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The Heavyweight Problem

by Kevin Marshall   December 20, 2012 at 12:00PM  |  Views: 3,751


Have you or one of your friends ever made the observation that there aren't any more great American heavyweights in boxing, or at the very least that they aren't competitive in the division the way they used to be?

There's a reason for that, and it's not the "decline of the sport" as so many are apt to think. Rather, it's the surge in popularity in the last thirty years of basketball and especially football. The popularity of those two sports at the highest levels have led to large young athletes being pushed into them rather than other sports. If a kid is large and has any sort of athletic inclination, he's more likely to appear on the court or the field rather than the ring. Other countries, such as Eastern Europe, don't have the same conflict or at least not to the extent that we do here in the States. The end result is that you have guys like the Klitschkos dominating the heavyweight ranks while American fighters struggle to even break the top ten.

This problem has extended to MMA, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. Our sport has a distinct advantage over boxing in that it incorporates grappling, meaning that there's a lot of crossover from amateur wrestling (which still has a high rate of participation in certain regions). Still, as recently as a few years ago, Dana White himself conceded when asked about a Super Heavyweight division that he already has enough trouble finding good heavyweights.

And so we're starting to see a pattern of foreign fighters dominating the division. Looking at anyone's top ten rankings, you're lucky if half of them are American, and that's only if you're counting someone like Josh Barnett who may not even be considered an active fighter. As far as the top five goes, the only American fighter you could reasonably include is Cain Velasquez and maybe Daniel Cormier (pending his eventual shot in the UFC and how he does there). It's not all that unusual until you consider that MMA is still a sport that, by and large, is struggling for international acceptance. As the sport continues its expansion, we're likely to see an influx of grapplers and strikers from Eastern Europe and Asia, which will make finding a competitive American heavyweight even more difficult.

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Personally, as a fan of MMA as a sport, I don't see much of a problem with this. I'd like to think most MMA fans don't either. I think by its very nature and especially its inception, MMA discourages a xenophobic attitude in its fan base. As far as the hardcore fans are concerned, they're perfectly content to watch a well-rounded Brazilian fight a Dutch kickboxer in a main event. In fact, they'll look forward to it.

The mainstream and casual fan base, though, is another story. Although many fans would like to see MMA judged on its own merits, the harsh truth is that combat sports as a whole – not just MMA – is sold on personalities and charisma. It's why a guy like Chael Sonnen can literally talk his way into title shots in a weight division he hasn't competed in for over five years. The real way to get pay-per-view buyrates up and sell out a building is to give fans someone they can either connect with or despise. Either way, they need to be engaged.

Matt Mitrione is another great example. I have all the respect in the world for him, and I really look forward to his fights because he's a scrapper and a great talker. Yet, I don't think he's anywhere near Roy Nelson's league, and given his late start in the sport he likely never will be. That he got exposed recently against Nelson isn't any big surprise, and people that ranked him as a top ten fighter even before that fight were fooling themselves. That said, he's more of a potential draw than other (better) fighters simply because of his personality and ability to sell a fight. And especially because he's an American.

As a pro wrestling fan, I don't find this as offensive or dismaying as others might. I accepted a long time ago that pro wrestling and MMA are two different species that occupy the same genus. The results in MMA aren't pre-determined, but the selling point is the same: getting people to care about a fight. That's what makes money in MMA.

Yet I do worry that without some strong American heavyweights, the sport's going to have a few rough years ahead of it. Boxing is not in dire straits by any means, but there's no denying that it's suffered for the sharp drop in good American heavyweights over the last two decades. The UFC seems to think that Jon Jones can make the eventual jump to heavyweight, but as great as he is, I'm skeptical that he can handle much bigger (and stronger) fighters. Don't forget, this isn't like jumping from welterweight to middleweight. You're talking a difference between opponents who cut a few pounds to get to 205 and opponents that have to lose upwards of thirty pounds to 265.
Heavyweights are always going to be the money division, simply because they're the easiest sell when you're convincing people to shell out money to see guys fight. There will always be the assumption that bigger is better and tougher, especially in our country. Sure, a lot of you reading this know better. But you're outnumbered by those who aren't reading this (much to my dismay), which is where all the money is.

This isn't me sounding an alarm so much as making an observation. As rapid as the ascent of the sport has been, it's going to face difficulty finding further success in the States and perhaps might have even plateaued due to the shrinking number of competitive American heavyweights. It's not a bad thing for the sport, but it is for a promotion's bottom line.

Image Credit: Jim Kemper/ Zuffa LLC/ Getty Images

 

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