In recent times the Heavyweight division has been the home of aging veterans that refuse to quit, some reinventing themselves, others simply relying on what brought them to the dance a decade prior. However, whilst a quick glance at the current rankings suggests that this trend is far from over, it seems that things may be changing slowly but surely. In 2016, Stipe Miocic defeated legends Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum and Alistair Overeem as he won and defended the UFC crown. The 34 year old is only eighteen fights in to his career and has been blowing through his more experienced competition. Nonetheless, though there’s a new champion, the men that fill the slots of his top contenders are very much unmoved.
Miocic’s recent victims all still comfortably reside inside the top 10, as do former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. Undeniably brilliant, Velasquez’s injury problems have lessened his presence and Dos Santos’ recent inactivity hasn’t helped him either. Rounding out the UFC’s top 10 is the charismatic Derrick Lewis, a seemingly declined Travis Browne and then in the tenth spot: Francis Ngannou. Just ten fights into his career, the French striker Ngannou is 4-0 inside the octagon with four finishes. In fact, the aptly named ‘Predator’ has a 100% finish rate and at just 30 years of age, seems to be a legitimate threat to the Heavyweight division’s old guard.
It was just over a year ago that Ngannou made his UFC debut, entering the world’s premier organization with a 5-1 record. On that night it wouldn’t all go the newcomer’s way as he was taken down by Luis Henrique early. It seemed that Ngannou would be another case of a promising European fighter being hamstrung by a lack of grappling but the Frenchman didn’t get that memo, fighting back upright before knocking his foe out with a picturesque uppercut in the second round. Whilst the highlight reel finish created some buzz, most refused to endorse the big puncher and understandably so considering the many failed Heavyweight prospects that had come before him.
Unlike some of his contemporaries though, Ngannou would be refreshingly active, returning just four months later to fight Curtis Blaydes. Though the finish wouldn’t come quite as dramatically, Ngannou would use solid takedown defence and sharp striking to batter his opponent, forcing a doctor stoppage after the second round. 2-0 would quickly become 3-0 too as ‘The Predator’ would next fight Bojan Mihajlović in July 2016. It was quickly clear that this was a mismatch as Ngannou stalked Mihajlovic before finishing him after just 94 seconds. It was all very impressive but that didn’t silence the relevant questions surrounding the rising contender’s legitimacy. Though he looked the part, it was still unclear whether or not Ngannou was the real deal, and in many ways it still is.
Regardless, Ngannou’s next opponent would be one with more experience and credibility as he took on Anthony Hamilton. Whilst the American veteran had never been a top 10 fighter, Hamilton had a 3-3 record inside the octagon, showing some legitimate athleticism and talent along the way. The focused underdog would score a takedown early but Ngannou quickly fought to his feet as Hamilton maintained the clinch. Then in startling fashion, Ngannou would almost leisurely attack Hamilton’s arm for a kimura, yanking his arm violently. Suddenly Hamilton was forced to submit and in an astonishing feat of strength had moved to 4-0. Many would understandably say that little was learned but one thing was clear, Francis Ngannou desperately needed a step up in competition.
And just seven weeks later, Ngannou gets that step up as he takes on former UFC champion, the aforementioned Andrei Arlovski. Now riding a three fight losing streak, Arlovski has struggled since having a renaissance run of six straight victories. Arlovski’s recent losses have come at the hands of now champion Stipe Miocic, elite contender Alistair Overeem and former champion Josh Barnett. Regardless of your thoughts on those three names, they’re undeniably proven commodities, the same can’t be said for Ngannou though. Arlovski is flawed but he has some very real threats and showed fire and spirit in his recent loss to Barnett. In fact, the last time Arlovski was on a three fight losing streak he rebounded by only losing one of his next twelve.
It’s certainly easy to get swept up in the Ngannou hype but the truth is Andrei Arlovski is a level above anyone the Frenchman has ever fought before. If Ngannou does indeed come out the victor though, it will be a big step for not only him but the division as a whole. Thus far, Ngannou has fought in a fashion very befitting of his imposing image, dominant, destructive and devastating. The question now becomes whether or not he can be that same man as he climbs the aging Heavyweight contender ladder. The first rung of that ladder comes this Saturday night in the form of Andrei ‘The Pitbull’ Arlovski.