With Francis Ngannou vanquished (for now), it’s back to the usual suspects for the UFC heavyweight division.
The very reason we love the heavyweight division is frankly its biggest pitfall. Career trajectories can change in a single punch. It is the most unpredictable division in MMA. At UFC 220 this past Saturday, Francis Ngannou was favored to defeat Stipe Miocic. Not just defeat; in the eyes of many he was going to posterize the defending champion, Overeem style.
It didn’t happen. In twenty-five minutes of grappling, grinding, and avoiding the power shots of the Cameroonian power puncher, Miocic executed the perfect game plan. The end result, a record-setting third title defense at heavyweight. Despite the massive promotional push the UFC gave Ngannou, all casual fans saw of the monstrous heavyweight was a tiring hulk with cardio issues.
Promotional inconsistencies are another matter, however. Miocic remains atop the mountain, and what does matter is who is left to make it to the summit and challenge him. In the always sparse heavyweight division, there aren’t many options left. Which is no doubt why Dana White is currently claiming that Miocic vs. light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier is a fight he’d like to see. What White is really saying is that it’s a fight he’d like to sell. Because right now, the pickings are slim, and there aren’t many marketable fights for Miocic.
Miocic has won six straight, and nine of his last ten. Having defeated the likes of Dos Santos, Hunt, Arlovski, Overeem, Werdum, and now Ngannou, who’s next is a bit of a pickle.
Alexander Volkov, a long shot at best, isn’t enough of a household name, and needs a bigger test than Stefan Struve before proving himself worthy of a title shot. The popular Derrick Lewis is coming off a loss to Mark Hunt last Summer. Ngannou and Overeem need to rebuild; Dos Santos is provisionally suspended. That Cormier fight? He’s not interested if training partner and friend Cain Velasquez is coming back.
Who’s left? Well, lets take a look.
In a debate over the best heavyweight of the modern era, until UFC 220, the answer might have been Cain Velasquez. Yet Miocic claiming sole possession of the title defense record, and Velasquez struggling to remain healthy may have flipped their position in that debate. Still, word is that Velasquez is once again on the road back to the octagon. And if we’re being honest, Miocic vs. Velasquez is the fight to make. They’re the two best heavyweights of their time.
Some would suggest that Velasquez should take a fight prior to getting a title shot. Others worry about his ability to stay healthy should he win. Both are valid points. Yet the upside to this fight is far too great: if there’s any chance of Velasquez coming back in the next eight months then this is the fight the UFC needs to book. At sea level.
If Cain Velasquez is not ready within a reasonable period of time, or if he winds up injured yet again, the next option is a rematch with Fabricio Werdum. Werdum has been campaigning hard for the chance to avenge the loss of his title to Miocic. Charging forward recklessly is not a mistake the Brazilian will make again, and a rematch with the current heavyweight King would no doubt be entertaining. Werdum’s also on a two-fight win streak, against Walt Harris and Marcin Tybura, though Harris took the fight on just a few hours notice.
If Werdum wasn’t a former champion, the names Tybura and Harris wouldn’t be enough to secure a title shot. But given his history with Stipe Miocic, it’s enough — if Velasquez is out of the picture.
This is your hail mary, out of left field option. Mark Hunt is perpetually at odds with the UFC. He’s currently in the process of suing the promotion. He was forced off the UFC Sydney card when he complained of memory loss and other concerning symptoms, though he has since been cleared to fight.
And yet, if he wins against Curtis Blaydes next month, Hunt will be one quality victory away from a potential title shot, when factoring in his popularity.
Whether the promotion would even consider giving him that shot is another question, but if for some reason both Velasquez and Werdum were unavailable, you could do worse. Hunt has lost to Miocic once. That said, he will always have a puncher’s chance at the win.
And that, sadly, is it for the heavyweight division, until names coming off losses currently rebuild, or someone new arrives and goes on a tear. Which is why Dana White is so keen on Cormier, but the chances of that happening are slim.