UFC debate: How will the UFC bring Shahbazyan along? And what’s next for Brunson?


Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card was a cold dose of reality for a pair of fighters who appeared to be on the precipice of major breakthroughs. Edmen Shahbazyan ran into the stiff offense of Derek Brunson and suffered the first loss of his career, while Joanne Calderwood saw her immediate title hopes shrink after taking a short-notice fight and falling by submission to Jennifer Maia.

The winners and losers of those bouts will each feel the effect of Saturday’s results, but so too could reigning UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko, with the list of top contenders to her belt shuffled after Saturday’s result.

ESPN’s panel of MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim — break down all of the fallout from UFC Fight Night and project what lies ahead.

What’s your biggest takeaway from Saturday’s main event?

Helwani: Brunson is no one’s stepping stone. That’s for sure. Now, I don’t think it was a mistake to book him against Shahbazyan because this seemed like a suitable next step for the 22-year-old, considering how good Shahbazyan looked as of late. But it’s clear Shahbazyan’s not on the level of the Brunsons of the world yet, let alone the top contenders. And that’s OK. He is only 22. Remember, Brunson is 36. He’s been fighting since 2010. Shahbazyan, meanwhile, has been fighting since 2017. I have no doubt Shahbazyan will be back and be a player at 185, but the coronation will have to wait.

For Brunson, considering he stumbled in the spotlight versus Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya in the past, it was good to see him right those wrongs. He isn’t a gatekeeper and deserves a little more respect. Hopefully people recognize that now.

Raimondi: Brunson is a real problem under the guidance of the team at Sanford MMA and coach Henri Hooft. He is 3-0 since going down to the Florida gym. This version of Brunson is much more patient. He isn’t head hunting. He’s using his oppressive wrestling abilities. He’s keeping a high pace. Plus, Brunson still has big power in his hands. These are all ingredients for a top middleweight fighter in the UFC. It would not be crazy for Brunson to get someone like Jack Hermansson next. With three straight wins, Brunson is not far from middleweight contention. By the way, that division is as interesting as it has been in years with guys like Israel Adesanya, Paulo Costa, Whittaker, Jared Cannonier and others at the top.

Wagenheim: I’ve always loved the philosophy of Conor McGregor‘s coach, John Kavanagh: We win or we learn. For Shahbazyan, the impact of Saturday’s setback will not be truly understood until the next time he steps inside the Octagon. He looked sharp and dangerous in the first round, but it was not one-way traffic, as some of his previous fights had been, and the back-and-forth wore him down. By Round 2, Shahbazyan appeared a step slower, while Brunson, showing more patience than what we’d come to expect from him, was methodical in turning the fight his way. This was a step up in competition for Shahbazyan, and forgive the 22-year-old for not recognizing that — because the oddsmakers certainly did not, either, installing the youngster as a nearly 3-to-1 favorite. The next step for Shahbazyan is to get back to the gym and continue to build on an already strong skill set. And here’s hoping he does not lose any of the confidence that got him to where he is.

Murphy: It’s easy to clown Shahbazyan for the gas tank draining to “empty” in the second round Saturday. The first round, though, revealed some holes, even before Brunson took him into the deep end.

Brunson represented a new level of opponent for the 22-year-old Shahbazyan, and “The Golden Boy” looked like a fighter in his first UFC main event. He was rigid early and overextended on several power shots. When he landed, Shahbazyan demonstrated immense power. People cageside physically recoiled when Brunson absorbed clean kicks to the body.

The physical gifts are there. Many fighters get an early wakeup call in the spotlight and rebound to decorated careers; Max Holloway, Rose Namajunas and Amanda Nunes are just a few. Shahbazyan’s next fight now becomes the most important of his career, and responsibility shifts to Glendale Fighting Club to ensure he is ready.

Who’s next for Brunson?

Murphy: Brunson took the “gatekeeper” label personally. Brunson had not been as steep a betting underdog as he was heading into Saturday’s fight since his Strikeforce days. Now he’s gotten his hand raised three times in as many fights since relocating to Sanford MMA, née Blackzilians, early last year.

Only big names lie ahead of Brunson in the rankings, and two stand out: Yoel Romero and Kelvin Gastelum.

The former assumes Romero beats Uriah Hall in three weeks. Brunson lost a Fight of the Night to Romero in 2014, so a rematch is warranted. But Brunson is a tougher out for Romero than most fans would credit. The 43-year-old Romero — on a three-fight skid — wants the shortest route to a final title shot.

Meanwhile, Gastelum benefits from a short rebound after a quick loss to Jack Hermansson on Fight Island. Gastelum, similarly, has three consecutive losses. Brunson could keep climbing by beating a former title challenger, and Gastelum could get back in the win column against a respected veteran. Late Saturday, Dana White mentioned Gastelum as a possible opponent for Brunson.

Who’s next for Shahbazyan?

Helwani: The UFC needs to be careful with who they book Shahbazyan against next. He just lost his first pro fight and got beat pretty badly at the end. He is a prospect worth looking after, so this next step is crucial. They need to build his confidence back up. I’d book him against a No. 15-or-so ranked fighter, or even an unranked one. No shame in taking a step back, even if he remains in the rankings. An Ian Heinisch-type would make sense. If not, someone like Brendan Allen, Antonio Carlos Junior or Eryk Anders would work, too. A tough, solid fighter but not a huge risk. Remember, Shahbazyan has solid wins over Brad Tavares and Jack Marshman on his UFC record, so it’s not like he’s been fighting tomato cans.

