This past weekend, UFC 286 produced some exciting fights throughout the entire card. The results have set up some very interesting matchups in the future, as well as some very interesting headlines to follow in the coming weeks. Here are my five big takeaways from UFC 286.
Leon Edwards Has Challengers For His Welterweight Throne
Leon Edwards defeating Kamaru Usman has officially ended their trilogy, as Edwards has now defeated Usman in back to back fights. However, Edwards will have plenty on his plate in the coming year or so, already being lined up to fight former Interim champ Colby Covington at a later date in 2023. Covington would provide Edwards with another massive test, as Covington’s mix of wrestling and cardio would test Edwards’ takedown defense, which looked great against Usman.
If Edwards can defeat Covington, he could have another interesting fight on his hands. In the UFC post-fight press conference, Dana White announced that Belal Muhammed (#4 ranked), who had a previous fight against Edwards that ended in a no contest due to an Edwards eye poke, will be fighting Shavkat Rakhmonov (#6 ranked), who is undefeated with a record of 17-0. With #3 ranked Khamzat Chimaev moving up to middleweight and #5 ranked Gilbert Burns still a little ways from of a title fight, the winner of Muhammed and Rakhmonov could eventually find themselves in a title fight, be it against Edwards or Covington.
The Lightweight Division Is Stagnant
In the co-main event of UFC 286, Justin Gaethje (#3 ranked) defeated rising lightweight Rafael Fiziev (#6 ranked) in a close and exciting Fight of the Night winner. However, Gaethje winning makes it hard to see how things move forward in the lightweight division from here. Fiziev winning would have continued his rise, and the pieces to line himself up for a number one contender fight would have fallen into place. However, Gaethje winning blurs the lightweight picture.
Former champ Charles Oliveira (#1 ranked) is set to face Beneil Dariush (#4 ranked) at UFC 288 in May. If Dariush wins, Islam Makhachev could have a challenger for his title. Oliveira winning, however, doesn’t necessarily mean he would get to fight Makhachev. Islam beat Oliveira pretty easily back in October, and there probably isn’t too much interest in running that fight back. Dustin Poirier (#2 ranked) and Justin Gaethje don’t have fights currently scheduled, and the two of them fighting each other for a second time would make sense. If and when that happens has yet to be determined. Michael Chandler (#5 ranked) has a potential fight with Conor McGregor, but winning wouldn’t likely put him in line for a title shot.
Another thing of note is that Islam Makhachev has mentioned that he’d be interested in jumping up to welterweight to challenge Leon Edwards for his title, which could be interesting. Edwards would at the very least have to beat Covington first though, and by then Islam would most likely already have a lightweight fight booked. The wild card is Conor McGregor.
Conor has stated that he wants a title fight if he beats Chandler, but the Chandler fight is set to take place at welterweight, not lightweight. And it is uncertain if Conor can still make 155 lbs to fight for the lightweight title.
The UFC could look to eventually revisit Alexander Volkanovski jumping back up to lightweight to fight for a second title, but he has his hands full at featherweight with an upcoming fight against Yair Rodriguez, as well as a potential future fight with Arnold Allen if he gets past Max Holloway in April. Realistically, the lightweight division is hard to figure out. What it really needs is one of the up and comers, whether it be Fiziev, Mateusz Gamrot, or Arman Tsarukyan, to get a big win against an established name in the top five of the division to get a new name in the title mix.
Risers Fall Short At UFC 286
UFC 286 was not great for the three rising fighters on the main card. As stated previously, Rafael Fiziev suffered his second career loss to Justin Gaethje, but that wasn’t all. Casey O’Neill (#12 ranked, women’s flyweight) lost her comeback fight from a torn ACL to Jennifer Maia. That was the first loss of O’Neill’s career. Another rising fighter lost on the main card as well, as Roman Dolidze (#9 ranked, middleweight) lost only his second fight to former title challenger Marvin Vettori. Fiziev, O’Neill, and Dolidze were all facing former title challengers in their division, and they all suffered setbacks.
All three still have the potential to become champions of their divisions one day, but each fighter missed out on a chance to shake up their division. Fiziev could have spiced up the conversation at lightweight, O’Neill would have added another rising name to the wide open women’s flyweight division, and Dolidze could have added to the potential fun matchups to make at middleweight. However, each of these fighters will have a chance to get back on track in the future and could all be in their divisions’ title discussions at this same time next year.
