It wasn’t set up to deliver much on paper, so what highlights there were at UFC Fight Night: Hermansson vs. Strickland have to be taken as a nice bonus. Sean Strickland may have been disappointed in his main event performance, but he proved himself a top contender along the way. Shavkat Rakhmonov showed off his ability to race up the welterweight ranks. And Julian Erosa put on a hell of a war against Steven Peterson.
So, how far away is Strickland from his first chance at a UFC title belt? Is Rakhmonov ready to have a number next to his name? And what can the UFC do with Chidi Njokuani’s spectacular Octagon debut?
To answer those questions – and not much 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!
It may not have been a thrilling statement win, but Sean Strickland has officially entered the ranks of middleweight top contenders. And while Cannonier vs. Brunson seems likely to decide who’ll be next in line for a shot at UFC gold, it’s hard not to think that – especially given the lack of ready challengers – Strickland is probably just a win away from fighting for the belt. And if that’s the case, then there’s really only one fight for him to take: Marvin Vettori.
The ‘Italian Dream’ is in that unenviable place of being a clearly elite talent without any real path toward fighting the champion. He’s had two losses to Adesanya at this point, the second being more definitive than the first. Of course, if Robert Whittaker should beat the ‘Last Stylebender’ in their UFC 271 rematch, then the math might shift dramatically in Vettori’s favor. But for the moment, he has to content himself with playing gatekeeper to the belt. If he doesn’t relish that role, then fights for Strickland with Paulo Costa, the Cannonier/Brunson loser, or Darren Till, all have some solid interest to them. But, here and now, Vettori vs. Strickland is a perfect chance for middleweight to get a fresh face in the title picture.
I don’t want to say that this is a fight Jack Hermansson couldn’t afford to lose. After all, he’s just 33-years-old and there’s always the chance of a late career charge for the ‘Joker’—but he’s regularly experiencing setbacks just on the cusp of contender-ship. And this being his third in three years feels like it puts the Frontline Academy fighter firmly out of the race, at least for the immediate future. Hermansson couldn’t force Strickland to tangle with him on the mat. And as a striking footrace to the finish line, he just doesn’t have the technical craft to out-box other elite middleweights for multiple rounds. I realize this was only a split decision loss (although that Hermansson card could use some interrogation), but it’s hard to think exactly how he’ll adjust to start winning these fights in the near future.
For the moment, a step back against another talent who is flagging at the final hurdle seems like a good idea. That’s where Darren Till enters the picture. Till is just 1-2 since stepping up to 185, with losses to Robert Whittaker and Derek Brunson. Can he find the wrestling defense to keep Hermansson at bay? Till vs. Hermansson seems like the right fight for both men to answer some ongoing questions.
The man is out for blood at 170 lbs. He’s had three fights against three very underrated, dangerous opponents, and he’s walked out with three stoppage finishes. Analysts, myself included, thought that Carlston Harris’ size and power might be an unexpected challenge in the Octagon, but Rakhmanov showed off his ability to surprise in all areas once again with a fantastic wheel kick to a GnP KO.
That brings his record to an unbeaten 15-0 and suggests he should likely be knocking on the doors of the top 15 at 170. That could mean fights with Khaos Williams, Muslim Salikhov, Michel Pereira, Niko Price, or Daniel Rodriguez. Of those, I’m gonna say Williams vs. Rakhmonov sounds like the most fun. A wild swinging power-brawler with tons of KO ability and a rock solid chin against Rakhmonov’s technique and variety. Rakhmonov vs. Williams seems like a great next step for the Kazakh fighter.
For a fight that he took on extremely short notice, Allen didn’t exactly take the safe route to fighting Sam Alvey. Instead of picking away at range behind a jab and low kicks, he delivered something much more like an ideal Alvey fight—lunging into the pocket and trading with short bursts of offense. Still, it paid off in the end, with a big highlight club-n-sub win. A great way for Allen to get back on the horse after taking the second TKO loss of his career back in December.
It’s just too bad that Allen and Gerald Meerschaert are such longtime training partners, because this feels like the perfect time for a bout between them. Instead, Krzysztof Jotko is coming off a victory, so how about Jotko vs. Allen? It’s a good way for Allen to get back in the conversation at the edges of the middleweight top 15, and to line him up for a bigger fight down the road. Allen vs. Jotko should be a chance for Allen to pick up some momentum.
