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UFC on ESPN: Woodley vs. Burns - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest fights the UFC can book following their first event at the Apex facility in Las Vegas, NV.

The UFC’s first Apex show was kind of a weird card on paper, but ended up being a lot of fun in practice. A lot of that might be chalked up to the promotion using their smaller cage for the event—something that kept fighters like Woodley, Ivanov, and Gutierrez much more engaged with their opponents than they might otherwise choose to be. But, no mater the reason, the fights provided a lot of entertainment—even if they were largely short on deeper meaning.

So, is Gilbert Burns officially welterweight’s top contender now? Is Augusto Sakai on his way to being a top 10 heavyweight? And what the heck is the UFC gonna do with Katlyn Chookagian in the women’s flyweight division?

To answer all those questions – if little else – I’ll be turning to the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking style from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that system, there’s a small chance that one or two of these fights actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the match-ups!

GILBERT BURNS

Burns is in an unusual place. He’s got rock solid, indisputable wins over two fantastically talented fighters. One a former champion, the other a multiple-time title challenger. But, it also feels like each of those wins closed the door on those fighters’ time as part of the welterweight elite. Demian Maia is talking about taking one or two more bouts before hanging ‘em up for good, and it’s hard to imagine the Tyron Woodley who came out of Saturday’s fight contending for a welterweight belt again.

However, with talk of an Usman/Masvidal title fight seeming more and more remote – and with Colby Covington already having lost his bout to the champ – it’s not unreasonable to say that Gilbert Burns is the top contender at 170 lbs. The only other person in the conversation is Leon Edwards. And other than a remarkable win streak, victories over RDA and Gunnar Nelson don’t quite stack up to Maia and Woodley. If Gilbert Burns wants to fight his training partner, that should create a whole lot of intrigue. So, I’ll say book it. Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns for the Welterweight title.

TYRON WOODLEY

Whether or not fans place the credit for this loss on Gilbert Burns’ fantastic performance, it’s hard not to see this fight as anything other than a serious setback for Tyron Woodley. And one that’s only going to further fuel questions as to whether his head is really in the game anymore. He’s firmly entered the wrong side of the equation where age is concerned. And if potential upcoming challengers aren’t going to give him the fear his power used to command, he’s built a style that doesn’t make for easy, round-winning performances. Staying among the elite may be especially difficult.

Fortunately for Woodley, however, there are a couple other old-guard talents that have had their own recent struggles to keep up with the new blood. Namely Rafael Dos Anjos and Robbie Lawler. Woodley vs. Lawler I was barely even a fight, this could be exactly the time to see how these two men match up over more than a round. At the same time, RDA would be something new. A fight that, at one point, seemed like it would have been an excellent title bout—but never came to be. It also helps that RDA has been a lot more active over the past couple years. Let’s book RDA vs. Tyron Woodley, see who’s still got something left in the tank.

AUGUSTO SAKAI

A very close run thing for Sakai here. Ivanov came out looking to push the pace and keep Sakai from building momentum, and that worked well for a while. But, Sakai started turning the tempo around in round 2 and (along with a really fortuitous cage grab) he kept that momentum well in the third. That could make for match-ups with Oleksiy Oliynyk, Alistair Overeem, or Sergei Pavlovich. Or, this be the time for the UFC to go winner/loser and pit Sakai against Shamil Abdurahimov or Walt Harris. I was gonna suggest Sakai take on Rothwell, but that seems like kind of a weird step back—considering Ivanov beat him not long ago. Eventually, I think the best opportunity Sakai’s got is gonna be against Shamil Abdurahimov. It’s not a flashy fight, but Sakai has yet to really prove he’s a must-see talent in the division to this point.

MACKENZIE DERN

Exactly the kind of win Dern needed to re-start her mojo. She struggled out of the gate with Cifers’ clinch boxing and had difficulty closing distance, but once she got to a strong clinch position she was able to initiate exactly the scramble she needed to win. While I wouldn’t be averse to seeing Dern take on someone like Randa Markos (or maybe even Karolina Kowalkiewicz, given her skid of losses), this still doesn’t feel like the kind of performance that should rush Dern up the division too much. Instead, how about a fight with Mizuki Inoue. The former Invicta champ is a notable name, but one who still needs to prove she has the physicality to hang in the UFC. Fellow former Invicta champ Virna Jandiroba is another strong option. But, I’m most interested in seeing Dern vs. Inoue. A win for either woman would say a lot about their future potential.

KATLYN CHOOKAGIAN

An absolutely dominant performance from Chookagian. She clearly saw what worked for Roxanne Modafferi in her win over Shevchenko and focused her whole game around getting to the clinch and hitting takedowns. She absolutely dominated Shevchenko on the ground—it’s just too bad for her she couldn’t pick up the finish. What comes next for ‘Blonde Fighter,’ however, is less clear. She’s already fought Alexis Davis, Jessica Eye, Joanne Calderwood, and Jennifer Maia. Viviane Araujo is unfortunately coming off a loss, as are Andrea Lee and Maycee Barber. Even Cortney Casey is already booked again. So, it seems like the best option is the winner of Modafferi vs. Murphy. Both women have been making steady improvements to keep themselves in spitting distance of title contention. And while Chookagian already beat Murphy, that was back in 2016. A rematch wouldn’t be amiss. Katlyn Chookagian vs. the Modafferi/Murphy winner is a good way for all three women to continue making their case for contender status.

BRANDON ROYVAL

Tim Elliott looked to give Royval everything he could handle for his Octagon debut. Started fast, wrestled hard, and put a pace on the newcomer out of the gate. Then he just kinda flamed out and Royval’s sharp BJJ took over. It was a thrilling performance that highlighted Royval’s scrambling and sub-hunting skills, but not one ‘Raw Dawg’ was particularly happy with it seems (fortunately he did get his bonus check after all). If he wants the chance to face off against a more polished, consistent kickboxer, David Dvorak is coming off his own debut Octagon win. That should make for an excellent bout, to see which man is more deserving of their rankings spot in a still largely untested talent pool. Royval vs. Dvorak should give both men a chance to prove they’re long-term talents at 125 lbs.

CASEY KENNEY

A good win for Casey Kenney that should help put him back on track toward the bantamweight top 15. Smolka was looking to walk him down and put a pace on him, but Kenney showed some sharp counter punching. And once he got to a good grappling position, this fight was over fast. Bouts with Montel Jackson, Nathaniel Wood, or Ricky Simon would all be solid options. Of those, I think the Wood fight would be most interesting. Wood’s got the better range kickboxing, but tends to lean on being able to out-wrestle and out-grapple opponents when things get wild. Kenney could make that a very difficult proposition. Kenney vs. Wood is a top quality bantamweight prospect scrap.

OTHER BOUTS: Blagoy Ivanov vs. Ilir Latifi, Billy Quarantillo vs. Jordan Griffin, Spike Carlyle vs. Matt Sayles, Roosevelt Roberts vs. Luis Pena, Brok Weaver vs. Fares Ziam, Hannah Cifers vs. Ashley Yoder, Antonina Shevchenko vs. Mara Romero Borella, Daniel Rodriguez vs. Dwight Grant, Gabriel Green vs. Cole Williams, Jamahal Hill vs. Da Un Jung, Klidson Abreu vs. Dalcha Lungiambula, Tim Elliott vs. Raulian Paiva, Louis Smolka vs. Aiemann Zahabi, Chris Gutierrez vs. Luke Sanders, Vince Morales vs. Domingo Pilarte