This week’s UFC Vegas 34 card may not have been booked to pique fans’ interest from the outset, but it delivered a rock solid night of action anyway. Jared Cannonier reasserted his claim as a member of the middleweight elite, Alexandre Pantoja put himself into flyweight title contention, and Ignacio Bahamondes picked up a KO of the Year contender down on the early prelims.
So, can Cannonier really wait for the winner of Adesanya vs. Whittaker 2 to get his title shot? Can Mark O. Madsen round out his game enough to make an impact on the lightweight division? And can Pantoja make it 3-0 against Brandon Moreno?
To answer those questions – but little 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.
It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t always pretty, but Cannonier kept the fight on the feet and made his superior power count against Kelvin Gastelum for a decision win. It’s a victory he absolutely had to have if he wanted to maintain his status one of the division’s top contenders—even if that just means treading more water as Adesanya and Whittaker wait for COVID restrictions to ease enough to allow them to compete again.
After the bout Cannonier suggested he might just wait things out himself, and prepare for a title shot against the Adesanya/Whittaker winner. But, given his own admission that he’s broke, that seems a bit unlikely to be the path he ends up taking. Especially given the ‘Last Stylebender’’s interest in facing Darren Till, should Till get a win or two under his belt. All that said, Cannonier vs. the Brunson/Till winner isn’t exactly my idea of a thriller, not with Marven Vettori & Paulo Costa set to fight. Jared Cannonier vs. the Costa/Vettori winner seems like surefire violence. Hopefully the UFC can make it happen.
Gastelum is in an unenviable position in his UFC career. With recent competitive losses not only to Jared Cannonier, but Darren Till and Israel Adesanya, he’s clearly shown that he can be a competitive fighter at elite levels. Unfortunately he’s also got losses to half the fighters in the middleweight top 10 at this point. Even worse is the fact that all five of those losses have come in the Kings MMA fighter’s last six fights. Suffice to say, Gastelum’s UFC record has gotten pretty ugly—but it feels like it’d be a bit weird to give him a huge step down in competition.
The pure matchmaker in me says that makes this the best possible time for a rematch against Uriah Hall, eight years after they first faced off in the TUF 17 finale. However the two men have grown to be fast friends since that first bout, so a second fight is almost certainly out of the question. Instead, how about a fight against Brendan Allen? It’s a winner/loser bout, I know, but Allen has proved himself to be both an incredibly dangerous grappler and a competitive striker, who can still be picked apart by more technical opponents. Can Gastelum rely on his boxing to get the win, or will Allen force him to the mat? Seems like a good step back without being a huge step back. Allen vs. Gastelum feels like the kind of fight Gastelum needs right now.
MARK O. MADSEN
Madsen may not have been able to out-wrestle Clay Guida to any real effect, but he’s sharpened up his jab a ton since the last time we saw him in the Octagon. Guida was able to land the better, bigger punches inside when they exchanged, but most of the fight ended up with Guida landing two low kicks to every three jabs he ate. Enough to get Madsen the win and show a new wrinkle in his game, but not really the kind of performance that announces the 36-year-old as a sudden title challenger.
After the fight, he called out Gregor Gillespie, but I think I’d need to see him look a little more dangerous in the cage before I booked him in a bout like that. Instead, how about a matchup against Mateusz Gamrot? The ‘Gamer’ is coming off a quick highlight win over Jeremy Stephens and is looking to make his own title run in the division. Gamrot’s love of long low singles would likely be put severely to the test by Madsen’s takedown defense. And otherwise it seems like the right step to see who has the more compete standup game. Gamrot vs. Madsen to see which man can keep his contender hopes alive.
A pretty decent back and forth battle between Pichel and Hubbard, with ‘From Hell’ once again proving that it takes more than toughness and will to beat him inside the cage. He may not be the most technical wrestler or striker, but the TUF Live alumni seems to have a lot of natural strength and a very well rounded (if awkward) skill set that dissuades opponents who can’t out-wrestle him from really going after him in the pocket. Hubbard tried, to his credit, but ended up being the man getting rocked in 50/50 exchanges.
That victory elevates Pichel to 7-2 in the UFC (14-2 overall), and should line him up for a more serious test. Pichel called for a rematch with Gregor Gillespie, but lightweight is too deep for me to feel like I really need to see that. How about matching him up with a top-shelf striker on the rise instead. I would say Brad Riddell fits the bill perfectly, but COVID restrictions likely make that impossible. So how about Pichel vs. Fiziev. A real chance to see if Pichel can make his striking work against a high level kickboxer, and if Fiziev can continue forcing everyone to trade shots with him to their detriment.
