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On to the Next One: Matches to make after UFC 249

In the fast-paced world of MMA, there are dozens of questions surrounding any given event, but when the dust settles, there’s usually only one: What’s next?

Following the conclusion of every major card, MMA Fighting’s Mike Heck and Alexander K. Lee will look back at the results, read the tea leaves, stir the cauldron, and make suggestions for what should—or could—be next for that card’s notable names.

In this edition, we match-make for the stars of UFC 249, including Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson, and Dominick Cruz, with Mike focusing on what the UFC is likely to do and Alex offering some appetizing alternatives.

(Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo is excluded from this discussion, as he announced his retirement following his win over Cruz and will assuredly stick to it, as every fighter has in the past.)

Justin Gaethje

MH: Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0)

This is about as easy as it gets when it gets to matchmaking, right?

What Justin Gaethje did on Saturday night was about as impressive as you will ever see in a UFC title fight. “The Highlight” put on a showcase for nearly 24 minutes against one of the most durable and talented fighters in the history of the lightweight division.

Of course, there’s always the looming factor that is Conor McGregor, but I don’t think even the biggest star in the sport can sway this one. It’s a title unification bout or something is seriously wrong, which would need a much more in-depth conversation than this one should ever be.

AL: Conor McGregor (22-4)

Look, booking anything other than Gaethje vs. Nurmagomedov would be a travesty, but if for whatever reason that fight can’t happen soon, and Gaethje wants to stay busy, then give him McGregor.

It’s a fight that Gaethje has pursued in the past, before he knew an interim title bout was in the cards. Now that he’s the undisputed top contender at 155 pounds, he’s calling the shots and I doubt he’d say no if a McGregor fight was floated his way.

Gaethje deserves another massive fight next, no matter who it is, and there are plenty of fans out there who would love to see McGregor added to “The Highlight” reel.

Conor McGregor
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Tony Ferguson

MH: Nobody for a little while

Something tells me that Tony Ferguson’s biggest challenge coming out of UFC 249 will be Tony Ferguson himself. “El Cucuy” deserves a ton of credit. Not only did he withstand an ungodly amount of punishment until his body couldn’t take any more against Gaethje, but no one would have blamed him if he instead waited for that highly-anticipated title fight with his biggest rival in Khabib Nurmagomedov.

More importantly, nobody made more headlines over the last two months than Ferguson. As much as fans should pat Dana White and the UFC on the back for their role in bringing professional sports back in our lives, Ferguson deserves kudos as well.

For his overall efforts, the 36-year-old should be able to take as much time as he needs to figure out his next move. There’s no need to rush him into a fight with a McGregor, or a Dustin Poirier, or anybody until late 2020. With so much uncertainty in the world, and within the current landscape of the promotion, the loaded lightweight division should play itself out a little more. When it does, Ferguson will have a lot of interesting options.

AL: Dustin Poirier (25-6, 1 NC)

Here’s a potential battle of fan favorites that fans might actually hate to see given their appreciation for both fighters.

Much like the buildup to Ferguson’s fight with Gaethje, there would be little trash talk between “El Cucuy” and “The Diamond,” just the anticipation of another classic scrap for these men to add to their resumes. Ferguson is not the type to want to take a step back in the rankings so if he wants to stay firmly entrenched in that contender’s circle, then Poirier is exactly the kind of name he needs to be paired up with.

It may seem cruel to throw Ferguson into the cage with a heavy-hitter like Poirier after what we just witnessed, but he battled a litany of savages during his 12-fight win streak and there’s no reason for him to change course now.

Dominick Cruz

MH: Frankie Edgar (23-8-1)

After a nearly four-year layoff, Dominick Cruz returned for the toughest matchup possible in Henry Cejudo.

“The Dominator” proved he has some gas left in the tank following his extended time away, but it’s a completely different division than it was when he was defeated by Cody Garbrandt in December 2016. With Cejudo potentially out of the picture, Dana White said that “Petr Yan and “somebody” would fight for the vacant bantamweight title, likely either Aljamain Sterling, Cory Sandhagen, or his current scheduled opponent, Marlon Moraes.

