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Real or Not: Derrick Lewis could be No. 1 heavyweight in the world; Ciryl Gane ready for title shot

If he beats Ciryl Gane, Derrick Lewis will have wins over six of the top 11 fighters in the UFC heavyweight rankings, as well as a victory over reigning champion Francis Ngannou. Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

UFC 265 is set for Saturday and offers an interim heavyweight title clash as the headlining fight. Derrick Lewis faces Ciryl Gane in the main event, and if he's able to win, Lewis would improve on one of the most impressive heavyweight résumés in UFC history. With so many big wins, including one over current UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, could Lewis stake his claim as the best in the division?

As for Gane, the rapidly rising star from France is on the precipice of UFC stardom in just his 10th professional MMA fight. Is he ready for this step up to the top tier of competition at heavyweight?

Saturday's co-main event also carries implications. Jose Aldo, the two-time UFC featherweight champion, has a chance to bolster his standing at bantamweight considerably as he takes on Pedro Munhoz. A win for either fighter keeps them near the top of an extremely competitive division, and it could be a must-win fight for Aldo to keep any realistic hopes of another title shot alive.

In what could turn out to be the best fight of the night, Michael Chiesa and Vicente Luque square off in a crucial welterweight clash. How close the winner will be to title contention remains to be seen.

Future UFC pay-per-view cards are also making buzz. Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler at UFC 268 is a clash of two of the best lightweights in the world. But will the winner get the first crack at whomever emerges from Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier?

And let's not forget about this past weekend. AJ McKee completed a star-making performance in the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix with a first-round knockout of Patricio "Pitbull" Freire -- a victory that also won him the Bellator featherweight championship and a $1 million bonus. McKee is a true homegrown Bellator star, with all 18 of his professional wins coming under that promotional banner. He's anxious to prove himself to be one of the best 145-pounders in the world, regardless of promotion -- but is his discussion of cross-promotional superfights merely a pipedream?

As we kick off a busy week in the world of MMA, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim dig into the biggest questions of the moment to separate what's real from what's not.

Lewis can make a case as the best heavyweight in the world if he beats Gane

Raimondi: There is a small amount of compelling evidence to perhaps support an argument that Lewis would be the top heavyweight after this weekend. If he beats Gane to become interim heavyweight champion, he will have won five straight. A win over Gane would mean Lewis has beaten six of the top 11 in the UFC's heavyweight rankings, plus the champion, Francis Ngannou. And if Lewis somehow manages to knock Gane out, he'll be in sole possession of the record for most KO/TKOs in UFC history.

Those are all surface-level points that could be made for such an argument, that Lewis -- not Ngannou -- is No. 1. But I'll say "not real," because a closer look is needed. Yes, Lewis beat Ngannou, but that was a bizarre fight -- one of the least active in the history of the UFC's heavyweight division. Ngannou was listless coming off the first loss of his career, to Stipe Miocic; Lewis was dealing with injuries. That fight was a wash, in my opinion. It should not hold any standing. Ngannou and Lewis are both much better fighters than they were in 2019.

Since that fight, Ngannou has not lost. And he has beaten the better opponents, including Miocic, the best UFC heavyweight ever, and Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Ngannou knocked out Junior dos Santos, who finished Lewis by TKO. Both have knocked out Curtis Blaydes, but Ngannou has done it twice. Ngannou even owns a win over Cain Velasquez, who was the most dominant heavyweight in UFC history at one point. Velasquez was still a tough matchup despite his injury struggles, and Ngannou took him out in the first round.

So yes, a Lewis win in his adopted hometown of Houston on Saturday would be massive. But Ngannou is still the man with the gold belt and he's the top guy, regardless of the winner at Toyota Center.

All that being said, if Lewis beats Gane, we are talking about an incredible run for someone who wasn't expected to make it big when he entered the UFC in 2014 and started off just 3-2 with losses to Matt Mitrione and Shawn Jordan -- and it makes the discussion for Lewis' future UFC Hall of Fame status considerably stronger.

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Gane dominates Volkov in unanimous decision win

Ciryl Gane keeps his undefeated record alive with a dominant unanimous decision win vs. Alexander Volkov at UFC Fight Night.

In just his 10th pro fight, Gane is ready to secure a title shot

Wagenheim: Absolutely real. Now, I'm not saying Gane is definitely going to defeat Lewis on Saturday, and then take the belt from Ngannou. But if he can handle Lewis, Gane will have shown all he has to show in order to be a legitimate challenger to Ngannou. Already this year, Gane has elevated himself from prospect to contender, beating a pair of top-10 heavyweights in Alexander Volkov and Jairzinho Rozenstruik.

One factor working against Gane is that, as a rising fighter yearning to impress, he might feel pressure to do more than just win. His victories over Volkov and Rozenstruik showed clear command, but both bouts went the distance. And Dana White, who as UFC president gets to sign off on title fight bookings, was critical of Gane.

The UFC does have a couple of high-profile options as potential challengers for Ngannou, in longtime pound-for-pound king Jon Jones and ex-champ Stipe Miocic. But if Gane fights a Gane fight this weekend, he has a strong chance to move within reach of the title shot he's been working toward.

