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Sometimes, the next opponent for a given fighter is obvious. Take Israel Adesanya, for example. The Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder’s first defense was almost certainly going to come against Paulo Henrique Costa, until the Brazilian suffered an injury. An unbeaten knockout artist, Costa is the most compelling challenger at this time and has the most momentum. There’s no one who has as good of a claim to a shot as Costa. Jared Cannonier is probably the closest, and Costa clearly has him bested.
Another example coming out of UFC 244 is Katlyn Chookagian. She was the top contender to Valentina Shevchenko’s flyweight title even before winning and adding another bullet point on her resume. The other top challengers in the division have lost to either Chookagian (Joanne Calderwood, Jennifer Maia) or Shevchenko (Jessica Eye, Liz Carmouche). There isn’t an obvious sleeper challenger, either. Maycee Barber is probably the closest thing, but given how young she is in her career, it would be strange to rush her into an opponent as dangerous as Shevchenko.
Other times, the next fight is much less clear. That’s the case on a number of fronts right now in the UFC, particularly following UFC 244 on Saturday in New York. The UFC has some tricky decisions to make with some of its biggest stars, and those decisions have the potential to shape not just the next six months’ cards but also the futures of a number of key fighters. These are the three biggest decisions, the pros and cons of each option and the best move for the UFC to make:
Next Light Heavyweight Title Challenger for Jon Jones
CANDIDATE 1: Corey Anderson
Going into UFC 244, the Jones challenger with the most buzz was the charismatic and spectacular Johnny Walker. That clearly bugged Anderson, and he responded with the sort of impressive knockout that has long eluded him, even in victory. Jones may move up to heavyweight for a superfight next, but when he next defends his light heavyweight crown, there are two obvious choices. Anderson has put himself in that discussion.
Working in Anderson’s favor is that, stylistically, he appears to present more problems for Jones than Dominick Reyes does. Anderson’s the more accomplished wrestler, making it less likely that Jones will be able to exploit a wrestling advantage. Anderson has more reach than Reyes, making it harder for Jones to utilize the reach advantage he has over both men. Anderson also mixes up his approach more than Reyes, and Jones does well against opponents that are easier to game plan against.
Ultimately, Anderson’s case hinges on what you make of his performance against Walker. The over-the-top taunting after the fight ended made Anderson jump out as a personality in a way Reyes never really has yet. It was of course in large part negative attention, but plenty of fights have been sold based on fans wanting a fighter to lose. The problem there is that Jones doesn’t make for the most natural hero riding in to teach Anderson a lesson.
CANDIDATE 2: Dominick Reyes
While Anderson announced his presence as a top contender in a boisterous way, Reyes has always been more subdued. However, he has built a solid resume for title contention. He has won six straight fights in the UFC now, and his victory over Chris Weidman represents the biggest name win that either top challenger possesses.
Reyes also has the added distinction of being undefeated, which is not a minor factor when it comes to lesser-known challengers. If a fighter has never lost, there is an added mystique going against a fighter as accomplished as Jones. More importantly, it is harder to dismiss an underdog challenger when you cannot point to any past losses. With Anderson, whether it’s right or wrong, many fans are going to conclude that if he lost to Ovince St. Preux and Gian Villante, he can’t possibly beat Jones. Reyes doesn’t have that issue.
BEST CHOICE: Reyes
* * *
Next Opponent for Jorge Masvidal
CANDIDATE 1: Nate Diaz
If you surveyed the crowd at Madison Square Garden, it seems highly likely they’d most want to see Masvidal run it back with Diaz next. The doctor’s stoppage finish would have been accepted better under different circumstances, but when the fight was billed as being for the BMF title, it was frustrating for fans to see it end with a doctor making the call. Making a rematch would remove some of that sting, particularly for Diaz’s many fans. Masvidal was clearly interested, as well.
The argument for Masvidal-Diaz 2 is advanced by how well the first fight seemed to catch on. It was unclear how much interest there would be for a made-up title, but by the time the fight took place, it was obvious that the marketing ploy was a smash hit. Fans loved the idea of the first fight, and it’s likely the second would be a crowd pleaser, too. It would stand a good shot at doing better business than Masvidal going for the actual welterweight title.
CANDIDATE 2: Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington Winner
As frustrated as fans were by the doctor stoppage, Masvidal was dominating the fight. Diaz was taking a terrible beating, and the only way he was going to win was by stopping an opponent who hadn’t been stopped in a decade, all with greatly compromised vision. Diaz’s supporters might not want to hear it, but Masvidal doesn’t have anything to prove after the first fight. This is largely how UFC President Dana White seemed to feel, as well.
Masvidal has earned his shot at the UFC welterweight title, and while neither Usman nor Covington is as big of a star as Diaz, Masvidal has an aura of his own, and BMF title vs. welterweight title is a hook that would likely work for many fans. If Covington wins, there’s also a grudge dynamic with the two former training partners. Masvidal is more than ready to fight for the championship.
BEST CHOICE: Usman-Covington Winner
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Next Opponent for Conor McGregor
CANDIDATE 1: Donald Cerrone
Many may consider it distasteful given there are multiple sexual assault accusations against him, but McGregor is likely to return to the Octagon in the near future. Two names are being mentioned as opponents for the fight. The first, Cerrone, has been mentioned as a potential McGregor opponent for years. It’s a natural fight featuring two charismatic stars with crowd-pleasing styles squaring off.
Cerrone is a bigger star than Justin Gaethje at this point, as fans know him and his persona well. He’s also likely a safer opponent for McGregor. Cerrone hasn’t looked his best in consecutive TKO losses, and he’s six years older than Gaethje. The UFC would surely like to see its big moneymaker in McGregor get a win that would set him up for an even bigger fight next time out.
CANDIDATE 2: Gaethje
One of the underappreciated keys to McGregor’s career success has been the way he has always taken on challenges. Even as he experienced success, he continued to seek out even bigger mountains to climb rather than defending what he already accomplished. A fight with Cerrone would end that trend. Cerrone has lost two straight fights, and McGregor would have much more to lose in defeat than he would have to win in victory. By contrast, Gaethje is the hot new thing, and he’s coming off three consecutive first-round knockouts. A win over Gaethje would announce that McGregor is back in a way that a win over Cerrone wouldn’t. A loss to Gaethje also wouldn’t hurt McGregor as much as a loss to Cerrone.
There’s another strong reason to go with Gaethje, and that’s the upside that goes both ways. If McGregor wins, he’s back in the top mix. However, if Gaethje wins following the notoriety that comes with a McGregor fight, he’d likely be a major superstar in the sport. Gaethje is one of the most naturally marketable fighters in MMA given his fighting style, and this is the chance to take him to a higher level. Cerrone has more limited upside given how well he is already known and the fact that he’s in the twilight of his prime. This one ought to be an easy call.
BEST CHOICE: Gaethje
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.