Askar Askarov had seemed to me to be the much more obvious title contender on the horizon for flyweight king Brandon Moreno. But with the Dagestani injured, then it’s hard to argue anyone has a better claim to the right than Pantoja. The Brazilian already has two definitive wins over the champ: once in 2015 and once in 2018. Moreno has clearly improved a lot since then. But is it enough to beat the man who, by all appearances, seems to have his number? Feels like a great story-line for a title fight. And both men have proven by now that every fight they take part in will be a thriller. Moreno vs. Pantoja 3 is the flyweight title fight to make with Askarov on the sidelines.
Royval fought exactly the fight he should have. Came out pushing the pace on Pantoja, scrambling hard every time the fight ended up on the mat, and peppering his shorter opponent with constant jabs. But Pantoja is just too good a grappler to give back control to as often as Royval did. He escaped a couple times in the first round, but couldn’t get so lucky the next time around. That puts Royval on a sudden two fight skid. But there are plenty of top tier flyweights in need of competitive bouts, and there’s no question that Royval is going to be a live contender in every fight he’s in.
There’s a chance we could even see Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Royval; would be fascinating to see how their mismatched paces might clash. The other option is a fight against Joe Benavidez. And that, to me seems like the real bout to make. Two busy, high output fighters with very capable scrambling games. Benavidez needs to prove he’s still a force in the division. And Royval needs to prove that he’s more than a flash in the pan. Royval vs. Benavidez seems like a great fight for two men with a lot to prove.
It wasn’t a pretty fight, but Domingo Pilarte essentially gave Kelleher an easy path to victory with his porous takedown defense and constant use of a closed guard. Can’t blame Kelleher for taking the option for a shutout victory. After the bout, ‘Boom’ made a callout for a fight I’ve advocated for several times before: Sean O’Malley. It’s still a good match to make, especially with O’Malley out searching for un-ranked opponents to try and style on. But if it hasn’t happened yet, I’m not really banking on it happening now. That said, Kelleher still needs to find those next level victories. Someone like Davey Grant or Casey Kenney. Or what about Julio Arce? Kelleher and Arce have an ages old history against one another, with two bantamweight title fights in Ring of Combat, both of which Kelleher won. Are they still the fighters they used to be? Or will Arce’s ever more clinical kickboxing provide a real challenge this time around? Arce vs. Kelleher 3 seems like a fun scrap with some good history behind it.
Bahamondes came in to the UFC with a lot of hype as a longtime Roufusport training partner with a high output striking game. But he ran into something of a wall in his debut against John Makdessi, who was able to match his output with better placed, more powerful shots. Roberts tried to do the same and back it up with a wrestling attack, but he didn’t have the variety to effectively counter what Bahamondes was showing him, nor the straight shot wrestling to get easy takedowns. The result was a fantastic performance from Bahamondes on his way to a 3rd round KO. A great way to bring back the excitement for a fighter with a lot of notable support in his corner. Time to throw him into another thrilling striking battle at the bottom of lightweight. And to do that, I’ll advocate for a more violent puncher with a more limited repertoir: Ottman Azaitar. Azaitar throws absolute bombs, Bahamondes isn’t hard to hit, but he has a lot more to offer on the return. Seems like a recipe for disaster for one man, but I can’t say I’m confident as to who. Azaitar vs. Bahamondes would be an absolute thriller.
OTHER BOUTS: Clay Guida vs. Scott Holtzman, Parker Porter vs. Rodrigo Nascimento, Chase Sherman vs. Josh Parisian, Saidyokub Kakhramonov vs. Ronnie Lawrence, Trevin Jones vs. Khalid Taha, Austin Hubbard vs. Alex Da Silva, Austin Lingo vs. TJ Brown, Luis Saldana vs. Collin Anglin, Domingo Pilarte vs. Drako Rodriguez, Josiane Nunes vs. the Edwards/Clark winner, Bea Malecki vs. Zarah Fairn, William Knight vs. Nick Negumereanu, Fabio Cherant vs. Askar Mozharov, Roosevelt Roberts vs. Joaquim Silva, Ramiz Brahimaj vs. Philip Rowe, Sasha Palatnikov vs. Niklas Stolze