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UFC 243: Whittaker vs. Adesanya - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest event in Melbourne, Australia.

For better or worse, UFC 243 largely went down as advertised. A fantastic main event, an impressive co-main performance, and then a lot of really mediocre MMA action—highlighted by a shocking KO and a fantastic lightweight war. Still, that middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya paid off. And as long as the UFC can get put together fights that good, everything else is much less important.

So, is there anyone out there for Izzy, other than Paulo Costa, right now? Is Dan Hooker ready for another chance at the lightweight elite? And how fast can we get Brad Riddell into another striking battle?

I’ll be answering those questions – and absolutely nothing else – using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methods of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. As always, going forward, I’ll only be taking submissions for guest matchmakers for PPV cards. So, keep an eye out for the UFC Singapore Fights to Make column at the end of this month, for your chance to make the best possible bouts following UFC 244: Diaz vs. Masvidal. This week’s winner is longtime star of MMA GIF Twitter, Kyle Johnson.

Hello again, BE! I’m Kyle Johnson, a fan of MMA in all its forms since watching TUF 3 in my early teens. This marks my fifth contribution to the column and each opportunity bestows an honor. Follow me on Twitter @VonPreux for GIFs, stats and combat geekery. On to the bouts!

ISRAEL ADESANYA

Kyle - Your favorite anime likely has a term for ultimate power: Super Saiyan, Sage Mode, Titan Shift, Bankai, or the Avatar State. What Adesanya did to Robert Whittaker, however, defies definition. More manifest is the new champ’s pure magnetism, dexterity, panache and ingenuity spiritually succeeding Anderson Silva. His challenger, Paulo Costa, is prodigal camp—a Herculean build, Falstaffian ego and barbarous dominion recalling the “no known weaknesses” Vitor. Every ‘Spider’ needs a ‘Phenom;’ ‘The Last Stylebender’ has an ‘Eraser.’ Enjoy the show.

Zane - For the moment, Paulo Costa is the man to challenge for the middleweight title. Jarod Cannonier has been making his case, and it was good to see Adesanya show interest in that fight—since Cannonier could easily be the top contender with another win. But the UFC brought Costa ringside, he and Adesanya have already started their war of words, and no fighter seems to have fans talking more at 185 than Costa right now. Costa’s battle with Romero was a war, but it answered a ton of questions about Costa’s ability to take damage and push forward to create consistent offense. However controversial the scores may have been, it absolutely showed the Brazilian was ready to face the best fighters in the world. And, no matter who wins between Costa and Izzy, bouts with Cannonier, Whittaker or the Till/Gastelum winner will all be workable next title fights. Middleweight is creating some fun new options, and right now, Costa vs. Adesanya is absolutely the best of them.

ROBERT WHITTAKER

Kyle - Being a critical darling means knowing the masses yearn to discredit you. Alas, if George Miller can direct a paean to tap dancing penguins ahead of Mad Max: Fury Road, ‘The Reaper’ can take his own flop and roar back. Said path to reassertion runs through Kelvin Gastelum and Darren Till. One offers a showdown of proven, top-five middleweight talents. The other tantalizes with hopes of a Commonwealth duel matching the Aussie’s modesty with British bravado. A surefire main event awaits whoever wins at UFC 244.

Zane - On the plus side for Whittaker, he likely won’t be that far away from earning a second shot at the middleweight title—and should be favored over most any of the division’s top contenders on his way back to the belt. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s out there for him are just rematches. Derek Brunson, Uriah Hall, Yoel Romero, these are all bouts Whittaker has won before. He could take on Jack Hermansson, but that’s not a bout that’s going to get a lot of people talking. A fight with Ian Heinisch wouldn’t be bad, when Heinisch is ready to go again, however that’s also a pretty big step back from title contention. Eventually, with a bout between Kelvin Gastelum and Darren Till on the horizon, Whittaker would be exceptionally well suited to fight the loser. A name opponent, an action fight, and something that could easily headline any UFC Fight Night card. Robert Whittaker vs. the Till/Gastelum loser seems like an easy bout to book.