I may just have “The Answer” for Cruz’s next opponent.

Frankie Edgar is looking for a big fight when he makes his debut at 135 pounds. While it seems that Cruz and Edgar’s best days may be behind them to the naked eye, nobody would complain about a battle between legends and former champions who are looking to bounce back from stoppage losses.

AL: Jose Aldo (28-6)

Cruz is likely hunting for marquee names at 135 pounds that he hasn’t already faced. Lucky for him, a big fish just swam into his pond.

It was Aldo who was supposed to challenge Cejudo for the bantamweight title before the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in the plans of every fighter not based in the United States. Cruz ended up getting the call and though he fell to Cejudo in the second round, there was plenty of evidence that The Dominator still has a lot to offer in the twilight of his career.

Aldo is a living legend and the thought of Cruz going up a division to challenge him during their respective championship reigns wasn’t a pipe dream. Now that Aldo has proven he can successfully hit the bantamweight mark, it’s closer to becoming a reality than ever.

Francis Ngannou

MH: Daniel Cormier (22-2, 1 NC)

The Francis Ngannou that surged his way to a heavyweight title shot upon his entry to the UFC was a scary man. Francis Ngannou 2.0 is flat out terrifying and that was on display for the 20 seconds he needed to knock out Jairzinho Rozenstruik.

This is simple, yet a little confusing. Ngannou’s next fight should be for a title. The question is, who will he fight? Stipe Miocic is the reigning heavyweight champion, but he’s also a firefighter during a global pandemic with nowhere to prepare himself for a title defense—at least from a legal perspective. With Miocic possibly out of action until late 2020, stripping him of the title would be blasphemous.

Daniel Cormier has stated he has one fight left, and as much as he would love to settle the score with Miocic once and for all, a potential fight with Ngannou has to get him excited. Count me in for “DC” vs. “The Predator” for interim gold.

Daniel Cormier
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

AL: Stipe Miocic (19-3)

No need to overthink this one. If it’s not an interim fight with Cormier, then Ngannou should get his shot at Miocic whenever the man who broke the Cleveland curse is ready to fight again.

Yes, Cormier is a fresh matchup, but there’s a sense of unfinished business between Ngannou and Miocic since they fought at UFC 220. The Predator could very well be the future of the heavyweight division and it would do wonders for his reputation if he could avenge that loss. We truly don’t know how much Ngannou has improved since his first title opportunity because he’s been trucking his opponents before the opening bell has even finished ringing, so a revenge win over Miocic would answer a lot of questions.

Either way, Ngannou’s next fight better be for a gold belt and a fat check.

Calvin Kattar

MH: Yair Rodriguez (13-2, 1 NC)

Let me just say that if I had $50,000 of supplemental income, I would give it to Calvin Kattar following his vicious standing elbow knockout win of Jeremy Stephens. Unfortunately for Kattar, he’ll have to settle for around 100 words.

“The Boston Finisher” didn’t just pick up a win, he sent a message to the top guys in an intriguing featherweight division. Kattar deserves a top-five opponent next and sitting in that No. 5 position is none other than Yair Rodriguez.

Coincidentally enough, Rodriguez’s most recent victory was also against Stephens. No need for a pencil with this one. Grab the mighty pen and book it.

AL: Chan Sung Jung (16-5)

You can add Kattar to the growing list of featherweights whose every fight is must-see TV. Knocking out Stephens is no small feat and just the fact that Kattar was willing to stand toe-to-toe with him indicates that he’s going to be a matchmaker’s dream for the next few years.

The same could be said of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. Were it not for the fact that Jung has been snakebitten with injuries his list of classic fights would be twice as long. Currently recovering from eye surgery, let’s hope the 33-year-old has better luck in the future and that we get to see him paired up with guys like Kattar, Brian Ortega, and Zabit Magomedsharipov.

Kattar is capable of throwing out some explosive combinations and TKZ specializes in walking through everything his opponent launches at him. Match ‘em up and let’s see if Kattar can find a way to put the Zombie down.

