UFC 269: A truly special night of fights. One of the UFC’s most dominant and seemingly unbeatable champions fell to a challenger few, if any, gave much of a hope. An unlikely lightweight title holder picked up the first title defense of his career. And Sean O’Malley continued his run as one of the UFC’s most exciting prospects on the rise.
So, is Charles Oliveira ready for the power of Justin Gaethje? Is the UFC going to give Amanda Nunes an immediate rematch for the bantamweight title? And did Dominick Cruz just make himself a championship contender once again?
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!
At just this moment, the future feels a bit like a wide open field of opportunities for the lightweight champion. Oliveira has his first title defense under his belt, and has really and truly secured his status as the man to beat at 155. But, there’s a long line of people ready to try and take that status away from him. Beneil Dariush and Islam Makhachev are set to face off in what will almost certainly crown a #1 contender (both men could rightfully argue for the spot already). Justin Gaethje is waiting in the wings, and has already seemingly been given the nod from Dana White. And, should McGregor find a way to come back and pick up a win in the next few months, the he’ll always be an easy PPV sell. Just this second, Oliveira vs. Gaethje appears to be what the UFC is getting ready for. But if, for any reason, that fight can’t get made? The lightweight division has challengers aplenty.
It’s somewhat reassuring that Dustin Poirier has already had what were (hopefully) the big money fights in his career. Going in to UFC 269, the narrative was clear, that this fight was about legacy more than anything else. This was about securing Poirier’s place in history, not just as a great fighter that had big fights, but as a champion. That that didn’t happen for him is too bad, but in a lot of ways his legacy as one of the UFC’s all-time great action fighters is already secure.
And, of course, there are a couple big money fights right out there still on the horizon for him. After this loss, both Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz took their moment to revel in Poirier’s failure—just adding more fuel to the fire that, if they really want to punctuate the idea that they’re better than the ‘Diamond’, they should do so in the Octagon. Once McGregor heals, a fourth fight against the longtime ATT talent feels like a given. But if the Louisiana native wants to get back to action any time before that, bouts against Diaz, Michael Chandler, or even a Justin Gaethje rematch would all be terrific.
An incredible, truly remarkable feat from Julianna Pena. Round 1 started exactly the way everyone expected, with her getting out-struck, out-wrestled, and out-grappled. But Nunes couldn’t seem to find any fluidity on her feet in round 2 for the life of her. Pena’s willingness to wing continuous wild shots at the ‘Lioness’ clearly seemed to get in Nunes’ head, and it felt like almost everything Pena threw landed. And when the ‘Venezuela Vixen’ took her to the mat, it felt like Nunes just folded. The kind of loss that marked the ATT fighter’s early career, but hasn’t been seen for more than half a decade.
That win for Pena blows the division wide open, though. Obviously, the most likely option would be an immediate rematch for Nunes. But, Germaine De Randamie and Holly Holm suddenly get to feel like contenders again as well. Hell, even Irene Aldana could be in line for a shot right now. I’ll assume we see Pena vs. Nunes 2, but GDR vs. Pena feels like it absolutely needs to happen too.
When Nunes cut her hand wraps off after the fight I thought she might be heading for retirement. Her second round against Pena was one of the most listless moments of her career. She seemed stuck in neutral, left eating just about every shot Pena threw at her. For the women who once out-maneuvered Valentina Shevchenko for 5 rounds, getting tapped by a no-hooks RNC seemed like the body language of a fighter tired of competing. But then Nunes immediately brightened up again and said she’d be right back in the gym working on getting better and ready to fight for the fans again soon. If she was truly fazed by losing her belt, it didn’t show. So, if a return to competition is truly her plan, I have to assume they run back this Pena fight ASAP. Nunes is clearly the division’s premiere draw and there’s no obvious other single contender. If, for some reason, that doesn’t happen though? Go with a Miesha Tate rematch. Feels like that was Tate’s goal anyway and it’d be a lot of fun.
Despite a competitive bout that left both men busted up, this didn’t exactly feel like a great fight from Neal. Even to the point that his corner had to read him the riot act heading into the third round—with victory seemingly slipping away due to inactivity. To Neal’s credit, he did step it up and take things over after the pep talk, but it still felt like he was being dragged into activity every step of the way. Not the kind of performance that suggests his fights with Thompson or Magny would go any different if they happened again today. And it doesn’t leave me all that interested in seeing Neal take a step up.
To that end, fights Against Sean Brady, Li Jingliang, or Daniel Rodriguez would all be solid options. Of those I’ll go with Brady. The Renzo Gracie product’s aggressive wrestling and grappling should force Neal to push the pace a bit more, and Neal’s striking could be a real challenge for Brady if he can’t find takedowns. Brady vs. Neal seems like a good next bout for ‘Handz of Steel.’
Another great win for Kai Kara-France, who’s now on two straight victories since losing to Brandon Royval late last year. After the bout, the City Kickboxing talent made it clear that he wants a title shot over the winner of Moreno vs. Figueiredo 3. Ideally he’d have another bout to set that up. A win over Alexandre Pantoja, Alex Perez, or Askar Askarov would all go a long way to confirming Kara-France’s bonafides. In fact, since I really felt Askarov deserved the title shot ahead of this upcoming Figueiredo rematch, why not wait until the Dagestani is ready to go again and book Askarov vs. Kara-France. If the Kiwi can get by a wrestler and grappler the level of Askarov, then there’s no question he’s ready to contend. And if he can’t, Askarov is an extremely deserving contender for the belt. Of course, if Askarov isn’t going to be ready to go any time soon? Then Kara-France might just get his wish and fight for gold. But, I think Askarov vs. Kara-France contender’s bout worth putting together.
