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Tonight begins the next phase of the UFC’s post-Rousey women’s bantamweight division

Tonight’s fight between Julianna Peña and Valentina Shevchenko is meaningful in that it’ll be the first big one in the post-Rousey women’s bantamweight world. It’s true that Ronda Rousey wasn’t a significant player in 2016, at least not in an active sense, but she kept both champion and contender at the end of her paintbrush throughout, like an artist frowning over the images that she created.

Even in her absence, Rousey filled in the color to the most vivid scenarios.

Amanda Nunes became the terminus to all of that imagination at UFC 207. The once mighty thought of a Cyborg Justino-Rousey fight will live on as a small regret, at least for the UFC, which stood to make millions. Now if there’s a superfight in the women’s ranks it’s between the two women that took down the queen: Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes. Nunes wants to challenge Holm for the featherweight title next, and that could happen if Holm beats Germaine de Randamie in a couple of weeks in Brooklyn.

Nevermind that the women’s featherweight division is really just an outpost for stragglers to try their luck. A Holm-Nunes champion-versus-champion bout would look slick on the surface, if only because both did away with Rousey and, you know, what better to throw up for grabs than the extended bragging rights to that accomplishment? There is so much magic potion floating around these days it’s hard to project anything beyond each punch, much less distinguish between what’s real and what’s a smoke screen.

Anyway, all those fussy words just to say this: What the hell does UFC on FOX 23’s main event between Peña and Shevchenko even mean? Is a title shot even on the line? Of late it’s impossible to know what direction the UFC will go in for contender bouts. The WME-IMG version of the UFC enters 2017 treating complicated things with mighty shrugs of the shoulder, such as handing out interim titles like so much SWAG. Just like at UFC 206 in Toronto when Max Holloway was fighting for the interim title and (overweight) Anthony Pettis was not, this particular title plot feels conditional. But…how?

Let’s take a look at this:

– If Shevchenko defeats Peña, as the odds makers believe she will, that would presumably set up Shevchenko-Nunes II.

We just saw that fight at UFC 196, with Nunes prevailing via unanimous decision. Nobody has exactly been pining for that rematch.

In that scenario, who could fault the UFC for making Nunes-Holm? And if that becomes the case, the possibility of an interim bantamweight title then becomes a thing, and suddenly this is what the UFC looks like in 2017.

(All of this only happens of course if Holm actually wins at UFC 208. If de Randamie defeats Holm, it’s hard to imagine a Nunes-de Randamie champ-vs-champ fight being crammed into any kind of “historical” perspective).

– If Peña defeats Shevchenko, you get the feeling Dana White’s little “crazy train” is going to become apoplectic if she’s snubbed her title shot.

As in, Khabib Nurmagomedov times Frankie Edgar times Jose Aldo mad. There’s a diabolical part of me that wants to see that, but at the same time, with five wins in a row Peña will have more than earned her shot against Nunes. Her gripe would be legit. It only helps Peña’s cause that she’ll be accomplishing this hypothetical feat on big FOX in front of so many eyes.

In that scenario, people can (and will) fault the UFC for making Nunes-Holm (if Holm wins).

Then again, if Shevchenko wins, and Holm goes on to become the first UFC woman to have held titles in two different weight classes, there’s a dark horse in play: The Shevchenko-Holm rematch. This time for a title in a weight class Shevchenko would have to aspire towards. Not sure where that would end Nunes up, but in today’s UFC even the most outlandish things have no trouble finding their twists. If the UFC wants Nunes to defend her bantamweight belt, but finds the idea of Shevchenko-Nunes II stillborn, this scenario suddenly becomes workable.

In conclusion, I have no freaking idea what the hell is at stake in Denver tonight! In the post-Rousey world, there are no landlords. There’s no transcendent figure that can change everything with a phone call. The newly formed featherweight “division” and the bantamweight division will carry plenty of overlap, open to drifting and moonlighting and stabs at flimsy history. If it isn’t, featherweight can’t exist. If there’s a flyweight division in the near future, god help us.

There’s no artist with a brush anymore. This is what the post-Rousey world of women’s MMA looks like, at least for now. All the painted figures are left to battle it out, starting with Peña and Shevchenko, while de Randamie and Holm and Nunes belong to a bold new tomorrow.

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