By the time Alex Pereira put the finishing touches on Israel Adesanya in the fifth round of their middleweight title fight, it was clear that UFC 281 had been a pretty special card for the world’s largest MMA promotion. Two titles changed hands, Dustin Porier and Michael Chandler went to war, and Ryan Spann announced himself as a light heavyweight contender.
So, is there any reason the UFC shouldn’t run Pereira vs. Adesanya back immediately? How fast does Rose Namajunas get back into the strawweight title hunt now that Zhang Weili is champ? And is Erin Blanchfield a future contender for the women’s flyweight belt?
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!
An incredible third fight between Alex Pereira and Israel Adesanya ends with history repeating itself, seemingly in every way possible. The ‘Last Stylebender’ found great success in the early stages of the bout, and even had Pereira hurt badly enough that—had there been even just a few more seconds in round 1—he probably would have finished the Brazilian then and there. Heading into the fifth, Adesanya was up 3-to-1 on all cards. As long as he made it to the final bell standing, he would walk away with the belt still around his waist. But Pereira is an insanely dangerous man, and found an extra rush of aggression right when he needed it.
Fortunately for the now-former champ, however, while the City Kickboxing star was definitely in danger in the fight’s final moments, there’s some controversy as to just how hurt he actually was. Given, as well, Adesanya’s lengthy and highly successful reign as UFC title holder—and the insane amount of history between the two men—Pereira and the UFC would be pretty foolish to ignore an instant rematch. Adesanya vs. Pereira II (IV???) seems like the fight the UFC has to make, especially with Robert Whittaker already booked.
This was the kind of fight that Rose Namajunas should have trusted herself to have with Esparza and didn’t. Zhang Weili was absolutely fearless against the ‘Cookie Monster’, pushing forward with aggression, firing kicks from range with abandon, and being absolutely perfectly ready to go wherever Esparza wanted to take the fight—and to out-work her once they got there. Esparza got in on takedowns and got Zhang to the mat, but found someone ready to scramble and beat her to positions every time she did. The result is a second round submission for ‘Magnum’ and her second stint with the belt.
Of course, now that she has gold again, the elephant in the room is her two losses to Rose Namajunas. But with her terrible loss to Esparza earlier this year, ‘Thug Rose’ isn’t exactly primed to be the top contender just at the moment. Instead, Amanda Lemos seems like the most fun fight to make. A true power-punching Brazilian who can challenge Zhang’s tendency toward aggression with huge counters. Let Namajunas go get another win, then she’ll be right back at the peak of the mountain. But Lemos vs. Zhang is the right title fight of the moment.
This kind of fight was always going to be right there waiting for Carla Esparza once she became champion again. She’s got the work ethic and the technical wrestling skill of a very elite fighter, but she’s just not a big nor a powerful athlete. And wrestling is the kind of skill that really plays best when a fighter is bigger and stronger than the people they’re working to out-wrestle. Esparza got her opportunities to take Zhang down several times, but her opponent never let her hold position, and the end result was a series of scrambles that slowly went more and more against her.
I was going to say that Esparza should rematch Marina Rodriguez, give the Brazilian a chance to win a controversial loss back. But then I checked and saw that Esparza has never fought Tecia Torres. They’ve been in the same division forever, they’re both pint-sized, even at 115. Seems like a natural booking. Torres vs. Esparza is a fight that should have happened years ago.
Another top tier win for Dustin Poirier. It doesn’t likely put him in line for a lightweight title shot, but it certainly keeps him right there in the conversation. Poirier got rocked early, got swarmed with wrestling and top control in round two, and then seemed like he was in trouble with another takedown in round 3, right until he rolled through to wind up on top and found a way to Chandler’s back in the scramble. That win lines Poirier up for either of two fights: Beneil Dariush or Rafael Fiziev. Dariush has said that he’ll fight any and everyone on his quest for UFC gold, Poirier is most definitely one of the men in his way right now. Dustin Poirier vs. Beneil Dariush would be another awesome war. Let’s make it happen.
Another fantastic war for Michael Chandler, but another losing effort to go with it. Fair play to him, he took the ‘if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’’ mantra to the extreme this time around with several back of the head shots, a couple brutal fishhooks, and maybe even a glove grab. But dropped now down to 2-3 in the Octagon it’s hard not to imagine that he’s getting desperate to find those title dreams he’s been holding on to. With losses to Poirier, Gaethje, and Oliveira, that seems like it puts Chandler in a pretty rough spot to get back to contender status. Mateusz Gamrot is out there hanging around though, coming off that brutal loss to Beneil Dariush. If the choices are either that or a fight with RDA, then I’ve gotta pick Gamrot vs. Chandler. He could also go winner loser with Rafael Fiziev, but that just seems like it’d be better with both men coming off a win. Gamrot vs. Chandler seems like the step back the former Bellator king needs.
