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Hot Tweets: The UFC heavyweight title picture and Rafael Lovato Jr.’s unfortunate announcement

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Curtis Blaydes
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Last weekend, Curtis Blaydes showed out by stopping former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos with strikes! Now the heavyweight title picture suddenly has a logjam at the top for the first time in... ever? So let’s talk about how the UFC should handle the heavyweight title picture as well as the sad news about Bellator middleweight champion Rafael Lovato Jr.


The UFC Heavyweight title picture

To paraphrase Marlo Stanfield, this is one of those good problems. Historically, the UFC heavyweight division has not been particularly deep. More so than any other division, heavyweight has been the division of trilogies, not so much because the fights themselves demanded it but because there was a dearth of other options available. Right now, that’s not the case and that’s a good thing because it’s almost always better to have options than to not.

That being said, the while the UFC has options, everything here should play out in a fairly straightforward manner. The fight to make next is without question the trilogy between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier. It’s a fight between the two best heavyweights in the world who split their first two contests, so that’s never wrong to book. Add in the fact that if the fight doesn’t happen, Cormier will retire and this one is a no-brainer. If Stipe wants to stay out for awhile, that’s his prerogative as champion. They’ll probably end up booking this fight for May or the summer some time.

From there, we’re left with two scenarios. The first is that Francis Ngannou defeats Jairzinho Rozenstruik. If this comes to pass, then Ngannou sits on the sidelines and fights the winner of Stipe-DC III next because, no matter how impressive Blaydes has looked, he’s still X-Ngannou in his career and when you stop a dude twice, and the second time you do it in just 45 seconds, you get to stay ahead of him in line. Those are the rules.

However, if Rozenstruik beats Ngannou, which is very possible as—and it’s crazy to say this—we still don’t really know that much about Ngannou as a fighter, then things get much more interesting. Rozenstruik would then have wins over Andrei Arlovski, Alistair Overeem, and Ngannou, which would be a worthy title shot resume. Not as good as Blaydes’ but still a worthy resume and, more importantly, likely one the UFC would favor from a promotional standpoint to Blaydes.

So ultimately, that means Blaydes is the odd man out at heavyweight right now, which is unfortunate for him as he may well offer the most difficult style matchup for Stipe Miocic, but them’s the breaks. After UFC Raleigh, Blaydes called for a title shot but pretty quickly walked that back, saying that he doesn’t want to wait all year to fight again, which is smart because if he really did want to sit out, he might be on the sidelines for a year and a half. In the meantime, Blaydes can busy himself with Derrick Lewis and desperately hope Jon Jones doesn’t move to heavyweight and set him even further back in the title conversation.


Rafael Lovato Jr. and the Bellator 185 title

ICYMI: Bellator middleweight champion Rafael Lovato Jr. has been diagnosed with cavernoma, a condition where abnormal blood vessels cluster in the brain or spinal cord, creating and increased risk of hemorrhage. In Lovato’s case, he has a number of dangerous clusters in his brain that may well make it so no athletic condition will ever clear him to compete again.

First off, best wishes to Lovato. This is a really unfortunate turn of events for the champion and aside from potentially losing his title, this is also a serious medical condition that I think we all can agree we hope does not negatively affect his life in too large of a fashion. By all accounts, RLJ is a good guy in this sport and I wish him nothing but the best.

But don’t go putting him out to pasture just yet. Bellator’s official statement on the issue says that they haven’t made an official decision on his status as champion and that they are still working with Lovato to figure things out. So given that, I would say that any decision will be months in the making and not weeks.

Were this Dana White, yes Lovato would’ve been stripped pretty quickly but the UFC’s middleweight division is also much more full than Bellator’s. Hell, Coker let Ryan Bader remain light heavyweight champion for two years without a title defense and no one batted an eye. It seems entirely reasonable for Bellator to let Lovato stay champion until they’ve exhausted all possibilities of him fighting in sanctioned MMA again. Then, should that ultimately be the outcome here, welterweight champion Douglas Lima has already thrown out the idea of a middleweight title fight with Gegard Mousasi and that seems as good of a way to go as any.


The public fall of Maycee Barber

Man, Maycee Barber and her team have not done themselves any favors lately. Aside from all the things that happened immediately after UFC 246—her mic stealing, her dad claiming she really won—then Barber comes out and throws shade at the NSAC cornerman. If there’s a worse way to handle your first loss, then I’m not sure we’ve seen it in MMA.

