- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS — UFC 269 was filled with shocking moments, but none bigger than Julianna Peña’s submission victory over Amanda Nunes in the women’s bantamweight title fight. Pena was thoroughly dominated in the first round, but found a jab that landed on Nunes over and over again. Those punches rocked the woman widely known as the GOAT and after a takedown, one submission attempt from Pena got the job done. So what’s ahead for the new champ?
Charles Oliveira held onto his gold on Saturday night with a third-round victory over Dustin Poirier. Oliveira entered the fight looking for the respect and the validation that comes with the title of being UFC champion, and with his performance over Poirier, he most definitely earned it. A logical contender for Oliveira is waiting in the wings, but Poirier’s future is far less clear.
Earlier in the night Sean O’Malley proved that he deserves a ranking, Tai Tuivasa showed great patience in his knockout win and Dominick Cruz reminded everyone that he’s far from done.
What’s ahead for each of these fighters? Let’s take a look.
Charles Oliveira, lightweight (defeated Dustin Poirier by submission)
Who should be next: Justin Gaethje
Gaethje said it last month, before he beat Michael Chandler at UFC 268. If he didn’t get a title shot, he’d riot. And I said after that fight, there’s no way he doesn’t get it and I still believe that. I can’t see how the UFC could even justify giving it to anyone else. Gaethje had unfortunate timing in that he happened to be the last man to lose to Khabib Nurmagomedov before the undefeated champ retired. He was forced to go out and win another fight, and he did that. Impressively.
There are a lot of good 155ers to challenge Oliveira, but none of them have the resume of Gaethje. He’s next.
Wild card: Max Holloway
I guess? If Holloway decided he wanted to move up to lightweight instead of fighting Alexander Volkanovski for the third time at featherweight, he’d be an instant title shot candidate. And he holds a previous win over Oliveira. I can envision a world in which this could happen, but I have to squint very hard to see it.
Dustin Poirier, lightweight (lost to Charles Oliveira by submission)
Who should be next: Michael Chandler
It’s hard to matchmake Poirier right away, honestly. He just had a heck of a year. Three main events. Two of them against Conor McGregor, which can be exhausting simply from the magnitude and media obligations that come along with it.
It would not surprise me if Poirier doesn’t want to think about fighting for a minute. And Chandler, he has other options as well. Maybe even McGregor, depending what happens. But if these two want to fight in the first half of 2021, it makes sense to do it against one another for a lot of reasons.
Wild card: Nate Diaz
This fight was supposed to happen a while back. There was always a disagreement about why it didn’t happen.
Diaz has one fight left on his UFC contract. This would be a lucrative matchup for the UFC to make. Poirier has expressed interest in a welterweight fight that wouldn’t require him to cut weight. If Poirier wants to get right back into title contention, this isn’t the fight to make. But if he wants to make some money and have a fun one, this is it.
Julianna Peña, bantamweight champion & Amanda Nunes, bantamweight
What should be next: Rematch
We’re combining these two into one entry, as the answer is obvious and the same for both. If ever there was a time for an immediate rematch, it’s right here.
This was the fourth biggest upset in a UFC title fight. Peña talked a big game and she came through. She won that fight fair and square and did exactly what she said she would do. Nunes was very clear in giving full credit to the new champ, but don’t think for a second Nunes won’t be installed as a heavy betting favorite again in the rematch.
Any time a dominant champion loses, they are always a loose string to be tied in combat sports. To be the champ you must beat the champ, and in some cases, you must beat them twice. This is such a case.
Nobody can take away what Peña accomplished on Saturday and she’ll have more believers in the rematch. But there’s nothing else for her to do besides to do it again. She knows that and she’s prepared for it.
Sean O’Malley, bantamweight (defeated Raulian Paiva by TKO)
Who should be next: Marlon Moraes
You could really go anywhere with this one. O’Malley has done a terrific job building his name, and there is a ton of interest in seeing how he’ll do against elite opposition. For that reason, you can book him pretty much any name with a number next to it and it’s going to have appeal.
I land on Moraes for several reasons. Stylistically, I love it. Standup fight, with plenty of finishing power on both sides. Creativity and athleticism on both sides. Moraes has lost three in a row, but we know who Moraes is. He’s still a dangerous bantamweight.
If he wants to keep his position in the top 10 though, he needs to defend it. Again, losing three in a row, he’s in a spot to fight someone behind him. And I like the idea of it being O’Malley.
Wild card: Marlon Vera
Some will love this idea. Some will hate it. It hasn’t been that long since Vera picked up a win over O’Malley via first-round TKO. Now, there is some gray area when it comes to that result. Vera picked up the victory fair and square, but O’Malley was compromised by a nerve injury. It’s true Vera caused that nerve injury with a kick, but it’s also true that is a very rare way to win a fight. This rematch is going to happen at some point. I could see it happening next.
Dominick Cruz, bantamweight (defeated Pedro Munhoz by decision)
Who should be next: Rob Font
Seems like an easy call to me. Cruz obviously has a ton of fight left in him, but it’s also true that time isn’t on his side. He’s looking up and he’s said that repeatedly over the last year. He wants someone ranked ahead of him, and Font qualifies.
Font is coming off a five-round loss to Jose Aldo one week ago. Rankings-wise, it makes a ton of sense. It would be another opportunity for Cruz to climb the ladder and an opportunity for Font to get back in the win column over a former two-time champ, who is widely seen as the best bantamweight of all time.
Stylistically, it’s a heck of a fight. Font’s boxing, namely that lethal jab, versus Cruz’s mobility, variety, unpredictability. Great fight.
Wild card: Cory Sandhagen
Part of me has wanted to see this fight for years, ever since Sandhagen told me straight up he felt he could be a ‘Dominick Cruz 2.0.’ In that same interview, he said he hoped to fight Cruz some day. It hasn’t really made sense before, but it makes a lot of sense now. I still think Font is a slightly better option, but not by much. This would be a fantastic matchup with an interesting buildup.
Tai Tuivasa, heavyweight (defeated Augusto Sakai by second-round KO)
Who should be next: Jairzinho Rozenstruik
I agree completely with what Tuivasa said after the fight. He’s getting better. He started off his UFC career with a lot of natural talent, and a fearlessness that’s made him very popular with fans. But he needed to go through the growing pains of a three-fight skid. He needed to lose to Junior dos Santos in a potential breakout moment in a 2018 main event in Australia. He needed to learn patience. He’s done that now, and then some.
His skills are catching up to his natural gifts and he’s ready for a big time test. Rozenstruik has been very, very up and down in recent years. Frankly, he looked pretty bad in losses to Francis Ngannou, Ciryl Gane and Curtis Blaydes — but looked solid in wins over Sakai and dos Santos. There are still questions about both Rozenstruik and Tuivasa — how far they can truly go in this division. This is a good matchup and would help answer those questions.
Wild card: Marcin Tybura
Tybura is coming off a pretty uninspiring loss against Alexander Volkov in October, but he’d won five in a row prior to that. In terms of what these two have proven inside the Octagon, they’re very similar. They’re on the same level. Tybura is currently ranked No. 9, despite a loss in his last fight. This would give Tuivasa a chance to enter the top 10, and it would give Tybura a shot at quick redemption over a popular figure in the division.
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