The UFC schedule is about to enter a monster stretch, with marquee pay-per-view events in Las Vegas and London within the next three weeks.
UFC 285, March 4: Jon Jones at heavyweight, finally. UFC 286, March 18: Leon Edwards–Kamaru Usman trilogy bout — in London!
There are other fantastic fights on those cards, plus a UFC Fight Night at the Apex in Las Vegas and plenty of new, intriguing matchups on the spring schedule. Putting it simply, there’s a lot to look forward to.
Here are five storylines I’m thinking about as February winds down.
1. It’s Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo on May 6, so what about Sean O’Malley?
After much uncertainty, it appears that Sterling will defend his title against Cejudo at UFC 288. Had Sterling not taken that fight due to a lingering biceps injury, the UFC was ready to go with an interim title fight between Cejudo and O’Malley. So, now that Sterling is officially in, where does O’Malley go from here?
I spoke to him this week, and he said the UFC did offer him a “backup” position at UFC 288, in which he would make weight that week in anticipation of stepping in, if needed. He told me he declined that offer because the thought of making weight without a fight for a much smaller paycheck than what he’s used to isn’t appealing at this point in his career. However, he intends to essentially “start camp” as a potential backup later this month. If something happens to Sterling or Cejudo before fight week, he’d be ready to seize the opportunity.
“I feel I’ll be in shape and ready if it happens,” O’Malley said. “I’ll officially go into camp and will be sparring in the next couple weeks. I’ll pretty much do a full camp, just without a weight cut at the end. I do think they’ll both make the fight, but Aljo has that biceps injury and he’ll be grappling a lot for this fight, so I’ll be ready.”
Could O’Malley book a bantamweight fight on the same card as a main event backup? He said the UFC hasn’t made any such offer and won’t expect the matchmakers to. He’s fine waiting for the winner of Sterling vs. Cejudo and prefers to have that fight in July in Las Vegas. If not, the UFC will return to Las Vegas with another pay-per-view in September.
2. What’s up with Stipe Miocic and the rest of the heavyweights?
Following a year of complete uncertainty at heavyweight, we’re finally about to get some clarity on March 4. Francis Ngannou is no longer with the UFC, so it’s Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane for the vacant belt. Now, what lies beyond that?
Stipe Miocic has publicly stated he wants the winner in July, and that’s the most likely scenario, depending on what happens on March 4. I’m told Miocic will attend UFC 285 to further that narrative (if you know Miocic, he rarely attends fights), and Jones has already said he wants Miocic next. If Jones wins and is down for a quick turnaround, that’s your main event for International Fight Week. If Gane wins, though, it gets a little more complicated.
If you’re the UFC, a matchup between Jones and Miocic is a slam dunk.
It’s a marketable fight between arguably the greatest fighter of all time and the greatest heavyweight ever. If Gane wins at UFC 285, is there the same appeal in Gane vs. Miocic? I’m not sure. And the same goes from the perspective of Miocic. Yes, he’s said he wants the winner. But if it does turn out the winner is Gane, does that light a competitive fire for Miocic, who has already seen and done it all? I’m not saying Gane vs. Miocic can’t or won’t happen, but the conversations are slightly different than if it’s Jones.
In the meantime, the UFC just booked an April 22 main event between No. 3-ranked Sergei Pavlovich and No. 4 Curtis Blaydes. That fight makes sense and is a tremendous main event, but in the bigger picture, I see it as another wrinkle in the heavyweight landscape. If Jones vs. Miocic makes sense once the dust settles on March 4, that’ll be the fight. But if it’s less instantly clear than that, I could see the winner of Pavlovich vs. Blaydes potentially sneaking into an opportunity.
3. We need to applaud Beneil Dariush, again
This man just takes fights that others don’t.
Dariush is fighting Charles Oliveira on May 6. Oliveira, the lightweight champion less than a year ago, is a monster of an opponent with eleven straight wins before losing to Islam Makhachev in October, including 10 finishes. Dariush is the No. 1 lightweight contender and deserves to fight for the belt next. The current champion, Makhachev, should be able to fight this summer.
Dariush has everything to lose and very little to gain. Certain fighters would be willing to sit out a year under those circumstances for a title shot, and nobody would blame them. And yet, here is Dariush, taking a fight he doesn’t need to take. And by the way, he just did that in October, when he fought up-and-comer Mateusz Gamrot.
Appreciate this guy, a fighter with a championship mindset on the brink of a major opportunity.
4. Can Tatiana Suarez make flyweight the most interesting division in women’s MMA?
We can debate this if you want, but the most intriguing division in women’s MMA has been strawweight — and it’s been that way for a while. The top of the division is just very strong. The combination of Zhang Weili, Rose Namajunas, Jessica Andrade, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Carla Esparza — that parity at the top far outweighs what we’ve seen at flyweight and bantamweight.
But if Suarez returns from a nearly four-year layoff and can realize the potential she showed in a 4-0 start in the UFC — we’ve got something to talk about.
Suarez, 32, returns from that long injury layoff this weekend at UFC Fight Night, as a significant betting favorite against Montana De La Rosa. It’s flying slightly under the radar, but if you’re watching only one fight this weekend, this is arguably the one you can’t miss.
And if Suarez does look like herself in her return, she’ll join a growing list of emerging flyweight contenders. That list is led by France’s Manon Fiorot and 23-year-old buzzsaw Erin Blanchfield. Suarez said she wants to return to strawweight this week, but we’ll see what the future holds. As a fan, I wouldn’t mind seeing her at flyweight if she looks good for the matchups we’d see.
5. UFC 285 main card is sneaky good
Jones returning from a three-year layoff to move up to heavyweight will steal all of the headlines next week, but this main card is phenomenal from top to bottom. Valentina Shevchenko is a massive favorite, but we’ve seen a handful of dominant champions struggle or fall in recent years, including Shevchenko in her last title defense.
Also on the card is the Bo Nickal hype train, ready to roar out of the station in his UFC debut against Jamie Pickett.
Geoff Neal vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov is fantastic because Rakhmonov is considered legitimate championship material, but Neal isn’t afraid of him and is embracing an overlooked, put-some-respect-on-my-name mentality.
Jalin Turner is another hot prospect facing a tough, well-rounded challenge in Gamrot. This is one of the better five-fight main cards we’ll see all year.