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.
Hot on the heels of UFC 249 — an event which was covered in the inaugural edition of On to the Next One — we had two more shows this week in Florida, UFC Jacksonville and UFC on ESPN 8. We saw contenders assert themselves and upstarts shake the apple cart, with no shortage of controversy.
So let’s sort through the detritus and figure out how to proceed as the UFC does its best to stabilize its schedule.
(One name you won’t find in this article is Walt Harris. The heavyweight contender made an emotional return to the cage on Saturday, and after suffering a tough loss to Alistair Overeem on top of the personal turmoil he’s experienced over the last six months, we’re just wishing him the best with whatever his next move is.)
MH: Dominick Reyes (12-1)
I’ll admit it: Glover Teixeira made me look bad. I knew the 40-year-old would make things interesting, but I believed Anthony Smith would live up to his “Lionheart” moniker and pick up a late finish. I was right about the former and I wish I wasn’t, honestly.
As much as we want to criticize referee Jason Herzog and Smith’s corner — which we have EVERY right to — it shouldn’t overshadow what Teixeira did on Wednesday night. And with that, he deserves a big fight. It seems like Dana White is leaning towards a fight between Jon Jones and Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight title, so let’s give Teixeira a fight with Dominick Reyes with the winner getting a shot at the strap.
AL: Volkan Oezdemir (17-4)
Full disclosure, as much as I like the Reyes suggestion, I’m going in another direction so as to keep a fight between Reyes and Thiago Santos alive (winner gets the Jon Jones rematch).
If Teixeira vs. Oezdemir sounds familiar, it’s because they were in talks to meet at a fight night a couple years back. And it also just feels like these two should already have crossed paths, doesn’t it? Two light heavyweight fight finishers on winning streaks, two contenders who it feels like the promotion is in no hurry to grant another title shot to. Let’s keep them busy while also giving one of them a chance to strengthen their case.
MH: Corey Anderson (13-5)
Anthony Smith is a warrior, plain and simple. As expected, “Lionheart” isn’t pointing fingers at anyone besides himself for the loss to Glover Teixeira.
With that being said, we may not see Smith back for a little while. Should he return sooner than most expect after suffering a variety of injuries in the fight with Teixeira, how about a fight with Corey Anderson? There’s a backstory with these two guys, and with both needing a win to stay in the title picture at 205, this would be the fight to make — as long as Smith isn’t rushed back too quickly.
AL: Like we said for Tony Ferguson last weekend, one thing we’d definitely like to see next is Smith get some well-deserved rest after taking a prolonged beating. However, he went into Wednesday’s fight coming off of an 11-month layoff already, so if he heals up quickly he could be eager to fight again soon.
Whenever he’s ready to roll, I’d also like to see him paired up with Anderson, another contender who had a disappointing performance in his previous outing. Anderson was making all the right moves to set himself up for a fight with Jon Jones, knocking off other contenders and feuding with Jones outside of the cage, only to falter against Jan Blachowicz.
Both Smith and Anderson should still be on the short list for a title shot and whoever wins a matchup between the two stays there.
MH: Fabricio Werdum (23-9-1)
Ben Rothwell picked up his second consecutive win, and 38th overall victory by outpointing Ovince Saint Preux on Wednesday. It was a fight that had a little bit of everything, including a post-fight callout by “Big Ben.”
Rothwell called for a scrap with fellow 50-plus fight veteran Aleksei Oleinik. While I like the callout, and wouldn’t be upset if that was the fight booked, I believe Oleinik deserves a top-10 fight after UFC 249. The consolation prize should be a fight with the man “The Boa Constrictor” defeated in Jacksonville.
Rothwell vs. Werdum. Book it!
AL: Marcin Tybura (18-6)
It’s difficult to figure out where Rothwell stands in the eyes of the matchmakers these days. Does he still have enough of a name to potentially sneak back into the top-10 and cause some chaos there, or is he strictly a gatekeeper and an oddity that can be thrown into the octagon with light heavyweights at the drop of a hat.
I’m splitting the difference. I agree that Oleinik should be allowed to step forward and not back, which is what he would be doing if he was booked against Rothwell at this point in their respective careers. So instead I’m going with an incredibly boring option in fellow veteran Marcin Tybura. In February, Tybura outpointed Sergey Spivak to get back in the win column and keep his spot in the middle of the UFC rankings. A matchup with Rothwell isn’t exactly sexy, but the heavyweight division rarely is these days.
MH: Diego Ferreira (17-2)
Maybe I’m biased, but my show What the Heck — which drops every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET on this here website — already took care of booking what should be next for Drew Dober.
Okay, the UFC matchmakers did that already when they booked this fight for May 2 at the postponed Oklahoma City event, but after Dober’s impressive performance against a tough out in Alexander Hernandez, he deserves a big fight. So how about we rebook Dober against the surging, No. 10-ranked Diego Ferreira. “CDF” wants it, Dober wants a step up in competition. Easy math.
