After two title fights stole the show in Dallas last weekend at UFC 277 to end the month of July, the promotion will turn the page, starting with a stacked schedule in August, which will feature two UFC Fight Nights before UFC 278 on Aug. 20.
With a busy month ahead, our writers examine the TUF Season 30 finals, interesting fights happening this month, and the upcoming top contender elimination fight between Petr Yan and Sean O’Malley. Plus, what does Nate Diaz do after his bout with Khamzat Chimaev?
After Usman-Edwards at UFC 278, which fight in August intrigues you most?
Wagenheim: Sorry to be Captain Obvious by pointing to the co-main event, but Jose Aldo vs. Merab Dvalishvili fascinates me as a meeting at the crossroads between a legendary former champion and a surging contender. Aldo has rejuvenated his career with a three-fight winning streak, but will he still be on top of his game at 36? Specifically, will his famously stingy takedown defense hold up against the relentless Dvalishvili, who has had 11-, 12- and 13-takedown nights in the UFC? If Aldo can keep the fight standing, Dvalishvili will be out of his element, with his seven-fight winning streak on the line.
Okamoto: I’m gonna go with Paulo Costa vs. Luke Rockhold at UFC 278. Marlon Vera vs. Dominick Cruz is a close, close second — and actually, I think that will be a more entertaining fight to watch, but Costa vs. Rockhold has my curiosity. Costa is a complete mystery at this point. He has all the physical tools to be a major player at this weight (or light heavyweight) for a long time, but where is his mindset at?
The whole situation last year with Marvin Vettori and missing weight was bizarre. Now, he’s dealing with inactivity. The date of this fight was pushed back. Rockhold wanted it a lot sooner than August. I don’t know what we’re going to get, and that’s frustrating because Costa can fight. And Rockhold, he sounds as fired up and as dedicated as he’s ever been. There are a lot of question marks around this one.
Raimondi: Aldo vs. Dvalishvili. Not only will the winner be one of the top contenders in the bantamweight division — the best weight class in the sport — but the stylistic matchup is beyond fascinating. Dvalishvili is one of the most relentless wrestlers in MMA history, a takedown machine. Aldo, meanwhile, has spent his legendary career avoiding takedowns masterfully and keeping things on the feet, where he is superior to just about everyone else. Something will have to give here, and it’s impossible to predict exactly how this will go. Aldo represents by far the toughest test of Dvalishvili’s career.
Who of the four TUF finalists has the highest ceiling?
Team Peña heavyweight fighter Zac Pauga explains his mindset heading into his semifinal matchup against teammate Jordan Heiderman.
Okamoto: Zac Pauga. This is a total homer pick by me, full disclosure. Pauga and I share an alma mater in Colorado State University. But, it’s also just the correct answer. The one thing working against Pauga is time. He’s already 34, which isn’t exactly a young age to break into the UFC. But, everything else is working for him. He’s an A-plus athlete. Any time you’re talking about a former NFL player, that’s reason enough to take a closer look. He’s at a great camp in Elevation Fight Team in Denver, working with another great heavyweight in Curtis Blaydes. I can’t think of a better situation for Pauga to develop into a legitimate contender. He’s also in a division that is always wide open. It doesn’t take that long to make a splash at heavyweight if you can string together a couple of good results.
Wagenheim: I’m not a TUF guy. I prefer the Contender Series as a gauge of where UFC hopefuls stand because they’re prepared for their tryout by their regular coaches, not by active fighters who use the reality show to pump up interest in their own clash. So, when I watched the Season 30 semifinals to answer this question, these were the first TUF fights for me in at least ten seasons. And, I didn’t exactly come away as the president of anybody’s fan club.
Mohammed Usman has the name value to get himself noticed, but that hasn’t been much of a boon for Antonina Shevchenko, the sister of UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. And honestly, I disagreed with the split decision that went Usman’s way in his semifinal fight against Eduardo Perez. I was most impressed by Usman’s finals opponent, Zac Pauga, who could make some noise if he drops back down to his usual division, light heavyweight.
Raimondi: How cool would it be to see The Usman Brothers in the UFC? The elder Usman, the pound-for-pound king in the sport, has regularly been in his younger brother’s corner for matches and could add an interesting dynamic to the sport. Usman, a former collegiate defensive end at Arizona with a wrestling background from his high school days in Texas, has the potential to grow in the sport. Plus, having mentors like UFC Hall of Famer Rashad Evans and the current welterweight champ helps.
Over/under: Nate Diaz will fight 1.5 more fights in his UFC career.
Wagenheim: I’ll go with the under. Diaz marches to the beat of his own drum, which is one of the many things that endear him to fans. He has long been a man who wants out of the UFC to cash in with a boxing match against a YouTuber or launch a cannabis brand or something. And the UFC sure seems ready (finally) to say goodbye to Diaz, booking him against one of the most daunting names on the roster.
