The year of the heavyweight attraction
Welcome to 2011: year of the mega-heavyweight attraction in mixed martial arts.
Though it seemed in recent weeks that UFC's heavyweight division had lost steam -- its champion, Cain Velasquez, required major surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff; rumors swirled that the company's strongest pay-per-view draw, Brock Lesnar, wasn't keen on fighting; and the media regarded Strikeforce's heavyweight tournament with great interest -- Tuesday's announcement that Lesnar would coach opposite contender Junior Dos Santos during the 13th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" quickly changed that perception.
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Say what you will about the efficacy of TUF as a vehicle to find legitimate prospects: It remains, if nothing else, a ratings grabber and tremendous promotion tool for the UFC. Coming off a season that consistently pulled strong viewership, the appearance of Lesnar -- who had grabbed the mantle of MMA's most important figure prior to Velasquez's injecting a dose of reality into the discussion -- should be a boon to the show.
That is all well and good, but the real point of interest for MMA fans will come at the end of taping, after a heretofore unknown welterweight prospect becomes the next "Ultimate Fighter." This June, possibly in Vancouver, Lesnar (5-2) and Dos Santos (12-1) are scheduled to meet in a three-round fight with the chance to challenge Velasquez upon his return.
The heavyweight pair are wholly different fighters, and a cursory glance of strengths and weaknesses reveals the potential for any outcome.
No question, the young Brazilian is a brutally powerful and effective finisher. Dos Santos, a puncher first, earned stoppages in each of his wins before Roy Nelson somehow remained standing for three rounds in August.
Dos Santos throws everything to hurt, which makes the matchup with Lesnar all the more compelling considering how badly the former UFC champion reacts to getting popped in the mouth.
Lesnar has shown an understanding of how to strike and defend on the feet; however, it's a part of the game that has yet to become second nature to him. Against Velasquez he was lost, and if he stands in front of Dos Santos there's little reason to expect anything different.
We've seen Lesnar hit and hurt people -- Heath Herring, Randy Couture -- but never a striker in Dos Santos' class.
It should come as no surprise: This is where the fight will be decided.
Lesnar has to put Cigano on his back if he hopes to avoid consecutive losses for the first time in his short career. There's no other option for him.
You can dismiss any attempts by Dos Santos at taking Lesnar down like Velasquez was able to; Dos Santos is nowhere near the wrestler. While it's true the faster, younger fighter has for some time drilled techniques that would keep him standing or, should the need arise, help him rise off the bottom, he's never been asked to employ them in competition against a wrestler, let alone a collegiate national champion as physically overwhelming as Lesnar, the former UFC champion.
This would have been the overarching question for Dos Santos' challenge of current titleholder Velasquez; it is even more so against Lesnar, since Velasquez could have struck with the Brazilian and not faced a deep deficit of skills. This means Dos Santos can't rely just on a sprawl that, by most accounts, isn't half-bad. He'll have to stay out of the clinch but using footwork and speed. Keeping distance is defense No. 1 when it comes to avoiding Lesnar's grip, strength and ground-and-pound.
Lesnar's wrestling or Dos Santos' striking?
Lesnar's commitment to TUF 13 and to compete against an opponent as stylistically dangerous as Dos Santos speaks to his resolve as an athlete. Following the loss to Velasquez, many questioned whether Lesnar had proper incentive to keep fighting. He has money. Not that he covets it, but fame is there, as well. He has the life he wants in cold, desolate Minnesota.
Whatever it is that's driving Lesnar will certainly be put to the test against Dos Santos, and perhaps that's the point: the challenge of it all.
From his very first effort at mixed martial arts, Lesnar was viewed by some as a sideshow. That was wrong. He showed natural fighting ability. Not just guts, either. This was something else. And as he quickly shot through the ranks to become a champion, he seemed gifted for this sort of thing. Then reality struck. He wasn't the baddest man on the planet. There were younger, quicker, more skillful and dangerous fighters plying the trade.
Dos Santos is among that "now" generation, and while he's not getting a chance at Velasquez or the UFC belt, this opportunity is nonetheless great.
It isn't possible to look past Lesnar's inability to handle getting punched by Shane Carwin or Velasquez. The first-look advantage goes to the Brazilian, who will validate his spot as the UFC heavyweight division's No. 1 contender.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.