A solid heavyweight division is one of the most valuable assets a mixed martial arts promotion can possess. As much fun as a promotion like the WEC, with its smaller fighters taking center stage, can be, there’s something about seeing two massive men fighting each other in the cage that seems to get fight fans, especially casual ones, a bit more excited. It’s not surprising that the biggest draw in MMA history was a heavyweight fighter (although his WWE background probably had something to do with that as well), and over the course of MMA history the only time that other promotions were able to compete with the UFC is when they were well stocked with talented heavyweights.

At the moment, the UFC has pretty much every single elite heavyweight signed to its roster. With top fighters Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos competing for the strap in October, the UFC’s heaviest weight class is in good shape for the foreseeable future. With so much heavyweight talent competing inside the Octagon, it’s easy to forget just how terrible the UFC’s heavyweight division once was, with Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski trading the belt back and forth every Saturday and a “Natural” light heavyweight moving up and taking the belt. The thing is, it’s not like there wasn’t a ton of talent in the heavyweight division at that time, because there was. The UFC just couldn’t get its hands on any of those fighters because they were competing under the Pride FC banner.

Obviously the war is over and the UFC definitely came out on top, but if any other promotion had a chance to take out the UFC and become the premier MMA show in the world, Pride would have been it. The promotion had one of the very best fighters in the world in Wanderlei Silva and a heavyweight division that completely blew away everything the UFC had to offer. From MMA legends Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, to exciting, bankable guys like Mark Hunt, the Pride heavyweight division had something for everyone, and it could easily be in the mix for being the most entertaining division in MMA history.

Perhaps, that’s why watching all of the Pride legends that we grew to love over the years start to decline is so depressing for many MMA fans. Over the last few years, the once mighty men of the Pride heavyweight division have slowly gone from top contenders to nearly irrelevant, and sadly, it started at the top. Sure, other high-profile Pride heavyweights had suffered a loss or two since Zuffa bought the company in 2007, but no loss hit closer to home for Pride fans than the fall of Fedor Emelianenko. Even though “The Last Emperor’s” first legitimate loss of his career came at the hands of another Pride veteran in Fabricio Werdum, it felt like the Pride era was dealt a major blow that night with the defeat of its most consistent star. Including the loss to Werdum, Fedor finished out his career with a 2-3 run. Although he did end on a high note by winning back-to-back fights, his legacy was definitely tarnished over the last few years of his career.

While Emelianenko’s loss was certainly the one that made the most headlines, he wasn’t the only Pride star whose aura of immortality was taken away. Minotauro Nogueira has been both knocked out and submitted twice over the past few years after earning a reputation as a fighter that was nearly impossible to finish. There’s also the king of highlight-reel knockouts, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, who got a taste of his own medicine in the form of a Gabriel Gonzaga head kick that will be shown on every MMA highlight reel for the next thousand years. Werdum is currently on the best run of his career, but every time he starts to gain momentum, he’s shut down before he can get an actual shot at a belt.

Outside of Werdum, there isn’t much hope left for a Pride heavyweight to win a major title any time soon, and with Velasquez and dos Santos in the division, odds are that Werdum isn’t going to be bringing home a UFC title anytime soon. Fedor has retired, Minotauro is declining far faster than many fans thought possible, and Josh Barnett is an aging veteran walking into a division with two of the most dominant fighters in the sport. Even Mark Hunt had his chance to pull off the incredible and give the Pride faithful a chance to see one of their boys in another UFC title fight, but after he was destroyed by a dos Santos wheel kick a few months ago, it’s hard to imagine him going on another long winning streak at the age of 39.

Odds are that the days of old-school fans getting to root for their Pride heroes to reign supreme are just about over. In case we needed some proof, Cro Cop is reportedly going to fight Aleksander Emelianenko, Fedor’s younger brother and another Pride vet, at an event in Russia. As a fight fan, I have to admit that the match-up has me excited. After all, only Frank Mir can make Cro Cop look boring. However, it does show how far one of Pride’s biggest stars has fallen. To be fair, Cro Cop probably would have been able to secure another fight or two in the UFC instead of walking away when he did, but still, it’s sad to see an MMA legend fighting on a show that 99 percent of fans know nothing about.

That’s why, with the announcement of Cro Cop vs. the younger Emelianenko, plus the overall decline of the rest of the bunch over the last few years, it’s finally time to say goodbye to the Pride heavyweight division. Those guys gave us a ton of great fights over the years, and fight fans will always have a special place in their hearts for fights like Fedor’s battles against Cro Cop and Nogueira, but it’s gotten too hard to keep on rooting for fighters that are on the decline and are, at best, destined to be gatekeepers for the remainder of their careers.

I know it’s basically MMA blasphemy to go against the “Pride Never Die” slogan, but at this point, it’s time to face the facts. The Pride heavyweight division may not be quite dead yet, but it’s definitely on its deathbed.

Photo: Fedor Emelianenko (Esther Lin/Strikeforce)

  • Fedor the Best

    I dont know why the UFC and media like this, you try to erase the stain or legacy BEST WRESTLER IN HISTORY, Fedor Emelianenko. Everyone knows he’s the best of all time, but fuck you