- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
UFC 259 featured some of the expected and some of the unexpected. Jan Blachowicz used his superior grappling and defeated Israel Adesanya to retain the light heavyweight title and Amanda Nunes submitted Megan Anderson to retain her role as champ-champ. Some could have predicted those outcomes, and maybe some would’ve figured Aljamain Sterling to win as well, but its how Sterling became champion that was a moment to remember on Saturday night. Petr Yan hit Sterling with an illegal knee, causing a disqualification and crowning a new champion at 135 pounds.
Before the three championship fights, the talk was all about Islam Makhachev, who dominated Drew Dober for two rounds before submitting him in the third, and Dominick Cruz, who earned his first UFC victory since 2016.
What’s ahead for the champions and the standouts at UFC 259? The UFC has a few intriguing matchmaking options.
Jan Blachowicz, light heavyweight (defeated Israel Adesanya by unanimous decision)
Who should be next: Glover Teixeira
Really, this is the only correct answer here. There were some who were actually upset that Blachowicz’s fight on Saturday was against Adesanya and not Teixeira, as Teixeira has done so much to earn the spot (five consecutive wins, including four finishes). I think that anger was a little misdirected — Adesanya had also earned a right to chase history — but I love the fact fans are in favor of this fight.
This fight would not be the most attractive matchup from a marketing sense. Teixeira is 41, and doesn’t offer a ton of mystique as a title challenger, and a matchup between Blachowicz and Teixeira will be completely void of any type of trash talk. However, that shouldn’t override the fact Teixeira has done more than anyone in the division to earn this spot, and it should go to him next.
After beating Adesanya, Blachowicz agreed that Teixeira deserved the next title shot.
Wild card: Jiri Prochazka The only reason I’m even including Prochazka here is A) ESPN likes me to pick a wild card and, B) I know how high the UFC is on him.
If he looks great against a former title challenger in Dominick Reyes in May, and for whatever reason, Teixeira is unavailable, he would be the most likely option. But the real answer here is Teixeira all the way.
Israel Adesanya, light heavyweight/middleweight (lost to Blachowicz by unanimous decision)
Who should be next: Robert Whittaker, if Whittaker defeats Paulo Costa on April 17
This is not the first time I’ve campaigned to see Whittaker get a title shot. I thought he did enough in 2020 to warrant the opportunity, although I understand why Adesanya wanted to chase a second belt instead. But Whittaker, in my mind, is already the rightful No. 1 contender, he’s just waiting on the champ to return.
You have to respect the fact Whittaker is willing to take another fight — a very tough fight — while he waits, with no interim title attached to it. Had Whittaker said, ‘You know what, I’m going to enjoy the first half of 2021 and take my well-earned title shot in the summer,’ no one could have blamed him. If he goes out and beats Costa in April, you have to give him the opportunity to reclaim his belt against Adesanya next.
Wild card: Winner of Darren Till vs. Marvin Vettori on April 10
Even though he’s not a champ-champ, Adesanya is still a star — so, he has some sway in who he fights next. And he’s made no secret that at middleweight, the name that interests him most is Till.
I don’t think the UFC could justify booking that fight if Whittaker wins on April 17, since Till lost to Whittaker recently, but if Whittaker suffers a defeat to Costa, the door will be wide open for Till.
Amanda Nunes, bantamweight/featherweight (defeated Megan Anderson by first-round submission)
Who should be next: Julianna Peña, if Peña defeats Holly Holm on May 8
Peña is currently No. 6 in the UFC rankings, but that number will rise significantly if she can beat Holm in May. Nunes just beat Holm in July 2019. Now, that doesn’t mean they can’t fight again, but it feels like it’s too soon, even if Holm looks great against Peña.
Peña would be a sizable underdog to Nunes, as all challengers are, but she does bring an interesting style matchup. Her latest win against Sara McMann was an impressive one. McMann hasn’t recorded a ton of wins in recent years for a variety of reasons, but stylistically, I thought her wrestling pedigree would present a tough matchup for Peña. Peña showed growth, fight IQ and skill in submitting her in the third round. Peña has confidence, finishing ability and athleticism. I think she’d be an interesting title challenger for Nunes, if she gets by Holm.
Wild card: Aspen Ladd
Ladd is coming back from knee surgery in 2020, and she’s not that far removed from a loss to Germaine de Randamie two appearances ago. Frankly, she’d likely benefit from more time to prepare for a challenge like Nunes. But when you have a champion as dominant as Nunes, you tend to churn through a lot of challengers in a shorter period of time, and truth be told, this opportunity was probably always going to come on the fast track for the 26-year-old Ladd.
Beyond rematches, there aren’t a ton of interesting options for Nunes. It’s a short list, and Ladd is on it.
Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan, bantamweights
What should be next: A rematch
Man, this was a bummer for everyone involved. There’s nothing more you can do. At the end of the day, Yan should have been under control with the strikes he threw. It was an egregiously bad illegal knee, and there was no way Sterling could continue. You can’t do anything but run it back.
Islam Makhachev, lightweight (defeated Drew Dober by third-round submission)
Who should be next: Charles Oliveira
This would not be the most fair move for Oliveira, who is on an 8-fight win streak and could easily be fighting for a championship in his next bout under different circumstances. But here’s the thing, we’re not under different circumstances.
We’re at a bit of a logjam and likely facing a four-man tournament featuring Dustin Poirier, Conor McGregor, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler. Those are the four I believe the UFC will build its immediate future on at lightweight, so where does that leave Oliveira? He needs to fight again, and Makhachev is the guy.
Makhachev has now won seven in a row. I’m not convinced he wouldn’t be favored against any other lightweight in the division right now. Oliveira is the fight.
Wild card: Rafael dos Anjos
This fight was supposed to happen a couple times last year, but fell through for different reasons. It would certainly make sense to make it again, and dos Anjos isn’t one to shy away from difficult fights — but to me, Makhachev’s hype is red hot right now. I’m not saying he’d be a lock to beat dos Anjos, at all, but I think his stock is high enough right now, he’s been so tantalizingly good, his teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov is exiting the sport, I want to see the UFC put him on the fast track.
Elevate him all the way and let’s see, truly, how good he is. Oliveira is the best fight, but dos Anjos would also be a heck of a matchup.
Dominick Cruz, bantamweight (defeated Casey Kenney by split decision)
Who should be next: Jose Aldo
WEC/UFC royalty, man. Not to mention, the best bantamweight of all time vs. the best featherweight of all time (arguably, at least). This matchup would have loads of history in it, and it’s absolute fire stylistically.
I was very impressed with Cruz on Saturday. It wasn’t a one-sided, dominant performance, but that was never to be expected. Kenney is very good, young and hungry — this was never going to be a breeze for Cruz. I thought he shook off any lingering rust well, made adjustments when he needed to and showed up big in a critical third round.
Aldo is coming off a terrific performance against Marlon Vera in his last performance. What a fight. What a buildup it would be. Just the thought of these two sharing the Octagon with one another, staring each other down before the fight. Give me this.
Wild card: Frankie Edgar Speaking of royalty, Edgar falls in the same category as Cruz and Aldo. I know he’s coming off a devastating knockout loss to Cory Sandhagen last month, but the fact is he’s still highly ranked (higher than Cruz going into Saturday) and 1-1 in his new home of 135 pounds. When I look around the top of the bantamweight division, there are a lot of matchups that make sense for Cruz. But none more than these two, legend vs. legend fights.
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