Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi react to the biggest moments at Saturday’s UFC 291 in Salt Lake City and offer thoughts on what might be ahead for the standouts. Jeff Wagenheim adds his perspective on the Bellator and Rizin co-branded event.
“The Highlight” has options: Makhachev or McGregor?
Raimondi: Justin Gaethje is now the UFC’s BMF champion. And his win over Dustin Poirier via a vicious second-round head kick at UFC 291 might have opened up more doors for him than we thought.
Right after Gaethje won, he said the obvious — that he wanted a shot at the UFC lightweight title next. Islam Makhachev will defend the belt next against Charles Oliveira at UFC 294 on Oct. 21. Gaethje, without much of a debate, should get the winner after a decisive victory over Poirier. But in the aftermath of Gaethje’s triumph, Conor McGregor took to social media and said, in no uncertain words, that if Gaethje wants to put up the BMF belt against him, it’s Gaethje’s fight. McGregor added “f— Chandler,” referencing the planned fight for him against Michael Chandler, which was set up on this season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show. McGregor and Chandler are coaching against one another.
There was a time when Gaethje wanted the McGregor fight more than anything. In January 2020, McGregor fought Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Gaethje also was an option at the time, and he was calling for it. But McGregor has lost back-to-back fights against Poirier and is coming off a broken leg, and his return date is still up in the air. McGregor isn’t even in the United States Anti-Doping Agency drug-testing pool. Gaethje said last year to MMA Fighting that if McGregor is on steroids, he’ll fight him if he also is allowed to use steroids.
It’s doubtful if Gaethje would be interested in that fight right now. He has made it clear that he wants one last run at the UFC lightweight title, and he’s in the driver’s seat at this point. But he’ll have to give a long look at the possibility of a McGregor fight. Poirier was able to make life-changing money by beating McGregor, who is the biggest star in the history of the UFC. Gaethje won’t be able to bag that kind of cash against Makhachev or Oliveira. And let’s say Gaethje does fight McGregor next and wins. A title shot would still be there for him, just like it was for Poirier after he won his trilogy with “The Notorious.”
The other question here is, what about Chandler? He was promised the McGregor fight and went through “The Ultimate Fighter” season with him under the impression that it was his fight. McGregor has kind of left him hanging. No one is sure when McGregor is coming back. UFC president Dana White said earlier this month that a McGregor return is too premature to discuss. That can’t be a great sign for Chandler, who has been a company man for the UFC since coming over from Bellator. Now, McGregor is clearly calling for a fight against another opponent.
Another possible opponent who, by the way, likely doesn’t even want to fight McGregor.
McGregor, in his tweet, said he calls the shots. But it feels like the ball — and the BMF belt — is in Gaethje’s court.
The UFC should stop “El Cucuy”
Okamoto: It’s not an unpopular take. Nor is it a new take. But we’ve reached that point.
It’s been a minute since anyone felt really good about Tony Ferguson continuing his career. He has lost a step. That was apparent Saturday in his loss by submission to Bobby Green in what was Ferguson’s sixth straight defeat (after winning 12 in a row). It’s OK to make that observation and put it out there. In fact, it’s important to make that observation and put it out there. Ferguson’s career has caught up to him, as it does for every fighter to put on the gloves. Ferguson is the kind of guy to read this and take it as a personal attack. He’s like that. It’s what has made him so popular. Nothing is impossible for him. He believes in himself in any and every situation, and I do no doubt that Ferguson still believes he has plenty of years left in this sport and is fully capable of reaching the top of the mountain.
This is why someone will have to tell this guy to stop, and I think it will have to be the UFC. Suppose it’s his family. Great. Or his management. That’s good too. But if neither of those happen, I think the UFC needs to decide that it won’t run Ferguson out there with top talent and watch him get hurt. If the UFC severs his contract and another promoter picks him up, the responsibility for his health and what those fights look like will fall on that other promotion.
I’d like to see the UFC make some announcement that acknowledges the legendary career Ferguson has had inside the Octagon and perhaps work with him on a way to end his career and find something else. This isn’t a fun topic to talk about. It never is, especially with an athlete as proud as Ferguson. But this conversation needs to happen.