AL: Dan Hooker (20-8)
Sure, we could go with a matchup that Ferreira wants and one that would make sense rankings-wise, but why not just go full fantasy booking here and go for the most fun fight possible. I’m talking Dober vs. Dan “The Hangman” Hooker.
Hooker is close to being an iron-clad title challenger, he just needs to extend his current winning streak a little further and score a definitive win after squeaking by Paul Felder in his most recent fight. Think of this matchup as him doing The MMA Gods a solid after they nudged the judges for him.
Dober can leapfrog several names with a win over Hooker, currently No. 5 in the UFC’s official rankings, and more importantly, this fight would be fun as heck (speaking of which, What the Heck, every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET on MMAFighting.com).
MH: Derrick Lewis (23-7, 1 NC)
No matter what Alistair Overeem says, he had to have felt a little different heading into the UFC on ESPN 8 main event with Walt Harris. There was a major, tragic storyline attached to it and Overeem took the spot like the pro and veteran that he is. He overcame adversity and he capitalized with a big win.
Now that he’s back in the win column, and just celebrated his 40th birthday, let’s set him up with a fun fight that the fans would be behind. Who better than “The Black Beast”, Derrick Lewis? I think this is, quite frankly, the only fight to make after capping off a chaotic week in Jacksonville.
AL: Not going to argue with this one either. It’s long overdue for “The Reem” to test his mettle against the swangin’ and bangin’ stylings of Lewis.
Yes, I just wrote that Lewis should be next for Aleksei Oleinik, but when you cram three events into one week, you’re going to end up with some screwy matchmaking scenarios and plenty of appealing options. If people would rather not see Lewis cussing up a storm in an empty arena as he tries to keep “The Boa Constrictor” off of him, then this more traditional pairing of strikers probably sounds more fun.
MH: Tatiana Suarez (8-0)
I’m throwing this name out with a big contingency. Claudia Gadelha earned a controversial split decision win over a game Angela Hill and with that, deserves a big fight. Sure, the easy fight to make is the rematch with Carla Esparza. Both want it, there’s bad blood, I get it.
I still think actual rematch to make for Esparza is one with Joanna Jedrzejczyk. If “Cookie Monster,” as she says, wants to get back to the title, a win over Jedrzejczyk would put her in a much better spot to do so.
For Gadelha, how about a fight with Tatiana Suarez? Here lies the aforementioned contingency: we don’t know how Suarez is healing up from her neck injury. Should she be ready to return in the next 3-6 months, then she’ll need to get a tough fight in before a title shot, which she is so close to getting. I’m fine with the Esparza fight, but if Suarez gets healthy in time, a matchup with Gadelha is one I want to see.
AL: Carla Esparza (16-6)
With Gadelha and Esparza both campaigning for this rematch and both having picked up split decision wins this week, I’m going chalk here.
Gadelha used some strong language at Saturday’s post-fight presser to remind everyone that she’s looking forward to a rematch with Esparza after taking a split nod over Esparza two years ago. The two have feuded since and that kind of rivalry should be cultivated, not ignored. They’ve also both shown growth since their first meeting, enough to make one think that a second fight between the two would play out differently. Gadelha in particular showed a newfound love for the standup game in the Hill fight, for better or worse.
If Esparza is ever to get that Jedrzejczyk rematch, she may want to see how she fares against K-1 Claudia first.
MH: Jeremy Stephens (28-18, 1 NC)
Dan Ige’s win over Edson Barboza was another example of a close fight where people were going to be unhappy with the decision regardless of who got it. Regardless of how you feel about Ige getting the split nod over the featherweight debutant, “50K” is in line for another step up.
My thoughts with Ige’s next move head in the direction of “Lil’ Heathen.” Jeremy Stephens may not be on the best run after going winless over his last five fights, but he is quite the litmus test in an interesting and loaded 145-pound division. Let both guys heal up from their fights in Jacksonville, and schedule these guys for a co-main event of a Fight Night card. You know you’ll watch.
AL: Ryan Hall (8-1)
During his in-cage interview, Ige said he wants to be matched up next with names like Stephens, Yair Rodriguez, and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. Top-ranked guys, established names, I get it. But he left out one of the most feared names in the division: Ryan Hall.
(What’s that? You thought I was going to break tradition and not book Hall against someone? We’re only in week two of this feature!)
Ige understandably is looking for opposition that will shoot him up the rankings, but there’s not much incentive for guys like Rodriguez, Jung, or Calvin Kattar to give him an opportunity, and Stephens is heading in the other direction. So match him up with another unbeaten fighter, one that will test his patience more than his striking ability. If Ige can find a way to solve the puzzle of “The Wizard,” then the matchmakers should give him whoever he wants next.