UFC 273 was a card that showed the value of booking recognizable talent in high stakes fights. Even if not all the bouts were thrillers, the action still felt like it had a lot of weight and meaning. Alexander Volkanovski once again made it clear that there are few men at 145 lbs in this world who can compete with him the way Max Holloway could. And Chan Sung Jung definitively wasn’t among them. Aljamain Sterling shocked expectations by out-grappling and out-hustling Petr Yan to defend and unify the bantamweight belt. And Khamzat Chimaev made it clear at the very least, that he’s on par with the world’s best welterweights.
So, is there anyone else at featherweight ready to test their mettle against the ‘Great’ right now, other than Holloway? Does Petr Yan have an argument for getting another rematch against Sterling? And is Colby Covington going to feel better about the idea of a Chimaev fight after seeing him against Burns?
To answer those questions – and a several 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!
There seems to be a bit of hemming and hawing both from Alexander Volkanovski and Dana White over the idea that Max Holloway is in line for another shot at the belt. But if not him, then who? Brian Ortega, Yair Rodriguez, and Calvin Kattar have all suffered lopsided losses at the hands of either Holloway or Volkanovski. And while Josh Emmett, Bryce Mitchell, and Arnold Allen are making strong cases for their status as future contenders, none of them have beat even one former featherweight title fight participant, let alone anyone in the top 5 of the division right now. Letting them leapfrog a fighter as talented as Holloway just to change things up seems not only unfair, but a bit unnecessary. Another win for any of them would go a long way to certifying their status as a true challenger with the viewing public.
The only other option being bandied about, as far as I can tell, is the specter of Henry Cejudo’s possible return to competition. And while that’s a cool idea and all, he hasn’t even re-entered the USADA testing pool yet—to start a mandatory 6-month window before he can be cleared to compete. Until that happens, any chatter of him as a possible opponent is just a pipe dream. Let the rest of featherweight sort itself out. For now, let’s just enjoy the two best featherweight talents in the world today meeting one more time inside the cage. Time to book Holloway vs. Volkanovski III.
CHAN SUNG JUNG
The ‘Korean Zombie’ was understandably unwilling to make a definitive statement on his career just moments after losing his second (and very likely final) shot at becoming UFC champion. But, nobody would blame him if he ultimately decided this was the moment to call it quits and move on to life as a full-time coach and gym owner. For fighters who have spent years pursuing a dream of becoming the best in the world, re-calibrating to be a guy who competes just for fun and financial gain can be a hard pill to swallow. Is it worth taking the huge amounts of damage or the stress and anxiety of training without the drive for greatness? Only Chan Sung Jung can answer that.
If he doesn’t decide to walk away, there are plenty of fights for him. The fact that Jung was even in position to take this hard loss is a testament to how competitive he can still be among other quality talents in his division. Fights with the likes of Bryce Mitchell, Cub Swanson, Edson Barboza, or Shane Burgos would all be guaranteed fun. Of those, I’ll say the UFC should go with Mitchell vs. the Korean Zombie. The only two men to hit a twister in the Octagon would make for a fascinating fight. But, I wouldn’t blame Jung if this is the end of his competitive MMA journey either.
All credit to Aljamain Sterling, he was absolutely sure that this second bout against Petr Yan would go differently for him, and there’s no question that it did. Even without getting easy access to clean takedowns, Sterling showed his world class skill with some slick as hell back takes in the scrambles to dominate the middle frames of the fight. The end result is that he’s now the undisputed bantamweight champion. And while Yan may be looking for an instant rematch, it doesn’t seem terribly likely that the UFC feels a burning desire to put this fight together again right away. Instead, Sterling called out TJ Dillashaw after his victory, with Dillashaw sitting cageside—likely for just such an eventuality. Seems like an obvious booking, and a great way for Sterling to start closing some of the loops on Bantamweight’s busted title history. No doubt he’ll be facing Yan again someday in the future, but for now, Sterling vs. Dillashaw seems like a great next title bout.
I’d kind of expected that, given he’d seen the man inside the cage before, Yan would be a little ahead of the game in terms of his customarily slow starts. Unfortunately for him, however, that wasn’t the case—with a cautious first round from both athletes, that saw them over-swinging on hooks from way outside trying to find their range and timing. Given his durability and cardio, that’s usually not a big problem for Yan. But tonight it was everything. Sterling found two full rounds of control time following the slow start. And even while Yan flipped that script with a commanding final two rounds of the fight, momentum means nothing in the land of the ‘10-point must’ system.
Now, against the odds, Yan finds himself without even a piece of the bantamweight title, and with the need to go and win another fight or two in order to put himself back in the spot of top contender. Having already beat Cory Sandhagen and Jose Aldo, and with TJ Dillashaw seemingly next in line to fight Aljo, Yan may have to stretch out a bit and fight down the division. That could mean bouts with Rob Font, Merab Dvalishvili, Dominick Cruz, or Marlon Vera. The option among them should be obvious. Dvalishvili isn’t likely to be a real contender as long as his teammate has the strap, and the bad blood between Yan and the whole Serra-Longo crew isn’t about to die away. Petr Yan vs. Merab Dvalishvili seems like the perfect next chapter in Yan’s quest to regain UFC gold.
