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Hot Tweets: Tony Ferguson and the UFC’s convoluted lightweight title picture

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Tony Ferguson Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Hello friends! As 2020 is winding down, things in the MMA world don’t seem to have noticed. Fights are still getting booked, canceled, and switched around at an alarming rate and there are still two more events left in the most tumultuous year in MMA history, including one taking place tonight, with a main event featuring two guys who fought just three weeks ago! It’s wild times so let’s get down to business.


Tony Ferguson vs. Charles Oliveira

In a Disney movie, this is what would happen. Tony Ferguson would roll in there tonight, be the B-version of himself, and then call out Khabib to give the fans the fight everyone has always wanted. It would set Khabib up to hit that 30-0 number against his biggest rival, a win that probably would in fact cement him as an undeniable GOAT candidate, while simultaneously giving Tony a chance to finally claim the true gold that has eluded him despite his absurdly great run through the division. It’s storybook stuff. Unfortunately, the only fairy tales in MMA are the belts themselves, and I don’t see this one happening.

While taking fighters at their word about retirement is a mug’s game in MMA, the circumstances in this instance paint a pretty clear picture. Khabib’s retirement was not one made spur of the moment or out of an excess of emotion. He very obviously knew exactly what he was doing. Honestly, given what we saw at UFC 254, it’s more surprising that he fought in the first place than it is that he is hanging the gloves up. Clearly, fighting without his father was not an easy task for him but, it seems like felt he owed the UFC, Gaethje, and everyone one more title defense because that’s what he said he was going to do. So he dug down and did it and now that’s over. The notion that he will do so again is based in hope rather than reason.

I’m not saying Khabib won’t come back. In a few years, I wouldn’t be shocked if he feels the urge to, once he’s been able to process his grief more completely. He’s going to continue being around the sport, training fighters, working with the UFC, promoting, etc. And he will inevitably get asked every single time about a return. Eventually, he probably will. But he’s not going to fight again next year just because Tony really wants that fight. When the hell has Khabib ever done something because an opponent wanted him to?

And so that leaves Tony in an unenviable spot in the lightweight division. Even if he beats Oliveira tonight, he’s far from guaranteed a shot at the title next. Which leads us to . . .


The lightweight title picture

It’s a right cluster and make no mistake about that.

I have been working under the assumption that whenever Dana says something, the opposite is usually true (it’s been a really solid way to go through your MMA life, I recommend trying it) and thus I continue to believe that UFC 257’s main event between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier will in fact be for either the vacant belt or an interim title. Given the rankings, Gaethje would absolutely deserve a crack at the winner of that, however, right now it seems like Gaethje is tracking towards facing Michael Chandler. Either way, that’s not good news for Ferguson as the winner of Gaethje-Chandler would almost certainly be in line to face the Dustin-Conor winner.

That leaves Tony Ferguson, regardless of what happens tonight, as the odd man out in the division, which sucks for El Cucuy. The man has done more than anyone else in the history of the sport to earn a title shot and fate has denied him the chance. Tony’s best shot is probably to win tonight and then call out Gaethje for a rematch, taking the wind out of Chandler’s sails and putting himself back into a “win and in” scenario. Otherwise, Tony is looking at probably fighting Dan Hooker or Paul Felder or something (or my personal favorite, a battle of the angel wings with Max Holloway) and waiting for another door to open for him.

As for Oliveira, he’s in a similar situation to Tony. Unfortunately, going on a massive win streak of finishes doesn’t mean as much in the lightweight division as it would in literally any other division because lightweight is a friggin’ shark tank. A win over Ferguson will be the biggest of Oliveira’s career and kick him up a couple notches, but in the end all it would really do is set him up for a fight with Dan Hooker or Rafael dos Anjos, to maybe get a title shot, but more likely to earn a title eliminator.

Lightweight, man. It’s ridiculous.


Anthony Johnson signs with Bellator

Well, in a just world they would let him walk because of his troubling history with domestic abuse. However, considering the UFC still employees Greg Hardy to limited benefit, we can safely assume that has nothing to do with their decision. Instead, Rumble found himself, like many others recently, on the wrong end of the UFC’s numbers game.

Dana White was open when he said the UFC was planning to make some significant cuts to trim its roster down, including parting ways with a number of big names and we’ve seen them hold true to that. Yoel Romero is one of the three best middleweights in the world currently and they cut him with fights still left on his deal, and there is really only one explanation for this: the Contender Series.

