How Big is Too Big? : :
By Jason Probst (September 30, 2002)
As Mixed Martial Arts expands into the public consciousness, the various promoters of MMA events face a constant challenge. Part of this is constant tinkering with the rules to preserve the sportive aspect while avoiding the old-style "blood sport" feel that marked earlier matches. Rounds and weight classes were the other half of the equation, changing the event from a "one man leaves standing" human dogfight into an athletic event. Strikes to certain areas have been banned, and it's all good. The perception is that the better fighter will find a way to win using technique, not something culled from the dregs of the "How to kill a man in a street fight" mail-order course.
Perhaps the best innovation is the weight classes. No longer facing the grisly prospect of facing men with a huge size advantage, the little guys, particularly in the UFC, have been allowed to compete against folks like themselves. As such, their stardom has flourished. Hell, most of us connoisseurs would take a match of lower weight fighters next to any heavyweight dream bout.
But what do you do when the heavyweights are invaded by mesomorphic monsters? The old problem of the size disparity raised its head during PRIDE Shockwave, when Antonio Nogueira faced Bob Sapp. Nogueira, no small man at 230 lbs., is generally regarded as the best heavyweight in the world. But in tangling with Sapp, he might as well have been a lightweight facing someone his own size. Sapp, a former University of Washington offensive lineman, goes 370, with little wasted physique. So huge and powerful, Sapp was able to lift and spike Nogueira during the bout, a terrifying move which brought the question to bear: How big is too big? And should there be a super heavyweight class created to preserve the sportive aspect of MMA?
Nogueira persevered, surviving the savage concussions, and in a brutal fight submitted Sapp. It was a truly close call. Sure, technique won out, but the salient issue remains: weight classes exist so the most skilled fighter triumphs. Is there any doubt as to how competitive the bout would have been if Sapp were merely 75 lbs. bigger instead of having twice that advantage? It's a scary precedent. There are a lot more 350 lb. monsters walking around after the NFL makes its final cuts than you realize. Imagine their impact on MMA if/when word gets around that you can make a few bucks entering a sport where a few months' training and natural athletic ability could promise serious dollars. It sure as hell beats the normal life after football.
During the old days of the UFC, when Royce Gracie was ruling the roost, we used to sit around and figure out a way to beat him. The learning curve for cross-training hadn't really kicked in, and the Brazilians seemed invincible. No matter what they threw at him -- from Ken Shamrock to Dan Severn -- Gracie solved them or at least proved that size wasn't enough, not even with world-class grappling skills. Mike Tyson would have a shot -- literally, one shot -- and once he missed he was screwed. And hitting a man cleanly at a full rush had proven much harder than it would seem. So Tyson was out.
But at Washington State University we had the man for the job: Mark Fields.
Fields, at 6'2 and 240 lbs. ran a 4.4 forty and had pro scouts drooling. He was the most dominant college linebacker of his time, and anchored a defense that was so good, we used to actually cheer when the Cougs punted. Over several beers, the theory developed that Fields, accustomed to high impacts and tackling, could dethrone Gracie with a full-on bum rush collision. He didn't need a black belt, just a boatload of fast-twitch muscles, which help make him a Pro Bowler today. By stunning Gracie with a high-speed crushing hit, he could land on top, and unleash a quick punch or two while Royce was recovering, and hence, end of Royce. It sounded like a whistling in the graveyard premise, a reach, albeit a fascinating one, until the Sapp- Nogueira bout.
Rick Robertson, a former wrassler, WSU football player, and problem drinker, summed it up best: "Fields probably wouldn't win, but that freaking tackle would be worth the $30 on the cable bill." Suddenly, it's not the joke it used to be.
A football player with a huge size advantage can do pretty well in MMA. Maybe not a Fields, but someone 100 or more lbs. bigger could. Sapp is proof.
Say you're 180 lbs. If you've ever sparred with a 110 lb. black belt, you know how much weight counts.
