Shane Carwin: The man who should’ve been heavyweight champion

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The sport of mixed martial arts has witnessed its fair share of heavy hitters in its short, yet illustrious history.

When the phrase “one-punch knockout power” is uttered, many immediately think of top-ranked heavyweight Francis Ngannou. Or former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson, who continued to render opponents unconscious up until his eventual retirement from the sport at the age of 45.

In spite of power punchers often recording highlight-reel knockouts in spectacular fashion, many have been left to rot like a decaying carcass in MMA’s ever-increasing history book. Sure, it’d be time-consuming and somewhat frustrating to sift through the past of various promotions in order to select a single ‘knockout artist’. Well, that’s exactly what I have done for you.

Before Cain Velasquez captured the UFC title, rewriting the algorithm of how heavyweights ran through the competition, Brock Lesnar sat upon the throne. During this time, 2008-2010 to be exact, Lesnar had only a single blemish on his record – a submission loss to former champion Frank Mir in his second professional bout. Many believed that once Lesnar seized the title, the only contender with the ability to rip that from him was Mir. But they were wrong, so very wrong.

At this time, a man by the name of Shane Carwin was knocking fellow heavyweights into orbit with freakish power and his ability to land the right hand with sheer accuracy. Within four UFC appearances, Carwin already had his gigantic hands on a world title (albeit an interim one), but that’s a discussion we’ll have later on.

Shane Carwin is the should’ve, would’ve, could’ve of the heavyweight division. He should’ve been world champion, he would’ve defeated the majority of the competition, and he could’ve been the fiercest fighter of his era.

Establishing a name

Shane Carwin made his professional debut at WEC 47 in 2005, at the ripe age of 30. At first glance it may seem like the American was a bit late to the party, however, his first experience locked in a cage proved otherwise.

Carwin entered his debut at a whopping 285lbs, holding close to a 50-pound weight advantage. He capitalized on this, using his NCAA division II Wrestling to muscle the opposition to the canvas with a body-to-body takedown. Once on the ground, he mounted and rained down heavy ground and pound. At 2 minutes 11 seconds into the first round, his opponent tapped to strikes, prompting the referee to step in and wave off the contest. This would be Carwin’s longest fight for a long, long time.

Shane continued to dispatch of every man put in front of him while fighting for numerous promotions across the U.S, collecting 8 first-round finishes in 8 bouts. In 2007 he won the Ring Of Fire heavyweight title with another first-round knockout, garnering enough attention for the UFC to come a-knocking. His perfect resume mixed with a 100% finishing ratio left Dana White and his team no choice but to ink Carwin to a four-fight contract, and his promotional debut was set a few months later.

The 6ft 2 stocky heavyweight made his first Octagon outing at UFC 84, battering Christian Wellisch in 44 seconds in order to successfully mark his arrival in the big leagues. Carwin vaunted his terrifying KO power in this fight, sending his opponent’s mouthpiece flying across the cage with only one punch. On top of this, he was aggressive from the outset, relentless in his pursuit to score another vicious knockout victory.

Shortly after his brief, yet menacing performance over Wellisch, Carwin travelled to Birmingham to face Englishman Neil Wain, who, like Carwin himself, had a 100% finishing rate with each finish coming in the opening round. As the two met in the centre of the Octagon it was evident that Shane held a distinct size advantage. He opted to clinch with Wain, landing a double leg takedown with relative ease. When on the ground, the American went to work, sinking into side control where he unloaded several clean elbows onto Wain’s face. Carwin was displaying his reasonably decent wrestling ability and putting the rest of the division on notice – he wasn’t only a threat on the feet. Wain was unable to nullify his opponents grappling, and after giving up mount, succumbed to strikes 1:31 seconds into the first round.

It was apparent that he needed a step-up in competition, but not even Carwin himself could’ve anticipated what was in store next.

Punching himself to title contention

Shane Carwin was now 2-0 in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization, but that was only the beginning of what would ultimately be a swift stint, which to this day remains one of the divisions most impressive.

After crossing the Atlantic and pacifying the roar of the British crowd, Carwin was set to fight in early 2009 against former title contender Gabriel Gonzaga, who is internationally recognized for his headkick upset over the legendary Mirko Cro Cop. The pair were set to square off at UFC 96, and were gifted the co-main event slot. The victor would likely propel themselves into title contention.

