01 Jan On to the Next One: Matches to make after UFC 250
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 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.
Two things immediately stood out from UFC 250, the first-ever pay-per-view held at the UFC APEX: 1) There’s no one who can be considered an immediate threat to Amanda Nunes in either weight class she reigns over and 2) The bantamweight division is on fire.
So what’s next for Nunes, bantamweight standouts Cody Garbrandt, Aljamain Sterling, Sean O’Malley, and Cody Stamann, and the rest of Saturday’s winners?
MH: Irene Aldana (12-5)
First thing’s first, the greatest women’s fighter in MMA history should take all the time off she needs as she adds the title of mom to her already incredible resume. Amanda Nunes made UFC history by becoming the first champ-champ to successfully defend both of the titles she currently owns with a one-sided decision over a super tough Felicia Spencer. Not only was it dominant, Nunes made it look effortless.
It’s almost unfair to choose a name right now for Nunes because she’ll be entering the world of parenthood and shouldn’t be in any rush at all to return. Since choosing somebody is a pivotal part of this feature, I’ll go with a 135er who had one of the best knockouts of the year in 2019, Irene Aldana. “Robles” would be a massive underdog, but she’s won five of six and has the kind of power that would make Nunes mind her Ps and Qs.
AL: Aspen Ladd (9-1)
Call this a futures pick because my real answer is whoever is the clear-cut No. 1 contender at 135 pounds when Nunes returns from an indeterminate hiatus. In a few short months, contenders’ rankings can be turned on their heads, so imagine how the bantamweight division will look when Nunes comes back should she step away for a year or more to focus on her family.
My wild guess is that Ladd will be the one to emerge from the pack sometime in 2021. She won’t turn 26 until next March and her best years are still ahead of her. She has looked like an absolute beast in her wins and her lone loss — a 16-second knockout at the hands of Germaine de Randamie — is nothing to be ashamed of given their vast gap in experience. If she’s to be a future champion, these are the kinds of setbacks that typically lead to major growth.
If you want to throw names like Julianna Pena, Macy Chiasson, or Julia Avila out there as other breakout candidates, go ahead. I like Ladd’s chances of earning a title shot.
Aspen Ladd (red gloves) attacks Yana Kunitskaya (blue gloves) at a UFC on ESPN show on Dec. 7, 2019, in Washington, D.C.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
MH: Cory Sandhagen (12-2)
Personally, I was so impressed with Cody Garbrandt throughout UFC 250 fight week. The way he opened up about being on top of the world to having to reinvent himself to rekindle his love for the sport, along with his relaxed nature heading in made me much more interested in his co-main event fight with Raphael Assuncao than I was when it was booked. “No Love” stepped into the octagon and looked sensational, especially with the piston-like buzzer beater right hand that ended the fight in the second round.
Garbrandt wants to get back into title contention and while he shot for the stars calling out Petr Yan, that will probably be another couple of wins before that can even happen. Cory Sandhagen had a tough night in a big spot against the surging Aljamain Sterling, but we haven’t come close to seeing the best of the 28-year-old. Garbrandt wants a step-up and Sandhagen would probably like a big name for the chance to bounce back.
AL: Marlon Moraes (23-6-1)
After that knockout, I could almost hear Dana White salivating over the thought of throwing Garbrandt right back into a world title fight. He shouldn’t. Instead, let’s do the next best thing and put him in a No. 1 contender’s fight.
You have to feel for Marlon Moraes, who finds himself in a befuddling situation as the man he beat at UFC 245, Jose Aldo, is now expected to fight the man Moraes was supposed to fight in June, Yan, and for the bantamweight championship no less. How did Moraes get removed from this equation? Infuriating.
He shouldn’t even have to fight his way back into the mix, but if the UFC insists on jerking him around, at least a matchup with Garbrandt would be a great one for the fans. Plus, we’d see if Garbrandt really has matured as a fighter or if the composure he showed against Assuncao was only a flash of the fighter he can be.
MH: Petr Yan (14-1)
Folks, notice how I didn’t say “the winner of Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo.” That’s because after what Aljamain Sterling did in a huge spot—and in very short time—at UFC 250, he has jumped the queue. With all due respect to Aldo, one of the all-time greats, he shouldn’t have been in title consideration at 135 pounds in the first place. No matter how you may have scored it, he lost to Marlon Moraes. This isn’t a case of “strike the word ‘deserves’ from your vocabulary in MMA,” this is well beyond meritocracy. Sterling vs. Yan for the undisputed UFC bantamweight title is the only fight to make. Period.
