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Jan Blachowicz in normal times would not be the subject of serious consideration for a light heavyweight title shot right now. In normal times, there would be another two or three similarly positioned opponents with which to match him and sort out the identity of the true No. 1 contender. However, these are not normal times, and despite Daniel Cormier’s appraisal of what it means to beat Corey Anderson, Blachowicz is now on the shortlist of title contenders.
That’s not to diminish the real accomplishment of defeating “Overtime” in 188 seconds in the UFC Fight Night 167. Anderson is a legitimate Top 10 fighter, and prior to his loss to Blachowicz, his four-fight winning streak was the second-longest in the division behind only reigning champion Jon Jones. Now that position belongs in part to Blachowicz, who is on a three-fight tear that ties him with 2014 title contender Glover Teixeira for the division’s second-longest such streak.
It isn’t just that beating a good/not-great fighter like Anderson shouldn’t warrant a title shot; the notion that three wins sets you apart from the rest of the competition doesn’t exactly speak well of the division. In virtually every lighter-weight class, three consecutive wins will probably launch you no further than cracking the Top 10, depending on who you beat and how. Yet three wins at light heavyweight does set you apart. In the current Top 15, only three fighters are on a winning streak, and only two additional fighters won their most recent fight. All signs point to light heavyweight being moribund, but that’s not entirely the case.
Sure, it’s not a hopeful sign for the future that there are more Top 10 light heavyweights in their 40s than there are in their 20s, but a trend that is becoming abundantly clear is that the career arc of heavier fighters is simply different. Losing a step at lightweight is much different than slowing down at heavyweight. Striking power doesn’t erode as quickly as speed, and plodding power is still a viable way to win in heavier weight classes. Speed and athleticism are prerequisites for success in the lighter divisions, so naturally, they are more unforgiving for aging fighters.
This is typically read as an indictment, that heavier fighters are less technical than their punier peers. However, I tend to see it as mere difference, that the successful meta-games for different divisions manifest according to the specific anthropomorphic traits of the athletes. It’s like comparing an NBA center to a point guard. Just because Shaquille O’Neal is worse than Mark Price at shooting free throws doesn’t mean he’s a lesser player; it means his game is different because the physical and stylistic demands of the game are different than they are for players who are a foot shorter and half your weight.
Moreover, the apparent dearth of 205-pound talent is in many ways a function of a longtime dominant champion like Jones. Fighters who are very good end up looking indistinguishable from mediocre fighters because they are lumped together, united by their shared loss to the same person. Demetrious Johnson had the same effect on flyweight, where his dominance rendered sensational fighters like Henry Cejudo, Joseph Benavidez and Kyoji Horiguchi no different than Chris Cariaso—at least at first glance. It doesn’t help that Jones has eight wins against the current Top 15 light heavyweights, two of whom may never return to the division.
All of this makes it difficult for contenders to emerge the old-fashioned way: stringing together multiple wins against increasingly tough opposition. At this point, the best fighters in the division have either lost to Jones already or they’ve definitively lost to someone who has lost to him. In this context, three consecutive wins is a standout achievement and not just because the division is thin.
Blachowicz is by no means a lock for the next title fight, either. Dominick Reyes has at least as much claim for the next shot at Jones as Blachowicz, and probably more: In my mind, Reyes should be preparing for a rematch with Jones for his first title defense. Although Jones has typically done well in rematches against opponents who gave him tough first fights, he has never fought the same person in back-to-back appearances. There were two years and a fight between his two bouts with Cormier, and there were five years and four fights between his two fights with Alexander Gustafsson. A quick rebound with a couple of strategic tweaks may be enough for Reyes to pull away with an undisputed win.
If Blachowicz does get the next shot, he absolutely has a chance to win. He’s a tough veteran who is steadily making incremental improvements to his game, and he has the striking accuracy and power to make things interesting with Jones on the feet. There are also hours of footage on Jones to help Blachowicz devise a specific plan of attack, including 25 recent minutes that show a pretty effective and replicable blueprint. Plus, Jones seems to be on the decline physically, if not tactically; his last two fights were by far his most competitive, and it’s no coincidence that he was content to stick primarily to modestly successful at-range kickboxing in both of them.
A fighter’s performance and style are often an extension of their personality, and Jones is susceptible to overconfidence. Not for no reason: If I were the youngest-ever UFC champion and all-around athletic phenom, there’s a good chance I’d be just as obnoxiously self-assured as Jones. Blachowicz would very well be his most boring title challenger yet, and that bored inability to maintain motivation will likely be his downfall, if he ever experiences one before retirement.
Blachowicz may not look like the pound-for-pound great required to take down an all-time talent like Jones, but he likely doesn’t need to be. Face the top contender enough times in a row as Jones has, and eventually, you’ll get got. Blachowicz appears to have the power, the toughness and the insouciance to give Jones a legitimate run for his money. Besides, Blachowicz should be fighting Reyes for the title anyway.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.