The winner of Gaethje-Chandler will definitely fight for the title in his following bout

Okamoto: I'll tell you what -- this is hard to predict. Officially, I will say this is real, but keep in mind, there is no such thing as a "guaranteed title shot" in the UFC. The UFC can call any matchup it wants a "No. 1 contender fight" beforehand, but ultimately, timing and marketability (i.e. money) play huge factors in these decisions.

I anticipate the UFC booking a lightweight title fight between Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier early next year. Timing-wise, that's great for the Gaethje vs. Chandler winner. Time to recover, let the title fight play out, and then a nice runway into the next championship bout. The wild card, and there are a lot of people who won't want to hear this, is Conor McGregor. Always.

Personally, I don't need to see Poirier vs. McGregor IV. I certainly don't need to see it any time soon. But if McGregor is ready to come back in the second half of next year, and Poirier is the champion (and if you're Poirier in that scenario, you've won the belt and you have it all, so why wouldn't you want another money fight against McGregor?), it's a very real possibility.

In short, the UFC is not going to pass on a lucrative fourth fight between Poirier and McGregor if it's there for the sake of Gaethje or Chandler. They just won't. All that said, I still think one way or another, whether it's due to the results of the fights themselves or the timing of McGregor's return, the winner at UFC 268 will indeed fight for a championship next.

AJ McKee will get his wish to prove himself against stars from other promotions

Legaspi: Not real. The new Bellator champion became a millionaire and shook the MMA world with his first-round win against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. He has the size, athleticism and abilities to compete against everyone at 145 pounds, but a cross-promotion super fight is not going to happen in the near future.

It's normal for MMA fans to draw comparisons between McKee and UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, upcoming title challenger Brian Ortega or former champion Max Holloway, and all of those comps seem fair after what happened on Saturday night.

McKee is in a unique spot, with all of 18 of his professional wins coming under the Bellator banner, and the promotion will not let him go easily. After being crowned Bellator featherweight champion, he suggested a run for the 155-pound belt to become champ-champ in his home promotion before thinking about a dream fight against stars that are under contract with another company.

UFC president Dana White has changed his mind in the past on subjects that he had previously dismissed wholeheartedly, like allowing women to compete in the UFC. But to sit at the same table with Bellator's Scott Cocker to negotiate a fight between their 145 champions is not going to happen. He's been categorical on the matter in recent news conferences.

Former Bellator champions like Eddie Alvarez, Ben Askren or Michael Chandler are proof that the level of competition can be similar in a lot of cases, but they took the long road and ultimately signed with the UFC to prove themselves against that promotion's talent.

The winner of Michael Chiesa vs. Vicente Luque will become a title challenger soon

Legaspi: Real. This is probably the best non-title fight that you can make at 170 pounds right now.

Luque is more than just a heavy hitter, and with Henri Hooft and Gilbert Burns in his corner, Luque can reach the title contender level. After painful losses against Leon Edwards and Stephen Thompson, Luque finally beat one of the biggest names in the division when he finished Tyron Woodley's UFC career via submission.

At 29, Luque seems mature in every aspect of the game. His Brazilian jiu-jitsu is well-respected, and he has a lot of ways to knock his opponents out.

On the other side, Chiesa is a veteran on a four-fight win streak. He's unbeaten since he moved up to 170, where he's beaten former champion Carlos Condit, Diego Sanchez, Rafael Dos Anjos and Neil Magny.

Even though Chiesa vs. Luque could be one of the best fights on the UFC 265 card, it's doubtful the winner can immediately establish himself as the next in line for the title. And while they are behind the likes of Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz in popularity, and Edwards when it comes to merit, Luque and Chiesa bring something to the table that the others don't -- a fresh challenge for champion Kamaru Usman. Usman has already has beaten Masvidal (twice), Edwards, Burns and Colby Covington -- his opponent for UFC 268.

Jose Aldo needs to beat Pedro Munhoz if he ever wants another UFC title shot

Murphy: This is real. Even at 34, the Aldo aura is gone. Ever since Alex Volkanovski picked apart the King of Rio in his backyard, the mystique Aldo carries to the Octagon has gradually diminished. His title shot vs Petr Yan off a 135-pound debut loss was criticized in the moment, and then even more heavily panned after Aldo was on the wrong side of a Yan demolition. After TJ Dillashaw's successful return -- disputed result notwithstanding -- bantamweight has a case as the UFC's deepest division. Those factors make the stakes for this fight against Pedro Munhoz much greater than meets the eye.

If Aldo wins, he'll have successive victories over respected bantamweights Munhoz and Chito Vera. That leaves Dillashaw, Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font as the only higher-ranked bantamweight options above Aldo, aside from champion Aljamain Sterling and challenger-to-be Yan. Take your pick; any fight pairing among Aldo, Dillashaw, Sandhagen and Font has No. 1 contender potential.

However, if Aldo loses to Munhoz, even if it's close, it would make it four losses in Aldo's last five fights and seven defeats in his last 11. Most critically, it would give Aldo just one win in four appearances at 135 pounds and bring with it a substantial tumble down the steep divisional ladder. At that point, Aldo would likely need multiple wins and a redeemed rematch or two to even get consideration to return to where he is today.

Outside of title fights themselves, this could prove Aldo's most consequential appearance in the last 12 years. Fans are quick to forget stars of yesteryear. With another unfavorable outcome this weekend, Aldo runs out of rationale for inclusion for big-money bookings.