UFC 261 feels like a momentous card in retrospect. Not that any PPV with three title fights on it isn’t going to have a certain amount of gravitas, but three title fights ending in three straight KO victories feels like a real occasion to remember. And, more than that, it feels like it added a new depth of dominance to two long-standing champs, and created a whole lot more chaos for a division that’s been unsettled ever since Joanna Jedrzejczyk lost her belt.
So, is the UFC really going to go full steam ahead on Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2? Will the revolving door at the top of women’s strawweight ever stop spinning? And is it finally time to book the trilogy bout between Valentina Shevchenko and Amanda Nunes?
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.
Usman keeps looking better and better. The former DII national champion has taken the long, slow road to a powerful and comfortable striking game in the prime years of his dominant, title-winning career. Jorge Masvidal tried to clown Usman for not being able to knock him out in their first bout, so the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’ came out this time around with a point to prove—absolutely smoking Masvidal on the feet the second time around.
While he’s by no means out of contenders, there is a lack of clarity at the moment as to just exactly who should be next. Dana White has been talking up Colby Covington as the man who should compete for the belt, but we’ve already seen that fight before. And if beating Tyron Woodley stamped Covington’s ticket, then why not give Vicente Luque a shot instead? Add in that there’s absolutely no denying Leon Edwards if he can beat Nate Diaz, since he’d be on a 10-fight unbeaten streak. I wouldn’t hate the Covington rematch if that’s all the UFC wants to do, but I’d say the UFC should at least wait until Diaz/Edwards is done before making any moves.
Masvidal and Usman both did an excellent job of selling the idea that an immediate rematch of their first fight was both super necessary and likely to be very different. Unfortunately for Masvidal, it was different—in that his loss this time was much, much more definitive. ‘Gamebred’ still should have something to offer the upper echelons of welterweight, however. But, getting back to title contention could very likely be a long and difficult process.
It’s too bad both he and Colby Covington seem so finicky about how often they fight and who they compete against, because a bout between the two men feels like it’d have a lot of interest. If Leon Edwards didn’t already have a fight booked, that’d be a must-make match as well. Instead Vicente Luque, Michael Chiesa, or a Stephen Thompson rematch seem more likely. Of all those, Masvidal vs. Luque feels like the fight I have to see. Sure it’s Luque coming off a big win, but beating Masvidal after beating Woodley would put him square in the top contender’s conversation. And for Masvidal, it’s a surefire action bout that would capitalize well on his star power.
A remarkable victory to recapture UFC gold for Namajunas, two years after losing her title to Jessica Andrade. Joanna Jedrzejczyk has said that she wants the next shot at gold, but there’s really not much reason she should get it considering it’s been 1.5 years since she won a fight. Instead, and while it might not be nearly as high profile, Carla Esparza and Yan Xiaonan have a bout coming up. If Esparza wins, she and Rose have some old history to recapture. If Xiaonan wins, then she’s immediately the next dangerous contender out of China looking to prove that she’s one of the world’s best. Mackenzie Dern is also hanging out somewhere in the ether, but she likely needs one more victory before people start talking about her as the best contender available. Rose Namajunas vs. the Esparza/Xiaonan winner is a good way for Rose to get a chance to build a new legacy as UFC champion.
A crushing defeat for Zhang in the second defense of her strawweight title. Namajunas is a dynamic, tricky opponent, who can uncork a wide variety of strikes at almost any time. Zhang guessed that the high kick would go low, and by the time she realized it wasn’t, it was already way too late. Still, with the way the top of women’s strawweight cycles, Zhang should be a very live contender for another title shot sometime in the near future.
Unfortunately for everyone else in the division, however – until she gets another title shot – she’s gonna play one hell of a gatekeeper to any top level prospect looking to make their own run at gold. Which is why I think the first fight she should take isn’t against any kind of prospect at all. Joanna Jedrzejczyk has been looking for a big fight to mark her return to competition—even going so far as to argue that she should face the winner of Namajunas/Zhang. But, she’s already lost twice to ‘Thug’ Rose, so booking a trilogy now seems entirely unecessary. Jedrzejczyk vs. Zhang 1 was an amazing, brutal, razor close fight. Time for the rematch.
We really are getting to a point where the cupboard at 125 is looking on the bare side. Shevchenko has beat four of the current top ten at this point, with Lauren Murphy and Cynthia Calvillo being the only top 5 fighters she has yet to face. There’s always the chance that the UFC could book the Shevchenko/Nunes trilogy bout. But, their second fight was largely a dreadful staring contest (a vibe I can’t shake, to this day). Maybe the third one wouldn’t be, but it’s always a risk.
If Shevchenko does want to bouncing back to 135 for a superfight, I won’t say she shouldn’t. In the meantime, however, if she only wants to stick to flyweight and keep defending against any and everyone that comes her way, then the winner of Lauren Murphy vs. Joanne Claderwood is probably going to be her next fight. Maybe not the most competitive option in the world. But also another good chance for her greatness to shine. Shevchenko vs. the Murphy/Calderwood winner seems likely to be next.
