Matches to Make After UFC on ESPN 24

By: Ben Duffy
May 9, 2021


Marina Rodriguez is one of the sport’s fastest-rising strawweights, even if her most recent conquest took place a weight class up from her usual domain.

The 34-year-old muay Thai specialist took a unanimous decision over a game but badly outgunned Michelle Waterson in the main event of UFC on ESPN 24 on Saturday, elevating her record with the promotion to 4-1-2 and inching closer to a title shot. However, there are still questions to be answered about the completeness of Rodriguez’s game; most of her difficulties in the UFC have been due to her takedown defense and susceptibility to being controlled on the ground, and even the visibly smaller Waterson easily won the fourth round by dedicating herself to wrestling.

The oddity of a flyweight main event between strawweight contenders was a symptom of the beleaguered card, which started leaking fighters a little over a week ago. Twelve fights were whittled down to 10 over the course of fight week, and in the end only nine made it to the Octagon. Nonetheless, “UFC Vegas 26” was rife with winners who need a next step forward. In the wake of UFC on ESPN 24, here are some matches that ought to be made.

Marina Rodriguez vs. Weili Zhang: Rodriguez’s UFC record is even stronger than it looks, as her loss and both of her draws could easily have been scored in her favor. Put simply, she has chewed up every woman who hasn’t gone for broke trying to get her to the ground and several of those who did try. This matchup presupposes that the UFC will not book an immediate rematch between recently dethroned champ Zhang and Rose Namajunas. Assuming that is the case, the winner of the Xiaonan YanCarla Esparza matchup later this month is likely to get the next title shot and Zhang needs a bounceback fight. Rodriguez would fit that bill perfectly, while Zhang would provide Rodriguez a chance to show herself ready for a title shot beyond all doubt. If the UFC decides to book Namajunas – Zhang 2 right away, Joanna Jedrzejczyk would be an excellent second choice and the resulting muay Thai clash would be a treat.

Alex Morono vs. Randy Brown: In Saturday’s co-main event, “The Great White” pulled off one to tell the grandkids about, stepping up on less than a week’s notice to put away Donald Cerrone with a brutal hail of punches in the first round and picking up a “Performance of the Night” bonus. For name value, “Cowboy” is easily the most notable scalp in Morono’s collection. From a competitive standpoint, however, it merely extended Cerrone’s winless streak to six, and praise for Morono’s performance was balanced by speculation over whether Cerrone needs to retire. Fair or not, it leaves Morono in more or less the same place he was before the fight: a solid action fighter in one of the UFC’s deepest divisions, stuck in the logjam just below the contender level. That same sentence could describe Brown, who ran through the UFC’s other “Cowboy,” Alex Oliveira, two weeks ago at UFC 261. A Morono vs. Brown scrap would be an instant “Fight of the Night” contender, and the winner would get a much needed leg up towards the Top 15.

Neil Magny vs. Vicente Luque: Magny put on a masterful show against Geoff Neal, drowning the heavier puncher with volume, stifling him and keeping him off balance with clinches and well-timed wrestling. In so doing, “The Haitian Sensation” notched his 18th win in the UFC welterweight division, good enough for second place all-time behind Georges St. Pierre. At 33, Magny continues to sharpen his game, shows no signs of slowing and remains entrenched at the edge of the UFC’s rankings as well as this site’s. The same can be said for Luque, whom Magny called out after his victory Saturday. The matchup is competitively appropriate, stylistically attractive — “The Silent Assassin” is unlikely to test Magny’s still-shaky takedown defense — and would probably be a sensational fight. Book it.

Marcos Rogerio de Lima vs. Sergey Spivak: It wasn’t pretty — in fact, it was dreadful to watch — but de Lima put on a completely dominant performance against Maurice Greene on Saturday. There are positives to be taken from the three-round blanketing, however. “Pezao,” a striker by preference, showed himself more than willing to take what his opponent gave him, ruthlessly exploiting Greene’s miserable takedown defense, doing just enough from guard to avoid being stood up by the referee, and nullifying Greene’s quietly dangerous submission game. The big Brazilian is now 3-2 since moving up to heavyweight, but all three men he has beaten are out of the UFC. Spivak sports an identical Octagon record, and while not all of his victims have washed out of the promotion, Tai Tuivasa nearly did and Jared Vanderaa may next month if he goes 0-2 in his first two UFC fights. Both de Lima and Spivak could use a win over an opponent of similar standing.

Gregor Gillespie vs. Islam Makhachev: Gillespie answered a whole lot of questions at UFC on ESPN 24. After 18 months away, in the wake of the first loss of his career, a devastating head-kick knockout by Kevin Lee, Gillespie silenced the doubters — myself among them — with a fantastic second-round TKO of Diego Ferreira. To do so, he had to weather a wild first round of scramble-heavy grappling, getting the worst of it and visibly wobbling as he walked to his corner at the end of the round. Gillespie then came back out renewed, leaned on his top-shelf wrestling, and pounded out the fading Brazilian late in the second round. For any who were questioning Gillespie’s chin or mental state after the Lee loss, or wondering whether the compact New Yorker could hang in the lightweight division, outwrestling and outlasting the 160-pound Ferreira was an eloquent answer. For a next step, Gillespie needs a ranked fighter. Makhachev is vocal in claiming that nobody wants to fight him. Perhaps the UFC’s greatest fisherman will oblige him.

Phil Hawes vs. Deron Winn? Apparently this fight is already a done deal, and according to reports, it was agreed upon even before Hawes’ extremely impressive win over Kyle Daukaus on Saturday. Frankly, it makes no sense; Daukaus was and is an excellent prospect and would have been a borderline ranked middleweight if he had beaten Hawes. Now it’s Hawes who is eyeing the rankings, yet must fight a man whose only UFC win at middleweight was two years ago against a short-notice Eric Spicely. It isn’t an especially compelling matchup, either: Winn must now face a much larger, faster athlete who may well be able to match him at his own forte, wrestling.
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