UFC president Dana White has said -- repeatedly -- that Derrick Lewis will be the first challenger for heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou. White even implied the fight could possibly take place at UFC 265 on Aug. 7, but with July less than two weeks away and nothing finalized, is that timeframe realistic?
And if Ngannou vs. Lewis 2 doesn't happen at UFC 265, does that open the door for Jon Jones to get back in the picture?
Welterweight champ Kamaru Usman similarly doesn't have his next fight booked, and while White said Colby Covington will get the next shot, the longer that fight goes without getting signed, the more speculation there will be about Leon Edwards stepping in to replace Covington.
Edwards seemingly could have helped make his case for a title shot when he faced Nate Diaz on June 12. And although Edwards won, Diaz rallied late and had Edwards in trouble as the fight ended. Afterward, White tabbed Covington as the No. 1 challenger. So what would that mean for Edwards?
Beyond the walls of the UFC, Bellator has lined itself up for the fight everyone was hoping for at the start of the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix -- Patricio "Pitbull" Freire vs. AJ McKee. Considering each fighter's status with the promotion and within the MMA world as a whole, it seems to be lined up as the biggest fight Bellator is capable of producing right now. Is it? And what could it mean for Bellator moving forward?
Our panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim digs deeper to separate what's real from what's not among MMA's biggest headlines.
Ngannou vs. Lewis is in trouble
Okamoto: Very real. Now, it's worth noting this fight was never officially booked to begin with. So I don't know if you'd say it's in "trouble" since it was never agreed to anyway. But either way, the bottom line is this fight is anything but a sure thing.
The UFC has pursued it, and White even loosely attached a date to it -- UFC 265 on Aug. 7 -- but at this point, I think it's highly unlikely it will happen that soon. Ngannou just took an extended visit to his native Cameroon. He returned to the U.S. long enough to attend Israel Adesanya's fight on June 12 in Phoenix, and then left again, this time for Dubai. That doesn't sound like a champion who is planning on defending his title in less than seven weeks.
I just don't get the sense Ngannou is in a hurry to fight Lewis -- and I can't blame him. The fight Ngannou wants, by far, is Jon Jones. If there's a chance to make that fight happen, that's the path he wants to take. Obviously, the UFC and Jones haven't been able to come to a deal on that yet, but with Jones recently hiring a new advisor in Richard Schaefer (the former CEO of Golden Boy Promotions), I think Ngannou is willing to take a breather and see where those negotiations go.
And in a perfect world, those negotiations would turn out a Jones fight before the end of 2021.
Leon Edwards rates himself '7 out of 10' in win over Nate Diaz
Leon Edwards breaks down his performance after beating Nate Diaz via unanimous decision at UFC 263.
The next time Leon Edwards fights, it will be for a championship
Wagenheim: That could end up being the case, but there are so many variables that I'm going to play the percentages and say this statement is not real. Sure, Edwards could opt to wait until Usman's planned title defense against Covington takes place, then book a date with the winner. If it's Usman, it would be a rematch of Edwards' last loss, which happened 11 fights ago back in 2015. It would be a redemption opportunity well earned.
But many things could happen instead. Usman-Covington hasn't been signed, so there's not even a date for that fight yet. And Edwards' wait could grow longer if Covington, who was knocked out in the fifth round when he and Usman fought in 2019, turns the tables this time and takes away the title. Wouldn't that call for a rubber match? Edwards could be stuck in the waiting room for a while.
There's also the possibility that in the time between now and the next 170-pound title fight, someone else in the division steps under the spotlight. Maybe it'll be the winner of the July 10 bout between Stephen Thompson and Gilbert Burns. Both have a fighting style to catch the eye of White and perhaps draw the UFC president's attention away from Edwards.
And, of course, the 29-year-old Jamaica-born Englishman might decide he liked the bank deposit that came out of his win over never-more-popular Diaz a little over a week ago. If Edwards has developed a taste for money fights, there's one just a "three-piece and a soda" away. It's been over two years since Jorge Masvidal sucker-punched Edwards backstage in London to supercharge his own stardom, and maybe Edwards' idea of revenge is to have Masvidal's star power pay dividends for Edwards, too.
Pitbull vs. McKee is the best fight Bellator can put on right now
Raimondi: This has not been the best of times for Bellator. Any momentum Bellator might have had in early 2020 was completely dashed by a months-long hiatus caused by the pandemic, and there have been several network changes. Bellator has gone from Paramount Network, to CBS Sports and now to Showtime in a relatively short amount of time, which is never a good formula for consistent viewership. The promotion also seems to be in a weird middle ground where many of its top fighters are not huge draws, and prospects like Aaron Pico, who could be box-office hits in the future, are not quite at that level yet.
One of the things that the pandemic halted for Bellator was one of the promotion's most promising endeavors -- the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. Bellator is stacked at 145 pounds, and the tournament was going very well until it was stymied by COVID-19. But things are back on track now, and Bellator is getting the finals matchup it wanted from Day One: Patricio "Pitbull" Freire vs. AJ McKee.
Patricio "Pitbull" Freire and AJ McKee will meet at Bellator 263 on July 31 in Inglewood, CA, the promotion announced.— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) June 16, 2021
The bout serves as the final round of Bellator's Featherweight World Grand Prix, with the winner taking home the promotion's 145-pound title and $1 million 💰 pic.twitter.com/b9vxTi1h6J
The promotion announced that fight will happen on July 31. The grand prix title is on the line. "Pitbull" is putting up his Bellator featherweight title. And the winner will make $1 million. The stakes are incredibly high. And yes, the above statement is real. This is absolutely the best fight Bellator can book at this moment.
Freire is ESPN's No. 3-ranked featherweight in the world, and there is a case to be made that he is the best at 145 pounds. He's the greatest Bellator fighter of all time and owns a knockout win over Michael Chandler, who was inches away from becoming UFC lightweight champion last month before losing to Charles Oliveira in what was Chandler's second UFC fight.
Then there's McKee, who was ESPN's top MMA fighter under 25 years old in 2019. He's still undefeated, and last year he pulled off one of the craziest submissions you'll ever see, a neck crank finish from the bottom on former Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell. McKee is charismatic, creative in the cage, exciting and carries himself like a star. This is the classic established-champion-versus-future-star bout.
"Pitbull" doesn't want to pass that torch just yet, though. He's looking to further cement his legacy. McKee, meanwhile, will enhance his status if he finds a way to beat Freire and become champion.
"Pitbull" vs. McKee has everything you could want. There are stakes; there's a story. Both men are multi-dimensional in the cage and finishers. It's the perfect formula and, if promoted right and if its lives up to expectations, could be an incredible boon for Bellator as it tries to shake the pandemic doldrums.