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Derek Brunson shined this weekend against Darren Till, but despite Brunson’s incredible run and dominant finish over a legitimate contender, a title shot may not be coming as quickly as Brunson hopes. Someone who is likely to get a title shot next, Dustin Poirier, might make his last walk to the Octagon on the night of that title fight. We’ll also explain why Contender Series will be different in 2021 and just how big a threat Alexandre Pantoja could be to Brandon Moreno if they were to meet again.
As we look ahead to a busy few months inside the Octagon, Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi want to make sure that you won’t be shocked if some surprising headlines show up on the site. Here’s what you need to know.
Don’t be surprised if … Brunson has to fight again before title shot
Raimondi: Derek Brunson has done more than enough to earn a title shot in the UFC’s middleweight division. He has won five straight, and he really put a stamp on things Saturday afternoon with a third-round submission victory over a popular fighter in Darren Till.
Few have the résumé of Brunson, who has fought just about all the best fighters at 185 pounds over the last nine years, including champion Israel Adesanya, current top contender Robert Whittaker, legend Anderson Silva, stalwart Yoel Romero and more. Brunson lost those bouts, but at 37 years old he is in his prime right now — and deserving of that recognition in the form of a chance at the belt.
However, there’s a solid shot that timing is going to be Brunson’s enemy in this situation. Adesanya is likely to defend against Whittaker, the man who Adesanya took the belt from in 2019, in early 2021. At minimum, that’s four months away. Add in time to recover for the winner of that fight, and if Brunson waits around — which he said he was willing to do — that could put his title shot sometime closer to the halfway point of 2022.
That’s a long time from now. And there’s another factor: Jared Cannonier. Two weeks ago, Cannonier looked strong in beating Kelvin Gastelum, and he has won four of his last five. Brunson might be on a slightly better run, but it’s close enough. Cannonier is surely in the title conversation, too. In a situation like this, it seems like the most logical answer is to just have Brunson and Cannonier fight it out. Maybe put that fight on the Adesanya vs. Whittaker undercard. If something goes wrong with Adesanya or Whittaker, Brunson or Cannonier can step in. And even if not, the two winners will be on the same timeline and can face off in a mini-tournament final.
Brunson clearly wants the title shot and is willing to wait until next spring to get it. I understand that perspective. He’s closer to 40 now than he is 30. His window of opportunity during his peak years won’t be open forever. But with the way the schedule works out now, it sure feels like Brunson will have to extend his impressive winning streak to six straight to get his second shot at the UFC middleweight championship.
Don’t be surprised if… Dustin Poirier retires if he wins a UFC championship
Okamoto: I decided to go bold here. If Poirier were to dethrone Charles Oliveira (that fight might happen in December, but it’s not official), what if he were to walk away? He’d be the second lightweight champion to do so — in his prime — in the last two years. For the record, I’m not predicting this will happen, I’m only saying, don’t be surprised if it does.
The one thing that has eluded Poirier over his 12-year professional career is an undisputed title. It’s the only box he has left to check. He’s described how important that is to him in multiple interviews. If he were to finally get it done in his next fight … would he be all that motivated to stick around and defend it against Justin Gaethje, Michael Chandler, Beneil Dariush or Islam Makhachev?
Honestly, I’m not too sure. Of course, there are also two potential fights out there for Poirier in which titles aren’t the central focus: Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. The paychecks for those fights would be tough to walk away from, but is it possible Poirier would leave them on the table if he’s accomplished everything he wanted in his career? I think it’s entirely possible.
Don’t be surprised if … Contender Series yields more UFC contracts this season than ever before
Wagenheim: We have only one episode to go on, but what a start: five contracts awarded after just four fights. But it’s not the numbers alone that bode well for those who’ll be vying for UFC deals in Season 5’s nine remaining weekly episodes. What also stood out in Week 1 was the types of performances that caught the eye of the UFC brass.
Two of the contracts went to purveyors of knockouts, and that’s a no-brainer. But another fighter was rewarded with a UFC deal after he’d ended his bout by fouling his opponent and being deducted a point. The two other contracts went to both fighters in a close bout. That’s a new one — getting in off a loss. Now, this is not to suggest that any of these five fighters didn’t deserve a ticket to the Octagon. They all fought really well. It’s just that in past seasons it took more than that to get you in the door.
The most famous no-deal example is Brendan Loughnane, who was passed over after an outstanding victory in 2019 (and ended up in the PFL, where he fell one win short of this year’s $1 million championship fight). But he is not alone in showing off skills at least on par with a UFC prelim fighter, only to be turned away. Over the show’s first four seasons, it was mostly knockouts and submissions that were a key to the front door. Others did go the distance and still were chosen for entry, but only after explosive or dominant performances.
Last year’s Season 4 saw 37 contracts awarded, more than any other season. Season 5 is off to a great start in terms of beating that pace, although there’s a long way to go. We’re not likely to see five contacts handed out each week, but something tells me the entrance exam will remain looser. The past 18 months have been difficult for us all, but among the hardest hit are small, regional MMA promotions that are the breeding ground for future major-league talent. With the feeder system not yet back up and running at full speed, the UFC has to find its fighters somewhere.
Don’t be surprised if… Brandon Moreno cruises past Alexandre Pantoja in their third fight
Legaspi: Pantoja was right in his post-fight interview after defeating Brandon Royval on Aug. 21. He claimed that he made Brandon Moreno a better fighter with both of his victories over the current flyweight champion — in 2016, on The Ultimate Fighter, and again in May 2018.
After the dominant performance he had over Moreno in their second fight three years ago in Chile, Moreno learned the extent of his weaknesses in boxing.
Unlike many Mexican fighters, Moreno found success with his jiu-jitsu and wrestling, which is comparable to almost everyone in the division he’s faced since he arrived in the UFC. He proved that by submitting two ranked opponents in his first three fights, right after being eliminated from The Ultimate Fighter by Pantoja.
But that 2018 fight was crucial. Moreno was cut from the UFC after that loss, and the 125-pound division as a whole was in jeopardy.
Pantoja pushed Moreno to add tools to his set, and Moreno started building his boxing skills from scratch. Training in his native Tijuana with Javier “Drift” Cortez — who was part of Antonio Margarito’s corner, and worked with amateurs at Erik Morales’ gym — changed Brandon’s approach to the game and made him a very confident fighter on his feet. He improved his head movement and combinations, which helped him beat dangerous strikers like Kai Kara-France and former champion Deiveson Figueiredo.
Moreno’s confidence has grown as he’s built his undefeated streak to seven fights since the second Pantoja loss.
Pantoja looked explosive against Royval, and he will put pressure on Moreno, who wants to leave those two losses in the past. If Pantoja gets cleared from a left knee injury to fight before the end of the year, he will be a dangerous contender. But when it comes to improvement, the current champion looks like a completely different fighter than the one he dismantled three years ago.