It’s an off week for the UFC, meaning it’s a great time to evaluate where the UFC is. There are a couple of loaded PPV’s to close out the rest of the year as well as a scattershot in terms of the quality of the Fight Night cards. Not much has been set for the new year of 2024. What was set took a hit when Alexander Volkanovski dropped out of his scheduled title defense against Ilia Topuria to rescue UFC 294, although Volk still claims it’s happening anyway. Even if the contest proceeds as Volk says, there’s still a lot of wide open space to fill.
My regular readers know I’ve done this before, but I’m changing up the format. Rather than do a fight per division, I’m opting to just highlight the most standout fights in my mind. I’ve had to stretch myself for some fights in particular divisions and I’d rather not do that. Thus, I’ve come up with some fights – in no particular order – that fight fans would have a hard time saying no to. In fact, I think they’d highly approve.
Not that Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby need any help, not in coming up with creative fights. Admittedly, I acknowledge there’s more to matchmaking than just saying so-and-so should fight so-and-so. There’s managers, potential contract negotiations, and just plain ego among other things. I tried to keep those things in mind as I made these.
Also, I’m trying to avoid making fights that have already been hinted at – Zhang Weili and Yan Xiaonan for one – which also eliminates the most obvious and typically best fights.
UFC Fights to Make
Gilbert Burns vs. Geoff Neal
While I wouldn’t say this is quite enough to be a UFC PPV co-main, it’s sure as hell is worthy of headlining a Fight Night. It’s highly appropriate too given both have developed reputation as not just willing sluggers, but powerful sluggers. Neal is bigger and younger, but Burns has the superior ground game by a wide mile. Of course, getting Neal to the mat has proven a hell of a chore, making it a difficult contest to predict. Regardless, it’s hard to believe this contest wouldn’t be a favorite for FOTN on any card.
However, the stakes on this contest are higher than it would appear at first glance. With Khamzat Chimaev officially and Kamaru Usman apparently leaving the division, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility the winner of this contest would only require one more victory before fighting for the title. After all, neither have managed to cross paths with either Leon Edwards or Colby Covington yet – one of whom will begin the new year as the UFC welterweight champion – meaning it would be a fresh contest. With both coming off losses in the first half of 2023, it’s only that much more logical to pit them together.
Petr Yan vs. Dominick Cruz
At first glance, this may seem to be lopsided, despite the prominent name value of both. It wasn’t that long ago Yan had gold strapped around his waist – it was just two years ago he claimed the UFC interim title – while we’re closing in on seven years since Cruz was last UFC champion. Plus, there’s an eight-year age gap between the two, Cruz at the advantage – or should I say disadvantage – clocking in at 38. But I assure you there is a method to my madness.
Yan is coming off three consecutive losses. Granted, it’s likely the three best fighters in the division and he arguably won two of those fights. Nevertheless, it is three losses in a row and it isn’t fair to consider him part of the title picture for now. Cruz is unlikely to continue fighting unless the title is a realistic possibility and I don’t see him willing to fight down the rankings. Despite the losing streak, Yan is ahead of Cruz in the rankings. Whoever loses is likely to end up permanently out of the title picture. I get Cruz would be a huge underdog, but we all know he doesn’t mind that role.
Brandon Moreno vs. Amir Albazi
It’s clear the UFC didn’t particularly enjoy the aesthetics of Albazi’s victory over Kai Kara-France early in the summer. Otherwise, he’d be fighting for the flyweight title as opposed to someone Alexandre Pantoja turned away just over two years ago in Brandon Royval. Some might argue it was more the controversial nature of his victory, but controversy hasn’t scared the UFC away from sticking someone into a title fight. Aesthetics sure has. There’s a reason Jon Fitch never got his rematch with GSP. Against Moreno, Albazi would have as good of a shot as any to prove he can put on an entertaining fight with a high-level opponent.
Given Albazi’s grinding nature, the UFC might prefer Moreno to win, even though he’s relegated to a similar role as Max Holloway as the division’s premier gatekeeper. However, that would be a tall order for the former two-time champion. Moreno lost the wrestling and control game both times he dropped the belt… which is exactly what Albazi is great at. Regardless, while a win wouldn’t guarantee Moreno a title shot – that would depend on what happens with Pantoja and Brandon Royval – a win would almost certainly cinch one for Albazi.
