Big men are no longer the UFC’s heavy hitters as heavyweight division is in decline

Alex Rea 1/02/2016
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Big Ben: Rothwell (r) on his way to victory over Barnett is at 34.

It’s the biggest weightclass in the UFC but in terms of talent, it’s the smallest.

The heavyweight division has long been a declining force ever since crossover star Brock Lesnar returned to the WWE in 2011.

With no dominant force, the injury-riddled Cain Velasquez is to blame for that, or rising star, the 265lbs title scene has stagnated and is now in a state of flux.

Ben Rothwell added his name to the long list of candidates in with a shout of a shot at champion Fabricio Werdum after his submission of Josh Barnett on Saturday.

But when you take a deeper look at the rankings, the problem is laid bare. Of the current top 10, the average age is close to 39 and is headed by 38-year-old belt holder Werdum.

To put that into perspective, Ring Magazine’s equivalent chart for boxing’s big hitters works out at 33, with 27-year-old Tyson Fury their
top man. The UFC’s once premier division is old. Really old.

And the problem is at a grassroots level. Looking elsewhere in the promotion, the flyweight division has Henry Cejudo, bantamweight has Aljamain Sterling, featherweight has Max Holloway and lightweight has Tony Ferguson.

Heavyweight? No one and it’s led to the flux we see right now.

The root of the problem stems from fighter pay. The financial reward of competing in the UFC is dwarfed by the likes of the NFL, which is able to comfortably lure the type of athletic freaks needed to freshen up the UFC.

Of course, MMA is more than just about pure athleticism but the skill sets needed for the sport have to be taught early.

But as a young athlete, what appeals more, the unpredictable and intense route of MMA or the riches of American Football?

Throughout UFC history, the heavyweight division – whether it was Dan Severn, Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Lesnar and Velasquez – has commonly been dominated by collegiate All-American wrestlers.

But there aren’t any young versions of them around at the contenders level.

Still, the division has its moments as Rothwell proved in New Jersey.

His unexpected, if not shocking, submission win over Barnett, is a timely boost after the body blow of seeing the main event of this weekend’s card ripped apart by first Velasquez and then Werdum’s injury pullouts.

But if the heavyweight division is a shallow class, light-heavyweight is a murderous row.

In the main event Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson cemented his spot near the top of 205lbs division after he knocked out Ryan Bader in 86 seconds.

Eight months after coming up short in his first UFC title fight against Daniel Cormier, Johnson is more than ready for a second crack at it. Whether that be against Cormier or a returning Jon Jones when they eventually meet again.

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INTERVIEW: Conor McGregor’s chief sparring partner Artem Lobov

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The bulbs flashed and the crowd purred in December as the world’s most famous man with Russian-Irish roots was greeted by his fans. At the premiere of Star Wars – The Force Awakens, Harrison Ford was mobbed, with his return to the role of Han Solo bringing critical and popular acclaim. The star’s Irish paternal grandfather and Russian-Jewish maternal grandparents would no doubt have been proud.

Three days earlier, and a good few hours north of the Los Angeles premiere, another Russian-Irishman was in action in front of an equally passionate crowd. Unfortunately for Artem Lobov – whose Twitter profile describes a fighter ‘born in Russia, forged in Ireland’ – his performance could not capture the imagination at UFC’s Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale in Las Vegas.

This Sunday, Lobov steps back into the Vegas spotlight looking to improve on an 11-11-1 record. At UFC Fight Night 82 he takes on Alex White who, after starting his career with 10 straight wins, comes into the clash on the back of two successive defeats to Lucas Martins and Clay Collard.

Lobov was born in Nizhny Novgorod so it is a touch surprising when he opens his mouth for the first time and an inner-city Dublin drawl escapes. For 12 years, Ireland has been his home – more specifically the Straight Blast Gym. Under the tutelage of coach John Kavanagh, Lobov has transformed himself into a fighter marked by a voracious work-rate and vast talent.

“I probably spend more time in the gym than at home,” Lobov tells Sport360 ahead of his fight with White. “I never stop training. It’s my life and my life is about improvement. Even on Christmas Day when people were eating their turkey, I was training. I can’t wait to show that on the big stage.”

