UFC London: Fresh names in thin divisions have a chance to emerge

In the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions, Fight Night 127 could offer some long-term solutions to a long-time issue.

One of the best things about the first two months of the UFC’s 2018 campaign has been the number of new names that have emerged from the first eight events of the year.

While some established talents excelled in the most high profile bouts in January and February, the opening two months of the year have also seen Brian Ortega earn a featherweight title shot, Jeremy Stephens make it clear that he’s a legitimate contender in that same division and a host of talented up-and-comers introduce themselves to a larger audience.

In some cases, those new arrivals have also provided a jolt of electricity to weight classes that have been in dire need of fresh challengers to shake up the status quo. Curtis Blaydes and Tai Tuivasa positioned themselves as fighters to watch in the heavyweight ranks, while Tyson Pedro, Ilir Latifi and Jordan Johnson all scored important victories in the light heavyweight division and this weekend in London, the final two bouts of the evening could have a further impact on those two weight classes.

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The penultimate contest on Saturday’s event, which will be broadcast exclusively on UFC Fight Pass in North America, is a light heavyweight rematch between Jimi Manuwa and Jan Blachowicz that comes nearly three years after their first encounter.

Manuwa won that initial meeting by unanimous decision and has remained just outside the exclusive upper echelon in the light heavyweight division since, sandwiching knockout wins over Ovince Saint Preux and Corey Anderson between knockout losses to Anthony Johnson and Volkan Oezdemir. Blachowicz has similarly had mixed results, posting three wins and three losses since having his six-fight winning streak snapped by Manuwa in his sophomore appearance in the Octagon.

But while Manuwa comes in looking to once again bounce-back from a blistering defeat, Blachowicz arrives in the best form of his UFC career, riding a two-fight winning streak that has showcased the full depth of his diverse offensive game and positioned the Polish veteran as a possible new entrant in the top tier of the 205-pound ranks. Maybe that’s simply a function of facing lesser talent, but the 35-year-old had an outstanding run under the KSW banner and wouldn’t be the first athlete to falter after signing with the UFC before rebounding and establishing himself as a contender.

In a division where very little separates the collection of talent assembled beyond the established elite, a victory over Manuwa to push his winning streak to three could result in Blachowicz being catapulted into the mix alongside contenders like Oezdemir, Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira in the second half of 2018.

The outcome of the main event could have even great ramifications on another division that has long needed new additions to work their way into contention and break up the all-too-familiar collection of talent that has remained at the top for far too long.

Saturday’s finale features former heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum taking on Alexander Volkov, the ex-Bellator titleholder who has gone 3-0 since debuting in the UFC in November 2016.

Over the last several years, the group at the top of the heavyweight ranks has consisted of current champ Stipe Miocic, former champions Werdum, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, and perennial contenders Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt.

The only real new addition to the group prior to this year has been Francis Ngannou, who really only ascended to prominence in 2017 before losing to Miocic at UFC 220 in Boston earlier this year.

Blaydes inserted his name into the conversation with his triumph over Hunt in Perth at the start of February and his only other bout against one of the top talents in the division came in his debut loss to Ngannou back before he moved to Colorado and really started taking things seriously.

Volkov has the potential to do the same with a victory over Werdum on Saturday.

What’s most appealing about his potential within the heavyweight ranks — aside from the fact that doesn’t turn 30 until October — is that he has yet to face a single fighter ranked in the top 10 in the division. He’s turned back Timothy Johnson, Roy Nelson and Stefan Struve over the course of his first three appearances, but he’s yet to share the cage with anyone who is even close to contention and the possibility of adding another youngish fighter into the mix in a weight class that has always had problems keeping things fresh is exciting.

Turnover is crucial for keeping divisions moving and providing fans with new, compelling matchups rather than unsatisfying squash matches and finding the one unmade fight that exists among a group of four or fight familiar names.

Both light heavyweight and heavyweight have struggled with this issue for quite some time, but the tides seem to be changing. Fresh talent is emerging in each division and that trend could continue this weekend in London.

And if it doesn’t, here’s hoping the final two fights on the evening at least tell us a little more about what the more established halves of those pairings have to offer as the second quarter of the 2018 campaign draws near.