Barber’s actions have been off putting because they seem to reveal some serious maturity issues... because she is only 21! Think of all the dumb things you did at that age (assuming you, dear reader, have reached that age. If not, beware, you’re probably dumb as hell and will do many, many dumb things in the coming years. It happened to us all). She has plenty of time to grow as a person, reflect on this loss, and learn to take an L, which will certainly help her become a better fighter.

As for her future in the sport, I think it’s very hard to predict that anyone will be champion other than the truly transcendent athletes and though Barber is good, she’s not that. Could she win the title? Maybe, but the odds aren’t good. Barber is young, tough, and in possession of more athleticism and physicality than most of the division already, but her technical skills are lacking. Her athleticism alone may be enough to carry her to a title shot in a thin division, but barring a massive leap in technique, there’s no world in which she beats Valentina Shevchenko. And by the time Shevchenko exits the sport, there will likely be a new wave of superior athletes joining the ranks of the UFC, and ones with better skill sets.

Barber has an uphill road ahead of her to be champion but again, she’s only 21. Weirder things have happened in MMA.


Reebok

This is an easy one: Reebok greatly benefited the UFC, marginally benefited the fighters who did not consider themselves to be businesses in their own right and thus did not want to pursue sponsorships for themselves, and severely harmed everyone else, including the fans.

Reebok sponsorship pay was and remains a pittance. For the rookies it was fine because the rookies would have difficulty making significantly more than they did from the Reebok deal and for the stars, they could negotiate their own sponsorship deal with the company. But for everyone else, it was a net loss of money from their earning potential. Several of the fighters who jumped ship to Bellator cited the Reebok deal specifically as one of the reasons. And the worst part of it is that the fighters had no say in the whole thing. The Reebok deal was brokered with the UFC and then the UFC just mandated the terms to the fighters without so much as asking them their thoughts or allowing them some level of personal sponsorship on their shorts or banners or something.

But the UFC didn’t and does not care because they got a lot of cash up front and they got uniformity in their fighters. When Dana was brokering the deal with ESPN, I’m confident he was thrilled to not have to address with ESPN officials why “Condom Depot” would be plastered across the ass of half the fighters on a prime time card. Did it make the UFC viewing experience exponentially more boring and take away much of the personality of fighters? Sure. But again, it’s all about the cash for the UFC.


165

I addressed much of this last week but to put a cap on it: more weight classes is not a good thing as it devalues titles from a fan perspective—the more of them there are, the less special they are, just ask boxing—and creates far more opportunities for people to pursue champ-champ status which then just fusterclucks everything.

Consider this: Kevin Lee has been one of the biggest proponents of a 165-pound division. Let’s say they make one and Kevin Lee wins the title. Hooray. Congratulations, etc. Within two title defenses if not immediately, he will call for a superfight against Kamaru Usman. Well then what the f*ck were we doing here in the first place? We were just rejiggering the entire system so a very specific number of fighters were given even more of a chance to win a title.

More to the point, moving 170 up to 175 is borderline offensive to the hundreds of fighters who have spent their career making weight and competing at that weight class without issue. Why is it unfair for Kevin Lee to have to gain five more pounds but completely fair to make Kamaru Usman do so? Because it is 10 pounds above the other weight class? Are we really that OCD?

(There’s also the very small point that 170 has been arguably the marquee division in UFC history and you’d essentially be doing away with that and all that history to satisfy a few fighters who are desperate for any edge they can possibly get but only in the most narrow way possible.)

Again, I come back to this point: the 165-pound weight class already exists. It’s called welterweight and you can compete there without issue. The idea that fighters who are walking around at 180+ think 170 is a bridge too far but 165 is where it should be is among the most insanely asinine things I’ve ever heard. Ask Frankie Edgar if being “undersized” ever stopped him. Or B.J. Penn. Or Randy Couture. Fighters need to stop worrying about how they can get an edge in the sauna and worry about how they can get an edge in the practice room.


New champions in 2020

In order of most likely to least likely:

125 - literally will have a new champion in a few weeks.

Heavy - See above as all contenders are serious threats to Stipe.

185 - Yoel Romero has been the best MW in the world for five years.

135 - There’s a real chance Cejudo is like, the fourth best fighter in the division.

115 - Some tough fights ahead for Zhang Weili.

155 - Khabib is Khabib but Tony and Gaethje are no joke.

145 - Max Holloway and Brian Ortega present tough fights for the new champion.

170 - Usman has weaknesses but stylistically he presents problems for the top contenders.

205 - Jon Jones is still Jon Jones.

W135/145 - Nunes has already beaten everyone.

W125 - Shevchenko is champion until she retires.

Out of these, I’d say I think the first four happen. The cut off for me is Zhang Weili who I think has enough skill and physicality to hold onto the belt all year long.


Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.