This is too easy, UFC decision makers. Make the switch and get this right.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
AL: Yan or Jose Aldo (28-6)
I’m not optimistic that the UFC will change their reported plans to have Yan face Aldo, if only because changing gears would require some acknowledgement on Dana White’s part that they got this one wrong and I don’t see that happening. As long as Aldo is healthy, we’re getting this fight to christen the decreasingly-idyllic “Fight Island.”
That said, any scenario that doesn’t involve Sterling fighting for the UFC bantamweight title is a travesty. A miscarriage of justice. Promotional malpractice. It’s flat-out wrong and the UFC has to realize that they’ve had a marketable star on their hands for a while now and that it’s time to treat him like one. No matter what, “Funk Master” gets his title shot.
MH: Geoff Neal (13-2)
It wasn’t the performance he hoped for, but Neil Magny got his hand raised with a unanimous decision win over Rocco Martin. Since returning to action after being cleared by the USADA for a violation in 2018, “The Hatian Sensation” is 2-0 and is looking to jump back into the top-15 of a loaded welterweight division.
Magny reiterated his desire to fight Michael Chiesa and, while I’d like to see that fight happen in the future, I think the 32-year-old would agree that his victory doesn’t merit a matchup with the No. 8-ranked fighter in the division. He does deserve a top-15 opponent and a fight with the surging Geoff Neal would check off that box.
Is Neal the real deal? It seems like it, but a fight with the always game and volume producing Magny will provide a clearer answer.
AL: Donald Cerrone (36-15, 1 NC)
Quietly, Magny has amassed one of the most impressive UFC welterweight careers. He is one of only five fighters in the division to make 22 octagon trips and his 16 wins are tied with Matt Hughes for the second-most in divisional history behind only Georges St-Pierre (19).
So let’s put him in there with another man who holds a bevy of UFC records, the one and only Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Yes, Cerrone is on a four-fight skid, but there are really no easy fights for the MMA lifer at this point and you know he’d be more than happy to go three fast-paced rounds with a gamer like Magny. For Magny, he can get back to beating big names as his wins over Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks, Hector Lombard, and Kelvin Gastelum feel like they happened ages ago.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
MH: Urijah Faber (35-11)
UFC 250 was the home of “The Suga Show.” Sean O’Malley delivered an incredible, highlight-reel KO that will be seen in promotional vignettes for years to come over Eddie Wineland to kick off the main card. As O’Malley told MMA Fighting ahead of the fight, the first thing he wants to do before thinking about his next fight is renegotiate his contract with the UFC — which currently only has one fight remaining.
A great way to give the 25-year-old phenom a boost, besides paying him what he’s worth, is to give him a big fight next.
Enter Urijah Faber.
“The California Kid” would have to be excited to see O’Malley’s name on a contract right now. After being dominated by Petr Yan in his last fight, Faber is likely in a position where only meaningful fights will get his attention. While that isn’t likely to happen at the top of the 135-pound division, O’Malley would likely be the best opportunity available to him.
It would also be a marquee name to add to the growing resume of “Sugar.”
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
AL: Song Yadong (16-4-1)
I am so, so tempted to just throw O’Malley in there with Cody Garbrandt and be done with it. The seeds are there with both picking up insane knockouts at UFC 250 and O’Malley throwing shade at Garbrandt following his win over Raphael Assuncao. But that feels like too much too soon.
Song Yadong is a step back from Eddie Wineland as far as name value goes, but the Chinese prospect would be a thrilling stylistic matchup for O’Malley. Much like the UFC cultivated Conor McGregor’s early career by matching him up with striking specialists, the matchmakers should do the same with O’Malley and keep the good times rolling by booking him to face fighters that will showcase his standup skills. Plus, Song has had good fortune escaping close scraps against Marlon Vera and Cody Stamann with his unbeaten UFC record intact, so you know O’Malley would enjoy using that narrative to build up their fight.
