UFC 290 was an absolute banger, front to back, top to bottom. Just a fantastic card full of fantastic fights. Alexander Volkanovski dominated Yair Rodriguez for his fifth featherweight title defense. Alexandre Pantoja proved that he’ll always have Brandon Moreno’s number to grab flyweight gold. And Dricus du Plessis shocked the world to become the next man in Israel Adesanya’s sights.
So, will Volkanovski face Topuria, or is he on his way to a Makhachev rematch? Is there any way Moreno gets another rematch with Pantoja? And can the UFC avoid putting Adesanya and du Plessis in the same room together until September?
To answer those questions—and so, so 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!
In the land of the featherweights only one man is king. Yair Rodriguez climbed the mountain; he even snagged himself a piece of Volkanovski’s treasure—getting his hands on an interim title. But that reward came with a price, namely that he’d have to defend his right to be called one of the best 145-ers on the planet against the Aussie champ. It did not go well.
Other than a couple of brief round 3 exchanges that showed off Rodriguez’s dexterity and speed, Volkanovski dominated. He got Rodriguez down with ease whenever he wanted, he landed big shots standing and cracked the HBU Training Center fighter’s near unbreakable chin. He was a man in complete control. Following this win he has two options staring him straight in the face, and it likely depends on his self-stated need for surgery as to which he might take.
The first and clearest option on Volkanovski’s plate is a fight against Ilia Topuria. With his recent dominant win over Josh Emmett, Topuria has very clearly made himself the most prominent contender for the featherweight title. He’s got an elite style, he’d make for a fascinating physical challenge, and he’s young enough that even a loss likely wouldn’t be a huge setback for him. That said, he’s also not exactly a high profile opponent that could sell PPVs. That’s where a rematch with Islam Makhachev comes in.
It seems as though the lightweight Dagestani champ was all primed to take on the winner of Oliveira vs. Dariush for his next fight. But Dariush losing appears to have taken away much of the AKA talent’s interest. No doubt he’s also eyeing the fight between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje later this month, but if that doesn’t end up with a tantalizing option, then it may just be that the rematch with Volkanovski will be on the table Abu Dhabi in October.
Of course, all that changes if the 34-year-old City Kickboxing talent needs to recover from surgery. Most likely, it seems like we’ll see Volkanovski vs. Topuria, since that fight doesn’t have a clear calendar date it has to fit on, and Makhachev does. But things will be a lot more clear after UFC 291 later this month.
Finally a fight on UFC 290 that went the way it was supposed to go. Yair Rodriguez is big and dynamic and tireless, a real puzzle to solve at 145 lbs. But Alexander Volkanovski is great at solving puzzles. He used persistent pressure and takedowns to neutralize large parts of Rodriguez’s striking game and drag him into grappling battles, where Volk’s positional dominance could really win out. Credit to ‘El Pantera’, even despite getting overwhelmed for most of two rounds, the moment the champ took his foot off the gas in round 3, Rodriguez was right there to start buzzing him with powerful 1-2s and a variety of creative, dynamic kicks.
Still, when Volkanovski decided he needed to pressure again, he found the Mexican a fairly easy target to hit. Unfortunate clash of heads aside, that hook Volkanovski nailed Rodriguez with was a thing of beauty and the followup GnP was brutal. A great finish for the returning featherweight king.
For Rodriguez, however, that leaves him in the spot place of needing another booking to bounce back on. Despite having faced a good chunk of the elite already, there are several big fights that would make a whole bunch of sense for the 30-year-old to land on next. Bouts against Arnold Allen or Calvin Kattar would both be strong options, and there’s even solid reason to book a rematch against Brian Ortega given their first fight ended on an odd injury.
Given Kattar is coming off two loses (and a knee injury), I’ll say that Allen vs. Rodriguez is the fight to make. Just the kind of matchup to give Allen a path to contender status again, and to keep Rodriguez right in the hunt. Allen vs. Rodriguez is a great top-ranked featherweight battle.
What a performance from Alexandre Pantoja. He stole the momentum from the jump, blitzing Brandon Moreno out of the gate. It’s honestly a credit to Moreno’s toughness that he survived that opening round to come back and win the second. It’s also a testament to Pantoja’s heart and will that when the momentum was going against him he dug deep time and time again.
The ‘Cannibal’ absolutely looked like he’d shot his wad in the opening round and was fading fast. But Pantoja started every round afterward on the front foot, fast and looking to swarm. He found takedowns all throughout the fight and never let Moreno have more than short bursts of success standing. A great title fight and a great way to crown a new champion.
It’s a shame then, that Deiveson Figueiredo just announced his firm intentions to move up to bantamweight and get a fight with Dominick Cruz. That’s a great fight, but given how Figueiredo shut Pantoja down in 2019, it feels like a rematch would be very worth making.
It’s also too bad that Moreno and Pantoja have such a history together. This fight was epic, but what’s the argument for running it back when Pantoja is up 3-0 in their lifetime series? Instead Amir Albazi and Brandon Royval are on the cusp of contender status. Normally I’d say they should fight each other to determine who gets the shot, but Pantoja already beat Royval. Albazi doesn’t really seem ready for the belt yet, but he’s seemingly the only man in position to take a shot at it, and the UFC would have serious reason to want him on that October Abu Dhabi card. Alexandre Pantoja vs. Amir Albazi feels likely right now.
Much in the same way that this fight showed great guts from Alexandre Pantoja, Brandon Moreno got put in a hell of a hole early and battled his way back out of it with fantastic success. After that second round, however, even when Moreno could land the cleaner shots, he could never control Pantoja’s pace for any length of time. If Pantoja wanted to get the fight down, he’d get the fight down. If Pantoja fired his own strikes at Moreno, they’d land, hard.
End of the day, whatever score anyone wants to give it, Moreno didn’t do enough to take Pantoja’s offensive tools away from him. Both men got to do a lot of what they like, and judges found Pantoja’s success more palatable. To my mind, that leaves one pretty obvious fight booking. Brandon Royval wants a title shot, but he’s already lost to the champ and the number 1 contender. A rematch with Royval would give him a chance to prove he’s ready to contend. And for Moreno, he’ll just need to take out every top guy he can to see if he can’t earn another crack at gold. Moreno vs. Royval 2 is just the kind of win Royval needs.
DRICUS DU PLESSIS
That’s back to back weeks where we’ve had a result in the Octagon that really defies my expectations. Last time around it was Grant Dawson successfully backpacking Damir Ismagulov for 15 minutes. This time it’s Dricus du Plessis clubbing Robert Whittaker with wild blitzes in a way that Yoel Romero, Jared Cannonier, Kelving Gastelum, Jacare Souza and numerous others couldn’t manage to do.
Whittaker looked like the cleaner, more technical fighter in almost every exchange, but du Plessis threw himself into the fray time and again and it paid off with a crushing hook that put Whittaker on skates and led to the TKO. A shocking upset result for Du Plessis against one of the very best middleweight fighters of all time…
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