The UFC heavyweight division is currently a four-horse race. At the front of the pack are two legends destined to soon complete what could likely be immortalized as the best trilogy in UFC history in champion Stipe Miocic and former titleholder Daniel Cormier. Right behind the leaders are two thoroughbred power-punchers who can gain ground on an opponent in the blink of an eye in Francis Ngannou and Jair Rozenstruik.
, as the promotion returns from a near two-month long layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic that's also forced this pay-per-view event to take place without fans inside the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, Ngannou and Rozenstruik will begin the reopening of the division. We still don't know exactly when the Miocic-Cormier trilogy will rejoin, but UFC president Dana White confirmed that the winner in Saturday's heavyweight showdown will earn the ultimate leg-up going forward.
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"100%, yeah. The winner of this fight is without a doubt the No. 1 contender,"during an appearance with CBS Sports combat sports writer Brian Campbell. "But we still have to figure out Cormier and Stipe. This is definitely the next person in line after that fight."
Both combatants have taken very different roads to get to this No. 1 contender's bout in a very shallow division.
In the case of Ngannou (14-3), Saturday marks the next stop in his destructive redemption tour. Ngannou entered the TD Garden in Boston at UFC 220 for his coronation as the heavyweight king, in the eyes of many, while serving as the closest iteration of a Mike Tyson-esque figure the UFC had ever seen.
Instead, Ngannou's coronation wasn't as king, rather as the newest "bust" after he was thoroughly outclassed by Miocic for the final four of five rounds. The stigma surrounding the native of Cameroon got much worse from there when that performance was proceeded by his lack of cardio being on full display in a three-round decision loss to Derrick Lewis -- who, of course, wasn't exactly the picture of fitness either -- at UFC 226 the following July.
The opportunity had conveniently presented itself for Ngannou to fade into oblivion, being remembered as one of the most prevalent "what-ifs" in promotional history. To the contrary, however, "The Predator" settled himself back in and has since rattled off a string of first-round knockouts on Fight Night cards bearing his name (against Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos) that have earned him a place at the heavyweight table once again. While the abrupt nature of these fights gave us no evidence of an improvement in the cardio or wrestling departments, the big-name resume has proven more than enough to provide a second chance.
Ngannou may have had to fall flat to resurface in this division, but Rozenstruik (10-0) has emerged from seemingly nowhere.
The 32-year-old former kickboxer made his UFC debut in February 2019 with a second-round TKO win over Junior Albini, which would be a sign of things to come from the native of Suriname. An ensuing victory over Allen Crowder (in just nine seconds) was followed by an obliteration of former champion Andrei Arlovski. This led the undefeated prospect into his first main event role late in 2019.
Facing off with Alistair Overeem on Dec. 7 in Washington, D.C., the boos rained down inside the Capital One Arena upon the conclusion of the uneventful five-round main event as it seemed Rozenstruik was having his own Ngannou moment, seemingly like a non-factor in the bout. That was until Rozenstruik found his destructive power. As the clock ticked down, Rozenstruik finished Overeem with a devastating combination of punches that notched his 10th professional win. The astounding power called on by Rozenstruik after nearly 25 minutes of action left Overeem missing a good portion of his upper lip and delivered us a grotesque image that will be seared into our memory banks forever. It was in that moment that Rozenstruik announced himself as one of the contenders in the division.
On Saturday night in Jacksonville at UFC 249, as the UFC takes a step toward providing the slightest bit of normalcy amid a widespread shutdown of professional sports, the differing paths of these two thunderous fighters will cross as the heavyweight divisions starts back up.
The pair have the power to knock opponents out in a flash. Buckle up for this one. It won't last long.