There is currently an aura around the Heavyweight Division in Mixed Martial Arts. The division is generally populated with poorer athletes than other divisions, and the fights tend to involve less skill, yet still there's a certain sense of wonder that's associated with it. While other divisions keep the playing field fair by dividing fighters by size, and we can argue endlessly about the best pound-for-pound fighter, the Heavyweight Division takes a bit of the sporting element away from Mixed Martial Arts and exists to answer one question: Who is the most dangerous unarmed man on the planet? Right now, it's Junior Dos Santos.
In days gone by, we looked to boxing to answer to answer that question. The Heavyweight Champion was a romanticized figure, the man who could defeat all other men in hand-to-hand combat, and knock out the average man with a single punch. Joe Louis was that man for a long time, and Rocky Marciano was that man until he retired undefeated. Muhammad Ali redefined the image of the Heavyweight Champion in boxing as a champion that bobbed, weaved and defeated challengers with handspeed rather than brute power, like the champions of smaller divisions.
Perhaps no champion was more feared than Mike Tyson, who quickly and viciously dispatched opponent after opponent with a combination of speed and punching power that was downright frightening. Of course, it turns out that Mike Tyson was not the most dangerous man on the planet. Even in his heyday there were probably a handful of Brazilians half his size that would have easily floored him and rendered all that punching power and handspeed useless. Rickson Gracie would likely have toyed with Tyson in a fight, much the same as he'd have toyed with boxing champions that came before and have come since.
This became apparent through the rise of Mixed Martial Arts. The new fighters we looked to as the toughest among us populated an unpopular sport that involved kicks, elbows, and ground-fighting that was largely not understood. It turned out that boxing champions were marvelous athletes, but they were champions of a particular discipline of fighting, not fighting itself. We began looking to men like Mark Coleman, Ken Shamrock, and later Antonio Nogueira and Randy Couture when we pondered the best fighter on the planet.
There came a time when there was no doubt during an era ruled by Fedor Emelianenko. Fedor was that wonderful kind of champion that didn't look like a champion. A little chubby, undersized for a heavyweight, and looking somewhat like a bored or catatonic koala bear during his ring introductions, Fedor was not a fearsome sight. In interviews he appeared(and still appears) shy and remarkably soft-spoken, polite and humble. And yet when his fights began, the Russian unleashed a precise and ferocious kind of violence that left audiences awe-struck, and for seven years left(or at least during his PRIDE Fighting Championship reign) left no question that we were watching the single most dangerous man in the world.
But like all great champions, Fedor's time came and went. Whether his skills depreciated, or the sport finally caught up to him, is anyone's guess.
For a short while, Brock Lesnar looked unbeatable. A hulking brute with unnatural strength and speed, Lesnar's opponents often looked like well-trained martial artists fighting a gorilla. His ascent through the Heavyweight ranks led to arguments about whether or not a Super Heavyweight Division was needed. Lost on those who couldn't see past Lesnar's sheer size and ferocity (or his pro wrestling background), was that he had been a remarkably accomplished D-1 college wrestler, and it was those skills, combined with his natural gifts, that made him so successful. Unlike Fedor, Lesnar was a fearsome champion. Hardly soft-spoken and rarely polite, he often skirted the boundaries of sportsmanship.
Of course, Lesnar's prowess turned out to be largely myth, and it was partially squashed when he finally came up against a wrestler that was almost as large as he was, Shane Carwin, who also happens to have the heaviest hands in MMA. Lesnar was unable to bulldoze Carwin like he had previous opponents, and Carwin battered him for the first five minutes in what was possibly the most one-sided finished round in Mixed Martial Arts history. Lesnar wound up winning the fight in the second round, when Carwin submitted to an arm-choke, having exhausted himself in the first round.
Lesnar wasn't so lucky in his next fight, when Cain Velasquez, a heavyweight with rumored endless cardio capabilities, beat him from one side of the cage to the other. And just like that, the Lesnar myth was destroyed, and Cain Valasquez was the UFC Heavyweight Champion of the world.
