UFC heavyweight tiers: Sorting through Jones, Aspinall and contenders

The UFC’s heavyweight division has always been one of its most popular. At the moment, it’s also one of its most confusing.

The big boys have enjoyed the spotlight of late. On March 9, Curtis Blaydes and Jailton Almeida faced off in a critical heavyweight matchup at UFC 299, resulting in a win for Blaydes. On Saturday, Marcin Tybura submitted Tai Tuivasa in a heavyweight main event at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas.

Those were important fights in the division, but pinpointing exactly what they meant is difficult because of the situation at the top. Jon Jones is the champ, but recovering from injury. Tom Aspinall is an interim champ, but oddly, he is not expected to face the actual champ any time soon.

To make sense of it all, we put the top heavyweights in the UFC into tiers, hopefully giving us a better gauge of the landscape.


THE NO. 1 HEAVYWEIGHT IN THE WORLD

Aspinall is the present and future of the division. He might go down as one of the greatest heavyweights to ever do it by the time it’s said and done. He’s the total package, in a division where you don’t even need to be the whole package to succeed. Aspinall is more athletic and skilled than any of his peers. He has numerous ways to win, and his fight IQ is as high as you’ll find. Jones might have the official UFC championship, and he is the greatest fighter of all time, but Aspinall is the best heavyweight in the world right now.


THE GOAT, BUT THE NO. 2 HEAVYWEIGHT IN THE WORLD

I will use some verbiage here that some might not like, but let’s keep it real — Jones is a paper champion of the UFC’s heavyweight division. He didn’t beat the previous champion, Francis Ngannou, to win the belt. He won a vacant title over Ciryl Gane, whose most “championship-caliber” win is arguably over Junior dos Santos, in the final fight of dos Santos’ UFC career. To be clear, none of that is on Jones. It’s not his fault he didn’t get to challenge Ngannou. And it’s not his fault that Gane was the opponent against whom he won a vacant title. But Jones is 1-0 as a heavyweight, which simply does not make him the best heavyweight in the world. The big question with Jones now is how many more times he’ll fight, and whether he’s motivated enough to stick around and prove he’s the best.


THE RETIRED NO. 1 TITLE CHALLENGER

This is the problem — but some would say, the appeal — of the UFC heavyweight division right now. Two of the top three names, Jones and Miocic, are virtually retired. Miocic hasn’t fought in three years. Jones has fought once in four years. A combined two fights in four years, guys. That said, you have the GOAT of MMA in Jones and the GOAT of heavyweight history in Miocic. The UFC sees an opportunity to promote that, so they’re allowing these two to basically hijack the division for a year. I believe we’ll see Jones vs. Miocic for the heavyweight title in November in New York, and it’ll be a big fight at the box office. And it will be a fun night for the sport. The drawback is that for a year, we have to pretend like it’s not exactly that: one fun, sellable night for the UFC. It’s essentially as if Jones and Miocic have broken into their own two-man division for now. Which is cool, but it leaves the rest of the division in a weird place. That should change though, when these two fight.


THE BIG QUESTION MARKS

Pavlovich has eight appearances in the UFC, including one for an interim championship. Blaydes has 17(!). To still describe these two as “question marks” feels strange, considering how much of them we’ve seen. But the truth is that it still feels as though we haven’t identified the full ceiling for each. For Blaydes, he’s been a hallmark of consistency. His four losses have all come by knockout to the hammers of the division: Ngannou (twice), Pavlovich and Derrick Lewis. Is that just who Blaydes is at this point? Will he beat everyone you put before him, except for the savvy, powerful, one-punch knockout artists?

History would say that, yes, that is exactly who Blaydes is. But he looks like he should be better than that. He doesn’t feel like a gatekeeper. It feels like this man has a title win in him. But if he loses one more time by knockout to a hammer, his reputation will be pretty much cemented.

And Pavlovich is a big question mark because he can sleep anyone in the division on any given night. He lost to a more skilled heavyweight in Aspinall, but no one can comfortably say he won’t still win a title within the next 12-to-18 months.


IN HIS OWN WORLD

Gane is in a tier of his own because he’s so unique. Athletically, he’s as gifted as guys like Aspinall and Jones. But he’s relatively new to MMA. He was 28 when he took his first professional fight. His standup is outstanding, but his grappling is a huge liability and the division knows it. Based on raw talent alone, Gane could be the best heavyweight in the world, but his overall projection is lower than that of guys like Blaydes and Pavlovich because of his holes.


THE SMALLER QUESTION MARKS

Almeida proved to be a bit one-dimensional in his TKO loss to Blaydes at UFC 299. His prowess on the ground keeps him relevant in this heavyweight conversation. The division is not incredibly deep, so if Almeida figures some things out and gets a couple of finishes, he’s in title contention. But his game needs to grow.

Despaigne comes from an accomplished taekwondo background, and his athleticism and size make him stand out, but he’s 35 years old and going on his sixth-ever professional MMA fight. Expectations must be tempered, at least as they pertain to championship aspirations. But these two have immense potential, even if a lot has to go right for them to reach the top.


THE OLD GUARD

There’s not a lot to say about this group. They are who they are, which isn’t a knock. They are some of the top heavyweights in the world, but they’re predictable at this point. Rarely will they let you down, but it’s also going to be rare if they genuinely surprise you. Spivac is the most interesting of the group because of his age. He’s been slightly inconsistent at times, but if there is one name from this tier who is likely to rise, it’s him.


THE BANGERS

  • Tai Tuivasa (15-7), 31 years old

  • Derrick Lewis (27-12), 39 years old

If you’re the UFC, just put these guys on a card, sit back and relax. Your job is done. Right now, these two don’t factor into any title conversations. Maybe one of them will get hot and that will change, or perhaps it won’t. No one cares. They are two of the most beloved fighters on the roster and fans will show up to watch them. Their popularity is independent of the UFC’s title, and even of wins and losses in general.

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