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UFC on ESPN 4: RDA vs. Edwards - 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 San Antonio, TX.

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The UFC’s latest ESPN offering was set up for limited returns. A card stacked with tough veteran fighters who not only don’t tend to get finished, but who are also entirely comfortable fighting to a decision. Throw in some greener talent without the consistency or technical depth to create dominating performances and, well, fans just might be treated to nine straight decisions—and ten overall on the night. That doesn’t mean no one shined, however. Leon Edwards put together a great performance to work his way past Rafael dos Anjos, Walt Harris and Dan Hooker lit up their respective opponents, and Mario Bautista went to war with Jin Soo Son.

So, will people finally start calling out Leon Edwards, or is he stuck playing the bridesmaid at 170 lbs? Is it time to insert Walt Harris’ name into the top of the heavyweight division? And, after faltering in her debut, is Jennifer Maia on her way to title contention at 125 lbs?

I’ll be answering all those questions – and maybe one or two more – using the classic Silva/Shelby fight-making methodology from years past. 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 chance at some fantasy matchup glory for UFC 240 next week, leave a comment below starting with, “San Antonio is a sleeping giant and I am the alarm clock.” I’ll pick one winner from the responses to join me next time. As I’m only soliciting entries for PPV cards right now, there’s no guest writer this week.

Now, let’s get to the matchups!

LEON EDWARDS

A huge win for Leon Edwards that just might net him... none of the fights he’s hoping for. He called out Jorge Masvidal and Kamaru Usman – which is good and fine – but it seems much more likely that they’re about to fight each other. If Usman is going to be held up by injury for a while, then a bout with Masvidal has some narrative heat to it. But, Masvidal’s already made it clear that he’s not very interested. The winner of Colby Covington/Robbie Lawler is another possibility, especially if Lawler wins. But, if Colby takes that, he’s almost certainly going to try and get the next shot at the title (one he’s frankly earned). That means Edwards could have to take a super tough fight that won’t get him much beyond a high profile name on his resume—or a serious chance at a loss. Demian Maia, Santiago Ponzinibbio, Stephen Thompson, Ben Askren? These are the kinds of opponents that Edwards will likely need to chose from. Of all those, Thompson is probably the best combination of style and name value that would divert Edwards from his preferred bouts. Unless, of course, Edwards feels like Askren has been thoroughly exposed. Leon Edwards vs. ‘Wonderboy’ seems like the best tread-water fight the Brit can hope for, while the title picture shakes out.

RAFAEL DOS ANJOS

A hard setback for RDA, who has to be thinking about the fastest ways back to title contention late in his career. He took a strong win over Kevin Lee just back in May, but Edwards wasn’t about to fade over the stretch like Lee did—and put his superior size to work on dos Anjos in the clinch. Fortunately, there are plenty of top-ranked welterweights coming off hard losses right now in need of an opponent. Ben Askren, Stephen Thompson, and Darren Till all got shellacked recently, and dos Anjos is probably just the kind of opponent they’d like to see on the rebound. Of course, if the UFC wanted to create some narrative drama, RDA beat both Nate Diaz and Anthony Pettis – back-to-back – in 2014/15. The winner or loser of that bout could get themselves a chance at revenge if they wanted it.

The other option is the continued use of RDA as a sounding board for rising contenders. That’d mean a bout with Santiago Ponzinibbio, whenever the Argentinian is ready to go again. Given all these, I’ll say the UFC should go with RDA vs. Darren Till. I know the Brazilian tends to struggle with bigger opponents (and Till is huge), but the questions Till needs to answer about his defense and pace are numerous to the point that I think RDA can make this fight fascinating just by being tough and staying in Till’s face. If Pettis wants to run one back with RDA, I’d watch that too, but I get the feeling he and Diaz are looking for other kinds of fights. Rafael dos Anjos vs. Darren Till is a good fight to see if either man will answer the questions the other wants to ask.

WALT HARRIS

Harris’ career has come with all sorts of hiccups. At one point cut from the UFC, he’d arguably be 7-1 in his last eight fights (or 9-1 in his last ten if you swing the Abudrakhimov split) if it weren’t for a DQ and an overturned win due to a drug test failure. His game is clicking and he’s got the speed and power to compete with a lot of the division’s best—even if what he’s looking to do isn’t all that varied. He hits hard and his hands are fast. Fights with Alistair Overeem, Derek Lewis, or Blagoi Ivanov would all be solid bouts to that end. He could also wait for the winner of Tybura vs. Sakai or Blaydes vs. Abdurakhimov (although I’m not sure we really need Harris vs. Abdurakhimov 2 if that’s what shakes out). Personally, I think there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had with a Derek Lewis matchup, but Lewis is also coming off two straight losses. Overeem’s been making a comeback, and that fight seems like it would be edge of the seat action. Plus it’s pretty hard to find new, fun fights for the ‘Reem’ at this point in his career. Alistair Overeem vs. Walt Harris should be a good one.

