With UFC 274 officially in the rearview mirror, it’s time to recalibrate and reassess what’s at stake for the next few months in the sport.
The lightweight division put on a show last weekend, as Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler secured big wins to keep their names front and center for wearing the belt Oliveira had to drop just prior to the main event.
Meanwhile, Carla Esparza is the new strawweight champion after dethroning Rose Namajunas. Her win simultaneously reaffirmed her standing as one of the greatest at 115 pounds in the sport while also opening up title opportunities for the likes of Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Looking ahead, former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz is back in action on Saturday against Aleksandar Rakic. Blachowicz is hopeful of putting his name back in the conversation with the best at 205 pounds, but is it clearly Glover Teixeira?
Our experts debate who the top fighters are at strawweight and light heavyweight, choose which fight excites them the most in the next two months and discuss which fighter is most likely to become the next “champ-champ.”
Who is most likely to become the UFC’s next “champ-champ” (two-division champion
Brett Okamoto: I don’t see many likely ones right now. Valentina Shevchenko is probably the most likely of anyone currently holding a title because she’s cleaning out her weight class, and she’s good enough to do it. Alexander Volkanovski is an obvious candidate as well.
But going out on a limb, I’ll say Khamzat Chimaev. Why not? Chimaev is already in line for a welterweight title shot, and I believe he is as good as advertised. Would I favor him in fights against Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya? Not necessarily, but do I think he can win those fights? Absolutely.
Marc Raimondi: It was one of my bold predictions at the beginning of the year and I’m sticking with it: Valentina Shevchenko will become a two-division champion in 2022. The path is open for her. If Shevchenko defends her UFC women’s flyweight title against Taila Santos at UFC 275 on June 11 — and she will be a heavy favorite to do so — there wouldn’t be much left for her to accomplish at 125 pounds. Shevchenko can see how the summer rematch between Julianna Peña and Amanda Nunes for the UFC women’s bantamweight title goes and take on the winner. Shevchenko would probably be favored over Peña if that fight happened, and she has come close to beating Nunes before, though Nunes owns two wins over her.
No other champion seems poised to move up. Even though featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski expressed interest in going to lightweight, that does not seem imminent.
Wagenheim: I realize that agreeing with Raimondi puts me on shaky ground, but like Marc, I too predicted that Shevchenko would be a champ-champ by New Year’s Eve. When I wrote that, shortly after Nunes had dropped the belt to Peña, I understood that there likely would be a rematch. If Nunes wins this summer’s redo, she would technically be the next with two belts. But in the history of the UFC, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, 12 deposed champions have tried to climb back on the throne in their very next bout, and only two have succeeded. So, with history stacked against Nunes, I’ll stick with Shevchenko in the spirit of the question. She finished Peña back in 2017, and I like her chances to do it again if they meet in 2022 or early ’23.
What is the best division in the UFC?
Raimondi: Several candidates are kind of grouped: lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight. A case can be made for each division, but my choice is bantamweight for depth and quality at the top.
Aljamain Sterling is the UFC 135-pound champion, but consider all the top-tier talent that are contenders and considered potential champions. There are former champions TJ Dillashaw, Petr Yan and Dominick Cruz. Henry Cejudo, a former two-division champion, is poised for a return from retirement. Cory Sandhagen is a stud. Marlon “Chito” Vera and Merab Dvalishvili are surging. Song Yadong is one of the best prospects in the sport. Sean O’Malley and Umar Nurmagomedov are rising stars. There’s an absolute embarrassment of riches at 135 pounds.
Wagenheim: Let’s not overthink this, fellas. Lightweight isn’t the easy choice it used to be after losing a dominant champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, to retirement a year and a half ago. But 155 pounds remains at the center of the MMA universe. Oliveira, winner of 11 in a row, is No. 1 — but with no belt. His most recent opponents — Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje — each stunned Oliveira and had him in trouble, adding intrigue to any possible rematches. Also in the mix are Beneil Dariush and Islam Makhachev, the latter being touted as the second coming of Khabib. And then there are the phantom “presences” of Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, neither of them a legit title contender but both unmatched attention grabbers even while invisible. As has been the case since the days of BJ Penn, lightweight still has it all.
Okamoto: People will disagree with me on this one, but I’m going with featherweight. I have Volkanovski as my No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, and it’s a tie with Kamaru Usman in my mind. Those are the two who stand out above all the rest.
So, you have arguably the best fighter on the planet at 145, and you have Max Holloway right there with him. Two of the best fighters in the world, in the same weight class. Then you add Brian Ortega, Yair Rodriguez, Calvin Kattar, Chan Sung Jung, Arnold Allen, Josh Emmett, Giga Chikadze, Bryce Mitchell — almost all of these guys are in their primes. You can’t say that about some of the other divisions. You look at the names at the top of other weight classes, and they’re a little older, a little further in their careers. Featherweight is nasty and in their prime years.
Fact or Fiction: Carla Esparza the best strawweight in the UFC.
