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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Wichita

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Wichita-Lewis vs Dos Santos
Junior dos Santos defeated Derrick Lewis at UFC Wichita.
Kelly Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s back-and-forth war between Junior dos Santos and Derrick Lewis was everything that people imagine a great heavyweight fight as being, and what it rarely ever is.

It was a classic example of styles making fights. Dos Santos was the more skilled boxer, was lighter on his feet, had better footwork, faster hands and had more accuracy. Lewis was the big puncher, who if you give him an opening, he can end your night.

Both men nearly ended each other’s nights, including the amazing first-round spot where dos Santos landed a body blow that doubled over Lewis, who gave every impression of being finished. As dos Santos moved in for the kill, Lewis cracked him with a desperation punch that nearly finished the fight. The blow, reminiscent of the 2006 Scott Smith knockout of Pete Sell in the early days of the UFC on television, would have been talked about as a possible finish of the year — except for one problem.

Dos Santos wasn’t finished.

He recovered from the punch, while Lewis was still bent over in pain and hurt too badly to capitalize on the opening. It was the epitome of appearing to be a dangerous wounded animal, which Lewis was at that moment, and which was enough to back dos Santos off and allow Lewis to survive the round.

Lewis wasn’t so lucky in the second round, as dos Santos dropped him and finished him with punches. The impressive performance moved the former heavyweight champion back near the top of the list of contenders.

After some stagnation in recent years, the heavyweight division is showing both life and talent. It’s filled with contenders and filled with questions about the championship.

Daniel Cormier, who turns 40 in a few days, is holding on. Every top contender sees a champion who gives up tremendous reach to everyone, and is clearly at the tail end of his career. But Cormier has tremendous momentum. His three finishes in 2018 propelled him to be the consensus Fighter of the Year, as did holding and defending both the heavyweight and light heavyweight titles at the same time.

Cormier seems like he’s waiting for Brock Lesnar, ever since a shove that should have led to big dollar signs took place in the cage at UFC 226 after Cormier won the title from Stipe Miocic. But, flush with cash from a controversial Saudi Arabian business deal and impressive television contract negotiations, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon has made Lesnar the highest paid performer in his organization, and Lesnar keeps renewing his deals.

Realistically, other than the reality of what fans buy and the UFC’s catering to what the majority of what fans will pay to see — rather than the vocal minority that actually want to see the most qualified fighters vie for championships — it is impossible to justify Lesnar walking into the UFC without a legitimate MMA win in almost nine years and get a title shot when he’s almost 42.

Dos Santos even complained about it, and from a sports perspective, rightfully so — especially when the division has dos Santos, Miocic, and Francis Ngannou who all could be reasonably given a title fight right now.

If there is no Lesnar in the picture and Cormier is looking to fight at least one more time, this looks to be the situation:

Dos Santos has three wins in a row, over Blagoy Ivanov, Tai Tuivasa, and Lewis. His last loss was in 2017 to Miocic, but he also defeated Miocic earlier in his career.

Miocic is the former champion, who lost the title back in July, and hasn’t fought anyone since.

Ngannou has beaten former champion Cain Velasquez and ranked contender Curtis Blaydes in a combined 71 seconds in his last two fights. Before that, he had two losses, an awful performance against Lewis and a one-sided loss to Miocic. But he also has the best storyline for a Cormier fight, having beaten Cormier’s training partner Velasquez.

Let’s look at what is next and how Fortunes Changed for Five from Saturday’ show.

JUNIOR DOS SANTOS — The former UFC heavyweight champion, dos Santos (21-5) put himself back in title contention with his win over Lewis (21-7-1). It’s pretty clear he should face either Ngannou (13-3) or Miocic (18-3) and that the winner of that fight should be next in line for a championship fight.

DERRICK LEWIS — Lewis was in a unique position of not being hurt that badly by his loss.

Given how he was handled by Cormier in their previous meeting in Madison Square Garden, he wasn’t getting a title shot with a win. And while he did lose, the nature of how exciting the fight was probably made him as much of a crowd favorite as someone can become on a show limited to the audience of a subscription streaming service.

Lewis can be called on for “fun fights,” as Scott Coker would say, meaning his heavy hands, his unique charisma, and his style of always being dangerous until the fight is over, no matter how badly he may be losing at some point, make him a star.

As far as what is next, Lewis should face the winner of the March 23 bout with Blaydes (10-2) vs. Justin Willis (8-1).

ELIZEU ZALESKI DOS SANTOS — The other dos Santos (21-5) won his 11th fight of his last 12 outings by schooling Curtis Millender on the ground and getting a first-round submission.

Dos Santos could next face Santiago Ponzinibbio (27-3) or Demian Maia (26-9), as well as the winner of Saturday’s welterweight fight between Gunnar Nelson (17-3-1) and Leon Edwards (16-3).

NIKO PRICE — Another welterweight winner, Price (13-2) took out Tim Means at the end of an exciting first round (28-11-1).

With the win, he should next face Millender (17-4) or Mike Perry (12-4).

BLAGOY IVANOV — The former World Series of Fighting and PFL heavyweight champion, Ivanov (17-2, 1 NC) won a close decision over Ben Rothwell (36-11) that appeared as if nobody other than the judges saw his way. The fight was a little slow early, but had an exciting third round. While all three judges scored it 29-28 for Ivanov, media scores listed by MMA Decisions were 88 percent the other way.

Still, Ivanov should next get the loser of the Blaydes vs. Willis fight.

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