With a rare off week on the UFC calendar, it’s a good moment to take a step back and look at the biggest stories across several key divisions, with each having its own questions surrounding the championship and the greater title picture.
The heavyweight division is seemingly headed toward a rematch of one of the most disappointing fights of the past decade, rather than a megafight between the increasingly unstoppable champion, Francis Ngannou, and one of the pound-for-pound greatest of all time, Jon Jones. Will Derrick Lewis ultimately get that shot? And if so, what does it mean for Jones and the rest of the division moving forward?
The story at lightweight and bantamweight is the incredible depth in each division. Can recently crowned champions Aljamain Sterling and Charles Oliveira hold off a deep line of challengers ready to knock them off, and if so, for how long?
Our panel of MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy — digs in to separate what’s real from what’s not.
Real or not: Francis Ngannou’s first title defense will be against Derrick Lewis
UFC president Dana White even alluded to this on Saturday’s postfight show. He said they were “working on” something for Ngannou on Aug. 7. That something, as of right now, I’m told, is Derrick Lewis. They’ve pretty much moved on from Jon Jones, and those talks never really got going. The heavyweight title bout in question, which would be a rematch of a fight that happened in July 2018 and was won by Lewis, isn’t signed just yet, sources said — but it’s the direction they have been going in for quite some time.
Honestly I feel like the only people that it benefits, me jumping in their early are the other heavy weights. The way I’m training, I’m gonna be a real problem this time next year. I’m comfortable enough to wait and that’s exactly what I’ll do
— BONY (@JonnyBones) May 25, 2021
If you ask me, both sides never truly made a good-faith effort to get the Ngannou-Jones megafight done. It’s unfortunate, but the presence of Lewis, who is quite popular in his own right, took pressure off the UFC to make the Jones fight. When there is a solid plan B in place, it’s easy to move on.
I suspect they’ll make this rematch and then revisit the Jones heavyweight title fight afterward. Jones versus Ngannou after a win over Lewis, or Jones versus Lewis would be equally massive.
And I feel comfortable saying Ngannou-Lewis 2 will be much better than the first one. The bar isn’t high, but that’s a guarantee. This will be the rare sequel that is better than the original. These things happen in MMA sometimes. (See: Lawler-MacDonald 2).
Brett Okamoto discusses Kamaru Usman’s dominance of the welterweight division and how it compares to Georges St-Pierre’s run.
Real or not: There’s nothing to discuss at welterweight. Next for Kamaru Usman is Colby Covington
Wagenheim: Everyone knows the next title fight at 170 pounds should be Usman vs. Covington 2. The one person in position to make his opinion matter, UFC president Dana White, has been talking about the rematch practically since their first meeting, when Usman stopped Covington in the fifth round of a terrific fight on Dec. 14, 2019. As recently as a month ago, White said, “It’s the fight to make.” But let’s not be naive. The above statement should be real, but it’s not. Every day that passes without an announcement brings with it reasonable concern that the fight could end up scuttled.
Consider what’s happening with Covington’s old junior college roommate, Jones. He should be preparing for a challenge of new heavyweight champion Ngannou, which is by far the biggest fight the UFC could make. Instead, White is spinning a narrative of Jones not wanting to fight. Preposterous, right? Well, White knows he can get away with nonsensical claims about a fighter his audience doesn’t fully embrace, whether it be for Jones’ out-of-cage transgressions, his social media behavior or other reasons.
The same holds true for Covington. Some fans don’t love his bad actor persona and will not stand up for him. So if Covington holds out for a payday he believes is befitting a huge fight, White could turn around and offer the title shot to the winner of the June 12 fight between Leon Edwards and Nate Diaz. The UFC boss might say Colby doesn’t really want the fight, and many who follow the sport would go along with it without raising objections.
Usman might even decide he’d rather defend against Diaz, who would be the biggest name out there if he beats Edwards. To me, a champion picking his own challenger is problematic. Unfortunately, it would not be unprecedented, even for a champ as great as Usman. He pushed for the bigger name for his last defense, in April, calling for a rematch with Jorge Masvidal instead of one with the higher-ranked Covington. So who knows if “the fight to make” will actually make it to the Octagon this time.
Charles Oliveira celebrates his TKO vs. Michael Chandler with Joe Rogan, Dana White and by going into the Houston crowd
Real or not: Oliveira will still be champion in 12 months
Murphy: I don’t think this is real, and it has very little to do with Oliveira and his incredible rise to the throne of MMA’s deepest division. In fact, it’s that very depth that makes me reluctant to get too comfortable with Oliveira as lightweight king.
