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TGIFighting: The Hottest Title Picture in the UFC Right Now

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterOctober 15, 2021

Dustin Poirier
Dustin PoirierJohn Locher/Associated Press

Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we talk to top fighters, preview the weekend's combat sports action and make crotchety observations about the combat sports news of the day. Ready? Let's proceed.

                     

From now through next January, the UFC has scheduled no fewer than seven title fights.

It's natural to take stock before dropping into such wild rapids, and thus it seems like the right time to ask: Which title picture among the UFC's 12 weight classes is currently the most competitive?

Let's sort through them, shall we?

There are a few we can rule out off the top. Three of the UFC's four women's weight classes are ruled by two iron-fisted fighters: Valentina Shevchenko (22-3) at flyweight and Amanda Nunes (21-4) at bantamweight and featherweight. These are dominant champions and charismatic competitors, but that doesn't translate to a lot of intrigue in their respective divisions (quite the opposite, actually).

Amanda Nunes (right) punches Megan Anderson
Amanda Nunes (right) punches Megan AndersonHandout/Getty Images

The same problem exists at men's welterweight, as current champ and consensus pound-for-pound kingpin Kamaru Usman (19-1) is now cycling back through the same list of challengers he's already dominated.

The fourth women's division, strawweight, is looking a little top-heavy at the moment. In November at UFC 268, champ Rose Namajunas (11-4) will rematch Zhang Weili (21-2), who held the belt until Namajunas took it in April. Immediately below them on the division's official UFC rankings is Joanna Jedrzejczyk (16-4), who has already lost once to Weili and twice to Namajunas—and, to the chagrin of her colleagues, hasn't competed in more than a year. Former champ Carla Esparza (19-6) is also in the mix with a five-fight win streak, but that came against lower levels of competition. Ergo, not a lot going on outside the top two here, though it is still easily the most compelling women's division.

Shaheen Al-Shatti @shaunalshatti

More Marina Rodriguez on Joanna Jedrzejczyk: "The problem is she's holding a very important spot in the rankings, and there's so many girls there fighting twice a year, three times a year trying to get to that, and that spot is locked." #UFCVegas39

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Back on the men's side, we can rule out light heavyweight, which, with apologies to champ Jan Blachowicz (28-8), doesn't posses a ton of transcendent talent or star power. The truth is that, for all Jon Jones' (26-1 [1 NC]) flirtations with heavyweight and persistent legal and personal problems—and seriously, how sad was it to see him cast out by the braintrust at Jackson-Wink? Those two made each other—his absence casts a long shadow over the division he ruled for nearly a decade without ever losing.

Heavyweight has a bona fide star in Francis Ngannou (16-3), but there's a triangle at the top with Ciryl Gane (10-0) and Stipe Miocic (20-4), two great fighters who haven't permeated the national sports consciousness.

Men's flyweight is a two-man race with champ Brandon Moreno (19-5-2) and Deiveson Figueiredo (20-2-1), who are scheduled for a trilogy fight in January at UFC 270. Askar Askarov (13-0-1) is intriguing—he retired Joseph Benavidez (28-8) in March—but hasn't done enough yet to break into the title conversation. The UFC might want to make a fight for Askarov soon if it wants to maintain his momentum. 

Brandon Moreno (left) and Deiveson Figueiredo
Brandon Moreno (left) and Deiveson FigueiredoIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

Middleweight is fun, but unless Robert Whittaker (23-5) can pull the upset in their inevitable-but-still-technically-unofficial rematch next year, Israel Adesanya (21-1) will continue to control this division. After these two, you're quickly left with the Jared Cannoniers (14-5) of the world.

Men's bantamweight is a terrific division, no two ways about it. With Rob Font (19-4) and Jose Aldo (30-7) circling the periphery, you have a rock-solid core of Petr Yan (15-2), TJ Dillashaw (17-4), Cory Sandhagen (14-3) and Aljamain Sterling (20-3). That's a murder's row right there. Yan and Sandhagen vie for the interim title October 30.

Now consider this: the interim belt is only in place because the lineal champ, Sterling, remains out as he continues to recover from neck surgery. Dillashaw, one of the best bantamweights ever, sits on the shelf with a knee injury—and before that missed two years with a drug suspension. These injuries muddy the waters, not only depriving us of great fights but preventing us from properly sorting out the title picture. Sorry, bantamweights. Close but no cigar.

Now we get to men's featherweight and lightweight. That's right: it's a two-horse race to determine the UFC's top division.

At featherweight, champ Alexander Volkanovski (23-1) may be the best fighter in the world this side of Usman. Most recently, he dispatched top contender Brian Ortega (15-2 [1 NC]) in a Fight of the Year candidate. If Yair Rodriguez (13-2 [1 NC]) can beat Max Holloway (22-6) in November, he'll be an exciting new presence on the contender scene. But that's a big if, as injuries and a failed drug test have kept him away from competition for two years.

