Action throughout the 15-fight finale card will have far-reaching consequences across several divisions, most notably in Whittaker’s victory over Till, which will impact the rest of the year at the top of the middleweight division once Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa fight for that title in September.
Saturday’s action also had a little bit of everything, from veterans like Fabricio Werdum knocking back Alexander Gustafsson in his heavyweight debut to newcomer Khamzat Chimaev‘s second dominant win in 11 days.
There’s a lot to unravel, and ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi, Phil Murphy and Jeff Wagneheim breaks down all of Saturday’s action, as well as the best moments on Fight Island.
Who’s next for Robert Whittaker?
Murphy: Jack Hermansson laid out his own road map last week, which included him fighting the Whittaker-Till winner. I disagree. This may not be popular, but I believe Whittaker should fight for the middleweight belt next.
The champion Israel Adesanya defends against Paulo Costa in September. A Costa upset sans controversy makes this easy: Costa-Whittaker headlines any card you want for the strap. If Adesanya wins, it complicates Whittaker’s next step. Aside from a few exchanges in the opening minutes, Adesanya beat Whittaker handily at UFC 243. But big picture, it’s a greater evil having Whittaker in a holding pattern, picking off future challengers. You don’t want to create a divisional bottleneck like Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes have at heavyweight.
Whittaker’s title shot wouldn’t need to be immediate. You could run Adesanya against Jared Cannonier this winter and give Whittaker the winner, though I would argue Cannonier offers no discernable difference in marketability than the all-Oceania rematch. Whittaker returned Saturday to the form that earned him the middleweight belt. The top-ranked contender has nothing more to prove to earn it back.
Who’s next for Darren Till?
Helwani: Tough setback for Till, who fought great, but ultimately I think the right man won. So where does Till go from here? Well, next weekend’s main event features rising star Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Derek Brunson in an interesting middleweight fight. Both are on winning streaks, though this is definitely a showcase fight for the blazing hot, undefeated Shahbazyan. If he wins, I’d do Shahbazyan vs. Till next. If Brunson wins, Brunson vs. Till works, too, but the marquee fight is obviously Shahbazyan vs. Till. And yes, I know Till is coming off a loss, but that doesn’t matter here. Either Shahbazyan takes a massive next step over a name, or Till gets back on track by stopping a hype train.
Who’s next for Fabricio Werdum?
Wagenheim: There are a lot of moving parts in trying to come to grips with what’s next for the former UFC heavyweight champion. He broke out of a two-fight skid, but he did it against a light heavyweight who was coming out of retirement. Werdum is 42, which isn’t necessarily old in this division, but it definitely adds urgency for anyone hoping for one last title run. And most important of all, this was the final fight on the Brazilian’s contract with the UFC. He likely will draw interest from other promotions, but considering that the UFC will be losing Daniel Cormier this summer, keeping Werdum in the fold seems like a good idea.
For that to make sense, though, he’d have to be booked in a fight that offers the possibility of upward mobility. I wouldn’t put him in with someone high in the rankings, because Werdum’s recent body of work does not merit that. How about another veteran heavyweight looking for a high-profile opponent? How about a fourth go with 40-year-old Alistair Overeem, who has won three of his last four and is No. 10 in ESPN’s heavyweight rankings? They tangled in 2006 (Werdum won), 2011 (Overeem won) and 2017 (Overeem again). Can Werdum tie the score in 2020?
Who’s next for Alexander Gustafsson?
Raimondi: That was surely not how Gustafsson saw that fight going. This was supposed to be his starting point for a run at heavyweight. Instead, he was submitted by a 42-year-old Fabricio Werdum. It’s not how he and his team drew it up, but it also doesn’t mean the experiment is over. Gustafsson is only 33,quite young for a heavyweight. Maybe someone like Blagoy Ivanov would be a good next step. Werdum is elite on the ground. Perhaps Gustafsson just got caught. Let’s see how he does against a sturdy Ivanov, who isn’t as good in one category like Werdum is. Gustafsson could really use some victories to raise his confidence.
