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On to the Next One: Matches to make after UFC 251

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.

With three title fights on the card, UFC 251 was an important show for several stars whether they won or lost. Add in former champions Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade, as well as a bevy of up-and-comers scoring impressive victories and you can expect there to be a lot to discuss at this week’s matchmaker meeting.

For some fighters, the next opponent isn’t up for debate, but otherwise let’s see if we can offer the UFC some assistance.

Kamaru Usman

MH: Gilbert Burns (19-3)

Kamaru Usman dominated Jorge Masvidal for 25 minutes on Saturday night to successfully defend his welterweight title in the highly anticipated UFC 251 headliner. While there are many who are upset-some, even surprised-with the outcome and how the fight played out, I would not be one of those individuals. The fight went exactly the way I expected it to and Usman deserves all the credit in the world. We all knew-even Masvidal knew-what the champion was going to do and he was still able to execute. That’s ridiculously impressive.

As the panel, and myself, all said on this past week’s Between the Links, Usman vs. Masvidal was the much bigger drawing fight, but Usman vs. Gilbert Burns is the more competitive fight. It just is, ladies and gentlemen. “Durinho” knows Usman better than any opponent has before him. Add in the fact that he was already scheduled to get this opportunity and lost it over something that was mostly out of his control, it’s only fair to re-book this one. It stinks for Leon Edwards, but he should get the winner.

Gilbert Burns
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

AL: This is one of our no-brainer picks. If Masvidal became the hottest property at welterweight in 2019, then Burns is close behind if you look at his four fights since making a permanent move up to 170 pounds last August. His decision wins over Alexey Kunchenko and Gunnar Nelson showed flashes of the elite fighter that Burns had become, and his first-round TKO of Demian Maia and five-round drubbing of Tyron Woodley confirmed that he is a legitimate threat to dethrone Usman.

Even if Burns’ initial selection was a matter of finances as much as merit, few complained when the affable Brazilian jumped the line and that’s a testament to his talents. He’s earned the respect of the champ in the gym and he’s the kind of quality opponent that will force Usman to take his game to another level. Most importantly, with his elite jiu-jitsu and surprising punching power, he might present the greatest threat yet to Usman’s reign.

Jorge Masvidal

MH: Colby Covington (15-2)

Masvidal showed a lot of grit, heart and determination against a guy who hasn’t lost a fight, or many rounds during his UFC career. Add the fact that he did it on six days’ notice and it’s even more impressive. In the end, as “Gamebred” stated after the fight on Saturday night, Usman was the better man and it’s back to the drawing board for Masvidal.

When it comes to what’s next, it comes down to one simple question: Did Masvidal lose any steam on Saturday night after one of the greatest years in the history of the sport in 2019? As much as it will pain some people to read this, the answer has to be yes. Not a lot, but certainly some. The follow-up question: How does he get that back? You take on the biggest heel in the division, someone that garners a reaction from every fan of the sport. A fighter that people love, or love to hate, Colby Covington. Masvidal says he doesn’t particularly want that fight, but right now, what would be bigger coming off of that loss on Saturday night? Nate Diaz again? It would be fun, sure, but their first fight at UFC 244 wasn’t all that competitive. Stephen Thompson? There’s a story there.

Covington is the fight people want to see and, more importantly, people will want to pay to see. This, to me, is too easy.

AL: Anthony Pettis (23-10)

You certainly can’t go wrong with the Covington matchup, but I’m going outside of the box here and throwing out the name of one Anthony “Showtime” Pettis.

At this stage of his career, Pettis has openly said that he’s looking for fun, competitive fights, the kind that fans will remember him for regardless of who has their hand raised. He doesn’t have the drawing power of a Conor McGregor, but it feels like there will be a ton of headaches that will come with putting that pair together and it just isn’t worth it right now. “Gamebred” vs. “The Notorious” can always be revisited at a later date.

