Sports

UFC summer roundtable: Best upcoming matchups, HOF snubs and predictions

After a sold-out UFC Fight Night in Louisville, Kentucky, the UFC looks ahead to what could be the biggest fight card of the year later this month as Conor McGregor is set to make his highly anticipated return to the Octagon against Michael Chandler in the main event at UFC 303 on June 29.

With such a big fight coming up, our writers examine replacement options if the McGregor-Chandler matchup falls through, along with the best upcoming fight on the schedule thus far.

Brett Okamoto, Andreas Hale and Jeff Wagenheim answer these UFC questions and more, starting with the biggest winner from last weekend’s UFC fight card.


Who was the biggest winner from last weekend’s UFC Fight Night?

Wagenheim: Dominick Reyes. Sure, Nassourdine Imavov won the main event to solidify his standing in the middleweight pecking order, but Reyes did something more impactful and dramatic: He saved his career.

The onetime light heavyweight title challenger entered his co-main event against Dustin Jacoby on a four-fight losing streak. Reyes had not won since 2019, and at age 34, his fighting future was hanging in the balance. After landing a counter left hand that wobbled Jacoby less than two minutes into the fight, Reyes swarmed for a TKO finish and then celebrated like someone with a new lease on life. Appropriately so.

Hale: As much as I want to say Imavov, the controversy surrounding his win makes that difficult. I’ll also go with Reyes because he broke himself out of a massive slump with that win. He’s still far from becoming the fighter who nearly dethroned Jon Jones, but getting a first-round knockout win after three consecutive KO losses gets him on the right track. Who knows if he’s truly “back,” but his victory was the sweetest on Saturday.

Okamoto: Agreed, it was Reyes. Reyes has had one of the strangest career trajectories of anyone over the past few years. I was in Houston in 2020 when Reyes went five rounds with Jones. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, but I’m sure it feels like another lifetime to Reyes. As Jeff mentioned, he might have been out of the UFC with another loss. But on top of that, some might have been calling for his retirement with another knockout loss. No one needed a big moment on Saturday more than him.


What non-McGregor-Chandler fight are you most looking forward to this summer?

Okamoto: Robert Whittaker vs. Khamzat Chimaev. I still believe Whittaker is one of the smartest, most professional and flat-out best fighters in the world. Chimaev has shown glimpses of being an otherworldly talent, but he still needs a strong performance over a high-level opponent to prove his ceiling. This is the matchup he needs, and it’s five rounds. We’ll get some answers about Chimaev here, which we’ve been waiting to get for years.

Hale: Michael “Venom” Page vs. Ian Machado Garry. Page and Garry are skilled strikers who love to talk trash. Each also desperately needs to come out on top in order to earn a welterweight title opportunity soon. This fight wasn’t on my bingo card at the start of 2024, but pairing a fighter on the rise with an opponent with a tremendous ceiling lends itself to being one of the most significant upcoming bouts. This could shape the future of the division. Their styles could lead to a brilliant striking exhibition or a talent-nullifying stinker, but the beauty is in not knowing. I’m more intrigued by this fight and the outcome than the main event at UFC 303.

Wagenheim: Cory Sandhagen vs. Umar Nurmagomedov. And you can forget the “non” qualifier. Sure, I’ll watch the McGregor-Chandler spectacle, if it happens, but only for a trip down memory lane — a nostalgic reliving of a time when McGregor wasn’t inactive, unranked and uninterested.

I get more excited for bouts relevant to a championship picture. And while a few title fights are currently on the UFC schedule, I’m most interested in the Aug. 3 main event. Sandhagen has been a bantamweight contender seemingly forever; will this fight finally put him in a position to grab the golden ring? Or is the undefeated Nurmagomedov ready to be the latest embodiment of a Dagestani takeover?


Who should be the backup fighter for McGregor-Chandler in case someone pulls out?

Hale: There’s only one answer: Max Holloway. If something were to happen that would force McGregor out of the fight, a BMF fight between Holloway and Chandler, with the winner getting McGregor, would be a significant attraction.

Also, it’s probably the only fight that Chandler would accept, considering how long he has waited for McGregor. If the roles were reversed and Chandler was forced out? C’mon now, McGregor-Holloway 2 for the BMF title is a story that writes itself and a rematch over a decade in the making. Dare I say that McGregor-Holloway for the BMF is bigger than McGregor-Chandler? I dare.

