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UFC 146:

Challenge to stabilize UFC heavyweight division awaits Junior dos Santos

Can dos Santos prevail where others have failed starting at UFC 146 against Alistair Overeem?

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Sam Morris

Champion Junior Dos Santos answers a question during a news conference Tuesday, March 27, 2012 to advance the all heavyweight card at UFC 146.

UFC 146 News Conference

Junior Dos Santos, left, and Alistair Overeem pose for photos during a news conference Tuesday, March 27, 2012 to advance the all heavyweight card at UFC 146. Launch slideshow »

The UFC heavyweight championship belt has commitment issues.

A version of the belt — either the unified or interim strap — has rested around the waist of seven different men over the past five years. It’s traveled through five different time zones.

Every fighter who has attempted to bring stability to mixed martial arts’ most popular division has failed. The onus now falls on Junior dos Santos, who will attempt to make his first heavyweight title defense May 26 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena against Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC 146.

The challenge of holding on to the title is more difficult than ever before for dos Santos (14-1 MMA, 8-0 UFC), as the UFC has successfully bolstered the depth of the heavyweight division.

“I think it’s good for me,” dos Santos said at a press conference Tuesday, “because it motivates me to work hard and try to keep my belt.”

Overeem (36-11 MMA, 1-0 UFC) is one of seven high-caliber heavyweights who signed with the UFC within the last year after the promotion purchased rival Strikeforce. UFC.com currently lists 33 fighters on its heavyweight roster, which is the most in the 19-year history of the company.

Gone are the days from earlier this decade when the UFC’s top heavyweights, like local former champion Frank Mir (16-5 MMA, 14-5 UFC), faced un-established opponents on their way to championship bouts.

Mir, who was the champion in 2004 and held the interim title in 2008, recalled how frustrated he would become when fans hadn’t heard of foes he faced off against.

“It makes it much more pleasurable to train and fight because there’s always a risk when you walk into the octagon,” Mir said. “I’d much rather take that risk against someone who is dangerous than take that risk against a guy who is an unknown.”

Mir meets former champion Cain Velasquez (9-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC) at the all-heavyweight Memorial Day weekend event. The winner of that co-main event places himself at the front of the line for the title.

Dos Santos has noticed the lengthy queue of contenders vowing for a shot at him.

“I’m training every day hard and doing my part to keep my belt,” dos Santos said. “I think it’s a good time for the heavyweight division.”

Dos Santos, who prefers his fights turn into boxing matches, has altered his training regimen since winning the belt. The Brazilian used to practice his boxing every day, spending only two or three sessions per week on jiu-jitsu and other areas.

Dos Santos is now trying to spread out his time more evenly, which UFC President Dana White saw as a wise move. White mentioned that Overeem’s world-class kickboxing and Muay Thai presented a unique problem for dos Santos.

“He’s never dealt with anyone who’s going to throw kicks and knees and work from the clinch the way that Alistair Overeem does,” White said. “I’m really curious to see how Junior dos Santos is going to deal with that.”

Overeem, a former K1 champion, said his striking experience would work to his advantage against dos Santos. But the challenger was also complimentary of the champion’s skills Tuesday.

“I definitely think he is the best boxer in MMA and the UFC these days,” Overeem said. “As far as how I match up, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I give myself a good chance.”

Given the history of heavyweight champions faltering, Overeem has no reason to think otherwise.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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