The heavy-handed Russian moved to Dublin in 2004 and is known worldwide as Conor McGregor’s chief sparring partner. Lobov received many beatings from McGregor during their early days of training but kept coming back for more; he knew it was an opportunity for self-improvement against the gym’s seasoned statesman.

“My friendship with Conor was built on blocks, sweat and broken bones. He knows me and my style and how I fight. He has proven to give me the right advice and I definitely appreciate every word of advice he’s given me,” Lobov explains.

“I’ve been knocked down many times in my life, but I keep dusting myself off, and moving forward, because as long as my heart is beating I’m not quitting.”

Lobov’s Irish accent is just the start. He is a man full of surprises. Away from the octagon, the 29-year-old boasts an academic streak to match his competitive one. He has completed two degrees – a BA in Business and Spanish and an MA in Finance – and it was as an undergraduate at Dublin City University that the MMA seed was first sewn. An advert on the campus notice board for self-defence classes sparked an interest that has taken him all the way to the UFC.

That day seven years ago seems a world away but before any further progress can be noticed, Lobov must beat White at UFC Fight Night 82.  Proceedings have already been spiced up before they step into the Octagon, with Lobov claiming that White secured an easy passage into the UFC after competing on the regional circuit for fights in his native Missouri.

“Alex represents exactly what I don’t like about many of the fighter. I don’t think he earned his way into the UFC for these easy fights,” Lobov reiterates.

“I feel people should earn their way and fight hard fights. It doesn’t work in any other sport. You’d be very surprised if Manchester United didn’t play Chelsea or Manchester City and then claim to be the champion – that wouldn’t happen? So why should this happen in our sport? But for some reason people do it all the time.

“I could never look at myself if I took the easy road. I’m a warrior and you have to go for the hardest challenge instead of the easiest. I’m there to separate boys from men and I’ll clean up the sport.”

Lobov certainly isn’t one to shy away from how he feels, a trait that he shares with his illustrious sparring partner, and was recently involved in a Twitter spat with Matt Brown – ranked sixth in the welterweight division – over comments surrounding Dominick Cruz’s split decision win over TJ Dillashaw at UFC 81.

Brown is a new training partner of Dillashaw and implied over a series of tweets that Cruz hadn’t won a round and that the commentary was biased.  Although the scoring may have been somewhat imbalanced, Cruz had just returned from an injury ravaged 18 months outside of the Octagon, and Lobov was not going to keep his opinions to himself.

“I felt it was disrespectful and I couldn’t let it go, I had to let it be known. You can’t just say something like he did, especially when he was sticking up for TJ Dillashaw. It’s not as if he’s a lifelong training partner of TJ, they’ve only been training together for a couple of months and they get paid to train together,” Lobov says.

Could this mean a potential fight in the future?

“If he wants to settle it like professional athletes do in the octagon, then I’m more than happy to be there.”

Lobov’s honesty is admirable – his ambition and outspoken nature could take him a long way in UFC, where being a trash-talking tornado wins a lot of fighters favour with the fans.

It’s less than a week until he steps out under the burning lights of the MGM Arena in Las Vegas and goes head-to-head with White. There will be nerves and excitement as he walks out into the octagon, but Lobov is out to prove that his big dreams of being a future champion are not far, far away.

“I think I have a great future. I have a very exciting style and there are very few knockout artists in the UFC, especially in the lower weight classes so I can see myself a big part of this company.”

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UFC release new promo for 196 event starring McGregor and Holm

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McGregor defeated Dos Anjos’ compatriot Jose Aldo in spectacular fashion to win the featherweight title at UFC 194.

He will now look to become the first fighter in history to hold UFC world titles in two different weight classes simultaneously, when he challenges the reigning Brazilian lightweight champion.

Also on the card, women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm puts her world title on the line for the first time against Miesha Tate in the co-main event.

In her first fight since shocking the world and knocking out Ronda Rousey in November, Holm will defend her crown against an opponent who is unbeaten in over two years.










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