Sometimes, for the sake of the long-term health and prospects of a division, a certain fighter needs to win and a certain fighter needs to lose.
On Saturday (December 2) at UFC 218, this process of evolution applies to the heavyweight fight between MMA veteran Alistair Overeem and relative neophyte Francis Ngannou. It’s a fight both want to win; a fight both need to win. But it’s also a fight most people watching – outside of Overeem’s friends and family and team – hope Ngannou wins. Not because he’s the nicer guy. Not because he’s more popular. Not because he’s from Cameroon. No, what lies behind the Ngannou goodwill has less to do with personality traits and more to do with the fact he, unlike Overeem, represents new blood and the future of a division that is worryingly stale and old and in danger of coughing and spluttering to a complete standstill.
Without Ngannou in the heavyweight picture, we’re left with a group of men in their mid to late-thirties who have been around the block more than once and have the scar tissue and fragility to prove it. Stipe Miocic, the current champion, is 35, but fresh and ambitious enough to trigger some positivity. He’s not the issue. It’s those surrounding him, those gunning for him, that help to give the division something of a vintage look. Overeem, the top contender, is 37; Werdum, the number two, is 40; Velasquez, at three, is 35 and has done the rounds; Mark Hunt, a place below Ngannou at five, is 43.
In amongst this lot, Ngannou, 31, appears positively brimming with youth, vigour and hope. What’s more, he is new to the scene and has yet to face any of these men. He hasn’t been there and failed. He’s not on the comeback trail. He hasn’t been defeated and then recycled. Instead, this is his very first run – meaning we don’t yet know how good he is – and that in itself brings an excitement the heavyweight division has lacked for some time.
None of this is Alistair Overeem’s fault, mind. He’s winning fights the way he used to win fights, albeit in a more cautious manner, and continues to confound the doubters who assumed he was finished following stoppage defeats to Antonio Silva, Travis Browne, Ben Rothwell and, most recently, Stipe Miocic. For years Overeem was considered damaged goods; vulnerable to anyone with so much as a decent punch. But still he marches on – a run indicative of the heavyweight division’s shallowness and Overeem’s determination – and still he lurks within spitting distance of a UFC heavyweight title.
Beat Ngannou on Saturday, thus derailing the latest heavyweight hype train, and Overeem will be well within his rights to call for the next shot at the belt. He’s already conquered Werdum. And Hunt. And dos Santos. In fact, the only heavyweight in his vicinity he hasn’t been able to defeat is the current champion, Stipe Miocic. For personal reasons, then, he’ll want a UFC heavyweight title AND revenge at some point in 2018.
But who wants to see a rematch between Miocic and Overeem? Their first fight, which took place in September 2016, was certainly dramatic, what with Miocic getting dropped by a left hand, but still it ended conclusively in the opening five minutes. (All it took were a few ground strikes from Miocic to land on Overeem’s jaw.) It didn’t scream rematch, that’s for sure, and the possibility of a repeat one day happening owes more to a lack of other options – new faces, new challenges – than any great need or desire to see these two men, Miocic and Overeem, together in an Octagon for a second time.
Which is why, on Saturday night in Detroit, Francis Ngannou holds the key to unlocking doors previously off-limits in the heavyweight division. With victory, ‘The Predator’, unlike Overeem and the other veterans circling, can take the weight class in a new direction, spruce it up, and play his part in matchups we have yet to see. Best of all, he’s young enough and seemingly good enough to stick around for a while, amount to more than just a flash in the pan, and represent an exciting ying to Stipe Miocic’s yang.