UFC 224 seems to have been set up for failure from the outset. Whether it was the hits Nunes’ reputation took from her public lambasting at the hands of UFC brass, or her lackluster fight with Valentina Shevchenko, or the on-going, self-evident truth that fans just don’t care about anything without Conor McGregor’s name attached to it these days, there was no buzz heading in to this PPV card. Which of course means that the card itself was good and fun and had a heck of a lot going for it by the end.
The big question is obviously, who does Amanda Nunes fight next, and why would it by anyone other than Cris Cyborg? But it’s also worth asking if Kelvin Gastelum is now a title contender? And what about John Lineker? Does Mackenzie Dern go up to flyweight, or just try to get her act together?
To answer all these questions, and more, I’ll be employing the classic Silva/Shelby fight-booking model of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent against one another. If you’d like to join me to do some fantasy fight booking of your own, leave a comment below starting out with, “I broke my rib in the first round. I could feel it floating around there. Felt terrible. Most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.” I’ll pick one winner from the responses to join me next time.
This week’s winner is BE reader Drew Rausch:
I’m Drew and I’m first time contributor here at BE and I’m really excited to get the chance to write about this weeks fights for you guys. It was a great night of fights so let’s get started.
Drew - There are a variety of ways the UFC could go with Nunes after this big win. Realistically, there aren’t many exciting fights to make for Amanda in the women’s bantamweight division right now. Holly Holm has lost three of her last four fights and has a featherweight fight coming up against Megan Anderson, so I think we have to rule her out. Potential scraps with Ketlen Viera and Germaine de Randamie likely wouldn’t sell many PPVs. The same can’t be said for a match up with Cyborg, however. Both women have established violent supremacy in somewhat thin divisions, so let’s pit them against each other and see who’s the baddest woman on the planet. Nunes vs. Cyborg
Zane - The slow erosion of women’s bantamweight, coupled with the fact that the UFC has entirely failed to build a real women’s featherweight division, puts Amanda Nunes in a hell of a spot. The only real fight for her right now that makes any kind of sense in terms of competition and interest is Cris Cyborg. But, if Nunes loses that fight – as seems likely – it just further drops her value, which already appears to be near rock bottom. The payoff for winning could be huge. But lose and, even with the bantamweight belt still around her waist, she’d feel like an afterthought in the UFC. What else are you going to do, have her fight Ketlen Vieira in yet another fight nobody seems to care about? Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg is the only fight for both women, even if it’s potentially a terrible fight for Nunes.
Drew - Pennington showed a lot of heart hanging in there for so long. That being said, she was truly outclassed and I think just showed how much better Amanda Nunes is than the rest of the division. I’d say a fight against Sarah McMann would make a lot of sense for Raquel. McMann is skilled veteran with a somewhat similar skill set to Pennington, which would offer both a challenge and a chance to start the journey back to title contention. Pennington vs. McMann
Zane - I wouldn’t be surprised if the fallout from this loss wasn’t that Pennington stays on the sidelines for quite a while before her next bout. She seems like she’s sliding into a pseudo-coaching roll with her partner Tecia Torres, and taking a 5 round beating in which she asked the fight to be stopped – only to get pushed back out and beat up more – may be an extra nudge to develop that coaching career. When she returns, a fight against Germaine de Randamie would be good – provided GDR ever fights again either – as would a bout with Julianna Pena. Pena seems more likely to return sometime in the near future, so that’s probably the direction to go. Rocky Pennington vs. Julianna Pena is the next fight to make.
Drew - Wow, KG really got a chance to showcase incredible wrestling and jiu-jitsu defense on the way to a gritty comeback win that will surely be huge for his young career. With Chris Weidman out with a lingering thumb injury and the other top middleweights coming off of losses, this fight was essentially to decide the number one contender for Robert Whittaker’s title. Nothing about Gastelum’s performance should have changed that. Kelvin’s next fight has to be for the middleweight championship against the winner of Robert Whittaker vs. Yoel Romero. Gastelum vs. the winner of Whittaker/Romero
Zane - Winning this fight was obviously the big step, but a lot of little things have been happening lately to make Kelvin Gastelum pretty much the only middleweight title contender. Chris Weidman’s ongoing hand injury struggles have him out of the running, Luke Rockhold appears to be actively courting the light heavyweight division, Michael Bisping sounds like he’s basically retired, and Yoel Romero is just about to fight Robert Whittaker for the belt. Once they’ve had it out (again), who else is there? David Branch? Kelvin Gastelum vs. the winner of Whittaker/Romero for the middleweight title, make it happen.
Drew - It’s hard to label Jacare a loser after his bonus winning effort last night. He rallied after tiring in the second and could have theoretically come away with the decision. Some might point to his age (38) with some skepticism, but he’s looked good in recent wins against guys like Tim Boetsch and Derek Brunson, so it’s hard to write him off just yet. I’d actually really like to see him take on Michael Bisping in a battle of aging legends if Bisping is willing to take the fight. Souza vs. Bisping
Zane - Considering he didn’t get the first round submission, I think this was a pretty good performance from Jacare. He was always going to gas before Gastelum did, and he was always in danger of getting caught standing. But even while exhausted he fought hard, and arguably could have taken it on the scorecards. Eventually, if Weidman can get his hand right by the end of the year, Weidman vs. Jacare is an awesome fight that must happen. If he can’t, however, then book Jacare vs. Branch and see if Branch can keep his momentum going toward the top of the division.