Holland should stay on course at welterweight — where he just might be a title contender
Raimondi: Kevin Holland had one of his best career victories, submitting Michael Chiesa, a ground specialist, with a d’arce choke in the first round.
Holland’s biggest weakness had been his wrestling, and he was able to stop a takedown from Chiesa, who came in with the highest takedown accuracy percentage in UFC welterweight division history (77.8%).
Holland has shown real growth in his game since moving to 170 pounds last year. Then, inexplicably, Holland said he was considering a move back up to middleweight. Hopefully, he was joking — as he has been known to do — or he’ll reconsider. Perhaps he can even fight in both divisions.
The Texas resident is on a two-fight winning streak at welterweight and looks to be a real threat in the weight class at the highest reaches of the division. Middleweight will have bigger foes who might be able to impose their will in the wrestling game. There are good wrestlers at welterweight too, but it looks like Holland has been figuring it out in that aspect of the division.
In any case, Holland is must-see TV. He fights as often as possible. Jake Matthews said Saturday after his win at UFC 291 that Holland challenged him at Friday’s weigh-ins to a fight for two weeks from now. That kind of activity makes Holland a fan favorite in any division. And when he fights, it almost always goes to a finish. Holland has yet to go to a decision in eight straight fights — win or lose. His last decision win was 11 fights ago.
Holland is instant action, and adding him to the card guarantees fireworks. But if he is going to be a title contender, it’s probably more likely to happen at welterweight.
Okamoto’s what’s next for top stars after UFC 291?
Justin Gaethje, lightweight
What should be next: winner of Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira on Oct. 21
BMF titles are cool, for sure, but this was the real prize.
A lightweight title shot. Gaethje has had two tries at the lightweight belt, and he has come up short on both. The most recent one, a loss to Oliveira in his home state of Arizona, gutted him. Gaethje didn’t feel like he got out of first gear. Now, he’s set for one final shot. And either opponent will be a massive challenge.
Wild card: Conor McGregor
Of course, if McGregor starts tweeting about wanting to fight you, you must think about it. But I’d be surprised if this one got any wheels. McGregor isn’t even on a timeline for the fight he was supposed to have against Michael Chandler; and now we’re going to blow that up and give McGregor a new one? Gaethje’s focus will remain on the title.
Alex Pereira, light heavyweight
What should be next: Jiri Prochazka
It wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day, Pereira got it done against a former light heavyweight champ. It was an intriguing matchup because you knew going in Jan Blachowicz would test Pereira on the floor. And even though he didn’t pass that test effortlessly, Pereira passed it well enough to get the win and prove he is very much right at the top of this new weight class. Blachowicz was game, and Pereira found a way to win. Pereira is the most deserving of a title shot now against Prochazka, who was forced to vacate the belt due to injury last year. Timing is everything, of course, and we’ll have to see when these two are ready to go, but they seem to be on relatively similar timelines.
Wild card: Magomed Ankalaev
If Prochazka isn’t ready, you move on to Ankalaev. The UFC might disagree. White wasn’t thrilled with Ankalaev’s last performance, a split draw against Blachowicz. Ankalaev has yet to fight in 2023, and there hasn’t been much news from his camp. I thought he did enough to beat Blachowicz in December, though, and I still find Ankalaev deserving of a title shot. But all signs point to Pereira vs. Prochazka.
Kevin Holland, welterweight
Who should be next? Michel Pereira
Holland wants to go back to middleweight, because of course he does. Who wants to cut weight? Cutting weight isn’t fun. Meanwhile, Pereira missed weight for a bout against Stephen Thompson at UFC 291. What if these two fought at 185 pounds, in the next several weeks?
Holland made quick work of Chiesa. And Holland likes frequent paydays. Pereira just put in a full camp, and he’s healthy, despite missing weight. Pereira isn’t going try to cut weight again in a week — or any time soon — so just book this one at 185.
