by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
Heading into UFC 57 the company appeared to have its short-term solution for the heavyweight division set. Champion Andrei Arlovski and number one contender Tim Sylvia had signed for the company’s first foray into California as the main event in Anaheim for UFC 59 in April.

Returning ex-Champion Frank Mir was making his return at UFC 57 to face, what by all appearances seemed a set-up fight, against a fighter with far less MMA experience in Marcio “Pe De Pano” Cruz. Well as the say goes, “something funny happened on the way…”

Upon losing his return match via one-sided TKO stoppage, Mir’s contender status instantly fell, ruining prospects of a Mir VS Arlovski/Sylvia fight later in the year. While this fight may still happen, it’s going to be a much harder sell to market someone whose lost his only fight in nearly two years to a MMA upstart as a legitimate contender for the title. So now what is the UFC to do?

Short of making an effort to go out and sign away a fighter from Pride, such as Josh Barnett, or perhaps bring back a name from the past like a faltering Ricco Rodriguez, the prospects seem to be slim at the moment. There hasn’t been any constancy in the division other than Arlovski and Sylvia over the past year when you eliminate someone who has had his shot like Paul Buentello. So who could be next in line?

Starting with some of the talent that was on hand for UFC 57, Marcio Cruz and Jeff Monson could be an interesting situation. Both fighters know each other from their days in the grappling tournament world. Both have a strong disliking of the other in a competitive sense, so strong in fact that they had to be separated by police at an event. Should the UFC match them up in the coming months the winner could be seen as contender for the title with Cruz’ win over Mir.

Brandon Vera also could be a possibility. As he showed in his post-fight interview, he has a ton of charisma and as he showed in his fight against Justin Eilers, he’s got the skills to people on their backs. Given time to continue to mature and grow as a fighter he could become one of the most popular fighters in the UFC heavyweight division and could make a case for himself as a contender with a few strong performances, perhaps against talent like former contender like Buentello.

A long shot possibility could be Ken Shamrock. While he’s currently shooting the upcoming season of TUF 3 and is set to face Tito Ortiz when the show is finished, win or lose Shamrock still is a big draw with fans. Consider the fact that he was the pitched opponent for Andrei Arlovski in the company’s most recent attempt to go to Japan. When the fight didn’t materialize, the show didn’t happen. Shamrock is a star builder, before his fight with Rich Franklin, Franklin was seen as a good fighter but was far from a superstar, that all changed with Rich’s win over Ken.

Then there are the fighters from TUF 2. None of the competitors, including Rashad Evans, look to be at the point where they could seriously contend for a title. Kieth Jardine, while having the most UFC experience with his win at UFC 57, continues to impress, but he still doesn’t quite seem in the same league as Arlovski and Sylvia. And Evans, for all his willingness to overcome obstacles to win the show, looked nowhere near contendership in a sloppy match against Brad Imes at the TUF 2 Finals.

With industry insiders slow to embrace Andrei considering he hasn’t faced a top-5 heavyweight since Tim Sylvia back at UFC 51 a year ago and fans not buying into him because of the language barrier and his lacking personality, Arlovski is on a strange island right now. He’s the best fighter in the UFC’s division, but yet has yet to achieve true superstar status.

Tim Sylvia on the other hand has received both the admiration of both the MMA community and the fans. But even if he defeats Arlovski he’ll find himself in the situation Andrei was in over the past year, lacking serious PPV and live gate selling opposition to capitalize on his title reign.

UFC 59 could be a watershed moment for the UFC. While it will provide a great Heavyweight Championship match between Arlovski and Sylvia, it could also create the peak that eventually leads to a very steep valley if the UFC doesn’t develop or bring in serious contenders quickly to fill the void the division currently has. And unless the UFC steps up soon, it could be a long wait before we see a Heavyweight Championship match be the kind of draw it once was.