It Only Takes One: The Big Hits of Heavyweight MMA

Frank MirIt only takes one. That’s the allure of heavyweight MMA; it encapsulates the sport’s almost cruelly unpredictable nature and magnifies it ten-fold. “Anything can happen in those tiny gloves” is the often heard refrain; add a pair of hulking, 250lb behemoths into the equation and anything often does. This potential for drama is what makes the heavyweight division palatable from an entertainment standpoint. It’s rare to see drawn-out technical masterclasses north of 220lbs, and when we do they lack the blistering speed of the lower weight classes. Heavyweight fights that go the distance more often than not come with their fair share of heavy breathing and hands-on-knees time-outs. Every once in a while we get a brawl as wild and visceral as Mark Hunt vs Bigfoot Silva; sloppy as hell, but we’re willing to give it a pass for its sheer mayhem content alone. Fights like this are the exception rather than the rule with heavyweight MMA, but we let the bad ones slide because at heavyweight there’s always the chance that it ends with one shot; that one spectacular bit of violence that to the layman, MMA is all about. This weird giant fetish isn’t exclusive to MMA. The world heavyweight titles have forever been boxing’s crown jewels, even when better exponents of the pugilistic art have always existed lower down the weight spectrum. K-1’s glory years were almost entirely focused on the big boys. Even in combat sports’ bastard offspring – pro-wrestling – the biggest stars have almost exclusively been the six feet tall, 250lb giants capable of superhuman feats of strength. Football would not be as visually impressive if those big hits were being made by guys who were 145lbs soaking wet. Neither would basketball with nobody tall enough to dunk. Would Hulkamania have ran wild if Hogan had bodyslammed Andre the Man of Average Height and Weight? The big guys are different. The big guys are dangerous. The Danger Element The danger element – the knife’s edge nature of every contest – is what makes heavyweight MMA so exciting. It’s also what makes it that much more hazardous to the long term health and wellbeing of those who make up the 265lb ranks. Losses at the top end are often brutal and unforgiving, both visually and physically. With fighters like Alistair Overeem, Cain Velasquez, Junior Does Santos and Mark Hunt swinging fists like house bricks at your head, if you lose, you tend to lose big. On Sunday night that scenario played out verbatim. Bigfoot Silva, the archetype hulking heavyweight, went down in a blaze of not-quite-glory at the hands of former champion Frank Mir. This was no mismatch; Mir’s heyday has also long since passed. While the UFC dubbed the bout a battle to see who would remain a heavyweight contender, in reality it felt more like a sideshow to determine who would drop first and who would remain employed, or even active as a professional fighter. That question was answered in just a hundred seconds. Bigfoot Silva is perhaps a flawed example due to the number of mitigating factors surrounding his latest loss. The Brazilian is off the TRT treatments and (hopefully) off the PEDs that recently earned him a second suspension from the sport. Add to that his ongoing battle with Acromegaly and the surgeries that come with it, and perhaps Silva is a man who ought not to be competing in a contact sport regardless of previous form. So take Mir, Sunday’s victor. The 35-year-old has been finished by strikes six times in eight losses and he’s taken innumerable big hits along the way. Or how about Stefan Struve? Essentially still a kid in the game at 27, Struve has suffered brutal stoppage after brutal stoppage for our viewing pleasure. Even the mighty Mark Hunt, the man who once (literally) laughed off Cro Cop’s legendary left high kick, has been knocked out twice in his last four outings. Hunt is a month off 41 and the fights aren’t going to get any easier for him. Overeem, Gonzaga, Nelson, Dos Santos…all have suffered big KO’s or prolonged beatings in recent years. None of this is to say that heavyweight MMA is an exclusive club when it comes to head trauma. Big knockouts happen at all weights and some may argue that a veteran 135lb’er who has lost his speed is equally at risk as a heavyweight who cannot take the hits anymore. In terms of blunt force trauma though, the heavyweight division stands a battered head and shoulders above the rest. The blame game Who is responsible for saying “Enough is enough”, or rather, who has the right to tell a fighter to hang up their gloves? Coaches play that role to an extent, but there’s only so much a coach can do to convince a charge to call time on their dreams. If a fighter wants to fight on then they will, and there will always be trainers of a less discerning nature – or those who feel that they can fix a fighter’s issues – willing to step in. Dana White likes to repeat the tale of him putting his arm around Chuck Liddell’s once-mighty shoulders and convincing him that enough was enough. White also recently re-signed Mirko CroCop, a man who left his organisation some four years ago on the back of a string of knockout losses. The millions in Liddell’s bank account probably made that conversation a little more palatable. It’s easy to sit on the outside to say that a given fighter needs to retire, but even when the suggestion transcends personal opinion into the realm of common sense, we haven’t walked a mile in those shoes. Very few will be able to retire on fighting money alone, but that doesn’t account for the immediate issue of surviving and providing. When there are bills to pay or mouths to feed, whether it’s a few hundred dollars on the table or fifty thousand, saying no isn’t always an option that makes sense. The Devil You Know Let’s play Devil’s Advocate: If Mir, Bigfoot or Struve can pass a medical, is there any reason for the UFC to stop promoting their fights? It would undoubtedly be a PR nightmare if something went seriously awry but from a liability standpoint, if a fighter is passed as healthy by a third-party commission doctor, what have the UFC done wrong? Of course we’d like to believe that liability and profit aren’t at the forefront of every promoter’s mind, but that unfortunately isn’t the case. The UFC is arguably the lesser of two evils for someone like Struve or Bigfoot, in the sense that there will be thorough medicals and adequate insurance, plus aftercare should something go wrong. Still, that’s a pretty cynical way of looking at someone’s life and health. When the inevitable high-profile death or major head injury occurs in MMA (and it will), serious questions will be asked of us. Some argue that boxing – amongst other sports – has survived such tragedies, but they fail (or refuse) to see that MMA is a young, unknown quantity to the general public and as such, will be judged more harshly. We’ll need to respond to those questions with compelling answers. So here’s a test; explain Antonio Silva’s medical history and previous form to a layperson and see if you can justify to them (or yourself) why he is still allowed to compete at the highest level of the sport. Try to explain the logic behind a medical suspension that side-lines him for just sixty days, and will see him return to hard sparring in 45… if that can even be enforced in the first place. I don’t want to see the UFC try and justify why someone like Bigfoot Silva has been badly hurt, not just because I don’t want to see someone get seriously injured for fifty grand, but because I don’t know that the sport could withstand  it. Prevention really is better than cure… …and it only takes one. By Brad Wharton

Written by Brad Wharton

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