What was most impressive about Khamzat Chimaev’s performances on Fight Island and who should he fight next?
Raimondi: It’s incredibly hard to have two straight fights like this to start a UFC career. Chimaev is a unicorn. He’s one of only two fighters in promotion history to land more than 100 strikes in his first two UFC fights and absorb only two. The other to do it? Former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. That’s not terrible company, eh? Chimaev is just 26 years old and has fewer than 10 pro fights, but it seems like he’s ready for an increase in competition based on the sheer dominance of his wins. I wouldn’t mind seeing Chimaev fight a name next. Not a top-10 guy at welterweight. But maybe someone like Mike Perry. That would be really interesting.
Helwani: Chimaev is going to be a blessing and a curse for the UFC brass. A blessing because, well, he’s incredible. He won two fights in 11 days (a UFC record) in two different weight classes (185 and 170). He outlanded his opponents a combined 192-2 in both fights. On Saturday, he outlanded Rhys Mckee 68-0. That’s just absurd dominance. Afterwards, he said he would be willing to fight in an hour. And you know what? I believe him. We have not seen dominance like this from a UFC rookie in quite some time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in welterweight title contention by this time next year. He’s that darn good.
He’s a curse because, well, who in the world will sign up to fight this guy? It’s going to be difficult finding him opponents now. Perfect world, I’d put him in there against a top-10 guy. But if you’re a top-10 guy, why would you fight him? For the sake of this exercise, let’s put politics aside. If I could book him against anyone I’d put him in there against the winner of next week’s Neil Magny vs. Geoff Neal fight. If he wins that one, give him a top-5 guy. Buckle up, welterweights.
Murphy: I can’t tell if I hate this or love it.
It’s easy to become overeager in booking Khamzat Chimaev. The Chechen-Swede held a 192-2 total strike advantage across two weight classes just 10 days apart on Fight Island. It was stunning dominance. Welterweight seems his path forward after moving down from middleweight early last year. Next to lightweight, 170 might be the deepest division in the sport. With such lopsided wins, the temptation to fast track Chimaev builds. There are tests among unranked opposition with serious UFC experience that better reveal Chimaev’s immediate ceiling. He just turned 26; there’s no rush.
Surveying the names of the almost-ranked, there’s one I can’t get past — and it might be too much of a jump. Gunnar Nelson has serious grappling credentials. He won silver at Mundials in 2009. His only losses in the last five years came to Gilbert Burns, Leon Edwards, Santiago Ponzinibbio and Demian Maia. If Chimaev can beat Nelson, there’s no doubt “The Wolf” is ready to climb the welterweight ladder in earnest.
Wagenheim: Fighting twice in 11 days is impressive, but it’s not as though Saturday’s appearance came on the heels of a rugged night of work less than two weeks ago. In fact, that’s what was so impressive about Chimaev’s run on Fight Island. In his second-round finish of John Phillips in his UFC debut on July 15, he absorbed only two strikes while landing 124. Then, on Saturday, he did even better. He finished Rhys McKee in the first round, and while he dished out “only” 68 strikes this time, he absorbed zero.
Before anointing Chimaev as the next welterweight champion, though, we should acknowledge that his two fights in the Octagon have not been against the stiffest competition. Phillips is 1-4 in the UFC, and McKee was making his debut with the promotion. Still, relentless wrestling and a 192-2 edge in strikes are worth celebrating. Next stop for Chimaev: a step up in competition against another 170-pounder on the rise. How about Vicente Luque, who has won seven of his last eight fights, or someone at that level?
What is the MMA legacy of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, who indicated he is retiring?
Helwani: Antonio Rogerio Nogueira is a legend. Make no mistake about it. These are some of the great names he holds wins against: Kazushi Sakuraba, Dan Henderson, Alistair Overeem (twice), Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Guy Mezger, Kaz Nakamura (twice), Vladimir Matyushenko. That’s quite the resume. He has nothing to be ashamed of. What a great career, spanning 19 years.
