01 Jan On to the Next One: Matches to make after UFC on ESPN 9
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.
The UFC’s first fight night at the APEX proved to be mostly successful with multiple Fight of the Night-worthy bouts and star turns by Gilbert Burns, Mackenzie Dern, and Casey Kenney among others.
Burns shook up the welterweight division with his win over Tyron Woodley, while Katlyn Chookagian held serve by dispatching Antonina Shevchenko. What’s next for them and the other notable names from UFC on ESPN 9?
Gilbert Burns (19-3)
MH: Leon Edwards (18-3)
What Gilbert Burns did on Saturday night was absolutely sensational. “Durinho” took on a former world champion and dominated him in all aspects of their 25-minute fight. This wasn’t a coming-out party per se for UFC fans, but it certainly was for the top-5 of the loaded welterweight division — including Burns’s teammate and current champ, Kamaru Usman.
In my opinion, the fight to make on the mythical “Fight Island” in July is a fight between Burns and Leon Edwards, who was originally scheduled to face Woodley in March. “Fight Island” is coming and what a fascinating fight to add to the summer mix. Grab your margaritas and prepare for a potential title eliminator.
AL: Kamaru Usman (16-1)
Give the man what he wants.
After making a former champion look like he didn’t belong in the cage with him, Burns did the right thing calling for a fight with friend and teammate Kamaru Usman. If the end goal is to be the man at the top of the division, sometimes that means taking care of business, unpleasant as the realities of that may be.
While there are plenty of fun matchups to be made for Burns, he’s about as hot as a contender can be right now and if Jorge Masvidal wants to hype up fights with Nate Diaz and Colby Covington on the side, let him. One thing the matchmakers can count on is that Burns will take a fight with Usman without any extra baggage and right now, that’s music to Dana White’s ears.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Tyron Woodley (19-5-1)
MH: Colby Covington (15-2)
Tyron Woodley has handled this loss pretty well. If you missed his IG Live following his second consecutive loss, “T-Wood” was in great spirits and vowed to be back. The former world champion just couldn’t seem to pull the trigger once again and it cost him in a big way Saturday night.
However, everyone loves a comeback story and to accomplish that, you have to, a) find a way to get Woodley as motivated as ever and, b) put him in a position to not make the back-to-back losses at the forefront of the story. Enter his old friend Colby Covington. I get it, Covington is on the short list to get another shot at the welterweight title according to Dana White, but a fight with Woodley would probably still wet his proverbial whistle.
It may seem unlikely, but there’s still smoke to this fire. Before it goes out completely, now is the time to pour some gasoline on it.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
AL: Rafael dos Anjos (29-13)
Two former UFC champions coming off of back-to-back losses looking for redemption? Sign me up!
If you’re looking for name value, a fight between Tyron Woodley and Rafael dos Anjos fits the bill while also giving both men a chance to see how much they have left in the tank. Woodley is 38 now and Dos Anjos turns 36 this October. They don’t have that many marquee matchups left and this should be one of them. From a style standpoint, Dos Anjos has exactly the kind of offensive game that has proven to be Woodley’s foil, so this could be Woodley’s last chance to adapt or accept his fate.
Augusto Sakai (15-1-1)
MH: Walt Harris (13-8, 1 NC)
Augusto Sakai has won six straight fights and is now 4-0 in his UFC career. Despite the awful scorecard giving a 30-27 to Blagoy Ivanov, it was a clear-cut win for Sakai.
While he may not end up in the top-10 in the official rankings, it’s hard to argue that his next fight shouldn’t be against a top-10 opponent. Walt Harris is currently ranked No. 9 in the division and is coming off a second-round TKO loss to Alistair Overeem in his first fight since the tragedy of his stepdaughter’s death. If “The Big Ticket” is ready to get back on that horse, a matchup with Sakai seems perfect in terms of trajectory.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
AL: Shamil Abdurakhimov (20-5)
Sakai had a chance to vault himself into the top-10 heavyweight contender conversation and while he put forth a good effort, he couldn’t quite muster up enough force to finish the hard-headed Ivanov.
That leaves him around the same place he was before last night, so he still needs another win to make significant forward progress. The same could be said of Shamil Abdurakhimov, a talented heavyweight who’s experienced some violent setbacks against the likes of Curtis Blaydes and Derrick Lewis.
Paired up with Sakai, Abdurakhimov will help us get a better gauge of where the 29-year-old Brazilian is skill-wise as he’s shown hints of being a major player while still giving off the impression that he’s leaving something on the table. Either way, the winner would set themselves up for another crack at a top-10 foe.