While we were all distracted with Lesnar, there was another prospect working his way up the ranks. Junior Dos Santos burst onto the UFC scene with a devastating KO victory over Fabricio Werdum. But the fight was too short for Dos Santos to showcase his skills, and knockouts are so common in the heavyweight division, where massive men wing haymakers at each other, that few people were willing to think Dos Santos would someday be a serious contender.
Dos Santos was often overshadowed by fellow then-Heavyweight prospect, Cain Velasquez. Even while Dos Santos piled up victories, it always seemed Velasquez was the heir apparent. Valesquez was a wrestler after all, Dos Santos a boxer, and by this time we had long learned our lessen about boxers.
The night Dos Santos rose to a serious contender came when he fought Shane Carwin. Many thought Carwin, with his wrestling background, would put Dos Santos on his back and ground-and-pound him to a finish. While Carwin has little of Dos Santos' skill and technique, he possesses a barbaric kind of punching power that will leave you to ponder things like skill and technique after you wake up with a black eye and a headache.
In the fight, Dos Santos slipped and dodged the best of Carwin's power shots. That wasn't a surprise. He also peppered Carwin with shots of his own, leaving the hulking wrestler staggering and virtuallydefenseless. That wasn't a surprise either. What was a surprise: Dos Santos easily avoided the majority Carwin's takedown attempts, each coming sloppier than the last as the big man tired. When Carwin did manage to drag Dos Santos to the mat, Dos Santos seemed to pop back up effortlessly. It was a performance that turned doubters into believers. Dos Santos, a mid-sized heavyweight at best, had bested one of the monstrous wrestlers that not long before had many fans and journalists crying out for a Super Heavyweight division and he made it look easy.
By the time Cain Velasquez won the UFC Heavyweight Championship, it was clear who his main adversary would be. Few were giving Dos Santos much of a chance to defeat the new champion. Foremost among his doubters, it appeared, was the UFC itself. The pre-fight promotion seemed geared to build Velasquez as the UFC's new Mexican star, and the UFC's maiden voyage on the FOX network featured only the Valasquez-Dos Santos fight.
If the UFC's expectations weren't clear by the pre-fight promotion, they were very clear by Dana White's reaction when the fight was over, just 64 seconds into the first round after Dos Santos landed a crushing overhand right that floored Velasquez. White was visibly upset with the result, criticizing Velasquez's performance rather than praising his new champion. This was clearly not the plan.
In Dos Santos, the UFC has a different kind of champion. While inside the octagon, his combination of slick boxing (blazing handspeed and genuine one-punch knockout power) and takedown defense are enough to give opponents nightmares -- outside of the octagon, there's nothing intimidating about him. He seems shy, but not quite stoic like Fedor. While no one would think of Dos Santos as a small man, he lacks Brock Lesnar's beastly proportions.
Instead, Dos Santos comes across as a genuine nice guy, almost too nice to imagine that not only does he make his living scrambling people's brains, but he's the top man in his profession. He's a quiet kind of jovial, and equipped with the sort of big-eyed innocence and wholesomeness that would have made him a great 1980's pro wrestling good guy.
Of course, the UFC has begun to market Dos Santos this way, and the full power of their star-manufacturing enterprise is behind him. After his last fight, where he defended his title successfully by dispatching Frank Mir as easily as any of his previous challenges, Dos Santos hoisted a young boy he'd brought from Brazil onto his shoulder in the center of the octagon in a scene reminiscent of Hulk Hogan's glory days. How much of this was Dos Santos' idea, and how much was the UFC's, is debatable. But leading up to the fight, when the UFC attempted to manufacture a grudge between Dos Santos and Mir, Dos Santos was having no part. Too nice for trash talk, Dos Santos could only be seen disrespecting Mir in short, out of context clips leading up to the fight.
Perhaps it is barbaric to even pose the question but we ask it. Who is the world's most dangerous man in a time when fighting is more or less illegal in all of the world's more civilized countries? Right now the answer is Junior Dos Santos, who ironically enough might also be the world's "nicest guy" (even Dos Santos' limited mastery of the English language is somehow endearing). Perhaps the answer will change after he meets Velasquez again, and it will undoubtedly change someday as all champions lose eventually but for this moment in time, Junior Dos Santos is the world's most dangerous man.