That said, we have to be honest: part of his legacy is he didn’t have as good a resume as his twin brother, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who retired in 2015 and once held the Pride heavyweight title and the interim UFC heavyweight title. Anyone who argues that point just isn’t being honest. Now, I hate to bring this up on the day he seemingly announced his retirement, because that just doesn’t seem fair and sensitive, but it’s the truth. A legendary run, nonetheless, and arguably one half of the greatest brother tandem in MMA history.
Raimondi: It’s not an insult to say, but he’ll always be linked with his twin brother Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, one of MMA’s best heavyweights during his era. “Big Nog” was known for his Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He was one of the best grappling big men ever. “Little Nog,” who announced his retirement Saturday, could go on the ground — of course. But he was a very good southpaw boxer with sneaky power, which he showed yet again in a close loss to Mauricio Rua on Fight Island. Rogerio Nogueira’s resume, apart from his brother’s, is very impressive on its own. He will more than likely join his brother in the UFC Hall of Fame one day.
Murphy: If limited to Pride years, Little Nog would be remembered for a handful of marquee wins over feared fighters. His historic upset loss to Sokoudjou would only be a footnote. Nogueira’s legend was built in Japan.
Anticipation followed him to the UFC in 2009, but legacy-defining results did not. Aside from a major upset of Rashad Evans at UFC 156, Nogueira won the fights he should have won and lost those he was expected to lose. In hindsight, even beating Evans did more to signal the beginning of the end for Evans than the start of a new beginning for Little Nog.
A couple career-twilight sips from the Fountain of Youth led to knockouts of Patrick Cummins and Sam Alvey, but neither comes close to supplanting the Pride accomplishments from Nogueira’s late-20s. Unfortunately, contemporary mainstream fans only saw an aging veteran losing championship rounds to Father Time, not the well-rounded mixed martial artist as that very concept was in its infancy.
Wagenheim: Nogueira will always be remembered as “Little Nog” after toiling in the shadow of his twin brother, who was the first heavyweight champion in Pride and also an interim UFC champ. Rogerio never wore a MMA championship belt, but he did co-author a fight of the year with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in 2005. And he does own victories over some elite competition. The 44-year-old began his pro career in 2001, so he is of a different era. His retirement fell under the radar of many newer fans, but for old-timers, the career of Nogueira is an event worth celebrating.
What was the best fight on Fight Island?
Helwani: So many to choose from here; it was a really fun 15 days for the UFC. In the end, I’m going with Rose Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade, which won fight of the night at UFC 251. There were so many questions surrounding Namajunas’ form — both mentally and physically — since the last time we last saw her, and she seemingly put all those doubts to rest in the first round. Her striking was beautiful and on point. But hey, Andrade was game, too, with improved head movement, and she came on very strong in the third after breaking Namajunas’ nose. One wonders what would have happened had it been a five-round fight, but it wasn’t, as Namajunas did enough to win two rounds to one. Regardless, it stood out to me as the best fight of the month.
Murphy: The best fight of the UFC’s two-week Abu Dhabi residency provided objective entertainment in the moment, significant divisional impact in the immediate future and set up an anticipated trilogy in the coming years, one without an expiration date.
Rose Namajunas edging out Jessica Andrade by split-decision at UFC 251 offered all that. It was Thug Rose’s first appearance since her title reign abruptly ended via Andrade’s slam at UFC 237. The opening exchanges on July 11 proved Rose’s time away imparted the ever-desired “rest without rust.” A strong finish by Andrade generated enough scoring doubt for drama but not enough for debate that overshadowed the result.
After 15 minutes of crisp boxing, neither fighters’ stock dropped in the aftermath. Both remain necessary members of any strawweight contender conversation. And it would be outright robbery if a future trilogy bout fails to materialize. Their sequel was the perfect promotional storm.