Drew - Mackenzie Dern is a bit of a difficult fighter to match at this point in her career. Sure, she looked great last night, landing a huge overhand right and snatching a nasty submission with a nice RNC, but she missed weight by an embarrassing seven pounds, adding to a growing sample of failed weight cuts. Does the UFC force her to move up to flyweight, or do they hope her new camp can help her consistently make 115lbs. in the future? I think they give her one more chance to make the cut and give her a step up in competition, matching her up with someone in the top 15 like Nina Ansaroff, who is coming off of two wins of her own. Dern vs. Ansaroff
Zane - For the moment, I’m going to assume that Dern isn’t going to be forced up to flyweight. My guess is the UFC will give her a pass, this time around, since she put on a thrilling performance. And if it happens again, they’ll start talking 125. If they are going to push her up a division, then a fight with Lauren Mueller would be about the right speed. Maybe Ji Yeon Kim, just for the thrill of it. If she’s going to stay down at 115, as I expect, then I think Alexandra Albu is an incredibly easy choice. Albu’s combo of being absolutely bricked up – while also having terrible striking defense and a terrible willingness to put herself on the mat in bad positions – would give Dern a more athletic challenge to test herself against, while still taking on someone likely to give her the openings she needs to win. Otherwise the likes of Cynthia Calvillo and Viviane Pereira await.
Drew - Watching Hands of Stone stalk his opponent across the octagon before unleashing a flurry of massive strikes is truly a joyous thing to behold. Lineker’s lone loss in his last nine fights was to the current bantamweight champion, TJ Dillashaw, and he holds wins over tough opponents like John Dodson, Michael McDonald, and Rob Font during that streak. While he called for a title shot following his TKO victory, I think Lineker is probably one win away, thanks to the impressive depth of the division. I’d love to see him paired up with former champion Dominick Cruz for his next fight. Cruz’s awkward movement and speed would give the plodding Lineker a big challenge, but also give him the opportunity to emphatically prove his case for a title shot with a big win. Lineker vs. Cruz
Zane - I mean, I support John Lineker getting a title shot, but mostly because I support whatever gets Lineker big fights – and maybe a chance to face Cody Garbrandt. Being real, however, the kind of game Lineker has is better made for high caliber action fights than it is competitive title fights. Assuncao is already booked, or that would be a clear “pass this test and then we’ll see” gateway to contention. Not to mention that the winner of Rivera vs. Moraes is probably next in line for the Dillashaw/Garbrandt winner. And who even knows how Dominick Cruz ends up being booked... What about Cruz vs. Lineker? It would probably be a wrestling clinic by Cruz, but it’s another obvious way forward for ‘Hands of Stone’ and a bounce back fight for Cruz after yet another layoff. Booking injured fighters isn’t my style though (Chris Weidman aside), so I’ll say book Lineker against Cody Stamann. A win would be huge for Stamann, and otherwise it’s likely to provide the kind of action that makes Lineker a joy to watch.
Drew - Though he collected a bonus and a beautiful knockout victory, it’s hard to get too excited for Lyoto Machida after this win. Vitor Belfort has looked every bit of his 41 years over his last few fights, so I can’t exactly say that the Dragon is back and ready for a last title run. Sure, the UFC could give him a chance to avenge a previous loss and book Weidman vs. Machida 2, but I just don’t see this happening. Now this might be a little crazy, but I’d be very interested to see Lyoto take on Anderson Silva in a battle of two of the most skilled strikers in the history of MMA. Machida vs. Silva
Zane - I have the feeling that, despite only really landing about two clean strikes in 6 minutes (one of which was a KO) this was exactly the kind of performance to convince Machida that he needs another crack at a top opponent. I could say that that would make David Branch the obvious choice, but I’ve got another idea in mind that I think would be a bit more fun. How about Lyoto Machida against the winner of Brad Tavares vs. Israel Adesanya. If Adesanya makes it past Tavares, then Machida would be exactly the kind of name matchup that would push him to title contention. And if Tavares wins (as seems more likely) then he gets rewarded with a big opponent. Otherwise, Machida suggested Michael Bisping, who sounded a bit interested in the fight a few months back, but sounds more and more like a man in retirement than anything else right now. So for the moment, Lyoto Machida vs. the Tavares/Adesanya winner makes the most sense.
Drew - How on earth does this guy keep submitting people with the Ezekiel Choke? You never see anybody else even try this technique, yet Oliynyk has managed to secure 11 victories with this submission alone. Sure, he’s old, comically unathletic, and I had difficulty spelling both his first and last names while staring right at them, but, like it or not, he’s a dangerous heavyweight. I want to see him fight the winner of Andre Arlovski vs. Tai Tuivasa. This would be Oliynyk’s highest profile fight to date and give him another chance to surprise. Oliynyk vs. winner of Arlovski/Tuivasa
Zane - For my money Oliynyk is more of a novelty fighter than anything. He’s a great gatekeeper to the top of the heavyweight division, because he’s so entirely beatable if opponents are minding themselves against him. But as history has shown, plenty of heavyweights apparently aren’t paying attention and walk right into the few things he does really really well. To that end, however, I’m not sure I need to see him take on fighters looking to make a run. What’s the upside of watching Tai Tuivasa get Ezekieled? Give Oliynyk Shamil Abdurakhimov. The Dagestani is a crafty, seasoned vet himself. And while he’s got a couple ugly losses on his record, he’s also won enough to prove he belongs in the division. Give him a chance to take Oliynyk’s place, and Oliynyk a chance to pick up yet another funky win.
OTHER BOUTS: Cooper vs. Yoder, Kelleher vs. Johns, Ferreira vs. Breese/Kelly winner, Roberson vs. Phillips, Albini vs. Bhullar, Ramos vs. Maestro Kim, Hein vs. Klose, Zaleski vs. Martin, Strickland vs. Sobotta, Alves vs. Roberts, Aliev vs. Good, Hermansson vs. Jotko, Leites vs. Lombard, Emeev vs. Jumeau, Mina vs. Camacho, Perez vs. Byrd, Bochnovic vs. Wilkinson