Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 8 featured several razor-close fights, including two split decisions on the main card, as well as several upward-trending fighters who hit speed bumps in Jacksonville. With that being that case, it shouldn’t be too hard to find appropriate matchups for some of the vanquished.
Here are some ideas:
Walt Harris vs. Fabricio Werdum 2: Harris walked into the cage at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena as the sentimental favorite of any observer with a pulse. He walked out the same fighter we’ve known for the last couple of years: a borderline Top-15 heavyweight with numbing power—even by heavyweight standards—and well-established vulnerabilities in the wrestling and grappling departments. “The Big Ticket” mauled Alistair Overeem badly enough in the first round of their main-event tilt in Jacksonville that it was mildly surprising that the referee didn’t stop it. It doesn’t make sense for Harris, who was that close to his third straight first-round finish, to take too much of a step back.
Werdum presents an interesting challenge. While “Vai Cavalo” is a far more historically accomplished fighter than Harris, he just returned from a two-year suspension and dropped a close decision a week ago at UFC 249 to Alexey Oleynik, whom Harris annihilated in 12 seconds last summer. Harris and Werdum met in 2017, with the Brazilian getting an almost comically easy submission win in a match made the day before the fight. While Werdum is obviously light-years ahead of Harris on the ground under the best of circumstances, swapping him in for Mark Godbeer on 12 hours' notice is not a recipe for looking one's best. A rematch would be a chance for Harris to show that he is still shoring up the holes in his game at 36, or for Werdum, who looked flat and a bit out of shape against Oleynik, to prove he is serious about making another run at age 42. Link it up.
Angela Hill vs. Michelle Waterson: Hill on Saturday dropped a very close split decision—which this writer actually thought she won—against a Top 10 opponent in Claudia Gadelha. That leaves “Overkill” in a tricky situation. While she is unquestionably improving and coming into her own, the loss makes it difficult to book her against an opponent ranked higher than Gadelha, yet Hill’s long tenure and Donald Cerrone-esque schedule mean that she has already fought just about everyone ranked between No. 7 and No. 15.
One notable exception to that rule is Waterson, who dropped a split decision of her own to Carla Esparza at UFC 249. Waterson and Hill have somehow avoided meeting despite spending years together in Invicta FC and the UFC, most of it in the same division. Waterson’s reputation as the “Karate Hottie” contrasts with a reality in which she is equally happy to lean on her underrated offensive wrestling. The matchup would deliver either a suitable stylistic challenge for Hill or a likely “Fight of the Night” contender. Either way, it’s the match to make.
Edson Barboza vs. Mirsad Bektic: If there are any moral victories in MMA, Barboza managed one on Saturday. While he dropped a split decision to the surging Dan Ige, Barboza showed little or none of the expected ill effects of dropping down a weight class. His gas tank left him able to throw effective offense for the full 15 minutes, and his chin appeared no worse for the weight cut, as he took some of the Hawaiian bruiser’s heaviest shots and was able to recover. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the blueprint for beating Barboza remains the same—crowd him, make him back up, deny him the time or space to uncoil his lethal kicking game—and Ige was able to follow it well enough to net the win. The result was a setback on Barboza’s record, but one that appears leave the door open to a continued run at featherweight.
An interesting next opponent for Barboza would be Bektic, who was at this time last year a borderline Top 10 featherweight but has suffered back-to-back setbacks to rising contenders Ige—also by narrow split decision—and Josh Emmett in his last two fights. Bektic, for whom Barboza would represent one of the biggest names available, especially coming off two losses, offers a well-rounded skill set and a probable advantage in brute strength. He would be likely to oblige Barboza on the feet, but would have the clinch and the takedown as safety valves if things were not to his liking.
Marlon Vera vs. Manel Kape: It feels wrong to penalize Vera, normally a bantamweight, for losing an ultra-close decision at featherweight to one of the promotion’s hottest rising prospects in Yadong Song, who carried a 4-0-1 UFC mark into the Octagon. Assuming “Chito” intends to move back down to 135 pounds, he would be an ideal welcoming party for Kape, who signed with the UFC six weeks ago.
Kape, who vacated the Rizin FF title to sign with the UFC, last fought on New Year’s Eve and if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, would likely have fought for his new promotion already. By the time that is a realistic possibility, Vera should be just about ready for his next fight. Vera’s combination of slick grappling and “all hard stuff, all the time” kickboxing would make for a dynamite matchup with Kape, who offers many of the same things. In many other weight classes, a sitting champion from another promotion would be booked much higher for his UFC debut, but Kape is entering a division with a serious logjam at the top, and his Rizin shine is not quite as bright as it would have been if he had won the belt by going through Kyoji Horiguchi. A matchup against Vera, who was on a five-fight tear at 135 pounds—all of them finishes—would be a great test of where both men stand in the UFC bantamweight division.