The top of the UFC heavyweight division has mostly been a barren landscape of dusty tumbleweeds lately, which is to say that nothing much has been going on. Champion Daniel Cormier has a date booked with Stipe Miocic, but has otherwise been sidelined since the beginning of last November, a total of almost eight months. Miocic, the official No. 1 contender as determined by voters, has been on the shelf even longer, having sat out the last year. Cain Velasquez has competed just a single time since the start of 2017. Even the ever-active Derrick Lewis is undergoing his first extended break since joining the UFC, sidelined by a knee injury.
Basically, it’s been a minute since we’ve seen any of the big guys who get our pulses racing.
That changes on Saturday, when Francis Ngannou and Junior dos Santos meet center-cage at UFC Minneapolis in an old-fashioned battle of titans.
This seems like a big deal!
It is the kind of matchup that seems preordained by the forces of nature, like attracting like. Not that they’re exactly the same kinds of fighters — they are not. But only that at their best, they are both capable of the sudden and the spectacular. In short, they are the reason we watch.
These kinds of matchups have been in short supply recently, yes in the UFC as a whole, but particularly in the promotion’s heavyweight division.
Not to be a sizeist, but there is something special about the monsters locking horns that generates an extra buzz to the proceedings. Every fight brings with it the stakes of the moment, but when you get two of the best from the biggest division, it is multiplied. There is the uniquely thudding sound generated upon connection. There is the implicit threat that with every thrown strike, consciousness is on the line. There is gravitas.
It helps that there is plenty on the line. Ngannou is ranked No. 2 and dos Santos No. 3, and each wants to out-jockey the other and line up for the Cormier-Miocic winner. They are competing both for the moment, and for the stakes.
They both reached here in very different ways.
Dos Santos has performed something of a resurrection over the last 12 months. The charming yet bruising Brazilian reached his apex in 2011 as the heavyweight champion, yet soon after began a descent that was both noticeable and slow; a few little downward steps taken through losses at the hands of historical greats. Losing to Alistair Overeem, Velasquez and Miocic (the last two of which he also defeated in other matchups) is hardly a source of shame, yet some of those losses, notably the ones to Velasquez were so physical that it was fair to wonder if he had been beaten past the point of no return.
And then suddenly, resurgence. A year off and a move to American Top Team seemed to revitalize him, leading to three straight wins including finishes of Lewis and Tai Tuivasa. Even at 35 years old and with mileage on his tires, dos Santos still matters.
Ngannou, meanwhile, arrives with a newly recovered momentum. It wasn’t so long ago that he was the next big thing in the UFC, a hulking Cameroonian with shattering power and a heart-wrenching back story. Every step up the ladder, Ngannou rose to meet the challenge until he ran into Miocic. The setback — a lopsided unanimous decision loss — penetrated Ngannou’s psyche, causing him to question everything about himself. In his next fight, he struggled to pull the trigger offensively, and lost a lackluster contest to Lewis, afterward famously saying that “I have carried my fear from the last fight to this one.”
Coming from a man who once seemed to be fear incarnate, it was a remarkably vulnerable and insightful comment.
Many fighters over the years have struggled with confidence issues. Rarely, however, is such a battle publicized. Here Ngannou was, in a sense, adding more pressure to his next outing, because now everyone knew what they were looking at.
We should have known that a man capable of surviving long hours in a sand quarry was just as capable of overcoming psychological barriers as he was of physical ones. His two fights since that horrid outing have been spectacular — two knockouts in a combined 71 seconds.
And so through those long and hard roads, here we are, two face-crushers dripping with confidence and ready to draw the line. To get there, you have to go through here. Something to chase and something to defend. The best kind of fight. The best kind of heavyweights. Even if it’s just for a moment, we’ll all be waiting for the jolt.