Anthony Pettis

MH: Al Iaquinta (14-6-1)

Like we discussed during the UFC 249 post-show, there’s a new Robbery Review in your future with the rematch between Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone. Despite how anybody at home scored it, Pettis moved to 2-0 against “Cowboy” after picking up a unanimous decision win.

So what’s next for Pettis? As he stated in his post-fight media scrum, “Showtime” would like to spend a little more time at 155-pounds before deciding on a permanent move to 170. As much as Pettis would like to get his wish and land a rematch with Tony Ferguson, it’s not happening.

Competing on the promotion’s return event under less than ideal conditions will look favorable to Dana White and the UFC brass. If we’re going to reward Pettis and give him a top-10 opponent, how about a fight with Al Iaquinta?

“Raging Al” has lost back-to-back fights, and three out of his past four. Having a guy like Pettis on his resume would have to, at least, intrigue the outspoken Iaquinta and we would get a fun matchup between two recognizable names in the lightweight rankings.

Al Iaquinta
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

AL: Vicente Luque (18-7-1)

I think it’s anyone’s guess where Pettis fights next as he’s bounced between two weight classes more frequently than any other fighter over the last couple of years.

Selfishly, I want him to stay at 170 because I think he’s a perfect matchup for Vicente Luque, who was also victorious in a rematch against Niko Price on Saturday. Luque is right on the cusp of greatness and while Stephen Thompson was a bridge too far for him at this point, “Showtime” is exactly who he should be testing himself against at this point in his career.

On the Pettis side of things, it would be uncharacteristic of him to take a fight with an up-and-comer like Luque, but he and his team have to respect what “The Silent Assassin” has done in his 14 UFC appearances so far and recognize that it would be a near-guaranteed Fight of the Night bonus, especially if they’re given a five-round main event to work with.

Aleksei Oleinik

MH: Jairzinho Rozenstruik (10-1)

Aleksei Oleinik was an over 2-1 underdog heading into his fight with Fabricio Werdum and, like he had done three times prior, he proved the oddsmakers wrong, picking up a split decision win over the former heavyweight champion.

“The Boa Constrictor” now has 59 wins in his 73 fight professional career and has no intention of slowing down. In fact, during his post-fight media scrum, Oleinik said he has “seven to 10 years” left in him. If we’re going to give Oleinik a step up in competition, Jairzinho Rozenstruik makes sense.

It was a tough night for “Bigi Boy” as he was knocked out by Francis Ngannou in just 20 seconds. Rozenstruik will likely plummet a couple of spots in the rankings and a matchup with Oleinik, although it has its share of danger, is one that he’d probably be favored to win.

AL: Derrick Lewis (23-7, 1 NC)

Let’s get weird!

The only thing fans could possibly hate more than a Derrick Lewis staring contest is a Derrick Lewis grappling exhibition, but a matchup with Oleinik would be intriguing. Oleinik proved against Werdum that he is not timid as he walked Werdum down while throwing hands with unbridled enthusiasm. It was almost a Russian homage to swangin’ and bangin’, with respect to Lewis’s innovative style.

This is a grappler vs. striker matchup with a twist. Oleinik is game on the feet and he’d put in a spirited effort there while also doing everything in his power to bring Lewis down to the mat. “The Black Beast” has only been submitted once in his career, so why not test that ground defense against Oleinik’s 1,001 holds?

Derrick Lewis
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Carla Esparza

MH: Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-4)

Carla Esparza has now found herself on the right end of back-to-back controversial split decisions following her victory over Michelle Waterson.

My initial thought was to lean towards Esparza’s post-fight callout of Claudia Gadelha, who picked up a highly debated split decision victory over “The Cookie Monster” at UFC 225. Gadelha is set to face the surging Angela Hill in Jacksonville on May 16. Everything lines up, right? Timing, controversy, storyline: it checks all the boxes.

I’ve changed my mind.

