Matches to Make After UFC on ESPN 38

Mateusz Gamrot and Arman Tsarukyan took an ordinary-looking fight night card and gave it
an extraordinary finish.

After back-to-back stellar events in packed arenas in Singapore and
Austin, Texas, and one week ahead of the monster UFC 276 at
T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the Ultimate Fighting Championship pulled into the
small, quiet confines of the Apex for UFC on ESPN 38with a main
event featuring Tsarukyan and Gamrot, two outstanding lightweights
whose skill and potential greatly outstrip their name value. What
could easily have been a forgettable “letdown” card in between
blockbusters instead provided a wealth of thrilling moments, many
of them in the headliner, as “Gamer” and “Ahalkalakets” delivered
five rounds of high-level wrestling, grappling and striking,
conducted at a furious pace and featuring multiple swings in
momentum.

In the end, Gamrot’s greater experience in five-round fights showed
out, and the former KSW two-division champ prevailed by a
somewhat controversial unanimous decision
but neither man’s
stock figures to fall. Tsarukyan should come back better in his
next 25-minute fight—of which there will probably be many, as he
still looks like a major factor in the division’s future. Gamrot,
meanwhile, gives the appearance of a serious title contender, and
just in time, as the logjam atop the UFC’s 155-pound division
finally shows some signs of breaking up. In the wake of “UFC Vegas
57,” here are matchups that ought to be made for Gamrot and the
other main card winners.

Let us be blunt: Gamrot was fortunate to escape the Apex with the
“W” on Saturday. That does not change the fact, however, that the
31-year-old Pole is one of the toughest and most well-rounded
fighters in a division packed with tough, well-rounded fighters,
and that he used guts and cardio to pull out the win over a
quicker, younger fighter who had taken the first two rounds
handily. Gamrot called out Justin Gaethje after the main event, and while that would be
competitively appropriate and one hell of a fun fight, Gaethje is
probably still a little bit of a reach. The UFC’s top lightweights
of the post-Khabib Nurmagomedov era fall into a clear pecking order through
head-to-head clashes: Charles Oliveira is the top dog, despite his recent weight miss,
followed by Dustin
Poirier
Gaethje and Chandler, with Tony
Ferguson
having essentially fallen off the map. Poirier,
Gaethje and Chandler all have something to prove before another
shot at Oliveira, so they will need to fight rising contenders
while Islam Makhachev—and perhaps Beneil
Dariush
—get their chance. While Chandler has the worst
head-to-head tally against Oliveira, Poirier and Gaethje, he came
closer to beating “do Bronx” than any of the others, and can help
his own stock significantly by turning away the hard-charging
Gamrot, while Gamrot could justify a title shot for himself by
taking out the former Bellator MMA champ.

On a night full of eye-opening performances by rising prospects,
perhaps none was as startling as Rakhmonov’s one-sided thrashing of
Neil
Magny
in the co-main event. “Nomad” dominated the fight from
the opening exchanges of the first round all the way to the
buzzer-beating guillotine choke that ended things in Round 2. In
handing Magny his first submission loss in nearly five years,
Rakhmonov ran his own gaudy record to 16-0, the last four of which
have come in the UFC and all of which have been finishes. While the
former M-1 champ does not get one-tenth the publicity
of Khamzat Chimaev—though that may begin to change—his Octagon résumé is
arguably the stronger of the two, taking into consideration whom
each man has defeated, and how. There is no need to rush the
27-year-old along, but he has earned at least a Top 10-ish matchup
with name value. Holland, who throttled Tim Means last
weekend in Austin for his second straight stoppage win since
dropping to welterweight, fills the bill on both counts.
Conversely, Rakhmonov would offer Holland the chance to demonstrate
that the change in weight class has solved the defensive wrestling
issues that blocked his progress at middleweight.

