It was with no small measure of disappointment this week that we all learned of the latest injury setback dealt to Shane Carwin, a back surgery he says figures to keep him out of action until summer 2012.
A mainstay in the heavyweight title picture, this most recent ailment threatens to knock Carwin out of the top-10 for the immediate future and makes it hard not to wonder where the former interim champion will fit in when he launches a comeback next year at age 37. If everything goes as planned, the UFC heavyweight division will march on without him in double-time over the next eight or 10 months and we could conceivably see wholesale changes atop the 265-pound rankings by the time Carwin returns.
At 12-2 and possessing some of the best pure wrestling skills and most fearsome punching power in the division, a healthy Carwin clearly has the skills to forge his way back to the top, but the road will be longer and more arduous than ever. Knowing what we know about the engineer from Colorado, however, he probably wouldn't want it any other way.
This is a guy, after all, that a famously kept his full-time day job while pursuing a shot at UFC gold and a guy who has already weathered a fair amount of adversity in his career. Even on the heels of two straight losses, amid unanswered questions from last year about how his name wound up on a list of athletes the government alleged bought steroids from an online pharmacy and ongoing health troubles, Carwin has remained pretty relevant thus far in the heavyweight class. He’s still holding down the No. 7 spot on the ESPN.com Power Rankings and his scheduled fight at UFC 141 with Roy Nelson stood to interject the winner back into the outskirts of title contention.
However, that bout is now canceled and if Carwin doesn’t return prior to June, it will mean a 12-month absence from the cage. At that point, inactivity alone could be enough to bounce him out of most top-10 lists and meanwhile, the rest of the division’s supporting cast will be gunning for his spot.
We already know that, next month, ownership of the world’s No. 1 ranking should be settled when Cain Velasquez (No. 1) defends his title against Junior dos Santos (No. 2) during the UFC’s debut on the Fox Network. Challengers for whoever emerges from that event with the belt could already be stacked two deep, given that Brock Lesnar (No. 3) and Alistair Overeem (No. 4) have a scheduled title eliminator at UFC 141 and the winner of the Strikeforce GP tournament final between Josh Barnett (No. 5) versus eighth-ranked Daniel Cormier is expected to find his way to the UFC with a future championship opportunity pending.
This is to say nothing of sixth-ranked Frank Mir’s UFC 140 rematch with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (No. 10), the winner of which stands to creep up the ranks. There are also any number of fresh faces who could be on the verge of top-10 consideration with another win or two: Guys like Travis Browne, Matt Mitrione and Stefan Struve.
If there's one guy in the heavyweight division not to count out, it's Shane Carwin. But for the time being, there's just not a lot of room for a guy on an 0-2 skid who is now forced to take a protracted injury timeout.