A fight featuring Masvidal and Pettis would be a brilliant clash of striking styles, with Pettis’ trademark flash running up against the straight-up nastiness of Masvidal. These are two are experienced, versatile, and they even have a little history with a charity grappling match they competed in a year ago that ended in a draw. As cool as it was to see them have a friendly roll, the real treat would be to finally get these two fan favorites in the octagon together.

Anthony Pettis
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Alexander Volkanovski

MH: Sit back and watch the division play itself out

One thing that I have learned over the past 48 hours is that Max Holloway has a lot more fans that I thought he did (trust me, they’ve been all over me on social media because I thought the UFC 251 co-main event was “not a robbery,” which it wasn’t, by the way). “Blessed” looked excellent for a good portion of this rematch with Alexander Volkanovski. In the end, two judges sided with “The Great,” which makes him 2-0 in the series. Controversial or not, it’s time to turn the page.

That’s where the story gets interesting; there’s nowhere to turn right now. Luckily, there are some great matchups at 145 coming up-or are rumored to be-that can answer some of these questions. Calvin Kattar and Dan Ige have the headliner spot Wednesday night. Whoever wins will be a big step closer, but the unlikely target.

“The Korean Zombie” and Brian Ortega are going to have to settle their differences sooner rather than later, and Zabit Magomedsharipov is expected to face Yair Rodriguez later in the year. We simply have to wait to see how these fights play out. Hopefully one of the winners can emerge as the no-brainer, new No. 1 contender in a loaded division. Until then, enjoy your breather Mr. Volkanovski.

AL: Chan Sung Jung (16-5)

As much as the featherweight contenders’ line needs to be sorted out, I’m fine with picking the most potentially enjoyable challenger out of the bunch and that just so happens to be Chan Sung Jung.

I can’t lie, Zombie’s callout on social media swayed me and you can bet that there are plenty of fans out there who saw it and realized immediately that it was the matchup they never knew they needed. After his first win over Holloway, Volkanovski was accused of being a point fighter; he wins an entertaining rematch by split decision and now he’s had the “robbery” tag hung on him as well. There’s almost zero chance that a fight with Jung will go to the judges.

Jung has won three of his last four and were it not for a last-second loss to Yair Rodriguez, he likely would have earned himself a second shot at the featherweight title already. His feud with Ortega can wait, let’s find out of Volkanovski has the formula to put Zombie away.

Max Holloway

MH: Calvin Kattar (21-4)

I will preface this by saying that this comes with one pivotal caveat: Kattar needs to beat Ige on Wednesday, which will be no easy task.

If he does, and especially if he gets a finish, “The Boston Finisher” is in line for a big fight with a big name in the division. With the rest of the top-five potentially matched up, there would be only one other available name. It’s Max Holloway.

To get to the title shot, there is no bigger point proving win at 145 pounds right now then one over Holloway, a guy in a lot of people’s eyes is the greatest fighter in the history of this division.

AL: Tony Ferguson (25-4)

I’m going to blatantly steal from our colleague Jed Meshew, who suggested that Holloway’s next fight should be at 155 pounds against Tony Ferguson. There’s a matchup most people probably haven’t thought about much, but the two were linked to a potential interim lightweight title bout at UFC 236 last year (Holloway instead rematched Dustin Poirier in that show’s main event) and it’s a fight guaranteed to entertain.

Both Ferguson and Holloway have suffered recent heartbreaks, with Ferguson again missing out on a massive bout with rival Khabib Nurmagomedov and then subsequently seeing a 12-fight win streak broken in brutal fashion by Justin Gaethje. Holloway bounced back from his first loss to Volkanovski with a superior performance, but again fell short on the scorecards. What better way for these two to pick each other up than by signing up for a mutual bludgeoning.

Petr Yan

AL and MH: Aljamain Sterling (19-3)

I wish I could provide a well thought out, brilliant reasoning behind this answer, but there’s no need to. There is no other answer. It’s not Marlon Moraes. It’s not Cody Garbrandt. It sure as heck isn’t Henry Cejudo. In September or October, the UFC must book Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight title.