Though 2020 has been bad for most business, and has assuredly been negative for the UFC overall, I would guess it has also made clear a very important fact for them: the difference between mid-level “name” fighters and no-namers is negligible for their brand. The core audience for UFC cards is going to remain remarkably consistent no matter who fills out the cards, so long as the headliners are good. Thus, the UFC only really needs to retain its top drawing talent and the potential budding talent to keep their profit machine churning. Obviously, huge stars will draw more eyeballs, but Yoel Romero isn’t adding a substantial amount of value to the organization over the expected baseline their own brand provides.

Basically, for as much as Dana likes to rag on boxing’s model, he’s now figured out that their card setup is really optimal for consolidating money. Two top draws at the top, fill out the rest with cannon fodder from your cheap talent pipeline, and reserve your mid-level paycheck spots for people who might develop into the first category. It is highly efficient, and sucks for fans, as well as fighters because it’s going to decrease what little bargaining power they had in the first place. Such is the world of union busting.


Rumble in Bellator

No need to waste any time with Rumble. The man can compete at both light heavyweight and heavyweight and is sure to get fast-tracked to a title shot. I know Corey Anderson is lined up to challenge Vadim Nemkov next so you can go ahead and run back either Rumble vs. Phil Davis or even Rumble vs. Ryan Bader. However, if Bellator would like to reintroduce Rumble to the world, and see if he can actually still fight, maybe they go with Linton Vassell instead. Really though, there’s no wrong way to eat this Reese’s.


Hypothetical

No. Hell no. I’m a B.J. mark and the answer is incredibly obvious.

Did you see Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn 2? Imagine that only instead of holding B.J. against the fence and then staying in his guard and wearing him down, it’s Khabib f*cking Nurmagomedov in that position. B.J. would have a bad time.


The future

The answer has to be Sean O’Malley, right? I’ll be frank, I’ve never understood O’Malley’s appeal - perhaps I’m too old to get it - but the man undeniably resonates with people, and he happens to be a really good fighter. Is he perfect? Not at all. No one is. But he’s young and talented and hungry and people already like him. If he gets a few lucky breaks and continues to improve, the kid has a world of potential star power just waiting and the UFC is already inclined to shove whatever promotional heft they have behind him, if only he can make it worth the while.

Beyond O’Malley, you’re really gonna have to reach. A.J. McKee is my choice for the best prospect in the sport and also has legit star potential but he lives in Bellator and that’s basically a Governor for mainstream mobility. Edmen Shahbazyan maybe? (I’m drawing the prospect line at 25 years old by the way). He’s super young and fights in a division with some decent names to draft off of. The only other person that jumps out to me is Khamzat Chimaev, if you want to relax “prospect” to be like, less than 10 fights instead of age related. He has a chance to be a Khabib-style star should he keep winning and get a marquee rivalry to boost his profile enough.


Rizin

My thoughts on Rizin are the same as they have ever been: a good time that will mostly fly by without grabbing huge attention.

You’re right, the New Year’s Eve card this year is very good on paper and the main event especially is worth going out of your way to watch. The rest of the card is mostly well-matched and fun and it will probably be kind of fun to watch an event with actual fans at it again, but it’s also hard to get too pumped about it because I’ll almost assuredly be watching after the fact, given the time zones.

Also, and this isn’t just a Rizin thing but I don’t know where eight-hour long fight cards became the norm for MMA, but I really wish we’d stop that. There has never been a day of my life that I’ve NEEDED to watch 14 fights in one day and when you add an intermission it feels like a lifetime. 8-10 fights is more than enough for anyone and I wish we could make that the standard.


Deiveson Figueiredo’s ground game

In short, no and no.

The fact that Formiga had success on the floor against Figgy Smalls isn’t an indication that the champ is weak there, it’s just a reminder that Formiga is really, really damn good at grappling. I also don’t think it counts as exposing anything when anyone who has watched Figueiredo fight for more than a minute would recognize that standing up with him is probably not in your best interest.

Also, I don’t think the UFC cutting Formiga was some Machiavellian plot to prop up their new, exciting champion. I think Formiga was the victim of the same numbers game Anthony Johnson and Yoel Romero were, except he was even easier to let go of because the hates flyweights.

But back to Figgy Smalls. Deiveson Figueiredo is not a bad grappler. Alex Perez is a decent grappler and Figueiredo tapped him in short order. Same for Tim Elliott. That being said, I don’t think he’s as good of a grappler as Brandon Moreno and thus tonight’s main event intrigues the hell out of me. Moreno is a durable guy and can probably survive on the feet with the champion but I’m not sure how successful he can be with his wrestling. If he can though, Moreno’s scrambling ability is really dangerous and I’ll be fascinated to see what he can do with it. This fight should be a banger and I’m excited to see it.


Thanks for reading this week, especially those of you who sent in Tweets!

Do you have any burning questions about stuff at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. We make no judgements here. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.