Rose Namajunas vs. Viviane Araujo
Namajunas is a bit of a forgotten fighter. While I understand it wasn’t that long ago she fought Manon Fiorot, it was a snoozer that has already passed from the memory of most. Don’t get me wrong, it was better than the egg she laid against Carla Esparza, but we’ll soon be at the two-year mark since Namajunas last won a fight. Namajunas may object, but her performance against Fiorot showed her size presently is a factor in her new division. So rather than exacerbate the issue by pitting her against someone like Katlyn Chookagian, how about letting her ease into a beefier frame against another former strawweight?
I get that Araujo hasn’t fought at 115 since before her UFC stint, but she’s a reasonable test for Namajunas. Plus, if Araujo’s slim title hopes are to continue, she’ll need a win over a big name very soon. Namajunas would provide the perfect opportunity for the deceptively aged member of the division. Namajunas and Araujo provide each other with what they need to gain traction. Pairing them may not be a blockbuster, but it would likely be a competitive PPV opener with real stakes.
L’udovit Klein vs. Mike Davis
I can’t just talk about fights between fighters with major name recognition and the highest of stakes. I’ve got to throw in something simply for aesthetic pleasure. Throw in that these two former featherweights are in a similar standing – not to mention both owning wins over Mason Jones – and it’s hard not see how this fight doesn’t make perfect sense. Besides, the UFC doesn’t mind throwing a bone to their hardcore fans every now and then. At least they’re willing to with fights of this level…
The clash in styles is just enough to make the final outcome a major curiosity. Davis typically fights like a mad man, lobbing bombs at a frenetic pace. Klein is more of a sniper, but he’s better equipped to throw together volume if needed now that he’s no longer cutting to 145. Plus, while Davis proved the last time we saw him that he can go to the wrestling if needed, Klein’s bowling ball frame isn’t easy to drag down. I very much like the possibilities of bonuses should these two clash.
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Gunnar Nelson
Dos Anjos and Nelson both have more name value than Klein and Davis, but I’m of the opinion the stakes would be lower in this fight given dos Anjos and Nelson are what they are. After all, both have been on the UFC roster for over a decade. Nevertheless, they still seem like they have something left in the tank and have reputations as excellent mat practitioners. Given everyone’s anticipation would be over who is the superior grappler, I’m sure we’d end up getting a standup battle. Then again, since both are more than competent striking, I’d be perfectly fine with that.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised we haven’t seen this fight before. Then again, Nelson has had several extended absences while dos Anjos has vacillated between 155 and 170. Regardless, rather than constantly looking to use the old dogs as stepping stones, how about the occasional pairing? I wouldn’t qualify it as a UFC Fight Night main event at this stage, but it could serve as a magnificent co-main.
Curtis Blaydes vs. Serghei Spivac
Jon Jones’ injury has put the division in flux. He’ll be out at least eight months and Stipe Miocic doesn’t seem willing to fight anyone other than Jones. Thus, while UFC 295 will crown an interim champion – either Sergei Pavlovich or Tom Aspinall — I don’t see the winner fighting Jones next. In that case, the UFC would do well to create a bit of a slow crawl to figure out title contenders outside of Jones, Miocic, Pavlovich, and Aspinall. Things are already in place for that with Jailton Almeida set to face Derrick Lewis next week. Blaydes vs. Spivac – both coming off main event losses — is a logical next step.
In my ideal world, the winner of Almeida-Lewis and Blaydes-Spivac don’t face one another. No, we allow those fights to sort themselves out and figure out who to pair them with between Ciryl Gane and Alexander Volkov, who would have something of a bye. Then the winner of those contests square off, a process which could take over a year. The good thing is, that length of time might be enough for the triangle of Jones, Miocic, and the future UFC interim champion to sort itself out. I get that long-term planning is difficult in combat sports, but I maintain it’s better to at least start with a plan and improvise only as needed.
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