This year’s International Fight Week may not have presented the ‘star’ factor the UFC wanted, and it may have included some less than thrilling action at times, but it was punctuated by two amazing main events and a lot of meaningful division sorting. Justin Gaethje made an immediate splash, Robert Whittaker laid his claim to being the best middleweight in the world, and Alistair Overeem kept his name in that hat for heavyweight title contenders. So, it’s time to figure out what fights the UFC has to book next.
To do that, I’ll be following the classic Silva/Shelby model of booking winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured opponents against one another. I’ll make exceptions where the mood strikes, but that’s generally the plan. If you want to take your own shot at some fantasy fight booking, leave a comment below starting with, “The fact that you're standing there with that f—-ing belt on, like you're a champion, makes me sick. You should be ashamed of yourself.” I’ll pick one winner from the responses to join me for the next event.
This week’s winner is BE reader LautrecOfCarim:
Hi guys, my name is Bo, also known as LautrecOfCarim. My username refers to a character from Dark Souls, my favorite video game. I'm 30 years old, married, and will be the father to a baby girl in October. I got into following MMA around 10 years ago when and PRIDE fights were sometimes shown on TV, and when my college roommates got me to watch the Tito Ortiz vs Ken Shamrock series of fights. BE is my favorite online community for discussing MMA, and I'm thrilled to get to participate in this edition of Fights to Make!
TUF 25 FINALE
Bo - There were some that questioned whether Gaethje bit off more than he could chew by challenging Johnson in his UFC debut. He answered those questions emphatically, emerging victorious in a savage back-and-forth war that saw both men badly rocked. Given his 18-0 record and the exposure he gained from being featured in the main event, I say the UFC should strike while the iron's hot and push Gaethje directly into an interim title fight. Justin Gaethje vs Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title.
Zane - Man that would go from tough matchup to tough matchup for Gaethje, but if anyone could do it, he seems like the guy. Still, I think the UFC is dedicated to the idea of Ferguson vs. Khabib for now, so what about Justin Gaethje vs. Edson Barboza? It’s a guaranteed action fight and a matchup that fits Gaethje’s style perfectly. Assuming the UFC books Ferguson vs. Khabib and Poirier Alvarez, then Gaethje vs. Barboza is the way to go.
Bo - This was a devastating loss for Johnson, who is now on a 2 fight losing streak and has lost 4 of his last 5. After facing so many top-level opponents, Johnson badly needs a fight against a slightly lower-level opponent. Jim Miller also lost this weekend, and both guys are exciting, still quite capable, and have name recognition. My choice is Michael Johnson vs Jim Miller next.
Zane - This sets up a perfect top tier lightweight fight right now for lightweights coming off a loss. Michael Chiesa vs. Michael Johnson. Johnson was doing really well in this fight early before the pressure got to him, and while Chiesa is tough he’s nowhere near the same kind of fighter as Gaethje. It would also be a great opportunity for Johnson to show improvements to his wrestling game following his loss to Nurmagomedov. Michael Johnson vs. Michael Chiesa is the fight to book right now.
Bo - Taylor looked very impressive, dominating Lima with his wrestling and then finishing him off with a choke. Taylor is an anomaly among TUF winners in that he's 34 years old and has 46 fights under his belt. Since time isn't on his side, it doesn't make sense to try to build him up slowly; instead he'll want to immediately start taking on tougher matchups than most TUF winners. Alan Jouban is another older guy that would like an opportunity to get back in the win column against someone that now has some exposure. Jesse Taylor vs Alan Jouban is my pick.
Zane - Alan Jouban would definitely be a fun fight for Taylor, but for inexplicable reasons, the UFC has booked Jouban against Niko Price. Instead, I’m going to say, give Taylor a fight against Omari Akhmedov coming off Akhmedov’s win over Abdul Razak Alhassan. Akhmedov is powerful and tough, but not overwhelming technically anywhere and would be a solid style matchup for a still hittable Taylor. Jesse Taylor vs. Omari Akhmedov.
