UFC Vancouver was a weird night for weird fights, but all capped off by a main event that felt like it couldn’t have gone more to script. Justin Gaethje’s fast starting relentless pressure and power were just too much for Donald Cerrone. Meanwhile, Glover Teixeira was better than Nikita Krylov… but maybe not on the ground? And Michel Pereira may see Anderson Silva as his muse for putting on entertaining fights, but that tended to come with beating the people he was supposed to beat.
So, if the UFC isn’t going to book Ferguson vs. Khabib, what’s Justin Gaethje waiting for? Is Uriah Hall finally hitting his ‘Prime Time’ stride? And did heavyweight just find a new potential contender in Augusto Sakai?
I’ll be answering all those question – if not a whole lot else – using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking style of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. I’m not looking for entries to join me for next week’s fight card, but keep an eye out for the UFC Copenhagen: Fights to Make article, for a chance to make your own fantasy match-ups for UFC 243. In the meantime, let’s get to the fights…
Gaethje did a great job calling his shot after beating Donald Cerrone on Saturday night. When asked if he’d like to fight Conor or Khabib, he instead made it clear that he’d prefer the winner of a title fight between Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov (the only lightweight title bout the UFC should be looking at right now). If, for some insane reason (money) the UFC decides not to make that fight, then Gaethje could well find himself in a title shot, or fighting Ferguson. He’s likely totally correct to disregard a McGregor fight until there are a few real signs that McGregor is on his way back to the cage. Assuming Khabib vs. Ferguson gets made, give Gaethje the winner. If, for some reason, that can’t happen and other hijinks ensue, then get Justin Gaethje in the cage with Paul Felder, and let them duke it out. Otherwise, Gaethje has every right to stake his claim to a future chance at the 155 lb title.
Cerrone sounds like he’s still dedicated to the idea of becoming a UFC champion at some point in his career, so I wouldn’t count on him walking away any time soon. And that’s great news for the rest of the lightweight division, since ‘Cowboy’ is about the most likely guy to pick up a bout with a random hopeful contender just to stay busy. That could mean, even off a loss, that he’s the man to fulfill Paul Felder’s ‘top 5 bouts only’ wish. Or we could see Cerrone vs. Poirier, Cerrone vs. Barboza 2, or even something like Donald Cerrone vs. Gregor Gillespie. I was quick to suggest Poirier vs. Barboza last week, but now with Cerrone rocking his own loss, Cerrone vs. Poirier feels like the much bigger fight. No doubt he’ll end up taking on someone like Charles Oliveira (again), just because that’s the man ready to go in two months time. But, Donald Cerrone vs. Dustin Poirier is probably one of the bigger non-title fights the UFC could put together for the lightweight division right now.
A win that very much keeps Teixeira afloat as one of light heavyweight’s premiere gatekeepers to the elite. Krylov, for his part, showed off an ever-improving grappling game—one that let him survive and even win a few exchanges on the mat, on his way to his first ever decision (win or lose). But, Teixeira’s blend of power, durability, and top position BJJ is still a tall order for all but the best fighters to overcome. Which is why I’d like to see him continue in his role testing out new talent on the rise. There’s one man at 205 right now, without a fight booked, that fits that mold to a T: Aleksandar Rakic. Rakic is 4-0 in the UFC now, and was last seen melting Jimi Manuwa just 47 seconds into the first round of their bout. Can he do the same to Glover, or will this be the first setback of his Octagon career. Glover Teixeira vs. Aleksandar Rakic is a perfect test to see if Rakic is on his way to title contention.
Hall may have given up a couple bad grappling positions (leading to an especially unremarkable round 3) but he absolutely made the best of every opportunity he had standing. It’s one of the few times that Hall has seemed to fight to his violent potential every time he had the chance. With his speed and power he’s always a danger for any opponent. Middleweight is largely booked up right now, but Omari Akhmedov is coming off a very strong win over Zak Cummings in his last outing. A better option, however, feels like the winner of the upcoming bout between Ian Heinisch and Brad Tavares. Tavares vs. Hall feels like a fight that should have happened years ago, and Heinisch is exactly the kind of aggressive, high energy opponent that tends to bring the best out of Hall. Uriah Hall vs. the Tavares/Heinisch winner is a solid bout for the edges of the top 15 at 185.
