Unfortunately for UFC 271, despite the event’s many high points, thrills, and finishes, it ended on something of a flat note. Israel Adesanya & Robert Whittaker put up a very closely contested bout, but it was short on decisive action or meaningful offense. The kind of fight that leaves something to be desired with a $75 price tag attached. That said, Tai Tuivasa announced himself as a member of the heavyweight elite, and Jared Cannonier made sure that there was no doubt who got next in the middleweight division.
So, with everyone seemingly on board, is there any reason we won’t see Adesanya vs. Cannonier in the immediate future? Is there any path to contention for Tuivasa in the 2022 heavyweight title picture? And is Bobby Green finally becoming a fan favorite in the lightweight division?
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!
My job here appears to already be done. Israel Adesanya may not have got the cleanest, most spectacular win to defend his belt, but he got the win. And in the UFC, there’s no higher priority than that. Especially not when losing would likely mean a major pay cut. Prior to the bout, and in the time since, the ‘Last Stylebender’ professed his interest in taking on Jared Cannonier. After his victory, earlier in the evening, Cannonier made it clear that he expects to be the next contender. And Dana White seems to understand that if he doesn’t make that happen, he’ll have to personally explain to the ‘Killa Gorilla’ just why not. Assuming everyone stays healthy, Adesanya vs. Cannonier in June sounds like a rock solid next challenge for the champ.
Whittaker’s in a bit of a rough spot right now in the middleweight division. As he said after the bout, it’s clear that he and Adesanya are the two best fighters in the division, but with a pair of losses to the champ, how that results in a trilogy bout isn’t all that immediately apparent. Especially since, to be perfectly honest, this wasn’t a very entertaining fight. Max Holloway may be down 0-2 to Volkanovski, but a third bout between them still seems like a cool idea, because the first two were tons of fun. Another version of the fight we saw here at UFC 271 is unlikely to whet anyone’s appetite.
Keeping that in mind, Whittaker might as well look around for any other elite talents he hasn’t fought yet. That means contests with Marvin Vettori, Paulo Costa, or Sean Strickland. And hell, if Strickland is looking for a way to become the top contender at 185, then a win over Whittaker would make one hell of a statement. Whittaker vs. Strickland seems like a great test to see if a new challenger is ready to fight for gold.
When I asked to see this fight booked in a recent Fights to Make column, this was the reason why. Because I knew that Tuivasa would force the kind of fight on Lewis that would essentially guarantee action. Tuivasa wasn’t always winning this bout, in fact there were at least a couple moments where he was perilously close to losing it, but he rode out the bad spots and put the crushing blow on Lewis in tight with a massive elbow. That win puts the Aussie on a five fight winning streak, and injects a refreshing burst of new life into the top five at heavyweight.
In some ways, however, what comes next for Tuivasa is highly dependent on what comes next for Jon Jones—as weird as that is to say. I can’t help feeling fairly certain that the UFC is going to make another interim heavyweight title this year (and frankly, if they’re gonna play hardball with Francis Ngannou, it’d be stupid not to). And if they can get that interim title fight to feature Jon Jones against Stipe Miocic, ‘Bam Bam’ has a real chance to fight Ciryl Gane as a top contender. But if Jones stays on the sidelines, then Gane and Miocic seem much more likely to fight, and Tuivasa will end up facing someone like the winner of Aspinall/Volkov. I’ll bet on the UFC getting Jones/Miocic to happen and say Tuivasa vs. Gane is the fight to make. But that feels like a very, very long shot.
Obviously, this result wasn’t great for Lewis and his own future title aspirations, but his losing does create a little extra space for new challengers up at the top of the heavyweight division. And, given his propensity for thrilling KOs, it leaves no shortage of fun battles still for the ‘Black Beast’ to book. Somewhere between Aspinall/Volkov and Rozenstruik/Tybura, it seems like something cool should shake out in the future. And really, given that Lewis is coming off a hard loss here, I’ll just go ahead and say that there’s one matchup the UFC could make no matter how those fights wind up: that’s a battle with Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Win or lose to Marcin Tybura, Lewis vs. Rozenstruik is just a damn cool, high stakes striking battle, and I want to see it happen.
WIth Israel Adesanya keeping his middleweight belt, the next option for Jared Cannonier couldn’t be clearer. Adesanya has talked in the past about his interest in facing the ‘Killa Gorilla’ and while it may not be a major PPV seller, Cannonier has done the work to make himself an interesting contender for gold. He’s a massively muscular, powerful fighter at 185 and he packs a hell of a punch. He’s also, at this late stage of his career, gained the experience he needs to stay calm in a bad spot and keep putting together solid rounds. Brunson started this fight out with exactly the right idea to win, and Cannonier kept turning things around, making Brunson work, and getting the fight back to the feet where he wanted it. Cannonier vs. Adesanya should be an all too easy next booking for the champ’s next title defense.
