In mixed martial arts, the heavyweight division is loved for its thunderous, blink-and-miss-'em knockouts. At the same time, however, the division is frequently criticized for its lack of depth. The simple and unfortunate fact is that there are not that many athletic, 250-pound men out there, and fewer still who are willing to make their livings in the perilous world of combat sports—especially when there are far more lucrative big-man sports like football and hockey out there.
Because of this ever present shortage of elite talent at heavyweight, it's always exciting when a legitimately dangerous prospect begins chopping his way through the divisional ranks. It is for precisely this reason that we're all so transfixed by French-Cameroonian destroyer Francis Ngannou, who just last weekend moved to 5-0 in the UFC with a crushing first round knockout of former champion Andrei Arlovski.
It is possible that Ngannou—who was homeless on the streets of Paris just a few years ago—is the first real, championship-caliber prospect to join the UFC roster since current champ Stipe Miocic entered the fray back in 2011. It's also possible that his recent knockout win had more to do with Arlovski's ever-deteriorating chin, and less to do with his own skill. While he certainly deserves the hype he's getting, he could well go the way of Travis Browne, as a fighter that initially looks like a future title challenger, but is ultimately revealed to be a little less spectacular than we thought.
Which of these two categories Ngannou falls into should become much clearer through his next few fights, as he graduates from fringe contenders and struggling veterans to the very best heavyweight mixed martial artists on earth. This of course, brings us to a very exciting question: Who does Francis Ngannou fight next?
Well, on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, the rising French heavyweight used his ever-improving English to attempt to make this question a little easier to answer for the UFC's matchmaking team. In his perfect world, he explained, his next opponent would be Alistair Overeem, Junior Dos Santos, or Cain Velasquez, with the latter being his top pick of the bunch. So, in this latest bit of option weighing, let's start with these three men.
Overeem, as we know, is scheduled for a rematch with a very disgruntled Mark Hunt at UFC 209 in March. Whether the Dutch striker wins or loses this fight, he'd be capable of giving us a very strong sense of how Ngannou stacks up at heavyweight. Though Dos Santos has recently been rumored to be the next man in line for the champ Miocic, he too would be an incredibly stiff test for Ngannou, and would also tell us a lot about where the Frenchman belongs in the division. Velasquez, finally, who despite not owning the belt is still regarded by many as the best heavyweight on earth, would also be an incredibly interesting test for Ngannou. But let's just pump the brakes for a second.
While Ngannou has competed in 11 mixed martial arts bouts—certainly nothing to smirk at—Overeem has competed in 57, and won titles in notable organizations like Strikeforce and Dream. This ignores his battles in the kickboxing ring, where he has realized similar heights. And while Ngannou's five UFC wins, particularly his recent defeat of Arlovski, have been very impressive, they still pale in comparison to those earned by Dos Santos and Velasquez, who have collectively defeated names like Fabricio Werdum, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, Shane Carwin, Frank Mir, Mark Hunt, Stipe Miocic, Ben Rothwell, Cheick Kongo, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Brock Lesnar, Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, Travis Browne, and, perhaps most impressively, each other.
The point her is that while Ngannou's defeat of Arlovski was a jaw-dropper, things are different inside the heavyweight top-5. If you are anything short of perfect in this elite section of the division, you will wake up under the Jumbotron with a concussion and a few missing teeth. Given the rarity of quality heavyweight prospects like Ngannou, it's probably better not to rush him into this dangerous zone, where the possibility of a hype-destroying knockout loss is not just a possibility but a likelihood.
So, if we can agree that it's still a bit premature to lock Ngannou in the cage with an opponent like Overeem, Dos Santos, or Velasquez, who might he take on next?
Well, one compelling choice would be the winner of Travis Browne and Derrick Lewis' upcoming bout, which will headline the UFC's February 19 return to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The issue with this possibility, however, is that Lewis stands alongside Ngannou as one of the few legitimate prospects in today's heavyweight division. So, while a potential Ngannou vs. Browne booking wouldn't present any cause for concern, a Ngannou vs. Lewis booking would, as it would effectively scratch the loser off an extremely short list of fresh heavyweight contenders. Given the eternal lack of depth of heavyweight, we just can't have that. It was for this same reason that Dos Santos and Velasquez were only matched up once Velasquez had won the title from Brock Lesnar, and not when they were both rising through the ranks. The division couldn't afford to waste two possible title challengers by pitting them against each other back then, and it still can't.
Luckily, there is one fighter in the heavyweight top-10 that stands out as a near flawless choice for Ngannou at this juncture. That fighter is Ben Rothwell. Rothwell entered 2016 on an impressive four fight streak, which was highlighted by a knockout of the venomous striker Overeem, and a submission of decorated grappler Josh Barnett. Unfortunately for him, this run came to a skittering halt when he was thrashed from bell to bell in an April bout with Dos Santos. At the moment, Rothwell is hungry for an opportunity to bounce back from this loss, much in the same way that Ngannou is looking for a big step up in competition. Pitting these two hulking heavies together gives them both the opportunity they desire, and as such, it stands out as the best choice available for either man.
Will anyone complain if Francis Ngannou is thrown into the fire with Overeem, Dos Santos or Velasquez as he wishes? Probably not. But if we're being sensible, there is currently no better choice for the red-hot heavyweight than Ben Rothwell. Book it, Mick Maynard.