November 24, 2020

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Roundhouse Takes: Ortega-Zombie Reaction, Bobby Knuckles, & The Future of the Lightweights

By William Burke (w_burke22), Nick Stavas (@nickstavas) & Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)

Exciting news and storylines pop up in the MMA world every day. In this weekly series, our UFC team will answer questions that fight fans are asking themselves, with bold takes and differing opinions on each topic. 

Following Saturday’s dominant showing from Brian Ortega, how do you think he matches up against current featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski? 

William: The Brian Ortega that fought Max Holloway in 2018 would not do well against current champ Alexander Volkanovski. But that Brian Ortega we saw last Saturday night, with the revamped striking and world class BJJ? That Ortega could give Volkanovski some serious problems. I had been of the opinion before that fight that people were sleeping on Ortega as a striker anyway, and in that fight against Holloway, he showed tremendous growth on his feet. 

In Volkanovski’s most recent fight against Holloway, he was getting beaten on the feet and had to turn to takedowns to win. Ortega welcomes that because he boasts an elite ground game who looks for submissions at any chance he can get. I’d definitely still favor Volkanovski in that matchup, but with Ortega’s size advantage and much improved striking, that fight just got a whole heck of a lot closer. 


Nick: I am on the record saying I don’t think there are any featherweights in the world who truly present a challenge to Volkanovski aside from Max Holloway, and I’ll die on that hill until proven otherwise. I think Volkanovski and Holloway are on a separate tier compared to the rest of the featherweights. 

Yes, Ortega showed incredible improvement in his striking game and absolutely dominated an underwhelming Korean Zombie last week. Even now, though, I think Volkanovski would have a game plan and a strategy to beat Ortega with ease. I also don’t really like the idea of Ortega leaping over Holloway after what Holloway did to him back at UFC 231. Because it was so lopsided, I think Ortega should have to get past Holloway before receiving a title bid, but it doesn’t seem like the UFC is on the same page. Assuming Ortega is the next challenger at 145, I don’t see the belt changing hands. 


Zack: Well if Ortega is going to fight that well again, I think Alex has some real problems. Sure, Zombie was very passive and didn’t throw many punches, but Brian was flat out dominant. Volkanovski is a really versatile fighter with great striking, but he’s much smaller than Ortega and would have to open himself up to get into striking range. The composition and methodology that Ortega showed last Saturday was startling and refreshing. If he can replicate that type of fight against Alex then I think we’ll be hearing Bruce Buffer say “and new” instead of “and still.”

If Robert Whittaker beats Jared Cannonier this Saturday, does he get a rematch with Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title?

William: He will definitely deserve it, but I don’t know if he’ll get it. I’ll make it known I’m picking him to beat Cannonier this weekend, and I think people are forgetting how good Whittaker is just because he lost to Adesanya. I just don’t know if the UFC would want to make that rematch so quickly after Adesanya dispatched Whittaker relatively easily.  

Then again, who else is there for Adesanya? He just destroyed Costa, has already beaten Romero, Gastelum, and Brunson. So I guess if Whittaker does win, the rematch will be the only fight that makes sense. I think Darren Till could be interesting for Adesanya, but Whittaker just beat him in a unanimous decision, so how could you justify that? So yes, if Whittaker wins Saturday he’ll get his rematch with Adesanya, most likely coming in early 2021. 


Nick: I think the winner of this fight gets Adesanya next, regardless of who it is. Adesanya has already expressed interest in Cannonier if he can get past Whittaker, and as the number one contender, Whittaker would be deserving of a title rematch should he win Saturday. The only other option for the UFC is to wait to see if fourth-ranked Jack Hermansson can defeat sixth-ranked Darren Till in December. If that happens, Hermansson could possibly be the next challenger, but it’s a long shot. Assuming the UFC doesn’t allow Adesanya to make any drastic moves in the near future (such as switching weight classes), I fully expect the victor in this fight to get a shot at the middleweight title some time in 2021. 


Zack: It was just over a year ago that Bobby Knuckles went up against the most beautiful striker the sport has ever seen and was put to sleep on his feet not once, but twice. Right now Whittaker is the top-ranked contender with Paulo Costa separating him and Cannonier. Assuming Whittaker defeats “The Killa Gorilla”, I don’t see any other path for the division to go down. Costa was demolished and needs another win to get a shot. In this hypothetical, Cannonier loses, so it couldn’t be him. Hermansson, Romero, or Till jumping ahead would be the most obscene thing in the promotion’s history. If Whittaker wins he gets the rematch.

With UFC 254 this weekend, what is your prediction for the undisputed lightweight championship between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje?

William: At this point in Khabib’s career, with all the dominant performances he’s had, can you really pick against him? I do think Justin Gaethje poses a challenge greater than Khabib has seen, being that he’s a former Division I All-American wrestler. But MMA wrestling is so much different than any other type of wrestling, and we really haven’t seen Gaethje’s takedown defense tested in the way Khabib will test it. 

The path to victory for Gaethje is to stay off of the cage and try to use his lethal leg kicks to compromise the movement of Khabib. If he can pressure Khabib and keep the fight in the middle of the Octagon, he will have a sizable advantage in the striking department. Ultimately I see this playing out like most of Khabib’s fights do, with him getting a hold of Gaethje and simply mauling him. I’m going with Khabib by third-round TKO.


