NEWARK, N.J. -- Belal Muhammad doesn't have to tell people to "Remember the name," any longer. He's now the bona fide top contender for the UFC welterweight title after beating Gilbert Burns via unanimous decision in Saturday's co-main event at UFC 288.
While Colby Covington will get the next title shot against champion Leon Edwards, Muhammad will wait in the wings. Unless plans drastically change, Muhammad will get the winner of Edwards vs. Covington sometime in the future.
Welterweight continues to be one of the most fascinating divisions in the UFC. There are a lot of great fighters near the top of the division -- Edwards, Covington, former champion Kamaru Usman and now Muhammad. Adding to that, there is a ton of depth down the rankings and a few blue-chip up-and-comers just a couple of wins away from that rarefied challenger air.
As we head into summer, let's look at where the weight class stands, who the players are, which matchups are booked, and which fights are destined to come to fruition.
What's next for champion Edwards?
Leon Edwards wins via majority decision in his trilogy fight vs. Kamaru Usman in London at UFC 286.
Covington, for sure. Muhammad and Burns said last week that they hoped their performances Saturday would sway the UFC into making a change and slotting them into the next challenger spot. With all respect to an excellent performance by Muhammad, that was an extremely long shot before they even entered the Octagon. Covington is the contender the UFC believes draws the most eyes, and the promotion has been dead set on Edwards getting him next.
The original hope was that Edwards vs. Covington could happen in London at a second July pay-per-view. Edwards won't be ready by then, so that idea was scrapped and the UFC won't be going to England this summer. Now, the welterweight title fight could happen as soon as August, sources told ESPN. Boston is the front-runner for UFC 292 that month, and Chicago is in the mix, too, sources said.
The one caveat is the UFC likes the idea of having Aljamain Sterling defend his bantamweight title against Sean O'Malley in Boston that month. Sterling said Saturday night after beating Henry Cejudo that he'd prefer September. There is still some shuffling to do, for sure. But expect Edwards vs. Covington to go down sometime in the next four months.
Who is the most worthy title challenger to Edwards' throne?
The word "deserve" doesn't exist in MMA. It's great that Muhammad is finally getting the recognition from the UFC that he is owed. The man is unbeaten in 10 straight fights and has not lost since 2019, all while fighting some of the toughest foes in the division. But it took longer than it should have, mainly because the UFC thinks Covington is more bankable. The promotion may be right. But Muhammad has the best résumé in the division following his win over Burns.
Covington is a great fighter. He just hasn't been nearly as active. Since April 2019, the start of Muhammad's unbeaten streak, Covington has fought just five times. Two of those were title fight losses to Usman. What Covington has done is played the business game perfectly. He's taken only big fights or favorable matchups (or both) over the past several years. And he's able to do that, again, because the UFC views him as a star. As much as people don't like Covington, it's hard to say he hasn't finessed this expertly.
Another worthy title challenger is the man who just lost twice in a row to Edwards: Usman. But he's in no-man's-land right now. If Edwards beats Covington, there might not be a huge appetite for a fourth fight between Edwards and Usman. However, if Covington wins, Usman has beaten him twice. That rivalry could be revisited. But one would suspect Usman would need a victory first. Shavkat Rakhmonov, one of the top up-and-coming fighters in the division, wants Usman next, per sources. That would make a lot of sense and be a great fight.
Which fighter is set to emerge as a contender in 2023?
A year from now, we might be talking about Jack Della Maddalena being in the title conversation. He's 4-0 in the UFC with four finishes and has won Performance of the Night in his past three fights. Della Maddalena, 26, has a chance to be the UFC's next big Australian star. He's booked for a fight with fellow prospect Sean Brady at UFC 290 on July 8. The winner of that fight will enter the contender conversation, though there will be several names above them.
Della Maddalena also brings a different look to the welterweight hierarchy. He has beautiful boxing skills in a division that wrestlers have owned over the years. It'll be interesting to see how he matches up with the elite at 170 pounds, but first, he has to get by Brady. Kevin Holland might be able to vault into the conversation, too, especially since he's a fan favorite.
Another guy to keep an eye on is Phil Rowe. He has won three in a row, all via TKO. The UFC is giving him a big opportunity against perennial tough out Neil Magny on June 24 in Jacksonville, Florida. Florida is Rowe's home state, and that fight could be a major coming-out party for the 32-year-old slugger. Ian Garry and Michael Morales are also exciting, up-and-coming names, though they might be further away. Garry is getting a big step up in competition -- Daniel Rodriguez -- this coming Saturday. We'll know much more about him soon.
What does the next year look like at welterweight?
Shavkat Rakhmonov makes quick work of Carlston Harris with an impressive spinning wheel kick at UFC Fight Night.
Covington is next for Edwards, probably sometime in the late summer or early fall. Muhammad is waiting in the wings for the winner, likely very late this year or early 2024. The next group has names like Usman, Rakhmonov, Burns and Thompson. Depending on how those guys fare over the next several months will determine how close they are to a title shot next year.
The UFC booked a big fight between Vicente Luque and Rafael dos Anjos for July last week, and the winner could enter that tier. Ditto for the Della Maddalena vs. Brady winner. Holland should be getting a big fight before long -- the guy doesn't like to sit still. Geoff Neal is still out there too, and he has the power in his hands that could make for some exciting wins. Welterweight is one of the most fascinating divisions, especially after the dethroning of Usman. It feels wide open, with respect to Edwards, who could end up having a long, dominant reign.
Where does Burns go after losing to Muhammad at UFC 288?
Burns is an absolute warrior, but he might have worn his body down fighting so much early this year. He's 36 years old and has fought three times in less than five months, all against tough competition. Maybe turning around and fighting Muhammad at UFC 288 after beating Jorge Masvidal less than a month ago at UFC 287 wasn't the wisest decision. Burns was dealing with injuries going into the fight and hurt his left arm during the bout.
That said, it's hard not to respect a warrior like "Durinho." The guy is a gamer and takes on all comers. Hopefully, Burns will take some time off and return later this year or early next. He's still one of the best in the division, just now a win or two away from getting back into title contention.