The UFC’s 2023 is in the books, with UFC 296 offering up some big finishes, an all-time great women’s scrap, and a main event that… well, pretty much fizzled quite frankly.
Where does the losing side of Saturday’s card go from here, including Colby “Chaos” Covington, who had little to offer champ Leon Edwards outside of some low-brow trash talk ahead of the fight? Let’s take a look.
The loser of a title fight should usually have their next fight come against a rising contender who is close to a title shot themselves. This is a role which Colby Covington has eschewed for his UFC career, instead fighting past-prime rivals after his first two failed title bids. Will this third one be any different?
He seems uninterested in fighting Shavkat Rakhmonov or Belal Muhammad, but boss Dana White might force him to. Belal has the more impressive UFC winning streak, having beaten five straight ranked fighters. His unpopularity has not brought him into a championship setting yet, but it may happen next. Whichever man does not fight Leon Edwards should fight Covington, and that could be Shavkat.
Covington’s Next Fight: Shavkat Rakhmonov
Brandon ‘Rawdawg’ Royval lost his first title shot on Saturday to champion Alexandre Pantoja. Although he came on strong in the final round it was too little, too late. The flyweight division keeps moving though, and his first step to get back to another title shot should be to fight a relevant contender.
With much of the division booked already, it makes sense to pit Royval against the winner of an upcoming fight. Alex Perez vs Muhammad Mokaev is the perfect fight for that. Mokaev is undefeated in pro and amateur MMA and is one of the brightest prospects in the sport, but his toughest test comes against former title challenger Perez. His only UFC losses came against Joseph Benavidez, Deiveson Figueiredo, and Pantoja; Perez is a talented fighter who can challenge both Mokaev and Royval, if they end up meeting as well.
Royval’s Next Fight: Winner of Perez/Mokaev
Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson
Karate kid Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson perhaps had his final hopes of reaching a UFC title dashed at UFC 296. At 40 years old and slowing down, it will be difficult for Thompson to string together enough wins to get back to the title picture, let alone win it. He should look for fun fights in the twilight of his career, and luckily there are plenty of those at 170-lbs.
One of the most fun would be Thompson vs Michael ‘Venom’ Page, aka MVP. MVP’s signing with the UFC and promotional debut was announced by Dana White for UFC 299 against Kevin Holland at the post-fight presser on Saturday. Wonderboy has already fought Holland, but MVP has been linked to him for years due to their quite-similar bladed karate style of fighting. Whether the Brit wins or loses in Miami in March, it would make sense for him to fight Wonderboy next.
Thompson’s Next Fight: Michael ‘Venom’ Page
Tony Ferguson should retire after a seven-fight losing streak where he has lost every fight badly, but he will not. ‘El Cucuy’ is one of the most stubborn humans to ever walk the face of the earth, and his loss to Paddy ‘the Baddy’ Pimblett on Saturday may only make him more determined to keep fighting due to how he almost had Paddy in trouble in the third round before being taken down.
After losing seven straight fights over a period of three years, who is even out there for Ferguson? Will the UFC brass want him to fight for them again? It is possible they do not, but assuming that they do, Tony will need to fight either an old or inexperienced fighter, but one who has some popularity. Honestly, the perfect fight would be Ferguson against Jim Miller at UFC 300, where Miller would become the only man to have fought on each hundredth UFC PPV card. The problem is that Miller is already booked to fight Gabriel Benitez in January. Will he be able to turn it around in time to fight at UFC 300? Even if not, a fight against Ferguson would make sense.
Ferguson’s Next Fight: Jim Miller
One of the scariest knockouts in years opened the UFC 296 main card as Josh Emmett knocked Bryce Mitchell into having a seizure on the canvas in the T-Mobile Arena. Thankfully Mitchell released a video where he reassured fans that he is fine. After a scary knockout like that it makes sense to take time off, but when Bryce gets back in the Octagon he can expect to face a featherweight contender like himself.
Mitchell will have to fight down in the rankings after losing two of his last three fights by finish. There are multiple fast-rising featherweights who want a shot at the rankings, like Diego Lopes. The jiu-jitsu ace showed he also has decent hands by knocking out Pat Sabatini at UFC 295. If Lopes fought Bryce, that fight could be interesting in every phase, with good striking exchanges and even better scrambles on the mat.
Mitchell’s Next Fight: Diego Lopes