Matches to Make After UFC 286
One of mixed martial arts’ biggest trilogy showdowns was contested Saturday at the O2 Arena in London. Britain's second Ultimate Fighting Championship champion ever, the fantastic Leon Edwards, sought to defend his newly-won crown against the man he vanquished for it, Kamaru Usman.
We know their backstory well. Edwards and Usman met when they first began in the UFC in 2015, with Usman edging out a close decision. Since then, Usman established himself as one of the sport's greatest champions, starting his tenure in the UFC an incredible 15-0, dominating Tyron Woodley to win the 170 pound crown, and then defending it five straight times against stern opposition in Colby Covington twice, Jorge Masvidal twice and Gilbert Burns.
Edwards, meanwhile, was only 24 when he lost to Usman and had been perfect since, winning 10 straight. None, of course, was bigger than his incredible head kick knockout in the final minute of his rematch against Usman for the title. Usman was up 3 rounds to 1 but decided to allow the superb British kickboxer some space to strike as the fight was winding down. That's all Edwards needed, crashing through with one of the prettiest, most significant head kick knockouts ever.
The rubber match ended up being a pitched battle, with Edwards defending takedowns better than ever and quickly getting back up when he couldn't. Usman had some success with his boxing, but Edwards consistently scored with an array of punches, knees and an endless litany of big kicks to the legs and body. The scoring was further complicated when Herb Dean took a point away from Edwards for blatant cage grabbing in Round 3. Despite this, the right man won as Edwards pocketed a majority decision by scores of 48-46, 48-46 and 47-47.
In the co-main, two of MMA's greatest strikers battled as former UFC interim lightweight champion and two-time title challenger Justin Gaethje took on dynamo Rafael Fiziev. Gaethje was coming off a first-round submission loss to Charles Oliveira for the throne, while Fiziev had won six straight in the UFC since losing his debut, with his biggest triumph being his last, against former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. In the opening seconds of the fifth and final round, Fiziev starched the Brazilian great with a brilliant left hook.
In a thrilling war that fully lived up to its expectations, Fiziev was too slick for Gaethje in the first stanza, but over the next two rounds the American had greater and greater success, punctuated by a big third round. Gaethje scored a well-earned majority decision.
In other significant action, undefeated women's flyweight contender, Scotland's Casey O'Neill, battled former title challenger and stern test in Top 10 veteran Jennifer Maia. Maia proved to be too tough for O'Neill at this stage, winning a clear unanimous decision by outstriking her for three rounds. Lastly, in a meeting of middleweight contenders, Italy's Marvin Vettori fought for 15 uncompromising minutes against Georgia's Roman Dolidze. In a back-and-forth conflict that could have gone either way, Vettori won another decision.
After UFC 286, I would love to see the following matchups:
Leon Edwards vs. Colby CovingtonUFC 286's back-up fighter is also the one who makes the most sense as the next challenger. Who else is there? Edwards may have a personal grudge with Masvidal, but Masvidal is coming off three straight losses in a row and is scheduled to fight Burns anyways. Khamzat Chimaev has beaten exactly one serious welterweight contender and missed weight by a huge amount in his last outing against Kevin Holland. That leaves Covington, who fought on very close and competitive terms against Usman in their rematch. His strikes aren't as powerful as Usman's, but he was faster, which may help in a possible showdown against Edwards. Furthermore, he fights at a faster pace and has a slightly different style of wrestling than Usman, which may also trouble the champion. It would also be a huge entertainment spectacle because of the personalities and trash talk involved.
Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat ChimaevUsman may have come up a little short and may be slightly past his prime, turning 36 in May, but he is still a great fighter with many big matchups available. Why not have him face undefeated sensation Chimaev? Thus far, Chimaev has only beaten one top welterweight contender, Burns, and failed badly in making weight against Holland. Making weight against Usman and defeating the legend would legitimize Chimaev and push his popularity even further, while a loss likely wouldn't hurt much. Similarly, Usman knocking off the phenom would be a very convincing argument for a fourth fight against Edwards. In either scenario, the winner would be a fantastic title challenger while the loser wouldn't be hurt much in terms of status. This would also be a great fight since both men would likely nullify one another's grappling, forcing them to strike, something each has shown they are very capable and willing to do, including taking big risks.
Justin Gaethje vs. Dustin Poirier 2Their first fight was one of the greatest slugfests MMA has ever seen. With both suffering submission losses to Khabib Nurmagomedov and then Charles Oliveira in challenges for the title and being ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively, why not a sequel? It would almost certainly be a Fight of the Year candidate, and likely give the winner one last crack at the world championship.
Jennifer Maia vs. Amanda RibasRibas was seen as a can't miss future champion only two years ago, but since a surprising knockout loss against Marina Rodriguez, has had mixed results. Since moving up to flyweight, Ribas had a controversial split decision against former title challenger Katlyn Chookagian and then edged out talented fellow Brazilian contender Vivane Araujo. She is ranked No. 9 and a battle against Maia, who was No. 8 before her win over O'Neill, would be a great test for her and allow her to move up the rankings if she has what it takes. Additionally, both women can strike and grapple capably and like to fight at an energetic pace, so this will be a fun treat for the fans.
Marvin Vettori vs. Jared CannonierAside from former champions Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, No. 4 ranked Vettori has beaten everyone he has faced since 2017, including many solid contenders. Similarly, No. 3 Cannonier has been victorious against every middleweight except Adesanya and Whittaker since dropping down from light heavyweight. Why not have these two perennial Top 5 UFC contenders face one another? It won't hurt the loser much, while the winner may do enough to get themselves another big fight. And it would be an exciting styles contrast. Vettori can strike and grapple, while Cannonier will look to keep it standing and land big power punches. Can Vettori take Cannonier down and keep him there, something many other skilled strikers have struggled to accomplish? Can Vettori's iron chin weather Cannonier's huge punches? How will Vettori do in the striking?
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