Originally published at UFC Champions Roll Call - Breaking down each weight class
With UFC 261 in the rear-view mirror and a night that produced a new champion among the three championship fights that night, it’s time to assess the divisions in the UFC as 2021 wraps up the first quarter.
HEAVYWEIGHT: Francis Ngannou
This is the most charged division when it comes to the next contender. The public’s demand is clear for Jon Jones to immediately receive the title fight while Dana White is using his public statements to back Derrick Lewis. It places the economics of the company under a microscope with regards to the realities of the ESPN+ deal and where leverage for top stars has lessened in the new era. With UFC guaranteed its revenue each month for producing its pay-per-views, there is less incentive to upset the salary structure for one night. The devil’s advocate will argue that Jones has a contract that specifies what he will be paid and what percentage of the pay-per-view he can share in. Is Jones underpaid? Unquestionably given the guaranteed revenue UFC receives and what percentage is earmarked for the fighters. It also shines a light on the reality, that what one fighter is willing to die on a hill for, another is willing to step over that person to reach the top. Ngannou and Lewis will do fine on pay-per-view and the UFC earns its revenue. Where the pressure could exist is ESPN+, who does stand to gain significantly more from a Jones fight than Ngannou but are not the promoter, that is the UFC’s task. It’s the perfect example of the powder keg that exists and for UFC, to break policy and acquiesce to Jones would create a ripple effect because whatever Jones’ ceiling is for earning potential, Conor McGregor’s is significantly more.
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: Jan Blachowicz
Blachowicz is expected to defend his championship in September against Glover Teixeira. Blachowicz recently beat current middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and will put the light heavyweight division on ice until the third quarter of 2021. It’s not a division brimming with big-name stars. This weekend features an important fight between Dominick Reyes and Jiri Prochazka, although given the timing the winner will probably be due for another fight before a championship fight is offered. Aleksandar Rakic is also in the mix having won his previous three fights and coming off decision wins against Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos.
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Israel Adesanya
After the first loss of his professional career, Adesanya will return to the weight class best suited for him during this part of his career. Adesanya will fight Marvin Vettori in a rematch on June 12th at UFC 263 after Vettori has reeled off five consecutive wins since the 2018 split decision loss to Adesanya. The prime candidate to fight Adesanya was Robert Whittaker but the timing was off given he just fought Kelvin Gastelum and Adesanya was ready to compete in June. In theory, Whittaker should be held on ice to fight the winner rather than make the former champion jump through another hoop, which is unnecessary given the quality of fighters he has defeated since losing the belt in October 2019. If everything aligns, Whittaker should fight for the title before the end of 2021.
WELTERWEIGHT: Kamaru Usman
After the biggest performance of his career, Usman feels like he has ascended the level of the very elite in the sport. His striking game has become incredibly dangerous under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman to compliment the work of Henri Hooft that has led to one of the most dominant champions of this era. Dana White has openly stated Colby Covington will receive the next title fight after a fight-of-the-year contender in 2019 that saw Usman stop Covington in the final round of their championship fight. However, things could go awry with those plans dependent on the outcome of next month’s fight between Leon Edwards and Nate Diaz. The probability of a Diaz victory is small, but if so, would throw a wrench into any plans for Covington as Diaz bypassing the line would not surprise anyone. Edwards winning in spectacular fashion would be interesting, but it seems he has not distinguished himself enough despite an ample win streak. On paper, Edwards has the disadvantage of losing to Usman in the past, but he is not alone in that department as Usman starts earning his second victories against the top contenders. Timing will be a factor as Usman has kept a torrid pace with two fights already this year and could justifiably take some time off before another fight in 2021.
This division will officially transition from the Khabib Nurmagomedov era on May 15th when Michael Chandler and Charles Oliveira fight for the vacant title. While there were critics of Dustin Poirier’s omission from the championship fight, by design, Poirier pursued the rematch with Conor McGregor that is incredibly lucrative and will be heavily favored in the third fight to serve as a bridge for Poirier fighting for the title afterward. Upsetting the apple cart in the form of a McGregor upset on July 10th would be the best option from the UFC’s perspective as McGregor would be thrust into a championship fight with the narrative that McGregor is back, and the January fight was an aberration. The other name in the background is Justin Gaethje, who would be wise to stay ready if any of these four fighters were to get hurt and an instant back-up was needed.