After knocking out Frankie Edgar with a picture perfect step knee early in round one, Gutierrez seemed more distraught than the former lightweight champion. That likely won’t last long, however, as he’s had a long slow road to becoming a top tier fighter and a major KO over a former star on PPV should be as good a launching pad as he could hope to ask for to start getting top tier bookings. Bouts with Pedro Munhoz, Adrian Yanez, Song Yadong, or Jonathan Martinez all seem like they’d be decent options for ‘El Guapo’ next time he enters the Octagon. I don’t know why, but the idea of Gutierrez vs. Munhoz really appeals. Munhoz has hit some tough losses lately, but he’s guaranteed action. A bout with Gutierrez seems like the kind of step back he needs and the kind of step up the Edgar win should prime Gutierrez for. Gutierrez vs. Munhoz seems like the right fight for Gutierrez to try and continue his run to the top.
DAN HOOKER & RENATO MOICANO
As a rule I try not to match fighters from the same card. It’s lazy. but there’s just too much parity here for me to ignore. Both men are former featherweights, both men have gone through some serious beatings in their career, and both men seemed to find renewed confidence and energy on Saturday night. Once a top tier featherweight prospect, Moicano has been searching hard for a new identity in the lightweight division after back to back KOs from Jose Aldo and Chan Sung Jung sent him packing at 145. It hasn’t come easily, but the man who showed up against Brad Riddell at UFC 281 looked calm and controlled—sniping the former kickboxer with deadly accuraccy, only to wrap him up like a backpack for the RNC victory.
Similarly, Dan Hooker’s troubles took him back to featherweight—if only for a moment—and straight into the waiting hands of Arnold Allen, who pummeled him relentlessly for two minutes and 33 seconds back in March. That marked the fourth loss in five fights for the ‘Hangman’, a trend he turned right around against Claudio Puelles. Puelles started strong with an Imanari roll into a leg-lock entanglement, and had Hooker in all kinds of trouble early. But, once the New Zealander fought his way free from danger he put a seriously one-sided beating on the ‘Prince of Peru’. The end result is two men regaining past momentum, hanging out at the edges of the lightweight elite. Moicano vs. Hooker is the perfect test to see which man can keep his sudden success on track.
Ryan Spann absolutely destroyed Dominick Reyes out there. Reyes tried to go out and get a fast start behind his jab and low kicks, but every single time he stepped into the pocket he walked right onto a heavy Spann counter. A few of those was all it took for ‘Superman’ to get the first round knockout. After the fight, Spann essentially said that he was looking for a title shot, but with Blachowciz vs. Ankalaev booked as well, it remains to be seen if he’s going to be the man best positioned to get a chance at gold.
I could argue for Spann vs. Krylov or for a rematch against Anthony Smith (if Smith is going to come back any time soon). In terms of decisive, high-caliber finishers that can provide thrilling fights, though, it seems like there’s a much more obvious option hanging right out there waiting. Jamahal Hill has been on a tear of his own lately, with three straight KO victories. Hill vs. Spann would be an electric fight and it might just let the winner jump the queue over other, less-thrilling veteran contenders.
This was always going to be a difficult fight for Molly McCann, but Erin Blanchfield made it look like a booking that shouldn’t even have happened at all. ‘Cold Blooded’ absolutely trounced the Scouser on her way to a first round submission that, on any other night, would have carried a performance bonus with it. After the win, Blanchfield called out Andrea Lee. It’s a fine fight, would be fun, feels very winnable for the 23-year-old. But, in a division with so many options, I don’t see a lot of reason to go winner-loser here. Mostly, really, that’s just because Maycee Barber is hanging out without a fight booked. Barber is on three straight wins, her latest a pretty decent showing over Jessica Eye. Two young prospects with lots of momentum? Seems like a more fascinating booking in the moment. Barber vs. Blanchfield has to happen sooner or later, might as well make it now.
OTHER BOUTS: Claudio Puelles vs. Mark Madsen, Brad Riddell vs. Rafael Alves, Dominick Reyes vs. Dustin Jacoby, Molly McCann vs. Montana De La Rosa, Andre Petroski vs. Caio Borralho, Wellington Turman vs. Makhmud Muradov, Matt Frevola vs. Fares Ziam, Ottman Azaitar vs. Viacheslav Borshchev, Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Polyana Viana, Silvana Gomez Juarez vs. Diana Belbita, Michael Trizano vs. Shayilan Neurdanbieke, Choi Seung-woo vs. Daniel Pineda, Montel Jackson vs. Raoni Barcelos, Julio Arce vs. Casey Kenney, Carlos Ulberg vs. Alonzo Menifield, Nicolae Negumereanu vs. the Jung/Clark loser