DAN HOOKER

Kyle - Flash back to Atlantic City in April 2018, when an un-ranked Hooker beggared Jim Miller’s brain with a first-round knee. Paul Felder had in-cage interview duties and ‘The Hangman’ cordially called out ‘The Irish Dragon’ to his face. Their gentleman’s agreement never transpired, but recent happenings ought to revive it. Both have carved out top-ten spots behind smarter applications of their striking skills, with Hooker’s length and command of range contrasting Felder’s resolve to rend foes up close. If the rumors of an Auckland event ring true, consider this a potential main event.

Zane - Hooker made a big callout for Dustin Poirier after his win over Iaquinta. And it’s definitely the perfect time to make that kind of demand. With Poirier coming off a bad loss, he may be willing to step back in the cage with any fighter high up the rankings. Especially one who has flown under the radar as a top contender. Otherwise, Paul Felder is coming off his own big win, and would be pretty ideally situated for this fight. Gaethe is the other ‘name’ out there, but it seems like he has his sights set on Conor McGregor right now. If the ‘Highlight’ isn’t interested in taking on the contenders nipping at his heels, then I think Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker is about the best fight that the UFC could set up for both men. Felder vs. Hooker sounds good to me.

AL IAQUINTA

Kyle - One wonders why ‘Raging’ Al persists. Between bullish real estate bona fides, acts of rebellion and bookkeeping duties for Project Spearhead, his Plan B may as well supersede. Furthermore, his limitations lie in plain sight—a paralysis against effective mid-range threats adding to the desperation of his two-fight skid. Ditto for Edson Barboza, historically allergic to pressure and labeled as fragile. Their styles are finite; which remains relevant?

Zane - This was just a miserable loss for Iaquinta. Cerrone at least had the reputation as a top flight action fighter to give Iaquinta some cold comfort to fall back on. But against Hooker? This was the new guy in the top 10 just totally outclassing Iaquinta in every phase. Not just striking, but wrestling and grappling as well. As bad a performance as Iaquinta has ever had. The UFC could set him up to fight Edson Barboza, after Barboza’s own recent loss—but another high volume kicker sounds like a terrible idea for ‘Raging’ Al. Iaquinta could match up well with Alexander Hernandez or Islam Makhachev, if the UFC wants to give one of them a chance to work their way up the ladder. But, I’d kind of like to see them fight one another. Still, I can’t see Iaquinta taking on someone outside the rankings, so if that’s the case, then book Al Iaquinta vs. Alex Hernandez. A big chance for the ‘Great’ to get a huge name on his resume, or for Iaquinta to prove he still has something to offer the top 10.

SERGEY SPIVAK

Kyle - At heavyweight, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become relevant. Spivac experienced said career arc in a five-month span, playing sacrificial lamb to Walt Harris then damning the shortfalls of Tai Tuivasa. Such a disparity in showings spurs interrogation; the same applies to both Sergei Pavlovich and Maurice Greene. The former, especially, flashes kindred functionality and hype carried over from the European scene. Commit the winner to Spivac, and cross your fingers for a too- rare duel of party-sized prospects.

Zane - A career making win for Sergey Spivak. For as bad his debut went, he pushed through some early adversity here—and once he discovered that Tuivasa had no clue how to defend any takedown, he totally turned the momentum of the fight. That win could get him pushed into deeper waters against some more well developed opponents. But, I think there’s a good mid-point between throwing Spivak in against someone like Augusto Sakai or Alexey Oleinik and finding another relative newcomer like Chi Lewis-Parry or Carlos Felipe. That point is Todd Duffee. Duffee recently returned from a years long hiatus, recovering from various injuries, only to have his bout against Jeff Hughes end early due to an eye poke. He’s got a reputation as a fun, wild, power brawler—just the kind of opponent to give Spivak a chance to rely on his scrappy wrestling. And for Duffee, it’s another chance to prove that he can still be a dangerous force in the current UFC heavyweight division. Sergey Spivak vs. Todd Duffee seems like the perfect chance for Spivak to show his consistency, or for Duffee to return to form.

