Thiago Santos prior to his UFC Vegas 50 main event vs. Magomed Ankalaev. | Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest event in Las Vegas, NV.
The main event may have failed to deliver, but UFC Vegas 50: Santos vs. Ankalaev was still a damn fine card with plenty of punishing action. Song Yadong made it clear that he’s ready for the bantamweight elite with a quick KO over Marlon Moraes in the co-main event, Sodiq Yusuff halted Alex Caceres’ five fight winning streak, and Alex Pereira kept himself on track for that eventual showdown with Israel Adesanya.
So, did Ankalaev just grind his way out of a title shot at light heavyweight? Any chance Dominick Cruz accepts Song’s callout? And is there anyone ready to step up and fight Khalil Rountree right now?
To answer those questions – and a whole lot more – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights!
Heading into this bout, the writing on the wall seemed fairly clear for Ankalaev: win this fight in impressive fashion and a title shot would be his for the taking. After all, the only other obvious top contender right now, Aleksandar Rakic, was largely leaning on his own victory over Santos in a fairly lackluster affair at UFC 259. A powerful showing from Ankalaev and he’d catapult to the top of the list, awaiting the outcome of the Jiri Prochazka vs. Glover Teixeira at UFC 275. Instead, fans were treated to a cautious, considered and largely uninteresting bout—whereby Ankalaev clearly controlled the action of the fight, and won the decision, but it’s hard to imagine a groundswell of fan support to see him battle for the strap.
Instead, if anything more prevents Jan Blachowicz’s injury recovery, and thus his upcoming bout with Rakic, Ankalaev vs. Rakic is an exceptionally easy booking to try and make either man a more obvious title challenger. Assuming Blachowicz does face off against the Austrian, however, then Ankalaev will have to find another top-5 talent in need of a bout. And the only name outstanding on that list right now is Anthony Smith. If Smith wants to prove he’s truly in the elite conversation again, this would be a great way to do it. And for Ankalaev, it’s another opportunity to build the kind of resume that will make his shot at gold eventually undeniable. Ankalaev vs. Smith is the best fight both men can get right now.
At some point I have to imagine that Thiago Santos is going to start getting pretty frustrated with himself. There were moments in this fight, where he looked like he was dialed in, pursuing the path to victory, and unwilling to let the fight slip away. But, they were largely just moments. Otherwise, he continually gave ground and initiative to Ankalaev and let the Dagestani take a decisive, if workmanlike, decision away from him. For the man that many people felt beat Jon Jones three years ago, the fire that brought him to title contention hasn’t been seen in a while now. Part of that may just be that he’s 38, and the mileage is high after a 12-year pro-MMA career.
And while it seems reasonable to say that all that means ‘Marreta’ needs a big step back, he is perfectly placed for one ideal style clash in the light heavyweight top 10 just at the moment. Much like Santos, Volkan Oezdemir had a meteoric rise to contender status, and then suffered a similarly hard fall back down to earth. Always known for his power and reckless aggression, however, it feels like ‘No Time’ would make for an ideal style clash with Santos’ heavy-handed counterpunching. A chance for both men to correct their trajectory, Oezdemir vs. Santos is a perfect top-tier light heavyweight bout between two men in need of a win.
A crushing victory for Song Yadong, who claims he planned to start his bout defensively, but instead took the action to Marlon Moraes hammer and tongs from moment one. Song marched ‘Magic’ down in the pocket over and over again with heavy combinations, eventually finding the KO on the end of a brutal uppercut. That win puts Song on a three fight win streak in the division, since taking a shocking upset loss to Kyler Phillips just one year ago. And it should have him lined up with a surefire top-10 matchup next time out. Yadong called out Dominick Cruz, and if he gets that booking, I’d be fascinated to see the fight. But Cruz has said several times before that he’s only looking to fight ‘up’ the division, and currently ranked no. 7, the chances that he breaks that for a physical beast like the ‘Kung Fu Monkey’ seems slim. I’d love to see Yadong fight Sean O’Malley, but similarly doubt that’s a fight O’Malley wants. That leaves bouts like Ricky Simon, Merab Dvalishvili, or Pedro Munhoz. All of those would be cool, but I’ll say Dvalishvili vs. Yadong, since both men are fresh off a victory over Moraes as their biggest win to date.
Not quite the war fans might have expected, but a very tough, consistent striking battle between Alex Caceres and Sodiq Yusuff. ‘Bruce Leroy’ found a lot of success with his slicker boxing as Yusuff tried to walk him down, but Yusuff made his crushing low kicks count over and over again to truly steer the narrative of the fight. After the bout ‘Super’ Sodiq called out Bryce Mitchell, and that’s a rock solid idea. Just, I’m not sure it’s one that Mitchell would be all that interested in after getting a big name win like Edson Barboza on PPV. Fights with Movsar Evloev, Shane Burgos, or Hakeem Dowadu seem a lot more likely to me. And of those, it’s hard not to want to see Burgos vs. Yusuff. A guaranteed war, and a great test for Burgos and his willingness to eat hard kicks. Burgos vs. Yusuff would be a violent battle, no question.
