UFC Vegas 21 in now in the rear-view mirror and it’s an event that left a wide variety of tastes in our mouths. It was like eating those crazy variety of jelly beans Harry Potter inspired. Some were delicious, others tasted repulsive. The repulsive taste became more prominent when the main event between Leon Edwards and Belal Muhammad ended in a no contest as a result of an eye poke. Even crazier, it was the second no contest of the evening as Eryk Anders-Darren Stewart also concluded early due to an illegal infraction, a knee to a downed opponent for that one.
Regardless of how the card left us feeling, there are always questions of where to go from here. Do we run back Edwards and Muhammad? How about Anders and Stewart? Where does Ryan Spann’s momentum carry him next? Now that Dan Ige has a signature moment, will he be matched up like the top ten featherweight he’s proven himself to be?
To answer those questions, I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology favored by my colleague Zane Simon – who usually does this article — from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. There will be some exceptions to this rule, but only when there doesn’t appear to be any better options as dictated by my logic. Let’s get into it.
The knee jerk reaction is to book Edwards and Muhammad again, but it looks like Muhammad might need quite a bit of time to recover from his eye poke. Seriously, it was BAD. Given this was Edwards’ first fight in 20 months, I’d imagine he wants to try and make up for lost time and get back in the cage quickly. He also believes he deserves a title shot, but he still hasn’t won a fight since July 2019. He needs a win before title talks have any traction. Stephen Thompson has also been vocal about a title shot and may have a stronger case than Edwards given he doesn’t have a loss to Usman on his resume. Do I smell a potential title eliminator in the making? My colleague Eddie Mercado pointed out the potential for a fight between them being a stinker, but it also makes more sense in the divisional hierarchy than any other contest. Perhaps Michael Chiesa, Gilbert Burns, or even Colby Covington could happen, but Thompson just feels appropriate. Edwards and Thompson duke it out in a title eliminator.
It’s impossible not to feel for Muhammad. One of the hardest working dudes around, Muhammad gets his first opportunity to headline a card by taking the fight with Edwards on short notice, only to have it go awry with a brutal eye poke. Muhammad did report his vision is coming back and there doesn’t appear to be any long term damage to his eye, but there’s no doubt he’ll still need to rest it up. As much as Muhammad wants it, I don’t think he’s getting a rematch with Edwards.
I’d still like to see the UFC reward him with an opponent of similar profile given Muhammad did step in for Khamzat Chimaev and saved the main event. The ideal candidate in my mind is Gilbert Burns. Burns is coming off a loss to Usman for the title, but his road to the title could be questioned as none of the fighters Burns fought at welterweight have won a fight since facing Burns. Some of that is explained by the two biggest names in that list – Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley – both appearing to be well past their primes. So do we know just how good Burns is? Muhammad appears to be a reasonable test for us to find that out. Given Burns is still highly regarded – he did win the opening round from Usman after all – Muhammad has no downside in this contest, just as he did with Edwards. If Muhammad loses, he was expected to. If he wins, he has his breakout moment. Burns is a fantastic consolation prize for Muhammad.
It’s been a hell of a comeback for Spann after suffering a 15 second KO loss in the first season of DWCS, ripping of nine wins in his last ten appearances, this win against Misha Cirkunov being the biggest yet. Spann hurt Cirkunov a couple of times, even invited the Canadian back to his feet after knocking him to the mat. Now, he should be guaranteed a crack at a top ten light heavyweight. Volkan Oezdemir and Nikita Krylov make the most sense, even if they are coming off losses. In fact, they were booked to face each other in October only for Oezdemir to suffer a knee injury. Without a timetable for when Oezdemir will be available, Krylov seems the right way to go. After all, Krylov gave the streaking Magomed Ankalaev a hell of a fight a couple of weeks ago, so it doesn’t totally feel like Krylov is coming off a loss. So, give me Spann vs. Krylov in the near future.
