Due to their short-sighted insistence on sticking Derrick Lewis into the main event of UFC 265 in Houston, the UFC appears to have created quite the conundrum. Even though the reigning champion, Francis Ngannou, hasn’t been on the shelf with injury or some sort of monetary dispute, the UFC decided to create an interim champion anyway, those shoes being filled by Cyril Gane when he defeated Lewis. Now, they have two champions when there is no logical reason for two champions. It’s a place that the UFC has put themselves in before, years ago, and came out on top by making a nod toward their roots.
First, however, let’s set the stage with where things are just at the moment.
In March, Ngannou became the heavyweight champion when he put away Stipe Miocic. Proud of his heritage, Ngannou celebrated his crowning achievement by going to Africa—Cameroon to be more specific. The UFC was initially supportive of this idea as the possibilities of expanding into Africa seem to have been on their mind for quite some time. Once all the COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions have been lifted worldwide, it feels like a safe bet that the UFC will be traveling to Africa with Ngannou, Israel Adesanya, and/or Kamaru Usman topping the card.
Nonetheless, the UFC wanted a fairly quick turnaround from Ngannou’s trip to Africa, scheduling UFC 265 to take place in Houston, in early August. They approached their newly crowned champ with the idea of headlining the card with Houston native, and all-around fan favorite, Derrick Lewis. After all, the ‘Black Beast’ holds an un-avenged victory over the ‘Predator’, something neither Stipe Miocic or Jon Jones can claim. But, Ngannou wanted a full camp – something no one can blame him for – and countered with an offer of either September or October. The UFC balked and created the interim heavyweight fight between Lewis and Gane. Given the interim title fight was just five months after Ngannou won the undisputed belt, it’s hard to find anyone who believes the move was necessary. What’s done is done, though, and Gane is now the interim champion.
The obvious course of action is to pit Ngannou and Gane against one another. After all they are former training partners, creating an easy narrative for the UFC to sell. Besides, the obvious action in the fight game in terms of matchmaking is usually the best one to make (and I admit, it’s a good fight). Still, in this case, I’m of the opinion there’s something better.
To set the stage of what I’m thinking, let’s rewind all the way back to 2008. Those of you who are longtime MMA fans probably already know where I’m going. Randy Couture, the reigning heavyweight champion at the time, was in a financial dispute with the UFC. Not knowing when – or if – Couture would be back, an interim title fight was arranged with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Tim Sylvia. Nogueira emerged victorious and it wasn’t too long before Couture and the UFC made peace (at least for the time being). However, the UFC didn’t arrange a contest between Couture and Nogueira. They arranged for an unofficial mini tournament.
The UFC was looking to capitalize on Brock Lesnar’s popularity. The former WWE star was fresh off a dominant performance over established veteran Heath Herring and the UFC wanted to fast track him. Of course, Lesnar was perfectly fine with that idea, but he also wanted a crack at the man who gave him his first career loss, former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. So the UFC, recognizing they have two champions, arranged the mini tournament with Lesnar facing Couture and pitting Mir and Nogueira together.
The tournament proved to be a smashing success. The UFC got what it really wanted in a rematch between Lesnar and Mir, after they won their respective fights with Couture and Nogueira. However, what was even sweeter to the UFC’s ears was the fact that all three of those PPV’s (UFC 91, UFC 92, and UFC 100) allegedly had over a million buyers. That’s damn good business.
Fast forward to today. There are two very worthy candidates to slide into a title fight… and there are two champions. Jon Jones is considered by many to be the GOAT. Not just in his division, but the GOAT of the entire sport. He vacated his light heavyweight title last year with the intention of moving up to heavyweight. It’s been about a year since he made his intentions clear and we still haven’t seen him in the cage. There’s also Miocic, the man Ngannou took the heavyweight title from. Sure, Miocic is coming off the loss to Ngannou, but he is the most decorated heavyweight champion in UFC history—in addition to owning a win over Ngannou.
So how to set up the tournament? The major fulcrum in setting up the bracket is Miocic. Since 2018, he has fought five times, the entirety of those fights coming against two different men, Daniel Cormier and Ngannou. The last thing fans want to see is Miocic immediately complete the trilogy with Ngannou when there are so many other intriguing fights for him that haven’t been explored. Thus, if we keep the tournament in the format the 2008 tournament – having the two champions on the opposite ends of the bracket – Miocic faces Gane leaving Ngannou and Jones to collide. I understand Miocic and Gane is the worst possible pairing in terms of potential box office, but Ngannou and Jones appears to have the highest ceiling out of all the potential matchups. Plus, it allows the UFC to maintain the visage of two heavyweight champions before a uniting of the belts following the conclusion of those contests.
The bottom line is fight fans have always enjoyed tournaments. Hell, the foundation of the UFC itself is built upon tournaments. Fans love speculating about the potential matchups that can come of them. And even if there are only four participants in this hypothetical situation, there is still a degree of speculation to be had. Would Miocic get the trilogy fight he so desperately wants with Ngannou? Or would he get a crack at Jones, pitting the most decorated light heavyweight in UFC history against the most decorated heavyweight in UFC history? Or does Gane surprise everyone as the relative newcomer on the scene and emerge on top ala Daniel Cormier in 2011 for Strikeforce?
The UFC needs look no further than their top competitor, Bellator, when it comes to the success of tournaments. While Bellator isn’t in position to overthrow the UFC by any means, the times when it is most successful in stealing away attention from the world’s leading MMA organization is when they have either announced a new tournament or are nearing the conclusion of one. Their featherweight tournament, which just recently wrapped up, went well enough that there have been talks of AJ McKee being the best featherweight on the planet—ahead of the UFC’s reigning featherweight champion, Alex Volkanovski. It’s rare a Bellator fighter can be mentioned in those lofty graces, but a good chunk of the credit for that can go to McKee being tested in a tournament format.
I don’t anticipate the UFC would actually put all this together. The last tournament they held outside of a TUF season was for the inaugural flyweight championship, which was announced almost 10 years ago at this point. The organization seems very much set in their ways, choosing to ignore the hard-cores of their fan base, given they have them in their back pocket regardless. That tends to happen when a company has an overwhelming grip on its market. Still, I’d love it if they threw me and the other longtime fans a bone. Make a nod towards the roots of this sport, something the UFC seems to have pushed back in the rear-view mirror.