6 Fights We Need to See After UFC 254
The UFC's second stint on Fight Island concluded Saturday afternoon with the headline-dominating UFC 254 card.
UFC 254 featured a number of compelling matchups, but most eyes were understandably glued to the main event: a lightweight title fight between undisputed champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Justin Gaethje.
Despite being hailed as Nurmagomedov's toughest test to date, Gaethje had little to offer the champ once the cage door closed and ultimately took a snooze after getting snagged in a second-round triangle choke.
The victory elevated Nurmagomedov's record to an impeccable 29-0, which is where it will seemingly stay forever, as the undefeated Russian retired post-fight, citing an unwillingness to fight without his late father supporting him.
While Nurmagomedov's retirement is unfortunate, it does open the door to a number of compelling lightweight matchups, several of which could be contested with the vacant title on the line.
Beyond the drama in the lightweight division, UFC 254 also paved the way for several exciting fights in other weight classes, such as middleweight, heavyweight and flyweight.
Without further ado, here are the six fights we'd like to see now that this action-packed card has concluded.
Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler
Gaethje was widely hailed as the toughest test of Nurmagomedov's career. In the end, however, he was merely the undefeated lightweight champion's latest meal.
In the second round, he found himself locked up in a triangle choke, and not long thereafter, dozing on the canvas.
Had Nurmagomedov not retired post-fight, Gaethje would likely have to put in some real work to earn a rematch with the champ. However, thanks to Nurmagomedov's exit, the lightweight title will remain well within Gaethje's reach.
In his next fight, he should be matched up with former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler, who recently migrated to the UFC. Chandler has been linked to a fight with Tony Ferguson, which is very exciting on paper, but a fight with Gaethje is arguably even more appealing.
The pair could potentially even fight for the vacant UFC lightweight title—although that opportunity could also go to Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, who will ostensibly meet on January 23.
Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya 2
Robert Whittaker seemed to be widely discounted in his UFC 254 co-main event scrap with Jared Cannonier. Heading into the matchup, there was rampant talk of Cannonier earning a crack at UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya with a victory, and many seemed to view that outcome as a certainty.
Whittaker had other plans.
Over the course of three rounds, the former champion reminded the world that he is one of the best fighters out there—in any division—battering his foe to a clean, unanimous-decision win.
With this outcome, Whittaker is now 2-0 since he surrendered the title to Adesanya, having also defeated Darren Till by decision in July. On the heels of these wins, it would be criminal to give him anything but a rematch with the champion next. Sure, he could fight somebody like Paulo Costa instead, but he's already the No. 1 contender in his division, and he's beaten five of his fellow top-10 middleweights. He's accomplished more than enough to justify a shot at redemption.
Alexander Volkov vs. Alistair Overeem
He tends to get undervalued, but Alexander Volkov is one of the best heavyweights in the world. The former Bellator champion reminded onlookers of that fact on the UFC 254 main card, when he knocked out the ever-dangerous Walt Harris in the first round.
Having bested Harris, Volkov is now a fantastic 6-2 in the Octagon, with his only losses coming against top-flight heavyweights in Derrick Lewis and Curtis Blaydes. Currently ranked seventh in the division, he's ready for another opportunity to break into the top five. That opportunity should come against the former Strikeforce, Dream and K-1 heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, who currently holds the No. 5 spot in the division's rankings.
Overeem recently turned back the clock once again with a TKO win over Augusto Sakai and is adamant he has one more title run in him before he retires. A fight with Volkov would represent a great opportunity for him to move closer to another title shot.
The UFC has attempted to book this fight previously, and both men are undoubtedly still interested. Now's the time.
Lauren Murphy vs. Cynthia Calvillo
Lauren Murphy picked up a beautiful submission win on the UFC 254 main card, tapping the debuting Liliya Shakirova with a rear-naked choke. After the win, Murphy made an eloquent and rousing call for a crack at UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko.
At this stage, there's no denying that Murphy is right on the cusp of a title shot. However, her callout felt a bit premature—particularly after she beat a debuting fighter. Furthermore, Shevchenko is currently tied up with a UFC 255 title defense against Jennifer Maia. So Murphy will likely need to take another fight in the meantime.
That fight should pit her against Cynthia Calvillo. The matchup was actually supposed to happen at UFC 254, but Calvillo was forced to withdraw when she tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced by the debuting Shakirova.
The UFC should take another stab at booking this fight while we wait for Shevchenko and Maia to handle their business. The winner's claim to a title shot will be almost undeniable.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
Russia's Magomed Ankalaev entered his UFC 254 main card rematch with Ion Cutelaba seeking a more decisive end after their first fight ended with a controversial stoppage. He got what he wanted.
In the waning moments of the first round, Ankalaev scored another stoppage win over Cutelaba—and this time, it was as clean as they come, as he knocked his rival out cold.
With this win over Cutelaba, Ankalaev, who already holds the No. 11 spot in the UFC light heavyweight rankings, is on a five-fight streak. That's the longest active streak of any fighter in the division.
Suffice it to say that he's ready for another step up in competition.
From here, Ankalaev should be matched up with fellow knockout specialist Johnny Walker. The Brazilian, who now trains at SBG Ireland—the same gym that gave us Conor McGregor—recently bounced back from a pair of losses to Corey Anderson and Nikita Krylov with a first-round knockout win over Ryan Spann. He currently holds the No. 9 spot in the light heavyweight rankings, so the fight makes plenty of sense.
Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Anthony Rocco Martin
Shavkat Rakhmonov could not have looked more impressive in his UFC debut.
The unbeaten Kazakh made his first steps into the Octagon on the UFC 254 undercard, taking on Brazil's Alex "Cowboy" Oliveira. It was about as tough as debuts go, as Oliveira has long floated just outside the welterweight top 15 and holds victories over the likes of Will Brooks, Tim Means, Ryan LaFlare and Carlos Condit.
Despite the scale of this test, Rakhmonov was the picture of dominance, defeating his amply more experienced foe with a guillotine choke in the first round. With this win, he's now a fantastic 13-0 overall, and all 13 of those wins have come by way of stoppage.
There's no sense bringing this guy along slowly. He's ready for another big test.
From here, he should be matched up with somebody like Anthony Rocco Martin, who has previously held a spot in the welterweight top 15 but currently resides just outside it. The American has not fought since June, when he lost a decision to Neil Magny, and is likely looking for the chance to get back on track.