Bantamweight Is The Best Division In The UFC
This is not technically related to UFC 286, but the bantamweight division has had a lot of action recently and there is more action to come. The week before UFC 286, the UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas was headlined by former champ Petr Yan (#2 ranked prior to the fight) and Merab Dvalishvili (#3 ranked prior to the fight). However, Merab ran through Yan, pressuring the whole fight with 49 takedown attempts and 202 strikes landed (out of 401 attempted strikes). Now Merab has moved up to be the #1 contender at bantamweight. However, the champ is his current training partner Aljamain Sterling, and they will not fight each other.
This upcoming Saturday (March 25), Marlon Vera (#3 ranked) will face former title challenger Cory Sandhagen (#5 ranked). This fight gets very interesting because, if Vera wins, it gives three fighters a legitimate reason to believe that they should get the next title fight. Sandhagen wins probably wouldn’t be in line for a title shot if he wins, but one more win could get him there. Another added layer is that Vera has has already handed Sean O’Malley (#2 ranked) his only loss, although the fight ended after O’Malley was injured (still a win in the book for Vera). Another name to look out for in the division at some point in 2023 is former flyweight champ Deiveson Figueiredo, who has said he will be moving up to bantamweight permanently after losing to Brandon Moreno in their fourth flyweight title fight.
The final wrinkle in the bantamweight division is that champion Aljamain Sterling does have a fight booked, but it is not against a ranked opponent. Sterling is fighting former flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo, who is coming back to reclaim his belt after retiring as champion. If Sterling beats Cejudo, he would have two options. One is to fight the winner of am O’Malley vs Vera fight. The second is to vacate his title and move up to featherweight so his teammate, Merab Dvalishvili, can fight for the title. If Cejudo wins, he could fight any of Merab, O’Malley, or Vera if he beats Sandhagen in his first title defense of what would be his second reign as bantamweight champ.
The other reason why the bantamweight division is the cream of the crop in the UFC is the ridiculously depth of the division. There are experienced fighters outside the top five, but there are a lot of fighters rising through the ranks such as Song Yadong, Ricky Simon, Umar Nurmagomedov, Adrian Yanez, Chris Gutierrez, and more. All these talented fighters coming through the rankings will lead to a lot of fun and interesting matchups at bantamweight, as well as what is shaping up to be a loaded division for many years to come.
Middleweight Dynamics Heading Into UFC 287
With UFC 286 in the rearview mirror, next up at UFC 287 will be a middleweight title fight between Alex Pereira and former champ Israel Adesanya. Pereira took the title off of Adesanya in their previous fight in November, making him 3-0 against Adesanya (Pereira beat Adesanya twice in kickboxing when they were both kickboxers). However, it’s not like the fight between the two wasn’t competitive. Izzy was ahead by two rounds heading into the fifth and final round, and would’ve won the fight had Pereira not knocked him out. Heading into their second fight, the middleweight division has some interesting matchups regardless of who wins.
Adesanya has beaten everyone else in the top five of the middleweight division, meaning if he beats Pereira, a third fight would seemingly be the next step. If Izzy wins the trilogy, he could follow that up by either fighting a former title challenger who he’s already beaten or facing one of the fast-rising middleweights like Dricus Du Plessis (#6 ranked middleweight). Du Plessis, who was born and currently resides in South Africa, has already called out Adesanya for claiming Africa as his home despite now living in New Zealand.
If Pereira beats Izzy a second time, whether it be at UFC 287 or in a trilogy fight, the division would be wide open for someone to get another title shot since. Unlike Izzy, Pereira hasn’t fought anyone else in the top five of the division. Besides Izzy, the only ranked middleweight Pereira has even faced is #7 ranked Sean Strickland, whom he made light work of. Pereira could have some very interesting fights on his hands after he is done with Izzy, whether he is champ by then or not. Robert Whittaker would be a great opponent for him, as former champ Whittaker has beaten every middleweight he’s faced besides Adesanya. Pereira could also line up fights with Jared Cannonier, Marvin Vettori (who beat Roman Dolidze at UFC 286) or anyone else in the division who is worthy of fighting him.
The last thing to note on the middleweight division is Pereira’s claim that he would like to move up to light heavyweight to also win the title in that division, something Adesanya failed to do when he lost to Jan Blachowicz. That could also affect potential middleweight matchmaking in the future.
Those are my five takeaways from UFC 286, including fights from the card, potential future fights, how select fights will affect their respective division, and a look ahead to UFC 287 in April. If you have any other things you took away from UFC 286, tag me @derrik_maguire on Twitter and let me know.