Instead of a one-off circus, UFC should turn its attention to building a heavyweight Grand Prix
Sure Cormier-Lesnar could be interesting, but it only makes the championship more hollow
It has long been a bit of a phenomenon how drastically the fortune of one fighter's career can seemingly change overnight in mixed martial arts.
Daniel Cormier might be the best recent example, having beenby knocking out heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic at UFC 226 to become a two-division world champion.
The impact of Cormier's victory, however, didn't just change how we look at him. It created just as dramatic of a seismic shift in how attractive the recently barren UFC heavyweight division suddenly seems thanks to one fight.
Had Miocic, the betting favorite, been able to crush Cormier's dare-to-be-great dreams with a knockout win, the talk would've centered upon how long it would take the greatest heavyweight champion in the promotion's history to find another opponent on that level.
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Sure, Miocic would've likely had for himself the same big-money fight against a returning Brock Lesnar that Cormier is now licking his chops for, but outside of an injured Derrick Lewis there's barely a credible name left in the division who Miocic hadn't already defeated. But not only does Cormier's win reset the fun possibilities of future matches, it combines with a trio of likely (or at least possible) big-name returns to make the UFC's glamour division feel just that.
When you consider that the next 12 to 18 months could see Lesnar, oft-injured and former two-time champion Cain Velasquez and the much-maligned Jon Jones (should his USADA hearing go his way) get in line for a shot at heavyweight gold, there are more than just a few sexy matchups to be made. How might UFC best take advantage of the situation from a financial and ratings standpoint?
While it's far from likely that UFC president Dana White would poach the idea considering it has been executed so successfully by rival promoter Scott Coker (of Strikeforce and now Bellator MMA fame), there has never been a better time than now for UFC to roll out a heavyweight tournament.
With UFC moving nearly all of its non pay-per-view programming to ESPN in January, it's a plan that would be well marketed to the general public and the kind of simple, structured idea (akin to college basketball's NCAA Tournament) that would hook crossover fans.
While Coker's blueprint of a Grand Prix was heavily influenced from his time watching Pride in Japan, the idea of a tournament serves as the foundation of UFC's identity, dating back to the eight-man, one-night bracket unveiled 25 years ago at UFC 1. Launching the idea this November, when UFC celebrates its silver anniversary with a return to the site of its first card in Denver, seems like a perfect way to present the tournament as a nod to its own history rather than a reaction to what Coker has done.
Either way, Coker has twice succeeded in the United States at bringing attention to the two heavyweight Grand Prix he has presented this decade. In fact, should UFC be looking for more synergetic reasons to recreate such an idea, consider the full-circle reality that Cormier was victorious as a late replacement in Coker's Strikeforce Grand Prix in 2012, in a performance that launched his career.
If you're wondering how much Strikeforce's Grand Prix succeeded in getting UFC's attention, consider what happened next after Coker's February 2011 introductory news conference which saw the announcement of big names like Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum as participants. One month later, UFC's former parent company Zuffa announced it had purchased Strikeforce and went on to shut the promotion down two years later.
Coker rebooted his Grand Prix idea earlier this year in Bellator, relying on the name value of Emelianenko and a slew of former UFC stars including Chael Sonnen, Frank Mir and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson to garner big television ratings.
So how might UFC's bracket look should White create a similar tournament? There are two schools of thought to consider. UFC could either launch the tournament with Cormier-Lesnar as its first match (which would be quite an eye-popping opening statement) or it could use the tournament as a way to crown a new champion should Cormier win his next fight, knowing he plans to retire in March on his 40th birthday.
The latter certainly gets complicated, not only because Lesnar could win but also that DC may change his mind when considering the financial possibilities. So if we consider Cormier as part of this plan, UFC could do a lot worse in terms of star factor with the following first-round matches in the eight-man field:
No. 1 Daniel Cormier vs. No. 8 Brock Lesnar
No. 4 Jon Jones vs. No. 5 Derrick Lewis
No. 3 Cain Velasquez vs. No. 6 Fabricio Werdum
No. 2. Stipe Miocic vs. No. 7 Junior Dos Santos
Don't love those pairings or think it's missing some big names? How about play-in matches or alternate bouts involving the likes of Francis Ngannou, Curtis Blaydes, Alexander Volkov, Overeem, Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski?
Whichever combination UFC might choose, the overall point is that business has suddenly picked up at heavyweight in a way that couldn't have been imagined just one week ago as Miocic and Cormier prepared to do battle. The dramatic turn is fitting consideringin which one punch has long changed the fortunes of those involved.
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