Bubble Busters is a limited series examining each division for on-the-bubble MMA contenders who operate just outside of Top 10 contention and outlining their potential paths to ranked recognition. From skills fighters could improve to possible matches for which they should campaign, we attempt to solve the riddles associated with crossing the contender threshold. First up, the heavyweights.
The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 249 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
Walt Harris: “The Big Ticket” has been a fan favorite for much of his Ultimate Fighting Championship tenure due to game-changing knockout power that has resulted in a 100 percent finish rate across his 13 professional victories. After spinning his wheels as a low- to middle-tier talent, Harris has rattled off three wins in his last four appearances and no longer flies under the radar. He has twice been booked opposite Alistair Overeem in a fight that has the potential to serve as Harris’ big break, only to see those plans fall through. If they get rescheduled at some point in the future, it would provide the Alabama native with the opportunity to establish himself as a legitimate contender. A seasoned, technical and accomplished veteran who can hold his own no matter where the action takes place, Overeem has one glaring weakness: a suspect chin that has betrayed him more than once; and Harris has become an expert at finding his opponent’s chin. With his combination of hand speed and power, he has the weaponry necessary to put him over the top against a majority of the UFC’s current heavyweight roster.
Justin Willis: Although the American Kickboxing Academy export was ushered out of the UFC following his unanimous decision loss to Curtis Blaydes a little more than a year ago, it appears as though he has landed in an ideal situation with the Professional Fighters League. A chance at a million-dollar prize brings about a new lease on life and perhaps a hungrier, more motivated Willis. The only real knock on “Big Pretty” was his inability to pull the trigger when it mattered most, opting to fight behind his jab and leg kicks instead of going for the kill—an approach that did not endear him to UFC brass. The incentive to finish fights in the PFL might push Willis to new heights and unlock the capabilities he flashed in multiple wins on the big stage. A strong showing during the 2020 season could open doors for Willis, a fighter far too talented to stay down for long.
Ciryl Gane: The undefeated Frenchman has only six professional MMA bouts on his resume, but it only takes a few standout performances to push such a skilled competitor towards the top of the heavyweight division. As he awaits his fourth assignment in the UFC, Gane finds himself in position to stake his claim as a contender by clearing one more hurdle. Though he boasts an impressive kickboxing pedigree, his ground skills have opened eyes inside the Octagon, where he has secured two of his three wins by submission. Gane’s consistent improvement in the grappling department bodes well for his future, but he needs to show more urgency in standup exchanges. All too often, he seems content to sit on the outside while chopping away with leg kicks and jabs. At a physically imposing 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Gane undoubtedly has the power he needs to place fellow heavyweights in peril, so it will be interesting to see what problems he poses when he sits down on his punches and commits to his shots. Perhaps the UFC will pair him with Shamil Abdurakhimov next. They were scheduled to meet at UFC 249 on April 18 before an injury forced Gane to withdraw and the COVID-19 pandemic left the rest of the sport in limbo.
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