mma / Columns

Searching for Heavyweight’s Next Title Contender

November 20, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Stipe Miocic

The UFC’s heavyweight division has traditionally struggled. Its early years were rife with vacancies. In the first 36 months after UFC introduced the championship, the title had no owner for 21 of those months.

The early-to-mid aughts were difficult years, as Japanese competitor Pride Fighting Championships boasted the bulk of the world’s top heavyweight talent. The UFC considered dropping the division entirely.

The division enjoyed its glory years in the late-aughts. It saw the return of Randy Couture, the impact of Brock Lesnar, the resurgence of Frank Mir, the heart of Minotauro Nogueira, and the emergence of future champions Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, and Shane Carwin.

As those glory years faded, new, promising talent didn’t come along to take the place of aging and departing stars. Five years ago, the UFC’s top heavyweight stars were Velasquez, dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, and Fabricio Werdum. Today, that remains largely the same. Overem, Werdum, and Velasquez are ranked as the top three title contenders in the division. As recently as August, dos Santos had been number four, but he was dropped form the rankings due to a failed drug test.

Only the name at the very top is different. Stipe Miocic knocked out Werdum in 2016, and then knocked out Overeem and dos Santos in thrilling title defenses. All three bouts ended in the first round.

Miocic is the only new heavyweight of the past five years to break through into the elite mix. The elites don’t treat outsiders kindly. In the past ten years, dos Santos has only only to Velasquez, Overeem, and Miocic. In the same time frame, Werdum has only lost to dos Santos, Miocic, and Overeem. Velasquez has only ever to dos Santos and Werdum. Overeem lost to a few outsiders in his current UFC run, but with the exception of Miocic, those fighters weren’t able to defeat any of the other elites.

Sunday afternoon in Sydney, Australia, 40-year-old Fabricio Werdum treated another outsider, this one eighth-ranked contender Marcin Tybura, poorly. Tybura never had a chance.

In two weeks, another outsider will take a crack at the elite. This one is far from hopeless. He is the hope of all fans looking for fresh blood in the heavyweight division.

Francis Ngannou is a threat. He has stopped all of his five UFC opponents, showcasing his quickness, strength, and athleticism. Although slightly old for a prospect at 31, age is less of a concern at heavyweight, where a slight loss of speed won’t drop you from your perch.

Everything Ngannou has accomplished to this point, he has done less than four years after the first day he stepped into an MMA gym. That means he may have many significant improvements to come, which is an unsettling thought for the division’s best fighters.

Ngannou is set to take on Overeem in a fight that could determine the next heavyweight title challenger. The other immediate contenders are Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez. Each has a viable case for a shot at Miocic.

Francis Ngannou is the choice to make if he notches an impressive victory against Overeem. Although Overeem has been beaten by fighters outside the elite and has known liabilities, Ngannou would create a real buzz around himself with a strong finish of the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion. The UFC would have no choice but to see where the buzz takes them by matching Ngannou with Miocic.

If Ngannou wins unimpressively, I’d be in favor of giving him another fight to develop before a title shot. Although Ngannou would have the longest winning streak of any title contender, there would be no need to rush the title shot if he shows he isn’t ready for it.

Alistair Overeem already has wins over Mark Hunt and Fabricio Werdum since losing to Miocic last year. Beating Ngannou would put him right back at the top of the list to challenge Miocic again. In this case, the only potential obstacles between Overeem and Miocic would be the contract talks between Miocic and the UFC, and Cain Velasquez.

Cain Velasquez represents a fresh opponent for Miocic and likely his best drawing option. There is still the idea that a healthy Velasquez is the best heavyweight in the world, and he is the only fighter of the elite that Miocic has not beaten. It is an intriguing fight that hasn’t happened yet because of Velasquez’s struggles staying healthy. He has not fought since July of 2016, and has had only two fights in the past four years. If the timing is right, Velasquez could take the title opportunity.

Fabricio Werdum has been looking for a rematch with Miocic from the night he lost the heavyweight title to him. Since, Werdum has gone 3-1, or 4-1 if you include him hitting Colby Covington with a boomerang. Werdum’s only loss in that stretch was to Overeem in a close fight that Werdum may have given away when he didn’t attack aggressively after hurting Overeem.

Multiple things need to go in Werdum’s favor in order for him to get the next crack at Miocic, and all of those things are outside of his control. He needs a bad fight between Overeem and Ngannou, ideally won by Ngannou. He needs the UFC to be displeased enough with the winner’s performance to pass on him for a title shot. He needs Velasquez to stay on the sidelines. If all of those things go Werdum’s way, he would likely be the next challenger for the heavyweight championship.

In any scenario, the UFC 218 clash between Alistair Overeem and Francis Ngannou plays a major role in determining the next heavyweight title challenger. The battle will also answer the question of whether the heavyweight division will move toward new blood, or the current elite will continue their reign.

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.