Curtis Blaydes, Alexander Volkov set to kick-start key stretch for UFC heavyweights

Curtis Blaydes is the No. 3-ranked heavyweight contender by the UFC, which makes Saturday's bout against Alexander Volkov vitally important. AP Photo/Jim Young

Curtis Blaydes has won three fights in a row, the past two by knockout, and has just one loss in his past 10 trips inside the Octagon. Alexander Volkov has been a winner in five of his six bouts since he joined the UFC roster in 2016. Runs of success such as those typically position a fighter for a championship fight. But when Blaydes and Volkov meet in a UFC Fight Night main event on Saturday in Las Vegas, the stakes will be more nebulous.

For the past two years, the heavyweight title picture has been a wallet-size portrait depicting two men. Ever since Daniel Cormier dethroned Stipe Miocic in July 2018, the rising contenders in the division have mingled amongst themselves while waiting for the champ and ex-champ to finish their ongoing business. Cormier made one title defense against Derrick Lewis four months after winning the belt, but other than that, it has been a two-man show, with the occasional cameo by a potential distraction.

It would be convenient to blame Cormier's status as a champion in two weight classes for the heavyweight division's doldrums because the champ-champ era has clogged up title hierarchies at other weights. But DC didn't divide his focus once he added the heavyweight belt to his trophy case. He never again defended his light heavyweight title and surrendered it less than two months after the Lewis fight.

What did distract Cormier -- and leave the rest of the heavyweight top 10 to languish -- was a different promotional pitfall. It's something that has been plaguing the sport more and more in recent times: bogus title-fight matchmaking in the name of commerce.

At heavyweight, it started on the very night DC won the belt, when long-retired former UFC champion Brock Lesnar walked into the Octagon right after the main event and, with a shove to the chest of the belt-wearing Cormier, challenged the new champ to a fight. This made no sense, of course. The only fight to book was a rematch with Miocic, who defended the UFC title more times than any other heavyweight in history. But Stipe and all sensibility were nudged to the side so Cormier and UFC president Dana White could focus their hungry eyes on Lesnar. Lesnar's qualifications for a title shot: zero victories since 2010. But, boy, could the pro rassler sell pay-per-views.

Just like that, the UFC heavyweight division was off the rails.

Talk of Cormier vs. Lesnar lingered for months. Thankfully, the shameless cash grab was never booked. By last August, DC was back in the cage with Miocic. But feelings had been hurt through the delay. The anticipation of tit-for-tat was in the air. When Miocic turned the tables and won his belt back, it was his turn to make Cormier wait for a trilogy bout. Miocic had a torn retina to heal after surgery, and the part-time EMT in a Cleveland suburb was working full-time hours during the coronavirus pandemic, but even so, it would be naive to think he didn't enjoy the gamesmanship of making Cormier wait.

Now, finally, Miocic vs. Cormier 3 is set for Aug. 15. DC has vowed to retire after this fight, and there's speculation that Miocic might also call it quits. Before summer's end, there likely will be a good bit of movement at heavyweight.

But it's still unclear what it will mean for contenders such as this weekend's main-eventers.

"If Curtis wins, he's right up there in the title picture," said Alistair Overeem, who trains with Blaydes as part of Team Elevation in Denver. Overeem, a winner of three of his past four, believes that he, too, is within "one or two more wins of a title shot."

Blaydes is No. 4 in ESPN's heavyweight rankings. The top two spots belong to Miocic and Cormier, and then comes Francis Ngannou. Nothing Blaydes does Saturday should boost him over Ngannou, who owns two knockout victories over Blaydes. If Miocic joins Cormier in retirement, though, that could open the door for the next two in line to fight for the vacant belt, which could mean an Ngannou-Blaydes trilogy fight if Blaydes gets by Volkov.

But a Miocic retirement seems like a long shot.

Volkov is ranked No. 7, so it seems clear that he, like 10th-ranked Overeem and others, will have to wait out Stipe-DC 3 and a Ngannou title challenge -- at least.

Why "at least"? Because there's another fighter who, even as a non-presence in the heavyweight division, casts a daunting shadow over the title picture. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones has been talking for a long time about moving up to fight with the big boys. His current dispute with the UFC is over his pursuit of a fight with Ngannou and his demand for a payday worthy of stepping in with the sport's most dangerous knockout artist. If Jones mends fences with Dana White & Co. this summer, he could shift his focus to Miocic (if Stipe beats DC) and a champ-vs.-champ superfight.

That would lock the rest of the heavyweight contenders in a position familiar to them: waiting in line.

Still, there's optimism in the ranks.

"A lot of us are very close to a title shot," Overeem said. "My teammate Curtis is. I am. Francis Ngannou is there. [Junior dos Santos] is fighting [Jairzinho] Rozenstruik, so the winner there will move up. It's an exciting time for the heavyweight division."

Dos Santos, whose date with Rozenstruik is booked for the same Aug. 15 card as Miocic-Cormier 3, has a similarly bullish outlook on his division.

"Heavyweight is really exciting right now, with big names and big fights happening," the 36-year-old former champion said. "I feel great being part of it, and I see myself in good position."

JDS recognizes the waiting game that he and other heavyweights have had to play, but he sees a positive in the gridlock. It has given him time to resuscitate his career after two straight losses. His defeats came against the iron of the division, Ngannou and Blaydes, and that is reflected in dos Santos' still being ranked in the "good position" of No. 5 among heavyweights. But he acknowledges the predicament he now faces.

"It's never happened before in my career -- losing two fights in a row," he said. "So it's been a rough moment for me. But man, I'm learning a lot."

If dos Santos can persevere, so can the other contenders-in-waiting. Ngannou is front and center among them. He has no fight booked, but he clearly has next, unless Jones cuts the line for a title shot or matchmaking vagaries strike again.

Beyond that potentially unsettling drama, the rest of the heavyweights are ready to jockey for position. Overeem has no fight booked, but last month's TKO of Walt Harris situated him in a strong position. Lewis is set for an Aug. 8 meeting with Alexey Oleinik. One week after that, mere minutes after dos Santos and ninth-ranked Rozenstruik slug it out, Miocic and Cormier will step into the Octagon to complete their trilogy and set the top of the heavyweight division back in motion.

It all starts Saturday, though, when Blaydes and Volkov throw down in Vegas. There's no clearly defined path forward for the winner. The loser will have even more ground to make up. But at least there's now a light at the end of the tunnel for these two fighters on a roll and the rest of the heavyweight elite.