Wagenheim: Fiction. With all due respect to the new champ, I viewed last week’s title bout result as more a failure by Namajunas (and her corner) than a show of supremacy by Esparza. But I will say this about Carla: She has just made the division better. By defeating “Thug Rose,” Esparza brought back a couple of excellent former champs, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili. Both have two losses to Namajunas, so they were on the outside looking in terms of title contention. No longer. Jessica Andrade is back in the mix, too. And here come Marina Rodriguez and Mackenzie Dern. Esparza has a lot of stout opposition against whom to prove her doubters wrong.
Okamoto: Fiction. I feel like the way this question is set up, an honest answer might sound disrespectful to Esparza. I have tremendous respect for Esparza and what she’s done. Clearly, so does Rose Namajunas. Namajunas was so concerned about Esparza’s strengths that her entire game plan revolved around not fighting her.
Esparza is one of the best strawweights of all time, but I would still pick Namajunas, Jedrzejczyk and Zhang to beat her on any given night. Am I wrong? Maybe. She keeps proving us wrong with these upset victories. But regardless of title, I think those top three names are still a tier above Esparza.
Raimondi: Fact. Maybe that’s controversial because Esparza remains unheralded despite being a two-time champion. Or maybe it’s because the fight against Namajunas at UFC 274 was not very exciting. But you can’t argue with the résumé. Esparza has won six in a row, with victories over Namajunas and top contenders Marina Rodriguez and Yan Xiaonan. Her wrestling will give anyone fits.
Now, one could argue she got back to the title without going through tough opponents like former champions Zhang and Jedrzejczyk, the latter of whom beat Esparza to win the title in 2015 — and that’s true. Esparza would be the underdog against both women, and Andrade, another former champ, would be favored over Esparza. But Zhang and Jedrzejczyk have both lost to Namajunas twice; Andrade has lost to Namajunas once. Esparza has now beaten Namajunas twice, which no one has been able to do. Maybe it’s a case of styles making fights, but Esparza is the best until someone comes and takes her title.
Who is the best light heavyweight in MMA?
Okamoto: Glover Teixeira. I refuse to overlook this man anymore. At 42, he truly is putting together some of his best performances. He has not just beaten the likes of Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos and Jan Blachowicz in his last three fights, he has dominated them. I like what Vadim Nemkov and Corey Anderson are doing in Bellator MMA, and all of these guys are in the same conversation. But Teixeira is the best light heavyweight in MMA, and I think he will beat Jiri Prochazka next month.
Raimondi: Anderson has a case. For argument’s sake, skill for skill, Anderson is the best at 205 pounds right now. Plus, he owns a win over Teixeira — but that was four years ago. Since then, Teixeira has won six in a row, putting together a better résumé during that time than Anderson has, capped by a second-round submission finish to beat Blachowicz last year and win the UFC light heavyweight title. Blachowicz knocked Anderson out and beat Israel Adesanya — and Teixeira was able to finish him. Credit has to go to Teixeira here.
Anderson was on his way to beating Nemkov and winning the Bellator light heavyweight title — and the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix — before a clash of heads caused a no contest. If Anderson beats Nemkov when they meet again, the conversation can be revisited. And, of course, Teixeira has a stiff test — he’s the underdog — against Prochazka in a title fight at UFC 275 on June 11.
Wagenheim: In predicting right before New Year’s which fighters will wear UFC gold by the end of 2022, I went with Prochazka at light heavy because he is the most dynamic, inventive 205-pounder I’ve seen since Jon Jones was coming up. (Remember that guy?) I’m wavering because picking against Teixeira is a fool’s errand. But it doesn’t matter.
This question asks who is the best in MMA, not just the UFC, and the answer is Anderson. He was well on his way to securing the Bellator belt last month when his bout with Nemkov ended in a no contest. The accidental clash of heads just delayed the coronation of a man who is getting better by the fight, his relentless, smothering style leaving opponents with no way out.
What fight are you most looking forward to before July’s UFC 276?
Raimondi: Have to go with Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk 2. Too bad this rematch is a nontitle bout, billed under two title fights on the UFC 275 main card, because that makes it a three-rounder and not five. The duo had the greatest women’s fight in MMA history at UFC 248 in March 2020 — a back-and-forth, violent, five-round encounter. Jedrzejczyk came away from that one with a grotesque hematoma on her forehead. That fight was wild, and I see no reason why this won’t be the same.
Okamoto: Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk 2, especially since it now it looks like a sure-fire No. 1 contender bout — after Namajunas lost the belt to Esparza at UFC 274. If Namajunas won, I don’t think the winner of this fight would have gotten a title shot. But now, with new blood atop the division, I think the winner will be next in line.
I’m going to add Kattar vs. Emmett on June 18. I just said earlier that featherweight is my favorite division in the UFC. Well, this is a banger of a fight at 145, and it will move the winner into a position to challenge the top names and earn a title shot. I love this fight. I love the style matchup. It should be highly entertaining on the feet and a supremely dangerous fight for both.
Wagenheim: I see that both Brett and Marc went with Jedrzejczyk vs. Zhang 2, and that makes perfect sense considering the classic those women produced two years ago. But I’m going to go with that same night’s main event between Teixeira and Prochazka. The dented relic that never stalls versus the fully-loaded hybrid. The creative risk-taker versus the rock-solid opportunist who makes opponents pay for their mistakes. Will this be the emergence of Prochazka as “the next big thing” or still another affirmation of Teixeira as an ageless wonder?