It’s a 170-pound showcase Saturday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+, with prelims at 4 p.m. on ESPN/ESPN+) bout between two names who carry a lot of respect with fans but are battling to maintain their position in a crowded field. The division has a relatively new champ in Leon Edwards, whose only title defense so far was an immediate rematch against Kamaru Usman.
There are moves to be made at welterweight, and this division could look vastly different by the end of the year. When will the 170-pound title be up for grabs? Does Khamzat Chimaev still have a future within the division? What rising prospects are on the verge of stardom? Lets answer those questions and more, but first — let’s start with the big fight this Saturday.
What’s at stake in this weekend’s main event between Rafael dos Anjos and Vicente Luque?
For RDA? Very little.
Dos Anjos’ stature in this sport is already built in cement. He’s a former lightweight champion and is considered a tough out for anyone at lightweight or welterweight. He is not, unfortunately, seen as a genuine title threat in either division. Both of those two statements are likely going to stay the same, regardless of what happens Saturday. If he loses, he’s an established name with gas still in the tank but isn’t on a title path at 155 or 170 pounds. If he wins, that’s pretty much still the case. No one will be clamoring for him to get a fight that puts him in the title picture, although he would keep that hope alive a little with a victory.
It’s different for Luque, who is seven years younger and was creeping into title contention as recently as 2021. He’s lost his last two and hasn’t looked like a title challenger in either. He’s known for an aggressive, fan-friendly style, but his perceived ceiling starts to drop if he can’t beat a 38-year-old dos Anjos, whose more natural weight class is lightweight, more so than welterweight.
It’s been five months since a welterweight title fight. How much longer?
Either November or December. The word is Edwards and his team prefer a title defense against Colby Covington at UFC 295 in November, as the co-main event under Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic. Will the UFC go along with that date? We’ll see. The UFC has several things to take into consideration: what’s owed on these various athletes’ contracts, the pay-per-view schedule itself, etc. Edwards vs. Covington might make more business sense to the UFC if it headlines UFC 296 in December in Las Vegas. There are some things to figure out, but Edwards vs. Covington will happen in one of those months.
Would a Kamaru Usman vs. Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson matchup be considered a ‘retirement’ fight?
I doubt it. This is a sport where any fight can be a retirement fight, but neither of those two are talking like they’re at the end so I won’t jump to that speculation.
Usman was one minute away from defending his title against Edwards one year ago, as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. And he’s been very authentic about his passion level in the gym. He says he’s still enjoying the process of learning — which doesn’t lend itself to any retirement talk.
Would the loser be out of title contention?
It wouldn’t look pretty for either one. A loss would be devastating to either of their title aspirations. But these two are still fighting at a very high level. They’ve reached a point in their careers where they earn good money. Usman’s injury history is (and has been) a little concerning, but Thompson has a relatively clean bill of health. No, I don’t see this as a retirement fight at all. If and when it happens — both fighters are interested in a November or December clash — it’ll be a fight against two of the best welterweights in the world who just badly need a win to stay in the championship race.
Khamzat Chimaev is back, at middleweight. But is “Borz” done at welterweight?
I’m going to say no. It feels like it right now. He looks massive in every video he posts. He’s scheduled to face Paulo Costa in October, and if he wins, I believe he’ll get a middleweight title shot. Obviously, he missed weight for his last welterweight appearance against Nate Diaz in 2022, which set off a wild set of circumstances to save the UFC 279 card. There isn’t a reason for him to ever go back to welterweight. But that’s right now.
If he continues to be successful in the Octagon, all bets are off on what challenges he’d take on. The possibility of winning three titles — welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight — will always be alluring. You can’t tell me for a second that Chimaev wouldn’t be licking his lips for a matchup against Edwards. He has the utmost confidence that he will win that fight. And if the UFC was to give him time to bring his weight down and make a run at a title, after whatever happens at middleweight, discussions would be had. I guarantee it. So, could he be done at welterweight? Yes, of course, that’s a possibility. But to shut the door on it entirely is premature.
What’s one name that merits more attention at welterweight?
Shavkat Rakhmonov. He’s undefeated with a problematic skill set for anyone in the division. Belal Muhammad is up there, too, but Muhammad is finally getting some recognition and is in a decent spot after that short-notice win over Gilbert Burns in April. Rakhmonov is still drifting in a bit of a matchmaker’s purgatory. It’s been hard for the UFC to lock him down fights, especially with anyone ranked ahead of him. That’s part of why he was going to fight Kelvin Gastelum, before Gastelum was forced to pull out of that bout. Gastelum hasn’t even fought at welterweight since 2016, and Rakhmonov was going to fight him as the No. 6-ranked welterweight in the division? That tells you all you need to know about the matchmaking challenge he’s become.
Eventually, opportunities do come if you keep winning, and Rakhmonov is a good bet to keep winning. I’m confident he will become a leading player in the welterweight title landscape in 2024.