The foundations of the MMA world were shaken to their very core when Leon Edwards knocked Kamaru Usman out cold in the final minute of their world title fight at UFC 278. The Salt Lake City crowd erupted, just as I believe everyone at home or the bar did. For many, Usman was the P4P king heading into the contest and he had been reinforcing that idea going into the final minute of the fight. Edwards threw a perfectly placed head kick that Usman leaned into, turning out the lights on the champion, anointing a new king in the process.
Uncle Dana already stated he wants to book a trilogy fight between Usman and Edwards, this time in the UK. Given that would place the fight in Edwards’ home country, it makes a lot of sense, especially from a business perspective. But should the UFC look at different options? What to make of the win of the enigmatic Paulo Costa? Should Merab Dvalishvili get a sniff at bantamweight gold? What to do with the legendary Jose Aldo as he no longer appears to be in contendership?
To answer those questions and more, I’ll put on the hat currently worn by Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard in hopes of putting together the best and most logical fights. I’m no Zane Simon – the man who typically does these articles – but I’ll do my best to present my thoughts and ideas and try to bring y’all onto my side in the process. Let’s dig in….
LEON EDWARDS/KAMARU USMAN
I gave it an honest shot to see if there was any way to justify not running back this fight right away. I can’t come to a satisfactory conclusion. While there is very little meaning in the first fight for determining if a rematch should take place, Usman did take it fair and square, leaving these two at 1-1 against one another. More importantly, Usman was less than a minute away from his sixth successful title defense, having won three of the previous four rounds and on his way to picking up the fifth. Thus, it feels like Usman is the better fighter who just happened to get caught. Plus, there isn’t anyone out there with an undisputed resume demanding their shot as Usman has weakened the resume of anyone – Colby Covington in particular – who might be able to claim that. Khamzat Chimaev is out there, but he’s set to face Nate Diaz next month. A win over Diaz helps his resume, but even with that win, it might not be as strong as Covington’s with a new king over the division. Plus, Edwards’ win creates all sorts of buzz in seeing a rematch. It’s easily the most bankable fight at this point. Uncle Dana says the immediate rematch is happening, and for once, I agree that it should. Edwards and Usman run it back.
While the muscle-bound Brazilian got back on the winning track in his proper weight division, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of a win. Sure, Luke Rockhold is a former champion, but he also lost that belt six years ago and won a single fight since losing it. Given how tired Rockhold looked, it felt like Costa should have been able to get him out of there with ease if he was truly a divisional elite. Instead, while the fight we got was entertaining, shipping Rockhold into retirement, it’s because the fight was so bad that it was entertaining. So where to go with Costa next? With most of the top of the division booked up, Darren Till is the first thought, but Till is coming off another knee injury and it’s unknown how long he’ll be sidelined. Plus, the injuries couple with his recent losses indicates to me he’ll need a refresher fight. Marvin Vettori and Robert Whittaker fight in just two weeks, so the winner of that fight would make sense if Costa hadn’t already lost to Vettori last year. However, win or lose, Whittaker makes sense. Both he and Costa have already fallen to Israel Adesanya and it doesn’t make a lot of business sense to have them sniping off potential contenders on the way up. Thus, book Whittaker and Costa regardless of the outcome in Paris.
From the day we all saw Dvalishvili fight for the first time, we all knew it was going to be difficult for him to sniff a title shot given his style. His constant grinding and wrestling isn’t pleasing on the eyes, making it hard for people to want to slam down money or make his fights appointment TV. Regardless, it’s good enough he was able to secure a win over the legendary Jose Aldo, keeping him near the top of the division. However, Uncle Dana wasn’t pleased with the fight, indicating he’s not about to give Dvalishvili a title shot. It avoids the awkward situation of Dvalishvili maybe having to fight his teammate, Aljamain Sterling, but from a business perspective, I’d say Uncle Dana is making a mistake. At the very least, he should have told Dvalishvili is next in line after Sterling and TJ Dillashaw take care of business… if he wants that opportunity. Friends turned foe often sell better than just the next contender up. Besides, there’s no guarantee he’d be fighting Sterling. Regardless, if Uncle Dana says it isn’t happening, I should look elsewhere.
So where to look. There’s Marlon Vera, the winner of Petr Yan-Sean O’Malley, and the winner of Cory Sandhagen-Song Yadong. That’s a lot to sort through and would require an entire article to properly break down the best route to take. So how about I pull out someone from left field that I haven’t seen discussed? Ricky Simon. Simon is the last person to hang a loss on Dvalishvili and is on a five-fight win streak himself. If Uncle Dana isn’t going to give him a title shot, how about giving him an opportunity to get back a win, especially one as controversial as that one? My first choice is still to give Dvalishvili the title shot, but if it isn’t happening, I like going the route of Simon. Give Dvalishvili the chance to avenge his loss to Simon.
It looks like Aldo’s title chances have come to a close following his loss to Dvalishvili. However, the reception he got from the Salt Lake City crowd indicates there is still a huge desire for live audiences to see the living legend in action. Thus, there’s still money to be made for both the UFC and Aldo. In other words, even if the title is no longer an option, it shouldn’t be seen as the end of the line for Aldo. However, rather than have him serve as a gatekeeper, it seems like putting him in legacy fights people have always wanted to see would be a better option. So, what are some fights that people would have some interest in seeing? Dillashaw is one given Aldo was the featherweight champion when Dillashaw won his first title, but he’s scheduled to fight for the title. O’Malley is a stylistically intriguing contest of old school vs. new school, but he’s also scheduled. Thus, that leaves Dominick Cruz. With both being former WEC champions when the organization was absorbed into the UFC, they’ve always had a connection of sorts. With both now fighting in the same division, it’s hard to not have some curiosity about how a fight between them would play out. With both coming off loses that appear to close the door on their title aspirations, there doesn’t appear to be a better time. Sure, both are past their prime, but better late than never. It’s now or never for the UFC to book Aldo-Cruz.
