UFC Sao Paolo: Jailton Almeida sees opportunity in crowded heavyweight division

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 13: Jailton Almeida celebrates his win over Jairzinho Rozenstruik via submission (rear naked choke) at UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs Almeida on May 13th, 2023 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Matt Davies/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jailton Almeida is a -485 favorite over Derrick Lewis in their heavyweight bout Saturday in Sao Paolo, Brazil. (Matt Davies/Getty Images)

There is plenty of opportunity for an ambitious, fast-rising fighter in the UFC's heavyweight division. Champion Jon Jones, who recently was forced to withdraw from his Nov. 11 title defense against ex-champion Stipe Miocic because he needed surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, isn't expected to fight all that much longer.

Miocic, who is 41, hasn't fought in more than two years. He's not likely to fight much longer even if he defeats Jones once Jones is healthy.

Jailton Almeida, who is ranked ninth in the division, sees that opportunity and wants to seize it. And even before he competes against Derrick Lewis in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card Saturday in Sao Paolo he's thinking ahead.

"I want to be the [backup] for UFC 295," Almeida told Yahoo Sports early in an interview that was conducted to discuss his bout with Lewis.

There was a chuckle, since it sounded like a joke. Yes, Almeida is a highly regarded and dangerous fighter, and under different circumstances, it wouldn't be a stretch for him to serve as the backup for Tom Aspinall and Sergei Pavlovich at UFC 295 on Nov. 11. Those two stepped in when the Jones-Miocic fight was postponed and will fight in the co-main event for the interim heavyweight title.

Pavlovich had been training since he was the backup for Jones-Miocic, and Aspinall quickly accepted the bout when it was offered.

Almeida, though, wasn't joking even though he's facing the UFC's all-time knockout leader Saturday and every fighter knows it's a bad idea to look past an opponent.

"If I get out of this fight with no injuries and do what I plan to do, why not?" Almeida said about being the backup for Pavlovich and Aspinall.

There is clearly opportunity for him. One of the fighters ranked above him, No. 8 Tai Tuivasa, has lost three in a row. Miocic, who is No. 3, may well retire after the Jones fight. Serghei Spivak is No. 7 but he lost his last bout to No. 1 Ciryl Gane.

Winning big fights never hurts, and facing his first opponent in the Top 10 comes at the perfect time for Almeida. Lewis isn't the same guy he was at his peak, but he's coming off a 33-second first-round knockout of Marcos Rogerio de Lima at UFC 291 in July. He's ranked 10th and has a goal of working his way back up in the hopes of landing one more chance at the belt.

Almeida has won 14 in a row over the last five-plus years and is coming off an impressive finish of Jairzinho Rozenstruik in May.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 13:  (L-R) Jailton Almeida of Brazil punches Jairzinho Rozenstruik of Suriname in their heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Spectrum Center on May 13, 2023 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jailton Almeida (yellow shorts), shown fighting Jairzinho Rozenstruik in May, is one of the UFC's top submission artists at heavyweight. (Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)

"I want to get a good win and then be remembered the following week," Almeida said. "I'd love to be an alternate for that fight. Things happen all the time. You saw what happened in Abu Dhabi just 10 days or so before that fight card. So I'll sign up if they need me. Opportunity comes sometimes when you least expect it, so the key is to be willing and be ready."

Before anything happens with UFC 295, Almeida will have to deal with a different kind of pressure. But beating Rozenstruik, he moved into the Top 10. He's not just a guy off the regional circuit who looks promising. You get to the Top 10 in the UFC and you're a real, live, actual title contender.

That puts more pressure on a fighter, though Almeida quickly shrugged off that notion.

"There's no pressure and the only change is really the vibe in the crowd," he said. "It's not really that different from how it was against Rozenstruik, because that was a high-profile fight. But I think what has changed, if anything, is that I'll have the crowd on my side in Brazil."

His goal is to get a finish, which he'll need to do quickly to realistically have any hope of being a backup in New York for Pavlovich and Aspinall. Even though Lewis has fallen on some hard times — He's 2-4 in his last six — a win over him still means something in MMA. It signifies you're at that elite level.

Finishing him is another story altogether, but that's the goal.

"He's a knockout artist, he's a guy who's every well known in the U.S. and he's pretty much fought everyone," Almeida said of Lewis. "It would be very special for me."