MMA debate: Champ-champ candidates, UFC’s greatest division and fights we’re wanting ahead to

With UFC 274 formally within the rearview mirror, it is time to recalibrate and reassess what’s at stake for the subsequent few months within the sport.

The light-weight division placed on a present final weekend, as Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler secured huge wins to maintain their names entrance and heart for carrying the belt Oliveira needed to drop simply previous to the principle occasion.

In the meantime, Carla Esparza is the brand new strawweight champion after dethroning Rose Namajunas. Her win concurrently reaffirmed her standing as one of many best at 115 kilos within the sport whereas additionally opening up title alternatives for the likes of Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

Wanting forward, former mild heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz is again in motion on Saturday in opposition to Aleksandar Rakic. Blachowicz is hopeful of placing his identify again within the dialog with the most effective at 205 kilos, however is it clearly Glover Teixeira?

Our specialists debate who the highest fighters are at strawweight and lightweight heavyweight, select which battle excites them essentially the most within the subsequent two months and focus on which fighter is most definitely to develop into the subsequent “champ-champ.”

MORE: ESPN’s MMA pound-for-pound rankings | ESPN’s MMA divisional rankings

Who’s most definitely to develop into the UFC’s subsequent “champ-champ” (two-division champion

Brett Okamoto: I do not see many doubtless ones proper now. Valentina Shevchenko might be the most definitely of anybody presently holding a title as a result of she’s cleansing out her weight class, and she or he’s adequate to do it. Alexander Volkanovski is an apparent candidate as properly.

However going out on a limb, I will say Khamzat Chimaev. Why not? Chimaev is already in line for a welterweight title shot, and I imagine he’s nearly as good as marketed. Would I favor him in fights in opposition to Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya? Not essentially, however do I feel he can win these fights? Completely.

Marc Raimondi: It was one in all my bold predictions originally of the yr and I am sticking with it: Valentina Shevchenko will develop into a two-division champion in 2022. The trail is open for her. If Shevchenko defends her UFC girls’s flyweight title in opposition to Taila Santos at UFC 275 on June 11 — and she or he can be a heavy favourite to take action — there would not be a lot left for her to perform at 125 kilos. Shevchenko can see how the summer season rematch between Julianna Peña and Amanda Nunes for the UFC girls’s bantamweight title goes and tackle the winner. Shevchenko would in all probability be favored over Peña if that battle occurred, and she or he has come near beating Nunes earlier than, although Nunes owns two wins over her.

No different champion appears poised to maneuver up. Though featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski expressed curiosity in going to light-weight, that doesn’t appear imminent.

Wagenheim: I understand that agreeing with Raimondi places me on shaky floor, however like Marc, I too predicted that Shevchenko would be a champ-champ by New Yr’s Eve. After I wrote that, shortly after Nunes had dropped the belt to Peña, I understood that there doubtless could be a rematch. If Nunes wins this summer season’s redo, she would technically be the subsequent with two belts. However within the historical past of the UFC, in response to ESPN Stats & Data analysis, 12 deposed champions have tried to climb again on the throne of their very subsequent bout, and solely two have succeeded. So, with historical past stacked in opposition to Nunes, I will persist with Shevchenko within the spirit of the query. She completed Peña again in 2017, and I like her possibilities to do it once more in the event that they meet in 2022 or early ’23.

What’s the greatest division within the UFC?

Raimondi: A number of candidates are sort of grouped: light-weight, featherweight and bantamweight. A case could be made for every division, however my alternative is bantamweight for depth and high quality on the prime.

Aljamain Sterling is the UFC 135-pound champion, however contemplate all of the top-tier expertise which are contenders and thought of 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 without doubt one of the greatest prospects within the sport. Sean O’Malley and Umar Nurmagomedov are rising stars. There’s an absolute embarrassment of riches at 135 kilos.

Wagenheim: Let’s not overthink this, fellas. Light-weight is not the straightforward alternative it was once after shedding a dominant champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, to retirement a yr and a half in the past. However 155 kilos stays on the heart of the MMA universe. Oliveira, winner of 11 in a row, is No. 1 — however with no belt. His most up-to-date opponents — Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje — every surprised Oliveira and had him in bother, including intrigue to any potential rematches. Additionally within the combine are Beneil Dariush and Islam Makhachev, the latter being touted because the second coming of Khabib. After which there are the phantom “presences” of Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, neither of them a legit title contender however each unmatched consideration grabbers even whereas invisible. As has been the case because the days of BJ Penn, light-weight nonetheless has all of it.

Okamoto: Individuals will disagree with me on this one, however I am going with featherweight. I’ve Volkanovski as my No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, and it is a tie with Kamaru Usman in my thoughts. These are the 2 who stand out above all the remaining.

So, you’ve got arguably the most effective fighter on the planet at 145, and you’ve got Max Holloway proper there with him. Two of the most effective fighters on the planet, in the identical weight class. Then you definitely add Brian Ortega, Yair Rodriguez, Calvin Kattar, Chan Sung Jung, Arnold Allen, Josh Emmett, Giga Chikadze, Bryce Mitchell — nearly all of those guys are of their primes. You may’t say that about a few of the different divisions. You take a look at the names on the prime of different weight courses, they usually’re slightly older, slightly additional of their careers. Featherweight is nasty and of their prime years.

Truth or Fiction: Carla Esparza the most effective strawweight within the UFC.

Wagenheim: Fiction. With all due respect to the brand new champ, I seen final week’s title bout outcome as extra a failure by Namajunas (and her nook) than a present of supremacy by Esparza. However I’ll say this about Carla: She has simply made the division higher. By defeating “Thug Rose,” Esparza introduced again a few wonderful former champs, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Zhang Weili. Each have two losses to Namajunas, so that they have been on the surface wanting when it comes to title competition. Not. Jessica Andrade is again within the combine, too. And right here come Marina Rodriguez and Mackenzie Dern. Esparza has quite a lot of stout opposition in opposition to whom to show her doubters fallacious.

