Ciryl Gane has forced his way into the UFC heavyweight title discussion more quickly, and earlier in his career, than perhaps any fighter since Brock Lesnar.
In the UFC Fight Night 190 headliner on Saturday at the Apex in Las Vegas, “Bon Gamin” froze Alexander Volkov in his tracks for at least four out of five rounds, frustrating the towering Russian on the feet in a way that nobody else in Volkov’s UFC run has been able to do. Gane is now a sterling 6-0 in the Octagon in just under two years since his debut — the last three coming against increasingly challenging Top 10 fighters. A good case can be made that the gifted Frenchman has already done enough to fight for the belt, but considering the nebulous state of the title picture at the moment, it’s possible he will end up fighting at least one more contenders’ fight while things shake out.
Outside of the main event, the “UFC Vegas 30” main card produced four more winners — and a pair of no-contest recipients — all of whom need a next step in their respective divisions. In the wake of UFC Fight Night 190, here are some matches that ought to be made:
Ciryl Gane vs. Marcin Tybura: I can hear some of you howling already. Bear with me here. Let us assume that the current rumors are true and that heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou will defend the belt in a rematch with Derrick Lewis in September. That means that whoever emerges victorious isn’t likely to be ready to defend until early next year. Also scheduled to fight in September are top contenders Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik. If Ngannou holds onto his belt, Gane has a leg up on the winner of that fight simply because Ngannou has already beaten Blaydes twice and Rozenstruik once in dominant fashion. However, “sit and wait for six to nine months” would be completely out of character for Gane, who has fought about every three months whenever he’s been healthy. It would also be a criminal waste of time in the physical prime of a gifted fighter who still doesn’t even have 10 professional MMA fights under his belt.
If Gane is going to take another fight to further solidify his case as No. 1 contender, it will almost have to be against a lower-ranked fighter. Stipe Miocic seems unlikely to accept a fight with Gane, and if and when Jon Jones ever makes his heavyweight debut, it will almost certainly be an immediate title fight. Unless the UFC wants to match Gane with a fellow up-and-comer like Tom Aspinall, Alexander Romanov or Chris Daukaus, Tybura is it. After some early stumbles, the 35-year-old Pole has strung together five straight wins, most recently pounding out Walt Harris three weeks ago at UFC Fight Night 189. He’s earned a shot at a higher-ranked contender.
Tanner Boser vs. Carlos Felipe: It might be overstating the case to say that “The Bulldozer” regained all the momentum he lost in back-to-back losses to Andrei Arlovski and Ilir Latifi, but his second-round TKO of Ovince St. Preux on Saturday did keep his job secure and put him back on track. Perhaps more important than the mere fact of the win is that Boser got back to doing the things that had made him such a pleasant surprise in his first three Octagon wins. Once again, he was relatively active and light on his feet, used his kicks liberally and generally forced the issue on the feet. In addition, Boser’s first UFC loss, a unanimous decision against Gane 18 months ago, has aged pretty well. The 29-year-old Canadian has earned a matchup with another heavyweight who’s winning fights. Sergey Spivak, who bullied Alexey Oleynik last week at UFC on ESPN 25, certainly qualifies, but he’s knocking on the door of the Top 15 and probably deserves a step up himself. Felipe, the 26-year-old Brazilian tank who took a split decision over Jake Collier two weeks ago at UFC 263, is more like it. Felipe is on a three-fight win streak, but of those three, Yorgan De Castro is gone from the UFC and Justin Tafa is hanging on by his fingernails. Boser would represent the best win of Felipe’s UFC run so far, and vice versa. That’s a sign of an appropriate matchup.
Timur Valiev vs. Raulian Paiva–Kyler Phillips winner: “Lucky” only needed a little luck to rack up easily the best win of his career on Saturday, weathering some rough moments in the second round against Raoni Barcelos and outstriking him by what felt like 3-to-1 for the rest of the fight. Some post-fight analysis will necessarily focus on Barcelos’ failure to step on the gas, even in the final minutes of the fight when he must have known he was losing, but the fact remains that Valiev is the one who put an end to the Brazilian’s nine-fight tear. He also put his own demoralizing loss to Trevin Jones that much further in the rear view, and is back looking like a potential Top 15 fighter. The only problem is that the ultra-stacked UFC bantamweight division has about 25 fighters who look like Top 15 fighters. Two of those men, Phillips and Raphael Assuncao, had been scheduled to meet on July 24 at UFC Fight Night 191. Fast-rising flyweight Paiva has stepped in for Assuncao, but assuming he is open to further adventures at 135, whoever wins would be very suitable for a next opponent for Valiev.
Andre Fili vs. Seung Woo Choi: In this space last week, I suggested that the victorious Choi be matched up against the winner of this weekend’s Fili vs. Daniel Pineda matchup. That fight, of course, ended in a no-contest in the second round when Fili inadvertently poked Pineda’s already-compromised left eye. The UFC is fond of running back exciting fights that ended in controversial or extenuating circumstances, but unless there was a title on the line, I’m not a fan of the practice for a couple of reasons. For one, the second fight almost never matches up to the first; for a recent example, see the Eryk Anders–Darren Stewart rematch earlier this month. Second, there are about 70 featherweights in the UFC, and I’d rather see both Fili and Pineda go fight someone new. And in this case in particular, the ultra-real Pineda stated humbly and accurately that Fili “was f***in’ me up.” Better to treat the fight as a wash for Pineda, and a win for Fili, who up until the stoppage was looking as impressive as he ever has in his career. Make the Choi fight.
Tim Means vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov: Matching up two victorious fighters from the same card is great when it works. Means took a surprisingly easy unanimous decision over Nicolas Dalby on Saturday’s main card, extending his current winning streak to three. Means is one of the most tenured fighters in the promotion, and like blue-collar welterweight forebears such as Mike Pyle and Chris Lytle, a good case can be made that the 37-year-old New Mexico native is the best right now that he’s ever been. Meanwhile, on the undercard, the 26-year-old Rakhmonov passed his second Octagon test with flying colors, demolishing a severely undersized Michel Prazeres on the way to a second-round submission win. Rakhmonov has all the appearance of a potential future contender, but in the UFC welterweight division, he will need at least five or six wins to even make his way to the velvet rope of the Top 15. Means would be a great next test. He’s bigger and stronger than Prazeres, in far better competitive shape than Rakhmonov’s last opponent, Alex Oliveira, and more well-rounded than either.
Renato Carneiro vs. Christos Giagos: “Moicano” looked extremely impressive in dispatching Jai Herbert in the main card opener, completely bypassing the Brit’s size and standup acumen and exposing his deficiencies on the ground. While Carneiro was the favorite going in for good reason, his willingness to lean on his elite ground skills rather than hang out in the relative danger zone of a striking battle was encouraging. Still more encouraging is the idea that the 32-year-old Brazilian might be settling in at lightweight for good, rather than continuing to abuse his body with the cut to featherweight. On his featherweight résumé alone, Carneiro is a person of immediate interest at 155 pounds, and maybe just a win or two away from being ranked. Giagos, who notched a sensational technical submission of Sean Soriano at UFC 262 last month, has earned a fight with a bigger name, and would be a great test of Carneiro’s ability to work his game on a big, strong lightweight grappler.