I know the UFC doesn’t love booking fights for guys outside of their weight class, but this is a case where it would make sense and it’d be fun.
Wild card: winner of Geoff Neal vs. Ian Machado Garry on Aug. 19
I was a little surprised the UFC booked Neal vs. Garry, because it’s a big step up for Garry. The winner of this fight should have some serious momentum, though. It’s a fun, ranked fight on a big card at UFC 292 in Boston.
Holland will be ranked after this win over Chiesa, possibly even in the top 10. Holland versus the winner of that bout would be a perfect, high-profile fight for the division.
Bobby Green, lightweight
What should be next: Paddy Pimblett
Oh, let’s go.
Some will see this suggestion and think, no way. Absolutely not. It’s too much for Pimblett.
But I don’t know. Because so many felt he lost his last fight to Jared Gordon, it’s almost like people are taking it too far, leading to accusations of being overrated. Pimblett is still a prospect in this division with plenty of star power. And the prefight buildup between these two would be outstanding. If Green did prove to be too much, OK. What’s the harm in that? Green deserves a fight that people want to watch. And if Pimblett were to beat him, it would legitimize Pimblett in a way he needs at the moment. This could be a lot of fun.
Wild card: Uros Medic
Medic fought at UFC 291, as well, and picked up a significant win over Matthew Semelsberger. It was an impressive victory for Medic, who has been the recipient of some love throughout his UFC career but has just had a hard time staying healthy and active. If he’s ready to go, this one makes sense, with both guys picking up a finish on Saturday.
The experimentation of ‘interleague play’ in MMA continues with Bellator x Rizin
Wagenheim: Co-promotion is refreshing, perhaps because it is a rarity in MMA. It has the feel of interleague baseball back when the majors first tried out the concept in the 1990s.
Saturday’s Bellator x Rizin event at the vaunted MMA palace Saitama Super Arena outside Tokyo was the two companies’ second time working together. The first collaboration, last New Year’s Eve also at Saitama, featured a main card on which all five bouts pitted a Bellator fighter against one from Rizin, the leading MMA promotion in Japan. Bellator went 5-0.
This time there was much less interleague play. The Bellator main event was among just a handful of examples, and that one came about only because Rizin lightweight champ Roberto de Souza was called upon during fight week to replace injured AJ McKee against former Bellator lightweight titlist Patricky “Pitbull” Freire in a quarterfinal of the Bellator Lightweight World Grand Prix. Freire won by second-round TKO to advance.
After that bout, the action switched from the Bellator cage to a Rizin ring, which in itself was a fun twist on a typical event night. And during the Rizin portion of the card, Bellator’s Juan Archuleta was to face Rizin’s Hiromasa Ougikubo for the vacant Rizin bantamweight championship. And in a late-notice bout announced during fight week, Bellator featherweight champ Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, brother of Patricky, was to take on Rizin’s Chihiro Suzuki. These bouts were to take place in the middle of the night, U.S. time, which is still another departure from the norm for fans on this side of the Pacific.
All of this made Bellator x Rizin 2 feel special. Of course, co-promotion comes with risks, which Rizin experienced when seeing de Souza, its 155-pound champ, get dominated.
The risk is likely why the industry-leading UFC steers clear. Twenty years ago, Chuck Liddell was showing off the ferocity that would make him a light heavyweight Octagon legend, winning 10 bouts in a row. After his streak ended in a knockout loss to Randy Couture, “The Iceman” was sent to Japan to regain his mojo, representing the UFC in a Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. Liddell made it to the tournament’s second round before being smoked by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Any pretense of UFC supremacy was shattered — at least temporarily.
Since then, the UFC has not involved itself in a co-promotion, other than Conor McGregor’s lucrative foray into boxing in a 2017 bout against two-years-retired Floyd Mayweather.
Bellator, meanwhile, has now done two co-promotions with Rizin. The Professional Fighters League has tried to enlist Bellator’s cooperation to put Cris Cyborg and Kayla Harrison in a cage together, so far without success. But if this shuffling of the deck continues, I’m all-in.