This had all the feeling of a setup fight for O’Malley from the jump. Not to the extent that the Smolka booking had, but Paiva tends to be a fighter who thrives in the brawl and O’Malley was never going to give him that. Still, Paiva’s a very tough opponent and O’Malley put him away with style—so, credit to the man. And that should line him up for a serious step forward, whether he wants one or not. Fights against Song Yadong, Merab Dvalishvili, or the Assuncao/Simon winner would all work. Of those, I’ll go with Song. The Team Alpha Male talent has looked like one of China’s brightest prospects for years now, and the victory he picked up over Julio Arce recently showed off the continued growth in his skills. If O’Malley can pick up a win like that, then he’s gonna be set for the top 10 and on his way toward the kind of big fights that could make him a true contender. O’Malley vs. Song would be a great action bout.
It wasn’t an easy win, but Emmett started strong, pushed through a rough middle round, and had more left in the tank to fight on for the decision victory. It’s really too bad he lost the time he did recently due to injury, because off four straight wins, it really feels like Emmett is in the midst of the best performances of his career. Fights with Sodiq Yusuff, Arnold Allen, or even Chan Sung Jung would all be thrillers. And considering where Emmett is at in his career (and the likely necessity to make his run now or never) I’ll say that the ‘Korean Zombie’ is the best of those options. ‘TKZ’ is fresh off his own victory over ‘Dynamite’ and really put together all his veteran skills inside the Octagon to make it happen. Is Emmett’s power punching enough to push him past Jung and on toward contender status? Or will he find himself on the end of the Zombie’s brutal counter shots and top-shelf grappling? TKZ vs. Emmett would be a hell of a war.
He may have gotten hurt badly in the process, but Cruz did a wonderful job rallying from a disastrous round 1 to come back and win the fight. Munhoz fell into the trap of focusing firmly on predicting and countering Cruz, and let the ‘Dominator’ push the pace and lead exchanges because of that. Before the fight, Cruz made it clear that he’s gunning for title contention off this win. But, considering the state of the division right now, it’s tough to see exactly how he makes that happen. Jose Aldo and TJ Dillashaw both feel like they’re in better position, and we still have yet to see the Yan vs. Sterling rematch. Maybe if Cruz is willing to sit until late next year he could become ‘the guy’ without another fight.
If that’s not the plan though? Cory Sandhagen may be coming off a loss, but he’s still clearly just a hairsbredth away from being one of the very best fighters at 135. If Cruz really wants to make his case for the belt, a win over Sandhagen would go a long way. Otherwise, if Dillashaw vs. Aldo doesn’t get made, then Cruz vs. either of them is a must see fight. Cruz vs. Sandhagen would be fantastic, but only if the UFC books Dillashaw vs. Aldo as well.
Augusto Sakai couldn’t find a way to change up the game against Tuivasa, and standing in for a pure fire fight with the Aussie is a proven terrible idea. Tuivasa did well to work the clinch early and keep the tempo slowed, to keep himself fresh for the later rounds. But, once he landed that huge hook early in the second, his killer instinct took over and he put the fight away in a hurry. That’s four straight wins for ‘Bam Bam’ and time for another serious step up in competition. In fact, since I was just saying that standing in front of Tuivasa is a terrible way to try and win a fight, why not put him in there with someone who is going to do exactly that? Someone that may even be a bigger hitter? Jairzinho Rozenstruik ran his way up to top contender status in the UFC, but he’s found consistency much harder to come by after reaching the top. Can he go out and trade hands with Tuivasa and walk away the victor? I’d love to see it. Tuivasa vs. Rozenstruik would be pure violence.
When Andre Muniz came to the UFC he seemed a bit more like a well traveled veteran who would offer some interesting mid-card challenges in the division before his deficits as a striker undercut any real opportunities to run into the rankings. It’s safe to say, however – after just two years and four fights – that he’s already exceeded expectations. Muniz has shown himself to be an absolutely devastating grappler at 185 in a way that all too many other fighters in that division just aren’t. And with this win over Anders, it’s time to get the Brazilian into the top 15.
Considering the number of fighters in the 10-15 slot coming off a loss, there are really only two strong options I can see: Brad Tavares and Nassourdine Imavov. And between those, I gotta feel like Imavov vs. Muniz is the more interesting booking. Can Imavov handle a top tier grappler? Can Muniz keep his takedown game strong now that opponents have a better idea what to expect? Muniz vs. Imavov is an excellent middleweight bout between two surprise contenders on the rise.
OTHER BOUTS: Santiago Ponzinibbio vs. Francisco Trinaldo, Cody Garbrandt vs. Tyson Nam, Raulian Paiva vs. Julio Arce, Dan Ige vs. Sodiq Yusuff, Pedro Munhoz vs. Rob Font 2, Augusto Sakai vs. Walt Harris, Bruno Silva vs. Krzysztof Jotko, Jordan Wright vs. Andreas Michailidis, Eryk Anders vs. Brendan Allen, Erin Blanchfield vs. Maycee Barber, Miranda Maverick vs. Antonina Shevchenko, Ryan Hall vs. Andre Fili, Darrick Minner vs. Jamall Emmers, Tony Kelley vs. Batgerel Danaa, Randy Costa vs. Liudvik Sholinian, Gillian Robertson vs. Mariya Agapova, Priscila Cachoeira vs. the Botelho/Kim loser