The UFC’s return to Stockholm was booked to showcase the light heavyweight division. A last minute injury to Ilir Latifi may have dulled that prospect some, but the night still shook things up for the men at 205 lbs. Devin Clark put the brakes on a potential new prospect, Aleksandar Rakic announced himself as a man to fear, and Anthony Smith proved that he’s more than just a flash-in-the-pan title contender at light heavyweight.
So, can Smith get another shot at the belt while Jon Jones is still champ? How long before Aleksandar Rakic and Johnny Walker and Dominick Reyes run into each other? And can the UFC get Leo Santos back in the cage before another three years pass?
To answer all those questions – and maybe one or two more – I’ll be pulling from the classic Silva/Shelby book of matchmaking. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. If you’d like to take your own shot at some fantasy fight booking, leave a comment below starting with, “I love you all. Tonight... LET’S PARTY!” I’ll pick one winner from the responses to join me next time.
No entries from last week, so I’ll be running the show myself this time around.
The stage for Anthony Smith’s next fight is clearly set. Even all through fight week, the focus from fans and media wasn’t so much around Smith vs. Gustafsson, but instead on Smith’s ongoing war of words with former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. Unfortunately for Smith, and for viewers, Rockhold is already booked to fight Jan Blachowicz in July. But, if he can win that battle, Smith vs. Rockhold is the fight to make. If not, Smith vs. Blachowicz would be fine, but Smith vs. Reyes or Anderson seem like they’d be more interesting bouts—given that both Smith and Blachowicz like to work at a fairly slow, even pace. If Rockhold can get the win next time out, book him against Anthony Smith. If not? Anthony Smith vs. Dominick Reyes is the fight.
MMA retirements are always fickle things. On the one hand, I don’t get the feeling Gustafsson ‘needs’ to keep fighting to make money. He seems to have a pretty nice setup going, and him being willing to walk away from the sport at 32 is probably a decent sign he feels like his finances are covered. On the other hand, however, he’s only 32-years-old, and fighter retirements tend to age like milk. If Gus ever does get interested in coming back, honestly, I’d rather see him do it at heavyweight than anywhere else. He’s got the two keys to making a run at 265 lbs work: he’s got the height and reach, and it seems like he’s got the chin for it. Seeing what he could do against JDS, or Overeem, or even Derek Lewis would be a lot of fun. So, give the man 6 months to find out he doesn’t like sitting on the couch, and then book Gustafsson vs. Overeem.
This was Rakic’s big chance to shine against a name opponent, and he absolutely obliterated it... and Jimi Manuwa in the process. Just a crushing left high kick, right out of the gate, to stamp his name as one of the new crop of young stars at 205. So, do we just throw him in against Johnny Walker? Let the two prospects get a chance to make a name off one another, and possibly set up a future top contender – or even title fight – grudge match? Normally, I’d be all for it, but in a division with so much old guard and so little new blood, there are plenty of fun fights for each man before they face one another. Nikita Krylov, Khalil Rountree, Glover Teixeira, Cory Anderson, even Shogun Rua; all these men are coming off wins and either ranked or (in Rountree’s case) would make for a fun challenge. While Rakic/Krylov is a fight I’d love, I’d also love to see Walker in that bout. So, instead, let’s give Rakic a true test of his defensive wrestling and distance management, with a wily veteran. Aleksandar Rakic vs. Glover Teixeira will give the Austrian a chance to really rush his way into elite company.
For a fighter who immediately announced himself as a thrilling action fighter at 145, lately, inactivity has stunted Amirkhani’s rise. He’s fought just once per year since 2016, so it’s hard to place is 5-1 UFC record in the featherweight division. Should he be nipping at the heels of the top 15? Or just staying as a test to other relative newcomers in his division. If he can stay active, the former seems a lot more reasonable. Let Amirkhani make a run, and see if he can be a force among his peers. To that end, there are two clear fights in front of him: Shane Burgos, or Yair Rodriguez. There is a chance those two could end up facing one another, which could mean Amirkhani getting someone like Gabriel Benitez or Julio Arce. But, I’ll say the UFC should go with Burgos vs. Amirkhani. Burgos probably wants something bigger off his Cub Swanson win, but the upper tier of featherweight is largely booked solid right now. A win for either man would put them in prime position for a name opponent next time out.
If Lansberg can keep performing like she did against Evinger here, there’s a lot of room for her to pick up more wins in the women’s bantamweight division. Her wrestling defense was tight, her top game was violent, and her clinch game – as always – was persistent and exhausting. It’s too bad Marion Reneau is coming off back-to-back losses, because a matchup between her and Lansberg feels like it’d be rock solid. That still may be the way to go, but Lansberg has a few options. Even though it’s winner-loser, I’m going to say the UFC should go with a fight against Sijara Eubanks. I thought Eubanks deserved the draw against Ladd, and she’s clearly made big improvements in her striking skill. Coupled with her grappling game, I’d favor her over Lansberg. But, if Lansberg can win, it better cements her as a crafty vet finally putting all the pieces of her game together. And if Eubanks wins? She proves that she’s still a fighter to watch at 135 lbs. Lansberg vs. Eubanks seems like a meaningful fight for both women.
Get this man some tough fights, immediately. He’s 39, he’s lost years of his career, and he’s still an exceptionally dangerous, challenging fighter in the lightweight division. It’s time to make something happen, or soon time will be up. So, who will it be? Islam Makhachev? Paul Felder? Charles Oliveira? Gregor Gillespie? I’m hearing reports that Mairbek Taisumov already has a fight lined up for UFC 242, otherwise that’d seem like an on-the-nose booking of extra-violent men who can’t seem to get to the cage. If none of the current ranked fighters will do it, a bout with Francisco Trinaldo could crown the 155 ‘old man championships.’ When all is said and done, I think Leo Santos vs. Charles Oliveira is the way to go. Two surprisingly violent strikers and absolutely killer grapplers should make for some thrilling action. And it might just keep the UFC from booking Oliveira vs. Lentz IV. Leo Santos vs. Charles Oliveira for a BJJ + Muay Thai thriller.
I can’t help but be excited at the idea of any Frank Camacho fight, especially at lightweight where he’s not just going to be the smaller man trying to keep the fight upright. Battles against Magomed Mustafaev, Joaquim Silva, Christos Gigagos, David Teymur, or even Marc Diakiese all have the potential to be violent, action-fights. But, I’m going to go with the guy who, like Camacho, has built a reputation for always entertaining fans, even if he’s not always winning fights: Lando Vannata. It seems like a bout that’d be guaranteed to produce crazy back-and-forth action, and the kind of war both men are happy to have. Vannata vs. Camacho is too much fun to pass up.
OTHER BOUTS: Jimi Manuwa vs. Lil’ Nog, Chris Fishgold vs. Nad Narimani, Christos Giagos vs. Alexander Yakovlev, Damir Hadzovic vs. Joseph Duffy, Daniel Teymur vs. Matt Sayles, Sung Bin Jo vs. Martin Bravo, Sergey Khandozhko vs. Alberto Mina, Rostem Akman vs. Zelim Imadaev, Tonya Evinger vs. Bethe Correia, Stevie Ray vs. Scott Holtzman, Bea Malecki vs. Norma Dumont, Duda Santana vs. Gina Mazany, Devin Clark vs. Khalil Rountree, Darko Stosic vs. Gadzhimurad Antigulov, Joel Alvarez vs. Matt Frevola, Danilo Belluardo vs. Te Edwards