Some argue — including the UFC rankings prior to Oliveira’s win over Michael Chandler — that Dustin Poirier is a better fighter in the division. He and Conor McGregor meet in July in a trilogy fight that doubles as a probable No. 1 contender fight — that in a different promotion might have been a semifinal to the Lightweight Grand Prix, for which Oliveira would already be in the final. Early odds have Oliveira as an underdog to either challenger.
Throw in the ever-present Justin Gaethje and the fast-rising Beneil Dariush, whose résumé is strikingly similar to Oliveira’s prior to UFC 262, and there remain too many sharks in the water, even absent Khabib Nurmagomedov. While a plurality of people might vote Oliveira as champion heading into Summer 2022 — largely because the belt carries weight beyond its 12 pounds — I don’t think he’d carry a majority of that ballot. It’s more likely than not someone will usurp him as the planet’s best at 155 pounds, returning the division to the parity it has historically enjoyed.
Real or not: Israel Adesanya has already cleaned out the middleweight division
Raimondi: There might be some evidence to support this statement. Adesanya is defending the UFC middleweight title at UFC 263 on June 12 against Marvin Vettori, a man he has already defeated. If Adesanya beats Vettori, his next challenger will likely be Robert Whittaker, who Adesanya knocked out to win the title. I can see why the “cleaning out” discussion has surfaced. But with all that being said, Adesanya has still not done enough to clean out the division. This is not real.
Firstly, Adesanya has all of two title defenses. Compare that to the greatest middleweight in MMA history, Anderson Silva. He had 10. Adesanya is not even close to that rarefied air, and there is more talent in the middleweight division now than there was during Silva’s reign. Whittaker, for instance, is a better foil for Adesanya than anyone Silva had, with all due respect to the likes of Chael Sonnen. Whittaker is the former champion and has looked good in three straight wins since Adesanya beat him.
On top of all that, Adesanya is coming off a loss. No, it was not in the middleweight division; it was a light heavyweight title challenge against Jan Blachowicz at UFC 259 in March. But we should probably see Adesanya on some kind of winning streak before we start talking about divisions being cleaned out. He is not yet established as a dominant champion.
We can revisit a conversation like this at the conclusion of 2021. If Adesanya is able to beat Vettori and Whittaker again, there is an argument to be made that he has cleaned out the middleweight division. Those will not be easy tasks. Vettori was one of Adesanya’s more difficult opponents on his way to the belt, and Vettori has only gotten better in the past three years. Whittaker is regarded as the clear No. 2 at 185 pounds behind Adesanya, and few would blink if Whittaker puts on a much better showing in a rematch. Adesanya knocked him out in the second round in October 2019.
Even with those two victories in his back pocket, Adesanya might have work to do. If Darren Till beats Derek Brunson in August, Till would be a formidable challenger — a fact Adesanya has already acknowledged. Then there’s Uriah Hall, who has won four straight and can put himself in title conversation with a win over Sean Strickland in August. It’s possible Adesanya has to get through them to really “clean out” the division.
I do expect Adesanya to go up to light heavyweight in the future, and maybe take a bit longer to put on weight and prepare for bigger men who will surely wrestle him. But there is no shortage of work to do right now at middleweight. Either way, it should be fun to watch.
Aljamain Sterling says he’ll be cautious about when he returns and describes texting Dana White after the bout while in the hospital.
Real or not: Over the next several years, one dominant champion will emerge in the bantamweight division
Okamoto: Not real. This belt is going to continue to change hands for the foreseeable future, perhaps more so than any other division in the UFC. Right now, the guy to beat, in my opinion, is Petr Yan. I think Aljamain Sterling has taken a lot of unwarranted criticism for what happened in their title fight back in March — when he became the first fighter in UFC history to win a belt by disqualification after Yan landed an illegal knee — but at the same time, as far as becoming the man to beat at 135 pounds, it’s not Sterling. It’s Yan.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 23, 2021
And if there is one guy in the division who can string together multiple title defenses, I still believe it’s Yan. But at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone holds onto this belt longer than one title defense in the coming years. It’s too even at the top. Rob Font has emerged as a legitimate title contender, and I wouldn’t count him out against any of the top names. Cory Sandhagen might be the most dangerous contender in the division, because he’s so unpredictable.
TJ Dillashaw has some questions to answer coming back from a long suspension, but you’re talking about a guy who, in his prime, was probably a top-five pound-for-pound fighter in the world. There’s some new blood making its way up the rankings as well, but just between those top names — Sterling, Yan, Font, Sandhagen, Dillashaw — I believe we could see the belt move between them multiple times over the coming years.