Come on in. Duck under the tent flap and grab a megaphone. The circus is in town, and the B/R MMA Mailbag is in the center ring.
In this new feature, every week we'll ask you, the reader, a pressing question on the sport. Then we'll choose the best responses and assign them a semi-arbitrary grade.
With it being the new year and everything, now is the right time to ponder what 2022 has in store. This week, that means examining some of the most explosive potential matchups in the game.
The UFC has already set the tone, as UFC 270 features not one but two title fights. Plenty of eyes will be on mountain-of-a-man Francis Ngannou and his first heavyweight title defense against interim belt-holder Ciryl Gane. In the co-main we have a tantalizing trilogy fight between flyweight champ Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo, the man he defeated to gain it. Their first bout in 2020 was a draw, so this is a battle for division dominance.
There are other compelling matchups on the card as well. And it's all available to anyone willing and able to pay $74.99, the UFC's new price for pay-per-views. It's all part of the UFC's ongoing you'll-pay-it-and-you'll-like-it philosophy.
In any event, there are many, many possibilities on the landscape, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And the readers came through, providing thoughts on fights across the spectrum. Ready to get to the grades? Here we go.
Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor III
I hope you're sitting down. This was the most popular submission.
In the MMA world, it seems Conor McGregor's name is as magical as it's always been. The halcyon days of the former double-champ seem like decades ago, and of course the Irishman is currently hard at work reconstituting his disintegrated leg. As you may know, legs are an important part of the MMA equation.
When he comes back, it wouldn't make sense to throw McGregor into the deep end, where lightweight champ Charles Oliveira would likely make an easy meal of him. And that's before you get to Dustin Poirier and the raft of other killers in the UFC's toughest division.
A rubber match with Diaz up at welterweight appears to offer the perfect sweet spot. It's an easy sell from a business standpoint, as these two are arguably the two biggest stars in the sport, with the possible exception of Israel Adesanya and a few others.
Additionally, this is a winnable bout for McGregor. If he can regain his form, this is a great fight. Ring rust is also very real, as true red-line cardio is hard to approximate when the proverbial live bullets aren't flying.
But no one's watching this fight for the X's and O's. These are two megawatt personalities who are still, for now, at the height of their drawing power. It has fun written all over it.
Final grade for Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor III: A
Nate Diaz vs. Anybody
Wait, I'm picking up on something. My spidey sense is telling me that people really like Nate Diaz.
Diaz is one of the few UFC fighters who's able—and willing—to demand more money than the UFC is comfortable giving. And anything with the Diaz imprimatur on it will garner intrigue, even when there's just a blank space next to his name.
A few non-Conor ideas have been bandied about. For example, there's been noise about Diaz facing YouTube luminary Jake Paul, presumably in a boxing-rules match since Paul knows full well that any decent MMA fighter would smash him into the canvas.
But this one's a non-starter now given that the UFC recently extended Diaz's contract, per MMA reporter Ariel Helwani. If you think UFC brass will let him out of that contract to face Paul or do anything else not under the UFC banner, go ahead and make your peace with the idea that they will not.
Poirier at 170 pounds is interesting, but he doesn't need to leave lightweight to find compelling matchups or big paydays. Diaz was also briefly linked to a bout with terrifying super-prospect Khamzat Chimaev, but that was mercifully scuttled, according to Helwani. No one needs to see that.
Amid the speculation constantly swirling around the charismatic Stocktonian and his next move, it looks like the best option, like it or not, is McGregor. This pick gets creativity points for outside-the-box thinking and for reflecting the mood of the fanbase and its rabid appetite for all things Nate. But nothing outside McGregor makes a ton of sense at this juncture.
Final grade for Nate Diaz vs. Anybody: C-
Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou
In a frictionless universe, this could be the best fight the UFC could make, full stop.
But friction has a way of encroaching, especially when your name is Jon Jones.
For the sake of expedience, let's largely focus on Jones' life inside the cage. Since his latest arrest in September—when he was charged with battery domestic violence and injuring and tampering with a vehicle—Jones has been kicked out of his longtime home gym and taken up residence in a smaller venue.
If Jones' Instagram account is to be believed, he's still hard at work making the move from light heavyweight up to heavyweight.