FEATHERWEIGHT: Alexander Volkanovski
After Volkanovski contracted COVID-19 and his UFC 260 fight with Brian Ortega was canceled, it put this division on hold for a long time. Instead, the two featherweights are in the process of coaching the next season of TUF that debuts in June, thus pushing their title fight way back. The biggest loser? Max Holloway, who had a masterful performance this past January on ABC against Calvin Kattar and will be treading water until the championship fight takes place.
BANTAMWEIGHT: Aljamain Sterling
With his recent neck surgery, Sterling is going to be on the sidelines and pushes back the necessary rematch with Petr Yan, which has to be the fight to make. The nature of Sterling’s title victory demands a rematch and unless Yan takes a “keep busy” fight to jeopardize his standing, he should be fighting for the belt next. There are many moving parts to this division including the return of former champion T.J. Dillashaw in two weeks, being sent to the deep end of the pool against Cory Sandhagen. Later that month, Rob Font is fighting former champion Cody Garbrandt and it creates an interesting pool of contenders based on the outcomes and different fights to make. Sterling is pegging a return to action between August and October.
FLYWEIGHT: Deiveson Figueiredo
UFC 263 in June will feature a rematch of one of the best fights of 2021 between champion Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno that ended in a majority draw last December at UFC 256. It was best for all involved to go to the rematch immediately with a rare instance of an anticipated flyweight championship fight with a backstory. It is piggybacking off Israel Adesanya vs. Marvin Vettori with the hope that the attention Adesanya brings extends to the co-main event. The division has plenty of action fighters but minimal marquee value where the best strategy is to pair these title fights with larger ones on pay-per-view. After the rematch in June, Askar Askarov could be the next to challenge for the title, although he did miss weight for his last fight last month.
WOMEN’S FEATHERWEIGHT/BANTAMWEIGHT: Amanda Nunes
Nunes will defend the bantamweight title against Julianna Pena on August 7th at UFC 265. Nunes has run through both divisions and it’s hardly even a division that remains that 145 pounds. Pena is one of the few challengers left at 135 pounds that Nunes has not beaten and presents several tools that could be effective against the champion. Contenders Aspen Ladd and Macy Chiasson are set to fight on July 24th, which would line up timing-wise when Nunes and Pena are fighting two weeks later. Inevitably, the arguments will grow for Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko to have a third fight given the way both have steam-rolled their respective weight divisions.
WOMEN’S FLYWEIGHT: Valentina Shevchenko
It was a one-sided beating administered by Shevchenko last weekend against Jessica Andrade. The only name being thrown out since Saturday is Amanda Nunes, which Dana White wasn’t too high on. The negative is that it halts both divisions but as stated, neither division is overflowing with contenders that would be forced to wait things out. Lauren Murphy will be fighting Joanne Calderwood on June 12th and should set up the next challenger for Shevchenko. Even if a third fight with Nunes became the direction it would be closer to the end of 2021 or early 2022 at the earliest they could make such a fight with the likelihood Shevchenko defends the 125-pound title at least once more.
WOMEN’S STRAWWEIGHT: Rose Namajunas
This is a very exciting division and whenever there is a new champion crowned, it opens several possibilities. Dana White was campaigning for the immediate rematch with Zhang Weili. From a business standpoint, Weili means a lot to the UFC’s expansion in China and has become a superstar in that country based on the data shared. However, Zhang had the war against Joanna Jedrzejczyk and followed it with a long layoff and knockout by Namajunas this past weekend that rushing her back for another five-round title fight might be asking a lot. There is a strong list of options from Joanna Jedrzejczyk (who is coming off the Zhang loss), Yan Xiaonan, Carla Esparza (who holds a win over Rose Namajunas from 2014), Mackenzie Dern, and Tatiana Suarez (who has been injured and has not fought since June 2019), or the rematch with Zhang. This is a thriving division and there are so many fights to make among the top mix. Suarez returning would be very intriguing as people have been high on her ability to become a champion in this division for a long time.