Derrick Lewis came into the weekend's UFC Fight Night in Auckland, New Zealand as someone on the verge of a heavyweight championship shot.
The division has been aging out. Champion Stipe Miocic has been knocking off, and out, top contenders one after the other. There is one big heavyweight fight left, which would be Miocic (17-2) against Cain Velasquez (14-2). It's the fight to make, but there is one inherent problem. Velasquez in the last several years has had more surgeries than fights. In the last three-and-a-half years, he's signed to fight multiple times. He's made it into the cage exactly twice. And one of those he lost. But he's a two-time heavyweight champion, and in his last fight, against Travis Browne one year ago, he looked like the best Velasquez to date.
With Lewis, at least there was a backup plan. Lewis had been fighting and winning frequently. Lewis had won six in a row, and five by knockout. Some of those wins weren't very pretty, and aside from Browne, he hadn't beaten any of the top ten heavyweights. But a win over Mark Hunt, in a fight he asked for, could have been a springboard to have at least gotten him into a backup position or even a possible title fight should the company not want to risk an immediate title fight promotion for Velasquez.
The loss was so frustrating that Lewis, 32, announced he was likely retiring, although he wasn't all that convincing. But he's out of the running for a title fight.
This leaves Velasquez and Francis Ngannou (10-1) as the last of the contenders for Miocic. Ngannou, like Lewis, has been racking up the knockouts. He's still relatively inexperienced and Andrei Arlovski is the only name of note that he's beaten. Under normal circumstances it would appear to be early in Ngannou's career for such a fight, but with a lack of strong contenders, in particular with Lewis out of the picture, Ngannou could get fast-tracked by necessity.
Hunt, at 43, looked smaller and fitter than in the past. He came into the fight in the city of his birth coming off a loss to Alistair Overeem and a no-contest in a match he originally lost to Brock Lesnar. Lesnar's win was overturned as he tested positive for a banned substance.
UFC didn't gain a new contender with Hunt winning. Hunt didn't look on the level of Miocic in his May 10, 2015, loss to the current champion before he had captured the title from Fabricio Werdum.
Hunt didn't talk of retiring, but did say that if he never fought again he'd be satisfied with his career.
Let's look at what is next and how fortunes changed for five stars of the show.
MARK HUNT - Hunt beat a top-ranked fighter and remains popular enough for his long tenure in the spotlight. He also has a lawsuit against UFC, which puts him in a strange position, and one to not get any big favors.
With the exception of Velasquez, who it really makes no sense for him to fight right now, or Ngannou, there doesn't seem to be a logical fight. Hunt could possibly rematch Werdum down the line, but Werdum has a fight on the books with Overeem. Josh Barnett and Ben Rothwell are suspended. If Marcin Tybura (15-2) beats Andrei Arlovski next week, he may became enough of a name where a fight with Hunt makes sense.
DERRICK LEWIS - If Lewis does fight again, Junior dos Santos (18-5) would be a name he's never faced. He had a post-fight social media battle with Travis Browne, who he knocked out in February, but it feels too early to go back to that. With the shortage of top heavyweights, should Lewis want to fight, there would be potential foes coming off the Arlovski vs. Tybura fight or the Sept. 2 fight with Stefan Struve vs. Alexander Volkov.
DEREK BRUNSON - Brunson's one-punch knockout of four-time judo Olympian Daniel Kelly was impressive enough to rehab him strongly after a loss to Anderson Silva that most felt he won, and a loss to Robert Whittaker, who is fighting next for an interim title.
A fight with former World Series of Fighting two-division champion David Branch (21-3), seems like a fair test. The winner would be in line for a top tier fight.
Brunson is also a possible opponent for either the winner or the loser of the Chris Weidman vs. Kelvin Gastelum fight on July 22 in Uniondale, N.Y.
BEN NGUYEN - Nguyen (18-6) finished recent flyweight title contender Tim Elliott in 49 seconds which is likely to move him up in the rankings.
The win was impressive enough that if Ray Borg (11-2) isn't getting a title shot with Demetrious Johnson, and if the UFC is looking for another opponent, Nguyen's win was fast enough against a title contender that the fight makes sense. If Borg is getting the title shot, Jussier Formiga (19-5), would be a good opponent.
ION CUTELABA - A master of quick finishes, Cutelaba (13-3, 1 no-contest) has ten of his wins in less than 73 seconds. Henrique de Silva only lasted 22 seconds. But If you get past the 90-second mark, he's 2-3, so as much of an impression as he can make with his look and his fast wins, traditionally fighters with those type of stats don't fare well against the better fighters.
Jan Blachowicz (19-7) would be something of a step up, into the territory of the people like Jared Cannonier and Misha Cirkunov level, who both beat him.