UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway is headed to the 155-pound division. Now that he’s gone, the promotion should (but won’t) decide their new 145-pound champion with an eight-man Grand Prix.
Tournaments are cool again in MMA. They never really went out of style. But between Rizin FF, Professional Fighters League, One Championship, and Bellator MMA, the fight format has seen a resurgence. The UFC was founded upon such a format, but have since left the Grand Prix tournament way of doing things behind.
Given the state of the promotion’s featherweight division, losing a champion who cleaned house throughout his rise and reign, a Grand Prix for the belt makes as much sense as ever. Now is the time to go back to their roots.
Yeah, everyone else is doing it. But the depth at 145-pounds affords the UFC the opportunity to showcase their standing as the sport’s top promotion. Especially when Bellator is doing a 16-man featherweight tourney of their own later this year, and PFL and their tournament formatting just inked a two-year deal with ESPN.
Unfortunately, this is little more than a thought exercise. Dana White and co. like to have more control over their current product. Evidenced by their usage of interim titles, whether it’s forcing them onto specific matchups or stripping them from winners at odd times, the UFC has shown that they prefer to decide who’s fighting for belts. Rarely do the rankings matter, and title-contenders can be ignored for a variety of reasons.
That’s not the case with a tournament. In a tournament, the winner moves on, even if they’re at odds with the promotion.
Regardless, the aforementioned depth at featherweight in the UFC gives us a lot to play with. Of course, the promotion could just do Jose Aldo-Brian Ortega for the vacant belt, and we probably wouldn’t complain. But there’s enough talent at 145-pounds to have a little more fun with how the next featherweight champion is crowned.
Based on the official rankings, there are three groups of fighters to consider for a UFC Featherweight Grand Prix.
The first are the title-contenders. Jose Aldo, Brian Ortega, and Frankie Edgar are all currently in the picture. Were Holloway adamant about staying at 145-pounds, one of these guys would likely be getting the next shot at him. They’ll get the top three seeds in tourney, with Aldo holding the top spot due to his, you know, several year reign as UFC featherweight champion.
After that, a trio of rising stars at 145-pounds must be invited to the tournament. Alexander Volkanovski already has the attention of Aldo, with the Brazilian calling for a bout with the Australian at UFC 237. So, he’s in. As are Renato Moicano and Mirsad Bektic. The duo has three losses between the two of them, and have earned their way into the top ten of the UFC’s featherweight rankings. They’re the next crop of title contenders and would add a fresh feel to a tournament full of veterans.
After that, things get a little more tricky. There are a couple of main routes the promotion could go with the final two slots of their tournament. The first features a couple of veterans who have battled in the 145-pound division for years: Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens. Both guys know how to put on a show and have headlined events throughout their UFC careers.
We’d prefer to go another way. A younger way. If the point of the Grand Prix is to highlight the depth of talent and brightest stars in the promotion’s featherweight division, Yair Rodriguez and Zabit Magomedsharipov need to be there.
Yeah, first round matchups with the likes of Aldo, Ortega, or Edgar might not be the friendliest thing for the young-ish stars. But if we got to pick between seeing them, or a couple of veterans in matchups we’ve already been treated to, we’re going to go the fresher route with Yair and Zabit.
Since they’re both currently in the top ten in the UFC’s featherweight rankings, Swanson and Stephens can be our alternates, with the likes of Josh Emmett, Ricardo Lamas, and Chan Sung Jung as additional potential replacements. That incredible depth would mean that the tourney, unlike some in other promotions, would be able to feature solely featherweights, rather than needing pulling from surrounding weight classes.
With those fighters invited, what does our 2019 UFC Featherweight Grand Prix bracket look like?
There are some very fun matchups, and some unavoidable rematches as well. Regardless of the seeding, rematches are going to happen. That being said, we think these first-round matchups make the most of the field of fighters chosen.
The bottom half of the bracket has a couple of particularly interesting bouts. Moicano getting another tough veteran test in Edgar early in his career wouldn’t be kind, but a win gets him a potential rematch with Ortega. Regardless of who wins, should Ortega defeat Magomedsharipov, a rematch awaits. As much as Moicano wants to run it back with Ortega, Edgar would also want to avenge his first-round KO loss to “T-City” last March.
Looking past Ortega-Magomedsharipov would be a mistake, though. Even if Ortega were to come out on top, the fight itself has the potential to be one of the best of the tournament. It’s a tough draw for Zabit, but a matchup with Ortega would give the prospect a well-deserved top-tier challenge.
In the top half of the bracket, it looks like it’s Aldo’s road to another title-reign. The idea of Aldo-Rodriguez is likely more fun than the actual matchup would be. Then again, all it takes is a no-look elbow from nowhere for Yair to finish fights. A potential future matchup with Aldo and Volkanovski sounds fun, especially considering Aldo’s recent comments.
You’d be a fool to count out Bektic in his first-round matchup with Volkanovski though. The Bosnian-American looks to have turned a corner in the UFC, going 2-0 in 2018, including a win over Ricardo Lamas at UFC 225.
Yeah, this tournament, regardless of the competitors or format, won’t happen in the UFC. Not this year, and probably not anytime in the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun, and dream-up some featherweight matchups that we could potentially see down the road anyway.
Of course, we still have some fun featherweight action headed our way. Jeremy Stephens is fighting Zabit Magomedsharipov at UFC 235, and Aldo’s callout of Volkanovski for UFC 237 has our hopes up. Now that Holloway has made his lightweight intentions clear, expect more movement atop the UFC’s 145-pound division throughout the coming months.
In this bracket, it’d be hard to pick against Aldo. As it always is. But wouldn’t this be a more fun way for him to earn the belt back? Let us know what you think the promotion should do once Max Holloway heads to lightweight, and who you would feature in a UFC featherweight Grand Prix! Comment below, on Facebook, or reply on Twitter!