UFC 218 on Saturday night featured two of the wildest fights of the year as well as a strong championship main event with a new young star scoring his second decisive win over the greatest fighter in that division.
But when the night was over, one moment stood out.
It was the scene of Alistair Overeem literally being lifted off his feet by a left hook from Francis Ngannou, and a collective almost instantaneous reaction from almost everyone watching of what needed to be next.
Joe Rogan outright said it in his post-match interview with Ngannou. Dana White echoed his sentiments, saying Ngannou would get the next heavyweight title hot at champion Stipe Miocic, in what a month ago looked like a three-way battle for the shot with the winner of Saturday’s fight, along with Fabricio Werdum or Cain Velasquez. White was looking at a quick turnaround for Ngannou, who came out unscathed, talking about the title fight possibly taking place on Jan. 20, the night UFC and Bellator go head-to-head with major shows, a show that already includesDaniel Cormier vs. Volkan Oezdemir for the light heavyweight title.
It was Ngannou’s fourth straight win by knockout in under two minutes. Much of the hype regarding Ngannou going into Saturday’s fight is that a machine that measures punching power set up at UFC’s Performance Institute measured him as the hardest puncher ever to throw a fist at that brand of machinery. While that sounded like a gimmick, there was clearly no gimmick about his punching power, and White talked of the Cameroon native as a potential “rock star.”
A few weeks ago, it appeared there was nobody on the horizon who could be the company’s next marquee superstar. And right now, one was needed given the uncertainty surrounding Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre. And, then, in minutes, somebody seemingly breaks the door down.
In some ways, because it’s all happened so quickly, there is a comparison of Ngannou’s quick rise to a title shot with that of Jon Jones almost seven years ago. But the UFC will always have a dozen or so champions, more when you’ve got interim belts flying around at almost the drop of a bucket. But real rock stars, that number is far smaller and tougher to get to, because it takes more than just being a great fighter.
In theory, a heavyweight champion who is a knockout artist should be a promoter’s dream. It’s been decades since Mike Tyson came along. But no matter how one views Tyson’s career with the benefit of hindsight, he had an appeal and intrigue while in his prime that nobody in combat sports since has fully matched.
But heavyweights no longer rule the fighting world. The reality is while Junior Dos Santos was coming up, he was a knockout artist and he became champion and never came close to being a rock star. Miocic himself has four straight first-round knockouts against top people and has yet to establish himself as a pay-per-view draw. In the light heavyweight division, Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, until his recent retirement, had his own string of similarly explosive Tyson-like knockouts, and yet, Johnson didn’t break through as a big pay-per-view mover either.
Perhaps Dos Santos’ loss to Velasquez halted needed momentum in fans’ eyes. People have seen Miocic enough to know he has lost, and he has gone the distance. Johnson also had lost a number of times, and never got it done in title fights.
Ngannou lost once, but it was in his second fight, several years before his UFC debut. It’s still amazing that you’re talking about a guy who had never even trained MMA until just over four years ago, and he’s getting a title shot. The public still hasn’t seen Ngannou as a mere human with their own eyes, so if there is someone who can break into the big drawing club in 2018, he looks like the best bet.
The punch to Overeem will likely be replayed to death in the buildup to the Miocic fight. If he wins the title, and with the visual shown over-and-over of the Overeem knockout, perhaps he can be that rock star.
If the fight takes place on Jan. 20, that becomes the most intriguing pay-per-view number in a long time as far as if the knockout had immediate impact. But in reality, when it comes to big UFC draws, historically, they usually took off after a series of big wins and becoming champions. The only real exceptions were Brock Lesnar, who had the pro wrestling fame and was an instant draw in UFC, and McGregor, who was clearly moving numbers before winning the featherweight title because of his mouth. The rest earned their stripes with the fans over time.
With Ngannou’s direction largely decided, let’s look at how fortunes changed for five other stars from Saturday night.
