If Islam Makhachev thought nobody wanted to fight him before, it sure isn’t about to get better.
In the UFC on ESPN 26 headliner on Saturday, Makhachev pressured, pummeled and mauled Thiago Moises for three rounds and change before choking him out in the fourth. While the dominant victory was perhaps no more than expected of an 8-to-1 favorite, the optics told a bleak story for any future opponents of the 29-year-old Dagestani. Faced with a powerful striker and elite submission artist in Moises, Makhachev absorbed next to no hard strikes after the first round, grounded the Brazilian at will and won every ground exchange.
Immediately after his victory, Makhachev gave interviewer Paul Felder a sound bite that will likely appear in every one of his pre-fight hype reels from now until he wins a UFC title: "I have question: Why all of these guys run, you know? Nobody want to take this fight, just give me answer." Perhaps nobody wants to, but someone will have to, and the names on the tip of his tongue were Rafael dos Anjos and Michael Chandler.
As well as Makhachev, there were four other victors on the “UFC Vegas 31” main card, and all of them need a next matchup. In the wake of UFC on ESPN 26, here are some matches that ought to be made:
Islam Makhachev vs. Justin Gaethje: On the eight-fight win streak since his shocking upset loss to Adriano Martins in October 2015, Makhachev has beaten strikers, wrestlers and grapplers with equally relentless efficiency, gradually working his way up to steamrolling fringe contenders like Moises and Drew Dober with apparent ease. If not for the periodic absences from competition that have kept him out of sight and out of mind, it’s easy to picture Makhachev having made it into the lightweight title picture by now.
So why not give Makhachev what he asked for? There are a couple of reasons. Chandler is coming off of a loss in his shot at divisional champ Charles Oliveira, and his lone UFC win is over a man in Dan Hooker that would probably enter the cage as a +400 underdog against Makhachev. There's also unnecessary risk for the UFC there, since if Chandler wins, he would knock off a likely title challenger while remaining at least a couple more fights away from another shot himself.
Former lightweight champ dos Anjos made a successful return to the division, defeating Felder last November after a couple of years of mixed results at welterweight. At this point, the word seems to be out on the gritty 36-year-old Brazilian — bigger, stronger wrestlers can bully and nullify “RDA” in the way he himself likes to do to others. Given that dynamic, it’s hard to picture a more miserable style matchup for dos Anjos, or a more favorable one for Makhachev, than to face each other. Will we learn anything about either man if they fight? Also, at this point Makhachev frankly deserves a fight that will unquestionably move him up the rankings if he wins. Gaethje is it, and conversely, if “The Highlight” can turn back the surging Makhachev, he will have made a strong case for his own shot at Oliveira.
Miesha Tate vs. Macy Chiasson–Aspen Ladd winner: It wasn’t her biggest win — that would be the title-clinching strangulation of Holly Holm at UFC 196, of course — but boxing, slamming and eventually pounding out Marion Reneau in Saturday’s main event might have been the most impressive overall performance of Tate’s career. Yes, the 44-year-old Reneau was on a four-fight losing streak, but all four of those women were Top 10 fighters and Reneau was competitive against all of them. Tate did what none of them could, finishing “The Belizean Bruiser” after two rounds and change of relentless work. Incredibly, Tate looked better in many ways than the fighter who walked away in November 2016. On the feet, she displayed faster hands and better combination punching than ever before, and even her customarily solid wrestling was bolstered by a greater degree of physicality and brute strength.
That’s one question answered: Tate really is back, and she does belong in the UFC bantamweight division. The next question is whether she is still contender material, and a win over Reneau can only hint at the answer. While it might be tempted to fast-track Tate back into the title picture — a rematch with the still-relevant Holm has a certain poetry to it — there’s no need to rush. Chiasson and Ladd meet next Saturday in a clash of young contenders. The winner would be a great test of how “Cupcake” will fare against the new generation of big, strong women who populate the bantamweight Top 10.
Mateusz Gamrot vs. Brad Riddell: After a loss in his Octagon debut late last year, “Gamer” continues to regain the momentum and hype that accompanied him as a two-division KSW titleholder entering the UFC. Much like Tate against Reneau, Gamrot faced a fighter on a rough losing streak in Jeremy Stephens, but put away his foe emphatically and with greater ease than any of those who came before. While a win over the 2021 version of Stephens shouldn’t catapult anyone into the rankings discussion, Gamrot’s wins over him and Scott Holtzman have been sizzling by the eye test, and he retains the benefit of the doubt that comes with the strong slate he faced in Poland. A fight with Riddell, who won a barnburner over Drew Dober at UFC 263 last month, would be a suitable test for the two rising contenders. As a style matchup — Riddell, the striker who doesn’t mind grappling; Gamrot, the grappler who doesn’t mind striking — it would be an instant “Fight of the Night” frontrunner.
Rodolfo Vieira vs. Gerald Meerschaert–Makhmud Muradov winner: The ADCC and multiple Mundials medalist rebounded from the first loss of his career on Saturday, holding his own for two rounds against Dustin Stoltzfus largely on the feet before grounding him with a blast double-leg in the third, taking his back in a flash and cinching a rear-naked choke for the tap. In doing so, he addressed some of the concerns about his gas tank and fight IQ, and offered hope that his world-class submission game can be brought to bear on UFC middleweights. However, therein lies the problem, as the three men Vieira has beaten in the Octagon are a combined 3-8 with the promotion.
What Vieira needs in order to keep building confidence and working out the kinks in his MMA game is a matchup with a fighter who is unquestionably UFC quality, but nowhere near the Top 10. Meerschaert and Muradov, who meet at an as-yet unnamed Fight Night event on Aug. 28, both meet that description perfectly, and the winner would be a suitable next opponent for Vieira.
Billy Quarantillo vs. Charles Rosa: Quarantillo showed that his loss to Gavin Tucker last December might have been an aberration, as he put on a completely dominant performance against Gabriel Benitez in the main card opener. Quarantillo was back to being the high-pressure, high-pace fighter who had used his cardio as a weapon in wins over Kyle Nelson and Spike Carlyle, and Benitez never had a chance to get his nasty jab and vaunted leg kicks going. The third-round TKO stoppage, as Quarantillo pelted Benitez’s ruined left eye with punches wrapping around from back mount, felt oddly timed, but also felt like a humanitarian act.
After the fight, Quarantillo called out Rosa, citing a Buffalo—Boston rivalry that I frankly did not know was a thing. It’s uncommon to hear a fighter make a reasonable challenge after a fight, let alone one that feels like a tiny step backward as “Boston Strong” does for Quarantillo, but one suspects the scrappy Rosa will be down for it. Neither is in shouting distance of the rankings just yet, and it sounds like a hell of a fun fight. Let the man call his shot.