It was 2008 when a pair of 24-year-olds named Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos descended upon the UFC, destined for heavyweight greatness.
Dos Santos started with a bang, knocking out Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90. The highly touted Velasquez debuted earlier in impressive fashion. They both eventually claimed heavyweight gold. They battled through a thrilling and violent trilogy, too. However, most importantly, they seemed to signal a golden era of the UFC’s heavyweight division.
Yet, instead of a host of heavyweights following in their path, there have been tumbleweeds when it comes to more heavyweight prospects.
We have current champ Stipe Miocic and Stefan Struve, who remarkably is still only 28, but those are the rare exceptions in a division that has too often been barren in terms of talent. How else can you explain the likes of Justin Eilers and Paul Buentello getting title shots?
It’s also why we need Francis N’Gannou and Derrick Lewis to succeed.
Not to go all super-nerd here, but we’re Princess Leia and N’Gannou and Lewis are our Obi-Wan Kenobi: “Help me N’Gannou and Lewis. You’re our only hope.”
OK, it may not be that dire, but it’s clear we need fresh blood in an otherwise stagnant and dull heavyweight division.
They may not be Velasquez or dos Santos, but Lewis and N’Gannou are viable options that can shake up a division that is starting to show its age. Fresh faces are a rarity in a weight class that recycles rematches and has seemingly rehashed title contenders on multiple occasions.
While UFC 206 deservedly grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines over the weekend with incredible action and a number of standout fights, the victories from Lewis and N’Gannou at the otherwise forgotten UFC Fight Night 102 were noteworthy.
N’Gannou has proven to be everything anyone could want in a heavyweight in his brief UFC career. He looks the part with a massive, imposing frame, but, more importantly, he plays the part. His 4-0 start in the UFC over the past year has been nothing short of devastating for opponents. He crushed his first three challengers with impressive power, and last Friday against overmatched Anthony Hamilton, N’Gannou displayed a lethal submission game, tapping Hamilton with a first-round kimura that looked downright nasty.
The submission victory earned N’Gannou a shot with former heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski. It’s a pivotal opportunity for the prospect. It’s also the perfect example of why we should be rooting for N’Gannou to succeed. That Arlovski is still relevant in the heavyweight class more than 11 years after he won heavyweight gold — yes, it was 2005 when he starched the aforementioned Buentello — tells you all you need to know about the state of the division when it comes to fresh match-ups.
No offense to legends like Arlovski, Josh Barnett and others, but their continued significance in the class years after their supposed prime isn’t good for the health of the division. We’ve seen every possible match-up it seems with guys like Alistair Overeem, Ben Rothwell and, heck, even dos Santos and Velasquez. We need fresh blood, and that’s where N’Gannou and Lewis come into play. N’Gannou has demonstrated enticing potential, and a dominant win against Arlovski opens the door to a plethora of juicy match-ups.
The same goes for Lewis, who has won five straight fights and boasts a fan-friendly personality to boot. There was plenty to question about Friday’s uneven match-up that eventually ended as a fourth-round TKO against Shamil Abdurakhimov, but Lewis has game-changing power that can make him a must-see attraction.
Lewis has previous losses to Shawn Jordan and Matt Mitrione, but these seem like they took place eons ago thanks to this latest string. He has yet to face off with anyone in the division’s elite, though. Lewis stated on Monday he already has his next match-up lined up, so that may be changing. For the health of the heavyweight division, let’s hope Lewis is ready for what lies ahead.
It’s perhaps unfair to ever compare the UFC heavyweight division to boxing’s heavyweight division in its heyday. Even boxing can’t compete with those glory days. The UFC’s heavyweight class has never reached the level we’ve all hoped it would attain, but the fascination with that possibility will always be there. It might not ever be the marquee class in the UFC, but there’s always something thrilling about seeing the rise of heavyweight talents. N’Gannou and Lewis qualify in this regard. For the sake of the UFC heavyweight class, let’s hope they succeed.