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UFC Vegas 26: Waterson vs. Rodriguez - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest event in Las Vegas, NV.

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Michelle Waterson at UFC Vegas 26
What’s next for Michelle Waterson and the other fighters from UFC Vegas 26?
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Last week’s UFC Vegas 26 fight night ended up something of a mishmash of last second matchmaking and reorganization following a bad run of injury and illness luck. What was supposed to be TJ Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen ended up as Marina Rodriguez vs. Michelle Waterson. And Diego Sanchez saw his final UFC bout end before it even started, getting tossed out on his ear just a week out from the event—resulting in Alex Morono stepping up to fight ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone on a few days notice. Despite all that, however, the last few bouts of the night delivered solid entertainment.

So, is Marina Rodriguez back on track as a strawweight title contender? Is there any top lightweight that’s gonna want to take on Gregor Gillespie? And how fast can can the UFC book Neil Magny vs. Vicente Luque?

To answer those questions – but not much else – 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 to make out of UFC Vegas 26.

MARINA RODRIGUEZ

Considering that the first 5 round fight of her career came on just a few days notice, Rodriguez handled herself pretty well over the breadth of the fight. She may have struggled a little late, but even then managed her second-highest output of the fight in the final round. She’s got the power and the persistence to be a real problem in the division, especially against any opponent that’s going to give her the time standing to find her rhythm. Along with her win over Ribas, this victory puts Rodriguez square in line for a top five opponent.

There’s talk she could take on Joanna Jedrzejczyk. And while I wouldn’t mind the fight, I’d much rather see the former champ rematch Weili Zhang. With the winner of Esparza/Yan seemingly lined up for the next title shot, then, I think you’ve gotta go for Marina Rodriguez vs. Mackenzie Dern. Dern’s recent revelation of a decent takedown game spells big trouble for Rodriguez in that matchup. But, Rodriguez also has all the range and power to do what Ribas did, if Dern can’t get her down. Dern vs. Rodriguez seems like the perfect fight to put either woman into a top contender’s bout in the next few months.

MICHELLE WATERSON

It may not have been a win, but these are exactly the kind of performances that have kept Waterson as a constant premiere performer in mixed martial arts. She’s tough as hell, and has a elusive, rangy style that’s tough to completely nullify. Rodriguez may have beat her for nearly every minute of four rounds, but that didn’t stop Waterson from cracking her jaw hard, and hurting her with a body shot late in the fight. So, while the loss means the ‘Karate Hottie’ won’t be moving up the ranks, she shouldn’t fall far out of her top-10 gatekeeper role either.

If Ribas vs. Hill isn’t getting re-booked, then Waterson could take on the Brazilian. Otherwise fights with Claudia Gadelha or Nina Nunes are probably the way to go. Of all those options, I think I most like the idea of a bout between Waterson and Nunes. Before losing to Dern, Nunes was a potential contender. A bout with the former Invicta champ would still have a lot of value for both women, and keep them in the conversation as elite talents at 115—and it’d probably be a pretty fun striking match to boot.

ALEX MORONO

A great win for Morono, definitely the highlight victory of his career to date. He made the smart move and brought the action to Cerrone immediately, overwhelming the longtime action talent with his aggressive striking arsenal. Just what that lines Morono up for next, however, isn’t quite so clear. Fights with James Krause, Alan Jouban, or Randy Brown would probably all be reasonable next steps. I especially like the thought of a matchup with Brown, given ‘Rudeboy’’s fantastic range punching and quality aggressive clinch game. Seems like something Morono’s wild pressure could cause problems against, but would be a dangerous fight the entire time; a contest that’s likely to lead to a highlight finish for whoever finds the openings in their opponent’s offense first. Really, Morono is lined up for any of a dozen fights off a win like this one. But, given that they’ve both just put away a cowboy in their last outing, this seems like a great time for these two action fighters to face off.

NEIL MAGNY

Magny’s just a near impossible fighter to write off. He may not be any kind of dangerous finisher, but he’s tough, he’s got endless cardio, and he knows how to push out a non-stop stream of offense at range. Add in his ability to control fights inside using his long arms and tall stature, and he’s tough as hell to look good against. Neal may have hit him hard and clean a few times, but he just couldn’t keep pace. After the win, Magny made it clear that he’s looking for another top 10 opponent next time out. That could be someone like Tyron Woodley (if he’s not actually out of the UFC officially), or the winner of Belal Muhammad vs. Demian Maia. After all, it’s been 6 years since Magny fought Maia the first time. But, Magny called out Vicente Luque specifically. And if that’s the fight he wants, I see no reason he shouldn’t get it. Luque vs. Magny is another chance for Magny to prove he’s a step above the rest of the top tier of 170. And for Luque, it’s exactly the kind of win he’ll need if he wants to get a future title fight.

