There was once no greater prize in sports than boxing's world heavyweight championship. Men would pursue it for years, sacrificing memory and cognitive function, seeking concrete proof of their toughness. Owning the title meant being the best -- or at least the most durable -- in the most punishing athletic event allowed in civilized society.
Today, the title is a joke. Like boxing itself, the designation is a fractured, incomprehensible mess, owned by no fewer than three fighters, including two brothers -- Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko -- who will never fight to unify their pieces. Champions of earlier eras were so clearly defined that grandmothers passing on the street could recognize a Tyson or an Ali. Who could identify Nikolai Valuev as anything but the menace in a B monster movie?
Boxing is dying because what was once the most easily understood sport of all -- see the guy, hit the guy -- now requires a flowchart to follow and appliance dollies for the egos. It does nearly everything wrong. And when it does something right -- awarding Floyd Mayweather-Oscar De La Hoya a record 2 million-plus buy rate in 2007 -- it lacks the cohesiveness to follow up with another big bout to capitalize.
The UFC has no such problems. You like Brock Lesnar? You will get more Brock Lesnar. Shane Carwin has earned a title shot? Shane Carwin isn't owned by a competing promoter. Shane Carwin will fight Brock Lesnar.
At age 32 and with only five professional fights, Lesnar already is the UFC's biggest star. That he also happens to own the promotion's version of the "Toughest Man in the West" title sets the heavyweight division on a path similar to that of its boxing counterpart in the 20th century.
No preamble, qualifiers or word-mincing: If you have the UFC's heavyweight belt, you are not one to be messed with.
This cachet is attributable partly to Lesnar's athletic pedigree -- unlike sea monsters of the past, he has a legitimate combat-sports education from collegiate wrestling -- and the growing pool of talent prepared to challenge him. Lesnar's isn't a paper belt. If he's still champion a year from now, it will have been earned.
This wasn't always the case for MMA's heavyweight champs. In 2005, the UFC promoted a bout between then-champion Andrei Arlovski and Paul Buentello, possibly the weakest main-event title fight in the company's history. (Buentello was knocked out in 15 seconds.) Most of the sport's dangerous big men were earning tax-free dollars in Japan's Pride promotion. An ocean's distance and a stateside disrespect for MMA kept that championship off radar.
With the UFC's basic-cable popularity came financial freedom, and with that freedom came the ability to stock a shelf full of dangerous fighters. Carwin and Lesnar meet in the fall, and the winner likely will face the survivor of the Cain Velasquez-Ben Rothwell bout in October.
There's your toughest guy. Until the next toughest guy comes along.
In his debut Saturday, Todd Duffee made strides in that direction with a record knockout of Tim Hague; September's "Ultimate Fighter" season is a heavyweight-exclusive affair, with one participant (Roy Nelson) already rating as a known headache. Even some of Pride's old guard, including Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, have enjoyed a relative return to form. Heavyweight talent, once scarce, appears plentiful.
There's the theory that the NFL monopolizes most of the bigger athletic talent in this country. Although it isn't without merit, it ignores the growing concern about just how utterly demolishing football can be on its athletes. Concussions -- in particular second-impact syndrome, or a concussion followed soon thereafter by another concussion -- can cause cognitive dysfunction. If you are a hard-core 250-pounder who enjoys contact, you may find the premise of fighting twice a year more appealing than getting sacked by 400-pound linemen for 17 weeks straight. (You may also have eaten your way to heart disease in an attempt to match your assailants' size.)
MMA talent, in fact, is coming. The talent already here is shadowed by pink elephant Fedor Emelianenko, a bruising Russian with a 30-1 record who has been mythologized by media as the greatest heavyweight alive. Having been aligned with Strikeforce, he is exempt from the UFC's title picture, which would appear to be an infection of boxing's chaotic promotion.
A small dose of that might be a good thing. Lesnar is the UFC's unassailable champion; Emelianenko is the stray who casts some doubt on Lesnar's universal dominance. That's watercooler talk that keeps the energy and enthusiasm for the sport churning; the occasional hypothetical fight is fuel for the fire. (Ten or 20 of them, as boxing has discovered, is just diffusing.)
Ultimately, one of two things will occur: Either Emelianenko will burn through Strikeforce's opposition and sign with the UFC simply because he's unable to find another human worth beating up, or someone -- possibly Brett Rogers, possibly Alistair Overeem, possibly someone we haven't yet heard of -- will pull a Balboa and KO the invincible man.
At the end of Emelianenko's contract, Strikeforce will be hard-pressed to match the UFC's offer. At the same time, boxing will be hard-pressed to match the primary reason for MMA's rapidly growing influence: the promise of a truly undisputed champion.
Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.