UFC 231 snapped a few pieces of reality sharply into place. Valentina Shevchenko really is an undeniable physical force at 125 lbs. Gunnar Nelson is still an elite talent at welterweight. And Max Holloway is clearly head-and-shoulders above the crowd at featherweight. If the lead-up to this weekend’s PPV was filled with questions, what went down on Saturday, December 8th in Toronto, Ontario, Canada was all about finding answers.
Of course, the more answers a person gets, the more questions they have. So, is Max Holloway’s future at lightweight? Is there anyone at flyweight to challenge Valentina Shevchenko? Is there any light heavyweight more fun than Thiago Santos?
To answer all these questions - and create a few more - I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking system from years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent against one another.* Now, let’s get to some fight booking action...
A large part of me wants to see Max Holloway stay and continue asserting his claim as the king of 145 lbs. I realize he’s tall for featherweight, but he doesn’t seem “huge” for the division, and he certainly didn’t have Brian Ortega over-powered. But, that brings up the question of meaningful title fights. There’s Frankie Edgar, Chad Mendes, Alex Volkanovski, Mirsad Bektic, Renato Moicano, and eventually maybe Zabit Magomedsharipov. It’s not a lack of challengers, certainly, but it is a lack of “big” fights. If he stays at 145, then a fight against Moicano or the winner of Mendes vs. Volkanovski seems like the most likely course depending on who is ready to fight when. If Holloway moves to 155 then the fight that leaps off the page is a rematch with Conor McGregor. There are bouts with Khabib and Ferguson as well, but I’d prefer to see them face one another first. McGregor on the other hand is out in limbo, without a clear next fight to make after the Khabib loss. A rematch with Holloway would offer a chance to once again beat the featherweight champ, now at the height of his skills, and be the kind of win to bounce him back for another title fight, potentially. If Holloway stays at 145, Moicano is next in line, but a Mcgregor rematch at 155 would be fascinating to see.
It had to happen sooner or later didn’t it? Ortega has improved visibly across his UFC career, but he’s also consistently lost most rounds in most of his UFC fights as well. It was a fascinating rise to watch; a born finisher who could always pull the win out of his hat when he really needed it. Until he couldn’t. Fortunately, there are still a lot of cool fights for him to continue building and asserting himself as one of featherweight’s best and most dangerous talents. If Jose Aldo vs. Cub Swanson doesn’t come together, Aldo vs. Ortega would be a fascinating battle, but without a path to the title for Aldo, it also seems like a bit of a potential waste. Jeremy Stephens is also out there, and coming off his own hard loss. I think the fight I’d like to see most of all though is Chad Mendes vs. Brian Ortega, no matter whether Mendes wins or loses to Volkanovski. It just feels like a fascinating matchup and a good next step for the Alpha Male fighter off a win, or a chance to bounce back for both men off a loss. Chad Mendes (win or lose to Volkanovski) vs. Brian Ortega sounds like a great idea.
Valentina Shevchenko is the unquestionable queen of women’s flyweight right now. Her performance against Joanna Jedrzejczyk showed a clear difference in physicality that had Joanna turning in one of the most tepid performances of her UFC career. But, now what? Sijara Eubanks may have been the most interesting immediate challenger, but she’s just left the division to go to bantamweight. That leaves Nicco Montano and Jessica Eye as the only contenders in position for a shot at the belt, and that barely feels right. Eye’s wins, while over increasingly decent competition, have hardly been the kind of decisive performances to get fans excited for a title fight. And Montano still only has her TUF run to bank on as the bulk of her meaningful professional MMA resume. Hopefully the UFC can put Eye and Montano together for a top contender’s bout just to add a little more build-up to a fight with Shevchenko. Otherwise, unless Tatiana Suarez wants to give 125 lbs a go, Jessica Eye likely gets the next title shot.
By the end of the fight, Joanna looked like she’d finally found enough comfort with Shevchenko’s speed and power that she could actually turn her volume to good use, but 20 minutes is too long to get there. That doesn’t mean she can’t still have success at flyweight, but there may just be a long term embargo on her title hopes at either 115 or 125 lbs. Assuming she stays in her new division a fight with Liz Carmouche would be a good test against another less dynamic and less technical physical force. If Joanna drops back down, then Michelle Waterson is right there, waiting for an opportunity to announce herself as a top contender. A win over Jedrzejczyk would definitely do that. Jedrzejczyk vs. Carmouche at 125, or Jedrzecjzyk vs. Waterson at 115. Either way should be worth watching.
