Going the Distance: A big picture look at the UFC Heavyweight division
By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor
After a week off of action, UFC fighters got busy again in the UFC Apex at UFC Vegas 28, a card headlined and co-headlined by heavyweight matchups. In the co-main, Marcin “Tybur” Tybura (22-6, 9-5 UFC) defeated Walt “The Big Ticket” Harris (13-10, 6-8 UFC) via Round 1 ground and pound, while Jairzinho “Bigi Boy” Rozenstruik (12-2, 6-2 UFC) got it done in similar fashion, winning by technical knockout over Augusto Sakai (15-3-1, 4-2 UFC).
This was a huge win for Tybura, who is now on a five-fight win streak. While some of his previous opponents on this streak (e.g. Big Ben Rothwell) may have been on the same level as Harris, Tybura needed a convincing win over a top-10 ranked opponent to earn more serious consideration for future bouts, and that is exactly what he got on Saturday. Tybura’s composure and endurance were particularly impressive, as he withstood a heavy flurry of offense from Harris at the beginning of the first round before gathering himself and turning the tables on “The Big Ticket”. Harris, who also started strong and faded shortly afterward in his previous fight against Alistair Overeem, seems to have not found a solution for this cardio issue. It’s been a rough stretch for Harris, who hasn’t won a fight in nearly two years and has dealt with personal tragedy in that timespan.
The main event was just as exciting as the co-main, with both fights ending in the first round. This was a prove-it fight for Jairzinho Rozenstruik after a poor performance against Ciryl Gane in which he landed only 49 total strikes. Rozenstruik needed to get back into the Octagon and show everyone he still belongs among the elite heavyweights, and it’s hard to argue he didn’t do that after knocking out Sakai in the first round. It will be exciting to see who the UFC gives Rozenstruik next, as he’s proving to have that one-punch knockout power when he’s able to land. Sakai, on the other hand, did not impress, as he looked hesitant to throw against Rozenstruik. It’s particularly disappointing for Sakai given that he was coming off a loss to Alistair Overeem in which he was winning until Overeem was able to get the fight to the ground in the later rounds. Prior to that loss, Sakai was undefeated in the UFC, so we’ll have to temper our expectations on him until he’s able to get back on track.
Francis “The Predator” Ngannou (C) vs. Derrick “The Black Beast” Lewis (No. 2) :While no formal announcement has been made, it’s likely that this fight will happen in August or September. In a rematch of what was one of the least exciting fights in the promotion’s history, Ngannou vs. Lewis 2 is likely to be more exciting this time around, as both men are classic knockout artists with tremendous power. Additionally, the fight is rumored to be taking place in Houston, Texas, Lewis’ hometown. For a fight that is likely to end with one man laying on the canvas, the atmosphere should be more than electric.
Stipe Miocic (No. 1) vs. the winner of Ngannou vs. Lewis 2: Miocic is at a point in his career where he’s earned the right to fight for the title in his first time back after losing it. While Ngannou’s knockout was decisive, it makes sense for Miocic, likely the greatest UFC heavyweight ever, to have one more shot at the belt. Plus, there aren’t many contenders that make sense to fight for the belt next: Jon Jones and Dana White continue to be at odds regarding fighter pay, and while the winner of Volkov and Gane could get title consideration, the UFC should be in no rush to make that fight, as both of those men have a lot more time left in the sport than Miocic. Lastly, a trilogy bout with Ngannou wouldn’t struggle to sell pay-per-views.
Ciryl Gane (No. 3) vs. Alexander Volkov (No. 5): This fight has been announced for July, and it’ll be exciting to see who prevails. Volkov is massive, standing tall at 6 feet, 7 inches and weighing in close to the heavyweight limit. His boxing skills have taken him a long way in the UFC and in Bellator prior to that, culminating most recently with a knockout of Overeem. But Gane, who is more mobile and may be the more well-rounded mixed martial artist, will be even more challenging for him. While Gane’s last fight with Rozenstruik was largely a snoozefest, Volkov will not be as hesitant with his approach, so this fight should be one of the better heavyweight bouts we see this year. Gane will likely look to take this fight to the ground, where he’s earned two submission victories in the UFC. It will be exciting to see which fighter is better able to implement their style and gameplan.