Bo - Cannonier's previous fight showed that he's well below the level of a top contender, and this fight showed he's well above the level of a promotional newcomer. He should face someone in between those two extremes for his next fight, and the Patrick Cummins vs Gian Villante winner seems like about the right level of opponent for Cannonier. Jared Cannonier vs the Patrick Cummins/Gian Villante winner.
Zane - Cannonier put one hell of a hurting on Nick Roehrick. I’d love to see him stick it out at 205, maybe take a fight with Dominick Reyes or CB Dollaway. But it sounds like he’s set on going to middleweight. The UFC could book him against someone like Vitor Belfort, if they wanted to give him a huge chance to build his name, or a bout with Marvin Vettori if they want to start him at the bottom. Instead, I’m going to say, give me all the fireworks, and book Jared Cannonier to fight Thiago Santos.
Bo - Incredibly, this was Tavares' 14th fight in the UFC and he's only 29 years old. At this stage, we know what kind of fighter Tavares is: a savvy veteran that will grind out decent wins like this, but unlikely to amaze or excite or make a title run. Thiago Santos also won this weekend and offers a different skillset that could make for an interesting matchup with Tavares. Alternatively, Thales Leites is another guy that falls in the "savvy but un-exciting veteran" category and is coming off a win, but my first choice is Brad Tavares vs Thiago Santos.
Zane - Brad Tavares fought a solid Brad Tavares fight and got a good win out of it, but I agree with Bo, it’s not the kind of thing that really excites the masses. Just a lot of great takedown defense and some sharp pocket striking. A bout with Thales Leites makes sense on paper, but just doesn’t excite at all. Instead, I’m going to say Tavares should fight Derek Brunson. Brunson’s general aggression should make for a more interesting bout. It’s either that or a Tim Boetsch rematch. Brad Tavares vs. Derek Brunson.
OTHER BOUTS: D. Lima vs. Yakovlev, Klose vs. Martin, Diakiese vs. Emmett, Roehrick vs. Stewart, Theodorou vs. Cedenblad, Johnson vs. Antigulov, Fortuna vs. Blachowicz, Hill vs. Pereira, Yoder vs. Moyle, Krause vs. Tuck, Dollaway vs. Cutelaba, Herman vs. Stansbury, Torres vs. Gadelha, J. Lima vs. Moroz, Maynard vs. Siver, Ishihara vs. Amirkhani
Bo - This one is easy: Robert Whittaker vs Michael Bisping for the undisputed middleweight title. All parties are on board, and it makes all the sense in the world. However, we still need to account for the possibility that Bisping vs GSP happens after all, in which case Whittaker can defend his interim belt against Gegard Mousasi.
Zane - My guess is that Whittaker waits for Bisping next, no matter what the other options on the table are. But, if he doesn’t want to do that, Gegard Mousasi and Luke Rockhold are going to be in need of fights soon. Still my vote is wait, and let Mousasi and Rockhold fight each other. Robert Whittaker vs. Michael Bisping.
Bo - Despite the loss, Romero had his share of moments in the fight and showed that he's still one of the top contenders at middleweight. The middleweight title picture, and Romero's next fight, depend on whether Michael Bisping takes on Robert Whittaker or Georges St.-Pierre next. Assuming Bisping-Whittaker happens, my choice is Yoel Romero vs Gegard Mousasi for the number one contender spot. Otherwise, I'd have Mousasi directly challenge Whittaker and Romero vs Luke Rockhold.
Zane - Jacare rematch? It might be time for a Jacare rematch. The thought of Yoel Romero vs. Luke Rockhold also fills me with glee, especially if the UFC can’t get Rockhold vs. Mousasi booked. Still though, given all the surrounding controversy, and them both losing to Whittaker, I think giving Jacare a rematch with Romero and a path back to contention is the best move right now. Book Yoel Romero vs. Jacare Souza II.
Bo - It wasn't the most convincing win ever, but Overeem did emerge with the majority decision. That makes him the top contender to challenge Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title (again). Alistair Overeem vs Stipe Miocic in a rematch for the heavyweight title.