Cirkunov snatched victory from the jaws of defeat there. After getting swept by Jimmy Crute, his takedown game seemed like it had lost all steam. But, he hit his own sweep – while getting absolutely pummeled – to lock in a beautiful sub. He called out Corey Anderson after the fight, but Anderson is already booked and knocking on the door of the top 5. A rematch with Volkan Oezdemir could be in the cards instead, or even a fight with the streaking Aleksandar Rakic. But, there’s a fight I think Cirkunov is much better primed for right now: Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua. As much as Shogun may be past his prime, he’s still been putting together a lot of wins at light heavyweight lately. He’s carried his power late into his career, and – against a somewhat breakable fighter like Cirkunov – that gives him a real shot at picking up another win. If Cirkunov can get the win instead, then he can put himself back in the hunt for bigger fights further up the division. Misha Cirkunov vs. Shogun Rua is a good way for either man to build momentum.
Exactly the win Sakai needed from a fight that, frankly, had snoozer written all over it. Instead of a dull decision to keep him afloat in the middle of the pack, he sparked Marcin Tybura in under a minute—and that should mean that bigger things are on the way. Unfortunately however, at the moment, the only potential ranked opponents who aren’t booked are either coming off a loss or way up at the top of the division. If Sakai wants to fight someone coming off a win, he’ll almost certainly have to wait. If Tai Tuivasa defeats Serghei Spivac (which seems likely) he’d be the best possible choice. If he doesn’t, however, then the winner of Ben Rothwell vs. Stefan Struve may not have a number next to their name, but they both have a high enough profile to be a perfect next step. Augusto Sakai vs. Tuivasa (if he wins his next fight), otherwise put him against the Rothwell/Struve winner.
Beating Ryan MacDonald may not quite be the proof that Smolka is once again on his way to being a top-tier talent in the UFC. But, when presented with an opponent he was supposed to be much better than, he went out and did exactly what he was supposed to do. Smolka looked confident and determined on his feet, working a very dedicated body punching gameplan to open up the early TKO win. And with that, he proved that he should at least be mixing it up with the middle of the pack at 135—and not picking off the stragglers near the bottom. A rematch with Ray Borg wouldn’t be a bad idea. Or maybe go winner/loser against Rani Yahya. But, I’m also fine seeing Smolka work his way just a little more slowly
And to that end, I think a bout against Luke Sanders seems like a prime candidate to see just where the Hawaiian is really at in the bantamweight division. Sanders has the power and the well-rounded-ness to keep Smolka honest, everywhere. While also being tough enough to not wilt under pressure quickly. And much like beating Barao last time out, a win over Smolka would be a great addition to his record. And if Smolka can take Sanders, then yeah, start booking him against guys hanging around the fringes of the top 15. Louis Smolka vs. Luke Sanders sounds like a great mid-card action bout.
OTHER BOUTS: Nikita Krylov vs. Ilir Latifi, Todd Duffee vs. Juan Espino, Jeff Hughes vs. Juan Adams, Tristan Connelly vs. Dan Moret, Michel Pereira vs. Emil Weber Meek, Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Cezar Ferreira, Jimmy Crute vs. Darko Stosic, Marcin Tybura vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima, Miles Johns vs. Felipe Colares, Cole Smith vs. Vince Morales, Hunter Azure vs. Jonathan Martinez, Brad Katona vs. Pingyuan Liu, Chas Skelly vs. Enrique Barzola, Jordan Griffin vs. Seung-Woo Choi, Ryan McDonald vs. Wuliji Buren, Austin Hubbard vs. Alex da Silva, Kyle Prepolec vs. Te Edwards
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