Welcome back to Across the MMA Universe, a column publishing every Friday morning. We'll scour the sport's landscape, preview upcoming cards, tell interesting stories and put some shine on the fighters and topics we think have it coming. Let's get it on.
When you ask Derrick Lewis who gets his vote as the UFC's most powerful striker, the answer isn't too surprising.
Now ask him to exclude himself from eligibility. Who does he vote for now?
No shade against the popular women's flyweight, but Murphy only has two knockouts in 10 UFC contests and has never been known as a hard hitter within her division, where bruisers like Valentina Shevchenko and Jessica Andrade get most of the shine when it comes to striking prowess.
Wait a second…is Lewis pulling my leg? That wouldn't be out of character for one of the UFC's notorious jokesters. But this time it's really more of an homage. Murphy is a regular member of Team Lewis, based at the Main Street Boxing and Muay Thai gym in Houston, and has been helping the heavyweight improve his overall game. To hear Lewis tell it, she's made quite an impression.
"She's a great training partner," Lewis told me. "She's an animal. I never see that woman get tired."
Murphy is just one piece of a revamped approach Lewis said is making him leaner and meaner than ever. Understandably, he doesn't want to give details, but he says the results will turn heads Saturday when he faces a dangerous Curtis Blaydes in the main event of UFC Fight Night 185.
"I think a lot of folks are gonna be surprised by my game plan," he said. "It's gonna be an eye-opener, and this is the way it's gonna be from here on out, for my career. People will know that I'm not just a striker. I've lost some weight. I'm able to, like, move and be more nimble, and I'll be a lot quicker than I have been in the past."
Lewis is fourth in the official UFC heavyweight rankings, which puts him within striking distance of the title. Lewis said two more wins should get him there.
"A title fight will come whenever it comes. It's not my main goal to fight for the title," he said. "I believe I would deserve it if I can get through Curtis, then fight whoever after him, then yes, after that I deserve it."
The next chance comes Saturday. With apologies to Murphy, if the hardest hitter in the UFC can do his thing against a top-notch wrestler in Blaydes, that will give him an even 20 pro knockout wins—and perhaps put him on a path to a bout with the loser between champ Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou, or the winner of Jairzinho Rozenstruik and Cyril Gane. Either way, we'll see Saturday if leaner is really meaner for arguably the most devastating puncher on the planet today.
A UFC Grand Prix?
Last week we discussed Bellator's announcement that it would hold a Grand Prix in its glamorous light heavyweight division. Given the level of excitement that a good Grand Prix can generate, it begs the question: Why can't the UFC do the same thing?
The answer: It can, and it should.
A Grand Prix, official or unofficial, is a perfect way to sort out the murky contender picture below champ Kamaru Usman.
Let's assume the UFC makes the rematch between Usman and Jorge Masvidal, which Usman himself demanded after his win last week at UFC 258. Usman won pretty handily the first time, and there's no reason to think the rematch wouldn't go down the same way. The bout is a rich prize, with both men on board to anchor a new season of The Ultimate Fighter.
After that rematch, things destabilize. Usman isn't going anywhere, and he needs fresh bodies. That's where the Grand Prix comes in.
First, pit Colby Covington against the winner between Leon Edwards and Belal Muhammad in March. Covington has the wrestling, Edwards has the striking, and both men are brash and already battling through the media.
(As an aside, how mad is Covington right now? Usman could have just as easily, maybe more easily, called Covington's name last weekend. Usman also took away Covington's biggest potential non-Usman matchup in Masvidal. Oh well.)
On the other side of the bracket, Michael Chiesa and Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson are good fighters but don't seem quite credentialed enough for a title. A win here would help. That's what a Grand Prix is for. The winner could then face the winner of Covington-Edwards or wait in the wings for his shot.
It's a fair and fun way to determine the pecking order while adding spice to the bland line of Fight Night cards we all know and instantly forget. No downside to this one.
