UFC

6 options for the heavyweight title after UFC Jacksonville

With the UFC now back, UFC Jacksonville done and still no updates on Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier III, here are six next steps that can be done for the UFC heavyweight division and championship.

The UFC heavyweight championship is in quite a confusing and troublesome state of limbo currently, as we still have no information as to when to expect the long-anticipated trilogy bout between current champion Stipe Miocic and former champion Daniel Cormier.

Miocic had made his mark on the heavyweight division by becoming the first to defend the title three consecutive times before Cormier knocked him out at UFC 226 — making history of his own by becoming the second champ-champ in UFC history and the first to win UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight gold since Randy Couture. Instead of an immediate rematch, however, Cormier’s first title defense was an extremely short-notice replacement main event for UFC 230, where he submitted Derrick Lewis.

For Cormier’s second title defense, he didn’t intend to face Miocic again, as DC, the lifelong WWE fan, had his eyes set on a showdown with former UFC and WWE champion Brock Lesnar. The fight never came to fruition, however, thanks to the UFC’s then-new pay-per-view deal with ESPN+, meaning Lesnar wouldn’t get as much pay-per-view revenue. Instead, we got Cormier-Miocic II at UFC 241, which Miocic won by finishing Cormier in the fourth round.

And so, here we are. Since then, we’ve been in anticipation of Miocic vs. Cormier III — which is also expected to be Cormier’s retirement bout. But Miocic has had to deal with a major eye injury, and now the coronavirus pandemic has left him without a gym until the end of the month and he’s currently doing his firefighter duties in Ohio.

The division has essentially been put on pause, top contender Francis Ngannou is unhappy, Ngannou’s been calling out the likes of Cormier and Jon Jones, there are calls for Miocic to be stripped and various names — including Ngannou and recent UFC Jacksonville headliners Alistair Overeem and Walt Harris — have said an interim championship needs to be created.

So, now what comes next for the UFC heavyweight division? Here are six possibilities and the pros and cons each brings. The first two options will be if the UFC goes without an interim title, the second two if they do go for an interim title and the final two just bizarre, out-of-left-field possibilities.

Some of these options will be more realistic than others no doubt. But in this crazy pandemic-filled world, you never know what the UFC and crew will pull off.

1. We just get Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier III

Let’s face it: as much as the other options are alternate options, this is ultimately the fight we want and need to see. Miocic wants it to happen, Cormier wants it to happen, UFC president Dana White wants it to happen, fans want it to happen.

It makes perfect sense to do — both men have won the belt off one another and both have finished the other. In fact, their losses to each other marked just the second time each man was finished in the Octagon (technically first for Cormier due to his second loss to Jon Jones being overturned to a no-contest). Both men have successfully defended the title and each has left his mark on the heavyweight division.

Now, we need to see which of them is the better man, and it feels like such an appropriate, big-stage sendoff fight for Cormier if there really is no trilogy bout with Jones. Two of the best heavyweights to ever step foot in the Octagon can do battle, settle their score once and for all and either Miocic continues to increase his heavyweight legacy or Cormier goes out a champion.

But, there’s other options on the table in case we don’t get this fight…

2. Stipe Miocic is stripped of the title (and Daniel Cormier vs. Francis Ngannou is probably made)

In this situation, the UFC ultimately decides it cannot wait around any more — the logjam in the heavyweight division is just too much, they need to put fights on and ultimately Miocic is stripped of the heavyweight championship due to inactivity.

Some may feel that it is the right move to do due to the logjam and Miocic’s unknown fighting future — not that he’s going to retire, but between his eye injury, the logjam and him fulfilling firefighter duties in Ohio, the division can’t be held up longer. Others point out it’s a really bad look for the UFC to ultimately be stripping a first-responder at a time in the world where they’re needed, and the UFC doing such is a PR hit.

One may argue that the UFC isn’t worried about that (think of all the criticisms it has gotten in holding events during the pandemic), but depending on the timing of the strip, it may also come off as hypocritical. The UFC allowed Conor McGregor to hold the featherweight and lightweight titles for a little less than12 and 17 months, respectively, despite making no defenses of either title — the latter of which he didn’t even compete in any UFC bouts. It also allowed Dominick Cruz to continue his bantamweight title reign despite ACL surgeries that kept him out of action for all of 2012 and 2013.

Ultimately, if this is what the UFC decides, then the obvious matchup to make is Cormier vs. Ngannou, as they’re the top two in the division. Cormier is the former champ-champ and Ngannou has rebounded from his disappointing performances against Miocic and Derrick Lewis with four straight first-round knockouts. It would be interesting to see if Cormier can use his wrestling to overwhelm Ngannou as Miocic did, or if Ngannou’s power would be too much to handle. Either Cormier would again go out on top (and yet another new plan for the division would be needed), or Ngannou would finally claim the gold and potentially set up a rematch with Miocic.

3. Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou for the interim heavyweight title

The UFC here decides that it wants to still do Miocic-Cormier III, but in order to move the division along in the meantime, an interim belt is created. Obviously, Ngannou — who claims he unsuccessfully campaigned for his UFC 249 bout to be an interim title fight — is the obvious first candidate. But the MMA world received a bit of a swerve this past week in who is interested in facing Ngannou, that being none other than Jones, the current UFC light heavyweight champion.

A move to the heavyweight division has been a long time coming for Jones. He’s dominated the 205-pound division for a number of years now inside the Octagon, and there have been calls for him to try his hand at heavyweight and debates about his potential there. Months ago, he even teased that he was aiming to match-up with Miocic and challenge him for the heavyweight title. Even if Jones were to challenge for an interim heavyweight title, it wouldn’t be the first time a champion tried for another weight class’ interim belt (Max Holloway at UFC 236).

Jones has, of course, been in the Octagon with some top talent from Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, from Vitor Belfort to Cormier. But would he be able to withstand a man who is legit one of the hardest-hitting strikers in this game in Ngannou? On the flip, Jones would unquestionably be the toughest challenge of Ngannou’s career. Ngannou’s been in the Octagon with world-class combatants and former champions, but none of them have the stretch of dominance that Jones has achieved. Even in the latter stages of his career, Jones is still a creative striker capable of troubling his opponents with his reach, as well as his grappling and submissions.

The only thing is if you go this route, what is the plan for the light heavyweight division? The previously mentioned McGregor situation has taught us holding up one division for the sake of another isn’t exactly ideal. And while Jones has essentially cleaned out most of the light heavyweight division for years now, some still say Dominick Reyes was wronged at UFC 247 and is worthy of another crack at Jones. Meanwhile, Jan Blachowicz, who defeated Corey Anderson in a contender’s bout, says he wants nothing less than title fight next.

So, what do you do here if Jones is facing Ngannou and moving to heavyweight? Do you have Reyes and Blachowicz in a final eliminator? Do you face them off for an interim belt as well? Do you require Jones to defend the light heavyweight title against one during or after his chase for undisputed heavyweight gold and champ-champ status? The light heavyweight division may not be what it once was, but it wouldn’t be right to leave more questions there for the sake of getting answers at heavyweight.

And White isn’t even sure this fight comes to fruition.

4. Francis Ngannou vs. Alistair Overeem II for the interim heavyweight title

So let’s say Jones stays down at light heavyweight to defend his title, or he wants his previously-talked about 220-pound limit bout. Who then could Ngannou face in an interim title fight? During a previous interview FanSided conducted with Harris, he noted the current heavyweight ranks is top-heavy, filled with fighters who have fought one another. Let’s look into some of these guys:

  • Curtis Blaydes: Blaydes has won seven of his last eight, and he’s currently on a three-fight win streak. He, however, has suffered two losses to Ngannou already, one by doctor’s stoppage and one by 45-second TKO.
  • Junior dos Santos: Has lost two straight to Ngannou and Blaydes. We don’t need another “fighter getting a title shot off a loss” controversy
  • Derrick Lewis: A popular fighter and a former heavyweight title challenger, but is he really interim championship-worthy? After his UFC 230 title shot, Lewis was stopped by JDS, and his decision wins over Blagoy Ivanov and Ilir Latifi — the latter coming up from light heavyweight — say improved cardio but don’t scream “title shot worthy.” Also, do we REALLY need to see a rematch of one of the worst fights in UFC history?
  • Jairzinho Rozenstruik: Was on a big roll but was knocked out in 20 seconds by Ngannou
  • Alexander Volkov: Had a big performance in a KO win over Fabricio Werdum and was seconds away from beating Derrick Lewis. But in his last fight, his first in 13 months, he made easy work of…Greg Hardy.

So, not really the strongest of cases outside of Blaydes — and you’d have to ask yourself if you’d want to see a third Ngannou vs. Blaydes bout for the interim title when Ngannou has two TKO wins already. That leads us to Overeem, the winner of the May 16 UFC Jacksonville main event.

In his last several fights, Overeem has opened eyes. There were times during his UFC run where this man’s chin was questioned, and things may have looked grim for another high ranking after his devastating KO/TKO losses to Ngannou and Blaydes. But in his four fights since, he’s shown he can still take a hard shot and comeback from the brink of defeat, as he did against Harris and against Oleinik. If it wasn’t for a couple of lucky shots Rozenstruik got in before the final horn in December, Overeem would be on a four-fight win streak, and he still has three stoppages in his last three wins. And that’s a better recent performance list than some of the guys ranked higher than him heading into UFC Jacksonville.

Now, many are calling for Overeem to face Lewis, which is an original matchup in itself and can go a way in shaking up the contenders’ picture as well. But if this is the case, then you need to have either the Miocic-Cormier trilogy bout with Ngannou immediately next in line, or you need to go with Cormier vs. Ngannou. Regardless, Overeem vs. Lewis sounds fun, but for it to truly work, you need the division moving forward.