But sadly enough, the flip side of the monster heavyweights is that usually they aren't that skillful. When pitted against each other, the usual result between two 330-lb. sluggers is a mutual exchange, somebody falls down and can't get up, and the other guy slops on top of them and pounds them into submission. It's akin to Russian military tactics: not fancy, sublime, or high-minded, but brutal and effective just the same. But a guy like Sapp is different. He probably couldn't beat you in the 100 yard dash, but he could beat you to your mailbox. A football player makes it pretty scary.
The worst-case scenario of the spiking was luckily avoided. Nogueira could've been seriously injured, or even killed. If you remember what Frank Shamrock did to Igor Zinoviev, you know how dangerous a simple slam is, much less a spiking. Only until a powerful force like Sapp has come along, it has become apparent that this move might need to be banned, or at least pit him against someone his own size to mitigate the likelihood of it happening (imagine Sapp lifting and spiking 330 lb. Daniel Bobish.....which begs the question of, "Is it a no-contest if the canvas is cratered?" Of course Bob would probably get a hernia doing it.........which would deter him from trying it in the future. But not against feather-light people like Nogueira).
As it stands now, people like Sapp are still relatively rare in NHB. The diminishing returns of speed as size increases past a certain point are inhibiting. If you remember Randy Couture's debut in the UFC, the point was made pretty obviously, as he submitted Tony Halme and Stephen Graham, both weighing close to 300 lbs., yet both lacked the quickness to deal with a world-class 225 lb. wrestler. But someone 370 may be pretty dangerous with just a touch of that first-step explosiveness. There aren't many Sapps around, and as such, his brutal bout with "Minotauro" won't be a recurring issue. But eventually there might be. And if the succession of the once-invincible Gracies by the current crop of champions proves, it's that nothing is unchallenged in MMA.
Somewhere could be a 400 lb. monster that's 20 years old, a brown belt, and cross-training his butt off. When he gets into MMA, he won't be some WWF washout. He won't be an ex-football player looking for another way to make a buck. He won't be a bodybuilder with a mean streak. He will know his stuff. And he'll be so big and powerful that nobody can do anything with him.
Give him a couple years to enter the mix, and he'll force the question of a super heavyweight division, possibly tearing someone's limb off or badly mauling them in the process (it's not an exaggeration....someone that powerful who actually knew how to lay in a triangle, or a Kimura, or whatever....in the heat of combat it's not hard to imagine something Very Regrettable happening.......this could also affect scoring in sport jiu-jitsu as well.......how many points for tearing a man's arm off? Or for knee to the stomach ending in the recipient coughing up his spleen?).
Think it sounds farfetched? Well, give it time. If there's anything America has proven during the past decade of Mixed Martial Arts, it's that ideas, innovations, and concepts cross-pollinate at astounding speed. Given just five years, from 1993-98, the improvement and emergence of Americans who were virtually clueless in the early UFCs is amazing. If you'd said there would be a day when Gracies were losing more than they were winning (albeit against bigger guys), you would've sounded crazy back then (like if a month ago, somebody told you the Rams would open the season 0-3).
In time, huge people like Sapp will not only enter the sport in greater numbers, but they'll be training for several years as opposed to entering the game fairly late. His success is not going to go unnoticed, and the repercussions could be significant. That's exactly the kind of thing that nobody, not even a great champion like Nogueira, should be reasonably expected to face. Of course, the mores behind PRIDE are far different. MMA fighting is an accepted sport in Japan, and they don't have to toe the line. They can sell a freak attraction and not sweat the repercussions. But stateside there are a lot of big people and MMA training is everywhere. The reason you haven't seen a 400 lb, 15% body fat black belt? Give it time, it takes a few years.
The super heavyweights are a concept that should be explored now. Let the authorities hash out the limit, whether it's 275, 300, 325, or whatever. But do something. Plus, it might actually hasten the development of skills, as guys would have to learn techniques instead of relying on a huge weight advantage. It'd be nice to see it happen in a proactive manner, before somebody becomes the tragic index case for why it should've been instituted in the first place.