UFC 249 was set up to be the UFC’s first major event of 2021 and it delivered on all fronts. Dustin Poirier made his bid to become one of the UFC’s new PPV stars with a stunning round 2 TKO of Conor McGregor. Michael Chandler announced himself as a thrilling new contender with a first round pasting of Dan Hooker. And Marina Rodriguez reasserted her status as a top prospect in the women’s strawweight division.
So, is Poirier really dead set against facing Chandler? Will ‘Iron’ Mike have to fight another top 5 lightweight to get his shot at UFC gold? And did Joanne Calderwood just put herself back in the conversation at 125 lbs?
To answer those questions – and a whole lot 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.
Poirier wrapped up his huge night of successes by laying down the groundwork for an interesting problem going forward for the UFC. Namely he made it clear that whatever he was going to do next, fighting Michael Chandler was out of the question. He even suggested that Chandler & Oliveira compete for top contender status. Poirier went on to make his own callouts, to either run things back with McGregor or maybe take a fight with Nate Diaz—who hasn’t competed in more than a year, and was last seen getting roughed up by Jorge Masvidal.
I get that he’s shooting for big money fights. But, after signing a new eight fight deal with the UFC, it doesn’t sound like he’s planning on wrapping up his career any time soon, so I’m not entirely sure what the rush is right now. Given that Chandler isn’t exactly immune to taking a definitive loss here and there, having him wade through the lightweight elite seems more likely to use up what excitement fans have for his contender status than it is to enhance it. If Poirier absolutely won’t face Chandler, then Oliveira or a McGregor rematch seem the obvious other moves. But, I’d much rather see the UFC strike while the iron is hot and have Chandler vs. Poirier for the lightweight title.
What makes the most sense for McGregor right now depends so much on what he actually wants to do. He’s always got the money to sit and wait for whatever matchup he thinks is best. But, as he himself made a point of saying after getting thumped by Poirier on Saturday, all the time off he’s been taking hasn’t exactly done him any favors. Whether or not inactivity was actually to blame, if Conor views it as the reason for this loss, he’s probably going to be looking to fight again sooner rather than later. And the ideal opponent seems as though it would be Nate Diaz. But, banking on Diaz for a future fight booking is nobody’s idea of a sure thing. That could mean fights with Rafael Dos Anjos, Tony Ferguson, or Paul Felder instead. End of the day, Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor 3 seems like the clear fight to shoot for—but if Diaz isn’t interested in the trilogy, then McGregor vs. Felder seems like it could be a whole lot of fun.
A huge win for Michael Chandler, who more or less put Hooker away with the first clean shot he landed upstairs. That’s a massive statement from him, especially considering that Hooker has never been TKO’d like that before. A real showing of poise and power on the biggest stage of his career. That sets the table for Chandler to be in the immediate title conversation. Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje both have their own seats at that table too, but Gaethje is coming off a loss. And if the UFC’s attempt to book him against Oliveira says anything, it’s that they don’t see Oliveira as their contender of the moment. With Dustin Poirier picking up the huge win in the main event, it feels like the title fight should be set. Michael Chandler vs. Dustin Poirier for the vacant lightweight title. Get it done.
Hooker reportedly left his gloves in the cage after this fight, but I doubt he’s about to walk away. He’s still in what should be his physical prime, and still among the elite at lightweight. He definitely got clubbed by Chandler here, but it’d be pretty shocking if this were the last time fans saw him in the Octagon. If Hooker is set to return sometime in the not too distant future, there are a couple fights out there waiting for him. Tony Ferguson would be a choice one, as would Kevin Lee, or maybe a Paul Felder rematch. Still the idea of the Ferguson fight is pretty obviously the best option of everything that could be on the table. Ferguson vs. Hooker to see if either man can turn the tables and get their name back into the title hunt.
Calderwood and Eye have both tended to go to a lot of close decisions. But, even as they saw the judges again here, Calderwood made sure there was no doubt who the winner was. She piled on the volume against Eye through a bevy of clinch knees and body kicks from distance. That puts Calderwood right back in the title hunt. But she didn’t sound too keyed up to face Shevchenko next, telling Jon Anik that she’d happily fight 10 more people on the way to the belt if that’s what the UFC wants. With Jessica Andrade likely lined up for Shevchenko in the immediate future, there’s no reason not to make another top tier scrap for Calderwood. As long as she’s willing to fight anyone, then Lauren Murphy is looking for a way to get to the belt. For both women it’s a chance to beef up their contender resume and get a little more momentum going on their way to a shot at UFC gold. That’s exactly what the UFC needs in that division. Murphy vs. Calderwood seems like a rock solid top contender’s bout.
