With his win over Andrei Arlovski, Francis Ngannou has brought a breath of fresh air into the UFC’s oldest division.
*Editor’s note – Francis Ngannou has moved up to number six in the UFC heavyweight rankings since the publishing of this article.
The UFC’s heavyweight division has been its most inconsistent weight class for almost 20 years. Just when fans think they can get behind a fighter something always seems to happen. Whether it is heavyweights leaving because of contract issues, drug suspensions, or injuries, the division never really seems to gather enough momentum to sustain fans interest for long periods of time. At the age of 30, heavyweight Francis Ngannou has the opportunity to bring back interest to the heavyweight division from the jaded fans that have grown tired of the oldest, in terms of age, division the UFC has to offer.
Taking a look at the top 15 rankings for the heavyweight division and there is one thing that pops out, the division is rather old. In fact with the average age of 34 years old it is the oldest division in the UFC. Current champion Stipe Miocic is 34 years old while former champion Fabricio Werdum is 39. Ngannou defeated 37 year old Andrei Arlovski who is currently ranked number seven in the division. Ngannou is the youngest fighter ranked in the top 10 with the second youngest being Derrick Lewis at age 31 and ranked at number eight. By comparison the flyweight division has the youngest top 15 with an average age of 28.1 years. On a side note the middleweight division has the second oldest top 15 with an average age of 33.3 years old.
Let us go back to 2010 when Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos were pegged as the future of the heavyweight division and stars of the company. The two even headlined the first ever UFC on Fox event but fast forward seven years and both men are lost in the shuffle and are taking a backseat to the likes McGregor, Demetrious Johnson, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Paige VanZant. In terms of marketability and promotional opportunities the two are almost non-existent. Velasquez has been plagued with injuries and JDS has alternated wins and losses since 2012. Despite both men suffering setback after setback they are still remarkably ranked in the top five of the division. That alone speaks volumes to the lack of depth and fighter development in the division.
In the absence of Velasquez and JDS, Fabricio Werdum emerged as the lone star of the division but at 37 years old his prime years may be running on borrowed time. According to a French study athletes tend to hit their physical peak during the ages of 21-30 years old with a physical decline coming in around the age of 26. The UFC’s heavyweight division only has three fighters who are currently ranked in the top 15 that are 30 years old or under. Ngannou (ranked 10th), number 11 ranked Stefan Struve who is 28, and number 12 ranked Alexander Volkov who is also 28 years old.
After defeating Arlovski this past Saturday the time may be now for Ngannou to strike. UFC president Dana White feels that Ngannou has a high upside in the division, “I believe that this guy has the potential to become the heavyweight champion of the world. I also believe he has the potential to hold that title for a very long time.” The top five of the heavyweight division is on shaky ground at the moment. Velasquez is out following back issues, JDS has been inconsistent but is rumored to receive a title shot, Werdum is on Dana White’s bad side, and Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem are scheduled to fight each other. That leaves Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell as viable options for Ngannou to face.
It is clear the UFC likes Ngannou’s potential from White’s comments and from his placement on fight cards. Saturday was the third time he has competed on a Fox event since debuting with the UFC in 2015. He has compiled a 5-0 record with four knockouts and a submission. The power in his hand is quite obvious as seen on Saturday but Ngannou has almost split his wins in half between knockouts and submissions. Though he turned pro in 2013, he has shown that he is not just a one-trick fighter with the almost equal amount of KO wins to submission wins. The UFC needs at least one more star in the heavyweight division to pair with current champion Stipe Miocic. Age, injuries, and inconsistencies have hindered the division for far too long and heavyweight stars are fading. Maybe it is time for Ngannou’s star to shine brighter.