Maybe I shouldn’t give a paragraph for Pudilova, but she did secure a main card win. Blame the UFC for the card positioning. Pudilova looked very meh through the first round and a half, but she turned up the violence once she was in a positionally advantageous position in the second. Regardless, it’s not like Yanan Wu is a big win. Thus, even though the women’s bantamweight division is shallow, I wouldn’t give Pudilova a ranked opponent quite yet. Newly signed Hailey Cowan is a name I thought about, but ultimately narrowed it down to either Josiane Nunes or Julija Stoliarenko. Both have a history of throwing down, so either will suffice. Given their records are more similar, I ultimately decided Pudilova and Stoliarenko is appropriate.
Given his long layoff prior to his return earlier this year, it’s easy to forget Pedro was seen as one of the top up-and-coming light heavyweights once upon a time. He’s looked fantastic in both appearances since his return, though they have also been very favorable matchups. Thus, the Kiwi needs a step up, but nothing too big. Names like Da Un Jung, Kennedy Nzechukwu, and Azamat Murzakanov ran through my mind as potential opponents. Of those, Nzechukwu is in the most similar situation as he’s coming off a win over someone no longer in the organization, just as it appears Pedro is about to be. Thus, Pedro vs Nzechukwu is the most reasonable fight to make.
Credit to the Pole for hanging tough after a tough first round at the hands of Alexandr Romanov, though he was beneficial of judges stingy on handing out 10-8’s. Despite being a clear favorite in only two of his last seven fights, Tybura has only lost a single contest in that time. That’s impressive as hell. The issue with Tybura is prior to that run, he had a stretch where he was fighting some of the division’s best and came up short. Regardless, he deserves another crack. The names that make the most sense – Alexander Volkov and Derrick Lewis – he’s already fought, but there’s been enough time from his fight with Lewis that it is worth running back. Besides, Tybura was probably on his way to a decision win before Lewis turned in one of his patented late finishes. A sequel is worth revisiting. Tybura vs. Lewis is the way to go.
Now that the 0 is gone from Romanov’s record, it’s reasonable to expect he might start making the changes that have been obvious to those who follow the fight game closely. Sure, he’d been able to maul his way to wins in his first 16 fights, but there was no way he’d be able to do that all the way to the top. He found out the hard way when Tybura survived the early onslaught and did just enough to outpoint Romanov. Now, the hope is the UFC can do their part to get Romanov back on track. However, after five wins in the UFC prior to his first loss, a large step back doesn’t seem warranted. Thus, rather than have him take a step back to the likes of Josh Parisian or Don’Tale Mayes, a half step back to the likes of Blagoy Ivanov or Ilir Latifi makes more sense. The UFC liked the idea of Latifi enough at one point to book that fight. Why not give it another go? Romanov and Latifi needs to be booked again.
It wasn’t an entertaining performance, but no one can deny the intelligence of Gordon’s performance over Leonardo Santos. Gordon utilized his wrestling to push Santos against the fence on several occasions and work over the body of the 42-year-old. It worked to perfection, taking a clean 30-27 sweep on the scorecards. The win is Gordon’s fourth in his last five performances, though the quality of some of those wins is questionable. The same could be said with Claudio Puelles current run of five straight wins. The 26-year-old Peruvian has yet to face an experienced vet at their peak. Gordon is just that. I know Gordon still wants Paddy Pimblett, but I don’t see the UFC giving Pimblett someone as tough as Gordon just yet. They still have more money to squeeze from the Pimblett train by feeding him fighters he’s supposed to beat. Thus, Gordon vs. Puelles makes too much sense for both competitors.
Albazi had been out of action for so long that it was easy to forget just how hot he was when he entered the organization. Making short work of Francisco Figueiredo, younger brother of the division’s champion Deiveson, served as an efficient reminder that Albazi could make a rapid ascent up the division… provided he can stay healthy. However, before rushing him up, I’d like to see him get a win over a proven talent as none of his three UFC wins has a winning record. Tim Elliott doesn’t have a winning UFC record either, but he has a long track record against some of the best the division has had to offer over the years. This was a fight the UFC already tried putting together earlier this year, so why not go back to the well? Just imagine the potential scrambles…. Albazi and Elliott is worth shooting for again.
OTHER BOUTS: Wu Yanan vs. Veronica Macedo, Harry Hunsucker vs. Jorge Gonzalez, Leonardo Santos vs. Joe Lauzon, Luis Saldana vs. Shayilan Nuerdanbieke, Sean Woodson vs. Austin Lingo, Ange Loosa vs. Ramiz Brahimaj, AJ Fletcher vs. Adam Fugitt, Francisco Figueiredo vs. Charles Johnson, Aoriqileng vs. Aiemann Zahabi, Jay Perrin vs. Kevin Natividad, Victor Altamirano vs. Shannon Ross, Daniel da Silva vs. Victor Rodriguez
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