The final week of July was huge in combat sports, from UFC 291 in Salt Lake City to a rare Bellator vs. Rizin event across the globe in Japan.
The biggest news maker had to be Justin Gaethje, who added yet another chapter to his highlight reel by knocking out Dustin Poirier in the second round of their BMF title fight. And Alex Pereira squeaked by a former light heavyweight champion, so he has eyes on adding a second belt to his résumé.
But consequential questions remain in the sport, as the light heavyweight division is a mess and a pivotal men’s bantamweight matchup between Cory Sandhagen and Rob Font looms on Saturday. ESPN’s MMA correspondents Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Brett Okamoto address those storylines and more, including the future of “The Diamond.”
Dustin Poirier was on the brink of another title shot, so where does he go from here?
Raimondi: With one head kick from Gaethje, Poirier finds himself in an unenviable position that many popular veterans do toward the end of great careers. In recent fights, the slick southpaw from Louisiana has lost to Gaethje and Charles Oliveira, a pair of top lightweight contenders. That leaves his path toward a title fight unclear, so the UFC will likely start offering Poirier young and talented opponents like Rafael Fiziev and Arman Tsarukyan.
It’s hard to use the “G” word when it comes to someone who finished Conor McGregor in back-to-back fights just two years ago. But Poirier is edging dangerously close to gatekeeper territory near the top of the UFC lightweight division. That is not where he wants to be. And he said as much in the postfight news conference at UFC 291. Poirier said he knows he has a lot left in the tank and that he can still hang with the up-and-coming guys at American Top Team. But he isn’t keen on fighting hungry, younger foes trying to make their name off him. You can understand where he’s coming from. Poirier said he doesn’t want to fight just to fight, because that’s what he has done his whole career, which is now 38 fights and 14 years in. If he’s going to fight, he wants it to mean something. The best thing Poirier can do now is head back to Lafayette, spend some time with his wife, Jolie, and daughter, Parker, and wait.
Opportunities can always pop up, because of Poirier’s popularity and status as one of the best lightweights in the world. Nate Diaz could come back into the UFC, and the two have a history. Max Holloway might want to move up to lightweight to get his win back from Poirier, who beat him in 2019. McGregor lost via broken leg TKO in July 2021, so maybe he’ll want another crack at Poirier. The Gaethje trilogy — the two are now tied — also could be there in the future. Poirier is always just one or two wins away from a title shot. The best thing he can do now is chill out and see how things shake out over the next few months and years; Poirier made enough money in the McGregor fights to have the luxury to do that.
If MMA’s light heavyweight division is fully healthy, Alex Pereira is the ____ best at 205 pounds.
Okamoto: Third. Right now, I’d put Jiri Prochazka and Magomed Ankalaev ahead of Pereira in the weight class — but that’s it. Plus, when you consider that this man just moved up from middleweight and has only 10 professional MMA bouts under his belt, that’s saying quite a bit. Prochazka deserves to be No. 1. That’s a spot he never lost to any opponent, instead to a shoulder injury that has kept him out of action so far in 2023. His return is looming, however, and when he does come back, he’s the man to beat. In addition to Prochazka, I rank Ankalaev No. 2 in the division. His body of work speaks for itself, and I thought he should have won the vacant title in December when he fought Jan Blachowicz to a five-round draw.
Ankalaev has been the dark horse of this division for a long time. Even though he didn’t claim the belt when he had the chance, he didn’t suffer a loss, and he isn’t far off from another crack at it. Pereira just took on the former champ in Blachowicz, though, and took care of business — just four months removed from a knockout loss, in a new weight class, at elevation. Others like Jamahal Hill and Vadim Nemkov are right there, but I believe “Poatan” will only get better and settle into this weight more, which is a scary proposition.
Which division in MMA is the biggest moneymaker?
