With three championship fights on top of the UFC 251 card, the promotion's kickoff from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, there was bound to be significant fallout coming out of the event. The way the title fights played out left a lot of questions about the future of the champions -- and the challengers.
Kamaru Usman dominated Jorge Masvidal, but in controlling the fight, he eliminated much of the expected drama, souring many fans in victory. Similarly, Alexander Volkanovski's stock fell as his win total ticked up a notch, earning a controversial decision over Max Holloway. The one man who truly impressed in the spotlight was Petr Yan, who stopped MMA legend Jose Aldo to claim the vacant bantamweight championship.
We took a look at what should be next for each champion -- and Masvidal -- and found plenty of compelling options.
It sounds like Gilbert Burns is the next man up to challenge for the welterweight championship. He was already in line after his dominant wins over Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley, wins that had him set up to challenge Usman at UFC 251 before Burns tested positive for COVID-19 and was pulled from the bout. Before and after UFC 251, UFC president Dana White indicated that Burns would receive the next title shot.
Usman's brilliant performance against Colby Covington edged him closer to being a star, but his dominant but cautious performance against Masvidal left many cold. His next fight carries some extra weight in the need to become an attraction. Burns has put on some impressive recent performances, but there's risk of the teammate vs. teammate aspect of Usman vs. Burns leading to a disappointing fight, even if both men say they have no problem throwing down. It's hard to deny Burns as deserving of a title shot with a six-fight winning streak, four of which have come since August 2019.
Leon Edwards is the other established welterweight in the mix and he has engaged in a war of words with Burns on Twitter. Edwards is on an eight-fight winning streak and had the COVID-19 pandemic not scratched his fight with Woodley -- which then set up Woodley vs. Burns -- he may well be the man in Burns' position.
@GilbertDurinho Shut your mouth boy you're only where you are at due to good luck and circumstance. You have no place in the top 5 and you know it so sit the fuck down. You knocked out a 46 year old jujitsu guy and a washed woodley sit the fuck down— Leon 'Rocky' Edwards (@Leon_edwardsmma) July 12, 2020
A third fight with Max Holloway makes sense for Volkanovski to some degree. Volkanovski getting the split decision victory at UFC 251 was controversial, though not indefensible. In reality, it's probably time to give the two men a break from each other and see where both are at in a year.
There are two fresh challenges out there for the champion: "The Korean Zombie" Chan Sung Jung and Zabit Magomedsharipov. Jung is 3-1 since returning from compulsory military service, with the lone loss coming in the final seconds of a fight he was winning against Yair Rodriguez. Magomedsharipov is on a 14-fight winning streak, six of those wins coming in the Octagon.
While both fights would be legitimate tests for Volkanovski, Jung is the bigger name and name value matters in building up a fighter from just being a champion to being an attraction. Volkanovski needs that kind of win right now to legitimize his title reign. And it doesn't hurt that Jung called it "shameful" that Volkanovski is the featherweight champion. A little bit of trash talk never hurt the promotion for a fight.
It would seem the picture in the bantamweight division is clear. Aljamain Sterling ran through Cory Sandhagen with terrifying ease in what was basically a bout to crown a contender for the winner of the bout between Yan and Jose Aldo. Sterling is on a five-fight winning streak after a rocky 2-3 run from 2016 to 2017.
While it seems clear that Sterling should get the title shot, White would not commit to Yan vs. Sterling at the UFC 251 post-fight press conference offering up a simple, "I don't know" when asked if Sterling was next. There's no other valid option for the shot, however, which Sterling knows and called the UFC out for on Twitter, telling White to "cut the games."
Masvidal shouldn't be punished for taking a fight with the best welterweight on the planet on six day's notice and coming up short. But, even considering the circumstances, it's hard to imagine Masvidal receiving another shot at Usman any time soon. Where Masvidal is at his best is in fun fights like the BMF title fight with Nate Diaz. In fact, a rematch with Diaz has been bounced around for Masvidal for months now. It's not the most compelling fight after Masvidal dominated almost every second of their first fight.
That leaves two big money options for one of the UFC's top stars: Conor McGregor and Colby Covington. McGregor may be a long-shot, but it's a fight that already feels big and would only get bigger once both men get their hands on a microphone. The trash talk would help sell the fight, and the potential action is as high as any fight the UFC could put together.
Covington and Masvidal already have a big rivalry going as former teammates turned enemies. At the UFC 251 post-fight press conference, Masvidal mentioned Covington as the one man he would not face, citing Covington getting finished by Usman while he survived to a decision on short notice. But, again, this is an all-action fight on paper with a huge trash talk build. These are the situations where Masvidal thrives as a personality and a fighter.