Thursday, January 03, 2008

WILL THE REALEST HEAVYWEIGHT PLEASE STAND UP?


A number of thoughts ran through John Buhl's,InsideFighting mind as Fedor Emelianenko (27-1) made quick work of 350-pound Korean kickboxing giant Hong Man Choi (1-1) at the New Year's Eve Yarennoka event in Saitama, Japan.
Even with the painfully obvious skill disparity that favored the Russian, securing an armbar on a genetic marvel with arms the size of tree trunks is an impressive feat. But even at my most optimistic, I can't keep looking at Fedor as the undisputed top heavyweight in the world anymore.

Emelianenko could retire right now and go down as arguably the best fighter in mixed martial arts history, and I'd still peg him as the favorite against any other fighter in the division, including Randy Couture. However Fedor arguably hasn't locked horns with a legit, top-10 heavyweight since 2005, when he defeated Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, depending on how highly you regard Mark Hunt and his 5-3 MMA record.

Since beating "Cro Cop" Fedor has beaten Hunt (primarily known for his kickboxing), a past-his-prime version of Mark Coleman, Matt Lindland (a true 185-punder who moved up two weight classes) and 400-pound Brazilian "Zuluzinho" (who looks better suited for the International Federation of Competitive Eating).

And unless M-1 Global secures the services of current free agent Josh Barnett, that streak could continue, with many of the top heavyweights under contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

So if Fedor isn't the No. 1 ranked heavyweight, who is? Let's take a look at the candidates:

Randy Couture (16-8)

Positives: Against all odds, Couture — who had lost two of his last three fights as a light heavyweight in 2005 and 2006 — came out of retirement last March and defeated Tim Sylvia to win the UFC heavyweight championship, a title he had previously held about five years earlier. He followed that up with an impressive TKO victory over young contender Gabriel Gonzaga (8-2) just five months later.

Negatives: Although they were both top-10 wins, Couture only has two fights as a heavyweight since 2002, and his "resignation" from the UFC means he'll be out of commission until at least October of this year. At that point, the best case scenario would be a showdown with Fedor, which would certainly settle the argument over who rules the heavyweight landscape. But a court battle over Couture's contract status could be more likely.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria (30-4-1)

Positives: Nogueria avenged a September 2006 split-decision loss to Barnett with a unanimous decision win three months later, and also picked up a solid win over Fabricio Werdum. Other than Fedor, Nogueria also has the longest and most decorated tenure among the current heavyweight contenders. With the uncertainty surrounding Couture and the lack of competition for Fedor, Nogueria's upcoming bout with Sylvia in February has added importance.

Negatives: Nogueria's had three chances to defeat Fedor and came away with two decision losses and a no contest (accidental head butt). And judging by his lackluster win against Heath Herring — his only fight in 2007 — Nogueria hasn't picked up any new tricks that would help him get by Emelianenko or Couture.

Tim Sylvia (26-3)

Positives: Rather than sulk over losing the belt to Couture, Sylvia recovered from back surgery and picked up a solid win over the young, but very talented, Brandon Vera (8-1) on Oct. 20. A year earlier the "Maine-iac" beat former champion Andrei Arlovski in back-to-back fights and showed a decent ground game in a decision win over world-class grappler Jeff Monson.

Negatives: Injured or not, Couture dominated him for five rounds.

And the winner is... nobody. The winner of Sylvia-Nogueria might be able to make a claim, and hopefully in 2008 we'll see Couture's contract dispute settled and some live competition for the mighty Fedor. Until then, my first-place vote is for "vacant."
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