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Hot Tweets: Derrick Lewis, UFC Vegas 20, and the state of the heavyweight division

SB Nation logo SB Nation 2/27/2021 Jed Meshew
Brittney Palmer standing in front of a crowd: Derrick Lewis © Esther Lin, MMA Fighting Derrick Lewis

We are in full swing of the UFC’s two-month long festival of fight cards and as such, there is a lot going on in MMA right now. So much so that even though I was late to asking for questions this week. We had a ton of questions covering a wide range of topics so without further ado, I’m going to try and answer as many as I can. Let’s go!

Derrick Lewis

Absolutely! At this stage of the year, Lewis’ KO is AT WORST No. 2 on the list behind only Cory Sandhagen. Granted, it’s early in the year but I would be fairly surprised if that wasn’t making lists comes December.

That being said, I don’t believe Lewis flattening Curtis Blaydes is going to actually win KO of the Year honors. There are too many factors working against it. First, it happened in February and recency bias is always a real thing. Second, ultimately the stakes were low. Lewis isn’t getting a title shot off the KO so that takes some shine off it. And lastly, at the end of the day, as spectacular as it was, it was just an uppercut. It wasn’t a flying knee or a ninja kick or something crazy. Lewis timed a beautiful uppercut on a guy ducking his head in. That’s elite fighting but it’s not something unimaginable and when it comes to the flying knees of the world, it will get lost in the shuffle.

Ciryl Gane vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik

Did you guys know that the fourth-ranked and seventh-ranked heavyweights in the world are fighting tonight? No seriously, it’s true! For a fight that basically guarantees something violent and awesome, it feels like this event is flying under the radar as everyone is looking ahead to UFC 259 and the three title fights next weekend, and that’s a shame because this is going to be dope.

Ciryl Gane is the best heavyweight prospect since... Francis Ngannou? Honestly, it’s hard to judge because heavyweight so rarely has prospects but Gane is one of the best kickboxers in the division and has shown an aptitude for the grapples as well. Meanwhile, Rozenstruik burst onto the scene in Ngannou-like fashion only to come back to Earth when he had to face Ngannou himself. Ultimately I favor Gane in this fight because I do think he’s the better kickboxer but anything could happen here and the outcome will be awesome regardless.

As for who they fight next? Alexander Volkov, of course. The heavyweight division is a Meereenese knot inside of a logjam due largely to the fact that the last three years have been entirely held up by the Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier trilogy. Unless Gane punches Rozenstruik so hard that he opens a wormhole, travels through space-time, and explodes Jon Jones in the process, the winner of this fight will not get a title shot. They will need AT LEAST one more win to get a title shot and maybe even two. That means that the winner tonight will either face Volkov or Lewis and given Lewis’ impressive win, I’d say he’s likely set to face the loser of Stipe vs. Ngannou II, leaving Volkov without a dance partner.

Grand Prix

Speaking of logjams, the UFC sure seems to have a lot of them lately. That’s what happens when your divisions are good and you have one title defense a year. The problem gets exacerbated when you have multi-division champions too so don’t expect it to go away anytime soon, but also don’t expect them to do tournaments. Like Dominic Toretto, they’ll die before the go back.

Tournaments are fun for fans and a great way to tell a linear story to an uninformed audience. They are also operationally complex, fraught with points of failure, and ultimately cumbersome. For a company like the UFC, using well-known fighters in a Grand Prix offers little in the way of value (their viewership will remain fairly steady, regardless) while removing flexibility. There’s just no gain.

In my mind, the tournament structure makes sense for the UFC in only three scenarios:

  1. Crowning a new champion when another champion vacates the belt (giving the necessary credibility to the new champion).
  2. As a promotional device to elevate undercard talent who aren’t well-known (a “2021 Lightweight Grand Prix” comprised of non-ranked lightweights fighting to an “Intercontinental” belt or something like that).
  3. A once-a-year (maybe every other year), one-night tournament for each division in the sport, calling back to the UFC’s roots and engaging the fans in a different way.

The first one functionally happens with some regularity, even if the UFC doesn’t explicitly state it. The second is something the UFC absolutely should do and perhaps might one day. The third will never happen because the UFC is creatively bankrupt and hates fun.

Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno II

ICYMI: Figueiredo-Moreno II is official for UFC 263.

Figueiredo, unquestionably. Figgy Smalls is the first flyweight champion the UFC has actually liked and spent a considerable amount of energy marketing. Furthermore, he was the 2020 Fighter of the Year! This dude has a ton of momentum and, given his fighting style, a ton of star potential whereas Moreno is fairly low on both. Moreno winning isn’t one of those things that will crater the whole division, but it would definitely set it back. The UFC wants Figgy Smalls to blow up Moreno and then get back to booking the Cody Garbrandt fight as soon as possible.

Edson Barboza

ICYMI: After rumors that he was planning to leave the UFC at the completion of his deal, Edson Barboza re-signed with the UFC on a multi-fight deal.

Honestly, no. Barboza is a guy who probably doesn’t get enough credit because he seemed to always find a way to lose when it really mattered, but at his peak he was a sublimely gifted offensive force. That being said, he’s now 35, past his prime, and cutting to compete in a weight class despite not needing to do so. Barboza’s issues at lightweight were not that he was too small. His issue was that he never really developed a way to deal with relentless pressure. If you allowed Barboza to play his game, you got got and if you didn’t you didn’t But not a single person who beat him at lightweight did so because he was too small.

Barboza still has gas in the tank and the tools to get good wins but he also still has his same fatal flaw and now he’s competing in a division where he has a minimal track record (and underrated aspect to fighting, at lightweight if Dan Hooker goes on a run, Barboza can perhaps leverage his KO win there to get a shot up the rankings), is compromising his body to make the drop, and is competing against generally faster guys who pressure. The chances of him putting together the necessary win streak to get to a title shot is extremely low at this point.