Nelson needed this win, badly. More than his loss to Santiago Ponzinibbio, continuous injury woes have largely stalled out his career as a high level welterweight fighter. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of options among other ranked fighters at 170 lbs right now, at least not if you want to go winner vs. winner. Rafael dos Anjos, Neil Magny, Stephen Thompson, and Darrent Till are all on losses, Zaleski is injured, Ponzinibbio already beat him, and Usman & Covington would be foolish to take a step back to fight him. But, Leon Edwards is right there. The Jamaican-born Brit is coming off a big win over Donald Cerrone and a six fight win streak overall. Nelson wouldn’t maybe be the step forward he wants (and a fight with Ponzinbbio might be what he’d prefer) but Nelson would be a strong name win to build his resume as one of welterweight’s best fighters right now. Gunnar Nelson vs. Leon Edwards looks good to me.
A rough loss for the Brazilian ‘Cowboy’ but not one that told us anything we didn’t already know or that loses him his place in a deep welterweight division. Namely, Oliveira is still a high level action fighter, and a ton of fun to watch win or lose. Give him the chance and he can beat almost anyone, but he may never fight safe enough to be a true title contender. Did I just mention that Neil Magny is coming off a loss? I think I did. Two extremely lanky, fight anyone at any time, anywhere fighters; should make for an excellent bout. Alex Oliveira vs. Neil Magny is the right fight right now.
Light heavyweight Thiago Santos is a problem. In a division where fighters often live and die on their speed, power, and willingness to pull the trigger, he has all three in spades. Jimi Manuwa was a cleaner striker, but without Santos’ willingness to swing away in the pocket, he found himself in too many exchanges where he was likely to get hurt badly. Considering his body of work, win over Anthony Smith, and the general shallowness of 205 already, I see no reason not to throw him up toward the top as fast as possible. Fights with Jan Blachowicz, Anthony Smith, or Dominick Reyes would all be fine offerings. But, I’d like to see Blachowicz vs. Smith. That leaves Dominick Reyes as the next big fight to make. It might be too much too soon for the prospect, but it’s also the kind of fight to really continue testing his mettle after that OSP win. A bout against the Ilir Latifi vs. Corey Anderson winner, or against Glover Teixeira off a win over Cutelaba would also be fine. But might as well go for the fight that can be booked ASAP. Thiago Santos vs. Dominick Reyes would be another absolute war.
Ansaroff is proof positive that a fighter’s struggles as they develop their game shouldn’t be held against them. Just 6-5 heading into 2017, Ansaroff has bumped her record to 10-5 off a four-fight unbeaten streak, against a steadily higher and higher level of competition. Now, with a win over Gadelha, she’s a contender. There are a few too many fighters ahead of her to say she’s next in line. Notably Jessica Andrade is the clear title fight for Rose Namajunas to take. But that means that Ansaroff has two clear next options. She can go winner/loser against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, or she can take on Tatiana Suarez. I’m more likely to lean toward the Suarez fight. It’d be an incredibly difficult matchup for Ansaroff’s suspect takedown defense, but that’s what winning gets you. And she’s not the kind of young prospect that should be shielded from a potential harsh loss. Win that fight and she’s the undisputed top contender. Lose it and there are still ways to claw her way back. Nina Ansaroff vs. Tatiana Suarez is a great no. 1 contender’s fight.
As I said above, unless something comes way out of left field for Valentina Shevchenko, Eye has put herself in as good a position as anyone to be next in line. Carmouche lost to Davis, who lost to Chookagian, who lost to Eye, and Eubanks left to 135. A fight with Montano makes sense if the former champion is ready. And a fight with Carmouche would be fine, but wouldn’t build much more interest in either woman as a challenger. And other prospects just don’t look ready. Jessica Eye vs. Nicco Montano is the fight to make if Montano is ready, if not, book Eye vs. Shevchenko and let the champion defend her belt.
OTHER BOUTS: Dawodu vs. Burgos, Bochniak vs. Arce, Manuwa vs. Cummins, Gadelha vs. Herrig, Burns vs. Makhachev, Aubin-Mercier vs. Patrick, Chookagian vs. Moroz, Theodorou vs. Carlos Jr., Anders vs. Piechota, Katona vs. Soukhamthath, Lopez vs. Johns, Lima vs. Gall, Laprise vs. Fabinski, Ferreira vs. Holtzman, Nelson vs. Moises, Rakic vs. Villante, Clark vs. Rountree
*We’ll go back to our normal reader contest for next week’s column.