The future of the UFC's middleweight division seemed a bit hazy beyond the presumed next title fight -- a rematch between champion Israel Adesanya and the man he beat for that title, Robert Whittaker. But on Saturday, Jared Cannonier put himself at the top of the list to be the next man up.
The only problem with that designation is that Adesanya and Whittaker aren't likely to fight until the winter, at the earliest. Will Cannonier take another fight, or like some other fighters have in recent years, will he play it safe and wait for things to shake out?
Mark O. Madsen is now 10-0 in his pro MMA career and 3-0 in the UFC after a split-decision win over longtime UFC veteran Clay Guida. Despite the tight nature, does his Olympic wrestling background and spotless record merit raising Madsen to contender status in the lightweight division?
Looking ahead, Giga Chikadze takes on Edson Barboza in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night card at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Chikadze is 6-0 in the UFC, but he hasn't yet faced someone on Barboza's level. Is this the fight that Chikadze needed to make him a true featherweight contender? Or will Barboza be the one to disrupt Chikadze's momentum.
Our panel, which features Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi, is here to break down the biggest news of the day in the world of MMA to separate what's real from what's not.
Jared Cannonier will fight once more before getting title shot against Israel Adesanya
Raimondi: Cannonier looked very impressive Saturday night in beating Kelvin Gastelum by unanimous decision. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say it was among Cannonier's best career performances. We know the kind of power the MMA Lab product brings to the table. We've seen him put multiple opponents to sleep with his hands, and his high kicks are ultra-dangerous.
But what we saw from him in Las Vegas this weekend was different. Cannonier was measured, poised and calculated. He and coach John Crouch made all the necessary adjustments. Cannonier, at age 37, is better than he has ever been. Let's not forget that he wasn't a full-time fighter until he signed with the UFC in 2015. He was working for the Federal Aviation Administration before that.
Cannonier beating Gastelum was a shot in the arm for the middleweight division, because he represents a fresh challenger for the champion Adesanya, who has called out Cannonier before. Right now, a case can be made for Cannonier to get a title shot. He has won four of five and his only loss during that stretch came against former champ Robert Whittaker.
The problem is Whittaker is queued up for a title shot himself. He's the likely next challenger for Adesanya. That rematch -- Adesanya beat Whittaker to unify the UFC middleweight titles in October 2019 -- won't happen until December or January, at the earliest. And that likely means Cannonier will have to fight again unless he wants to wait until next spring or later for the opportunity.
If Cannonier's postfight interview with Daniel Cormier was any indication, it seems that he will fight again and not wait. He told Cormier that he was "broke" and would see about competing against the right name before a title shot. Cannonier has fought only four times in the past three years and has dealt with injuries, so it stands to reason he would want to stay active now. He's also closer to 40 than he is 30. Time is of the essence. I'm going to say "real" to this statement for those reasons.
Next month, Darren Till meets Derek Brunson in another pivotal middleweight contender matchup. Cannonier could very well take on the winner of that in a title eliminator, which would make a lot of sense. Maybe, if both fighters are healthy enough, they can even put that fight on the Adesanya vs. Whittaker card as a backup.
Cannonier will probably have to get in there again before taking a crack at the gold. And that's OK. After seeing how polished he looked against Gastelum, it might be hard to bet against Cannonier moving forward.
Is Edson Barboza the challenge that Giga Chikadze needs?
Legaspi: Even if this wasn't the fight Chikadze's team wanted, I'm going to say it's "real." From the beginning, it was the right fight to make for the Georgian striker.
Both of these fighters had outstanding wins in May, and they are ranked next to each other in the UFC's featherweight division -- Barboza at No. 9 and Chikadze at No. 10. Chikadze made a statement with a liver kick KO over veteran Cub Swanson, and he aimed high in his postfight callout, asking for Yair Rodriguez, who had a fight against former champion Max Holloway postponed. But Rodriguez knew that Holloway fight was going to be rescheduled, and as it represents the biggest non-title fight he could get, facing Chikadze was too risky and wouldn't carry much of a reward.
Chikadze-Barboza is great matchmaking. Both are phenomenal on their feet, and their styles make for a fight that should bring fireworks. It's unlikely this fight will last the full 25 minutes on Saturday.
Barboza owns a half-dozen spectacular knockouts and represents a step up in competition from Swanson. He's 6-0 in his career, but the combined UFC records for his six opponents thus far, not counting Swanson, is 7-11, and three of them faced Chikadze in their promotional debuts. Irwin Rivera and Jamey Simmons are bantamweights who took the fights at 145 pounds on short notice.
A win over Barboza would get Chikadze the credit he's after, and it would make his demand for a top-five opponent hard to say no to in the future. Truthfully, whoever wins this one will get a big name next.
Mark O. Madsen is a lightweight title contender
Wagenheim: This one is complicated to sort out. Madsen's just-scraping-by performance in Saturday night's split-decision win over a pushing-40 Clay Guida did not exactly scream, "Watch out, champ!" But there were extenuating circumstances.
Madsen was fighting for the first time since undergoing two surgeries for a broken jaw suffered in his most recent fight nearly a year and a half ago. Then he contracted COVID-19. Then his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It's reasonable to surmise that Madsen was not as fully prepared for this fight as he might have been in less troubling times.
Much has been made of the deep Olympic past of the 36-year-old from Denmark, but what's particularly relevant is the sport in which he competed at three Summer Games and earned a 2016 silver medal is Greco-Roman wrestling. That's perhaps the best base skill set of all martial arts specialties that can be brought into MMA. It sure worked for Randy Couture and Dan Henderson. And an athlete at Madsen's highest of high levels has a chance against anyone inside the Octagon.
But I still am going to conclude that proclaiming Madsen a title contender is "not real." Sure, he's undefeated in MMA. Sure, he has the skills and grit to elevate his game beyond what he showed on Saturday. But to enter the title mix at lightweight, Madsen would have to be capable of hanging with the likes of Charles Oliveira, Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler.
That's a high bar to clear, I know, but I just don't see Madsen making that leap.