The UFC heavyweight title picture was set to become clearer with Francis Ngannou scheduled to face ascending star Jairzinho Rozenstruik this weekend. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing the cancellation of sporting events worldwide, we're left to speculate about how the division will look once the fights resume.
Will 41-year-old Daniel Cormier fight champion Stipe Miocic, 37, a third time or will Cormier head into retirement? In an interview with Ariel Helwani on Monday, Cormier said he thinks Miocic, who is currently nursing an eye injury, will take the fight.
How will having to wait for that fight affect the rest of the division?
Will there be a new breakout star?
Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim tackle those questions and more concerning the UFC's heavyweights.
What's the biggest question you have about this division?
Helwani: Let's put aside the obvious one, which is the main question in every division: When the heck is everyone returning? The main one with the heavyweights is: When the action resumes, will Miocic be healthy enough to defend the belt? The plan before this pandemic hit was for him to return in August against Cormier. However, Miocic hasn't been medically cleared yet after having eye surgery. So, in essence, this break buys him some time and takes the pressure off a little. However, once the action resumes -- and hopefully it's sooner rather than later -- the focus will be on the champ to see if he can make that trilogy happen.
Okamoto: How many fights does Cormier have left? Once upon a time, he planned to retire by his 40th birthday. He is 41 now and still going. I could see a world in which he never fights again, although I don't think that's likely. I also could see a world in which he still fights multiple times. I do believe a very big part of Cormier wants to retire, but I also know he is one of the most competitive individuals I've ever met, and he still has some very big opportunities in front of him if he wants them. Right now, he is the biggest name in the heavyweight division -- and he still is world-class. How many fights does he have left? The answer will have a major impact on this division.
Raimondi: If the coronavirus leads to an extended break, will Cormier just decide to retire rather than wait for the layoff to end to fight Miocic again? I don't think Cormier himself even knows the answer to that question yet. If the UFC resumes again by summer, it wasn't like Miocic vs. Cormier 3 was going to happen before July or August anyway. So that is feasibly still on the table. If Cormier does decide to hang up the gloves, then what's next for Miocic? Does Miocic defend against Ngannou again? Of course, Miocic will do that if asked, but he hasn't expressed too much interest in that rematch at this juncture. Heavyweight is one of the most interesting divisions right now, with many question marks.
Wagenheim: It's all about when, and in this case, the "when" is not entirely contingent on the pandemic. Even before the coronavirus took hold, this division was gridlocked because of Miocic's eye injury. Until the champ is ready to return, or until the UFC is ready to move on without him, we won't know whether Cormier will get his shot. And that affects not just Nos. 1 and 2 but the career progress of all those ranked below.
Who's the strongest dark horse contender?
Helwani: Does the winner of Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik count? Or is that too obvious? If so, I'll go with Curtis Blaydes, who has looked really good as of late. Also, I think Ciryl Gane is a name to watch, and I am very much intrigued by Walt Harris' evolution too.
Okamoto: I'm going to go with Rozenstruik here -- and the reason is, I think he is sort of the only dark horse, in a way. Blaydes isn't a dark horse. Anyone who has been paying attention knows Blaydes is legit. Same with Ngannou; he isn't surprising anyone at this point. But Rozenstruik, he came out of nowhere in 2019. And as good as he has been, no one is really talking about him as a future champion, not with Miocic, Cormier, Ngannou and Blaydes in the picture. But if Rozenstruik gets paired up with Ngannou again and beats him, all of a sudden this guy might be one win away from holding a title.
Raimondi: Blaydes. Yes, he has been finished twice by Ngannou, but I don't count Ngannou as a dark horse by any stretch. Blaydes and Ngannou are the future of the division, in my opinion, and will undoubtedly meet again for a third time at some point. Ngannou is the only man to beat Blaydes in MMA, and Blaydes has won three in a row since that last loss, with his past two victories coming via finish. Blaydes, who is supposed to fight Alexander Volkov at UFC Saskatoon in June, has two main things going for him: wrestling and relative youth. With Cormier likely retiring this year, Blaydes will have the best wrestling in the division, and that has helped his striking. Look at the TKO of Junior dos Santos in January as an example. Blaydes is just 29, the youngest contender in the division. He is here to stay for a long time.
Wagenheim: Rozenstruik is best positioned to contend, considering he is scheduled to face No. 3 Ngannou, assuming matchups remain intact once the sport resumes. But after seeing his tepid performance against 39-year-old Alistair Overeem, in which Rozenstruik was beaten to the punch for 24 minutes, 56 seconds before pulling off a miracle knockout, I'm not holding out much hope that the unbeaten record of the slugger from Suriname will survive a date with "The Predator." Instead, I'll go with my heart and shine a spotlight on Harris, a guy driven by family tragedy. He is unbeaten in his past four fights, with his previous two wins coming by knockout within the first minute.
Other than Stipe vs. DC 3, what's the one fight you need to see that's not booked yet?
Helwani: Gotta be Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik. That fight has to happen. And yes, I know it was booked for March 28, which is Saturday (sniff), but as far as I'm concerned, it's no longer booked at all. That's a phenomenal fight and one that should decide who is the next contender.