In hindsight, despite the result of the contest, I believe going from a debuting Neil Wain to the battle-tested Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in Gabriel Gonzaga was a massive leap in competitiveness for Carwin. While he possessed a right-hand parallel to Thor’s hammer, we had yet to see the All-American wrestler challenged on the ground, specifically off of his back. Gonzaga’s blueprint to victory was likely to venture into his opponent’s jiu-jitsu game. Even though Carwin boasted four submission victories, he was undoubtedly the inferior grappler when matched against Gonzaga.

This fight was the most trouble we had seen Shane Carwin in for the entirety of his career, and in saying that, it was still nothing major or detrimental. The undefeated heavyweight was yet to see a second round, however, his adversary on the night was eager to change that.

Gonzaga proved to be somewhat difficult to deal with in the first minute, landing a straight right hand which connected flush and momentarily rocked his opponent. He followed this up with single leg takedown: Carwin was on his back for the very first time, and it happened to be against a formidable jiu-jitsu practitioner. This is best compared to swimming in the ocean while being surrounded by sharks – they might not always get you, but you’ll pay the price one way or another. Nevertheless, in one sudden motion, Carwin muscled his way back to his feet and into the clinch. In the span of a second, he was once again back where he was most dangerous.

Immediately after disengaging from the clinch, Gonzaga fired a big right hand, followed by a further two punches. However, there was a split second to spare. Carwin jumped on the chance and landed a straight right of his own, crumbling Gonzaga instantaneously.

“Gonzaga’s out!” exclaimed commentator Joe Rogan, as the now-triumphant Carwin scaled the cage. He had just sealed his third UFC win in little over a minute, bringing his combined Octagon time to a mere 3 minutes and 4 seconds. The phrase ‘heavy hitter’ had never been more suited to one man, and he was keen to keep the streak rolling.

Following his flatlining of Gabriel Gonzaga, Shane Carwin signed a contract to face the future champion, Cain Velasquez, who also built up a knack for steamrolling through his peers. The winner would receive a title shot against reigning champ Brock Lesnar. This fight would’ve been exciting for a magnitude of reasons. But unfortunately, we were unable to witness it due to the UFC deciding to let Carwin fight for the title instead, without having to deal with the fruitful grappling and cardio of the up and coming Velasquez.

Lesnar pulled out of two scheduled bouts with Carwin due to extreme illness: an intestinal disorder that required surgery, to be more precise. Because of this Shane was matched with the only man to ever defeat Lesnar, Frank Mir, who was desperate to regain the title he once rightfully owned. Not only would he be facing a former champion, but due to Lesnar’s extensive hiatus from the sport, an interim championship was created. This created extra motivation for both men and the opportunity to add some gold to their cabinets was lucrative indeed.

The pair met at UFC 111, where Carwin competed in the co-main event slot for a second consecutive time. Despite this exposure and the pile of bodies he left behind him – specifically the fashion in which he dismantled them – it bewilders me how many have forgotten Shane Carwin. His fan-friendly style and ability to ‘slug it out’ with his opponents should’ve resulted in more attention and an increased fanbase. But that’s just my opinion, of course.

This was the second time Carwin was matched against a jiu-jitsu black belt, and although Mir owned slicker grappling than his previous opponent, he opted to clinch early. While in this position, Shane controlled Mir against the fence by having an underhook; he threw a number of robust shots while doing this. After being separated by referee Dan Miragliotta, the two quickly found themselves back against the cage. The clinch would have a vastly different outcome this time.

One thing Carwin consistently did throughout his fight with Mir was keeping the sole underhook sunk deep. If it wasn’t for this, he would never have successfully dropped his opponent while in a grappling scenario. Carwin fired a series of powerful unanswered uppercuts to the chin of the former champion, prompting his legs to collapse. Persistent pressure was applied as the undefeated heavyweight swarmed his foe, unleashing multiple career-altering punches, all of which landed flush. Mir eventually gave up his back due to the blows and was knocked unconscious, laying face-first into the canvas.

Shane Carwin was now the UFC interim heavyweight champion. On top of claiming gold, he quite literally punched yet another ticket to his final destination: Brock Lesnar. Their long-awaited fight was inevitable – nobody could rob Carwin of this opportunity.

