While the UFC’s featherweight and middleweight divisions were firmly in the spotlight recently at UFC 194, but business is definitely about to pick up on the heavyweight front.
The title rematch between current champion Fabricio Werdum and former titlist Cain Velasquez is officially set for UFC 196 and the next few months should help determine an opponent for the winner of that clash. Hopefully after tying up the division for such a lengthy period of time, the organization will move on from the Werdum-Velasquez rivalry even if Velasquez avenges his UFC 188 loss in February to become a three-time champion.
There are a trio of potentially explosive battles that should produce a definitive No. 1 contender. Between now and the end of January, fans will be treated to pivotal clashes between former champion Junior dos Santos and Alistair Overeem, former titlist Andrei Arlovski and Stipe Miocic and Ben Rothwell vs. Josh Barnett. It’s most likely the next title shot goes to the man who produces the most impressive victory out of those three matchups.
Overeem and dos Santos are up first at UFC on FOX 17. This contest that has been years in the making. “The Reem” first missed out on a title shot at UFC 146 against dos Santos after failing a drug test, and then withdrew from their scheduled clash at UFC 160 because of an injury. Overeem has finally put together a rare win streak inside the Octagon after solid efforts against Stefan Struve and Roy Nelson. There’s been plenty of verbal back-and-forth between the two men and they’ll finally get to settle their differences this weekend in Orlando. A sizzling effort from Overeem could get the dangerous Dutch striker the title shot he’s been seeking. He’s split a pair of fights against Werdum and the idea of a trilogy bout or being a fresh challenge for Velasquez are intriguing options.
”Cigano” has been ravaged by injuries in recent years, and absorbed a tremendous amount of punishment in his two title fight losses against Velasquez. The perennial contender hasn’t fought since last December’s decision win over Miocic. Dos Santos would likely need an impressive triumph along with a Werdum win to get another opportunity to win gold. The heavy-handed Brazilian owns a previous knockout over “Vai Cavalo” but has already fought Velasquez three times. A fourth fight likely isn’t the preferred option if Velasquez regains the belt.
Arlovski and Miocic get the chance to make their cases at UFC 195. It’s an intriguing matchup on Jan. 2 between a seasoned vet, who’s had a late career renaissance, against the extremely athletic No. 3-ranked contender. “The Pit Bull” has reeled off four straight wins during his second Octagon stint, including explosive knockouts of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Travis Browne. While his win against Browne was one of the most exciting fights of the year, Arlovski is coming off a tedious decision win over Frank Mir. The matchup of former champs failed to live up to expectations at UFC 191. There’s no doubt Arlovski’s remarkable career turnaround makes him a sentimental choice, and he owns a previous win over Werdum. A successful, entertaining effort against Miocic could be the result that lands him the Werdum-Velasquez II winner.
Miocic is on a 4-1 run with that lone setback coming in what was a thrilling fight against JDS. The 33-year-old Ohio native destroyed Mark Hunt in his last appearance and is definitely in the title mix. A victory over Arlovski would undoubtedly be the biggest of his career. While he’d be worthy of a title shot with a triumph over the former champion, Miocic could be hampered by the perception that he’s not a big-time draw. The business side of the sport could prove his biggest enemy.
Barnett and Rothwell will collide at UFC on FOX 18 on Jan. 30. “The Warmaster” looked terrific in his first UFC appearance in nearly two years when he posted a unanimous decision victory over Nelson at Fight Night 75 in Japan. The catch wrestling specialist turned in a solid effort over five hard-fought rounds to improve to 2-1 in his second stint with the promotion. Barnett originally captured the UFC heavyweight strap by defeating Randy Couture in 2002, but was cut adrift after a failed drug test. The 38-year old veteran has had a storied career and remains a legitimate threat for anyone in the division. Barnett is currently ranked sixth.
Rothwell has been on quite the roll with three consecutive finishes. He gets the Barnett clash after seeing a co-main event battle fall through at Fight Night 76 in Ireland because of a Miocic injury. “Big” Ben has shown a much different side of his personality during this successful stretch. Rothwell would greatly enhance his title prospects if he were to finish the ultra-tough Barnett. While he’s never faced Werdum, Rothwell was knocked out by Velasquez in their 2009 clash.
As if those three matchups weren’t enough, there’s another meaningful encounter set for Fight Night 81 in Boston when the No. 5-ranked Browne battles Matt Mitrione. Both dangerous heavyweights will be in rebound mode come Jan. 17 and have shown a willingness to engage in stand-up affairs.
No matter how things play out in the heavyweight ranks, there’s no doubt fans are in for a treat. It’ll be intriguing to see which competitor makes the biggest splash. It’s a free-for-all at the moment and one more stellar performance could be the springboard into a title fight. In assessing who might have the best chance of winning the top contender sweepstakes, I think Arlovski is in the driver’s seat. If he registers an exciting victory against Miocic, he would seem to be the most attractive option to face either Werdum or Velasquez down the road.