Nate Diaz: Has His Name Lost Some Magic?
When it's time to make a big fight, his name always came up.
It might be a rubber match with Conor McGregor. It might be an exhibition bout with YouTube celebrity Jake Paul. It might be a potential clash with newly minted MMA superstar Dustin Poirier. If they're within 20 pounds of Nate Diaz, Diaz is part of the speculation.
At this point Nate reminds me of his brother Nick: People just want him in the news cycle. Making a realistic fight—or, you know, his actual fighting—are a distant second.
There's no question the Diaz name will live for a long time in MMA lore. As it should; Nate and Nick are both brilliant in their own inimitable ways. But the fact is that the game is moving on. Diaz is 35 years old now, does not appear on the official UFC rankings and hasn't fought in more than a year. With his catchweights and BMF belts and everything else, he's been positioned, by himself or others, intentionally or otherwise, as a kind of novelty act, good for big paydays but not title belts.
If Diaz wants to fight, he should. At this point that probably means waiting for McGregor or Masvidal to grant him another run-back, or taking a deep breath and accepting a fight with an opponent that may not equal him in wattage but brings the substance he needs to reinvigorate his resume.
That's the landscape for Diaz as it stands, no matter how much tweeting or trash talking or talk-show speculation or wishful thinking might wish otherwise.
Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week: Phil Hawes
I'm not immune to the siren call of the friendly neighborhood betting app.
When I do place a wager, I'm far from a gunslinger. So I don't look for the big moonshots or massive underdogs. Give me a solid pick I can take to the house.
That's why I'm giving you this, my Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week for Saturday's UFC Fight Night 185 card. I can't believe the odds are this good.
Phil Hawes is a slim -125 favorite for his middleweight battle with Nassourdine Imavov. Both have identical 9-2 records, but that's where the similarities end.
Hawes' career began with tons of hype, thanks to his high-octane striking and sheer athletic dominance. But it lost steam thanks to a couple of surprising losses on UFC reality shows, followed by an extended absence from the big stage. Now he's 1-0 in the UFC proper, and all indications are he's finally ready to launch.
Imavov is an interesting fighter with a nice range-striking game, but he doesn't appear equipped for a challenge like Hawes. Lock it in.
A Bareknuckle Blast from the Past
You could have gone the rest of your life without hearing Leonard Garcia's name again. But the universe had different plans for you, my friend.
In his day—his first UFC bout was in 2007, with retirement coming in 2014—Leonard Garcia was one of the sport's great battlers.
Most famous among these were his two landmark battles with a youngster named Chan Sung Jung, who is now known far and wide as the Korean Zombie. In 2010, Garcia took a split decision following a bout many picked for Fight of the Year. In the rematch a year later, Zombie pulled the MMA equivalent of a posterization, submitting Garcia with a painful twister submission—the first one ever completed in the Octagon.
Garcia picked up seven post-fight bonuses before leaving the game with an 18-13-1 record befitting one of the great journeyman brawlers of his era. He has never been knocked out.
Now, at age 41 and six years after retiring, Garcia has signed with the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, where no one appears to wear gloves. It turns out that's sort of a brutal way to do things.
Maybe this is a fun thing, maybe it's unnecessary brain trauma, maybe it's a mix of both. Regardless, best of luck to the Bad Boy.
Walkout Song of the Week: Stefan Struve, "He's a Pirate" by Klaus Badelt
Happy trails to Stefan "Skyscraper" Struve, the 7'0" heavyweight whose myriad health issues forced him to retire at age 32 with a pro record of 29-13. He was popular among fans for his distinctive look and his go-for-broke style. He also beat current champ Stipe Miocic in 2012.
And to send him off, here's his walkout song for his final bout, a first-round knockout loss to Tai Tuivasa at UFC 254 in October.
Fare thee well, ye tallest man in MMA history. If you don't recognize this little chanty, it's the theme song from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Welcome to pop culture!