1 Nightmare Matchup for Each of the UFC's Biggest Stars
Most of the UFC's brightest stars stand atop their respective divisions, and they are stars because of their skills and personality.
But who makes them toss and turn at night? Who waits in the wings for their chance to strip them of the gold around their waist?
The UFC is filled with amazing talent, and the sport can change on a dime. One punch, one submission; that's all it takes. One good night from a challenger who has all the skills and the right game plan. It is remarkably difficult to become the champion of the world, and it is an even tougher task to keep the belt as the rest of the division studies your every move.
And there are perfect foils who match up well with the sport's top stars working their way up the ranks.
These are the nightmare matchups for each of the UFC's brightest stars.
Let's begin with the biggest star in the sport and the only non-champion on the list.
It would be very easy to tap Khabib Nurmagomedov as his nightmare matchup, but that would be cheating. We need to take into consideration McGregor's status after being dethroned. He won't walk into a title shot when he returns. Thus, let's choose his nightmare return bout instead.
Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje may come to mind for many. They are well-rounded, aggressive, heavy-hitting opponents, but McGregor thrives against opponents who leave gaping holes as they do.
No, Kevin Lee is McGregor's nightmare opponent upon his return.
Lee's wrestling is the issue. He doesn't mind a scrap but is more cautious than most, and against a fighter in McGregor whose style is clearly defined, Lee would be conservative and look for spots to use his biggest advantage.
Lee would turn the bout into a boring grappling contest in which he would easily win. Takedown after takedown would be completed, or he would advance position on the ground and secure a submission.
McGregor's return bout should be against someone who will stand and trade. Lee is too smart to get drawn into those exchanges with so much on the line as he eyes another title shot. Styles make fights, and in this instance, styles make nightmares.
The reigning strawweight champion has a stiff test ahead of her on May 11 at UFC 237 when she meets Jessica Andrade. The challenger poses significant risks, but she isn't the nightmare opponent.
That distinction belongs to Tatiana Suarez.
Namajunas is very well rounded, and she has improved greatly since making her debut. However, wrestling remains her weakness. It reared its head during her first title attempt coming off The Ultimate Fighter, when Carla Esparza dominated her en route to the title.
Suarez is significantly better than Esparza. She is more powerful and a better athlete, and oddsmakers would be hard-pressed not to make her the betting favorite.
Namajunas would not be out of her depth. Her striking and submission skills would keep Suarez honest. But if Suarez were to get her paws around Namajunas, she would hit the canvas in a violent fashion and suffer damage. Suarez is not simply a nightmare waiting in the wings, she is a future champion.
Cormier has lost twice to Jon Jones, who would be the pick here if Jones were a heavyweight. He's not though, so the pick will need to be an active heavyweight on the roster.
ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto reported Tuesday that Cormier and Stipe Miocic will run it back on August 17 for the heavyweight title. Miocic is a solid wrestler with crisp boxing, but he isn't the worst matchup.
That would be Francis Ngannou.
Does Ngannou have wrestling deficiencies that make Cormier his nightmare opponent? Absolutely. But Ngannou's continuous growth, insane strength and ridiculous knockout power would strike the fear of God into anyone.
Cormier's teammate Cain Velasquez has a similar skill set to Cormier, and Ngannou pelted him and finished the fight in under 30 seconds.
His highlight reel speaks for itself. While there are more well-rounded opponents out there for the champion, Ngannou is the one who offers the most danger when the cage door closes.
Newly minted UFC interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya is one of the brightest stars of 2019, and he will get his chance to unify the belts against Robert Whittaker later this year.
Adesanya vs. Whittaker is sure to be a barnburner and could end up being a Fight of the Year contender. So, Whittaker is his nightmare opponent, right? Hold the phone.
Whittaker's style actually matches up quite well for Adesanya. It's a tough road to travel, but it's not overly daunting. Yoel Romero, on the other hand, could exploit his weaknesses.