Bidding War

ICYMI: Teofimo Lopez just got paid because boxing doesn’t have a big ol’ monopsony running things like in other sports.

It would entirely depend on the fighter in question. If it’s Conor McGregor, he would get paid ALL THE MONEY because Scott Coker might in fact sell his liver for the chance to promote McGregor. He’d give Conor half of Bellator and maybe some of Viacom too. Just all the money.

For someone else? Probably better than MMA fighters currently make out but still a far cry from Lopez. Ultimately, the UFC might lose the occasional fighter but they’d keep the bulk of them because their brand is the strongest. For instance, if the CFL suddenly started paying a few football players premium money, the NFL still won’t lose market share because unless it’s like Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, it’s not going to make that big a difference. There’s safety in numbers and currently, the UFC has an overwhelming majority of the numbers.

Bellator rankings

ICYMI: Bellator announced they were putting out promotional rankings.

Bellator making its own rankings is classic Bellator. No one wanted it, no one needed it, and it ultimately comes off as EXTREMELY “little-brother-not-wanting-to-be-left-out-of-the-game.” Any time Bellator tries to prove it is its own man, the inevitably end up looking weaker than before.

Promotional rankings writ large are bad. The true purpose of rankings is so the organization can use them as leverage over their fighters. Absent that, for the UFC, rankings serve no real purpose other than to inflate the public perception of fighters and reveal to the world just how absurd they are when the UFC does whatever the hell they want to anyway. For Bellator they are even worse because all of those things are (or will be) true and they have the added failure of not really having enough people to have rankings! There’s a reason why the UFC doesn’t have women’s featherweight rankings and yet, Bellator said eff it and pulled the trigger anyway.

The only good reason to have promotional rankings was if you were going to associate a true benefit to them. I have long suggested that the UFC should use its rankings for one legitimate purpose: that all fights between ranked fighters be 25 minutes, all other fights be 15. It gets around the stupid “main event” rule and gives purpose to the rankings without tying monetary incentives to them or something that could be skewed in specious ways. But since that doesn’t seem to be the case for anyone, rankings should remain a media thing to drive site clicks and the only promotion that should do it is Fight Circus because it would be brilliant satire.

Speaking of Bellator

Easy. Ryan Bader.

The UFC royally botched the whole Ryan Bader thing. Aside from being an Ultimate Fighter champion, he was also quite obviously one of the best light heavyweights in the world and has been forever. He had a ready-made beef with Daniel Cormier when Cormier was the 205 champion that could have been a great promotional bout but they threw it away. Conversely, Bader went to Bellator, became Champ-Champ, and secured both a legacy for himself and the bag. I can assure you, Darth Bader has zero regrets about his choices.

Kamaru Usman

I touched on this last week but of the current crop of welterweight contenders, I think only Stephen Thompson would stand a chance at beating Usman. Wonderboy’s range and kicking game could prove troublesome for Usman’s flat-footed approach. Usman would need to wrestle to win and if Thompson can stay elusive, he could karate-point his way to a win. That being said, I’d still favor Usman in that fight.

I think the world of Kamaru Usman. He is the number two pound-for-pound fighter in the sport in my eyes behind only Khabib. But he’s also almost 34, has bad knees, and doesn’t have many years left at his peak. The young eat the old in this sport and I think Usman loses the belt in two years years, but not to anyone currently a top the rankings. He’s going to lose it to someone who is just hitting their stride and catches him when he begins to decline. Someone like Vicente Luque or Khamzat Chimaev.

Israel Adesanya vs. Jon Jones

  1. If he wins the belt, Adesanya probably defends his middleweight title next and waits to see if Jon Jones wins the heavyweight title so he can try and pursue that fight.
  2. Jon Jones is never returning to 205. The man is a beefy boy now.
  3. Neither man needs it. If Adesanya wins the 205 belt, he’s a champ-champ. He’s set. Same for Jones if he wins the heavy. Jones previously needed the fight more because he didn’t want to go up to heavyweight and assume the risk that goes with that (you can tell because it was Jones who was avidly trying to pick a fight with a man who was smaller than him). Now that he’s committed though, he doesn’t.
  4. This is all moot because Janny Blach is gonna blow the whole house down when he submits Adesanya next Saturday. Legendary Polish Power Guillotine, for the win.

Who is the first to lose their title?

It’s been a pretty good year for UFC champions but 2021 could easily see some regression to the mean in this area. Aljamain Sterling is probably the smart bet as he’s the next title contender up and has a tremendous chance to win the title but as you can read about from me later this week, I think Petr Yan is going to make Aljo fold under his relentless attack.

The odds would probably we weighted towards Israel Adesanya to unseat Jan Blachowicz in the main event next weekend instead, but as I said above, Janny Blach is going to bust some parlays so that’s a no for me, dawg.

I’m not even going to discuss Megan Anderson (no chance) or Brian Ortega (I remain convinced he’s bad and will continue to do so even as he’s being inducted into the Hall of Famer for being the UFC’s first four-division champion) who I think have practically no shot to win their respective title bids. Which brings us, at least, to the first new champion in nearly a year: Francis Ngannou.

Stipe Miocic’s defining qualities are his durability and adaptability. Well, Miocic is now 38 and even though heavyweight is the division where you can often get away with being a bit old, this ain’t the one for Miocic to do so against. Ngannou has learned his lesson from the first fight. He’s not going to force the issue. He’s going to wait for Miocic to jab his way in and then unleash a death-nuke into Miocic’s head that wins him the title and we will all be welcomed to the Ngannou Era. Three years later than we thought we’d get here, but here nonetheless.

Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things 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.

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