A crushing win from Rodriguez. Ribas made her pay for her lax takedown defense early in the fight, but every round starts on the feet—and Ribas spent entirely too much time at range trying to get her own offense going in round 2. She paid for it with several huge Rodriguez right hands that put the fight away. A big win for Rodriguez who has taken just about the hardest possible path up the women’s strawweight division. Afterword she called for a fight with someone in the top 5. I’d love to see her take on Joanna Jedrzejczyk at some point, but it’s probably not the kind of highlight fight the former champ is looking for. Michelle Waterson would be a great option too, but she’s nursing an injury. So how about a fight with Claudia Gadleha. Gadelha may be coming off a loss, but she’s got the kind of dominating top game that Rodriguez still strugles with, plus plenty of striking power. A good test to see if Rodriguez can keep her momentum going to the belt against a former title contender. Rodriguez vs. Gadelha would be a top quality scrap.
The Russo-Armenian didn’t exactly put on the most electrifying performance of his career against Matt Frevola, but he once again showed just how hard he is to throw off his dominating wrestling game and clean range striking. The only thing to do next with the 24-year-old team Lion Heart product is to keep putting him in against more and more dangerous competition. Lightweight is full of tough outs who could test his ability to stay technical and in control. Guys like Joel Alvarez, Magomed Mustafaev, or Brad Riddell would all be strong opportunities. But what about a fight against Rafael Fiziev? Fiziev’s striking has looked absolutely dominant lately. And he’s also showed off some great takedown defense. Does Tsarukyan have what it takes to crack his wrestling game? Or would he get lit up standing with the Kazak-born Kyrgyzstani? Tsarukyan vs. Fiziev would be a fascinating clash of styles and give the winner a big boost of momentum in the lightweight division.
A badly needed win for the Hawaiian who has been a prospect on the rise for a decade now. While he hasn’t yet turned the corner into a title contender, Tavares did show off just why he’s managed to stick around for so long. Namely that he’s one of the more difficult to crack defensive fighters at 185 lbs. He shucked 10 of 11 takedown attempts from Antonio Carlos Jr. And the one that landed barely mattered. Off a victory like that, Tavares at least deserves to keep cracking with the top 15 at middleweight. While I might argue for a fight with Marvin Vettori off his recent big win, it feels a bit more like Omari Akhmedov is a bit better test of just where Tavares is at. Another hard punching consistent fighter who often depends on takedowns to make the difference on the cards. Can Akhmedov get Tavares down, or will this be another fight where Tavares’ defense turns the tide for him. Tavares vs. Akhmedov is a good chance for one man to climb out of the top 15 gatekeeper position.
Following Pena’s nice third round comeback against McMann, she made a big callout for a bout with the women’s bantamweight & featherweight champion Amanda Nunes. It’s worth a shot. After all, it’s not like 135 is replete with challengers for the title. But it doesn’t feel like the kind of win likely to vault her straight into contention. Whether it’s Raquel Pennington, Holly Holm, Irene Aldana, or Aspen Ladd, Pena probably needs at least one top 5 win to get the title shot she wants. Ladd is injured, and Aldana is coming off a loss. That leaves Pennington and Holm. Between those two, Holm feels like the bigger fight, so why not shoot for it. Julianna Pena vs. Holly Holm; see if Pena can finally capitalize on her prospect status to become a title contender.
Evloev is carving out his niche as a clear problem in the featherweight division. A young, hungry prospect with a high-energy game that can compete with opponents in all phases. He’ll chain wrestle, flow with his grappling, and throw punches in bunches to wear opponents down with pace and pestering damage. He’s 14-0 in MMA and 4-0 in the UFC, it’s time to start throwing him in with some of the other prospects who have been making noise at 145. Fighters like Sodiq Yusuff, Gavin Tucker, Giga Chikadze, or Bryce Mitchell. Wait... Bryce Mitchell needs a fight? Movsar Evloev vs. Bryce Mitchell would be a non-stop thriller. A true test of Evloev’s grappling game. And, if he can hang with Mitchell on the mat, a huge test of the Arkansas native’s ability to keep pace with a high output striker into the third round. Evloev vs. Mitchell would be a top shelf prospect war.
OTHER BOUTS: Jessica Eye vs. Jennifer Maia, Makhmud Muradov vs. Karl Roberson, Andrew Sanchez vs. Brendan Allen, Amanda Ribas vs. Angela Hill, Matt Frevola vs. Joaquim Silva, Antonio Carlos Jr. vs. Jacare Souza, Sara McMann vs. Sijara Eubanks, Marchin Prachnio vs. Da Un Jung, Khalil Rountree vs. Ovince St. Preux, Amir Albazi vs. David Dvorak, Zhalgas Zhumagulov vs. Cody Durden