The Heavyweight Division is one I've struggled to find myself interested in until recently. It seems to be characterised by a much lower skill barrier and a "swangin' and bangin'" style of fighting, which whilst fun on a surface level becomes tiresome when the entire division effectively boils down to the winner being the guy who lands a hard shot first.
However, the top of the division in 2022 is looking much different. A new era of heavyweight has emerged, with technical strikers and a genuinely interesting set of matchups in front of us. With current Champion Francis Ngannou out of competition for what appears to be the rest of the year, the division has a lot of options to play with in search of an Interim Title.
Currently ranked #6, Britain's Tom Aspinall is on a tear. Aspinall looks more and more complete every time he steps into the Octagon, mixing the martial arts on an incredibly technical level. Moving like a man two weight classes down, Tom has proved he has all the makings of a serious talent in the division. With no decisions in his career, Tom has shown he has excellent striking whilst also being a real threat on the ground. The Volkov fight at UFC London allowed him to prove his ability to actually take the fight to the ground (the only thing that remained unproven other than 5 round cardio, which remains to be seen). Tom's reactive takedowns, fight IQ and movement shined in this recent outing and if he so chooses, the contender could soon find himself en-route to a title shot.
Tai Tuivasa is the UFC's new Aussie star. A hard hitting slugger with a great chin, Tai has consistently found the shot in his recent fights and has the personality to seemingly double his fandom with every win, a trait which has landed him the #3 spot after knocking out Derrick Lewis in spectacular fashion. I think its pretty likely that the UFC tries to push Tai right to the top and as a heavyweight he has the right skills to make it there. It'll be interesting to see how he does against a true wrestler, but if he fights someone like the Champion Ngannou or former champion Stipe Miocic it's hard to write him off.
Ciryl Gane, whilst having already fought for the title, is still a new injection into the Heavyweight Division and absolutely was the trailblazer for this new generation of heavyweights to follow. Like Aspinall, Gane is also a technical striker with a great submission game, which shouldn't be discounted due to his recent loss. Gane has showed inexperience in his grappling for sure, struggling to escape the bottom position against the wrestling of a new, more well rounded Francis Ngannou. However, I'd be surprised if this remains a consistent hole in his game to such an extent. Gane continues to patch holes in his style and against Ngannou it seemed that he was suffocated by the pressure of the juggernaut Francis' top game. Gane will be back and I'd imagine he'll make a point of showing off stronger grappling, proving his improvements.
Tom Aspinall has a few directions he can go. If he wants to keep climbing the ladder, the Gane fight would be a great showcase of how technical heavyweights can actually get. It feels like an obvious fight to make but its one I'd actually rather happen some time in the future. It'd be a shame to build up either of these hot prospects at the expense of another, and Heavyweight needs fighters like these to be excited about more than any other men's division. The same could be said about a potential Tai Tuivasa matchup.
I'd therefore like to match Aspinall up against a fighter like Jairzinho Rozenstruik, presuming he does well at UFC 273. Tom has stated many a time that he has no interest in becoming a hype-job and doesn't want to be rushed into title contention, instead preferring to work his way up. He accepted the steep step-up in competition against Volkov because of the opportunity to headline on his home turf, but let's put him back on his own track now. Give him a good counter-striker, let him do his work, and by then the division should have moved along some more and presented some higher level matchups for him.
Tai Tuivasa, however, seems to have no qualms about his fast rise up the rankings. The man is a legitimate talent and an infectious personality to boot and I'd like to see him put up against Stipe Miocic for the Interim Title next. It'd provide a good litmus test for both fighters. If Tai wins, it shows he's got what it takes to beat the top of the ladder and is worthy of the shot against fellow power-puncher Ngannou if and when he's ready to defend again. If Stipe wins it shows that he's still, after all this time, one of the top dogs at Heavyweight and grants him the rematch with Ngannou that he frankly deserved immediately.
Ciryl Gane's recent performance against Ngannou raised some questions about his grappling ability. Was he simply caught off guard, not expecting Ngannou to wrestle unless it was on Ciryl's own terms? Can Ciryl wrestle defensively well against the elite competition when he's actually training for it? I'd like to see these questions answered over Curtis Blaydes, who despite being hot off a KO of Chris Daukaus is more typically a wrestler. Blaydes takedowns are pretty telegraphed and his top pressure is questionable, his opponents often working their way back to the feet before Blaydes slams them down again. This, I think, would be the perfect environment to test Gane in. Can he stop the takedowns and if not, can he work his way back up? It provides a serious opportunity to enter the #1 contender spot for Blaydes and for Gane it provides the opportunity to prove that his grappling isn't something that can be so easily exploited in the future.
The Heavyweight Division is ultimately one that has struggled to keep hardcore fans' interest recently. The introduction of these 3 prospects, as well as the evolution of Blaydes' standup and the looming introduction of a Heavyweight Jon Jones into the mix provides some serious hope for a better division in the very near future, and I'm here for it all the way