While Ngannou vs. Overeem isn’t exactly an original matchup, you’d have a great storyline heading into it in Overeem trying to avenge his KO loss at UFC 218 — one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history.

Overeem also has very recently said he plans to fight out his last four UFC bouts before hanging it up for good. That may hurt his chances for an interim title shot when compared to the possible Jones fight, but considering the UFC is giving Cormier a title shot in his last fight, gave Dan Henderson a title shot in his, and gave title shots to the likes of Cruz, McGregor, Georges St Pierre Ronda Rousey after long layoffs, when has a long layoff of retirement stopped them?

5. Daniel Cormier vs. Francis Ngannou for the interim heavyweight title* (*if DC can be convinced to hold off retirement even longer)

There are two expressions involving retirement in MMA. One is White’s proclamation of “If the ‘R’ word ever steps into your head, you should absolutely retire.” The other is that retirement (and retirement plans in this scenario) don’t last forever.

As mentioned, Cormier and Ngannou have teased they’re both willing to fight each other, and it’s most likely the fight that is made if the UFC decides to make if they go with stripping Miocic of the belt. An interim championship just seems completely out of the idea due to Cormier’s pending retirement. Does that mean it’s 100 percent impossible? Not necessarily, an interim title fight can be done…but this would mean convincing Cormier to do something he’s already done before: hold off on retirement plans. And THAT’S where this gets tricky and improbable.

Cormier has previously talked about a desire to retire at the age of 40. He turned that age in March 2019 while he was still UFC heavyweight champion, but he held off the retirement in the hopes of getting the Lesnar match. That never happened, and he gave Miocic his rematch in the hopes he can retire on top with another successful title defense. Of course, that didn’t happen.

Now, at the age of 41, and over a year since his targeted retirement date (potentially closer to a year-and-a-half by the time his retirement fight happens), Cormier is chasing one last opportunity to go out on top and prove he is the better heavyweight fighter. And with him already delaying retirement not once but twice (one may say a third time due to the long wait and coronavirus pandemic), it’s highly doubtful Cormier would hold off retirement yet one more time just to do another fight. The next fight is going to be his last, and it’s going to be for the championship — either against Miocic or Ngannou.

Unless…

6. Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier III (and perhaps have Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou II or Curtis Blaydes)

Of all the possibilities on this list, this is perhaps the most improbable — more than another Cormier retirement delay. But if this somehow happened, there’s a chance whatever pay-per-view this fight tops could catch 800,000+ buys like the other two fights.

Jones vs. Cormier is without a doubt one of the most intense feuds ever seen in UFC history. A trilogy bout is one fans clamored for last year. And there are several options on how you can do this fight.

You can have Cormier drop down to 205 one last time and have another light heavyweight title fight. This can be that 220-pound that Jones wants — or even better, this can be Jones’ heavyweight debut (an “I came to your world, now you come to mine” situation). Heck, you can even take one of the Cormier vs. Ngannou situations and just put Jones in Ngannou’s place. So, flexible options, but will this once long-awaited trilogy bout actually happen? Don’t count on it.

When rumors arose of this fight last year, they seemed quelled by their weight classes — Jones wanted it at 205, whereas Cormier wanted a heavyweight fight. This would be an interesting heavyweight debut for Jones, but, again does he actually want to fight DC for a third time and above 205? And if that answer is yes, while this fight can very likely sell as a non-title pay-per-view main event, will Cormier go against the plan of his last fight being a title fight? Or do they strip Miocic, put the heavyweight title on the line in Jones-Cormier III — and then either Miocic and Ngannou rematch for a vacant title in a Cormier upset, or your back in “Conundrum Land” with a Jones win and Miocic and Ngannou both demanding the first crack while Jones also deals with the light heavyweight division.

Another pro here is that if Jones-Cormier III somehow, someway did happen, you have an even bigger storyline in their long-standing rivalry. As Jones sat on the sidelines in suspensions, Cormier took over the light heavyweight division and became a champ-champ. The storyline here can be Jones, in order to extend his own legacy as one of the greatest in this sport, needs to move up to his archnemesis’ natural weight class and beat him one last time there.

A third Jones-Cormier fight would be big, no doubt. But there are too many variables and too much disagreement to see this actually goes down.

The UFC’s heavyweight division is in the biggest state of flux and confusion it’s been in a while. We have a champion whose immediate fight future is unknown, a No. 1 contender and former champion who is ready to bid the sport farewell, at least one very frustrated challenger and a wild card in another division’s champion who’s ready to extend his legacy at the possible expense of frustration in another division.

Needless to say, there are a lot of possibilities, there may be backup plans and there are plenty of contenders in a top-heavy division. But maybe, just maybe, all of this shows is we need to see Miocic vs. Cormier III — for their sake, for the UFC’s sake, for the fans’ sake. And anything less is a disappointment.

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