Not the title fight Andrade was looking for. Shevchenko outclassed her from range, controlled her in the clinch, and had no trouble at all wrestling her to the mat where she dominated ‘Bate Estaca’ thoroughly. A rough wake-up call for anyone who saw Shevchenko’s fight with Maia and thought that Andrade might be able to find the same gaps in the gameplan that allowed Maia to win a round. Instead, Andrade’s relentless offense led her into danger that much more often.
Still, she’s one of the unquestionable elite at 125, and with so many other fighters having lost to Shevchenko, there are plenty of top tier opponents that need big fights. There’s the winner of Jessica Eye vs. Jennifer Maia, or Cynthia Calvillo, or the loser of Lauren Murphy vs. Joanne Calderwood. Calvillo is the top fighter out there right now who most needs a booking, so how about Calvillo vs. Andrade? It’s a legit path to the belt for Calvillo. And for Andrade, it’s the best way to keep her in the conversation for the immediate future.
Not the way Hall wanted to win, and nothing like the way anyone might have thought Chris Weidman would lose. The ‘All American’ stepped hard into a low kick, the first strike of the fight, and smashed his own shin across the top of Hall’s tibia. A gruesome injury that couldn’t help draw the most unfortunate comparisons to Weidman’s second victory over Anderson Silva. The victory puts Hall on a three win streak, and should have him poised to take on a firmly top-10 opponent next time out. Darren Till would be a choice option when he returns from injury. But, since I don’t know when that’ll happen, I’ll argue Hall should take on the winner of Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Jack Hermansson. Both men would provide Hall a chance to get the kind of victory that could have him in contention sometime in the next year or so. And with Whittaker likely still next in line after Vettori, all the top 10 fighters are going to need to tread water to keep any kind of place in line. Hall vs. the Shahbazyan/Hermansson winner is a great way for all three men to keep building their resumes for a potential title fight.
Even before the kick that deadened Crute’s leg, Smith was looking damn sharp out there. He popped the jab early and often, stifled Crute’s attempts to close distance, and even seemed to rock him a couple times with punches. Crute got a late takedown and some top control, but that didn’t matter when he couldn’t actually stay standing to start round 2. A kind of surprising call from the ref between rounds to waive it off, but I don’t hate it. That keeps Smith on track for more top 10 bouts in the light heavyweight division. Fights with the likes of Nikita Krylov, Misha Cirkunov, or Ryan Spann. With Krylov and Cirkunov both coming off losses, however, I’m going to argue that Smith should take on Magomed Ankalaev. Ankalaev could really use a higher profile victory after just edging out his last win. If he can beat Smith, that should put him a lot closer to the elite. And for Smith, Ankalaev is just the kind of rising prospect he needs to keep picking off to get back to the belt. Smith vs. Ankalaev to see if the Dagestani is ready for title contention.
For a couple minutes there it looked like Alex Oliveira had Brown’s number. Those calf kicks were chewing up the Budokan Martial Arts fighter and, if he’d taken a couple more, he might not have been able to stay upright. But, credit to Brown, he bit down on his mouthpiece and started throwing heat—landing a huge right hand that send Oliveira crashing to the canvas and forcing the grappling exchange that eventually netted Brown the sub win. That keeps Brown on his slow rise toward the top 15 at welterweight. Fights with Max Griffin, Alan Jouban, James Krause, or Sean Brady would all be good next fights. But, I’m gonna go with the ‘Dirty Bird’ Tim Means. Means is fresh off a styling of Mike Perry where he looked every inch of his classic, technical, action-fighter self. Can Brown’s length and power throw Means off his game, or can Means show his veteran craft against another fighter looking to use him as a stepping stone. Means vs. Brown would be a top shelf action welterweight bout.
A fantastic win for Allen, who even hurt Karl Roberson standing before hitting the trip takedown that turned the rest of the fight into a grappling battle. It’s great to see Allen show a bit more wrestling in his game going forward. He’s got the aggressive striking and the fantastic sub grappling already, so it’s really just the ability to take fights to the floor that’s eluded him in the past. The win puts Allen at 4-1 in the UFC and should once again have him nipping at the edges of the top 15. Fights with Makhmud Muradov, Ian Heinisch, Trevin Giles, or Alessio Di Chirico all seem like they’d be solid next steps on that path. Normally I wouldn’t single Di Chirico out here, but I really like the fire he showed up with last time around. Feels like it just might be a tougher fight than expected for Allen, and a good way to give either man more momentum toward elite competition. Allen vs. Di Chirico should be a rock solid next step.
OTHER BOUTS: Jimmy Crute vs. Nikita Krylov, Alex Oliveira vs. Jake Matthews, Dwight Grant vs. Sergey Khandozhko, Stefan Sekulic vs. Jared Gooden, Karl Roberson vs. Joaquin Buckley, Pat Sabatini vs. Jamall Emmers, Tristan Connelly vs. Kevin Croom, Danaa Batgerel vs. Benito Lopez, Kevin Natividad vs. Domingo Pilarte, Kazula Vargas vs. Jamie Mullarkey, Rongzhu vs. Khama Worthy, Jeff Molina vs. Bruno Silva, Aoriqileng vs. Adashev/Benoit loser, Ariane Carnelossi vs. Polyana Viana, Na Liang vs. Gloria de Paula