An Unexpected Turn

Alas, the fight between Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin finally came to fruition and was arranged for UFC 116 on July 3, 2010. The event showcased 11 mixed martial arts bouts and included athletes such as Stephan Bonnar and Matt Brown. As a whole, the card was awarded ‘Best Major Show’ at the Wrestling Observer Newsletter 2010 Awards due to its two ‘Fight of the Nights’ and combined 7 finishes. The total gate of over $2 million tells you all you need to know.

In the initial portions of the first stanza, both the champion and his challenger were hesitant to engage. This was because practically every heavyweight acquired the ability to knockout another; neither man was willing to risk having their lights shut out this early. Carwin was keeping his frame low in order to fend off incoming takedowns, which worked in his favour as he brushed off a single leg attempt.

It became evident that Lesnar needed to take the fight to the ground, as Carwin was wobbling him with every landed strike. The dithering continued until the challenger countered with a lead uppercut, sending Lesnar retreating backwards. An onslaught ensued, with Lesnar ultimately being dropped.

As Carwin unleashed a wild flurry on the champion, he defended an expected takedown attempt. The two underhooks, as well as the well-balanced frame he created, allowed him to keep this fight on the feet. Lesnar’s worst nightmare came to life, as he was smothered by Carwin’s array of strikes.

While on the ground Carwin – still remaining undefeated in his MMA career – dropped strenuous punches to an unresponsive Lesnar, hungry to claim the official belt. There was a moment where the referee could have intervened and although many would have been displeased, I for one would’ve accepted the result. Brock Lesnar survived to hear the final bell after more than three minutes of eating robust ground and pound.

The second round started fairly similar to the first, with both heavyweights meeting in the centre of the Octagon. Lesnar wasn’t taking any chances and landed an effortless double leg takedown, falling into side control in the process. He slid his arm underneath Carwin’s neck, visibly hunting for an arm-triangle choke. After clasping his hands together Lesnar stepped over the opposition and squeezed, suffocating the life out of him.

After coming razor close to every MMA fighter’s dream, Shane Carwin tapped in the second round of his first, and last, official UFC title fight. The dream was over.

Lesnar completed an inspiring comeback for the ages, defeating his most fearsome contender (aside from Cain Velasquez, of course) in emphatic fashion. He truly exploited the only major weakness in the arsenal of Carwin en route to solidifying his second heavyweight title defense.

After losing out the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ moniker, Carwin, now 12-1, booked his return early the following year, keen to re-establish himself as a perrenial contender. He was set to fight Roy Nelson, a fellow knockout artist with a granite chin. In what would mark the beginning of the end for Carwin’s career, he was unable to compete due to neck pain.

This pain turned out to be more serious than first anticipated and required surgery, forcing the former interim champion to remain on the sidelines for even longer. In spite of his recent injuries, Carwin was able to fight in 2011, where he filled in on short notice against Junior Dos Santos, another future champion. The fight would stand as a title eliminator.

In the end, Carwin was outpointed in a lopsided unanimous decision loss, further lowering his standing in the division’s rankings. He was now, and befittingly so, mortal – no longer heavyweights contract killer with an aptitude for violence. The injury bug struck once again, as Carwin announced that he needed to undergo back surgery, ruling him out until late 2012. And as what often happens in the world of MMA, he never fully recovered. Fast forward to 2012 and Carwin once again withdrew from a scheduled bout with Nelson, citing a knee injury. These unfortunate series of events led to him announcing his retirement from mixed martial arts in May of 2013, almost two years after his defeat to Dos Santos.

Retirements in MMA are often short-lived, and this was no different with Carwin, who in 2016 signed an exclusive contract with Rizin FF, a Japan-based promotion known for their exhilarating end of year shows. But what intervened with this compelling comeback? You guessed it – an injury. Carwin and the promotion must’ve come to some sort of agreement, as it is rumoured his contract was terminated under mutual unity. The latest we’ve heard of a return to the cage came in 2017. where Carwin stated via social media that he would love to be an alternate for Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix. Nothing serious came to fruition, however he proved he was still raring to go at the mature age of 42.

There have been countless knockout artists over the course of MMA history, with many representing the world’s major promotions: UFC, Pride, Strikeforce and Bellator respectively. The next time someone mentions a heavy hitter, try and sway away from the conventional names such as Rumble Johnson and Francis Ngannou. Of course, they deserve their props, but so does Shane Carwin and his temporary reign of terror over the UFC’s heavyweight division. A truly frightening fighter in his prime who had perpetual contenders shaking in their boots.

Long live the legacy of Shane Carwin.

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