GEOFF NEAL

A rough loss for Neal, he landed the bigger punches in the fight, but just couldn’t keep pace with Magny’s constant output from range and stifling clinch game inside. He could really use a few more tools in his offensive arsenal if he wants to keep his spot as a potential welterweight contender. It sounds like he may take some time off to figure out his conditioning after a bad illness suffered in 2020. If that doesn’t end up being the plan, however, he could use a bit of a step back. A less defensively minded action fighter that can give him a scrap. Opponents like Li JingLiang, Jake Matthews, Randy Brown, or Sean Brady might all fit the bill. But, now that I’ve written Li JingLiang vs. Geoff Neal, it’s kinda hard to think of anything else. If he wants time off, then he should absolutely take it. Otherwise, Neal vs. JingLiang is a great fight; a big opportunity for the China Top Team fighter to get a name win, and a great chance for Neal to prove he’s still a fighter to watch at 170.

GREGOR GILLESPIE

What a comeback for Gillespie, who showed once again that he’s just absolutely relentless when he feels he has any path forward in the fight. He looked exhausted at the end of a bad first round, but doubled down on his pace in the second to take over and get the TKO victory. Ferreira tried to keep up with the scrambles, but just couldn’t manage it. That puts Gillespie right back in the mix after his first career loss. That could put him in line to fight Dan Hooker, Islam Makhachev, Rafael Dos Anjos, or maybe someone like the winner of Drew Dober vs. Brad Riddell. The fight to make here is pretty obvious though; Islam Makhachev vs. Gregor Gillespie is such an obvious strength vs. strength matchup. These two men need to get in the cage together, find out who has the most dominant scrambling wrestling game at 155 lbs. Makhachev vs. Gillespie is absolutely the most fascinating fight the UFC could make for the former NCAA champ.

PHIL HAWES

I don’t really have to write this one up, but figured I would anyway, just because I had the same next bout in mind for Hawes before I ever saw his upcoming booking. It wasn’t a highlight finish, but this just may have been the best overall performance of Hawes’ career, showing a level of resilience and determination that he’s been criticized for lacking in the past. Daukaus did all the right things, put a pace on him early, hurt him in the second round, tried to swarm for the finish, but Hawes just wouldn’t go away. If he can keep fighting like that, he has the physicality to be a title contender. His matchup with Deron Winn should be a fascinating one, in that for Hawes likely won’t have a wrestling edge to lean on. And while Winn is well under-sized for middleweight, Hawes doesn’t fight with much sense of range at all. Can he afford to mix it up in the pocket with Winn consistently if he can’t take him down? Should be fun to see. A great test for both men. Hawes vs. Winn is excellent booking from the UFC.

Jun Yong Park

The ‘Iron Turtle’ has found a place as one of my favorite dark horse middleweight talents. The Korean may not be one of the division’s elite athletes, or dynamic finishers, but he’s got a patient technical style, based on persistent aggression, and a great ability to mix up his approach to meet his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Nchukwi came out throwing with big power, and pushing a pretty decent pace. But Jun Yong kept his boxing tight, stayed controlled, and eventually turned to some takedowns and excellent ground control to seal what had been a close fight with a dominant 3rd round. Time to match him up with another powerful, dynamic opponent, this time with a bit more speed and variety to his attacks. Jun Yong Park vs. Julian Marquez seems like a great next step to see if Park can keep finding crafty ways to solve dangerous middleweights. Or if Marquez can lean on the improvements he showed against Alvey to push his way toward a spot in the rankings.

OTHER BOUTS: Donald Cerrone vs. Joe Lauzon, Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs. Andrei Arlovski, Maurice Greene vs. Don’Tale Mayes, Diego Ferreira vs. Leonardo Santos, Kyle Daukaus vs. Marc-Andre Barriault, Michael Trizano vs. Omar Morales, L’udovit Klein vs. Danny Chavez, Tafon Nchukwi vs. Abu Azaitar, Carlston Harris vs. Abubakar Nurmagomedov, Christian Aguilera vs. Jared Gooden