If we’re going to do a rematch, let’s run it back with the woman who defeated Esparza for the strawweight title over five years ago: Joanna Jedrzejczyk. At UFC 185, Jedrzejczyk didn’t just take Esparza’s title, she took her confidence as well following a brutal second-round TKO victory.

If timing is in fact everything, what better time to seek revenge for the most devastating loss of her career than facing Jedrzejczyk, coming off of the toughest, and most damaging loss of hers.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

AL: Yan Xiaonan (12-1)

I like the Jedrzejczyk rematch a lot too since Esparza has done enough to earn another crack at the woman who ended her strawweight title reign before it could even get started.

However, Esparza has also proven to be an excellent gatekeeper and there’s no shame in accepting that role for a promotion. She’s already stifled the likes of top prospects Alexa Grasso and Cynthia Calvillo, so it’s not as if she’s strictly enhancement talent. If you want to prove you deserve a top-5 spot, Esparza is one of the fighters you have to go through.

Yan Xiaonan is on an absolute tear and she made a mess of one-time UFC title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz in her previous outing. She appears to be locked into a future meeting with friend and countrywoman Zhang Weili, but Esparza could swoop in and take that opportunity for herself with an upset.

Vicente Luque

MH: Geoff Neal (13-2)

My immediate thought following Vicente Luque’s hard-fought win over the incredibly durable Niko Price is that a fight with Geoff Neal has to be next.

Neal is ranked one spot above Luque, and it would be the first time the surging “Handz of Steel” has faced a top-15 opponent. It doesn’t get more game than Luque. This one has fireworks and bonus money written all over it.

AL: Anthony Pettis (23-10)

See Pettis section above. I will add that for Luque, this matchup makes sense both from a resume-building standpoint and as a litmus test for where he truly stands as a contender. Is he just the best of the middle of the pack, destined to achieve nothing more than viral finishes and post-fight bonuses? Or does he have that extra championship gear? Was “Wonderboy” just the worst possible matchup for him?

Thompson has made many fighters look foolish and while a rematch between him and Luque probably isn’t in the cards, Luque can use MMA math to advance up the rankings by beating Pettis, the man who KO’d Thompson last year.

Bryce Mitchell

MH: Andre Fili (20-7)

Bryce Mitchell passed his litmus test against Charles Rosa with flying colors. It was an incredible night for “Thug Nasty” as he picked up a dominant decision and it sounds like he’s finally going to get his Reebok camo shorts.

I get it. When you see a performance like Mitchell’s at UFC 249, the natural inclination is to push him into top-15 matchups. I’m not saying that he’s not ready for that kind of step up in competition, there’s just no need to rush it.

Andre “Touchy” Fili from a stylistic, experience, and meritocracy perspective makes a lot of sense. Not only would you have a battle between two of the best nicknames in the sport, but Fili would provide the type of opposition for Mitchell that is needed. Should Mitchell get a win over a guy like Fili—who some believe did enough to beat fellow featherweight prospect Sodiq Yusuff at UFC 246—that would set him up for a top-15 opponent without question.

AL: Ryan Hall (8-1)

Full disclosure: Ryan Hall will be mentioned at least once per edition of On to the Next One, even if no one near his weight fought on the card in question. This is a rule going forward. Accept it.

I can’t be blamed this time though. Against Rosa, a legitimate jiu-jitsu black belt, Mitchell showed that he is a force to be reckoned with on the ground. His tenacity and technique are going to be a problem for anyone at 145 pounds who dares to roll with him... well, anyone except “The Wizard.”

Nobody, I mean NOBODY, wants to spend a single second with Hall on the mat lest they end up working against Hall in the 50-50 position—which in Hall’s case is more like the 100-0 position—and having their legs annihilated. That said, young Bryce Mitchell is probably crazy enough to give it a shot.

Two featherweight grapplers with unblemished UFC records going hold-for-hold for 15 minutes? Sign me up.

B.J. Penn and Ryan Hall
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Agree? Disagree? Leave your reactions and matchup suggestions in the comments below or reach out to us on Twitter at @MikeHeck_JR and @AlexanderKLee.

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