Curtis Blaydes (No. 4) vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (No. 6): Looking at the current matchups atop the division, this is really the only fight to make for both men. Blaydes was a huge favorite heading into his last fight against Derrick Lewis, but was put out cold in the second round, a fate suffered by many of the Black Beast’s previous opponents. Blaydes would likely be the favorite in this matchup as well, given how far ahead his wrestling and ground game is. Rozenstruik presents a similar problem for Blaydes because he also has incredible knockout power, which means that this fight should be just as intriguing. For both men, a win in this spot would put them back on a path to eventually challenge for the title.
Shamil Abdurakhimov (No. 7) vs. Chris Daukaus (No. 10): This fight has been officially announced for July. Abdurhakhimov hasn’t stepped foot in the Octagon since late 2019, so it’ll be interesting to see what type of shape he’s in. He’s coming off of a loss to Blaydes in his last time out, but was on a three-fight win streak over Tybura, Andrei Arlovski and Chase Sherman prior to that. Daukaus, meanwhile, is a relative newcomer to the promotion, but has done quite a good job of announcing his presence. All three of his fights, in a span of less than a year, have resulted in first-round knockouts, earning him a quick No. 10 ranking in what is a shallow division. Nevertheless, he faces a solid challenge in Abdurakhimov, who is a better fighter than Aleksei Oleinik, Rodrigo Nascimento and Parker Porter, Daukaus’ previous opponents. Can one of the most exciting heavyweight prospects in Daukaus continue to surge up the division, or will the veteran win out? Luckily, we won’t have to wait too long to find out.
Walt Harris (No. 8) vs. the winner of Greg Hardy vs. Tai Tuivasa: It’s hard to know what to do with Walt Harris. After his step-daughter was tragically murdered in 2019, the UFC did him no favors by matching him up against three heavyweight beasts in Overeem, Volkov and, most recently, Tybura. His UFC future may be in doubt at this point after those losses, but assuming he’s not done fighting, it’s clear that a step down in competition is warranted. Both Hardy and Tuivasa are just that, a step down in competition. Harris should be able to get a win against one of these opponents, but if he can’t, it’s time to put the gloves in the center of the Octagon and move on to the next chapter of his career.
Augusto Sakai (No. 9) vs. Marcin Tybura (No. 11): Sakai and Tybura seem to be on opposite trajectories, with Sakai losing his last two fights by stoppage and Tybura winning them by the same method, en route to what is now a five-fight win streak. That is exactly why I’d like to see this rematch. In 2019, Sakai won the first fight via first-round knockout, but Tybura has made improvements to his game since then, evidenced by his recent performances. While Tybura will likely be ranked higher than Sakai after beating Harris, he will still be a step down from Rozenstruik, whose only losses have come at the hands of top five heavyweights. Sakai’s loss to Rozenstruik says more about the positives of Rozenstruik than it does about the negatives of Sakai. This will be a good opportunity for Sakai to get back on track, or for Tybura to add to the winning streak and earn himself an elite opponent in the next bout.
On a card that mostly lacked excitement, we have to tip our hats to Miguel “Caramel Thunder” Baeza and Santiago “Argentine Dagger” Ponzinibbio, who produced an early candidate for fight of the year. Baeza, a legitimate and undefeated (prior to this fight) prospect, shredded Ponzinibbio with leg kicks in the first round, but the Argentine veteran showed incredible toughness to come back and win the two remaining rounds, outsriking Baeza for the majority of the fight. This is the version of Ponzinibbio that UFC fans love, so hopefully he can break back into the top 15 of what is an absolutely stacked welterweight division.