Honestly, who’s the number one contender in every UFC division?
Sure, middleweight Luke Rockhold definitively earned the next shot at Chris Weidman’s belt with a dominant victory over Lyoto Machida in April, but what about the other divisions? Is Carlos Condit really the next welterweight challenger, despite recent losses to other top contenders Johny Hendricks and Tyron Woodley? How about Donald Cerrone, the Cowboy? Is he truly the rightful opponent to face Rafael dos Anjos for the lightweight title? Or would that honor better suit a fighter like Khabib Nurmagomedov, who already owns a victory over the champion?
To all of these questions, there really are no correct answers because MMA, and prize fighting at large, is still a subjective sport, where judges decree verdicts and promoters assign matchups. Even the fans, who determine fighter popularity with their spending dollars, have some say in potential matchmaking. Just look at light heavyweight Ryan Bader, an athlete on a four-fight win streak, who was passed over for a crack at Daniel Cormier’s belt, in favor of the significantly more sellable Alexander Gustafsson. So when strawweights Jessica Aguilar and Claudia Gadelha convene inside the Octagon at UFC 190, it will be the first time, in a very long time, that the UFC has the opportunity to determine a legitimate, undisputed, number-one contender, who, in this case, will earn the right face Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
Perhaps not since April 2014, when UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum took a unanimous decision victory over Travis Browne for a crack at Cain Velasquez’s belt, has the UFC promoted a definitive number-one contender bout (maybe that Robbie Lawler vs. Matt Brown fight at UFC on FOX 12 also falls into this category). And while Saturday’s bout between Aguilar and Gadelha has not been officially announced as a title eliminator, the UFC has a prime opportunity to keep the strawweight division clean, and avoid the perils of the current welterweight log jam, where three fighters: Hendricks, Woodley, and Condit; are all hovering within arm’s length of champion Robbie Lawler, despite none distinguishing themselves as the best suitor.
Aguilar and Gadelha, unlike the aforementioned welterweight trio, or the host of heavyweights (Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Andrei Arlovski, and Stipe Miocic) vying for the next date with Werdum, are clearly the next two fighters in line at 115 pounds. Yes, it’s true, Aguilar is not ranked in the division; that’s only because she has yet to fight in the UFC. But her current 10-fight win streak, which includes a victory over inaugural strawweight champion Carla Esparza, is easily enough to propel Aguilar into the title talk.
For Gadelha, who trains out of Rio de Janeiro’s Nova Uniao, championship contention has always been part of the conversation. Initially selected to take part in The Ultimate Fighter 20 tournament, which culminated in the first strawweight coronation, Gadelha opted to fight her way into contendership. The whole plan seemed to be going according to plan, until Gadelha ran into current champ Jędrzejczyk last December, dropping a split decision, losing a chance to fight for the title in the process.
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, the UFC can always opt to go in a different direction. But does anyone else realistically have chance against Jędrzejczyk at the moment?
The whole world saw how “Joanna Champion” demolished Jessica Penne in her first title defense, and Esparza before that. Are we really prepared to believe that fifth-ranked Tecia Torres, who happens to be an American Top Team mate of Aguilar, is a viable option after barely beating unranked Angela Hill in a lay-and-pray snoozer down in Mexico? Joanne Calderwood might fair better given her Muay Thai skills, but she’s still a win or two away after getting armbarred in 90 seconds back in April. Which leaves us with Paige VanZant and Rose Namajunas, two of the division’s more (visually) marketable athletes, neither of whom is quite ready for Jędrzejczyk’s world-beating punching combinations.
Again, the strawweight conversation returns to Aguilar and Gadelha and Saturday’s title eliminator.
As the story goes, seven years ago, Aguilar told UFC President Dana White that she would one day hoist UFC gold. This was long before women were fighting inside the Octagon, so Aguilar was just shooting from the hip, while she went on to claim titles in lesser promotions. And nine years after her pro MMA debut, Aguilar finally finds herself destined for the UFC. So would it be too hard to fathom that a win over the division’s number two would propel Aguilar into a title fight? Absolutely not, and there would even be a decent backstory for her championship bout against Jędrzejczyk.
Gadelha’s road to a title shot is a little more cut and dry. After winning her UFC debut in July 2014, Gadelha returned for her sophomore effort, taking on the little known Jędrzejczyk. Gadelha looked solid in their bout, implementing her world-class jiu jitsu skills to slow the action against the cage. But late in the first round, Jędrzejczyk dropped her with a perfectly timed uppercut, and it was all downhill from there. Jędrzejczyk would take the split decision and go on to claim the belt. A rematch has been talked about ever since.
So while any fight promotion will have their reasons for promoting certain fights as official title eliminators, this is the perfect time for the UFC to bring back its number-one contender format. Additional stipulations could be made regarding the duration of these bouts, pushing them to five-round affairs, but that’s an argument for another day. For now, just remember UFC 158, when Hendricks beat Condit for the next shot at George St. Pierre, or UFC 131, when Junior dos Santos topped Shane Carwin for a crack at Cain Velasquez, and recall how these clear-cut title eliminators helped build interest and anticipation for what would come next.
Now let’s just hope the same rules will apply to Aguilar and Gadelha.
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