UFC Raleigh: How Curtis Blaydes vs. Junior dos Santos will impact the heavyweight division

Blaydes vs. Dos Santos: A hard-hitting battle of heavyweights (1:08)

Curtis Blaydes and Junior dos Santos collide in a highly anticipated battle of heavyweights on Saturday, January 25th. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (1:08)

The top of the UFC heavyweight division might be on hold as champion Stipe Miocic recovers from an eye injury, but the contenders for his title will be active early this year with Saturday's main event in Raleigh, North Carolina first up.

ESPN's No. 4 ranked heavyweight Curtis Blaydes faces the most important fight of his career when he takes on No. 5 Junior dos Santos.

Blaydes had three straight wins over Aleksei Oleinik, Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem in 2017 and 2018. Some didn't give him credit because those men were either close to or beyond 40 years old. Dos Santos, a former champion, is 35 and still a top contender.

"He's a name," Blaydes said. "He's high ranked. He's got skills and he's aged very well.

"So a win over him, people wouldn't be able to devalue it. He's still very skilled and very dangerous."

The bout is a big one for the heavyweight division. The winner might not be next in line to fight Miocic, but could conceivably get the shot after that, perhaps before the end of the year.

Here are five things to consider about the UFC Raleigh headliner and how it could shape the start of the UFC's heavyweight campaign in 2020.

Trilogy pending

Miocic is supposed to fight Daniel Cormier for a third time at some point this year. Cormier knocked out Miocic to win the belt in 2018 and Miocic avenged that loss at UFC 241 on Aug. 17.

The trilogy bout, which is also supposed to be Cormier's retirement fight, has not yet been set. Miocic tore his retina and needed surgery due to accidental eye pokes during the fight with Cormier.

Dos Santos is no fan of the trilogy. No other fighter besides Miocic or Cormier has been in a UFC heavyweight title bout since Ngannou lost to Miocic on Jan. 20, 2018.

"They should give those two guys other opponents," dos Santos told ESPN Brazil. "The winner of Blaydes and myself will be in contention for a title shot."

If that trilogy fight is made and Cormier wins, it could complicate things. Cormier would be expected to retire and give up the title. Then, the UFC would have to decide which two fighters would compete for the vacant belt.

Blaydes, though, is not sold that Cormier will hang up the gloves after fighting Miocic again.

"If he wins, who knows?" Blaydes said.

'Razor' on the edge?

Blaydes seemed to be nearing a title shot in 2018. He was unbeaten in six straight and torched Overeem at UFC 225 on June 9 of that year. But in his next bout, Blaydes was knocked out by Ngannou. It was the second time Ngannou finished Blaydes and temporarily halted his title hopes.

That's OK, Blaydes said. He's now on a two-fight winning streak, and even if Ngannou remains ahead of him in the divisional pecking order, Blaydes vows that he's not going anywhere any time soon. Of the heavyweight contenders, "Razor" is by far the youngest at 28.

"Eventually, if you beat everybody they can't help but give you a title shot," Blaydes said. "I'm not gonna argue, I'm not gonna bitch and moan. Whoever they give me, that's who I'm gonna fight. I'm a company man."

In his mind, a rapid ascent to the top of the heavyweight ladder was never going to be in the cards. Blaydes doesn't fancy himself as another Israel Adesanya, who entered the UFC, won five straight fights and beat Robert Whittaker for the middleweight belt.

"I'm a big fan of 'Stylebender,'" Blaydes said. "But that's not how I roll. I don't mind being patient and taking this slow grind. I come from a wrestling background. Everything is about patience and grinding. That's just been permeated through my whole life. That's how I approach everything."

Dos Santos might benefit from Ngannou loss

Could dos Santos got a title shot if he beats Blaydes? It's possible. But it all depends on what happens when No. 3 Ngannou fights Jairzinho Rozenstruik at UFC Columbus on March 28. Ngannou knocked out dos Santos on June 29. If Ngannou wins in March, dos Santos says he believes Ngannou would have the inside track.

If it's Rozenstruik? "Cigano" says he believes that could change everything.

"If Jairzinho comes out on top, I would like to think we are ahead of him," dos Santos said.

Before the loss to Ngannou, dos Santos had won three straight and four out of five, with the lone loss during that time coming in a title fight against Miocic. Dos Santos has a history with Miocic, having beaten him in 2014 before Miocic returned the favor in 2017. Both were excellent fights and few would be upset at a trilogy.

Miocic actually has an action figure of dos Santos in his locker at the firehouse where he works in Ohio. It was a gag gift from his fellow firefighters after dos Santos beat him, and Miocic hasn't removed it.

'Predator' looming

Speaking of rematches, dos Santos is hoping to one day see Ngannou -- "The Predator" -- again.

"We know how dangerous the heavyweight division is, especially with Ngannou and his abnormal knockout power," dos Santos said. "In my opinion, I made a silly mistake because I was too confident. [I should have] kept the strategy of moving, touching him, keeping my distance and making him follow me. Then I felt overconfident and ended up exposing myself. I want this rematch because he won due to my mistake."

Most expected Ngannou to be next in line for a title shot after he finished dos Santos, but the possibility of Miocic-Cormier 3 held that up. Ngannou will have to fight Rozenstruik in an attempt to win four straight. During this current run, Ngannou has stopped former champion Cain Velasquez, Blaydes and dos Santos -- all in the first round.

The Ngannou who fought Derrick Lewis to a lackluster unanimous decision loss at UFC 226 in 2018 seems long gone. Miocic beat Ngannou earlier that year by unanimous decision, but Ngannou seems to have improved since then, and a win over Rozenstruik would leave no doubt that he has to be next in line.

The Jon Jones question

Everything we know about the heavyweight division and its hierarchy would be turned upside down if Jones, the longtime UFC light heavyweight champion, makes the move to heavyweight. Jones has never truly lost in the cage and is arguably the greatest MMA fighter ever. He fights Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 on Feb. 8 in Houston and has said if he retains the 205-pound title, his next fight could be at heavyweight.

Blaydes said "of course" Jones should get a heavyweight title shot right away upon a change in division.

"He's earned that," Blaydes said. "He doesn't have to prove himself to anyone. He's the GOAT.

"Yeah, I guess if he came up that's just another guy I'd have to wait on."

Dos Santos said he'd like a shot at Jones upon his arrival at heavyweight, if that is what comes to pass. He isn't sure if Jones would lose anything by bulking up and going against bigger opponents.

"This is the most dangerous division," dos Santos said. "Everything can change in a second. Obviously, Jon Jones is talented -- he moves very well for his weight. But he would have to see how he would react to that. Extra weight could do a little harm. He would still definitely be the great fighter that he is."