Still, based on inertia alone, Jones' successful return to competition will only happen when it happens, if that makes sense.
This bout could lose a bit of luster if Gane can defeat the Cameroonian-Frenchman later this month—an outcome that's entirely possible. Jones recently suggested to Albuquerque TV station WRQE News 13 (h/t All About Fighting) that Gane could be a tougher matchup for him than Ngannou. But there's no question Gane's stolid style lacks the wattage of the current champ.
Even without a belt, Jones-Ngannou is as good as it gets. It's just unclear whether Jones can keep his end of the bargain.
Final grade for Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou: B+
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Amanda Nunes III
Kudos to Gardner, our first two-time entrant. Even with Amanda Nunes off-track following her recent loss to Julianna Pena, a battle between the flyweight and featherweight champs, presumably on the middle ground of 135 pounds, is appointment viewing.
This would be a trilogy fight, with Nunes taking razor-close decisions in the previous two. As Nunes comes off a loss and Shevchenko looks to avenge those defeats to cement her legacy, both would have plenty to fight for, even if a title isn't on the line. (Admittedly, a title would have made this an even grander spectacle.)
Before Pena took her bantamweight belt, Nunes was considered not only the best women's fighter today but also the best of all time. Now she may have dipped behind Shevchenko, who has been busy reducing the flyweight division to rubble.
It's hard to know whether Shevchenko's level of opponent is low or whether she's simply making them look bad, but six straight title defenses don't lie. Three stoppages in her last four and a much-improved ground game also have quieted concerns that she's boring or one-dimensional.
Meanwhile, as impressive and fearless as Pena was in bullying the bully that is Nunes, she doesn't have the same status as these two. Nunes still has withering power and would use her aggression to upset the counter-minded Shevchenko, while Shevchenko would look to play matador to the Brazilian's bull rush.
It may have to wait until later in the year, as it looks like a Nunes-Pena rematch will come next. Shevchenko, who has been busy plugging the movie she did with Halle Berry, doesn't have another fight on the books, but she'd be a moderate-to-heavy favorite over any other flyweight.
Fans will surely be hoping things break their way in 2022 and the UFC puts this fight on the books, maybe over the summer.
Final grade for Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko III: A-
Sean O'Malley vs. Dominick Cruz
Sean O'Malley continued his move up the bantamweight pecking order last month with a knockout of Raulian Paiva. The power contained in those whip-like limbs of his is not to be trifled with, nor is the sheer diversity of strikes and angles he can use to attack. He's 7-1 in the UFC with five knockouts, including in each of his last three.
But here's the rub: His competition to date has been lukewarm at best. He's only faced one opponent—Marlon Vera—currently in the top 15. His only loss? Also to Vera. Several of his victims are no longer on the UFC roster or have so little activity that they might as well be gone.
Needless to say, Cruz and his wacky, evasive style would be a great foil to O'Malley's offense. He's lost years of his career to injuries, but Cruz's Fight of the Night-winning victory over the well-regarded Pedro Munhoz in December indicated he's back and ready to be a force again at bantamweight.
Because of his championship pedigree in the weight class, Cruz will likely look upward in the rankings for his next opponent. Cory Sandhagen and Jose Aldo both make sense as a next step. Meanwhile, it's best to let the Suga Train keep rolling on down below, as the UFC keeps the kid gloves on and slowly moves its young star up the rankings.
Final grade for Sean O'Malley vs. Dominick Cruz: B-
Steve-O vs. Justin Bieber
What happens when the cage door closes on two of the biggest UFC celebrity fans on the planet? Magic, that's what.
I mean, have you seen Justin Bieber play basketball? He's poetry out there, man. Why he isn't in the NBA, I have no idea. But pro basketball's loss is MMA's gain, and it's time for these two to put up or shut up.
As suggested by his genius with scoring the basketball and his serious gym work with none other than Conor McGregor, Bieber would set the tone early with an offensive barrage.
But you know what Steve-O will say? He'll say, Bring it on, brother.
This is the same guy who has made his living falling off roofs and what not. You think he's afraid of getting hit with one of those classic Bieber right hooks? Not a chance.
Irresistible force, meet immovable object. This is one for the ages.
Final grade on Steve-O vs. Justin Bieber: A+
And on that note, that does it for us. See you next week.