When everything is clicking for Khalil Rountree, few men in the UFC are so singularly violent inside the cage. He says that power comes from his passion to share his story with the world and inspire people. Whatever the source, it’s absolutely terrifying. He and Roberson went tit-for-tat for a solid 5 minutes before Rountree came out in round 2 and just decided to storm Roberson out of the building. That soccer kick to the body on the mat was one of the most ridiculously painful sounding MMA strikes I can ever remember. Just brutal stuff. Dustin Jacoby is fresh off a rock solid win over Michal Oleksieczjuk, how about matching him up with Rountree next for a true striker’s battle. Rountree vs. Jacoby sounds like a thrilling test of Jacoby’s volume-oriented style.
A rough setback for Terrance McKinney still means a nice highlight for Drew Dober. ‘T-Wrecks’ put a real scare into him early with his lightening quick, fearless striking and wrestling approach. And if Dober were any less tough, he might have found himself on the wrong end of a humiliating TKO loss. But Dober gutted through the bad spots and started putting it on McKinney once his head cleared. After the bout, he called out Bobby Green.
Part of me thinks Green should have higher aspirations following that Makhachev fight, however following the loss, Green seemed fairly adamant that he didn’t like the added wait and pressure of headlining. If that’s the case, then a fight with Drew Dober seems like a great main card action bout that would make any UFC card better. Dober vs. Green is rock solid fight booking.
All credit to Bruno Silva, he fought one hell of a tough fight, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the clear skill disparity between himself and Alex Pereira on the feet. ‘Po Atan’ landed well to all levels, and while Silva found his chin a few times, Pereira really started pouring it on in the third round, working toward the finish. He’s already proving that opponents will have to have more than just a couple go-to takedowns to keep him on the mat and, after calling out Jared Cannonier, it’s clear he’s got his eyes on the very top of the division. Still, with upcoming bouts between Kelvin Gastelum & Nassourdine Imavov or Uriah Hall & Andre Muniz, both of those seem much more like good options to see if Pereira can make a fast rise to the title. Of those, Imavov vs. Gastelum seems like it’d make the most interesting bout, no matter who wins. Pereira vs. the Imavov/Gastelum winner is the kind of big step up that Pereira should be taking next.
A rock solid win for Aldrich, who has struggled for a while now to really separate herself from her competition inside the Octagon. But she’s on a 3-fight win streak at the moment, and should be creeping back up into the top 15 at 125. Robertson got the fight to the mat a couple times over 15 minutes, but couldn’t do anything with it, thanks to Aldrich’s well-schooled defensive top game. Fights with Sijara Eubanks, Maryna Moroz, or Mayra Bueno-Silva would all be decent ideas. But I like the sound of a match-up against Casey O’Neill. O’Neill snagged a decent victory over Roxanne Modafferi last time around, but still needs to prove that she can be a really powerful athlete in among the best of the division. Aldrich is looking to make a similar kind of statement. If either woman can walk away with a dominant win, it could say a lot for their future at 125. Aldrich vs. O’Neill feels like a quality next step for both fighters.
Maverick first hit the UFC with high expectations, both from herself and from fans & pundits who felt she could be a top contender at 125 in fairly short order. That path has come with some hard setbacks, but this victory over Sabina Mazo seems like a real return to form. Maverick was light on her feet and focused on speed standing, turning her potshot-striking into big takedown opportunities. It was a really well executed game-plan that more or less took Mazo out of the fight altogether. The result is a two fight losing streak broken, and a chance for Maverick to reassert herself as a top 15 fighter. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is a strong showing against a solid veteran opponent. And following UFC 272, there’s one pretty obvious option: Maryna Moroz. Moroz’s combination of rangy boxing and solid wrestling and top control feel like just the right combination to test Maverick everywhere. Maverick vs. Moroz seems like a good option to see if Maverick can jump into the rankings.
OTHER BOUTS: Marlon Moraes vs. Cody Garbrandt, Alex Caceres vs. Cub Swanson, Karl Roberson vs. Alonzo Menifield, Terrance McKinney vs. Joseph Solecki, Bruno Silva vs. Edmen Shahbazyan, Matthew Semelsberger vs. Philip Rowe, AJ Fletcher vs. Pete Rodriguez, Gillian Robertson vs. Ariane Lipski, Javid Basharat vs. Ronnie Lawrence, Trevin Jones vs. Randy Costa, Damon Jackson vs. Zubaira Tukhugov, Kamuela Kirk vs. Danny Chavez, Sabina Mazo vs. Ji Yeon Kim, Cody Brundage vs. Dusko Todorovic, Dalcha Lungiambula vs. Jordan Wright, Guido Cannetti vs. Louis Smolka, Kris Moutinho vs. Saimon Oliveira, Azamat Murzakanov vs. Nick Negumereanu, Tafon Nchukwi vs. William Knight 2