It may not be exactly the hype-affirming performance fans were hoping for from Chimaev, especially for a man whose hype is built around his ability to crush any/everyone inside a round. But it honestly feels like a great confirmation of Chimaev’s quality to me. He went out there and fought a man who was just a hair’s breadth off the title, and did so only four years and 10 fights into his pro career. And while he showed that he can get hit by opponents who are willing and able to stand in with him, take his shots, and return fire, he also showed a hell of a chin, and the cardio to go to war for 15 minutes and still walk away with a win. Did he look slightly more human? Sure. But even Khabib had his less than glorious fights. Ahead of this card, Dana White suggested they already had Chimaev’s next bout in mind, an ABC headlining slot against Colby Covington. I don’t see any reason the UFC shouldn’t go ahead with that plan. Chimaev vs. Covington is a great next test. Pass that one and ‘Borz’ will be title ready.
An incredibly valiant showing from Burns, who has a whole corner of MMA fandom arguing that he actually deserved the win in this bout against Chimaev. There’s no question Burns owned the second round, but the first and third were razor thin, with a lot of power shots traded on both sides. Still, if Burns had to lose, putting on an all-time great barn burner of a slug-fest where he still saw the final bell is the best way to go about it. After this loss, fights with Jorge Masvidal, Michael Chiesa, or Belal Muhammad (win or lose to Vicente Luque) all seem like good ideas. I was going to argue for the Masvidal fight, just because Muhammad is already booked. But, at that point ‘Gamebred’ seems like much less of a sure booking with his high profile (and potential legal troubles). So, I’ll say Gilbert Burns vs. Belal Muhammad is the best option. If ‘Remember the Name’ loses to Luque, then both men will be out for redemption. If he beats him, then Burns is still the kind of elite contender that could guarantee Muhammad a future shot at gold.
I’d be lying if I said I was 100% confident that Dern won her fight with Tecia Torres, but at the very least she put herself in good position to get the win. Aside from a dominant second round of grappling, she kept her pressure high and sat down on bigger punches. Even when Torres landed in return, it seemed clear that Dern’s shots had more behind them. After the bout she had a whole list of names to call out for a potential next fight, essentially asking for any/everyone in the top 5. Among those mentioned were the upcoming bout between Weili Zhang and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. The winner of that fight seems more likely to be in line for a title shot at the winner of Esparza/Namajunas 2, but even the loser would be a high prestige add to Dern’s resume. I’m not convinced she beats either women, but if she wants to be a title contender, she might as well shoot her shot. Dern vs. the Jedrzejczyk/Zhang loser seems like a great chance for Dern to prove she can contend at a championship level.
It wasn’t exactly a dominating performance from Pennington, with Ladd doing her best to rally late and steal the last round, but for those first two rounds ‘Rocky’ really clearly outclassed Ladd standing. Her busier boxing style and cleaner technique in the pocket had her a strong step ahead all the way through 10 minutes. While she may never be a big step above her competition, another victory keeps Pennington firm in her longstanding spot among the bantamweight top 5.
After the bout, she had a clear and obvious call-out for a fight with an opponent that it seems like she should have already faced twice before: Sara McMann. Like Pennington, McMann has been a fixture in the top 10 of the division for years. And coming off a victory over Karol Rosa, she’s perfectly positioned for this fight right now. Will it be for the title, as Pennington suggested? I’m not as sure of that. But Pennington vs. McMann is a bout that should have been made years ago. Time to get it done.
Can Oleksiy Oliynyk live as the heavyweight division’s measuring stick in perpetuity? Sometimes it feels that way. The ‘Boa Constrictor’ has been at this game since man first painted on cave walls. In fact, when the first amphibian crawled its way onto land out of the water, I’m not at all sure Oliynyk wasn’t there to slap an Ezekiel choke on it. And yet, despite all those years, and all that mileage—and the wealth of footage out there on his fights and his craft—he surprises so, so many people. Add Jared Vanderaa to that list. What he was thinking when he tried to take Oliynyk’s back, the world may never know.
With another win under his belt, and seemingly no intention of stopping his career anytime in the near future, It’s time to find another fight with some interest for the ageless wonder. Fortunately, the perfect opportunity just recently presented itself. Ben Rothwell was set to take on Alexander Gustafsson in the former light heavyweight title contender’s long awaited return to competition, before ‘Big’ Ben got unceremoniously axed from the promotion. That unexpected development has left Gus needing a new man to fight. For my money, Oliynyk is that man. Especially given how badly Gustafsson’s bout against Werdum went, and the quick way the former champ wrapped him up on the mat, Oliynyk vs. Gustafsson would be a great test to see if the ‘Mauler’ is ever going to make it as a heavyweight.
OTHER BOUTS: Tecia Torres vs. Yan Xiaonan, Mark O. Madsen vs. Damir Ismagulov, Vinc Pichel vs. Thiago Moises, Ian Garry vs. Philip Rowe, Darian Weeks vs. Micheal Gillmore, Anthony Hernandez vs. Maximov/Petroski winner, Josh Fremd vs. Dustin Stoltzfus, Aspen Ladd vs. Karol Rosa, Mike Malott vs. Jack Della Maddalena, Mickey Gall vs. Warlley Alves, Jared Vanderaa vs. Jarjis Danho, Piera Rodriguez vs. Loma Lookboonmee, Kay Hansen vs. Miranda Granger, Julio Arce vs. Casey Kenney, Daniel Santos vs. Aaron Phillips