Seven championship bouts, with three of those fights for a belt occurring on the same night. Seven former champions trying to climb back toward the top. Old legends hanging on. New faces emerging.
Between now and the end of June, there are a lot of must-see moments on the MMA schedule. And you know how this sport is: More fight bookings are sure to come, filling out cards down the line. Maybe a YouTuber wants to jump in somebody’s cage?
Here is a very subjective look at the top 10 fights on tap in the second quarter of the year, with a few supplemental choices thrown in as well. Because we can’t get enough fighting, can we?
This month’s blockbuster UFC 261, with three title fights, gets just one slot on the list. It didn’t seem right to devote 30% of the top 10 to just one night, even a big, big night such as the one on which Kamaru Usman defends his welterweight title, Valentina Shevchenko her flyweight championship and Zhang Weili her strawweight belt. Both of the women’s title bouts feature a challenger who is a former champ. It’s going to be a showcase at the highest level. Suffice to say, clear your schedule on April 24.
Although the fights ranked here are all in the UFC and Bellator, this is a big time for other promotions as well. The PFL opens its 2021 season on April 23 on ESPN2, showing off one of its new additions, former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, as well as two-time-defending featherweight champion Lance Palmer. And the Asia-based promotion One Championship is in the midst of a run of weekly events that, while taking place in Singapore, are being televised on the company’s new TV partner, TNT, in prime time in the U.S.
On to the top 10, beginning with an obvious one:
1. Charles Oliveira vs. Michael Chandler
May 15 (UFC 262 at the Toyota Center in Houston)
At stake: Vacant UFC lightweight championship
Storyline: This weight class is kind of a misnomer. In everyday life, when you call someone a lightweight, it’s not a compliment. But in MMA, lightweight has long been one of the most magnificent divisions. That status was somewhat obscured by the chokehold Khabib Nurmagomedov had locked up for the past three years. But here comes Oliveira, who has won eight fights in a row, all but one of them by finish. And how about Chandler, the former two-time Bellator champion? He’s made just one UFC appearance, but what a debut it was, that big-splash TKO of Dan Hooker in January. Barring a draw or some other only-in-MMA spinout, one of these men will walk out of the cage with a shiny new belt signifying supremacy in what’s traditionally been one of the UFC’s most glamorous weight classes.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: It’s not every day that we get a title fight that is almost sure to crown a brand new champion, who then gets to try to outdo the Nurmagomedov reign.
Reason to tune in early: Tony Ferguson is on the undercard. “El Cucuy” has lost two in a row, which might dull his shimmer until you take note that the losses came against Oliveira and Justin Gaethje. His fight with Beneil Dariush should be as much of a defining moment as we’ll get for the enigmatic Ferguson. The card also has a couple of excellent matchups that will fly under the radar, one at featherweight (Shane Burgos vs. Edson Barboza) and the other at flyweight (Alex Perez vs. Matt Schnell). And then there’s a bout that definitely will make waves on the radar, but we’ll save the details on that one for below, because it deserves its own spotlight. Don’t be impatient, homie. (That’s a spoiler from the 209.)
2. Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas
April 24 (UFC 261 at UFC Apex in Las Vegas)
At stake: Zhang’s UFC strawweight championship
Storyline: What a night April 24 promises to be. This clash of champion vs. ex-champ is actually just one of two such matchups on the UFC 261 pay-per-view card, along with women’s flyweight titlist Valentina Shevchenko defending her belt against former strawweight champ Jessica Andrade. And neither of these title bouts is even the main event. That spot is occupied by Kamaru Usman, No. 2 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound men’s rankings, who defends his welterweight belt against Jorge Masvidal — again. Setting aside that this is an unwarranted title shot for Masvidal, who has not fought since being dominated by the champ last July, the matchup itself should produce heart-thumping moments in a night filled with them. So yeah, I’m looking at the big picture here, not just Zhang-Namajunas.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: When a champion defends her belt against someone who once wore that strap, that’s a matchup not to be missed. And we get two such fights on this night. Here’s where I reveal that I’m cheating a bit with this top 10. All three title fights deserve separate recognition, but rather than devote almost a third of this list to UFC 261 — what if you have an anniversary or wedding on April 24 and can’t watch? — I’m highlighting what I view as the fight of the night and putting it way high in this ranking, in part because of what will go down right before and right after.
Reason to tune in early (and stay tuned): Three title fights aren’t enough? OK, how about a chance to see Jimmy Crute, who last November was named the top fighter in MMA under age 25 by ESPN? The 12-1 Aussie light heavyweight, who has since turned 25, will be tested by former title challenger Anthony Smith.
3. Cory Sandhagen vs. TJ Dillashaw
May 8 (UFC Fight Night at UFC Apex in Las Vegas)
At stake: Maybe a UFC men’s bantamweight title shot? Maybe?
