Matches to Make After UFC 254

By Brian Knapp Oct 25, 2020

Someone wants another crack at Israel Adesanya.

Robert Whittaker likely cemented himself as the No. 1 contender for Adesanya’s undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title, as he laid claim to a unanimous decision over divisional upstart Jared Cannonier in the UFC 254 co-main event on Saturday at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. All three judges scored it 29-28 for the former 185-pound champion.

Cannonier zeroed in on the New Zealand-born Aussie’s legs with repeated kicks—in fact, they accounted for nearly half of the significant strikes he landed—and made a concerted effort to weaken his base. The plan was unsuccessful. Whittaker absorbed the punishment without much issue, answered with sharp combinations to the head and relied heavily on a damaging jab. He staggered Cannonier with a lightning-quick jab-cross-head kick burst in the third round that had “The Killa Gorilla” stumbling across the cage on unsteady legs, but he was ultimately denied a finish. The MMA Lab rep cleared the cobwebs and managed to return fire late, as he dazed Whittaker with a slashing right hand before being lured into the clinch and watching the remaining tick off the clock.

In the aftermath of UFC Fight Night 254 “Khabib vs. Gaethje,” here are five matches that ought to be made:

Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya: More than a year has passed since Adesanya ended Whittaker’s 660-day reign atop the middleweight division. Perhaps the time has come for the sequel. Adesanya has rocketed to superstardom since he joined the UFC roster in 2018, as he has rattled off nine consecutive victories to improve to 20-0 overall. While his run was highlighted by a second-round knockout of Whittaker, it also includes wins over Yoel Romero, Kelvin Gastelum, Anderson Silva, Derek Brunson and Brad Tavares. Adesanya last appeared at UFC 253, where he buried the previously unbeaten Paulo Costa with punches and elbows 3:59 into the second round of their Sept. 26 encounter. Costa entered the cage with a perfect 13-0 mark and walked out having been thoroughly beaten by a superior martial artist.

Justin Gaethje vs. Conor McGregor: Gaethje experienced the same cold reality as the 28 men who preceded him, as he turned away by the incomparable Khabib Nurmagomedov in failed bid to capture the undisputed lightweight crown. Nurmagomedov choked the former World Series of Fighting champion unconscious with a triangle 94 seconds into the second round of their headliner, then announced his retirement from the sport with a spotless 29-0 record. His departure leaves a Grand Canyon-sized void in the 155-pound weight class, but it also affords opportunities for his contemporaries—opportunities that did not previously exist. Would the UFC consider a tournament to crown a new lightweight champion in 2021? The ingredients for something utterly spectacular are in place: Imagine a field that features Gaethje, McGregor, Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier, with former Bellator MMA lightweight titleholder Michael Chandler, Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira and Paul Felder also worthy of consideration.

Alexander Volkov vs. Alistair Overeem: Because of his epic late-fight implosion against Derrick Lewis and his lopsided decision loss to Curtis Blaydes, Volkov has become something of a forgotten man in the heavyweight division. Nevertheless, the former Bellator and M-1 Global champion won for the sixth time in eight Octagon appearances, as he disposed of Walt Harris with a front kick to the body and follow-up punches 1:15 into the second round of their heavyweight showcase. Volkov put his height and reach advantages to optimal use yet again, kept the Alabama native at his preferred range and probed for weaknesses until the opportunity to finish presented itself. Still just 32 years old, “Drago” remains a dark horse contender in a weight class he one day aims to rule. Overeem last competed at UFC Fight Night 176 on Sept. 5, when he dispatched Augusto Sakai with fifth-round ground-and-pound.

Lauren Murphy vs. Cynthia Calvillo: The resurgent Murphy authored the first submission win of her decade-long career when she tapped promotional newcomer Liliya Shakirova with a rear-naked choke in the second round of their women’s flyweight feature. A short-notice substitution for the fourth-ranked Calvillo, Shakirova conceded defeat 3:31 into Round 2. Murphy waded through some initial difficulty against the hyperactive Uzbekistani prospect, waited for fatigue to take hold and made her move. The former Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder now finds herself on a four-fight winning streak, her stock in the 125-pound weight class on the rise. Calvillo—who tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of UFC 254—has not fought since she outpointed Jessica Eye to a unanimous decision in the UFC on ESPN 10 main event in June.

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker: Ankalaev settled his score with Ion Cutelaba in their long-delayed rematch, as he wrecked the Moldovan brute with punches 4:19 into the first round. The Gorets Fight Team export countered an ill-advised Cutelaba backfist with a devastating left hook, trailed him to the floor and turned out the lights with a flurry of punches and hammerfists. The 28-year-old Ankalaev continues to distance himself from an embarrassing last-second loss to Paul Craig in March 2018 and will carry a five-fight winning streak into his next assignment, likely against a Top 10 opponent. Walker on Sept. 19 rebounded from back-to-back defeats to Corey Anderson and Nikita Krylov, as the explosive Brazilian survived a near-finish to tear through Ryan Spann with punches and elbows in the first round of their UFC Fight Night 178 battle.
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