This is why Curtis Blaydes and Tai Tuivasa were such breaths of fresh air at UFC 221 on Saturday in Perth, Australia. In a division in desperate need of new names, they authored signature performances. Tuivasa was an unknown before the weekend. He had only fought once in the Octagon -- a sensational flying knee knockout in November -- and it was buried on the prelims of a UFC Fight Night card. The undefeated prospect made the most of his main-card exposure at UFC 221, turning in another exciting first-round knockout. It wasn’t just plodding power punches, either; Tuivasa was patient and clinical against an obviously outmatched Cyril Asker. His best performance arguably took place right after the fight, when he chugged a beer out of a random fan’s shoe on his way to the locker rooms. Although “Bam Bam” has yet to face anyone notable in the cage, he has plenty of time. It’s premature to say he’s the future at heavyweight, but with the quality of raw materials he possesses -- and personality to spare -- the 24-year-old Tuivasa no doubt has a place in the future of the division.
Then there was Blaydes in the co-main event. As the ninth-ranked heavyweight and with five UFC fights coming into the weekend, he was much more of a known commodity than Tuivasa, but he had still never broken through. His only opponent most people would recognize is Francis Ngannou, a man to whom he lost to in his debut. It was also Ngannou’s second fight in the UFC, so he had yet to make a name for himself, either. Against Mark Hunt, Blaydes had to play spoiler to the crowd favorite and one of the most beloved heavyweights of all-time. The hard-fought decision victory not only put him in close proximity to a title shot but also proved he can take the division’s biggest punches and proceed to execute a smart game plan unfazed. Toughness is perhaps the most important attribute at heavyweight, and strategy under pressure is right up there. Blaydes is a tactical, technical athlete, and he’s now in the title picture at only 26 years old.
Both Tuivasa and Blaydes are young and talented. It wasn’t just a big deal that they won; it was how they won that made UFC 221 a promising night for the heavyweight division. They may or may not become pay-per-view draws, but that’s fine. The division needs to start strengthening its middle class. Before the UFC worries about building heavyweight stars, it needs to fill its roster with fresh talent. The rest will sort itself out from there.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.