Storyline: Dillashaw has not fought since Jan. 19, 2019, which was a bad night all around for him. He got knocked out by Henry Cejudo in just 32 seconds, foiling Dillashaw’s quest to add the men’s flyweight title to the bantamweight belt he already owned. And things only got worse when drug tests revealed the presence of the banned substance erythropoietin (EPO). That resulted in Dillashaw being stripped of his 135-pound title and suspended for two years. Now he is back to try to piece back together a reputation in tatters, facing perhaps the hottest bantamweight out there. Both Dillashaw and Sandhagen have an opportunity to take a step forward.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: What’s not to like about the possible future of the division fighting the past of the division, both glorious and inglorious? Dillashaw is hoping a big performance might obscure his notoriety with talk of him being the future.
Reason to tune in early (or not to?): If it happened a few years ago, Donald Cerrone vs. Diego Sanchez would have been undeniable. But it didn’t happen back then in part because these guys were teammates at JacksonWink MMA. When Cerrone left that team in 2018, though, Sanchez took to social media with a vengeance, saying, “That’s not a teammate it’s just someone who is out only for themselves.” So here comes the grudge match. Better late than never? Maybe. Cerrone is 38 and winless in his last five fights, and Sanchez is 39 with losses in two of his last three. It’s good that neither is stepping in with a young fighter trying to build a name off a legend, but it’s anyone’s guess whether watching this matchup will evoke excitement or sadness.
4. Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum
April 17 (UFC Fight Night at UFC Apex in Las Vegas)
At stake: For Whittaker, a shot at regaining the UFC middleweight championship; for Gastelum, a building block toward making a case for a title shot.
Robert Whittaker explains what he learned watching Israel Adesanya’s loss to Jan Blachowicz.
Storyline: These two were scheduled to meet in February 2019, but on the morning of UFC 234 the fight was canceled after Whittaker was hospitalized with a hernia and collapsed bowel, requiring emergency surgery. Gastelum went on to fight Israel Adesanya for an interim title two months later, losing in a back-and-forth classic. Then, six months after that, Adesanya dethroned Whittaker. Now, finally, we get the original matchup, with both men — especially Whittaker — on the verge of a title shot.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: If title fights are the ultimate testing ground, the drive to get there — or get back there — is the next best thing.
Reason to tune in early: Alexander Romanov, the Moldovan heavyweight, is 13-0 with finishes in every fight — 10 of which have come in the first round. He faces 10-1 Spaniard Juan Espino, who has won eight in a row, with six of those wins coming by first-round finish. Go grab a coffee, judges.
5. Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno 2
June 12 (UFC 263 at a site to be determined)
At stake: UFC men’s flyweight championship, again
Storyline: They met Dec. 12, just 21 days after Figueiredo had made his first title defense — the fastest turnaround in UFC history for a champion. The promotion had seen three other title fights fall apart, so the champ, from Brazil, came to the rescue. So did his challenger, who also had competed 21 days earlier. Figueiredo and Moreno then proceeded to put on a show, punishing each other for five exhilarating rounds. A third-round point deduction for a Figueiredo low blow helped account for the majority draw, which kept alive each man’s unbeaten streak, with both now at six in a row.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: They produced magic once. Can they do it again? And will it feel as special the second time?
Reason to tune in early: Unbeaten light heavyweight Jamahal Hill, fresh off December’s TKO win over Ovince Saint Preux, takes on the tough Paul Craig, he of the fine Scottish brogue and the finer submission game.
6. Leon Edwards vs. Nate Diaz
May 15 (UFC 262 at the Toyota Center in Houston)
At stake: A shot at the UFC welterweight championship, maybe? An Edwards win would extend his unbeaten streak to 10 fights, which would qualify him, but you just never can be sure with UFC matchmakers. Diaz has lost two of his last three, but his star power could turn a victory here into a fast lane to a title fight opportunity. That’s just how things work in prizefighting.
Storyline: There isn’t really an Edwards-Diaz storyline. It’s more a matter of two seemingly parallel paths veering toward an unlikely crossroads. Edwards needs a high-profile victory to propel him toward the heights where he believes he belongs, and Diaz is the rocket fuel. Diaz has sat on the sideline since 2019 awaiting a fight he deems big enough to draw him back inside the cage, and Edwards apparently provides that. It looks like a tough matchup for Diaz, but he doesn’t roll over for anyone.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: Why does this second UFC 262 bout make the top 10 and not one of the other UFC 261 title bouts? Because Edwards-Diaz exemplifies the out-of-left-field matchmaking that makes MMA what it is. Plus, a Diaz fight is always “An Event.”