Moicano’s path through the UFC has been anything other than easy. The man who came through featherweight fighting Zubaira Tukhugov, Jeremy Stephens, Brian Ortega, and Kalvin Kattar (not to mention Aldo & TKZ), moved up to lightweight just to end up with Rafael Fiziev in front of him. He’s picked up his share of wins along the way, but it was worth wondering – after several big KO losses – if he still had it in him to be an elite talent at 155. For all his struggles, though, it’s undeniable that the Brazilian still has some absolutely world class grappling skills, and the depth of game to get the fight to the mat against all but the very best.
Fights against Damir Ismagulov, the Drew Dober/Rick Glenn winner, or Magomed Mustafaev all seem like fun options. Of those, I’ll go with Moicano vs. Ismagulov. The Russian has shown himself to be a strong wrestler and grappler, a consistent defensively minded striker, and a controlling performer. But, he hasn’t been much of a finisher. And if you can’t finish Moicano, he’s a very dangerous man to give time and options to inside the cage. Moicano vs. Ismagulov seems like a great way to see if either man can jump into the top 15.
Bobby Green’s late career performances have been absolutely thrilling. A fighter who has always been more interested in being technical and winning exchanges than he necessarily has been in winning rounds, has found himself now as one of the slickest, most entertaining fighters in the UFC. And with that continued evolution, the wins have started flowing. Even a power-technician like Rafael Fiziev only barely escaped their three round bout with his hand raised. Off this victory, there’s no reason not to keep Green picking away at the edges of the elite. If he can turn his late career winning ways into a title run, that’d truly be a sight to behold. To that end, a fight against Brad Riddell seems all too obvious. Sure fights with Damir Ismagulov or Mateusz Gamrot could also work. But we want to see Green in fire fights. And Green vs. Riddell seems like a guarantee that fans will walk away having witnessed something spectacular.
Roxanne Modafferi made O’Neill earn this win every step of the way, but there’s no question that – coming to the final bell – O’Neill should have been the clear and obvious victor. She doubled the output of Modafferi standing, landed most of the harder shots, and never got hurt in a way that should have meaningfully steered scoring. I can’t be sad to see Modaffeir getting some extra love for the final bout of her career, but O’Neill handled her business to get the win. And that should keep her on track as a hot prospect in the women’s flyweight division. Maybe she doesn’t need a serious step up, but another fighter hanging around the top 10-15 would be a good idea. Maycee Barber and Montana De La Rosa are set to face off in the not too distant future. O’Neill vs. the Barber/MDLR winner seems like a great way to continue her momentum, or give either of those other women a boost to their resumes as they look to make their own climb to the top 10.
A strong performance from Phillips, who initiated a high-paced war from the jump but kept the fight perfectly in control all the way through. He kept his jab in Rojo’s face, crushed the lead leg, worked the body, and countered at every chance. And then he followed that up with a couple of key takedowns into a submission win in round 3. A multi-layered attack that once again puts Phillips on track as one of bantamweight’s brightest prospects. Which means it’s time for another tough test. There’s fights with Adrian Yanez, Said Nurmagomedov, or Tony Kelley. But I like the idea of a bout with Chris Gutierrez. Gutierrez’s neutralizing style and heavy low kicks should make for an interesting test of Phillips’ ability to open up his offense without getting countered. Phillips vs. Gutierrez feels like a good fight for the ‘Matrix’ on his way back toward the top 15.
DOUGLAS SILVA DE ANDRADE
It wasn’t a clean fight for Douglas d’Silva, but then again his best fights rarely are. Morozov cracked him early and often, and looked to have the bout firmly in the bag—after what could easily have been a 10-8 first round. But the Brazilian dug deep, started letting his hands go, and cracked Morozov with huge power shots to rattle him early in the second and eventually get to back control and the RNC. It was an amazing fight and keeps D’Silva’s reputation as a severely underrated talent firmly in place. More action bouts in the bantamweight division await. David Grant, Casey Kenney, Chris Gutierrez, Adrian Yanez, or Nate Maness would all make sense. Maness surprisingly seems to have made himself a darkhorse prospect at 135, let’s see if he’s ready for a big step up. Douglas Silva de Andrade vs. Nate Maness should be a fun battle.
OTHER BOUTS: Derek Brunson vs. Jack Hermansson, Alexander Hernandez vs. Grant Dawson, Nasrat Haqparast vs. Thiago Moises, Andrei Arlovski vs. Alexander Romanov, Jared Vanderaa vs. Josh Parisian, Marcelo Rojo vs. Saimon Oliveira, Carlos Ulberg vs. the Murzakanov/Nchukwi winner, Fabio Cherant vs. Aleksa Camur, Ronnie Lawrence vs. Johnny Munoz, Mana Martinez vs. Kevin Natividad, Jacob Malkoun vs. Bryan Battle, AJ Dobson vs. Tresean Gore, Sergey Morozov vs. Journey Newson, Jeremiah Wells vs. Ramazan Emeev, Blood Diamond vs. Pete Rodriguez, Maxim Grishin vs. Nchukwu/Negumereanu winner, William Knight vs. Danilo Marques