Friday, January 22, 2021

What If Neither Jones Nor Ngannou Is Miocic’s Biggest Threat?

It’s the quiet ones that you have to watch out for the most.

Reigning UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic has earned the right to be considered the consensus greatest heavyweight of all time. This recognition was not carried to Miocic by the wind; it was earned by setting the record for most successful title defenses and taking down names like Daniel Cormier, Fabricio Werdum, and Alistair Overeem.

There is one name on Miocic’s résumé that particularly carries a lot of weight, that being the herculean Francis Ngannou. Leading into their 2018 bout, Ngannou appeared unstoppable. He was 6-0 in the promotion and was coming off highlight-reel knockouts over Andrei Arlovski followed by one of the greatest KOs in UFC history over Alistair Overeem.

The noise of Ngannou’s jarring knockouts was perhaps only muffled by the audio of all the superlatives launched at him by Dana White, Joe Rogan, and fans who believed he was MMA’s Mike Tyson-plus. The reserved Miocic took great pleasure in silencing Ngannou’s backers at UFC 220, but now Ngannou is at the front of the line once again, making even more noise than before after creating thuds from a much-improved Curtis Blaydes, former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, and most recently one of the brightest heavyweight prospects: Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Given the fact that his current four-fight winning streak took place in a combined time of under three minutes, it’s hard to imagine that there could be a name that is a more resounding threat for Miocic right now than him, but the name “Jon Jones” always speaks volumes, even in a new division.

The fact that Jon Jones has been competing at a championship level for as long as he has without being outpointed, submitted, or knocked out makes him a very dangerous threat for any man breathing, including the baddest man on the planet. Perhaps the biggest question for a Jon Jones heavyweight run is whether he will be undersized, but Jones certainly appears to be going about the move meticulously, taking his time to make the necessary physical gains to become a true heavyweight. Furthermore, Stipe Miocic is also a lighter heavyweight, so size would not be as much of a factor in a potential showdown between the two. With Jones’s fight IQ, wrestling background, granite chin, and championship mettle, he could be Stipe Miocic’s biggest threat, and “Stipe Miocic vs. Jon Jones” is a marquee billing that would blend in with the flashing lights and blaring bustle of any major metropolitan city.

Then, there’s Curtis Blaydes. His name doesn’t have the box-office appeal as a Jon Jones, and his fights lack the Sportscenter dazzle of a Francis Ngannou beheading, but what if I told you that it was this modest midwestern grappler who might just pose the biggest threat to Stipe Miocic?

As most fans know, styles make fights in MMA. For all the dangers that Francis Ngannou presents to Stipe Miocic, Miocic has already proven he knows how to crack the cheat code that is The Predator. As for Jon Jones, we can make all the educated projections in the world, but the fact remains there are still tons of unanswered questions about how Jones will fare in the division, particularly against the best heavyweight who’s ever done it.

Curtis Blaydes, on the other hand, has already proven himself at heavyweight and his skillset matches up very well against Miocic’s. Blaydes’ offensive wrestling has been some of the best the division has ever seen, and if he can replicate the success Cormier had in this department against Miocic in the past, he could follow this path to victory. Or, he could use his striking, which, like Blaydes himself, is understated yet powerful. Conventional wisdom is that Miocic would have the clear edge in striking, but whenever Blaydes has chosen or been forced to strike with someone not named Francis Ngannou, he has done very well for himself, including knocking out one of the best strikers in the division’s history, Junior dos Santos. Oh, and by the way, Curtis Blaydes knows how to win. No one has ever outfought Curtis Blaydes for an entirety of a fight. He has only been defeated by the human force of nature that is Francis Ngannou, and even those losses were a doctor’s stoppage followed by a controversial stoppage. All other, mortal humans have been handled appropriately by Blaydes, so Miocic could fall into that list.

The biggest question surrounding Blaydes is whether his endurance could last in the championship rounds against a fighter the caliber of Stipe Miocic. This seems fixable for someone with the discipline and wrestling background as Blaydes, so I expect him to patch up the holes he displayed in his last fight against Alexander Volkov and improve his energy conservation.

As we begin to turn the corner into 2021, Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones are both very big names in line for the champion and are making a lot of noise in the waiting room. But there is a quiet Husky in the back of the room whose past actions in the heavyweight division might just sound the loudest alarms for Stipe Miocic stylistically. Maybe Francis Ngannou and his arcade KO strength is still the biggest threat for Miocic. Or maybe that designation belongs to arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, Jon Jones. But this Saturday at UFC on ESPN 18, Curtis Blaydes will let his actions provide the argument for why the public must break the silence that shades the name “Curtis Blaydes” whenever there are conversations about the best heavyweights in the world or who might be the one to take the heavyweight crown from Stipe Miocic.