If he derails the Khamzat Chimaev hype train on his way out the door, wouldn’t it be the most Diaz thing ever?
Raimondi: I’ll take the under. After his fight with Chimaev at UFC 279 on Sept. 10, Diaz will almost certainly walk. What he does next isn’t as certain.
Diaz will certainly have a boxing match with Jake Paul on the table, and hey, maybe now that Paul is not fighting Hasim Rahman Jr. on Saturday it increases the chances of Diaz vs. Paul even more. If Paul lost to Rahman, a potential bout with Diaz would have lost a bit of its luster. Now, the field is wide open, depending on what happens with Diaz against Chimaev.
Okamoto: Under. If he were to sign a new contract with the UFC, he would have done it over the last several months. There were a lot of negotiations, and I would say the UFC was aggressive in their pursuit to re-sign him. They had a plan for Diaz if he chose to stay around, and they presented him with it. Supposedly, they wanted to put together a package that would have benefited everyone, and at the end of the day, Diaz still chose to fight out his current deal.
Now, can both sides reconvene after September and come to a new deal? Of course, it’s possible. But I don’t see what would change between now and then to persuade Diaz to sign when he already had a chance. I think it’s pretty clear Diaz has other plans outside of the UFC for his immediate future.
The best prospect to fight in August is ________________.
Raimondi: Some people might have gotten off the Terrance McKinney bandwagon after he lost to Drew Dober in March. I am assuredly not one of those people. McKinney hurt Dober in that fight and nearly finished him. And Dober is damn good. Look at his finish of Rafael Alves at UFC 277 last Saturday night. The guy is a stud.
McKinney is 2-1 in the UFC with two first-round finishes, including a seven-second knockout over Matt Frevola. He’s still only 27 years old and getting better. One thing he has that cannot be taught is confidence. He went toe to toe with Dober, who has huge power in his hands, and he didn’t hesitate. Maybe that could get him in trouble at times, but it’s also something he can harness as he gains more experience.
Okamoto: Terrance McKinney. His loss to Dober doesn’t mean he isn’t a great prospect. Dober is tough as nails, and frankly, I was a little surprised the UFC made that fight in McKinney’s third appearance.
McKinney has physical tools that jump off the screen. He already doesn’t have many holes in his game, and he’s one of those guys I expect to see real improvements in every time he fights. With his physical gifts, size and mentality, I expect a lot of improvement from him in the next few years. Check back in three when he should be hitting his peak at 30 years old, and I think we’re going to have something here.
Wagenheim: Jamahal Hill, one-half of next Saturday’s main event, is in the top 10 of the UFC’s light heavyweight rankings, so maybe he’s elevated himself above “prospect” status. His booking at the top of the card supports the notion that the UFC views Hill as a contender. But, there’s a long road from No. 10 to the belt, so I’ll highlight the fact that he built his 10-1 record on the strength of first-round knockouts of fellow prospects Johnny Walker and Jimmy Crute as well as a KO of veteran Ovince Saint Preux. If Hill can handle former title challenger Thiago Santos, he’ll supercharge his ascent.
If Sean O’Malley beats Petr Yan, will he have done enough to earn a title shot?
Wagenheim: Absolutely and emphatically. And it’s about time. From the moment O’Malley burst on the scene in 2017, he has been under a shinier spotlight than his matchups have warranted. That’s largely a byproduct of his blustery mouth, his radiant hairdo, and his edge-of-the-seat fighting style. But, while O’Malley has talked a big game, he has yet to legitimize his high-octane hype with a high-level win. A victory over Yan, a former champion who’s the No. 1 contender in the UFC men’s bantamweight division, would be the “Suga Sean” eye opener we’ve all been waiting for.
Okamoto: Absolutely. Yan is as legit as they come at 135 pounds. He’s ranked only behind the champion, who some felt he beat in their rematch earlier this year. At the beginning of the year, I had Yan ranked inside the Top 5 pound-for-pound fighters in the world.
It’s a fast track for O’Malley. You can certainly make the argument that even if he does beat Yan, he was able to accelerate through the division much faster than most — because of the opportunity that’s been given to him. But, he earned that by making people care about his fights and delivering when needed. I’m personally not surprised the UFC put this fight together, and yes, I believe O’Malley’s next fight will be for a championship if he beats Yan.
Raimondi: The top of the bantamweight division is pretty darn crowded. TJ Dillashaw, the former champion, is next to challenge champion Aljamain Sterling. One would have to imagine if Aldo beats Dvalishvili, he’d be next in line. But honestly, the answer to this question is absolutely.
O’Malley already has a massive following among fans and if he were to beat Yan, that support should only go up tenfold. If O’Malley wins this fight at UFC 280 in October, the sky is the limit for him in terms of stardom. We wouldn’t be talking about Conor McGregor-level yet, but it would be the closest thing the UFC has had to that in years. So, surely O’Malley would have done enough just in terms of marketability alone to get the title shot with a Yan victory.