Zane - With N’Gannou’s potential continued rise and Cain Velasquez’s potential return from injury, I think there are two better options than replaying a definitive KO loss we saw less than a year ago. If N’Gannou loses to JDS and Velasquez can’t make a reasonable return date, then sure, Overeem vs. Miocic II works well enough. In the meantime I’d still love to see Derrick Lewis take on Overeem. Or if Ngannou beat JDS and gets the next title shot, then Overeem vs. Velasquez makes all the sense in the world.
Bo - Werdum entered this fight as the top ranked heavyweight contender, and the fight itself was close enough that you could make the argument that Werdum deserved the win (or a draw). Therefore, Werdum won't fall far down the rankings, and one more win should earn him another title fight. Fabricio Werdum vs the Junios Dos Santos/Francis Ngannou winner should determine the next title challenger.
Zane - I’m really not sure Werdum lost this fight. That said, I don’t want to see him fight Francis Ngannou at this point. What I do want to see is Fabricio Werdum vs. JDS whether or not JDS wins or loses to Ngannou. That fight’s a long time in happening and both guys still have enough of a presence in the division to make it highly relevant. Strike while the iron is still hot. Werdum vs. JDS II win or lose for JDS.
Bo - This was a solid win for Pettis and a much-needed one given his recent struggles. He showed flashes of his previous brilliance, and scored a clear win over the always-tough Jim Miller. Pettis now has several viable options going forward, such as Dustin Poirier and Kevin Lee. However, my choice is Anthony Pettis vs Al Iaquinta in a matchup of exciting, athletic guys looking to claw their way up the always-congested lightweight rankings.
Zane - What to do with Anthony Pettis? Is he a top lightweight? Maybe. He certainly put on a great performance against a Jim Miller that looks to be fighting as well, if not better, than ever. But, he’s also put the breaks on his own career a bit by bouncing around and looking less than thrilling along the way. Still, I admit that I like this Iaquinta idea, especially because I think it’s a fight both guys are really likely to take. It’d be a prestige fight for Iaquinta, and a bout Pettis is sure to feel he can win. It’d make for a fantastic action bout either way. Pettis vs. Iaquinta.
Bo - Font looked impressive, outclassing a limited but tough Douglas Silva de Andrade while displaying a diverse skillset to bring his UFC record to 4-1. He was already ranked at the lower end of the top 15 going into this fight, and given this win and his record he should get someone in the top 10 next. A fight with John Dodson should produce fireworks and give Font a great opportunity to shoot further up the rankings. Rob Font vs John Dodson.
Zane - A career best performance from Font as he looks like he’s really hitting his stride right now. It really seems like he took the right lessons from his loss to Lineker and has added a lot more depth to his game. The UFC could throw him in against Dodson, who nobody wants to fight these days, I wouldn’t be against it, but I’m happy to see Font work his way up the ranks a little more slowly. To that effect, I think a fight with Pedro Munhoz is just right at the moment. Rob Font vs. Pedro Munhoz.
Bo - To be honest, I missed Santos' fight when it aired. So I'm basing this pick just on the result which now gives him a 2-fight win streak with two stoppages. As mentioned above, Brad Tavares also won this weekend and is similarly on a 2-fight win streak over mid-level opponents. It would also be a contrasting stylistic matchup and put the winner in a position to take a big step forward against a ranked opponent. Thiago Santos vs Brad Tavares.
Zane - I pretty much spelled out my case above that the UFC should book Santos vs. Cannonier. The Tavares fight would also be fine, as would a fight with Thales Leites or Tim Boetsch. If not Cannonier my first vote would be Boetsch.
OTHER BOUTS: Blaydes vs. Harris, Miller vs. Lentz, Silva de Andrade vs. Stasiak, Oliynyk vs. Hunt, Laprise vs. Jingliang, Meerschaert vs. Sanchez, Muhammad vs. Taleb, Stamann vs. Zahabi, Ware vs. Grant, Giles vs. Kimball, Bochnovic vs. Collier