MH: Jimmie Rivera (22-4)
What Cody Stamann did on Saturday night was absolutely incredible. “Spartan” lived up to his moniker with a great win over a game Brian Kelleher, and doing so with a heavy heart following the unexpected death of his 18-year-old brother late last week. Before we even think about what is next for him, Stamann should be given time to mourn with his family.
When he is ready to return, Stamann should absolutely get a top-10 opponent after the best performance of his UFC tenure at UFC 250. Jimmie Rivera is ranked No. 8 and needs to get back on track, while Stamann is looking to climb the ladder and needs names to do so. The UFC has tried to make this fight before, and they should book it again once Stamann is ready to go.
While I usually prefer not to match up fighters coming off of wins with fighters coming off of losses, I actually like Sandhagen here for Stamann more than Sandhagen vs. Garbrandt if we’re going to go this route. It just wasn’t Sandhagen’s night on Saturday, and whether that’s because Sterling is an insurmountable step above him at this point in their careers or he picked the wrong time to have a flat performance, he now has to regain the trust of the matchmakers.
That’s something Stamann is working on too. Even though he has a sterling 5-1-1 UFC record, his lack of a signature finish is the sort of thing that is holding him back from being viewed as a surefire title challenger. He has the experience edge on Sandhagen and a matchup between them would help figure out which guy needs more seasoning before getting that main event push.
MH: Brandon Moreno (17-5-1)
Despite being unfortunately buried on the prelims, Alex Perez turned an on-paper technical barn burner into a launching pad performance with a quick finish of Jussier Formiga. The Team Oyama standout has won three straight, and 11 of his last 12, as UFC flyweight gold is within his grasp.
It appears that Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo will run it back to, hopefully, determine the next 125-pound champ after Henry Cejudo vacated it earlier in the year. Perez wants to be on standby in case one of them can’t go for their scheduled bout on July 18, and should be on that card anyways against Brandon Moreno, who many believe is going to be a champion sooner rather than later. Much like UFC 250 was a showcase for the bantamweights, the UFC’s July 18 event on “Fight Island” could serve as that for the 125ers.
Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
AL: Alexandre Pantoja (22-4) vs. Askar Askarov (11-0-1) winner
In his second crack at a top-five opponent, Perez kicked down the door and announced himself as a legitimate contender at 125 pounds. While a matchup with Moreno would be sensational, I’d actually like to see him face either Alexandre Pantoja or Askar Askarov, two fighters that Moreno couldn’t beat.
Pantoja and Askarov are currently booked to fight on July 18, though given the constantly shifting UFC schedule, it’s not inconceivable that Perez could be called upon to replace either one of them. If not, the 28-year-old should simply rest and recover and wait for the dust to settle in the resurgent flyweight division. Whoever emerges from the Perez-Pantoja-Askarov cluster, that’s your next UFC title challenger.
MH: Grant Dawson (15-1)
I’ve said many times over the years that I don’t like matching up prospects this soon in their UFC runs. In the case of the 145-pound division, it’s nearly impossible to avoid in terms of development and growth. Herbert Burns looked impressive kicking off the UFC 250 fight card, submitting a high-level black belt in Evan Dunham in just over a minute. “The Blaze” is two-for-two in the UFC as the Burns family is on fire right now.
Following the win, Burns called for fights with Ryan Hall and Bryce Mitchell. While I like both of those fights, there’s another fight that peaks my interest against a fellow Contender Series alum in Grant Dawson. “The Prophet” is 15-1 in his career and just 26 years of age. Dawson is 3-0 in the UFC with two finishes, Burns also has a pair of finishes. Coincidences aside, this would be a great test for both guys where one could crack the top-15, while the other would be able to bounce back with a lot of time left in their young careers.
AL: Ryan Hall (8-1)
I went a week without mentioning Ryan Hall and for that I apologize. Egregious oversight.
Look, if Burns is serious about taking that next step up after absolutely dusting his first two UFC opponents, he need look no further than the grappling GOAT Ryan Hall. Until Hall’s next fight is booked, he’s the answer for anyone at featherweight looking to truly establish themselves in the division, especially if they dare to actually utter his name. Beat him if you can, survive his leg locks if he lets you.
This fight would be guaranteed fun and in all seriousness, a favorable matchup for Burns given that he’s shown he has some pop in the standup department too. But what we really want to see is these two go to work on the mat and should that happen, you have yourself a legitimate Fight of the Night, nay Year, frontrunner.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting