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UFC 251: Usman vs. Masvidal - Fights to make

All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest bouts the UFC needs to book following their first event from ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi.

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Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

While the title fight portion of UFC 251 may have provided as many causes for complaint as they did thrills and high level action, it’s undeniable that the event left fans with plenty to talk about. Kamaru Usman stifled Jorge Masvidal to erase any and all doubt that he’s the king of the welterweight division. Alexander Volkanovski scraped by Max Holloway, providing even less clarity in his hopes to separate himself as a dominant champion at 145 lbs. And Petr Yan battled through adversity to unquestionably snatch the crown at bantamweight, and then got about three more minutes to really drive that claim home.

So, is Gilbert Burns still next for Kamaru Usman, or will Leon Edwards skip ahead of him in line? Is it time for the UFC to move on from Max Holloway vs. Alexander Volkanovski, or do they just have to fight each other until the end of time? And why in God’s name is Dana White even starting to suggest that anyone other than Aljamain Sterling would be next for Petr Yan?

To answer those questions – and much, much more – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology 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 model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights.


Usman has two clear contenders in front of him right now, but mostly it sounds like he wants to take some time off. That could be bad news for Gilbert Burns if he recovers from his bout with COVID in short order and is still fight-ready (and in need of a paycheck) sometime late this summer. But, with the UFC’s recently shown penchant for re-booking bouts they already had fighters signed on for, there’s no reason not to expect that Burns will keep his place in line if he’s willing to wait for it. Leon Edwards is on a fantastic run, but beating RDA just doesn’t have the same shine to it as Burns’ win over Tyron Woodley. Not to mention that Burns’ wicked ground game is just the kind of skill to create a novel dynamic for an Usman title defense.

Can Usman really fight like he did against Maia when facing someone with a much more powerful striking arsenal? Add in the fact that the two men have been longtime teammates and likely have a pretty good bead on one another’s skills and it’s clearly just the more interesting fight right now. Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns should be next up for the welterweight title.


The longterm impact on Jorge Masvidal’s brand still remains to be seen. By all accounts from the UFC, his added star power was a major boon to selling this event on PPV. But, only to end up with a performance that left many fans walking away unsatisfied. Often the impact of that kind of thing can be overstated, however, there’s sure to be a lot of focus on who exactly Masvidal fights next and just how big a deal that fight will be. There’s an obvious spectacle to be made out of a potential fight between Masvidal and Conor McGregor. But with McGregor currently claiming retirement (and very likely just waiting to see how Gaethje vs. Nurmagomedov plays out) there’s no banking on the Irishman to step back in the Octagon any time soon. Masvidal has already said he won’t fight Colby Covington next—which is a damn shame, since it’s the other high drama fight on Masvidal’s radar.

That leaves one obvious answer, Leon Edwards. Edwards is on the cusp of title contention, but a bout between he and Usman feels like box office poison. Taking on Masvidal would be a chance to capitalize on their backstage scuffle from last year, since that “Three piece and a soda” line is still the most notable point of Edwards’ UFC tenure. If Edwards wins that fight, he’ll be in the best possible spot for a shot at the champ. And in the meantime, it’s a great way to see if Masvidal’s drawing power can carry another card.


A contested decision for Volkanovski. And while it’s one that I feel should still move him on from trilogy talk, Dana white’s ire of the scores could mean just about anything for the future of both he and Holloway. Still, if I’m assuming that Holloway vs. Volkanovski 3 isn’t right around the corner, then there are a few other strong potential title contenders. ‘The Great’ says he wants to fight again before the end of the year, and Chan Sung Jung is floating out there, currently un-booked. I get the feeling, though, that the winner of Yair Rodriguez vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov (assuming that fight actually gets made) will end up having the next shot. Maybe I’m wrong and the UFC really will be eager to make that TKZ vs. Volkanovski fight happen off Jung’s wins over Frankie Edgar and Renato Moicano. But at the moment, Volkanovski vs. the Rodriguez/Magomedsharipov winner sounds like a solid bet to be the next bout for the featherweight title.


Many fans may feel Holloway was the victim of poor judging here, but after a very strong start, he absolutely let Volkanovski dictate the pace of the fight. Without any other major momentum swings over the last three rounds, it’s not terribly surprising that pace then dictated the scorecards. Even off a pair of losses, Holloway is a constant fan favorite though. And there are no lack of fights for him that fans should want to see him in beyond a trilogy.

It’s almost unfortunate that Yair Rodriguez and Zabit Magomedsharipov are likely facing off, since I’d love to see Holloway take on either man. It’s also hard to know what Chan Sung Jung might do next—he seems like a strong candidate to be the next contender. But if he isn’t, and if that Ortega fight isn’t happening, then I’d love to see TKZ take on Holloway. Of course, fans have also been calling for Holloway to make a longer term jump to 155. Bouts against Dan Hooker or Tony Ferguson would be choice if he did. However, given all the options, I’ll say Holloway vs. Chan Sung Jung is the fight to make.