Alex Volkanovski (top) and Brian Ortega
Alex Volkanovski (top) and Brian OrtegaIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

The Korean Zombie Chan Sung Jung (17-6) is a respected action fighter, and while he's more well-rounded than people give him credit for, he looked a step behind when he lost to Ortega last year. The top five is rounded out by Calvin Kattar (22-5), a legitimately good fighter who has struggled to beat top competition, most recently in a lopsided and rather bloody decision loss to Holloway. 

That leaves the lightweights. In a way, the retirement of lightweight GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0) and the back-burnering of Conor McGregor (22-6) were the best things to happen to this division in some time. Nurmagomedov had a near-literal stranglehold on the division. Now it's anyone's game, and in this case that's a very good thing, because lightweight is chock full of killers, both established veterans and those hungry to make a name for themselves in the history books.

We'll take a deeper dive in a second, but these stats may tell you all you need to know: at featherweight, the champion and top five contenders have a combined UFC record of 56-15 and 2 NC, with 36 post-fight bonuses. The lightweights have a combined record of 69-22-1 with 45 bonuses. This indicates that the lightweight stable is deeper, more experienced and more exciting than its featherweight counterpart. 

Brand-new lightweight champ Charles Oliveira (31-8 [1 NC]) is an absolute joy to watch, a fight fan's fighter. Despite being only 31 years old, he holds the UFC record for submission wins with 14. But he's not infallible, especially not at this level, and especially given his history of mental lapses. That makes for a more wide-open field.

The wildly popular Dustin Poirier (28-6 [1 NC]), who in December will challenge Oliveira for the belt at UFC 269, could be in prime position to earn his first lineal title. After Poirier comes the ultra-violent Justin Gaethje (22-3), a well-rounded high-IQ fighter in Beneil Dariush (21-4-1), longtime Bellator champ Michael Chandler (22-6), and Islam Makhachev (20-1), who has been labeled the next Nurmagomedov by more than one observer (raises hand). 

Another advantage at 155 pounds compared with 145: these guys are all new to each other.

With the exception of Chandler, Oliveira has never faced any of the five fighters below him. Gaethje and Poirier have only faced each other. Dariush and Makhachev are entirely new to this level of the game. So there's plenty we don't know about this title picture. That means lots of fresh matchups and storylines.

By contrast, at featherweight Volkanovski has already beaten Ortega once and Holloway twice. The latter is particularly problematic, given that Holloway is the No. 1 contender. Ortega, sitting at No. 2, has already faced Volkanovski, Holloway and Zombie. Not a massive bottleneck, but a bottleneck nonetheless.

One final piece of evidence for the lightweights: When McGregor, the former dual-division champ and the most famous fighter in the world, sits at No. 9 on your rankings, you know you're fighting in a deep bracket.

There are stories to tell in every division, but if you're looking for the one with the most intrigue as the UFC embarks on a critical stretch for its marquee fighters, lightweight is at the top of the heap.

                 

Masvidal-Edwards Finally Set

Three-piece and a soda? On December 11, you're going to want to add a jumbo tub of popcorn to the mix.

That's when welterweights Jorge Masvidal (35-15) and Leon Edwards (19-3 [1 NC]) will square off at UFC 269

Grudge matches don't come much grudgier than this. It's been simmering on the stove for two years now, ever since the two fighters and their camps came to blows backstage at UFC Fight Night 147. It was after that even that Masvidal made his infamous fried chicken comment, which became so popular Masvidal started printing T-shirts

It's an intriguing scrap as well, with both men more than capable of finding a stoppage. It's unlikely, however, that this one hits the ground, or ends with anything other than one man going out on his shield. 

                  

Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week

Record to date: 19-6

UFC Fight Night 195 goes down this weekend from Las Vegas, but, dude: This is not a good card. The main event is downright uncomfortable, with Aspen Ladd (9-1) trying her hand up at featherweight just two weeks after a scary weigh-in 10 pounds lighter. She'll do this against a total unknown in Norma Dumont (6-1) after Holly Holm (14-5) had to withdraw because of injury.

And that about sums it up. 

Luckily, all us conservative bettors have Bellator 268, also going down Saturday. Bet the house on perennially overlooked light heavyweight champ Vadim Nemkov (14-3), who is facing someone named Julius Anglickas (10-1), whose twin claims to fame are competing on Dana White's Contender Series and being in really good shape.

This is the evening's main event, and doubles as the second semifinal match of the promotion's Light Heavyweight Grand Prix. Nemkov won't pay off much, sitting at a -510 favorite over Anglickas, per DraftKings, but there's nothing wrong with a little easy money, even if it's not likely to put your kids through college. If nothing else, you'll get to see a great fighter in Nemkov do his thing. Lock it in and collect the W. 

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