My hat goes off and is fully extended to Jose Aldo for his show of pure heart, toughness, and gamesmanship he put on display for the world on Saturday night. The fight was amazing and the best title fight of the three. Be that as it may, Yan vs. Sterling was the fight to make then, it is the fight to make today and it 1,000,000 percent is the fight to make next whenever both guys are ready. - Heck

Aljamain Sterling
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Jose Aldo

MH: Cory Sandhagen (12-2)

With a legend like Jose Aldo, there are so many options. He’s now 0-2 in the bantamweight division and winless in his last three fights. He still belongs in important bouts, but not at the tippy, tippy top of the division.

Cody Garbrandt would be a fine pick as well. Dominick Cruz would also be a lot of fun, but I’m going to be selfish here, friends. The fight I’ve wanted to see for a long time is Cruz vs. Marlon Moraes and I feel like we’re as close as we’re ever going to get to it. Garbrandt should get the loser of Yan vs. Sterling for his opportunity to potentially clinch a shot at the title. That leaves Aldo vs. Cory Sandhagen, which makes me smile as I type it. What an amazingly technical masterpiece that fight could be. Let’s make it happen, shall we?

AL: Dominick Cruz (22-3)

If Aldo vs. Cruz is a possibility, then I can’t push that aside for anything. This is a dream match from the WEC days, when the two champions had already set themselves as far and away the best in their respective divisions. It’s an amazingly appealing matchup no matter what angle you want to view it from: Styles, legacies, even title implications given how we’ve seen those handed out these days.

The clock is ticking on Aldo and Cruz ever crossing paths and not having them face off now that they’re in the same division is almost criminal. They’ve shown that they have plenty of left in the tank, so line these two classic cars up and let it ride.

Rose Namajunas

AL and MH: Zhang Weili (21-1)

Saturday’s rematch between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade was an unofficial No. 1 contender’s bout and both women showed they were more than worthy of a chance to regain the strawweight title. Namajunas picked up the win this time around, not only avenging a loss but reminding everyone how she made it to the top in the first place. “Thug Rose” turned 28 in June and she’s still showing signs of improvement in the prime of her career.

Does she have the power to stand toe-to-toe with Zhang Weili? Few women do, but there were questions surrounding whether Joanna Jedrzejczyk could trade shots with Zhang and she did just fine, contributing her half to the presumptive 2020 Fight of the Year. Namajunas is just as elusive, though whether can absorb the same level of punishment is anyone’s guess. She’s earned the right find out and to possibly become a two-time UFC champion. - Lee

Zhang Weili
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Amanda Ribas

MH: Felice Herrig (14-8) vs. Virna Jandiroba (15-1) winner

I think we can all agree that Amanda Ribas has star potential written all over her. She is a fierce competitor in the octagon and has a bright and bubbly personality that is incredibly contagious. If you watched her UFC 251 virtual media day scrum, and didn’t have a smile on your face, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Ribas is in one of those interesting spots because we want to see her get a huge step up in competition and see if she can swim with the sharks. If the UFC wanted to do that, I wouldn’t be totally against it. In fact, I’d be fascinated by it. Personally, I think we continue to increase her competition levels with a certain degree of caution. There’s no need to throw her in there with the Carla Esparzas and Claudia Gadelhas of the world right now. There is, however, a fun strawweight matchup between the No. 15 ranked Felice Herrig and Virna Jandiroba set for next month in Las Vegas. The winner of that fight should take on Ribas next.

AL: Michelle Waterson (17-8) vs. Angela Hill (12-8) winner

It was tempting to suggest that Ribas face a fellow next generation strawweight like Tatiana Suarez or Yan Xiaonan (who fights Claudia Gadelha in September), because as much as people hate to see prospects potentially derail one another, I’m occasionally in favor of throwing the sharks into the pool and letting them sort each other out.

