Saturday’s UFC main event was predictable in that undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov won. What happened after that was not.
Nurmagomedov (29-0) announced his official retirement from mixed martial arts following the death of his father, Abdulmanap, in July. He revealed that his mother did not want him to compete at UFC 254, but he promised her it would be the final bout of his career.
The Dagestani legend retires as arguably the greatest fighter of all time. He departs a lightweight division that is now full of uncertainty. UFC president Dana White admitted that he does not know what he’ll do in the aftermath of Nurmagomedov’s retirement. There is a massive fight between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier tentatively scheduled for January, but it’s not official. Will there be a title on the line in that bout, or will Justin Gaethje get his chance against the winner?
Robert Whittaker also made his case to be next up for Israel Adesanya with a strong performance over Jared Cannonier, but will he get the rematch he believes he should? Will he be jumped by another surging middleweight, or will he take another fight in the interim?
Brett Okamoto plays matchmaker after UFC 254 and lays out the course for the lightweight title and other standouts from Fight Island.
Justin Gaethje, lightweight (lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov by second-round submission)
Who’s next: Winner of Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23
Assuming the McGregor-Poirier rematch goes ahead on Jan. 23, Gaethje fighting the winner makes a ton of sense to me. He has history with both. After Gaethje beat Tony Ferguson in May to capture the interim title, McGregor came out publicly, saying that he wanted to fight him. Gaethje wasn’t interested, as he was to fight Nurmagomedov — and Nurmagomedov only. Well, now would seem a perfect time to book that fight. If Poirier wins, a second fight between Gaethje and Poirier would be fantastic, as their first meeting in 2018, which Poirier won via TKO, was spectacular.
Wild card: Nate Diaz
Look, I have no idea if Diaz is interested in this fight. He hasn’t shown much interest in Gaethje … though he did tweet a little trash talk in his direction the second Saturday’s fight ended. Would this not be an incredible matchup? Given that it appears, for now, that Diaz will not get the Jorge Masvidal rematch he wanted, what’s a big fight out there for him? He has been hinting at a fight against Dan Hooker, but with all due respect to Hooker, isn’t Diaz vs. Gaethje a much bigger fight? I’ll answer that. Yes, it’s massive. Look into this one, UFC.
Robert Whittaker, middleweight (defeated Jared Cannonier by unanimous decision)
Who’s next: Israel Adesanya
Prior to his recent title defense against Paulo Costa, Adesanya was singing Cannonier’s praises and even predicted that he would “destroy” Whittaker in this fight. Well, Whittaker proved that prediction wrong, and now he should get a chance to make Adesanya eat his words even further.
Yes, these two just fought in 2019, and Adesanya won. He knocked Whittaker out inside two rounds, and it’s quite possible that the rematch would go the same way. But consider the following:
A) That loss almost doesn’t matter. Whittaker is clearly the No. 1 contender. Even if he falls to Adesanya again, he has earned the right to a second shot. That’s how sports work.
B) Whittaker said he was burned out from MMA ahead of the first fight against Adesanya. Again, that might mean nothing in terms of the rematch, but I believe Whittaker is telling the truth.
C) Whittaker is an intelligent fighter, and lest we forget, he has won 11 of his past 12 fights. He’s still one of the best fighters in the world!
This is a rematch I very much want to see.
Wild card: Paulo Costa
I don’t see this happening, and I don’t particularly think it should happen, but if Adesanya defends his title against someone else before Whittaker — well, what does that mean for Whittaker? Is he going to wait? That’s potentially a very long time to wait.
In that scenario, would he take a fight against Costa to further prove that he’s the rightful No. 1 contender? Say it were to play out that way. I mean, no one could deny Whittaker a title shot if he were to go out and beat Costa on the heels of beating Darren Till and Jared Cannonier.
Jared Cannonier, middleweight (lost to Robert Whittaker by unanimous decision)
Who’s next: Kelvin Gastelum
I really love the idea of this fight. I must admit, I haven’t really thought about this matchup before now because there was never an obvious time for it. But this is the fight right here. Stylistically, this is a barn burner: two very quick, explosive guys on the feet with well-rounded games. Gastelum was very nearly an interim champion 18 months ago. I know he’s on a three-fight skid, but he’s capable of competing with the best on any given night. And Cannonier is still a contender. One loss to a former champ in Whittaker doesn’t change that. Yes, put me down for this one.
Wild card: Uriah Hall
If Hall beats Anderson Silva at UFC Fight Night on Oct. 31 in Las Vegas, his stock will be on the rise. As I always point out, the UFC doesn’t typically like pairing a fighter coming off a loss with one coming off a win — and I get that — but I also think it’s not a necessary rule to follow all the time, and this matchup would make sense despite that. This is also a very fun stylistic matchup, though most of the fights at middleweight right now are.
There are a lot of entertaining middleweights at the moment, and these are definitely two of them. If Hall wins on Halloween, there’s a strong case for him getting Cannonier next.
Magomed Ankalaev, light heavyweight (defeated Ion Cuțelaba by first-round KO)
Who’s next: Johnny Walker
Ankalaev is good. Really good. That first fight against Ion Cutelaba, the one that didn’t last a minute and ended in controversy, we couldn’t take much from it because it was basically 38 seconds of chaos. But in this second fight, we got a great look at how fantastic of a counterstriker Ankalaev is. He believes in his speed and his ability to see punches, which results in very, very confident counters. He’s probably one of the fastest guys in this division. Similarly, Walker is considered one of the better athletes at 205 pounds. I’d be very intrigued by this matchup, and even though Walker is 1-2 in his past three, this makes sense from a rankings perspective.
Wild card: Jiri Prochazka
Prochazka is just 1-0 in the UFC, but I’m hearing whispers about them having a hard time finding him an opponent. He’s unorthodox on the feet, and it would be fascinating to see Ankalaev try to counter that unpredictability. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Prochazka booked against more of a household name than Ankalaev, something that might help turn him into an attractive title challenger, but if that’s an option, I could see the UFC going this route. It’d be a great clash of styles.
Lauren Murphy, flyweight (defeated Liliya Shakirova by second-round rear-naked choke)
Who’s next: Cynthia Calvillo
Great result for Murphy, as she notched the first submission win of her career. She handled the late change in opponent beautifully and gave a great postfight interview in which she said her next fight would be for the title. I respect the call for a title shot, but I don’t think it’s realistic.
Valentina Shevchenko has Jennifer Maia lined up in November, and I think Jessica Andrade will be (and should be) after that. In the meantime? Go back to the original fight, the one that always made sense. Murphy was supposed to fight Calvillo at UFC 254, but Calvillo was pulled because of a positive COVID-19 test. Murphy is in shape and prepared for Calvillo. It appeared that she took no damage in this fight.
Book that matchup again — before the end of the year. If she wins that, I think she’ll get her title shot.
Wild card: Jessica Andrade
Conceivably, Andrade could be next for Murphy. If Andrade’s next fight isn’t for a title, there are only a couple of options that would make sense for her, and Murphy is one of them. I think this would only happen if Andrade is bullish on fighting soon. She’s already, very clearly, the most attractive option for a title shot after Maia in November. There’s no need to book her another non-title fight.
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