Okamoto: Fiction. I really feel like the way in which this query is about up, an trustworthy reply may sound disrespectful to Esparza. I’ve great respect for Esparza and what she’s accomplished. Clearly, so does Rose Namajunas. Namajunas was so involved about Esparza’s strengths that her total sport plan revolved round not combating her.

Esparza is without doubt one of the greatest strawweights of all time, however I’d nonetheless choose Namajunas, Jedrzejczyk and Zhang to beat her on any given night time. Am I fallacious? Possibly. She retains proving us fallacious with these upset victories. However no matter title, I feel these prime three names are nonetheless a tier above Esparza.

Raimondi: Truth. Possibly that is controversial as a result of Esparza stays unheralded regardless of being a two-time champion. Or perhaps it is as a result of the battle in opposition to Namajunas at UFC 274 was not very thrilling. However you possibly can’t argue with the résumé. Esparza has received six in a row, with victories over Namajunas and prime contenders Marina Rodriguez and Yan Xiaonan. Her wrestling will give anybody suits.

Now, one may argue she received again to the title with out going by means of powerful opponents like former champions Zhang and Jedrzejczyk, the latter of whom beat Esparza to win the title in 2015 — and that is true. Esparza could be the underdog in opposition to each girls, and Andrade, one other former champ, could be favored over Esparza. However Zhang and Jedrzejczyk have each misplaced to Namajunas twice; Andrade has misplaced to Namajunas as soon as. Esparza has now overwhelmed Namajunas twice, which nobody has been in a position to do. Possibly it is a case of kinds making fights, however Esparza is the most effective till somebody comes and takes her title.

Who’s the most effective mild heavyweight in MMA?

Okamoto: Glover Teixeira. I refuse to miss this man anymore. At 42, he actually is placing collectively a few of his greatest performances. He has not simply overwhelmed the likes of Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos and Jan Blachowicz in his final three fights, he has dominated them. I like what Vadim Nemkov and Corey Anderson are doing in Bellator MMA, and all of those guys are in the identical dialog. However Teixeira is the most effective mild heavyweight in MMA, and I feel he’ll beat Jiri Prochazka subsequent month.

Raimondi: Anderson has a case. For argument’s sake, ability for ability, Anderson is the most effective at 205 kilos proper now. Plus, he owns a win over Teixeira — however that was 4 years in the past. Since then, Teixeira has received six in a row, placing collectively a greater résumé throughout that point than Anderson has, capped by a second-round submission end to beat Blachowicz final yr and win the UFC mild heavyweight title. Blachowicz knocked Anderson out and beat Israel Adesanya — and Teixeira was in a position to end him. Credit score has to go to Teixeira right here.

Anderson was on his technique to beating Nemkov and successful the Bellator mild heavyweight title — and the Bellator Mild Heavyweight World Grand Prix — earlier than a conflict of heads triggered a no contest. If Anderson beats Nemkov once they meet once more, the dialog could be revisited. And, in fact, Teixeira has a stiff check — he is the underdog — in opposition to Prochazka in a title battle at UFC 275 on June 11.

Wagenheim: In predicting proper earlier than New Yr’s which fighters will put on UFC gold by the top of 2022, I went with Prochazka at mild heavy as a result of he’s essentially the most dynamic, creative 205-pounder I’ve seen since Jon Jones was developing. (Keep in mind that man?) I am wavering as a result of selecting in opposition to Teixeira is a idiot’s errand. However it would not matter.

This query asks who’s the most effective in MMA, not simply the UFC, and the reply is Anderson. He was properly on his technique to securing the Bellator belt final month when his bout with Nemkov resulted in a no contest. The unintentional conflict of heads simply delayed the coronation of a person who’s getting higher by the battle, his relentless, smothering fashion leaving opponents with no method out.

What battle are you most wanting ahead to earlier than July’s UFC 276?

Raimondi: Must go along with Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk 2. Too dangerous this rematch is a nontitle bout, billed underneath two title fights on the UFC 275 principal card, as a result of that makes it a three-rounder and never 5. The duo had the best girls’s battle in MMA historical past at UFC 248 in March 2020 — a back-and-forth, violent, five-round encounter. Jedrzejczyk got here away from that one with a grotesque hematoma on her brow. That battle was wild, and I see no cause why this may not be the identical.

Okamoto: Zhang vs. Jedrzejczyk 2, particularly because it now it seems to be like a sure-fire No. 1 contender bout — after Namajunas misplaced the belt to Esparza at UFC 274. If Namajunas received, I do not suppose the winner of this battle would have gotten a title shot. However now, with new blood atop the division, I feel the winner can be subsequent in line.

I will add Kattar vs. Emmett on June 18. I simply mentioned earlier that featherweight is my favourite division within the UFC. Properly, it is a banger of a battle at 145, and it’ll transfer the winner right into a place to problem the highest names and earn a title shot. I like this battle. I like the fashion matchup. It ought to be extremely entertaining on the toes and a supremely harmful battle for each.

Wagenheim: I see that each Brett and Marc went with Jedrzejczyk vs. Zhang 2, and that makes excellent sense contemplating the traditional these girls produced two years in the past. However I will go along with that very same night time’s principal occasion between Teixeira and Prochazka. The dented relic that by no means stalls versus the fully-loaded hybrid. The inventive risk-taker versus the rock-solid opportunist who makes opponents pay for his or her errors. Will this be the emergence of Prochazka as “the subsequent huge factor” or nonetheless one other affirmation of Teixeira as an ageless surprise?


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