Will Valentina Shevchenko fight Amanda Nunes in 2021? Will Deiveson Figueiredo breathe new life into the flyweight division? Can Joaquin Buckley sustain the momentum he created with his viral knockout?
These are some of the questions surrounding UFC 255 on Saturday in Las Vegas, where Shevchenko defends her flyweight belt against Jennifer Maia and Figueiredo defends his against Alex Perez.
Shevchenko is a massive favorite, and if she does win, talk will immediately surface about a trilogy bout against Nunes, who won their first two meetings.
Figueiredo is making his first title defense in a weight class that seemed destined for extinction not long ago. Will the charismatic champ validate the division headlining a pay-per-view event?
ESPN reporters Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down the top storylines while identifying what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: Shevchenko will face Nunes in 2021.
Helwani: I know the fans are eager for this fight to happen again, and I would love to see it, too, but I don’t think Nunes, Shevchenko or even the UFC brass are in a particular rush to book it any time soon. And so, with that in mind, I’ll say not real.
A positive byproduct of Shevchenko’s extended layoff due to a leg injury this year is that it has allowed for more potential contenders to emerge at 125. Jessica Andrade, Cynthia Calvillo and Lauren Murphy are now in the mix, and that wasn’t the case earlier this year. So, I don’t foresee Shevchenko moving up any time soon because I think she wants to be a dominant 125-pound champ. Furthermore, it appears likely that if Shevchenko beats Maia this weekend, Andrade is next anyway, which is a solid fight.
As for Nunes, her recent withdrawal from UFC 256 will allow for similar movement at 135, even though I still don’t think 145 has a bright future in the UFC, which is where her next fight against Megan Anderson will take place. All to say, if Nunes beats Anderson in 2021, I suspect there will be another challenger waiting for her at 135 by the time she’s ready to fight again.
Make no mistake, the most competitive fight out there for both women is against each other. However, I don’t think that means they’ll have fought for a third time or will be getting ready to fight again by this time next year.
Real or not: Deiveson Figueiredo is about to redefine the flyweight division with a long reign filled with action fights.
Okamoto: Yes and no. Allow me to modify the line, ever so slightly. Deiveson Figueiredo will be part of redefining the flyweight division, which will be filled with competitive, action fights for years to come.
At this moment in time, I can’t predict Figueiredo will be a dominant champion. He looks like it, especially coming off back-to-back finishes of Joseph Benavidez, but I’m not willing to call this guy the next Demetrious Johnson of the division. Not yet.
What I will say is this division will enter a new chapter, perhaps not defined by one dominant champion as it has been to this point, but characterized by fun fights that fans will pay attention to.
I think Alex Perez is underrated, and will deliver a fun fight this weekend. I think Cody Garbrandt dropping to 125 is interesting. Brandon Moreno and Brandon Royval, those guys are a ton of fun. Figueiredo is going to play a major part in the reconfiguration of this division, but so are these other guys.
Real or not: Joaquin Buckley will prove he’s not just a one-kick wonder.
Wagenheim: What’s so bad about being a one-kick wonder? It’s a hell of a lot better than being a no-kick wannabe. Buckley’s leaping, spinning knockout of Impa Kasanganay last month shined a spotlight on the 26-year-old from St. Louis, distinguishing him among the masses of anonymous prelim fighters. But let’s not forget that Buckley is just 1-1 in the UFC, and even after delivering what is a shoo-in for knockout of the year, has yet to break into a main card. He has opened our eyes, though, which for a prizefighter is an essential leap toward success.
What will Buckley do for an encore? Don’t hold your breath in anticipation of the spectacular. Those awe-inspiring moments just happen within the flow of an athletic contest, not when you’re chasing them. The next step for Buckley is a straightforward one: He has to keep alive the most compelling momentum a young fighter can have — the look of a winner. His opponent on Saturday, Jordan Wright, is undefeated, and even on the prelims that represents a shiny target. Buckley need not go all Khaos Williams on us and try to outdo himself with flash layered upon flash. Simply handing Wright his first career loss — however he accomplishes it — would nudge Buckley forward and keep his career on an upward trajectory.
Buckley has been a pro for six years, so he understands the necessity of patience in a slow build. He also has seen the fruits that can be reaped from trusting himself and just going for it. That mix of poise and self-belief puts Buckley in position to blossom. The challenge for this fighter best known for a leaping KO: Staying grounded.
Real or not: Fabricio Werdum’s signing is the shot in the arm the PFL needs after a dormant 2020.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum explains why he’s signing with PFL for the 2021 season.
Raimondi: It’s huge. And not a moment too soon. All the headlines about PFL lately have been about what the promotion has not done — namely, run a single event in 2020. PFL fighters are getting restless. Featherweight champion Lance Palmer has been publicly at odds with the promotion because he wants to fight. An attorney for Palmer and Kayla Harrison is threatening a lawsuit against the PFL for breach of contract, asking for the fighters’ releases and back wages. Harrison is being allowed to fight this week for Invicta FC. Things have been messy.
Werdum doesn’t erase any of that, but he’s the highest-profile signing in PFL history. Werdum is not just a former UFC heavyweight champion, he’s one of the greatest heavyweight fighters in MMA history. No hyperbole. Werdum is an absolute legend and he can still go. He’s coming off a UFC win over Alexander Gustafsson. This is a big acquisition.
Personally, I do empathize with the PFL. There is still a global pandemic going on, one that is actually getting worse rather than better. PFL is built on a yearlong, league-like season — not just one-off cards — which would have been hard to pull off without knowing ahead of time what kind of havoc COVID-19 would wreak. But it’s hard to keep your roster of fighters happy when they see the UFC running shows every week, Bellator running nearly as many, and even the likes of Invicta, LFA, Titan FC and CFFC holding events regularly. The athletes want to fight, and they want to get paid — not just some monthly stipend, either. Like, a real fight purse. The career of an MMA fighter is a fleeting one. Nobody wants to lose an entire year of what is relatively a short career as a pro athlete.
With all the negativity during a very complicated year, the Werdum signing is a much-needed boost. Signing him is a signal that PFL is still around and gearing up for what could still be a very memorable 2021.