Okamoto: Middleweight. Although if Conor McGregor returns, the answer immediately becomes whichever weight class he competes in. McGregor is single-handedly worth more than any other entire division. But right now, McGregor’s return is still very much in the air, so in the meantime, middleweight is where the money is.
Heavyweight is also in consideration, as Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic in November should be a very lucrative main event, along with whatever transpires with Francis Ngannou in the Professional Fighters League. But UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya is extremely active, for one, and he also has a potential blockbuster event looming against Khamzat Chimaev. If Adesanya and Chimaev meet, presumably in 2024, that will be one of the biggest fights the UFC can put on. Lightweight has more depth. Heavyweight has the GOAT. But in terms of steadily filling seats and holding the keys to a potential blockbuster, middleweight gets my No. 1 rank.
Outside of Gaethje, who had the biggest win in MMA this past weekend?
Wagenheim: Pereira. The former UFC middleweight champion was by no stretch of the imagination a dominant force in his light heavyweight debut, but he did get his arm raised. Considering that he was facing Blachowicz, a former 205-pound champ who is No. 2 in ESPN’s rankings for that division, we have to view Pereira’s performance as an indication he is a legitimate title contender in his new, bigger shark tank.
Pereira persevered through a difficult Round 1, where he was taken down early and fended off Blachowicz’s submission attempts for much of the first five minutes. But persevere Pereira did, which is more than what his old 185-pound nemesis, Israel Adesanya, managed when he faced Blachowicz. And when the UFC 291 fight was on the feet at kickboxing range, Pereira had the edge. Whether the power that fueled his middleweight success is carrying over to light heavy is still an open question, but this debut was a solid building block for Pereira.
Following Bellator x Rizin 2, what dream inter-promotion fight do you want next?
Wagenheim: I know we’re talking dream fights here, but not even in my wildest dreams do I envision the UFC taking on a cross-promotion. For the sport’s top company, there’s too much risk of comeuppance for the chance of a slim reward. So let’s scratch the UFC off of the list. And the biggest potential cross-promotion wouldn’t involve the Octagon anyway. It’s Bellator’s Cris Cyborg vs. the PFL’s Kayla Harrison.
What else is out there for either of these women? Harrison would no doubt love another shot at Larissa Pacheco, whom she had defeated twice before dropping a decision to Pacheco in last year’s PFL lightweight championship final. And Cyborg, who re-signed with Bellator just a few months ago, could get matched up in a featherweight title fight with Cat Zingano. Those would be legitimate fights, but there’s not much more of consequence available to Cyborg or Harrison within their separate domains. Putting them in a cage together would create the best possible fight in women’s MMA.
Looking ahead, who has the edge in Cory Sandhagen vs. Rob Font?
Raimondi: Sandhagen is around a -270 favorite, according to Caesars Sportsbook. And it’s clear why that’s the case. The story of Font’s career so far is that he has been able to beat everyone at bantamweight except for the most elite. So far, Sandhagen, 31, has proven himself to be in that category; and Font, 36, is running out of time to reverse that trend.
Font would have the advantage if this were a straight-up MMA boxing match. Look at what he was able to do to Adrian Yanez at UFC 287 in April. The Massachusetts native has one of the best jabs in all of the UFC and power in his right hand. He is super slick with those paws, but Sandhagen provides a lot of complications on the feet. Sandhagen has excellent footwork and takes unique angles. The Colorado fighter has great kicks and knees up the middle. Sandhagen might be the best pure striker in the division in terms of all-around tools. Font struggled with that against Marlon “Chito” Vera and Jose Aldo.
Another thing working against Font is that he was supposed to fight Song Yadong at UFC 292 on Aug. 19. Font is taking this bout on short notice against a much taller, rangier opponent than Song without much time to prepare adequately. Font’s team got the fight at a 140-pound catchweight rather than him trying to go all the way down to 135 two weeks earlier than expected. That’s a good thing, and Font is a live underdog because of his boxing and stopping power. But Sandhagen is the favorite for a reason.