Even by the standards of an unranked UFC heavyweight
slobber-knocker, Parisian’s second-round TKO win over Alan Baudot
was a mess. A fun mess, to be sure, but it’s hard to prescribe a
big step up for Parisian after he barely survived a first-round
onslaught from the worst heavyweight on the UFC roster. To
complicate matters further, this summer is a relative dry spell for
active heavyweights aside from headlining contenders; booking
Parisian against someone like Alexander Volkovwho was victorious last month, or the winner of next
month’s Curtis
Blaydes
Tom
Aspinall
main event in London, sounds like a crime against
humanity. The best option is Tafa or Mayes, who meet at UFC 277 on
July 30 in Dallas. The winner of that matchup, like Parisian, will
have proven that he belongs in the UFC, but is still a far cry from
the Top 10.

Even on the first two-fight skid of his career, Moises’ job was
probably safe heading into his clash with Christos Giagos on Saturday. However, he was absolutely in danger of
becoming just another guy in the ultra-crowded lightweight division
should he come up short against Giagos. No problem there, as Moises
stuck to the Californian like a leech, taking his back standing and
executing an unconventional modified rear-naked choke for the
first-round finish. The dominant win revealed the 27-year-old
Brazilian for what he is: a gifted grappler who was rushed into Top
10 matchups a little too early thanks to a three-fight win streak
over fairly well-known names, but is not a finished product, not
even in his physical prime yet, and should be treated as a prospect
rather than a contender for now. He seems aware of it as well, in
light of him naming fellow up-and-coming grappler Solecki, who took
a unanimous decision over Alex da Silva Coelho on June 4 to go 4-1 in the UFC. There’s nothing
we love better than a realistic callout, and it sounds like a fun
fight to boot.

The 26-year-old with the famous last name and the spotless record
entered the Octagon on Saturday as the biggest betting favorite on
the card. His performance managed to make -900 odds look downright
reasonable, steamrolling a pretty good bantamweight in Nathan
Maness
to the tune of 30-26 and 30-25 scorecards. Comparisons
to the other undefeated Nurmagomedov, retired lightweight champ and
soon to be UFC Hall-of-Famer Khabib, are inevitable, and in some
cases do not even do justice; while his suffocating wrestling and
top game are very much in the family tradition, Umar’s striking is
already far more diverse and dynamic than his cousin’s ever was.
The obvious temptation will be to fast-track the phenom, but the
fact remains that he is just 3-0 in the UFC and his best win, over
Brian
Kelleher
back in March, wasn’t even at bantamweight. There is
no rush here; the bantamweight title picture is a complete logjam
at the moment, thanks to the long-delayed Aljamain
Sterling
Petr Yan
rematch, the flock of former champs hovering over the division like
hijacked planes around an airport, and the wealth of “normal”
contenders working their way up the ladder. Nurmagomedov isn’t even
the only 20-something wunderkind making waves; look no further than
Adrian
Yanez
and Sean
O’Malley
. For now, let Nurmagomedov get some rounds, and some
different looks, under his belt, and let it start with Bautista,
who strangled Kelleher on the “UFC Vegas 75” prelims—even quicker
than Nurmagomedov, and in their proper weight class, no less.

Curtis had been a talented and consistently exciting regional
fighter for years before he flamed out against the best of the
Professional Fighters League’s welterweight
division in 2019, and I figured that would be as close as “The
Action Man” got to a top-level promotion for the rest of his
career. So color me surprised that Curtis is plying his trade in
the Octagon in 2022, and positively shocked that he is 3-0 with
wins over three very credible foes—at middleweight. After
highlight-reel knockouts of Phil Hawes
and Brendan AllenCurtis tackled the challenge of jiu-jitsu world champ
Rodolfo Vieira—or more accurately, refused to be tackled, as an
increasingly exhausted and frustrated “Black Belt Hunter” went
0-for-20 on takedown attempts and Curtis picked up a unanimous
decision victory. Curtis has gone from being a fun story to a
potential contender, and he has earned a matchup that can propel
him into a middleweight Top 10 that is dying for new faces.
Perennial contender Tavares meets Du Plessis, another relative
newcomer on the rise, at UFC 276 next week. The winner would be an
ideal foil for Curtis.

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