Julian Erosa’s renaissance in his third go round with the UFC is kind of remarkable. Always at the mercy of his willingness to brawl and his questionable durability, putting together multiple victories inside the Octagon kinda felt like it might just be a pipe dream in the man’s MMA career. Suddenly, however, despite a 1-4 UFC record entering 2020, Erosa is now 5-5 in the world’s largest mixed martial arts organization. Is he ever going to make a real bid for the rankings? I’m still not entirely convinced of that, but he’s on a tear and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
He’s the kind of talent that could easily face anyone up and down the division, from Cub Swanson to Kamuela Kirk. At the moment, I’d like to see him take on another fighter who has struggled to find firm footing in his time in the cage, despite an obvious wealth of talent and physical ability: Lando Vannata. The longtime Jackson-Wink product dropped to 145 last year for a win over Mike Grundy. A fight with Erosa would guarantee $50k in someone’s pocket, if not a bonus for both men. Erosa vs. Vannata seems like a fantastic featherweight scrap.
An absolutely fantastic performance from Castaneda, who had to take the best shots that Johns had to offer for a solid round and a half before he could turn the momentum really and truly in his favor. But once Johns started to flag, Castaneda started to really break him down behind non-stop pressure and volume. The fact that he finished it with a tech sub well into the third round is just icing on the cake.
Castaneda’s another of a number of fighters who have come to the UFC lately with a full career of MMA experience already under their belt. And while his debut was a rough one, he’s turned it around since—showing his toughness and well-rounded skills every step of the way. So how about a fight with another older bantamweight making waves early in their time in the Octagon. Tony Kelley is coming off an absolute thrashing of hyped prospect Randy Costa, Kelley vs. Castaneda feels like a great battle of fighters looking to rise quickly up the division.
‘Mean Hakeem’ has built a rock solid reputation as a work-rate striker in the featherweight division that opponents need to really bring something extra against, lest they fall prey to his pace and conditioning. Trizano couldn’t bring that to the table, and lost a clear 30-27 on all three judges’ cards. So lets get Dawodu in the cage with someone who has a bit more of a reputation as a power finisher. Fighters like Sodiq Yusuff or Shane Burgos would fit that bill nicely. Of those options I gotta take Burgos. ‘Hurricane’ Shane has shown his defensive gaps, but fighters who can’t overpower him tend to find themselves getting overpowered. And while Dawodu is known for his striking, he hasn’t exactly been a KO artist inside the Octagon. Can Dawodu find a third gear, or will he get knocked back once again at the edges of the top 15. Burgos vs. Dawodu should be an absolute thrill.
A hell of a debut for the younger Njokuani, who already put together an entire MMA career even before he ever had a chance to get to the UFC. He’s fought former Bellator champions and a slew of current and former UFC fighters. And even if those fights came with their fair share of losses, he’s showed the value of all that experience in his debut—with a quick KO over the notably iron-jawed Marc-Andre Barriault. Considering all the cage time Njokuani’s already accumulated, and that he’s in his early 30s, the UFC should try and run him up division as fast as they can. A jump into the middle of the pack for a bout against another more seasoned Octagon vet seems like the best way to make that happen. So how about a fight with Gerald Meerschaert. ‘GM3’’s grappling could give ‘Chidi Bang Bang’ some real trouble. But it should also be a fight where the Saekson Janjira Muay Thai has a big edge in standing strikes. Dolidze vs. Meerschaert seems like a good way to see if the UFC newcomer can make waves at 185.
OTHER BOUTS: Nick Maximov vs. Andre Petroski, Punahele Soriano vs. Andreas Michailidis, Carlston Harris vs. Mounir Lazzez, Bryan Battle vs. Dusko Todorovic, Tresean Gore vs. Joseph Holmes, Steven Peterson vs. Youssef Zalal, Miles Johns vs. Randy Costa, Mike Trizano vs. Omar Morales, Marc-Andre Barriault vs. Eryk Anders, Alexis Davis vs. Julia Avila, Julija Stoliarenko vs. Veronica Macedo, Jailton Almeida vs. Marcin Prachnio, Danilo Marques vs. Shamil Gamzatov, Philip Rowe vs. Abubakar Nurmagomedov, Jason Witt vs. Ramiz Brahimaj, Malcolm Gordon vs. Ode Osbourne, Denys Bondar vs. Carlos Candelario