Reason to tune in early (and stay tuned): What, you need more enticement than this fight, the Oliveira-Chandler title bout and Ferguson-Dariush, Burgos-Barboza and Perez-Schnell? You’re in luck, because the rest of this undercard is packed with intrigue. Let’s see how middleweight prospect Edmen Shahbazyan responds to his first loss when he takes on Jack Hermansson, who is also looking for a bounce-back after losing two of his last three. And then there’s Katlyn Chookagian, No. 3 in the ESPN women’s flyweight rankings, facing Viviane Araujo.
7. Anthony “Rumble” Johnson vs. Yoel Romero
May 7 (Bellator 258 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut)
At stake: A spot in the semifinals of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix, in a title fight against the winner of Friday’s meeting between champion Vadim Nemkov and ex-champ Phil Davis.”
Storyline: Both are former UFC title challengers. Both are making their Bellator debuts. Both are power-packed. And yet who would have expected them to meet? Rumble has not competed since suffering a submission loss to Daniel Cormier four years ago. Romero is 43 years old but remains active and still ranked in the top five at middleweight by ESPN. But here they are, ready to step in a cage together.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: This matchup deserves a spot in this top 10 simply for the “wow!” that arose from the MMA world when Bellator announced it. That’s not to suggest this is the best fight out there right now, but it stirred up interest simply by appearing out of nowhere. It might have ended up higher on the list if Rumble had fought since 2017. We’ll find out fast what he has left.
Reason to stay tuned: Rumble vs. Romero is actually just the co-main event. Bantamweight champion Juan Archuleta headlines the card against Sergio Pettis, in the first defense of the title Archuleta won last September.
8. Rob Font vs. Cody Garbrandt
May 22 (UFC Fight Night at UFC Apex in Las Vegas)
At stake: A top-five ranking at men’s bantamweight, and possibly a title shot.
Storyline: No drama here, just a fiery fight. Font has operated outside the sparkly shine of the spotlight, but a win over Garbrandt would be his fourth in a row and the biggest of his career. Garbrandt has been a champion and has performed under the spotlight’s glare, for better and worse. He’s coming off an eyebrow-raising, one-punch KO of Raphael Assuncao last June, halting a three-fight skid. Can he keep the good times rolling?
Why this fight is ranked where it is: A fighter who has brought fans along for a roller-coaster ride through the highest of championship moments and the lowest of losing streaks is always a thrill to strap yourself in for a joyride.
Reason to tune in early: Yan Xiaonan is 13-1 with a no contest, unbeaten in her last 12 bouts, and she’s No. 5 in the ESPN strawweight rankings. Carla Esparza, the division’s first champion, is right above her at No. 4 and a winner of four straight. A future 115-pound title shot would appear to be in play for the winner.
9. Vadim Nemkov vs. Phil Davis
April 16 (Bellator 257 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut)
At stake: Nemkov’s Bellator light heavyweight championship and a spot in the semifinals of the Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
Storyline: Those stakes listed right above spell things out pretty thoroughly. Nemkov, countryman and protege of Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko, won the title in August with a TKO of Ryan Bader. And as a reward, he gets to try to hold onto his new belt while navigating his way through the turbulent waters of the Grand Prix. If Nemkov gets past Davis, whom he defeated by split decision in 2018, he’d then face the winner of Rumble-Romero (see above). And if Nemkov passes that test, his final tournament obstacle would be either Bader or the winner of another fight on Friday’s card, former UFC contender Corey Anderson vs. Turkmenistan fighter Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov. This division! It’s the one Bellator weight class that stacks up to the UFC’s, and Nemkov happens to be the unlikely guy who has to tame this group.
Why this fight is ranked where it is: It’s not as jazzy as what’s above on this top-10 list, not even the non-title fights, but this fight still deserves mention because here is a champion running the gauntlet.
Reason to tune in early: Anderson vs. Yagshimuradov is the card’s co-main event, and an underlying narrative is the question of how Anderson, who was at the top of his game in the UFC, will handle the change in scenery. Earlier in the card, former women’s featherweight champ Julia Budd will fight Dayana Silva.
10. Ciryl Gane vs. Alexander Volkov
June 26 (UFC Fight Night at a site to be determined)
At stake: A baby step toward the top of the UFC heavyweight pecking order, a space currently crowded with champion Francis Ngannou, would-be-challenger-who-clearly-does-not-want-a-title-shot-because-he-is-asking-to-get-paid Jon Jones and cheaper title fight option Derrick Lewis.
Storyline: Gane has been a pro since only 2018, but he’s 8-0 with a couple of victories against top-10 opponents. Can he handle Volkov, a former Bellator champ who has won his last two fights, both by knockout, and whose length and ability to utilize range make him tough to figure out?
Why this fight is ranked where it is: Heavyweights! You know I love to watch the big boys tangle.
Reason to tune in early: Raoni Barcelos is 16-1 and the winner of nine consecutive fights. His bantamweight opponent on the undercard is Timur Valiev, who has lost only one of his last 19 fights — and he avenged that defeat eight months later.