Ageless wonder Romero has ungodly power and an elite-level grappling background.
We've seen Adesanya defend takedowns and get up off his back, but he hasn't been tossed around by Romero, nor has he had the Cuban Olympian on top of him. And his stand-up is equally as dangerous; just ask Whittaker.
Romero's athleticism remains the best in the division, and he can end a fight in a split-second. If these two meet, especially if Adesanya wins the undisputed belt, Romero could be in prime position to finally wear UFC gold.
Amanda Nunes will defend the bantamweight title against Holly Holm at UFC 239. The undisputed queen of combat sports and the greatest female mixed martial artist of all time has another stiff task in front of her.
Is Holm the nightmare matchup?
Possibly. Her technical striking and distance management are intriguing problems for Nunes to contend with. Holm's game plan will be one of the more fascinating things to watch when the bell sounds.
However, the biggest threat remains Valentina Shevchenko.
Yes, Nunes has beaten Shevchenko twice. But unlike Ronda Rousey or Cris Cyborg, Nunes has not been able to dominate Shevchenko. In fact, had their first fight been scheduled for five rounds, it is possible that Shevchenko would have run away with it as Nunes had faded.
Shevchenko has shown on two occasions that she has the striking and grappling to equal Nunes. Perhaps more importantly, she has the stamina to go 25 minutes and find alternative ways to win.
While Shevchenko is now a flyweight, there aren't many top-end opponents for her at 125. It's a shallow division that is still finding its legs. Nunes needs challengers, and Shevchenko remains the cream of the crop for her at bantamweight. If they continue their winning ways, a champion vs. champion meeting at the end of 2019 makes too much sense.
It is a razor-thin matchup on paper that has only just gone Nunes' way twice. A third time is not a foregone conclusion.
With how Khabib Nurmagomedov has looked throughout his MMA career, this almost feels like a fantasy exercise. While other fighters have lost or shown significant weaknesses, Nurmagomedov has not. His mauling grappling and surprising hands have dominated everyone.
The one time we have witnessed him get hurt was off a hook from Michael Johnson, and it showed he is not completely invincible.
Other than being a fully grown grizzly bear, a fighter needs to have excellent wrestling to stop some of Nurmagomedov's takedown attempts and quick hands. Justin Gaethje best fits that mold.
Gaethje, like every other lightweight, has significant issues when matched with Nurmagomedov. But his solid wrestling could allow him to stuff a few of Nurmagomedov's shots, which would give him a chance to create a few exchanges on the feet.
That is where his chance would come. He has a full arsenal of weapons on the feet, with fight-ending, one-shot power. His unconventional nature would make it more difficult for Nurmagomedov to slip, and an orthodox or unexpected strike would be Gaethje's best shot to unseat the champ.
If Gaethje keeps winning as he has done, we may see this matchup sooner than later.
Much like Nurmagomedov, picking a nightmare opponent for Jon Jones is incredibly difficult. The only man to truly test Jones has been Alexander Gustafsson, and they recently met in a rematch that Jones dominated.
In the first fight, Gustafsson did lay out a blueprint for being his equal: substantial size, a good reach and the ability to mix things up to keep Jones guessing. The takedowns from Gustafsson stunned Jones and made him think twice, and his length on the feet allowed him to damage the champion.
Jones still won, but he was far from dominant.
While still developing and not quite as long as Gustafsson, the light heavyweight who best fits the criteria is Dominick Reyes.
Reyes has a 77-inch reach, is a good athlete, has power and is a solid all-around fighter. If he can get past the aura of Jones, Reyes may be able to hurt the champion.
The rest of the top 10 does not stack up well against Jones. Reyes may be the lone guy left among the elite of the division to offer up hope that Jones won't reign supreme without an equal. Reyes is perhaps not ready right now, but he is on his way and has the tools to at least present a stiff test.
Reyes may be "The One," but Jones is probably going to rest easy as he controls the 205-pound Savanna as the lion of the division.