Curtis Blaydes staked his claim for a future UFC Heavyweight title shot with his second-round stoppage of Chris Daukaus on Saturday night. ‘Razor’ won a Performance of the Night bonus for his efforts, and given he was the fourth-ranked heavyweight in the world going in, thoughts naturally turn to title contention. But things aren’t that simple in the UFC’s top division at the moment, with a number of conflicting factors at play that may block Blaydes from a belt-challenge any time soon.
At the centre of the storm is UFC Heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. ‘The Predator’ is coming off the first decision win of his career, when he beat Interim Champion Ciryl Gane to unify the titles in January. However, a combination of injuries and contractual issues have thrown the future of the title into disarray.
Ngannou’s contract is due to expire in December. Complicating matters is the fact that the champion has recently undergone knee surgery that is expected to keep him out for nine months. This would mean by the time he has entered training for a return, he will be a free agent. Ngannou is reportedly keen to try his luck elsewhere, and he has been going back and forth with heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury for months. A showdown with the WBC king would pay better than any bout he could have in the UFC, due to the more lucrative nature of professional boxing. However, Ngannou is expected to sit down for contract talks with the company in the near future, so the landscape may change.
In the meantime, Dana White has revealed that another Interim champion is likely to be crowned. Reports over the weekend had Stipe Miocic and Jon Jones as the front-runners for that crown. Blaydes has every reason to feel hard done by, considering Miocic has not fought since losing his title to Ngannou a year ago while Jon Jones has never fought at heavyweight. This was a point Blaydes made after the Daukaus fight, saying that it should be him and Ciryl Gane fighting for the Interim title. Gane has just lost to Ngannou, and was the previous holder of the interim belt.
Money talks in MMA and, like in boxing, opportunities are not always given purely on merit. On paper you would say giving a title shot to a heavyweight who hasn’t fought in a year and a career light heavyweight who hasn’t fought in two is unfair. Particularly when two highly-ranked contenders like Blaydes and Gane are available, notwithstanding other active top talent like Tai Tuivasa. But the UFC is a business first and foremost, and one of the best heavyweights ever facing arguably the greatest fighter of all time is box office gold. Jon Jones’ long-awaited heavyweight debut will garner publicity whenever it happens, but to see him possibly make history against one of the best there is is almost irresistible for the UFC.
This is where the line blurs in MMA. Like boxing, it is often a murky sport that is as much entertainment as it is sport. The outcomes are real, often brutally so, but the match-making is as much about the bottom line as it is about sporting integrity. Miocic vs Jones is bigger than Blaydes vs Gane, or Blaydes vs Tuivasa. It’s that simple.
The Interim situation might still benefit Blaydes. Given his high ranking, he would be in-line for a shot at whoever won a potential Miocic-Jones clash. This might actually be a quicker route to a belt for ‘Razor’ given the fact he has already lost twice to Ngannou. A third fight with ‘The Predator’ is a hard-sell, considering their second bout ended with Blaydes getting knocked out in 45 seconds. Ngannou’s absence clears a path for Blaydes’ shot at glory, even if that path may be closed until Miocic and Jones meet.
It promises to be an exciting year for the division. The dominant figurehead will be away long enough for those beneath him to stake their claim, before either returning to face the cream of the crop or leaving his throne behind to be taken. Either way, there are some big heavyweight fights in 2022.
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