UFC 286 is all wrapped up. While it didn’t have the high tension thrills of 285, it was a pretty satisfying PPV all around. Leon Edwards put on what may have been the most complete performance of his career to put his rivalry with Kamaru Usman firmly to bed in the main event, while Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev gave us exactly the war we’d hoped for in the co-main. Throw another submission highlight for Gunnar Nelson in there, and there was plenty of high level MMA on display.
So, is the UFC really going to shove another Colby Covington title shot on us? Is there any clear path for Gaethje back to a shot at the lightweight strap? And who’s the next top prospect that’s going to have to tangle with Jennifer Maia to get to the flyweight elite?
To answer those questions—and a bunch of other stuff—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!
A fantastic fight from Leon Edwards who made a couple of small, fundamental adjustments going into this bout that seem to have finely tuned his game to beating Kamaru Usman. First and foremost, Edwards almost entirely went away from head strikes for this fight. It’s a strange move for just about anyone to make in MMA, since striking to the head is the easiest way to do damage that catches the eye of the judges. But, for Edwards—who has long struggled to keep his back off the cage—it proved to a truly brilliant tactic. With less focus on letting his hands go in a quickly collapsing pocket, ‘Rocky’ was able to put a lot more emphasis on his circling footwork, maintaining exactly the range he needed for his kicking game.
The other adjustment, as noted multiple times throughout the broadcast, was his focus on always attacking one wrist with both hands every time Usman shot in on his legs. The ‘Nigerian Nightmare’’s best wrestling rarely comes from a pure, explosive double-leg. He’s at his best when he drives an opponent to the cage, gets his hands locked, and uses his fantastic upper-body strength to rip his foe’s hips off the fence and dump them on the mat. Edwards always making sure he controlled one wrist ensured that a key step in Usman’s takedown process was always broken. The result was a lot more time spent up on his feet, at distance.
Usually, this is the spot where I’d talk about how Edwards should now be fighting the next clear challenger in front of him. By all rights, that would be Belal Muhammad. If everything stays the way it is right now, however, that won’t be happening. At the post-UFC 286 presser, Dana White revealed that not only is the promotion looking to book Muhammad against top rising prospect Shavkat Rakhmonov, but Colby Covington (who served as surprise backup contender at this event) is getting the next crack at gold. End of discussion. As others have already noted, Covington hasn’t beat a fighter coming off a win since RDA in 2018. It’s not the choice I’d make, but it seems Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington is the fight we’re going to get.
The big question to be had going into this fight for Kamaru Usman was, would he pressure more? At UFC 278, Usman stayed on the front foot a lot, but his volume was nowhere near what it had been in bouts with Gilbert Burns, Colby Covington, or Tyron Woodley. It felt a bit like the Trevor Wittman-trained athlete kept Edwards in their last fight with his lack of consistent offensive output. Especially in that 5th round, where he threw all of 16 strikes in 4 minutes—before getting brutally KO’d. So with a second chance, at sea level, this was Usman’s time to put his foot on the gas, right? Wrong.
He once again kept things slow and cautious, giving Edwards ample time to ramp up his kicking game as Usman tried to stalk into range without much in the way of offense to work behind. The result was a reasonably clean loss. Even me scoring this fight a draw meant that I comfortably had Edwards winning 3/5 rounds.
So with the title now out of reach for the foreseeable future, who does Usman need to fight? Chimaev’s apparently moving up, Muhammad is apparently fighting Rakhmonov, Covington’s booked (plus we’ve seen that fight enough)—same with Burns & Masvidal. That leaves one easy option. A glaring omission from Usman’s resume: Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. Thompson’s coming off a big win over Kevin Holland, the UFC should strike while the iron is still surprisingly hot. Thompson vs. Usman is a great high-profile next booking for the former king.
Full credit to Justin Gaethje, Rafael Fiziev looked like he had done his homework and came out attacking the body hard. He landed tons of kicks from range, dug with knees on the inside, and was happy to sit down and land big shots in the pocket when the time called. But Gaethje made a couple superb adjustments that saw him stall ‘Ataman’’s momentum and eventually start taking it over late.
The first adjustment was to start meeting Fiziev’s pocket body strikes with uppercuts. The second was to fight behind his jab. The first step convinced Fiziev to be more cautious about pressing with real conviction. The second kept him firmly on the end of Gaethje’s punches the rest of the way. The end result is a big win that Gaethje absolutely had to have if he’s going to make another title run like he wants.
The ‘Highlight’ intimated that he might not have many fights left, so we can’t waste them. Unfortunately getting there will likely mean going through a couple of men who already have his number: Dustin Poirier or Charles Oliveira. If Gaethje’s really lucky, Beneil Dariush will beat Oliveira and still won’t get a title shot and he can get that fight (although the two men are also close friends, so that still might not be a bookable match). Otherwise the only obvious answer right now is Poirier vs. Gaethje 2.
Bryan Barberena is lots of fun, but this was more or less a walkover booking for Gunnar Nelson. The Icelandic fighter pressured his way into an early takedown and once he had Barberena on the mat, it was only a matter of time before this was gonna be all wrapped up. A couple minutes and an armbar attempt later and the fight was over.
Nelson’s apparently more committed to his coaching career right now than being a full time fighter, so we might not see him anytime soon. But when he does come back, bouts with Muslim Salikhov, the winner of Holland/Ponzinibbio, or a re-booking of the Daniel Rodriguez bout would all be good. Hell I’d love to see him against Max Griffin or Michel Pereira or Jack Della Maddalena too. Lots of options. Considering the unlikelihood he runs back to the cage for a quick return, I’ll say wait for the winner of Holland/Ponzinibbio. Holland vs. Nelson would be so much fun and a rematch of that Ponzinibbio fight feels long overdo.
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About the author: Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. Host of the MMA Vivisection and 6th Round, he has covered MMA and the UFC since 2013.(full bio)
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