All the buzz surrounding UFC Vegas 14 was around the main event that saw Paul Felder step in on five days notice to compete in a five-round contest with former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. While Khaos Williams and Sean Strickland did their part to skew some of the attention towards them in the aftermath of the event, the majority of the focus was still on dos Anjos and Felder when all was said and done. Dos Anjos’ return to the lightweight division proved overwhelmingly successful, but that doesn’t mean Felder’s performance – even in a loss – wasn’t inspiring.
Can dos Anjos work his way back into the title picture? Now that Felder appears to have rediscovered his passion for MMA, is he also capable of clawing his way into the title picture? Is Williams the real deal? Can Strickland breakthrough in the fuzzy middleweight division?
While these questions weren’t answered at UFC Vegas 14, we aren’t far off from answering these questions. Some of these questions require multiple future fights and others appear to be a single fight away from being answered. Filling in for Zane Simon, I’ll use his same methodology of the Silva/Shelby method of matching fights, with the occasional exception. Let’s get to it!
RAFAEL DOS ANJOS
Returning to lightweight division after four years away, RDA looked nothing like the fighter who dropped four of his last five at welterweight. No longer the smaller man, he was able to impose his brand of physicality and pressure to Felder with extreme levels of success. Felder may have had his moments, but RDA was in control of the contest from start to finish. He called out Conor McGregor after the contest, but Mystic Mac looks like he’s about to be booked with Dustin Poirier. With the lightweight title vacant – Khabib is champion in name only with his retirement – there are a LOT of possibilities. Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, Dan Hooker, Tony Ferguson, Michael Chandler, and Diego Ferreira feel like realistic possibilities. Regardless of who he fights, it doesn’t appear RDA will be fighting for the title, but he won’t be far off. The most likely possibility feels like it will be Michael Chandler. Former Bellator lightweight champion vs. former UFC lightweight champion. Both feel more like wild cards than prime title candidates anyway. Let one eliminate the other.
It’s good to see Felder’s fire reignited. One of the most likeable fighters in the organization – and my favorite UFC color commentator – he’s wavered about retiring for over a year. Looking to make a statement to the world, Felder fell short in his ultimate goal, but also did the UFC a big solid by saving the card. In the process, he has a bit of leverage on the organization and raised his profile in the public eye. Regardless of those positives, he has now dropped two in a row, even with the deserved leniency he deserves with both losses. Beneil Dariush and Drew Dober feel like the most likely options for Felder as both are on good winning streaks and looking to get a shot at a top ten opponent. Between those two, Dariush is more deserving given his win over Dober last year. Felder vs. Dariush would be absolute fire.
In two UFC fights, Williams has two KO finishes in 30 seconds or less. It’s hard to have a better start to a UFC career. In fact, about the only way it would be better is if the level of competition was better. That isn’t Williams’ fault by any means, but it’s also an indication that he shouldn’t be facing top competition quite yet. The problem is, the UFC has a bad habit of rushing prospects that catch fire. See Khamzat Chimaev fighting Leon Edwards next month. Perhaps I’m not looking at the level of opposition some believe Williams deserves, but I very much believe in a steady progression. Williams has finished two durable opponents in Alex Morono and Abdul Razak Alhassan. I want to see him do it to a third opponent who has proven to be durable. Williams vs. Sean Brady is the most logical progression. Brady has impressed with his hard-nosed approach. I feel confident he’ll force Williams to show more of his game.
Take what you will out of Yoder’s win over Miranda Granger, but she got the job done and maintained her employment in the process. Yoder is one of the scrappiest members of the roster, making every fight she’s in a competitive slog. Unfortunately, even with this win, there appears to be a hard ceiling for her as a lower level gatekeeper. Some fighters are late bloomers and Yoder could be one, but I’d rather treat her as a gatekeeper of sorts for another fight or two. Thus, I’d like to see Yoder throwdown with Loma Lookboonmee. Lookboonmee is a talented striker, but her wrestling still has a lot of questions. Yoder should be able to force Lookboonmee to answer those questions.
It doesn’t seem like Strickland is going to get the attention he deserves. After a two year layoff due to a motorcycle accident, Strickland returns and picks up two wins in the span of two weeks. In the second win, he finished one of the brighter prospects in the middleweight division in Brendan Allen. Given his career began in 2008, Strickland is far from a prospect, but he doesn’t feel like a finished product either as he’s only 29. The middleweight division is an ever-evolving mass of confusion outside the top ten, so Strickland could face someone ranked anywhere from 11-30 and the talent level wouldn’t be noticeably different and a win over Allen doesn’t warrant a top 10 opponent. However, Krzysztof Jotko has similar momentum to Strickland. Strickland and Jotko should collide with the winner getting an opportunity against a top ten opponent.
On paper, Allen’s loss to Strickland was an upset. A closer look would have revealed Strickland was a bad matchup for the soon to be 25-year old from the beginning. Allen has had a good progression thus far in his career and I see no reason that he won’t continue to evolve and improve. In other words, while Allen should get a step down in competition, I don’t think it should be too severe of a decline. Allen has struggled with disciplined boxers. Darren Stewart isn’t quite as disciplined as Strickland, but he should force Allen to take a different approach than throwing himself against his opponent time and again. Allen vs. Stewart is the way to go.
Whether or not you agree with the judges decision, McKenna got the win over Kay Hansen and it should be treated like a win. Even if you didn’t like the decision, it can’t be denied that McKenna put on a spirited performance that showed the 21-year old has a very bright future. However, she still needs a lot of seasoning. Given the controversy surrounding her win, I’d say a step sideways makes more sense than a step up. While not as young as McKenna, Mallory Martin is also young in her career and is coming off a win that she was clearly losing until she wasn’t. She’s the best option forward for the youthful McKenna.
The protégé of Kazushi Sakuraba made a hell of an impression in her UFC debut. A win over Randa Markos may not mean as much as it did three or four years ago, but Murata didn’t just beat Markos. She bullied her over the course of 15 minutes, taking contest that wasn’t close. That doesn’t mean it was all rainbows and sunshine as Markos won the few moments that the fight was standing, but that won’t matter as long as Murata can get the fight to the mat. The ideal situation would be to test Murata with a good striker who can stuff takedowns. The problem is those fighters at strawweight are near the top. So how about testing Murata against someone who executes a similar strategy? Enter Brianna Van Buren for a clash of former Invicta strawweight champions. Van Buren may be coming off a loss, but the contest makes so much sense, this represents one of those exceptions to the Silva/Shelby strategy.
OTHER BOUTS: Abdul Razak Alhassan vs. Markus Perez, Miranda Granger vs. Emily Whitmire, Kay Hansen vs. Hannah Cifers, Randa Markos vs. Jessica Penne, Tony Gravely vs. Hunter Azure, Geraldo de Freitas vs. Cole Smith, Alex Morono vs. David Zawada, Rhys McKee vs. Stefan Sekulic, Don’Tale Mayes vs. winner of Josh Parisian/Parker Porter, Roque Martinez vs. Philipe Lins