The State of the UFC's Heavyweight Division

In the aftermath of the most anticipated UFC heavyweight championship fight of all-time, we are left with a grim-reality. The adrenaline and excitement quickly fades into the revelation that we are now left without a legit title contender. At a time when we are blessed with the greatest heavyweight champion ever, in Stipe Miocic, the flow of worthy challengers has come to a trickle. The truth is, Francis Ngannou is still the man with the best shot of defeating Miocic. Remember, before last night, none of Miocic’s championship fights had gone past the 1st round.

Fabricio Werdum is probably the next man up, but does he deserve a chance to win back the belt which he relinquished to Stipe Miocic at UFC 198? Since losing the belt, Werdum has beat Travis Browne by decision, dropped a majority decision to Overeem, and beat a last-minute fill-in, Walt Harris, by submission. In his most recent bout, Werdum turned in a decent performance — nothing more, nothing less — to beat Marcin Tybura by unanimous decision, after 5 mostly uneventful rounds.

Has he done enough to earn the title shot? I’d say no — however, in the barren-landscape of the UFC’s heavyweight division, he is the likely #1 contender. Regardless, it seems that this next year will be a turning-point for the division — a changing of the guards, per say. Veterans such as Werdum, Overeem, and Hunt seem to be on the way out. Derrick Lewis, Marcin Tybura, Alexander Volkov, and Curtis Blaydes are all on the brink of earning a title-shot. We also have a group of promising fighters who debuted last year — Marcelo Golm, Tai Tuivasa, and Junior Albini — all prospects to keep an eye on. Also, don’t forget about Junior Dos Santos, who is still only 33-years-old. Let’s explore some of the interesting questions which surround the aging heavyweight division:

Who should Ngannou fight next?

I’d like to see Ngannou face the winner of the Derrick Lewis-Marcin Tybura fight, which takes place next month. Both Lewis and Tybura are hard-headed strikers who probably won’t overwhelm Ngannou on the ground, as Miocic did. Tybura is of similar stature to the champ, and has some decent jiu-jitsu, but I don’t think he will be able to take down and control Ngannou. Similarly to Ngannou, Lewis weighs-in just under the 265-limit. It will be interesting to see how Ngannou fares against a good boxer who is around the same size as him. Furthermore, facing either Tybura or Lewis would give Ngannou a much-needed opportunity to work on some grappling in the octagon. I’m intrigued to see the game plan Ngannou implements for his next fight — will he seek another early finish, or embrace the cage-time to work on some of his technical shortcomings?

Ngannou vs. Werdum as a title-eliminator would be an interesting fight, but I don’t think it will happen. Werdum will probably start campaigning for a title-shot any day now. I don’t think the 40-year-old will be very eager to step into the cage with Ngannou. The one thing he has going for him is that he was the last man to hold the HW belt, before Stipe’s historic run. After being dominated by Miocic, Ngannou should fight at least 2 more times before he’s handed another title-shot.

Cain Velasquez - fighting for the title by year’s end?!

Following Daniel Cormier’s win last night, he dropped some major knowledge regarding a comeback for his long-time training partner, Cain Velasquez. In his post-fight speech, Cormier hinted that Cain would be fighting for the title by the end of 2018.

Velasquez is an all-time great, but I don’t think he deserves to fight for the title in his comeback fight. Since his 1st-round TKO of Travis Browne at UFC 200, it’s been nearly 2 years since Velasquez has fought. Furthermore, Werdum did beat him for the title at UFC 188, fair and square. Cain’s return certainly does bring some excitement to the heavyweight division, and there are several worthwhile contenders who he could face in his return to the octagon.

Of course, there is a level of uncertainty around Velasquez’ possible return. If Velasquez returns within the next couple of months, it would be great to see a rematch with Werdum, in a title-eliminator match. The winner of this fight proves that they are still capable of fighting at a championship level, and gets a shot at Miocic in the summer.

The more likely scenario is that Cain is still several months away from returning. If that’s the case, just think about this… Velasquez-Dos Santos IV. This is a matchup for the UFC fans who miss the “good ol’ days”. It makes sense too, as both former champs would be coming back from long lay-offs and are at similar points in their careers.