Who’s next for Vicente Luque?

Wagenheim: In our panel discussion following last weekend’s fights, I suggested Luque as a possible next opponent for the 170-pound flavor of the month, Khamzat Chimaev. But after Saturday’s performance, Luque’s eighth win in his last nine fights (seven by finish), he deserves better than that. He made a respectful callout of Nate Diaz, and if those words catch fire in the 209, so much the better. But it doesn’t sound like a fight that would entice Diaz back to the Octagon. And, really, Luque’s nasty KO warrants an opponent higher than him in the rankings. How about Michael Chiesa? He’s been a popular target of callouts lately, so Luque might find himself standing in line. But Saturday’s performance just might propel Luque front and center.

After Joanne Calderwood’s loss, what do you do with Valentina Shevchenko?

Helwani: I wouldn’t book Shevchenko vs. Maia just yet. First of all, Shevchenko isn’t coming back next month. She told me on Saturday night that while she is back to training she is aiming to return “before the end of the year.” She said her current goal is to return in November. That’s three months away, but not set in stone. Maia is on a one-fight winning streak now. She missed weight in her last two fights going into this one. I don’t think a win over Calderwood, as impressive as it was, should mean she should be next for the champ.

I’d book her against Cynthia Calvillo, who looked good in her flyweight debut in June, next and then see if someone emerges as a legit contender for Shevchenko. Truth is, there is no threat to Shevchenko right now at 125, and there won’t be one for a while. The gap between her and the rest of the weight class is massive — maybe the biggest ever — so it wouldn’t hurt to get the next contender, whomever it may be, a little more work. Plus, I’d like to see Maia make weight at least one more time before she gets a title shot.

Raimondi: I’m not sure if the UFC will view Maia as title-fight ready, especially since she entered Saturday coming off a loss to former challenger Katlyn Chookagian. The best bet right now is probably Cynthia Calvillo. She’s coming off a win over former challenger Jessica Eye and is unbeaten in four straight. Sure, Calvillo’s flyweight debut was against Eye, but she was a serious threat at strawweight before that and is long someone the UFC has viewed as a future star. Depending how much longer Shevchenko is out, the UFC could do Maia vs. Calvillo for the title shot.

Wagenheim: Saturday’s victory, as impressive as it was, puts Maia on a whopping one-fight winning streak. She came in at No. 9 in the ESPN women’s flyweight rankings, and she needs to do more to ascend to the top rung of the ladder. If Shevchenko is healed up and ready to go in the next couple of months, the title shot should go to fifth-ranked Cynthia Calvillo (9-1-1, 6-1-1 in the UFC), who is unbeaten in her last four fights and also owns a victory over Calderwood. If the champ must remain on the shelf for longer, maybe pit Calvillo against Maia in a No. 1 contender elimination bout. That might not sit well with No. 6 Lauren Murphy, winner of three straight, but Maia’s eye-opening performance does warrant an opportunity against someone higher in the top 10.

What’s next for Maia?

Raimondi: What a huge win for Maia. She’s the former Invicta FC flyweight champion, but until Saturday had never beaten anyone of Calderwood’s caliber — a perennial contender in the UFC’s flyweight and strawweight divisions. Calderwood was queued up for the title shot against champion Valentina Shevchenko, but took the risk and fought Maia to stay fresh while Shevchenko recovers from a leg injury. Maia now has a case for a title opportunity — and Shevchenko immediately called her out on Twitter. It’s unclear if the UFC believes Maia is ready for that type of fight. If a title eliminator between Maia and Cynthia Calvillo is not in the offing, Maia taking on Lauren Murphy would be very interesting.

What’s next for Joanne Calderwood?

Raimondi: Calderwood still has to be considered one of the top women’s 125-pound fighters in the world, despite the loss. She still isn’t terribly far away from a title shot in what is still a young division. There are a few interesting options available for Calderwood next. Perhaps a good next opponent is Viviane Araujo, an up-and-comer from Brazil who was supposed to fight Maia on this card, before Araujo withdrew due to a positive test for coronavirus. Another fascinating matchup would be Calderwood against Antonina Shevchenko, the older sister of the champion.

Was it a mistake for Calderwood to take the fight against Maia?

Murphy: Recent news affirmed wisdom in Joanne Calderwood’s decision to take this fight. What happened in the Octagon on Saturday has little effect on that.

Earlier this week, Brett Okamoto reported former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade is finalizing an October bout agreement with former flyweight challenger Jessica Eye at 125 pounds. Many people believe flyweight is Andrade’s optimal weight class — a scary proposition, given that she fought at bantamweight until 2016.

Calderwood’s yet-to-be-officially rebooked fight against champion Valentina Shevchenko has not moved the needle. Shevchenko opened as a 12-to-1 favorite in their originally scheduled June pairing, more lopsided than Khamzat Chimaev against Rhys McKee. Andrade holds a head-to-head win over Calderwood from UFC 203. Who among us would’ve been shocked had Andrade cut Calderwood in line?

Calderwood had to pad her resume in the interim. Things were going well until she failed to roll out of Maia’s armbar attempt. There surely won’t be a title shot now, but I’m not convinced one was waiting for Calderwood anyway, had she remained idle.

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