However, for the sake of Ribas’ development, a fight with a veteran is the more logical move so why not Michelle Waterson or Angela Hill? They meet in August and the winner will likely secure a top-10 spot while the other will take slight tumble down the rankings. Whoever ends up higher on the charts, Ribas should get the chance to climb over them.

Jiri Prochazka

MH: Corey Anderson (13-5)

Jiri Prochazka is a wild man. I knew he was wild, but to do what he did to Volkan Oezdemir on Saturday night may have been beyond that. If you haven’t seen the knockout blow yet, stop reading this momentarily and watch it.

Grading Prochazka’s just under six minutes of octagon time, I would give him an A+. Overall, he gets an A-, maybe even a B+ for not using the platform to his advantage. This man grabbed so much momentum and he was like a snowball rolling down a mountain, picking up steam and power with every second that it rolled. Then he called out Johnny Walker and the snowball hit a mogul and blended in with its surroundings. I’d watch Prochazka vs. Walker for sure. It would be a blast to watch. But he just knocked the No. 6-ranked one-time world title challenger unconscious on ESPN prior to one of the most anticipated events in recent memory, and he called out a guy ranked five spots below Oezdemir.

After telling the media he wants a fast track to the light heavyweight title, let’s give him what he wants. Corey Anderson is sitting at No. 4 without any potential dance partner at the moment. If “Denisa” beats “Overtime,” he would be a win or two away from a title shot.

Corey Anderson
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

AL: Glover Teixeira (31-7) vs. Thiago Santos (21-7) winner

I agree that Prochazka needs to be ahead in the rankings, not back. But a fight with Walker has to happen someday after Walker has scraped his way back into the top-10.

If we’re aiming upwards, then why not go even higher than Anderson and give Prochazka the winner of the Glover Teixeira vs. Thiago Santos main event bout reportedly set for Sept. 12.? Let’s be real here, nobody wants to see Prochazka defending takedowns for 15 minutes and Anderson’s striking isn’t at the level yet that he should feel comfortable exchanging with the absurdly unpredictable Prochazka.

Besides, if we’re talking fast track, this is the way to do it by potentially facing either of these two men who have already had their crack at Jon Jones. Should Prochazka beat either Teixeira or Santos, then sign us all up for that UFC champ vs. RIZIN champ fight.

Makwan Amirkhani

MH: Charles Jourdain (10-3)

Makwan Amirkhani is just so fun to watch, as shown by his impressive first-round anaconda choke submission of Danny Henry on Saturday night. “Mr. Finland” has been so impressive throughout his promotional run, outside of a couple of hurdles in Shane Burgos and Arnold Allen, two guys who could be future top-five fighters at 145-pounds. Am I saying Amirkhani can’t compete with top-15 guys? Of course not. But what’s the rush in such a stacked division?

This past month, Andre Fili just picked up a unanimous decision win in a barn burner with Canadian Charles Jourdain. I know, a guy coming off a win vs. a guy coming off a loss? How dare I! I think it’s a good matchup to see where both guys stand. Who is a top-15 guy and who isn’t? Plus, it would be so, so fun to watch.

AL: Ryan Hall (8-1)

Since I’m back helping with the matchmaking this week, that means a certain featherweight legend is also back: Ryan Hall.

Sure, “The Wizard” has a tough fight in Ricardo Lamas coming up next, but since we all know that’s going to end in another magical submission win, let’s go ahead and fill in Hall’s schedule for him. Oh, fancy Mr. Finland got himself another anaconda choke win on Saturday? How cute. Hall does anaconda chokes while brushing his teeth in the morning and I’m not even entirely sure what that means.

In all seriousness, Amirkhani is an awesome grappler and it would be a pleasure to see him test his ground skills against Hall. So if Hall gets past Lamas, make it happen.

Ryan Hall
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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