There’s pretty clearly just one answer here for Petr Yan—and no, it’s not the winner of a fight between Frankie Edgar and Cody Garbrandt. Considering that AlJo was actually ready to fight Edgar on short notice this same month, there’s no reason Aljamain Sterling shouldn’t have gotten this title shot against Yan over Aldo. Still, Sterling is waiting in the wings as the seemingly unquestionable number one contender. Don’t waste time, don’t muck up the division any more than it’s already been. Book Sterling vs. Yan for the bantamweight belt.


A much better showing than Aldo had in either of his Holloway fights, but the results still ended up the same—with a high paced opponent pouring on offense at a rate Aldo just couldn’t keep up with. He’s still clearly an elite fighter among the top 10 of whatever division he wants to fight in, whether it’s bantamweight or featherweight, but this felt like the real end of his time as a title contender. I don’t know what he’s going to be ready for or how soon; it feels like he ought to get a rematch against Marlon Moraes, given how controversial the ending to their first fight was. But the real power move – the fight I feel like I have to see – is Jose Aldo vs. Dominick Cruz. Neither man is top of the MMA world anymore, but they still clearly have something to offer in a fascinating clash of wildly different styles. Cruz vs. Aldo for the battle of former champions I never knew I needed until now.


Exactly the win Namajunas needed to get after a first fight, where it seemed like she just about got everything right until it all went wrong. Still, she had to survive a surging Andrade in round 3. And if this had been a 5-round fight? Who knows how it might have ended. All that said, with the win Namajunas is clearly the title contender for Weili Zhang’s belt. It’s not only a new fight for the champ, but against another former title holder who is still very much in her prime. Nothing for the UFC to wait on, nowhere else for the UFC to go. Weili Zhang vs. Rose Namajunas is must-book stuff.


I thought about leaving Andrade off the ‘big fight’ picks for this week, but the truth is that she’s clearly got a perfect booking out there waiting for her—one that’s just about as good a fight as can be put together at strawweight right now. At least, she does as long as Joanna Jedrzejczyk isn’t actually retired. Assuming the former queen of the 115 lb division was just really feeling the vacation vibes in her recent Instagram post, and isn’t actually ready to walk away yet (no guarantees, Jedrzejczyk has talked about retiring soon several times), then this is absolutely the perfect time for a rematch between Andrade and ‘Joanna Champion.’ ‘Bate Estaca’ continues to make minor adjustments to her style, with better defense, footwork, and body punching. And while Jedrzejczyk may still be a tough base-level matchup, it’s the biggest possible fight for Andrade and another chance to show she’s really improved since their first 2017 bout. Jedrzejczyk isn’t the puncher that Namajunas is, and while she may be more consistent over more rounds, she’ll also likely give Andrade less reason for caution. Jedrzejczyk vs. Andrade 2 looks like the perfect fight for both women.


Ribas is clearly a pretty special talent on the rise. And this was an exceptional performance, even if she was heavily favored to beat Paige VanZant. The sign of an elite fighter isn’t just that they win fights, but that they clearly dominate the fights they’re supposed to dominate. That’s absolutely what Ribas did here, snatching up the first round armbar on her way to victory. After grabbing the win, Ribas made it clear she’s headed down to 115 once more. So as long as she’s on her way to strawweight, fights against Tecia Torres or the winner of Michelle Waterson vs. Angela Hill seem like perfect next steps. As long as Torres isn’t booked yet, the UFC might as well go with that fight. Ribas vs. Torres is a great way for Ribas to keep making her case as a future strawweight title contender.


A massive debut win for Jiri Prochazka. Oezdemir may have been rushed a bit to his initial UFC title shot, but he’s still shown himself to be a very capable elite level fighter in the division. Prochazka struggled with Oezdemir’s counter-punching all through the first round, but his insane pace and variety took it’s toll on ‘No Time,’ and had Oezdemir pretty well winded within the first five minutes. The finish was a violent swarming thing of beauty and should set Prochazka up for just about any match-up in the top 10. The winner of Teixeira vs. Santos or Smith vs. Rakic? Cory Anderson and Jan Blachowicz are also strong options. Realistically, Prochazka could be the rare fighter to force a thriller out of Jan Blachowciz, and I have no problem seeing that booked. But the winner of Smith vs. Rakic seems like it’d be the most interesting of all the potential bouts available. Jiri Prochazka vs. the Smith/Rakic winner.

OTHER BOUTS: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Nikita Krylov, Muslim Salikhov vs. Claudio Silva, Elizeu Zaleski vs. Alex Morono, Leonardo Santos vs. Bobby Green, Marcin Tybura vs. Maurice Greene, Maxim Grishin vs. Klidson Abreu, Raulian Paiva vs. Jordan Espinosa, Zhalgas Zhumigulov vs. Su Mudaerji, Karol Rosa vs. Sijara Eubanks, Vanessa Melo vs. Gina Mazany, Davey Grant vs. Andre Ewell, Martin Day vs. Domingo Pilarte