YORGAN DE CASTRO

Kyle - Expounding on rotundities, the heavyweight absurdity spectrum is a many-splendored thing. Just this summer, De Castro was a +675 underdog to Alton Meeks. Two vicious knockouts since, however, force a reassessment of the stubby Cape Verdean striker. On the opposite end is Todd Duffee – flirting with weirdness, disaster and any contradiction of his physical prowess. The behemoth is prone to starch a foe in seven seconds or spawn a hammerfist meme in defeat. Fate shall decide if Yorgan is our next Mike Russow.

Zane - Whichever way it went, this fight was never meant to last long. Tafa is all about bulling forward, De Castro is all about finding those perfect counters. Just so happened he landed that counter shot, and it was absolutely perfect. There are a host of newcomers he could take on as a result, Chi Lewis-Parry, Rodrigo Nascimento, Carlos Felipe. But, I think a bout against TUF winner Juan Espino sounds good. He’s the only relatively new heavyweight who doesn’t have a fight and is coming off a win. And he has the TUF winner profile, which doesn’t mean a lot, but is better than nothing. Juan Espino vs. Yorgan De Castro; lets see if De Castro can pick up another highlight.

JAKE MATTHEWS

Kyle - At what point do we stop trying to make Jake Matthews happen? 10 plum Oceanic card slots in 12 UFC showings evince the faith his promotion has in ‘The Celtic Kid.’ But for every shutdown of Li Jingliang, he doubly reminds us of eking out Bojan Veličkovič. Nevertheless, the young Aussie succeeds in spite of volatility as athleticism remains a hard floor to break. Enter Dhiego Lima, another would-be talent whose improvements and three-win streak likewise enervate in practice. Who takes the next step?

Zane - Not a pretty win for Jake Matthews, but apparently he had a point to prove: that he was a better striker than Rostem Akman. It didn’t take landing that many shots to prove it, but prove it he did. A lackluster fight like that won’t probably get him a big notable step up, but there’s no reason for Matthews to be taking on relative newcomers. Bouts against Belal Muhammad, Elizeu Zaleski, or Nicolas Dalby would all be pretty reasonable. Or maybe a fight against Michel Prazeres? Of all those, I think I like the Dalby fight most. Matthews still needs to show that he can really dominate tough opposition that won’t give him easy positions. Dalby has already proved that he can hang with better athletes through sheer grit and volume. If Matthews can’t create the control he needs, can he out-hustle Dalby for a win? Nicolas Dalby vs. Jake Matthews is a rock solid welterweight bout.

BRAD RIDDELL

Kyle - City Kickboxing has perfected a formula: harness intrinsic striking prowess, augment with obdurate defensive wrestling, instill a sense of invincibility and witness your fighter flourish. Riddell adheres to a tee and as such joins lightweight’s legion of action aficionados. ‘Quake’ will not wait for his sophomore outing, so how about Dong Hyun Ma in December? The erstwhile ‘Maestro’ Kim fast approaches the end of his UFC tenure; let him go out on his shield at home whilst fostering the Kiwi’s violent future.

Zane - Riddell may have been caught a few times late as Mullarkey realized that his only route to a win was to just trade hooks and survive, but otherwise he looked like a much more complete MMA fighter than ever before. He scrambled well, hit his own takedowns, and stuffed some shots. And out at range, he looked very much like the same power combination kickboxer he was in the ring. Off a thriller like this, he needs to face some other fun strikers. The winner of Frevola/Pena would be solid, or Ottman Azaitar, or Khama Worthy. Maybe even David Teymur. Of those, Khama Worthy seems like the best guaranteed action fight. Lots of volume, lots of power, all the strikes. Brad Riddell vs. Khama Worthy would be a fire fight for as long as it lasted.

OTHER BOUTS: Tai Tuivasa vs. Junior Albini, Luke Jumeau vs. Alexey Kunchenko, Dhiego Lima vs. Dwight Grant, Justin Tafa vs. Chi Lewis-Parry, Rostam Akman vs. Kyle Stewart, Callan Potter vs. Philip Rowe, Maki Pitolo vs. Cole Williams, Jamie Mullarkey vs. Fares Ziam, Megan Anderson vs. Felicia Spencer 2???, Zarah Fairn dos Santos vs. ???, Ji Yeon Kim vs. Veronica Macedo, Nadia Kassem vs. Hannah Goldy, Khalid Taha vs. Jonathan Martinez, Bruno Silva vs. Domingo Pilarte