The big question heading into the main event of UFC on ESPN 22 was not just who would win, but whether the winner would be sufficiently impressive to earn a rematch with Israel Adesanya.
With that in mind, former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker laid a fairly lopsided five-round beating on former title challenger Kelvin Gastelum, albeit with enough back-and-forth action to earn “Fight of the Night” honors. In the immediate wake of perhaps the best performance of Whittaker’s career, the UFC broadcast booth seemed to imply that Adesanya-Whittaker 2 was going to happen, as did “The Last Stylebender,” who sent Whittaker a congratulatory tweet with a little barb reminding him of the outcome of their first meeting.
Besides Whittaker, there were four other winners on the “UFC Vegas 24” main card. Some delivered lights-out performances that call for a step up in competition, while others won in lackluster or controversial fashion and still have question marks hanging over them. Regardless, all of them need a next opponent. Here are some matches that should be made after UFC on ESPN 22: Whittaker vs. Gastelum.
Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya: It is an indicator of Adesanya’s dominance that the three-man lottery to be his next challenger consisted of three men he had already beaten in Whittaker, Gastelum and Marvin Vettori, who bulldozed Kevin Holland last weekend at UFC on ABC 2. Of the three, Whittaker ironically had the most to prove; while Gastelum took Adesanya to the limit in an instant classic title fight, and Vettori had given him plenty to handle in a tough decision win early in both men’s UFC careers, Adesanya blew Whittaker out in their first meeting. However, it’s time to say that “Bobby Knuckles” has done enough to merit a second look. In a UFC in which instant title rematches are annoyingly common, Whittaker picked up his lunch pail and hard hat and went to work, racking up three good wins over contenders Darren Till, Jared Cannonier and Gastelum.
Beyond simply winning, Whittaker has shown subtle progression in his game. Against Gastelum in particular, he was in the driver’s seat throughout, avoiding the overreaching and psychological need to “get one back” after being hit that hastened the end against Adesanya in their first meeting. Will he be favored in the rematch? Of course not, but neither would anyone else in the division. Like Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre in their heyday, the goal of matchmaking Adesanya at this point shouldn’t be finding someone to beat him, but simply finding the next deserving contender. Right now, that’s Whittaker.
Andrei Arlovski vs. Chris Daukaus: At this point, Arlovski’s longevity is almost impossible to explain to someone who wasn’t there during his UFC title reign. It isn’t just that he’s the last fighter on roster who debuted in the SEG era — yes kids, the fanged Belarusian was in the UFC before Dana White — it’s that he has survived at least two career funerals. The story on Arlovski a full decade ago was that his chin was shot, yet here he is in the 2020s and the only people who have knocked him out since 2015 are Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik — in other words, the greatest heavyweight of all time and two of the top knockout artists of this era.
At this point, Arlovski isn’t going to make another title run, or even knock on the door of the Top 10 again. However, he’s 3-1 in the last 12 months and he’s still tough and wily enough to separate the wheat from the chaff at heavyweight. If he truly means to fight for another two years or so, as he said after turning aside Chase Sherman on Saturday night, the UFC can continue to use him in that regard. Daukaus, who debuted in the Octagon to extremely modest expectations last summer only to win his first three fights, would be a perfect next matchup.
Jacob Malkoun vs. Marc-Andre Barriault: When Malkoun debuted in the UFC last October on the strength of a 4-0 regional record in Australia and was starched in 18 seconds by Phil Hawes, one might be forgiven for thinking he had made his way to the Octagon primarily due to his status as a training partner of Whittaker’s. As a big underdog to the reeling but always dangerous Abdul Razak Alhassan on Saturday, Malkoun looked to be apt to catch another quick and brutal knockout. Instead, he worked a gameplan to perfection, taking Alhassan down with ease, beating him to the punch on the feet and steering completely clear of Alhassan’s knockout power. It was an eye-opening performance, but it leaves the 25-year-old “Mamba” as something of a man of mystery: “Better than Abdul Razak Alhassan, worse than Phil Hawes” covers a lot of territory. Barriault, who might have saved his job with his third-round TKO of Abu Azaitar at UFC 260 last month, is more of a known quantity than Malkoun but finds himself in a similar situation, as a fighter coming of a win but nonetheless on the fringes of the UFC middleweight division. Book it, and the winner is one step closer to proving he truly belongs.
Tracy Cortez vs. J.J. Aldrich: The good news for Cortez is that she pulled off the win on Saturday night, moving to 3-0 in the UFC since joining the promotion out of Dana White's Contender Series in 2019. The bad news is almost everything else. Cortez was clearly the superior athlete to Justine Kish, and her offensive wrestling was as effective as ever, but she was outstruck for most of the fight by a fighter not known as a particularly great striker, and a decent proportion of observers didn’t even think she won. On top of it all, Cortez missed weight for the fight, and while she only missed the non-title limit by half a pound, that she was unwilling or unable to cut that extra weight despite having an extra hour to do so is concerning. In other words, Cortez is a promising up-and-comer who has earned a step up — but not a big one. Aldrich, who prevailed over Cortney Casey last month in a split decision that most observers scored for Casey, could use an unambiguous win as well.
Luis Pena vs. John Makdessi: Did I mention there were a bunch of splitters on Saturday? “Violent Bob Ross” defeated Alex Munoz in the third of four straight split decisions in the middle of the “UFC Vegas 24” card, and while the fight was razor-close, it was a good sign for Pena. Significantly, it was the first time he notched a win in the UFC in a fight in which he was not the better wrestler. Despite most of his Octagon outings thus far being competitive grinds, Pena is now 5-3 in the promotion and has earned a step up and/or a name opponent. Makdessi, who looked sensational last week in spoiling the debut of Ignacio Bahamondes, would fill both bills. The only limiting factor would be Makdessi’s one-fight-per-year pace of late; if a Pena fight doesn’t fit into the burly Canadian’s schedule, Bahamondes himself would be a fascinating matchup, but Pena has probably earned a higher-profile opponent.