Mackenzie Dern (8-1)
MH: Tecia Torres (10-5) vs. Brianna Van Buren (9-2) winner
Mackenzie Dern did what most expected her to do if the fight with Hannah Cifers hit the mat: She ended it quickly with the first leg-lock submission in a women’s UFC fight. The new mom wants to try and stay active, but with so much uncertainty in the world, it’s hard to gauge whether or not that’s possible.
On June 20, a fight between Tecia Torres and Brianna Van Buren will take place. Van Buren is looking to pick up the biggest name win of her career, while Torres is in a do-or-die situation after four straight losses. Whoever comes out of that fight will take a step forward in the division, although it likely won’t be a huge one. I’m going with Dern taking on the winner as long as she is healthy and willing to turn around for another summer fight.
AL: Felice Herrig (14-8)
While Dern still has a lot of work to do in rounding out her game, she’s earned a step-up in competition after scoring a slick submission against Cifers and (fingers crossed) getting her past weight-cutting issues in order. There are actually several veterans that could test Dern without forcing her too far out of her comfort zone including Randa Markos and the aforementioned Torres, but if you want someone who would do the heavy lifting when it comes to fight promotion, then Felice Herrig is your woman.
Herrig isn’t afraid to throw out a provocative quote if the situation calls for it and as an 11-year veteran she also brings plenty of credibility to her fights. She’s not a one-punch KO threat, but is skilled enough on the feet to force Dern to show that her standup game is evolving. If Dern can’t get past Herrig, her prospects dim considerably.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Katlyn Chookagian (14-3)
MH: Roxanne Modafferi (24-16) vs. Lauren Murphy (12-4) winner
Katlyn Chookagian had a dominant performance against Antonina Shevchenko at the UFC APEX, and we got to see what happens when she incorporates wrestling and her ground game into the mix. It was as close to a perfect performance as you will see.
As far as what’s next for the former title challenger, Chookagian said she is game for anything. An interesting matchup between Roxanne Modafferi and Lauren Murphy will take place at the end of the month. Whoever gets their hand raised will be a win or two away from a title shot of their own. Murphy lost to Chookagian, but that was nearly four years ago and “Lucky” has stated that a rematch interests her greatly. Modafferi would be a great veteran test for Chookagian as well. Unless the New Jersey native doesn’t want to wait that long to return, this seems like a logical piece of matchmaking.
AL: Jessica Eye (15-7, 1 NC) vs. Cynthia Calvillo (8-1-1) winner
I’m in agreement that Chookagian is going to have to wait to see how some upcoming bouts shake out. If that drubbing of Shevchenko is any indication, she’s not letting go of that top-3 ranking anytime soon and even though she said post-fight that she’s eager to cash more fight checks before tackling motherhood, there probably aren’t too many women lining up to take her on right now.
However, you can bet that the winner of Jessica Eye vs. Cynthia Calvillo will be looking to bump Chookagian to the back of the contenders’ line. Eye actually holds a close decision win over Chookagian from December 2018, and there is little doubt Chookagian wants to get that one back; meanwhile, Calvillo can boast a four-fight unbeaten streak if she’s able to defeat Eye. As a fresh challenger, that would be more than enough for the UFC to grant Calvillo a title shot, albeit one in which she’d be a massive underdog to Valentina Shevchenko. Either way, Chookagian gets to stay busy.
Casey Kenney (14-2-1)
MH: Ricky Simon (16-3)
Casey Kenney bounced back from his first UFC loss to Merab Dvalishvili with his first promotional finish against Louis Smolka. Kenney is now 3-1 in his octagon career and hopes to get back in the top-15 of one of the UFC’s deepest divisions.
Although he’s like not there just yet, a fight against another guy that’s on the cusp of having a number next to his name is the way to go. With that, I offer the idea of Kenney returning to face Ricky Simon, who also now owns a win over Ray Borg. Kenney is looking to get back in soon, and I’m sure Simon wouldn’t be too far behind. There’s not much more to add, other than this would be a lot of fun to watch with potential “Fight of the Night” written all over it.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
AL: Brett Johns (16-2)
Kenney is in that sweet spot for a prospect where you could conceivably see him challenging a top-10 contender right now, but there are also plenty of exciting matchups with other up-and-comers. The 29-year-old still has work to do to break away from the middle of the pack and with that in mind, I’d like to see him take on Welshman Brett Johns.
Both fighters are strong grapplers and both showed great composure in rebounding from tough losses. The matchmakers did right by Johns in his most recent fight, giving him a more manageable challenge in Tony Gravely after rushing him into bouts with Pedro Munhoz and Aljamain Sterling. Now that Johns and Kenney are back in the win column, let them scrap it out in a matchup that will be good for the development of both fighters, win or lose.
Agree? Disagree? Leave your reactions and matchup suggestions in the comments below or reach out to us on Twitter at @MikeHeck_JR and @AlexanderKLee.