DAN HOOKER

A big win for Hooker to get him back on track. He took a hard loss to Edson Barboza, but seems to have collected himself well—doing some great work to find the gaps in Vick’s game and exploit them for a knockout win. That puts him in position to get a tough, ranked opponent. I know he’s called out Al Iaquinta—and he just might get that fight, with Iaquinta looking to bounce back from his own rough defeat. But, Iaquinta has also seemed pretty particular about opponents in the past, and may not want to fight someone just breaking into the rankings. If that’s the case, then a bout with Charles Oliveira would be fantastic option. Oliveira’s striking has steadily improved to the point that he’s not easily handled at range by all but the best strikers, and he’s still an amazingly underrated wrestler with a devastating sub game. Just the kind of dangerous action fight that should provide a chance for Hooker to shine (or fail) spectacularly. It’s either that or take a high risk bout with Leonardo Santos. But, I think Dan Hooker vs. Charles Oliveira is just the right fight.

JAMES VICK

Another crushing KO loss, and it seems Vick’s style has been somewhat solved, at least among the upper echelons of the lightweight division. A hard wall for a fighter who had to take a long road to getting big fights. There are still some solid action bouts out there for the ‘Texecutioner’ however. Fights with Nik Lentz, Drew Dober, Yancy Medeiros, or Alex White would all make some sense. Of all those, the bout against Medeiros seems like the most fun combination of size and action. Medeiros has had his own setbacks lately, and hasn’t returned since a TKO loss to Gregor Gillespie back in January. But, when he’s ready to go again, he and Vick would make for an excellent scrap. James Vick vs. Yancy Medeiros for a fun lightweight action battle.

ALEXANDER HERNANDEZ

Not the performance anyone might have hoped for out of Hernandez—and it’s incredibly debatable whether or not he deserved that win. But, he got it, and he’s likely going to get a bigger fight next time out. Bouts with Charles Oliveira and Gregor Gillespie seem like really obvious easy fights to book. Both men coming off strong wins, one with great grappling and the other with relentless wrestling. I’ll say throw Hernandez at Gillespie over the Oliveira, however. I really want to see how he reacts to a wrestler with the insane pace that Gillespie can push. It seems tailor made to draw an action fight out of him in the exact way that Trinaldo didn’t. Gregor Gillespie vs. Alexander Hernandez seems like a great prospect vs. prospect battle at 155.

RAQUEL PENNINGTON

A good comeback win for Pennington after a rough couple of losses. She stayed composed, stuck to her counters, and took advantage of her physicality when the opportunities presented themselves. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of easy bookings for her at the top of 135. She’s not about to get another title shot, and she’s fought just about everyone of the division’s old guard. This could be the time for a rematch with Holly Holm; a chance to get back a tough loss that Pennington competed well in. Or a fight with Yana Kunitskaya, who is making her own name as a new contender. But, surprisingly there’s an even more obvious fight that Pennington hasn’t had yet: Julianna Pena. Pena is coming off a win over former flyweight champion Nicco Montano, and would almost certainly like to reassert herself as a top contender at women’s bantamweight after her time off. A win over Pennington would be a great way to do that, and potentially set up an new challenger for Amanda Nunes. Raquel Pennington vs. Julianna Pena is the fight I’m sure we should have seen already.

JENNIFER MAIA

A very solid win for Maia, who has fought her way back to flyweight relevance after a bad debut against Liz Carmouche. Wins over Davis and Modafferi put her right in contention. That could mean fights with Jessica Eye, Katlyn Chookagian, or the winner of Joanne Calderwood vs. Andrea Lee. It’s hard to know just how soon Eye is going to return after her brutal loss to the champ, and while the winner of Calderwood vs. Lee is clearly right in the hunt, Chookagian is the woman that was supposed to have the top contender spot on lock after beating Calderwood last time out. So put Maia and Chookagian in together. If Katlyn can win that, she’s the unquestioned top contender. If Maia wins, she’s got a great case for her own shot at the Shevchenko/Carmouche winner. Jennifer Maia vs. Katlyn Chookagian is as good a top contender bout as women’s flyweight can get.

OTHER BOUTS: Oleksiy Oliynyk vs. Sakai/Tybura loser, Greg Hardy vs. Maurice Greene, Juan Adams vs. Serghei Spivac, Francisco Trinaldo vs. Rustam Khabilov, Andrei Arlovski vs. Blagoy Ivanov, Ben Rothwell vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima, Alex Caceres vs. Movsar Evloev, Steven Peterson vs. Daniel Teymur, Irene Aldana vs. Aspen Ladd, Klidson Abreu vs. Dalcha Lungiambula, Sam Alvey vs. Paul Craig, Roxanne Modafferi vs. Montana De La Rosa, Ray Borg vs. Luke Sanders, Gabriel Silva vs. Randy Costa, Mario Bautista vs. Jonathan Martinez, Jin Soo Son vs. Anderson dos Santos, Felipe Colares vs. Hunter Azure, Domingo Pilarte vs. Journey Newson