We are fresh off of UFC 249, UFC Fight Night: Smith VS. Teixeira, and UFC Fight Night: Overeem VS. Harris and the UFC’s premier division has left us with more questions than answers.
Because of the uncertainty that looms over the third match-up between Champion Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier, the UFC Heavyweight division has been stagnant since August of 2019.
As burgeoning stars emerge, older veterans look to make one more push, and a certain Light Heavyweight fighter looks to make his move up to Heavyweight, the division must move on.
Here is what’s next.
Let’s begin first with the match-up that has been fairly set in stone; Champion Stipe Miocic defending his title against Daniel Cormier to complete their trilogy. In the first bout between these two, we saw Champion Miocic looking to defend his title for a Heavyweight record fourth time against the, at the time, current Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier.
As some may know, Heavyweight was Cormier’s original weight class. But upon the UFC’s purchase, and eventual absorption, of fellow promotion Strikeforce, Cormier dropped down to Light Heavyweight to avoid facing long-time friend and teammate, Cain Velasquez. Cormier shockingly defeated Miocic to gain the “double-champ” status (i.e. holding two titles in two different weight classes simultaneously), becoming only the second of four people in UFC history to do this. After an 13 month layoff, Stipe returned to challenge Cormier for the title he had lost. Stipe had not had any other fights in between his two battles with Cormier, but Cormier did defend his Heavyweight strap once against “The Black Beast” Derrick Lewis.
In the rematch, Stipe had lost the first three rounds on the scorecards. In the fourth however, Stipe found an opening in Cormier’s stand-up and began throwing body shots to the liver. Because of the trauma to Cormier’s liver, his body became unresponsive and left him open for some stiff shots from Stipe which ultimately ended the fight. With the two having a one-and-one record against one another, the logical choice would be to run it back for a third time. The problems lay in the two fighters, as well as the rest of the division.
Both Cormier and Stipe have made it clear that they would like to complete the trilogy and see who the better man is. The problems begin with Stipe’s health. Stipe is currently battling an eye injury that has held him out of training since his victory over Cormier. Stipe, who also works as a first responder in his home state of Ohio, has also claimed that he has not been able to train due to the COVID-19 shut down. There is a bit of a conspiracy surrounding this however. After the first fight between Stipe and Cormier, Cormier called out former UFC Heavyweight Champion and current WWE superstar Brock Lesnar to be his first title defense. That fight never materialized, but it left Stipe as an afterthought in the mere moments after a main event fight for the most premier title in the UFC.
The conspiracy is that Stipe is now trying to gain a measure of revenge on Cormier for that and is now trying to freeze Cormier out of the title picture and the UFC due to his age (41). Whatever the case may be with Stipe, it is holding up the entire division.
Enter, Francis N’Gannou. Francis “The Predator” N’Gannou is coming off of a 20-second knockout of rising star Jairzinho Rozenstruik and is looking for another shot at the UFC Heavyweight title. N’Gannou was undefeated inside the octagon heading into his first shot at the UFC Heavyweight title against Stipe Miocic with all but one of his UFC victories coming by way of knockout. N’Gannou was humbled by the incredible wrestling of Stipe and was defeated on the scorecards for his first UFC loss, followed by another loss to Derrick Lewis which most say was a boring affair. N’Gannou has since rebounded by picking up four more wins and is ready for another Heavyweight title shot. N’Gannou is unfortunately left waiting for this mess with Stipe and Cormier to play itself out. In most cases, it would not be worth the risk for N’Gannou to fight anyone other than the winner of this fight because his stock could only be lowered. However, two incredible opportunities have popped up for The Predator.
All of the waiting for Stipe has made Cormier look for other opponents in the meantime. Following the destruction of Rozenstruik, Cormier called out N’Gannou for a potential Interim Championship match. To many, the Interim Championship is a glorified number one contender’s label. In this case, it feels a bit different. We are not too shy of a full year without a Heavyweight title fight and an Interim title could serve as a placeholder until Stipe is ready to return to unify the belts. Or, in a worse case, Stipe doesn’t return from his injury and the Interim Champion is promoted to the full-time Champion. This may be the more ideal situation for Stipe, but the UFC may have been handed a “get out of jail free card” for what to do with Francis N’Gannou in the form of current Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones.
There has been speculation for years as to not if, but when Jon Jones will make his Heavyweight debut. This week, Jones has begun calling out Francis N’Gannou and The Predator has responded. It seems as though Jones’ Heavyweight debut will be happening very soon which is actually coming at a perfect time for the Light Heavyweight division as well. There is real uncertainty as to who the true number one contender for Jones’ Light Heavyweight Title should be. Jan Blachowicz just defeated Corey Anderson, Glover Teixeira just defeated Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos lost to Jones’ by split decision with every tendon in his leg torn going into the fight and is now returning from injury, and Dominick Reyes lost to Jones recently in a bout many think Reyes won.
If these four fight amongst each other while Jones takes a detour to fight at Heavyweight, Jones could return to defend his strap against a more well defined opponent. As for the N’Gannou – Jones fight, this is the true definition of a “money fight.” The consensus greatest Light Heavyweight fighter of all time against possibly the scariest knockout artist in UFC history would be fireworks inside the octagon. Also, the winner of that fight would be guaranteed a shot at the Heavyweight title in the future.
As for the rest of the Heavyweight division, there is no clear fighter who also deserves a title shot currently, but there are some very interesting names to look out for. Curtis Blaydes is currently ranked number three and is coming off of a knockout win over former Heavyweight Champion Junior Dos Santos. Blaydes may need to pick up one more win before contending for a title however because the man in front of him in the rankings (N’Gannou) has defeated him not once, but twice.
Following Blaydes in the rankings is number four Derrick Lewis. Lewis is on a two fight win streak. The problem is they were not against the highest level of competition in the current number 12 ranked Heavyweight Blagoy Ivanov and Light Heavyweight Ilir Latifi. A Lewis – Blaydes match up to determine a new contender could certainly be interesting. Some other fighters to watch out for would be Walt Harris, who is coming off of a loss to Alistair Overeem. Harris will need a few more wins before challenges for a title. Overeem himself is an interesting contender who just called out another contender in Jairzinho Rozenstruik for a rematch.
Overeem was winning all five rounds of their first bout until Rozenstruik knocked Overeem out with four seconds left in the fight. Both of these fighters will need a few wins of their own but a rematch would be incredibly interesting. Veterans Junior Dos Santos and Aleksei Oleinik will also try to make another title push.
There are so many fighters with potential in the Heavyweight division, especially at the top.
Here’s to hoping the mess with the title picture will be cleared up soon and the Championship can continue on.
Who do you think is the next best contender in the Heavyweight division?
Featured Image: mmafighting.com