Of course, the UFC might want to throw him into the ring with a newcomer, rather than a familar foe. Mark Hunt, Curtis Blaydes, Marcin Tybura, Derrick Lewis, and Alexander Volkov, would all be suitable candidates for Cain’s return to the cage.

If Overeem isn’t ready to quit, what’s next?

After the vicious knockout dealt by Francis Ngannou, many called for Overeem to close the book on his illustrious career. I can’t say that I disagree. Alistair doesn’t seem to be on board with the idea though. So, if Overeem isn’t ready to call it quits just yet, let’s look into some potential matchmaking options for the 37-year-old. Although he currently occupies the #2 spot on the rankings, I think it would be a good idea to ease him back into things. Give him the loser of either Hunt-Blaydes or Lewis-Tybura.

Let’s talk about PROSPECTS

Coming off a fight where he delivered a highlight-reel KO by flying knee, Tai Tuivasa is probably the most hyped HW prospect at the moment. He faces Cyril Asker next month, at UFC 221. If Tuivasa wins, I expect him to get a ranked opponent. There’s no doubt that Tuivasa has potential, but his ground game and cardio are suspect. He doesn’t have the athletic ability to coast to a title-shot without having his ground game and stamina tested (see: Francis Ngannou).

I believe that Marcelo Golm is the sure-fire prospect to keep an eye on. Golm made his debut this past October, with only 5 professional fights under his belt. His quick path to the UFC was certainly deserved though, as he finished all 5 fights in the 1st round. The 25-year-old didn’t miss a step in his debut — he put away his opponent, Christian Colombo, in 2 minutes. He faces #15 Timothy Johnson in two weeks, and he should win handily. With Golm, the UFC has a chance to build their next Brazilian star, and I don’t expect them to squander it. I could see him being matched up with the loser of Struve-Arlovski (if Arlovski doesn’t retire). Or maybe the UFC will match him up with Junior Albini, for the title of top Brazilian HW prospect.

Speaking of Stefan Struve — the only man to finish Stipe Miocic

The one blemish on Miocic’s record is his 2012 TKO-loss at the hands of Stefan Struve. Since then, Miocic has come a long way. And Struve? Well, he hasn’t really gone anywhere. He’s had some impressive moments in his career, but every time the 7-foot Dutchman gets a chance to elevate himself to title-contention, it seems to end with him on the receiving end of a KO/TKO. Still, you can’t erase the fact that he’s the only man who has finished the current champ. If the 29-year-old can beat Arlovski at UFC 222, he could be a couple wins away from another meeting with the champ, if the belt doesn’t change hands. Surely, Miocic would love the opportunity to avenge his loss.

Alexander Volkov - the dark horse

Volkov is 3-0 since joining the UFC in 2016. He last fought in September, finishing Stefan Struve in the 3rd round. Currently ranked 7th in the division, Volkov deserves a top-5 opponent. Pretty much any fighter in the top-10 would make for an interesting opponent to Volkov. A matchup with Francis Ngannou is intriguing, but i’m not sure that the UFC would be eager to have 2 of their most promising title-candidates face-off, just yet. I’d like to see Volkov face Overeem, but it could be a while before “The Reem” returns. Perhaps, the winner of the Mark Hunt/Curtis Blaydes fight would be a good test for the 29-year-old.

What’s the situation with JDS?

Not much has been said of Junior Dos Santos, after he was pulled from his scheduled UFC 215 bout with Francis Ngannou. He was removed due to a “potential USADA violation”, but we have not heard much since then. Has he been suspended? Is he in the process of an appeal? Either way, don’t sleep on him. He’s only 33 years old and holds a win over Miocic. It’s crazy to think that Dos Santos is actually 2 years younger than the champ.

P.S. I don’t think the super fight between Cormier and Miocic will happen. DC is better off defending his LHW title 2 or 3 times, before riding off into the sunset. But that discussion is for another day — stay tuned for my analysis of the light heavyweight division, coming soon!