‘New kid on the block’: Dominick Reyes emerges as force in UFC’s stale light heavyweight division

For years the UFC’s light heavyweight division has been a cast of familiar names ranging from twilight idols to dominant forces, with very few new contenders to speak of. But after Dominick Reyes took out Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 229 in October, there was a shake up in the ranks. Reyes was within fractions of a second of scoring his fourth finish in four UFC fights, landing a huge shot at the very end of the third round that crumpled OSP where he stood.

“I thought it was a knockout,” Reyes told MMA Fighting at the time. “When you hit a home run you know it’s a home run. That’s exactly what it was. It was such clean contact, his body did all the right things to indicate a knockout, he fell over his own legs. He was out of it. I also knew that time was almost out, so either it was going to be a knockout or they were going to let him get saved by the bell.”

Still, it was an eye-opening victory on the most-watched pay-per-view in UFC history. Reyes dominated his showcase fight from horn to horn, displaying a deft ability to pepper Saint Preux with an elegant range of combinations. It was the first time in his UFC run that the 28-year-old Californian had to go beyond the first round, and only the second time in his pro career that he reached the third.

The only other time a fight extended that far for Reyes was back in 2015 against Kelly Gray in King of the Cage. Otherwise, through 10 fights he has shown an incredible urgency to finish his opposition as quickly as possible. He did it in the leadup to the OSP fight when he scored the biggest TKO of his career against Jared Cannonier, a fight that occurred down in Santiago, Chile.

“I do feel like the new kid on the block in that sense,” he says. “But I’ve been working at this a long time.”

Even with the impressive start to his career, Reyes — a former football player who has a very high fight IQ— says he understands why it took some highly publicized blastwork against Saint Preux to register him as a serious contender.

“How can you gauge finesse? You can’t put a gauge on finesse,” he says. “I have finesse. I have flow. I have that little English…I can put that little English on it. You can’t gauge that. It is what it is, and if you’re a fan of me, it’s hard to really get behind me until a performance like this last one.

“[People think] because he’s so talented, but there’s so much we don’t know — can he take a punch, can he wrestle, what are his limits? Because I don’t want to get behind this kid and then all of a sudden he’s not who we thought he was. I get that. That’s why this performance was so important for me. It was important for me to settle in, it was important for me to slow it down and realize it was a three-round fight. That was all important for me to do to take the next step towards the belt.”

And Reyes feels he is at the point where he’s letting the world in on a secret that he and his coaches have long been in on — the light heavyweight who can begin to overthrow the brand names of the division.

“I’m that guy,” he says. “I’m athletic, I’m big. I’m smart. And I can put a little English on it. I’m excited to perform and show what I’ve known the whole time. I know who I am, and now it’s time for the world to see. That’s super exciting to me.”

Reyes, who next faces Volkan Oezdemir at UFC London on March 16, is coming up at the exact moment that things are aswirl at 205 pounds. Reigning champion Daniel Cormier, fresh off his heavyweight title defense against Derrick Lewis at UFC 230 this past November, vacated his light heavyweight title recently with the UFC planning to strip him anyway to keep the division moving. The vacant belt was recaptured by King 205 himself, Jon Jones, who submitted rival Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 232 to close out the year.

While Jones is booked into his next title defense against Anthony Smith at UFC 235, Reyes is already looking ahead. After his victory over Saint Preux, Reyes said that he would like to challenge Jan Blachowicz in his next fight, perhaps sometime in the spring. Blachowicz, who has won four fights in a row himself, is another of the 205 pounders who is creeping into the rarefied space of contendership.

“I think that would be a great matchup for me,” Reyes says. “We’re both pretty technical strikers and he has a really good ground game, and he has good set-ups for his takedowns. I’m ready for the next challenge, and I think that Jan is that next challenge, where he’s cleaner. He’s better technically than OSP. He may not be as explosive, but his strikes are very clean and on point. I respect that.”

By the end of 2019, Reyes believes he can be right at the top of the division, if he’s not holding the belt already. But the one thing he emphasizes is that the UFC’s light heavyweight division is in good hands with a definitive champion now defending the title, and guys like him coming up. He wants to return it to the glamorous destination that it once was.

“I think the division will be just fine man,” he says. “There’s a lot of young guys coming up, but they’re having a hard time making it past the different levels. The vets in the game are still holding down their spots. The younger guys are trying to break in, and whether the moment’s too big or they’re just outmatched at the time, they’re not getting passed.

“That will all change eventually, and everything will start to equalize. We’ll know what’s going on with the belt. Jon’s back, Cormier’s leaving, everything will start equalizing itself out. It’s going to be a fun division again. There’s a lot of talented guys in this division.”

As for who Reyes would like to topple when it’s his turn to fight for a title, he goes back to the original vanquisher himself, Jon Jones, the most beleaguered — and dominant — champion the UFC has ever known.

“He’s the staple of the division,” he says. “Yeah, there’s a huge asterisk next to his name. We all get that. But he’s still the guy. He’s still Jon Jones, he’s still considered one of the greatest ever. Whether there’s still an asterisk, I don’t know what’s going on, but if I ever fight him he’s going to be clean obviously, and I’m going to know whether I’m one of the greats or not.”

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