mma / Columns

At Last, New Faces Have Infiltrated UFC’s Heavyweight Title Picture

March 19, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

Before 27-year-old Curtis Blaydes defeated Mark Hunt last month, the UFC’s official rankings had not featured a top five heavyweight under 30 since Junior dos Santos left his twenties behind in 2014. Now with a second youthful face primed to join Blaydes in the top five, the UFC heavyweight division is finally freshening up.

Saturday night in London, former Bellator heavyweight champion Alexander Volkov toppled Fabricio Werdum in a performance that should push him close to the top of the rankings. The 29-year-old Russian has been a familiar face in MMA since emerging as the victor from Bellator’s heavyweight tournament more than five years ago, but he’s brought welcomed change to the top of UFC’s heavyweight division.

For years, the UFC’s heavyweight class has been dominated by the same names. Cain Velasquez (35), Fabricio Werdum (40), and Junior dos Santos (34) had all held the heavyweight championship and stuck around the top of the division for years after losing the belt. Although never champion, Alistair Overeem (37) has been firmly entrenched in the title picture for more than six years. Mark Hunt (43) and Andrei Arlovski (39) were able to pull their careers back up from the well and become title contenders in a division that only seemed to grow older.

Current heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic emerged later than the others, but he is no young man at 35. Two months ago, when UFC was looking for a new challenger for Miocic, the freshest face they could find was Daniel Cormier, the soon-to-be 39-year-old light heavyweight champion.

In addition to Blaydes and Volkov, Francis Ngannou, 31, emerged as a championship contender over the past year. Following thunderous knockout victories over Arlovski and Overeem, Ngannou’s challenge to Stipe Miocic was the most exciting prospective heavyweight title fight in several years. Although the bout appears to have fallen short of expectations in terms of pay-per-view sales, the atmosphere surrounding it made it clear UFC fans were ready for a new challenger at heavyweight.

Volkov is ready to challenge for the heavyweight title. In Fabricio Werdum, Volkov defeated one of the greatest heavyweight competitors MMA has ever seen, a man that has beaten Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Cain Velasquez. Werdum has only lost to the best, and now Volkov is one of the best. When Volkov challenges for the title, he won’t carry in the hype that Ngannou’s challenge did, but he will be equipped with much more experience than Ngannou was, as well as more skill.

Ngannou’s one-sided loss to Miocic in January reduced expectations, but he may still develop into the knockout machine he was hoped to be. First, he’ll need to strengthen his cardio, practice his wrestling, and tighten up his hands.

Blaydes is still a step away from serious title contention. He prevailed through significant danger against Mark Hunt, but he must climb a step above Hunt to make it to Miocic, Cormier, or whomever ends up with the championship at the end of the year. That step is Alistair Overeem, who aims to hold his own spot and push Blaydes back down the ladder when they meet in Chicago on June 9. With a win against Overeem, Blaydes may have an argument for moving past Volkov in the heavyweight title hunt.

Below Blaydes, Ngannou, and Volkov, there are additional new heavyweights beginning to make some noise. Powerhouse Tai Tuivasa, 25, scored the seventh first round knockout of his career in February in his seventh career bout. In June, he will fight Andrei Arlovski and he should move into UFC’s top ten with a win. Fighting aside, Tuivasa certainly seems to have the charisma to be a heavyweight star. He celebrated his February win by chugging beer out of a fan’s shoe on his walk back from the cage.

This past week, the removals of Cain Velasquez and Timothy Johnson from the rankings opened new spots for Shamil Abdurakhimov, 36, and Justin Ledet, 29. Abdurakhimov isn’t likely to rocket up the rankings, but the unbeaten Ledet still has time to develop.

Arjan Bhullar returns for his second UFC fight next month. The 31-year-old represented Canada in freestyle wrestling at the 2012 Olympic Games and has won all seven of his MMA bouts. He may be able to crack UFC’s top fifteen rankings this year, but elite competition is still hidden by the horizon.

Today, with a good mix of established stars and up-and-comers, the UFC heavyweight division feels more exciting than it has been in quite some time. It is still a thin division, but it has at least dropped its title of Most Stagnant UFC Division to light heavyweight for the time being. Movement at the top of the heavyweight division will be one of the more interesting stories to follow throughout the year.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.