As UFC nears the end of its calendar year, there are still so many unanswered questions, especially among two weight classes that some of the promotion’s top fighters call home.
Leon Edwards‘ fifth-round KO vs. Kamaru Usman at UFC 278 in August was a major shake-up for the welterweight division. What direction do Edwards and the UFC matchmakers want to go? What’s the plan for the other stars at 170?
There’s also plenty of intrigue at heavyweight. Following Francis Ngannou’s title defense in January, the division has been held up as the champ works to recover following knee surgery. But, how does that affect the rest of the division? What options does UFC have in the meantime?
MMA experts Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim look ahead to the storylines that intrigue them the most, including the ongoing saga that is the welterweight division.
Ongoing drama in the welterweight division
The UFC’s featherweight division is still my favorite weight class, as far as the action inside of the Octagon. In terms of storylines for the immediate future — my favorite division has to be welterweight.
The UFC is keen on booking Edwards vs. Usman III in the U.K. There are already discussions underway to make that happen. It’s amazing when you think about how much Edwards was overlooked and avoided in this weight class over recent years. Now, it all runs through him: the belt, Usman’s legacy (it will certainly look different if he loses to the same opponent twice) and all of the money fights at welterweight. Not long ago, guys like Colby Covington and Jorge Masvidal wanted nothing to do with Edwards. That has changed now.
Speaking of Covington and Masvidal, what will shake out with those two by the start of 2023? Covington has been silent since he beat Masvidal in a five-round grudge match and Masvidal allegedly assaulted him outside a Miami restaurant. A criminal case stemming from that incident is still winding its way through court. Will we see some settlement or progress toward a trial before the end of the year? Everyone knows these two are a big part of the UFC’s plans at 170 pounds. The UFC had interest in booking Masvidal against Gilbert Burns, but will Masvidal accept that fight, or sit and wait in the hopes of Edwards retaining the title and possibly getting a title fight? Where does Covington fit into it all?
In addition to that, you’ve got Khamzat Chimaev. The UFC hasn’t tipped its hands on whether or not it wants Chimaev to compete at welterweight again, following his weight miss for a main event bout against Nate Diaz. Does the UFC still see Chimaev as a welterweight title challenger, or will it push him toward a permanent move to middleweight? Chimaev is probably the most talented, fastest-rising welterweight contender the division has ever seen, but will this even be his division moving forward?
This is the marquee division for the UFC right now. The storylines and names involved don’t get much bigger, and that’s reflected in the company’s efforts to get Edwards-Usman III into the U.K., potentially even in a stadium. — Okamoto
What’s happening with the UFC heavyweight title?
As we go into the final months of the UFC calendar year, the elephant in the room is the heavyweight title picture. What exactly is going on here? Francis Ngannou successfully defended his belt in January over former teammate Ciryl Gane in an emotional battle. Ngannou, known for his big punching power, had to outwrestle and outgrapple the crafty Gane due to Ngannou’s blown-out right knee. Ngannou somehow won a decision — a testament to his will and evolving game — and then he had surgery to repair the bad knee in March.
That was six months ago, and the heavyweight title hierarchy has been in a holding pattern since then. Many expected an interim belt to be put on the line, and a fight for that reward between Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic was discussed with a potential target date in July. That still has not come to fruition. Jones is the best light heavyweight of all time; Miocic is the best UFC heavyweight of all time. The matchup sells itself, plus it would be Jones’ debut at heavyweight and his first fight since February 2020.
Why has Miocic vs. Jones not happened? Several reasons. Earlier in the year, sources said, Miocic wasn’t ready. Now, as the months have passed, the UFC has seemed to realize that it has gotten so late in the year that perhaps Ngannou could be ready sooner rather than later. But that doesn’t seem likely, either. Ngannou told ESPN before UFC Paris earlier this month that he likely would not be able to return until early in 2023. Then there’s the question of Ngannou’s contract. His team believes he’ll be a free agent in January, but there is some dispute from the UFC about whether or not that will be the case, per sources.
So, now what? It seems like the UFC will revisit Miocic vs. Jones for the interim title, potentially as early as UFC 282 in December. But that is far from a done deal. On top of that, many questions about Ngannou’s UFC future as champion and his contract status still need to be answered. Ngannou has made it very clear he wants to box, but he’d like to do so while still competing for the UFC, which would be an unprecedented arrangement. With the careers of some of the most legendary and compelling fighters in the balance, these next few months will be exciting as we see exactly how the UFC heavyweight title picture plays out. — Raimondi
Can Islam Makhachev stake his claim to the lightweight title?
The last time Charles Oliveira lost a fight was nearly five years ago in 2017. Makhachev has won 10 fights in a row during a run of success that extends all the way back to 2015. Their meeting at UFC 280 for the vacant lightweight championship is as appealing a crossroads collision as title fights get.
How often do we see two competitors enter the cage with nearly two dozen consecutive victories between them? In addition to seeing who will take home the shiny belt that’s on the line on Oct. 22, we will also get the answer to this tantalizing question: Which of these men will have the clock turned back on him and be reminded of what it feels like to finish a fight as second best?
And yet, I see Oliveira vs. Makhachev — the bout I’m most looking forward to among everything on the MMA schedule for the rest of 2022 — as something even more intriguing than just a matchup of two of the best on the planet. I also view this meeting as a clash of perception and expectations.
Why is that? The first thing that stood out to me when the title fight was booked was that Makhachev opened as a 2-to-1 betting favorite. I’m still trying to figure out the reasoning behind that.
Maybe it’s because we’ve seen Oliveira’s vulnerability in his past three fights. Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje all hurt and knocked down Oliveira before the Brazilian rallied to finish each of them. Meanwhile, Makhachev has just gone out and mauled everyone he has fought. And, the Dagestani has been the betting favorite in all 12 of his appearances in the Octagon — the longest active streak for a fighter to begin a UFC career. So maybe we’re just used to seeing the odds favor Makhachev.
But here’s the thing: Makhachev hasn’t been in the cage with anyone at the level of those three most recent Oliveira conquests. Only one of Makhachev’s UFC opponents, Arman Tsarukyan, is ranked in the promotion’s lightweight top 10. Makhachev didn’t finish Tsarukyan, but he did take him down in all three rounds and, while landing only 14 significant strikes and not threatening a submission, maintained top control for nearly half of the fight.
So maybe Oliveira vs. Makhachev might best be seen through this lens: It’s a clash of unabated dominance vs. strength of schedule.
Perhaps what has swayed public perception was a proclamation by the universally respected Khabib Nurmagomedov. During his run as champ, Nurmagomedov insisted that Makhachev — his lifelong friend and training partner — was heir apparent to the throne. Are we all caught up in a Khabib 2.0 narrative? — Wagenheim