Title fights are on a whole other level
UFC would be unwise to rush up-and-comers into match against champions
F rankie Edgar’s post-fight comments following his destruction of Yair Rodriguez at UFC 211 summed up the main takeaway from last weekend’s event nicely.
“There are levels to this,” said the former lightweight kingpin and perennial featherweight contender, who followed up his familiar sprint to the cage as Biggie’s “Kick in the Door” echoed through the arena with a two-round lesson in knowing your place in the ecosystem while reminding everyone that hype and flash are no substitute for experience and skill.
Over the course of 10 punishing minutes, Edgar mauled Rodriguez from start to finish, deadening the momentum Rodriguez accrued with six straight victories to begin his UFC tenure.
It’s that performance by Edgar against the undeniably talented, but still unseasoned, Rodriguez that the UFC brass need to keep in mind as they look to book the next bouts for champions Stipe Miocic and Joanna Jedrzejczyk following their successful title defences at the same show last weekend in Dallas.
Both titleholders proved they were on a different level than their competition in a different way at UFC 211 — Jedrzejczyk conducting a master class in technical striking, footwork and movement in shutting out Jessica Andrade, while Miocic walked down Junior dos Santos and put him to sleep with a clubbing right hand to the dome after absorbing one too many hard leg kicks.
Both challengers were game, yet both champions won handily, igniting another round of conversations about who their next opponents should be even before the dust settled in Big D.
Everyone presumes Rose Namajunas will get the next crack at Jedrzejczyk and the strawweight title, as she’s coming off a first-round win over Michelle Waterson and is the last remaining top contender yet to face Jedrzejczyk for the belt.
Personally, I’d rather see the winner of the upcoming fight between Claudia Gadelha and Karolina Kowalkiewicz get next, even though both lost to Jedrzejczyk last year and Gadelha is 0-2 against “Joanna Champion” thus far. They are clearly the top-two contenders in the division and a single victory for Namajunas, who lost to Kowalkiewicz last summer, shouldn’t be enough to elevate her to title challenger status.
Namajunas has also been on the business end of a bad loss in a championship fight once before, and while there are no guarantees that is how things would play out against Jedrzejczyk, the champion’s last five performances don’t exactly get you excited about the potential challenger’s chances should the fight materialize.
Things are less clear at heavyweight, where Miocic has dispatched three of the top four contenders within the last 12 months and the one that remains — former champ Cain Velasquez — is on the sidelines without a definitive timetable for when he’ll be ready to return to action.
That has left many wondering if punishing prospect Francis Ngannou will get hustled into the challenger’s position opposite the champion later this year. A menacing figure with five consecutive stoppage victories since arriving in the UFC and tons of room to grow, Ngannou is an intriguing addition to the big-boy ranks and someone with championship potential.
But as Edgar said, “There are levels to this,” and the 30-year-old finisher hasn’t proven he’s capable of competing on that championship level.
There are still a ton of question marks surrounding Ngannou and rather than potentially halting his momentum with an early title shot, get him in there with one of the more experienced names in the division and let him continue to build and develop. One or two more quality wins and he’s championship material, but for right now, the wiser decision might be to check on the health of Velasquez or look to Derrick Lewis, should he run his winning streak to seven with a win over Mark Hunt next month in New Zealand.
Like Rodriguez, Namajunas and Ngannou have elite potential and are closing in on being contenders, but neither has shown enough to convince me they’re ready to challenge for championship gold quite yet.
I know the UFC needs fights that excite the audience and to cultivate new stars, but holding off for one or two more fights with each of these potential stars might be the better course of action for the long-term.
E. Spencer Kyte covers MMA for The Province and Sun. Follow him on social media: @spencerkyte.
Stipe Miocic, top, knocked down Junior Dos Santos and scored a first-round victory in their UFC heavyweight championship bout at UFC 211 in Dallas, leading to the question: who’s next?