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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 231

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Saturday, Max Holloway silenced every doubter who believed something had gone wrong with him this year that would negatively impact his fighting career, as well as those who feared he wouldn’t make weight.

Instead, after his incredible performance of speed, stamina and accuracy with clear top contender Brian Ortega, Holloway, after just two title defenses, was being talked of as perhaps the greatest featherweight of all-time.

On one hand, it’s hard to argue with what happened Saturday. But Jose Aldo had a career of fights like that and a much longer run as champion. Still, Holloway clearly beat Aldo twice and while Aldo had slipped from a few years earlier, he was only 30 when Holloway beat him to take title.

And then, Dana White came forward and suggested that Holloway move to lightweight.

The first reaction is, why? But upon more thought, from a promoter’s standpoint, White’s point makes sense. There are far more marquee matches and options on matchmaking Holloway in the loaded lightweight division than at featherweight.

Champion vs. champion fights that were seemingly almost impossible to put together for years, are now happening frequently. In the last few months we’ve had Daniel Cormier move up and win the heavyweight title from Stipe Miocic. Amanda Nunes is moving up in three weeks to face Cris Cyborg at featherweight. TJ Dillashaw is moving down next month to face Henry Cejudo at flyweight.

There are positives and negatives in these moves. We’ve reached an era with so many championships that a title fight in and of itself is no longer of great interest to the public. But matching two champions does have its luster. Cormier vs. Miocic told a great story. Nunes, at least on paper, should be Cyborg’s toughest career fight. And Dillashaw vs. Cejudo should be a high quality fight.

The negative is these fights hold up two divisions at the same time. With Cormier vs. Miocic it wasn’t too bad, as at the time, neither champion had that compelling of a challenger available at the time. Cyborg vs. Nunes also makes sense for the same reason and also because it’s the most intriguing women’s fight the company can make right now. While it won’t do record box office for women, one could argue it is the biggest match from a competitive standpoint in the history of women’s MMA. Cyborg has no contenders, and while Nunes has a few, none have beaten down the door to the point they can’t wait.

Holloway, after dispatching Brian Ortega and having beaten Jose Aldo twice, has no contenders at featherweight ready. Frankie Edgar, the most logical contender, is a legend in the sport, but he’s older and lost handily to Ortega.

But the lightweight division is a different story. It’s loaded with contenders and stars. For champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson is long past due for a title fight. Dustin Poirier also deserves one. Kevin Lee, provided he beats Al Iaquinta on Saturday, also does. And whether he does or not, Conor McGregor has to always be in the conversation simply because nobody can make a title match as big. And that isn’t counting the return to the division of Donald Cerrone.

It’s not the right time for Holloway vs. Nurmagomedov, but it’s certainly a huge fight that could be made later next year. If the idea is McGregor vs. Holloway, obviously that’s a fight he can’t turn down.

Whether Holloway is to move now or later, because of depth, he’ll have more big fights at lightweight than staying at featherweight.

But if the goal is to be regarded as the greatest featherweight of all-time, he needs a few wins. If there is a goal regarding records, such as Anderson Silva streak of 16 wins in a row, Holloway, tied for second at 13, is better off not giving up size to perhaps do bigger fights. His name will be bigger as a dominant champion than just a guy in the mix a weight division up.

Moving up for the sake of moving up doesn’t make sense. Moving up for a fight with someone like Dustin Poirier is not as big as a title fight with Edgar. Moving up for a title fight with Nurmagomedov, or Ferguson, once those two meet, is a fight that would be much bigger than anything he could do at featherweight. For UFC to give Holloway the lightweight title fight right now is a slap in the face of Ferguson, and not an appreciable difference in box office.

But ultimately, Holloway could run out of viable contenders at 145. Right now there is only Edgar, Renato Moicano and the winner of the Dec. 29 Chad Mendes vs Alexander Volkanovsky fight. If he’s able to be completive at 155, he’ll never run out of opponents.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of UFC 231.

MAX HOLLOWAY - Holloway (20-3) put himself in all-time great company with his 13th win in a row. He’s behind only Silva, and tied for second with Demetrious Johnson, Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre.

The optimum, and least likely best thing for Holloway would be to defend against McGregor (21-4). McGregor is the last person to beat Holloway, more than five years ago when Holloway was only 21. McGregor fought most of his career at featherweight, and if chasing a title is McGregor’s goal, there is a story that he should be able to walk into to get this shot. But the odds are great McGregor would be looking at someone other than Holloway if and when he fights again.

At featherweight, Edgar (23-6-1) is the obvious name. Edgar, after losing to Ortega, came back quickly to beat Cub Swanson. However, Moicano (13-1-1) beat Swanson even quicker, but Moicano isn’t the name Edgar is. If the Mendes vs. Volkanovsky fight ends with one fighter blowing out the other, that winner could take the lead, but no matter what, still wouldn’t have the name value in the spot as Edgar.

So unless he’s offered McGregor or a title fight, Holloway has enough to keep him busy at featherweight for now, until either of those options opens up.

VALENTINA SHEVCHENKO - Shevchenko (16-3) gave the flyweight division its first proven legitimate champion with her five-round win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk (15-3).

Given Shevchenko has beaten Holly Holm, and was competitive twice with Amanda Nunes one weight division up, she’s the lone proven championship-level fighter in the division.

Jessica Eye (14-6) beat Katlyn Chookagian (11-2) via split decision on the undercard on Saturday in Toronto. Eye has been begging for a title shot since debuting in the division and winning three in a row.

The other possible opponent looks to be Nicco Montano (4-2), the first champion, who was stripped of her title when she ended up hospitalized when cutting weight for a planned Sept. 8 fight with Shevchenko for the title.

Eye is the more proven of the two, but right now there is nobody in the division Shevchenko wouldn’t be heavily favored against, and her biggest fights may be at bantamweight.

JOANNE JEDRZEJCZYK - Jedrzejczyk has said she wants to move back down to strawweight if she can get a title shot, but that poses a problem.

Having lost twice to champion Rose Namajunas, it would be tough to book her any time soon against the current champion. It also makes no sense for her to cut off either Tatiana Suarez or Nina Ansaroff by taking them out of the title picture while not putting her back in it.

Past that, she already has wins over Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. And Jessica Andrade should get the next title shot at Namajunas. So that leaves Michelle Waterson (16-6).

THIAGO SANTOS - After winning one of the most exciting fights of 2018, Santos (20-6) should do a rematch with Anthony Smith (31-13). Santos beat Smith on Feb. 3, but Smith has since gone on a tear with win over Rashad Evans, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Volkan Oezdemir. A Santos vs. Smith winner could get a title shot at whoever ends up as the champion when the dust clears with Daniel Cormier likely stripped, and the Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson fight on Dec. 29.

Other potential opponents would be Jan Blachowicz (23-7) and Dominick Reyes (10-0).

NINA ANSAROFF - Ansaroff (10-5) scoring a win over perennial leading contender Claudia Gadelha (16-4) makes her fourth win in a row and puts her into the title mix.

The next fight for Ansaroff should be Tatiana Suarez (7-0). The winner of that fight should face the winner of the most logical next title fight with champion Rose Namajunas (8-3)_ against Jessica Andrade (19-6).

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