Wagenheim: Rose Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade 2 was not a main event or even a co-main. There were three championship fights at UFC 251, and this was not one of them. But the pair of former strawweight champs put on a show that in some ways resembled their first meeting, but had the added ingredient of a momentum shift. Namajunas once again looked sharp in controlling the standup, but whereas the first fight ended abruptly with Andrade’s slam, this time the Andrade withstood the best that Namajunas could throw at her, then turned things around with a big punch and takedown. Namajunas, her left eye swollen nearly shut, had to hang on to the end. It was an excellent bout, fought at a high level.
Raimondi: If we’re talking about the most evenly matched and well-fought battle at the highest level of a division, I’d say Rose Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade from UFC 251 was the top of the food chain. There were many good fights this month. A very fun one that stands out was the debuting Mounir Lazzez‘s win over Abdul Razak Alhassan from July 15. That was back-and-forth, as both guys landed big shots and Lazzez earned some style points. But Namajunas vs. Andrade was just an incredible display of mixed martial arts. It was violent, technical, tactical and had swings of momentum. Everything you’d want to see in an MMA fight. What a year it has been for the women’s strawweight division, which also boasts the best fight of 2020, for my money, in Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk from UFC 249 in March.
Other than Chimaev, who was the most impressive fighter on Fight Island?
Raimondi: Deiveson Figueiredo. Look back at the long, impressive career of Joseph Benavidez. He’s been one of the best fighters at flyweight (and bantamweight before that) for the better part of a decade. No one has ever knocked him down three times and finished him in the first round. It’s hard enough looking good against Benavidez — Figueiredo was a destroyer. Benavidez had never before been submitted. Figueiredo choked him out. On top of that, flyweight is not known for fighters who have major power. Figueiredo checks that box in a big way and it feels like he has given the division new life. He is supremely exciting to watch and should give the 125-pound weight class — which was once on the UFC chopping block — a much-needed rejuvenation.
Murphy: If I separate recency bias — the surprising newcomers — from the equation, and look purely at in-Octagon performance, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman remains the most impressive Fight Island participant. It’s a short list of pound-for-pound fighters with a better UFC resume than the Nigerian Nightmare.
Usman moved to 12-0 in one of the UFC’s deepest weight classes, and none were terribly close. That includes the five-round beatdown of 2019 Fighter of the Year Jorge Masvidal at UFC 251. Usman’s opponent changed on six days’ notice, and so did his gameplan. It did not faze the champion at all.
We become desensitized to greatness. We expect this from Usman. But for me, it’s every bit as impressive — the most impressive, in fact — when his skill is visibly a cut above the other 101 fighters who made the walk to the Octagon on Fight Island.
Wagenheim: I’m tempted to go with Kamaru Usman, because fight IQ is my favorite martial art and fighting doesn’t get much smarter than what the welterweight champion did to totally neutralize Jorge Masvidal. Sure, fans would have enjoyed watching “Gamebred” in a toe-to-toe slugfest, but that would not have been a brainy strategy for Usman, would it? With a title belt at stake, the 170-pound king put on a performance worthy of a throne.
But there was an even better championship-level performance on Fight Island, and it was turned in by Deiveson Figiueiredo. He had a lot to prove after missing weight prior to his first fight with Joseph Benavidez, and then winning controversially following a clash of heads. This time, there were no asterisks attached to Figueiredo’s thoroughly dominant first-round submission win. He now owns the flyweight title vacated by Henry Cejudo, and he poses a scary challenge for any 125-pounder who steps in the cage with him.
Helwani: There is only one suitable answer here, and it’s the new UFC flyweight champion (and the former sushi chef and hair stylist) Deiveson Figueiredo. What a coming out party for the Brazilian. Imagine how he felt in February when he beat Joseph Benavidez but didn’t get the belt that would change his life because he missed weight the day before, Then he had to beat the same guy several months later and had to hear over and over again how he was a dirty fighter because he headbutted Benavidez in their first fight, when in reality it was really Benavidez who initiated the contact. Figueiredo put all that noise to rest with a virtuoso performance last weekend. He was even more dominant and impressive than the first time around. I’m really curious to see what the Deiveson Figueiredo era looks like at 125. He might be the hardest-hitting flyweight we’ve ever seen in the UFC.