It feels safe to say Cirkunov is permanently in the gatekeeping role at this point. Every time the Canadian gets a step up in competition, he ends up falling short in dramatic fashion. That doesn’t mean Cirkunov is a slouch; he’s just no elite. Thus, the focus should be on him providing opportunities to those looking to join the official UFC rankings. So even though he’s coming off a loss to Spann, the proper course of action feels like pitting him with a young up-and-comer looking to break through. Well… perhaps I should say youngish…. Dustin Jacoby’s road back to the UFC and the success he’s had since making it back has been inspiring. Most of the other talents swimming in the same vicinity as Jacoby are coming off losses, so how about Jacoby get his opportunity against a notable name? It’s a bit unconventional and I’m sure few would agree, but I say Cirkunov vs. Jacoby is perfect for both competitors.
There were several impressive finishes on the night and Dan Ige has a great argument for the best of them, putting away Gavin Tucker with a single punch. Unfortunately for Ige, a win over Tucker doesn’t really move him up the ladder. However, it should ensure his next opponent has plenty of name value. Recognizing that, Ige called out the Korean Zombie. Without the callout, that fight isn’t happening. With the callout… I LOVE IT!!! Zombie is in an awkward position with Alexander Volkanovski, Brian Ortega, and Max Holloway clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the division. For Zombie to have a chance of fighting any of those three, he needs a win that gets attention. Ige is proving himself to be a legit top ten featherweight who is willing to throw down. It’s the perfect opportunity for another vintage Zombie performance, win or lose. If Zombie doesn’t go for it, Zabit Magomedsharipov or Josh Emmett are reasonable and fun alternatives – and more likely to happen — but for my money, give Ige what he wants and pit him with Korean Zombie.
Whether you agree with the decision, Nicolau fought a very competitive fight against Manel Kape and it isn’t his fault the judges decided in his favor. Nicolau proved to be well worth bringing back, adding another strong competitor in the flyweight division that is still rebuilding itself. So what to do with him following his controversial win over Kape? The lack of bodies in the division limits his options. One thought was Alexandre Pantoja, but I imagine he’ll be waiting to see how Figueiredo-Moreno II plays out as Pantoja owns a win over Moreno. Kai Kara-France also came to mind, but I favor Brandon Royval. Royval separated his shoulder in December and I’m not sure of his timeline to return, but this would matchup would clarify which one of these youngsters should be pushed up against the top of the division. Nicolau and Royval it is, provided Royval’s return isn’t too far off.
It gets annoying hearing fighters talk about “anyone, anytime, anywhere,” only for them to turn down fight after fight. That Hill was willing to give Ashley Yoder a rematch proves she’s one of those legitimately about that mantra, putting a vicious whopping on Yoder. The UFC should reward Hill for her willingness to step in the cage. Hill was booked to fight Tecia Torres in December before contracting COVID and that fight would still make a lot of sense, but Torres appears lukewarm about rebooking that. So how about Marina Rodriguez, who has a win over Torres? Rodriguez is fresh off a nice win over Amanda Ribas, but Ribas doesn’t have the name value of Hill. Throw in that Hill was coming off two razor thin losses to Claudia Gadelha and Michelle Waterson, she can clearly hang with the top ten of the division. Book Hill and Rodriguez, the winner being awarded a top five opponent.
Other Bouts: Gavin Tucker vs. Makwan Amirkhani, Davey Grant vs. Chris Gutierrez, Jonathan Martinez vs. Luke Sanders, Manel Kape vs. Cody Durden, Eryk Anders vs. Darren Stewart, Ashley Yoder vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Charles Jourdain vs. Bill Algeo, Marcelo Rojo vs. Billy Quarantillo, Rani Yahya vs. Said Nurmagomedov, Ray Rodriguez vs. Drako Rodriguez, Nasrat Haqparast vs. Vinc Pichel, Rafa Garcia vs. Mason Jones, JJ Aldrich vs. Montana de la Rosa, Cortney Casey vs. Luana Carolina, Jinh Yu Frey vs. Cory McKenna, Gloria de Paula vs. Kay Hansen, Matthew Semelsberger vs. Danny Roberts, Jason Witt vs. Philip Rowe