If it’s hard to gauge exactly where supporting characters like Stefan Struve and Dave "Pee Wee" Herman currently stand in the UFC heavyweight division, it’s because -- even by its own chaotic standards -- the entire weight class has experienced an unprecedented amount of flux lately.
Long the fight company’s most problematic problem child -- for years typified by injury, a mélange of delays and a revolving door of champions -- it’s almost as if someone decided to hit the reboot button on the entire 265-pound class during the last few months.
When Struve and Herman meet on Wednesday in the co-main event of the UFC on Fuel, it’ll be amid a heavyweight division that has arguably never been more interesting or more vibrant.
Or, frankly, more foggy.
Cain Velasquez had been hailed among the UFC’s new vanguard of “dominant champions” until Junior dos Santos toppled him last November, within one minute, four seconds of Velasquez's first title defense. In addition, the division saw the sudden departure of its biggest draw when Alistair Overeem sent Brock Lesnar backpedaling into retirement at UFC 141 a bit more than a month later.
Add to that the arrival of other Strikeforce big men like Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Chad Griggs (not to mention the likes of Lavar Johnson and Shane del Rosario) as well as the impending emergence of the smaller organization’s grand prix winner (Josh Barnett or Daniel Cormier) and the immediate future of this predictably unpredictable division starts to look even more volatile than normal.
We know matchmakers are hoping dos Santos and Overeem will meet at UFC 146 in May, in a heavyweight title match that couldn’t have been much more than a fantasy as recently as a year ago. Divisional stalwart Frank Mir will reportedly welcome Velasquez back from injury this summer, but after that (to quote one of MMA’s most tired axioms) anything can happen.
While all of that makes it hard to define the stakes this week between guys like Struve and Herman, it also perhaps affords them an unusual opportunity. If the 265-pound class is truly as wide open as we think it is right now, then that presents a unique opportunity for mid-carders like these two to vault up the ranks.
Struve is still just 23 years old; amazing when you consider that his nine previous Octagon appearances give him more UFC experience than anyone on Wednesday’s card besides Diego Sanchez. The 6-foot-11 striker has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his stay in the big leagues, but now 3-1 in his last four fights, Struve could certainly crack the top 10 this year if he can keep the ball rolling. His never-say-die style makes him exactly the kind of fighter UFC brass likes to promote, so it’s not impossible to imagine him becoming a contender with a few more wins.
Herman, meanwhile, saw a proposed bout at UFC 136 scuttled last year when he tested positive for marijuana long before testing positive for marijuana became the rage. He arrived in the UFC with a 20-2 record and fair amount of buzz in mid-2011, but after a fairly lackluster performance during a win over John Olav Einemo in his Octagon debut at UFC 131 (and then the weed thing), Herman is still looking for some much-needed traction in the division.
Naturally, nothing is going to happen for either of these two overnight. The winner of Struve-Herman will assumedly come out of their fight with a little momentum and the possibility of a future bout with someone a little further ahead in the pecking order. That’s about all they can hope for in this world.
If we’ve learned anything from the recent history of the division, though, it’s that forecasting where the heavyweight class will be a year, or even six months from now, is a fool’s errand.
Given its penchant for tectonic shifts, there’s just no telling where a couple of nice-looking wins might leave a young, up-and-coming fighter at this point.