Derrick Lewis’ thunderous knockout of Curtis Blaydes last night, his fourth consecutive victory, isn’t likely to change his fortunes in terms of the title picture.
In the past few years, the UFC’s heavyweight division has seen a generational change.
Since Stipe Miocic first won the heavyweight title in 2016, the old guard of top contenders in the division have been replaced with fresher faces. Gone, or at least out of contention, are Junior dos Santos, Mark Hunt, Fabricio Werdum, Daniel Cormier, Alistair Overeem, Andrei Arlovski, Travis Browne, Cain Velasquez, and a smattering of others. Those familiar names have been replaced slowly but surely with newer, younger fighters (a trio of those, Sergey Spivak, Tom Aspinall, and Chris Daukaus, won big on Saturday). While this is a natural process in combat sports, it’s been especially noticeable in the heavyweight division of late.
The main event last night at the UFC Apex saw one of the freshest clashes of this younger generation when Derrick Lewis took on Curtis Blaydes. In a very real way, the fight captured this generational shift, as this was the second consecutive heavyweight main event in which a fight that could be viewed as a title-eliminator didn’t feature a former champion. Two weeks prior, it was Alexander Volkov getting his hand raised. Saturday it was Lewis. And of course, less than a year ago, there was Francis Ngannou vs. Jair Rozenstruik. A fight which landed Ngannou his second shot at Miocic.
The establishment of this trend wasn’t the only talking point to come out of UFC Vegas 19. The main event saw a stunning performance by underdog Derrick Lewis, who secured a second round knockout win over highly touted prospect Curtis Blaydes. There’s no question the fight was an important one. Lewis and Blaydes were on three and four-fight winning streaks, respectively. However, while Blaydes was coming off wins over Justin Wills and Alexander Volkov, Lewis’ last few victories had lacked anything close to a highly ranked opponent. That changed Saturday — but the fact remains that Curtis Blaydes is the only top-ranked fighter on Lewis’ current win streak.
Perhaps that’s why Lewis himself appears so dismissive of his own chances at securing a title fight.
Next up for the promotion is UFC Vegas 20, featuring the third of three heavyweight main events this month. Next week’s headliner will see American Top Team product Jairzinho Rozenstruik take on the undefeated Ciryl Gane. The two are coming off wins over the man Lewis last lost to, Junior dos Santos. The fight offers the perfect opportunity for either to make a statement of their own.
Dos Santos may not be the dangerous top contender that he once was, but his name continues to carry considerable value. Sure, Rozenstruick lost a lot of stock when he suffered a first-round knockout defeat against Ngannou back in May. But Gane has a lot going for him heading into the fight. He’s been on a roll since entering the company back in 2018, having already secured four wins. If either fighter manages to impress the audience with their performance next Saturday, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see them clash against Lewis.
After all, there are more factors at play when it comes to heavyweight title shots in the UFC. The most impressive win or highest ranking, frankly, is only part of the equation.
Overall, the heavyweight division is undergoing a transformation not seen in years. So it shouldn’t come as a shock to see fighters having to put up considerable winning streaks, and still be a win or two away from being considered for the title— as understandably “eye-rolling” as it may be for many in the division. As Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou get ready for their rematch, it should give enough time for Lewis, known for not taking big breaks, to lock horns against someone new, and thus a lot depends on what happens next week. And even then, there’s the specter of Jon Jones, whose arrival in the division may halt the title race in its tracks.
In years gone by, Lewis’ victory Saturday might have leap-frogged him into a title shot. Frankly, that was the case the first time around for “The Black Beast,” when a knockout of Alexander Volkov in the dying seconds of their UFC 229 fight, and a hot post-fight interview, secured him a shot against Daniel Cormier. But in 2021, the heavyweight division looks vastly different, which a steeper climb to the title. Just ask Curtis Blaydes.