The heavyweight division is known for its volatility, with the sheer power and size of most men meaning anything is possible when two fighters collide. With many top tier fighters holding wins over each other, and the UFC failing to bring in fresh-faced potentials, it seems that the division’s progress has not only halted but regressed, with a number of former champions coming to the forefront once again. However, one exception is rising prospect Francis Ngannou (9-1) who faces off against former title holder Andrei Arlovski (25-13) at UFC on FOX 23, this Saturday in Denver, Colorado.
After injuries saw Cain Velasquez ruled out from facing Fabricio Werdum at UFC 207 and Werdum having previously lost his title to Stipe Miocic via first round knockout, the inconsistency has meant there is yet to be a standout contender for a title shot. There have been reports linking former champion Junior Dos Santos to a title fight against Miocic, in spite of him lying 5th in the division. JDS currently sits behind Velasquez and Alistair Overeem in the rankings, having lost to both fighters but with Overeem set to fight Mark Hunt at UFC 209 and Velasquez injured, an opportune path has appeared for the Brazilian who has already secured a decision victory over the Miocic back in 2014.
— Francis NGannou (@francis_ngannou) January 23, 2017
In a division where nine of the top ten ranked fighters are aged 34 or over, the 235lb division is crying out for exciting new talent to separate themselves from the rest of the pack and take the ceremonial passing of the torch. One name that stands out is Ngannou, at 30-years-old he’s athletic, he’s explosive and has an arsenal of offensive skills at his disposal. Despite being a heavy-hitting knockout artist, Ngannou is uncommonly mobile for a man who weighs nearly 260 lbs and is not one to overcompensate when looking for the finish. He has proved to be a very well rounded fighter including some impressive takedown defence during his second UFC fight against junior college national champion Curtis Blaydes.
The Frenchman is currently riding an eight-fight win streak and holds a record of 4-0 under the UFC banner including a first round submission victory over Anthony Hamilton in his last bout; his three fights previous to this all ended via KO or TKO. The only thing missing from “The Predator’s” record is a win against a top ten opponent, this weekend a victory over Arlovski gives Ngannou both that and adds a former UFC champion to his ever increasing list of accolades inside the Octagon.
Arlovski was formerly UFC heavyweight champion from 2005-2006 and is still regarded as one of the most dangerous and respected in the game. He has 25 career victories including wins over the likes of Frank Mir, Ben Rothwell, Travis Browne and Fabricio Werdum as well as becoming the first person to finish Roy Nelson. The 37-year-old is the strongest striker Ngannou has yet to come up against and will no doubt be his toughest test to date. The Belarusian will be hoping to start 2017 with a win, something he was unable to do throughout the whole 2016 having been stopped in three consecutive fights. Miocic snapped his six-fight winning streak at UFC 195, he was then knocked out by Overeem at UFC Rotterdam in May, and in the UFC Hamburg main event ”The Pitbull” was dealt the first submission loss of his 17-year MMA career by the now suspended Josh Barnett. Despite having lost three fights on the bounce he currently sits 7th in the rankings which paints a picture of how competitive the division is at this moment in time.
Arlovski already sits on the chopping board and cannot afford another loss; one more and that could be it for his time in the UFC. By no means is he to be ruled out of this bout, as a grizzled veteran of the sport he knows how to drag himself out of a losing streak and back to winning ways. Arlovski snapped a four-fight losing streak in 2011 and later went on to win 10 of his next 11 bouts, the one loss came at the hands of powerhouse Anthony Johnson at WSOF 2. This Saturday “The Pitbull” has a huge opportunity to reaffirm he is still a top contender whilst derailing the hype train of a rising star.
A win at UFC Denver would see Ngannou equal Derrick Lewis for the division’s longest active win streak. Lewis is someone who the Frenchman could potentially meet in future, a bout between the organization’s two most viable young prospects. The heavyweight division is one in which has been given little commercial limelight from the UFC as of late but you can’t possibly blame them, they have a good champion with Stipe; who may get overlooked at times, but with no rivalries to build a story around, the HW division is becoming a harder sell to the public.
Rivalries are integral to any division in the UFC, from the likes of Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz to Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier, bad blood creates emotional investment, which in turn sells fights and PPV’s. Heavyweights have always been the pinnacle division in boxing, drawing the biggest PPV and attendances, from the days of Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, even now, with Anthony Joshua fighting Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium on April 29 which is expect to be attended by 90,000 fans, the biggest post-war British boxing crowd.The attraction to watch the biggest athletes, standing and banging has always been relevant whether it is in the UFC or boxing.
Certain fights have the benefit of making themselves and the UFC offers up the commercial limelight for those lucky few, however, the heavyweight division seemingly falls through the cracks when compared to its lighter counterparts. This most likely explains the diminishing focus on the division and is a reason as to why the UFC turn to fighters such as Brock Lesnar who have that proven star power. Lesnar previously held the record for the highest PPV buys when he fought Frank Mir at UFC 100; until McGregor vs Diaz I and II surpassed it. The former heavyweight champion has appeared in five of the top 15 highest grossing UFC PPV events including his most recent performance at UFC 200 where he received a £2.5m payout before he was suspended for a doping violation.
There was supposedly a passing of the torch between Lesnar and Velasquez, with the UFC trying hard to push him Cain as ‘the baddest man on the planet’. However, the public have just not bought into the idea of Velasquez as the heavyweight king, potentially due to his consistent injury streak.
MMA Factory’s Ngannou has a lot of hype behind him coming into his bout this weekend as the UFC continue to look for the next big heavy-hitting star, but the platform given to fighters can just as easily be their downfall and rising stars are now left in a lose-lose situation in the 265lb division. With so many veterans involved at the top of the division, match-ups such as Ngannou vs. Arlovski prove to be building blocks for new prospects to make a name for themselves. If successful on Saturday, he will elevate himself to a legitimate prospect but this will not stop spectators criticising Ngannou, saying he should be beating the man seven years his elder regardless, yet a loss could put a halt to his journey to the top of the division. All that aside, Ngannou’s narrative as the mighty young challenger puts him on a collision course with Miocic and the championship belt, potentially this time a story worth telling by the UFC machine.