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A Jairzinho Rozenstruik win at UFC on ESPN 7 is key to the heavyweight divison’s future

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After a rare three-week break between shows, the UFC returns to action on Dec. 7 in Washington, D.C., for a fight that looks like an established star versus newcomer main event. In reality, it’s far more than that.

Alistair Overeem (45-17) is the veteran with a long history as a name fighter. He started as a light heavyweight in PRIDE and transitioned into a heavyweight Hercules that destroyed everyone in his path. At one point, he competed at a high level in MMA and kickboxing at the same time. Now, at 39, he’s a veteran who fights differently than in his heyday. He’s more careful to protect his chin, but has great experience and has still won four of his last six fights. He can still deliver the kicks and the knees from close-range, but is also very susceptible to a big puncher.

Jairzinho Rozenstruik (9-0) will likely be established after the fight as either a serious title contender, or just the latest guy who looked great against lesser competition but nothing more. At 31, he comes into the fight with three UFC knockout wins in a combined time of 92 seconds. The latest, taking up 29 of those seconds, was against Overeem contemporary Andrei Arlovski. Seven of Rozenstruik’s wins have been via first-round knockout, and he’s only gone the distance once. He was also 76-8-1 as a kickboxer with 64 knockouts. His power is not a question.

And his timing could be tremendous.

The UFC heavyweight division, which has lacked depth for years, may be headed into its weakest period ever. Daniel Cormier is about to retire. Cain Velasquez just retired. Fabricio Werdum is suspended.

It has a champion, Stipe Miocic, who is not a major star to the general public, but is a proven commodity as being worthy of his position. And then it falls off greatly.

Miocic (19-3) defends against Cormier (22-2) sometime early next year. Win or lose, Cormier is adamant that it is his last fight. Granted, the track record of fighters saying it is their last fight and it actually being their last fight isn’t the best. But for Cormier, the belief is that this retirement is real, since the fight is about the ending of a sports career. Either he leaves as a world champion at the end, or he leaves losing in that attempt.

A win by Cormier would make for a great story, but it does no favors for the division. At this point, whether he wins or loses, Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou (14-3) looks to be the next title fight, either to be the new champion after Cormier loses, or for a Miocic title defense. Miocic’s value as champion will depend greatly on the result of his fight with Cormier. With a win, he would be viewed unquestionably as champion. If he loses and gets the next title fight, even if he wins it again, the idea will be he’s only champion because the real champion left the sport.

And Miocic’s win over Ngannou in their first meeting seemed to tell a clear story. Ngannou can tag Miocic, or anyone, and finish them quickly. But Miocic was able to withstand Ngannou’s early power, and then use his wrestling to completely dominate Ngannou and win a lopsided decision. He showed that Ngannou, if he doesn’t win quickly, has issues with both ground skills and stamina.

But from there, the options become limited. Junior dos Santos (21-6), the next fighter on the list, has been knocked out in the first round by Ngannou and Miocic. He’s seen better days, and it’s been eight years since his heavyweight title win over Velasquez. Derrick Lewis (22-7), who did beat Ngannou in an awful fight, has lost to dos Santos and was dominated by Cormier. Lewis has a unique popularity in that people will root for him in an underdog story, but it would be hard to take him seriously as anything but an entertaining hard-hitter, like Roy Nelson or Mark Hunt were when they were younger. Alexander Volkov (31-7) lost to Lewis, although he was dominating that fight until he got tagged. Curtis Blaydes (12-2) has lost twice to Ngannou, the most recent of which lasted 45 seconds. But he could eliminate dos Santos as a contender in their fight on Jan. 25 and be high in the rankings due to the lack of options.

That’s where Rozenstruik comes into play. A win over Overeem at the very least creates a hard-hittng contender who could go against either Ngannou or Miocic without a history of already losing to a number of top people. People want the heavyweight division to be about big punchers, and if Rozenstruik can pass this test, he can make the division far more interesting.

Combat sports have long since evolved to where a strong heavyweight champion and division are the key to the strength of the sport. But the revitalization of the top of the food chain in that division has greatly helped boxing the past few years.

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