When UFC president Dana White mentions a possible matchup, it creates a domino effect of speculation that leaves fans, media and even fighters trying to weave through the various scenarios.
After Khamzat Chimaev had to pull out of his March 13 fight with Leon Edwards because of lingering effects from COVID-19, White mentioned Colby Covington as a replacement. Then the winner of Edwards-Covington would be the next challenger for welterweight champ Kamaru Usman.
But Covington was thought to be headed toward a showdown with friend-turned-enemy Jorge Masvidal. There was speculation the two would be coaches on The Ultimate Fighter and then face each other in a blockbuster grudge match.
Did White mention Edwards-Covington as a way to signal that Masvidal was out of the picture for the time being?
If so, Masvidal reentered the picture in a big way on Saturday night when Usman called him out after stopping Gilbert Burns in the third round of the UFC 258 main event. Not surprisingly, Masvidal and his camp gladly accepted that title challenge.
So will Masvidal be Usman's next opponent?
The welterweight division isn't the only one in flux. There's still no clarity among the lightweights, because White believes champion Khabib Nurmagomedov will fight again, despite Nurmagomedov announcing his retirement in October. According to White, Nurmagomedov could settle things by telling White to leave him alone. Instead, White said they're going to meet again, which gives him reason to believe Nurmagodemov isn't done yet.
What's really happening? Our panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy provides some answers.
Masvidal will be Usman's next opponent
Raimondi: Very real. Prior to UFC 258, I would have said it didn't seem likely. It didn't seem like it would happen until Usman's postfight interview with Joe Rogan, when Usman cut a fiery promo on Masvidal.
The two fought at UFC 251 last July, with Masvidal coming in on just six days' notice after Burns pulled out due to a positive coronavirus test. Usman won by unanimous decision, but it was clear to many that Masvidal was not at full strength, coming in without a real training camp.
"[Kamaru Usman] gave Jorge Masvidal a gift on a silver platter."@arielhelwani says Masvidal was on a collision course with Covington before Usman provided a better option with his post-fight callout 🎁 pic.twitter.com/68adZSJX8N— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) February 15, 2021
Usman believes Masvidal took the fight because he had a built-in excuse, but that there would be "no excuse" in the rematch. The two had been exchanging barbs even before Saturday.
Within minutes of Usman's callout, Masvidal's co-manager Malki Kawa tweeted that Masvidal would accept a title shot against Usman, and proposed that the two of them coach opposite one another on the comeback season of The Ultimate Fighter this summer. White said at the postfight press conference that if both sides want it, the UFC would be interested.
And there you have it. Over a 36-hour period, that Usman vs. Masvidal rematch went from backburner to something that seems nearly bound to happen. It does make sense. Fighting the extremely popular Masvidal was likely the biggest payday of Usman's career. And there does seem to be unfinished business.
Colby Covington is a tougher opponent for Leon Edwards, but he offers him a better chance at a title shot
Murphy: This is absolutely real. While derailing Chimaev's hype train would have provided the loud return Edwards needed to get the public's attention after a long absence, no one available in the division offers the résumé of Covington. The winner of this fight would have every right to demand a title shot against Usman, who has a win over each of them.
Chimaev may soon be championship-caliber, but as a former interim champ, Covington already is. Covington fought Usman perhaps closer than anyone in the UFC -- Burns' early knockdown notwithstanding -- as judge Sal D'Amato had Covington ahead at the time of Usman's TKO at UFC 245. While Chimaev's marquee win is a 17-second knockout of Gerald Meerschaert, all of Covington's last four fights -- in which he's 3-1 with three dominant wins -- came against former or current UFC champions. Covington's schtick may distract some fans and media from his incredible talent and track record.
Edwards was among the division's hottest names following his "three piece and a soda" hallway altercation with Jorge Masvidal on March 16, 2019, which preceded his five-round dominance of Rafael dos Anjos four months later. He's been forgotten by nearly two years of inaction, brought on by pandemic cancelations and poor timing.
Edwards needs a win over a name -- again -- to demand the attention he once earned. Chimaev was that, absolutely. Covington is too, but with added credentials.
White's right -- Nurmagomedov's willingness to meet means the door remains open for his return
Okamoto: I mean ... not really. No. This is not real. The fact Nurmagomedov is not denying White's dinner invitation doesn't mean he has any interest in fighting again. Everything we've actually heard from Nurmagomedov himself has fallen in line with a very simple truth: He's done. He accomplished what he wanted, and there's nothing out there that interests him at the moment. Here's where I will say, though, I do think the door is still open for Nurmagomedov to fight again.
