Matches to Make After UFC 263

By Ben Duffy Jun 13, 2021


UFC 263 was a great night for Mexican MMA and its first homegrown UFC champion, Brandon Moreno.

After decades of courting its boxing-mad southern neighbor — and the Spanish-speaking U.S. fan base — with Mexican-American stars ranging from Tito Ortiz to Cain Velasquez to Henry Cejudo, the Ultimate Fighting Championship today is flush with contenders who actually hail from Mexico and the rest of Spanish-speaking Latin America. But that’s a narrative about the UFC and the sport in general: Saturday’s biggest story was the 27-year-old “Assassin Baby” who put on a shockingly dominant performance in his rematch with UFC flyweight champ Deiveson Figueiredo on his way to a second-round submission win. It completes an unlikely character arc that began with Moreno as a “TUF” afterthought and onetime UFC washout, and leaves him now in need of a first challenger.

While Moreno’s title win was the emotional climax of UFC 263, it wasn’t even the main event. Israel Adesanya capped off the title doubleheader with a one-sided win over Marvin Vettori, reestablishing his dominance over the middleweight division and showing that his loss to 205-pound champ Jan Blachowicz earlier this year was not a game plan the average 185-pounder is going to be able to emulate. “The Last Stylebender,” despite having just 10 middleweight fights in the UFC, is looking down at a Top 10 strewn with the wreckage of fighters he has already defeated. In the wake of UFC 263, here are some matches that ought to be made:

Israel Adesanya vs. Robert Whittaker: After Adesanya’s crushing defeat of Whittaker to win the title 20 months ago, it seemed fair to ask how much “Bobby Knuckles” would need to do before anyone was ready to see a rematch. It turns out that the answer is: win three straight fights over Top 10 opponents, while Adesanya cleans out the division to the point that he tries to win a second belt. Whittaker will likely be a serious underdog against the champ, but that isn’t really the point; so will everyone else at middleweight for the foreseeable future. Until someone like Jared Cannonier or Jack Hermansson can string together enough solid wins to merit a title shot, Adesanya may be stuck granting second chances to fighters he’s already beaten convincingly. It’s legacy time.

Brandon Moreno vs. Askar Askarov: Even before the rear-naked choke finish, Moreno’s performance against Figueiredo was simply stunning. He appeared to be moving at twice the speed of the Brazilian, stinging him repeatedly with a lightning jab, outwrestling him and getting much the better of the scrambles that are normally Figueiredo’s wheelhouse. Because the win was so dominant, and because it might point to serious problems making the flyweight limit for “Deus da Guerra,” I’m projecting — and hoping — that the UFC does not book an immediate rematch. If not Figueiredo, then whom? Assuming he has put his own weight issues behind him, Askarov is the obvious choice. The undefeated Dagestani has won three straight since a draw with Moreno in his UFC debut.

Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington winner: It was a weird fight, and Edwards detractors and Nate Diaz apologists will make much of Diaz having him in serious trouble in the final minute of the fight, but the main story of Saturday’s feature fight was Edwards outgunning Diaz badly in every phase of MMA while Diaz goofed around. It might not be a title shot-clinching performance if not for the fact that Edwards deserved the shot even before this fight. Now on a 10-fight unbeaten streak since losing to Usman and with the champ himself saying Edwards has earned his shot, all would seem to be in place, except that the UFC appears to be planning to have Usman and Covington rematch first. Unless Edwards wants to risk his place in line to do something like conclude his unfinished business with Jorge Masvidal, he should stand pat and get his long-delayed shot at the belt.

Belal Muhammad vs. Neil Magny: “Remember the Name” added a big name to his résumé, taking a unanimous decision over legendary grappler Demian Maia. While Maia is clearly near the end of his road at 43, he remains a dangerous foe who has only lost to the very elite of the division. Muhammad is just outside that select club, looking in, unbeaten in his last five fights. He probably needs one more win before a true top contenders’ fight is undeniable. Magny, who defeated Geoff Neal last month at UFC on ESPN 24 and is peaking at age 33, finds himself in a similar place. Let them sort out who is Chicago’s best welterweight, and give the winner a Top 5 opponent.

Paul Craig vs. Ovince St. PreuxMaxim Grishin winner: Craig had one obvious route to victory on Saturday, and damned if he didn’t take it. Faced with an undefeated rising knockout artist in Jamahal Hill, “The Bearjew” pulled guard, then chained together several nasty-looking submission attempts from his back before securing an armbar that contorted Hill’s arm in one of the most grisly finishes of the year. Thanks to a miserable showing by the referee, the fight dragged on at least 10 seconds longer than it should have, but that should not reflect on Craig, who clearly did not want to inflict undue damage on Hill despite the bad blood between the two ahead of the fight. Craig is now 4-0-1 in his last five fights, and is nearly two years removed from his last loss. He is emerging as a fringe contender at light heavyweight, and has earned a fight that will at least catapult him the rest of the way there. St. Preux and Grishin face off in two weeks at UFC Fight Night 190. The winner would be a suitable next step for the surging Scot.

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