MAX HOLLOWAY – Given the way Holloway (19-3) defeated Aldo (26-4) to win the title on June 3, a systematic destruction as opposed to something that could be called a fluke, there was little questioning him as the deserving champion.
Holloway’s repeat performance only emphasized what he had already proven. Aldo was a replacement for Frankie Edgar (22-5-1), who was Holloway’s original opponent for Detroit. Edgar is the most viable next contender right now. The winner of this coming Saturday’s fight with Brian Ortega (12-0) against Cub Swanson (25-7) would be a possibility, although Holloway dominated Swanson on April 18, 2015, while scoring a third-round submission win.
Holloway has also talked moving up, and like anyone at 145 or 155, the ultimate goal is the opportunity to face McGregor, and he was planting the seeds trying to get that fight after his win. But that one isn’t likely to happen soon.
What’s scary is that Holloway just turned 26 on Monday, but his 12-fight winning streak is now fifth of all-time in UFC, trailing only arguably four of the greatest fighters in UFC history –Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson. That alone tells you the company Holloway could be considered at the level of very shortly.
HENRY CEJUDO – The plight of Cejudo (12-2) brings up all the questions of sports vs. entertainment in UFC. Cejudo, a former Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, using that skill to dominate Sergio Pettis (16-3) in a fight that could determine an upcoming challenger forDemetrious Johnson’s flyweight title. He fought the smart fight against a legit contender, won handily, but was booed by the fans and not even given interview time when it was over.
While fans have the right to react as they do, and the promotion’s job is to put on fights fans want to see, the denying of Cejudo the interview time when he fought a smart fight sent a terrible message about the value of winning big fights. And the reality is that St-Pierre was one of the biggest draws in company history and greatest fighters ever, and he employed a strategy at his peak even more conservative than Cejudo employed with Pettis.
White pushed the idea of Demetrious Johnson vs. T.J. Dillashaw as the fight he wants to make next, so a Johnson vs. Cejudo rematch has to wait. The fight that makes sense is Cejudo againstJoseph Benavidez (25-4). They fought on Dec. 3, 2016 with Benavidez taking a split decision. While the problem is that Johnson beat both in the first round the last time he faced them, they are clearly the two top guys under Johnson in the division.
EDDIE ALVAREZ – The self-proclaimed lightweight violence champion, Alvarez (29-5, 1 no contest) lived up to his billing by finishing Justin Gaethje in the third round on Saturday. Alvarez vs. Gaethje came after a fight with Yancy Medeiros beating Alex Oliveira that may have been the fight of the year. And many believed they equaled or even topped it.
If we go with the idea that McGregor isn’t fighting interim champion Tony Ferguson any time soon, that leaves Ferguson with the winner of the Dec. 30 fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov(24-0) vs. Edson Barboza (19-4). For Alvarez, the best fight would be a rematch with Dustin Poirier (22-5) for his unofficial violence championship. Poirier is coming off his own classic claim to that title with a win over Anthony Pettis, and there is an unsettled issue with the two from a previous bout on May 13. That fight ended up ruled a no-contest when Alvarez landed illegal knees to the head while Poirier was down in a back-and-forth war.
JUSTIN GAETHJE – While Gaethje’s undefeated record ended in his 19th pro fight, it was the type of fight that, if anything, helped his popularity with the fans. But it did slow down his chances at a title shot in such a deep division.
Gaethje’s next fight should be with either the Nurmagomedov vs. Barboza loser, or with Donald Cerrone (32-10, 1 no-contest), who has said he’s moving back to the lightweight division.
The best fight to set up a title shot would be against Jessica Andrade (17-6), as the winner of that should be the top contender. It becomes interesting because Andrade lost to Jedrzejczyk in a one-sided fight, and Torres lost to Namajunas last year, although also holds a 2013 win over the current champion.
There’s also a question of what women in the strawweight division will move up to flyweight now that it’s established, so Torres looks to be as close as one win away from a shot.