Now, I don't think it's likely. I would bet against ever seeing him fight again. But notice what I said earlier: There is not anything out there that interests Nurmagomedov at the moment. If one of these lightweights rises above the rest and starts to look unbeatable, I believe Nurmagomedov is the type of competitor who would at least consider coming back and showing us all who is boss. And even if the right welterweight opportunity came about, it's possible. But it should be considered a long shot, and nothing about him having dinner with White at the end of this month means Nurmagomedov is coming back any time soon.
Jon Jones fighting for the heavyweight title would be the biggest fight of 2021
Wagenheim: Real. I can't think of anything that could possibly be bigger. Sure, a Conor McGregor fight probably would sell more pay-per-views, but that would in no way outshine the heavyweight debut of Jones, in terms of competitive and historic magnitude.
Ever since he burst on the MMA scene and smashed everyone in his path toward becoming a UFC champion a decade ago, Jones has been unrivaled. And as he rolled onward as the sport's most dominant force, and fans and pundits tried to explain what made him unbeatable, a prevailing narrative emerged: Jones, at a long, lean 6-foot-4, was simply too big for other light heavyweights. Well, we're about to see just how much of Jones' prowess has to do with size, now that he's stepping in with the big boys.
And Jones won't be stepping in with just any big boy. The man he will seek to dethrone will be either the greatest heavyweight in MMA history, Stipe Miocic, or the division's most explosive knockout artist, Francis Ngannou. Miocic has made more title defenses than any heavyweight champ who has reigned in the UFC, devastating opponents with a division-record 1,525 strikes along the way. Ngannou has landed nowhere near as many, because he hasn't had to. When he challenges for the belt at UFC 260, Ngannou will stampede in on a four-fight win streak -- knockouts in 45, 26, 71 and 20 seconds. Can Jones stay out of the way of one of those wrecking balls?
Adding to the mind-twisting intrigue of a Jones vs. Miocic matchup: The last man to defeat Miocic was Daniel Cormier, whom Jones beat up twice (though the second win was overturned to a no contest after Jones failed a drug test). Playing in Jones' favor should he face Ngannou: What plagued the Cameroonian in his first shot at the title, in 2018, was his inability to fend off Miocic's takedowns -- and Jones is an elite wrestler. This is going to be huge fun, no matter who stands across the cage from "Bones" Jones.
Been seeing lots of different things in the media lately, I would absolutely love to fight for the UFC again. Really hope we can come up with a good financial agreement and give the fans a few more great fights. 🤙🏾— BONY (@JonnyBones) February 13, 2021
The only way the platitudes heaped upon a Jones heavyweight debut in 2021 would not be real is if there ends up being no Jones title fight this year. He has noted on social media that he's yet to come to financial terms with the UFC for a return to the Octagon. And even if Jones reaches a deal and is poised to make his cartwheeling cage entry, let's not forget that while Ngannou wastes no time when there's a fight in front of him, Miocic, who defends the belt on March 27, has fought only once in each of the last three years.
Wonderboy would be the perfect opponent for Nate Diaz's return
Raimondi: Well, that would make for an interesting stylistic matchup -- and not just in the Octagon -- but I'm not sure I'd say "perfect." I'm going to go "not real" on this one. I'm not too sure "Wonderboy" vs. "Stockton Bad Boy" makes a ton of sense right now, even though Thompson indicated he would be interested.
In Diaz's interview with Ariel Helwani last week, he mentioned two names he'd like to fight: Dustin Poirier and Charles Oliveira. But Diaz wants to fight only at 165 pounds or above, not in the lightweight division that Poirier and Oliveira each occupy. That seems kind of strange, right? Why would Diaz want to fight two lightweights at a catchweight or higher weight class? Yeah, it is odd. But I'm also not against Diaz passing along an anti-weight-cutting message. Maybe Diaz is ahead of his time on this point the same way he was with marijuana, which has become less and less stigmatized in sports over the last few years.
Thompson was not on the list mentioned and Diaz specifically said he wasn't really interested in any of the contenders at welterweight. That's not to say it wouldn't be a fun fight. I have no idea how that would go between Thompson's karate-based techniques and Diaz's boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. For the most part, "Wonderboy" is a nightmare stylistically for opponents. There's not usually a long line of foes wanting to compete with him. Not that Diaz is one for passing up a fascinating challenge, but Thompson really isn't the guy you want to face coming off more than a yearlong layoff.
I like the idea of Thompson taking on Michael Chiesa next in a battle of surging welterweights. As for Diaz, I really believe Oliveira is a brilliant stroke. Oliveira said he wasn't interested on Twitter earlier this week. But he should reconsider. Oliveira appears to be the odd man out at lightweight with Poirier and Conor McGregor linked to a trilogy this summer and talks of Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler. A fight against Diaz would be the biggest of Oliveira's career with the potential of getting him a win against one of the most popular names in the UFC. That's a no-brainer for Oliveira and still a path toward the lightweight title.