Nick: I’ll probably talk about this extensively in our preview coming out later this week, but I think this fight will be closer than fans and oddsmakers expect it to be. 

Khabib is Khabib, there’s no getting around that. He’s going to try to do the same thing to Gaethje that he did to McGregor and Poirier: take him down repeatedly, suffocate him and eventually submit him. 

The most obvious disparity lies in the striking department, where on paper, Gaethje has a clear advantage. We saw in his interim title bout against Tony Ferguson that Gaethje has completely reinvented himself as a fighter, thanks in large part to world-renowned striking coach Trevor Wittman. Gaethje’s wrestling background will probably help him to defend Khabib’s takedowns better than Poirier and McGregor did, but even then, we’re talking about the greatest wrestler in UFC history in Khabib. I would like to see Gaethje at least stay competitive, and if by some miracle this turns into a stand-and-bang brawl, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gaethje could put Khabib to sleep. Unfortunately for Gaethje, I think Khabib will be well prepared and motivated to defend his crown. 

Again, this will be a better fight than most people think, but I’ll take Khabib. 


Zack: I’m not saying anything new when I tell you that Khabib may be the best fighter of all time. He’s unbelievably versatile, he’s probably the best grappler on the planet, and he can put anyone down with punches. If there’s a big name at lightweight, Khabib has beaten them. Except for Justin Gaethje. Gaethje has just two losses on his resume, Poirier and Eddie Alvarez, but he’s one of the hottest fighters in the world right now.

His last four fights were absolute disassemblies of some very talented fighters, capped with a gruesome rolling of Tony Ferguson. He’s a vicious striker and very few fighters have been able to withstand a full three-round barrage, not even bothering with the ten championship minutes. But Justin has never faced someone with the quality of skills that Khabib possesses. We’ve never seen Justin mounted and fighting for his life.

Can Justin beat Khabib? Yes. Can Khabib beat Justin? Absolutely. So what gives? Justin has the striking advantage, but it’s slight. Khabib has a huge wrestling advantage and that’s where he thrives. As he says, he takes guys out to the deep waters and drowns them on the mat. With his father recently passing and just one of the widest skill sets in UFC history, I have to go with Khabib in a 4th round submission, reminiscent of the Conor fight.

If Gaethje were to pull off the shocking upset this Saturday, do you think the UFC would scrap McGregor-Poirier 2 and look toward a Gaethje-McGregor title bout next?  

William: Maybe. Lately Khabib has only been fighting about once a year, and the timing of this could make it tough for him to fight before Ramadan on April 12th. It’s pretty widely documented Khabib only has a few fights left, so if he were to lose this it wouldn’t surprise me if he took some time off. 

Nobody would be more deserving of an immediate rematch other than Khabib, so if he wanted it, he’d get it. I just think if Justin wins it’ll be a KO and Khabib will need some time to recover mentally and physically. Now, I don’t know if that means they scrap McGregor-Poirier, but it isn’t locked in yet so it wouldn’t shock me. Dana has been saying for over a year that the plan for Conor was to let this fight play out and he’d fight the winner. It wouldn’t shock me at all if that was the case. I also think Poirier would be a great matchup with UFC newcomer and former Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler, so that could be something they could pivot to for him. 


Nick: No. If Gaethje beats Khabib I believe it will be an instant rematch, no questions asked. McGregor and Poirier both put themselves in this position by getting choked out by Khabib, so I don’t see any reason why they would ever get a shot at Gaethje before Khabib got a rematch. 


Zack: What an interesting proposition! If Justin were to somehow win the belt the plans of the future would change, but I don’t think they would change in this fashion. The charity fight means a lot to both Dustin and Conor, but I think both parties would understand that it needs to be pushed back in the event that we see the upset. But would we see Conor in the next belt fight?

I think the more likely outcome would be Dustin taking the next title fight. Gaethje has just two losses in his career and one is to Dustin, yet to be avenged. Poirier is coming off an incredible fight with Dan Hooker and seems to be in great shape and considering the UFC rankings, Dustin would be next in line. The promotions for Poirier-Gaethje 2 would be so easy to churn out and the fight would be a massive draw. That’s what I see as the most likely option. 

A McGregor-Gaethje fight would be a lot of fun but Conor is currently the 5th-ranked contender in the lightweight division. There’s absolutely no way he jumps Dustin, Khabib, Tony and Hangman for a title bout without taking another fight in between. Either way, Dustin/Conor is pushed back if Justin somehow wins.

To be clear, Khabib would not need another fight to get a title shot. He would obviously get a chance at redemption, but the possibilities that the UFC would have in terms of promotion if Gaethje wins would be too much to pass up. There’s so many rematches and potential superfights that could happen if Justin wins, Dana might not be able to resist those opportunities. If Justin wins, I’m actually in favor of a UFC throwback. You want the belt? Take up the spirit of Khamzat and join the four man tournament for the title. Conor/Khabib, Dustin/Justin and the winners fight each other for the belt?