Wagenheim: It doesn’t matter.

If McGregor pulls out — something he never has done, by the way, although he has never been as scattered in his life priorities as he is now — the UFC might as well scrap the UFC 303 main event and start from scratch. In terms of drawing power, McGregor is irreplaceable.

If Chandler withdraws — and it’d take a catastrophe for him to walk away from this rich payday after waiting two years for it — the UFC could pit McGregor against anyone on the roster and it’d still be a massive event.

So I’ll flip around the question to point out who should not be a backup opponent for McGregor: anyone possessing a belt, other than the BMF trinket. That’s the only “title” he should be allowed anywhere near, with just one victory in over 7½ years. So, if Holloway were interested in a short-notice rematch? Sure, go ahead and book it.


With the HOF ceremony coming up, who is most overdue to enter?

Okamoto: Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. It’s been eight years since the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to Endeavor. New fans might not be aware of the Fertitta brothers’ role in the UFC brand and the sport of mixed martial arts. Longtime fans know about the Fertitta brothers buying the UFC in 2001 when it was in financial trouble and widely shunned from live television, accumulating more debt as they tried to resuscitate it before eventually turning things around with “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2004. Lorenzo and Frank don’t seek the spotlight; they operated almost entirely behind the scenes when they owned the UFC. You could make the case that they are the two most influential figures in MMA history because the UFC brand was on its way to failing before their financial investments and direction. They need to be in the Hall of Fame.

Hale: It’ll never happen, but Frank Shamrock. This has been said every year since the UFC introduced the Hall of Fame. Shamrock might have fought in the UFC only five times, but he’s the promotion’s first 205-pound champion (then known as the middleweight championship) and was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world at the time. He also finished Tito Ortiz in his final UFC bout, ending his brief run with a 5-0 record. The man many consider to be the first “true” mixed martial artist ran afoul of the UFC and Dana White, which has prevented his induction. But, at some point, hatchets should be buried and one of the true pioneers should be recognized.

Wagenheim: Amanda Nunes. She’s not long overdue, but she will be 17 days into her eligibility on the night of the ceremony. And that’s a long enough wait for the greatest fighter in the history of women’s MMA. “The Lioness” deserves to be carried into the Hall on a golden throne on June 27.

If we’re factoring in the amount of time a deserving fighter has waited for induction, though, the biggest snub ever is — and always will be — Shamrock. He changed the game in the late 1990s, as the most well-rounded fighter of his time.


After UFC 304, how many titles will stay in England?

Wagenheim: One and a half.

I expect a clean sweep by the home team, with Leon Edwards successfully defending his welterweight championship and Tom Aspinall retaining his interim heavyweight belt. But I’m going with a fraction here because I am not ready to anoint Aspinall as a true titlist until he defeats Jones, the only UFC heavyweight champ. The interim title is no more than a flimsy marketing tool — even if Aspinall ends up defending that belt more often than “Bones” puts the real one up for grabs.

Hale: Both champions, Edwards and Aspinall, will leave UFC 304 with what they came with. Aspinall is probably the most complete heavyweight in the world right now. His interim title defense against Curtis Blaydes is simply to make good on his only “loss,” a TKO defeat by Blaydes due to injury just seconds into the fight in July 2022. Blaydes is a good fighter, but Aspinall is levels above and will likely end the fight inside of the first round.

Edwards is at his peak right now, with his combination of pinpoint striking and exceptional wrestling. Belal Muhammad was overdue for this opportunity, but he will need to drastically evolve as a striker to beat Edwards. It’s not impossible, but Edwards is one of the best in the game right now. Not much should be taken away from their first meeting, which ended in a no contest, but the way Edwards was firing on all cylinders in the standup is exactly how I see the rematch going.

Okamoto: I think the English fight fans will go home happy. Aspinall and Edwards are not only at the top of their respective games, but they are also very confident right now. This card is built to showcase U.K. talent, and Aspinall and Edwards will do their part to defend their belts. I wish Aspinall were trying to unify his interim title against Jones instead of defending it against Blaydes, but I won’t get on that soapbox again — for now.

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