Okamoto: Jon Jones vs. Ngannou. Honestly, there aren't a lot of heavyweight fights I have to see right now. It's a lot of familiar names at the top and a lot of potentially recycled matchups. The fights we need to see in this division are the obvious ones, and the UFC is making them. I'd like to see Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik rebooked. Blaydes vs. Volkov was the other obvious matchup. So if I'm picking a fight that hasn't seen the books yet, it's Jones' heavyweight debut. And Jones vs. Ngannou, my word. Can you even imagine? I believe we'll get it at some point.
Raimondi: Probably the one that was supposed to happen this coming weekend: Ngannou against Rozenstruik. It was booked, but it's not booked anymore. Technically, the card was postponed, but there is no guarantee that is the fight the UFC goes back to. Although I think Ngannou has done enough to cement himself as top contender following the Miocic-Cormier trilogy, Rozenstruik is one of the hottest fighters on the UFC roster. "Bigi Boy" had a ridiculous 2019 after signing with the UFC -- four wins via KO/TKO in four fights. That's an Israel Adesanya-like run. And if he were to beat Ngannou, Rozenstruik likely would be fighting next for a title. Also, there's every chance in the world that Ngannou vs. Rozenstruik ends up being a slugfest. And who wouldn't be down for those huge monsters slinging leather?
Wagenheim: Ngannou vs. whoever holds the belt after Miocic-Cormier III. "The Predator" did fall short in his 2018 title shot, but he has earned another with three straight knockouts, none taking him more than 1:11. I want to see Jones fight the heavyweight champion too, but that superfight can wait until Stipe, DC and Ngannou have completed their business (and until after "Bones" has taken care of things at light heavyweight).
Who do you think this delay helps or hurts the most?
Helwani: It hurts Cormier and Ngannou. Remember, Cormier was supposed to retire a year ago, but then he lost to Miocic and wanted to get that trilogy/retirement fight in December; yet Miocic wasn't healthy, so this really messes up Cormier's timeline. And under normal circumstances, Ngannou would be the top contender already, but now there is a good chance he doesn't fight for the belt for another year.
Okamoto: It hurts Blaydes. Depending how long the delay is, it might not even impact Miocic or Cormier at all. They weren't expected to fight until August anyway. To me, the one who might be impacted the most from this is Blaydes. Because if the rest of the division is put on a bit of a hold, that's just more of a wait for a guy who already deserves a title shot. What if Jones defends his title at light heavyweight one more time and then decides to call out the Miocic vs. Cormier winner? What if Ngannou doesn't get paired with Rozenstruik again and ends up waiting for a title shot? The delay opens up more variables that could lead to a longer wait for Blaydes to finally book a championship fight.
Raimondi: The postponement probably hurts Rozenstruik the most out of any heavyweight. Because if Cormier is out of the picture, Ngannou seems like the next heavyweight title challenger. If that is the case, though, sign me up for Rozenstruik against Derrick Lewis. Rozenstruik is on this great run right now, and this could halt his momentum a bit. I'd argue that the delay could help Ngannou given his spot as a top contender in the event Miocic vs. Cormier 3 doesn't go down. I also think the delay helps Lewis. For a heavyweight, he fights very often -- perhaps too often. Lewis is not a finished product as an MMA fighter, and perhaps resting up some of those nagging injuries will make him fresh when the fights start up again.
Wagenheim: The delay helps Miocic, in that it allows his eye to continue the healing process without him being bombarded by the "just bleed" social media brigade for not rushing back to the cage. And it hurts Cormier, whose original intent was to be retired by age 40 -- a commitment he made to his family. He is now a few days beyond his 41st birthday and seven months removed from his more recent fight. DC is determined to stick around, but at what point does he mentally check out?
One bold prediction for the division.
Helwani: Blaydes will fight for the belt at some point. When? Who knows. But "Razor" Blaydes will get his shot at some point.
Okamoto: Someone makes a come-from-nowhere rise in the second half of 2020, just like Rozenstruik did in 2019. The division is so wide open, once you're past the top four or five names, it's primed for someone to make a run. Whether it's Gane or Sergei Pavlovich -- or hey, what about Anthony "Rumble" Johnson? -- someone we don't expect is going to make a jump later this year.
Raimondi: Blaydes is a future UFC heavyweight champion. Not sure when. Putting any kind of timetable on anything in this world right now seems pretty shallow. But I have a feeling the evolving Blaydes will be an absolutely miserable matchup for everyone else in the division as time wears on. Who would have guessed he would outstrike dos Santos, the boxer, and knock him out? Blaydes isn't just a wrestler anymore, but his ability to put opponents on their backs -- or even just the threat of him doing that -- is a huge difference-maker. Cormier is on his way out of UFC competition and is bound for a Michael Strahan-like television career after retirement. Miocic doesn't seem long for the sport either. The future looks a lot like Ngannou and Blaydes at the top of the division battling it out.
Wagenheim: Jon Jones, champ-champ. Bend the knee. Apologies to absolutely nobody.