With the conclusion of Saturday's UFC Fight Night, the first half of the year is behind us. Starting with a surprise faceoff between the best heavyweights in the sport, Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Eddie Maisonet III and Andres Waters discuss the biggest moments we've seen so far in the UFC and look forward to the action that's already booked for the second half of the year.
Waters: We've reached the midpoint of the combat sports year. With seven UFC pay-per-views and 14 UFC Fight Nights already in the books, there's been plenty of action to follow.
We started the year by ending the longest in-Octagon rivalry in UFC history, as Brandon Moreno claimed the men's flyweight title over Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 283. Then, just three weeks later, we got a fight for pound-for-pound supremacy and the UFC lightweight title between Islam Makhachev and featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284. And most recently, we watched the women's MMA GOAT, Amanda Nunes, go out on top with a win over Irene Aldana at UFC 289.
With so much action, I'm sure you all have plenty to say about the fights and storylines we have already seen as well as the ones that will unfold in the year's second half. Let's start with one of the best outside-the-cage moments we've seen this month, an unexpected faceoff between UFC heavyweight champion Jon Jones and former UFC heavyweight champ, now PFL heavyweight Francis Ngannou ...
What's more likely: An actual Jones-Ngannou fight or Conor McGregor returning to the Octagon?
Okamoto: Well, I don't know about any of you, but I feel like there's not much to say about this one because one of these -- Jones-Ngannou -- is zero percent. I'm sad about that, but that is the world we live in. Ngannou left the UFC to sign with PFL, and I don't see him ever going back. Meanwhile, Jones signed a long-term deal with the UFC. So, if we were ever to see this fight, it would require a cross-promotion between UFC and PFL, and I think we all know that ain't ever going to happen. So, McGregor returning to the Octagon is more likely because it's at least possible. But I will say, I am on the short side of 50% right now on whether McGregor will ever fight again. In other words, I think there's a greater chance he's done than he's not done.
Raimondi: I have a hard time disagreeing with you about any of the above. Jones vs. Ngannou is pretty much dead. There's so little chance of it ever happening. Jones is already talking about retiring after he fights Stipe Miocic in a fight that will hopefully take place at Madison Square Garden this November. The UFC-Ngannou bridge seems all but burned. Never say never in this industry, because if it makes business, it makes sense, but Ngannou is 36 years old -- older than Jones, by the way! -- and probably will end his MMA career in PFL.
As for McGregor, this is a complex situation, to say the least. Is he in the USADA drug-testing pool? Who knows? On May 19, USADA sent a statement saying McGregor was expected back in "immediately." That was more than a month ago. I've emailed the USADA spokesperson nearly every week since then and have not gotten a single response. All of that could be moot anyway, because the UFC can just decide to waive the six-month required time in the pool. If you ask me whether he'll fight again, though, I think he will.
Maisonet: The bigger question is, who would you pick to win Ngannou-Jones and Chandler-McGregor?
Raimondi: I'm not sure that's a bigger question, because the former fight is a complete fantasy and I have doubts about the latter ever happening. By the time McGregor returns, maybe Nate Diaz has reentered the UFC and they go right to the trilogy.
Okamoto: Both are compelling matchups, which is why we're talking about them. End of the day, I'd have to favor Jones over Ngannou, basically because I feel he's the far more technically superior fighter. Still, Ngannou has the flash KO ability, which is why it is so, sooooo sad we'll never see it. For maybe the first time in Jones' entire career, he would have fought a better athlete, but it wasn't meant to be. And I'll take Michael Chandler over McGregor simply for activity over the past several years.
Waters: I'd take Jones, too. Simply put, he's more well-rounded. And Chandler because he still fights.
But sticking with the theme of fantasy fights we might never see, we've all seen the recent back-and-forth between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk regarding their interest in a potential match. Now that Dana White has come out and said the two have a legitimate interest in stepping into the Octagon to fight each other ...
Do we think White has any interest in making this fight happen, and should 'the Zuck' be the favorite thanks to his combat sports experience?
Raimondi: It seems ludicrous that we're even discussing this, but White went on TMZ on Thursday and said the two men want to scrap and the UFC wants to promote it. So much for the UFC not doing gimmick fights, right? That being said, the fight game is a business before it's a sport. There's no way around that. And from a business perspective, that's a fight many millions of people would buy. It won't happen, though. It seems like this is just a marketing opportunity for all involved.
Okamoto: But the bigger question is, who would win if Batman fought Superman? Superman is the favorite, but I think Batman finds a way to pull it off. What are we talking about? I literally have nothing to say about this.
Raimondi: Would Elon and Zuck have use of their respective gadgets in this fight? Let's make things interesting.
Waters: Battle of the Billionaires.
Waters: Moving on from fantasy fights, let's talk about the outlook for the women's divisions in the UFC now that Amanda Nunes has moved on ...
Who is the pound-for-pound queen in the sport right now?
Okamoto: For me, it's Valentina Shevchenko, and it's not even close. I get it. She lost her last fight. OK. She had won her past nine before that. Alexa Grasso, who beat her for the UFC flyweight championship, has three losses in the previous six years. If Shevchenko and Grasso were to fight 100 times and I had to bet my life, right now, on which of the two would win more, I'm taking Shevchenko all day. Maybe Grasso is better and the torch has been passed, but I don't think you can definitively say that yet. Shevchenko's body of work, her dominance -- I mean, I thought she beat Nunes the second time they fought back in 2017. Shevchenko is the P4P queen as of this moment, easy. I don't care that she finally looked human and lost in her last one.
Raimondi: I believe the crown is up for grabs. I agree with Brett in that Shevchenko has the best full résumé on paper. But if Nunes were taken out of our current ESPN pound-for-pound rankings, strawweight champ Zhang Weili would be No. 1. I think there's also an argument for her. If Grasso wins the Shevchenko rematch later this year, she has a case. There is serious parity here.
Maisonet: Does the PFL's Larissa Pacheco have a case?
Raimondi: Not really.
Waters: Outside of Shevchenko, Grasso and Zhang, is there a fighter on the outside of that conversation right now who could end up in the discussion of being the best by the end of the year?
Raimondi: I want to see how strawweight Tatiana Suarez does against Jessica Andrade at UFC 292. I've been saying it for years, but she's legitimately someone who could be a two-division champion, if she can stay healthy.
Maisonet: Erin Blanchfield feels like the strongest candidate by 2024. She probably needs one more flyweight fight for me to push all-in, but she reminds me the most of Zhang in her ability to dominate on the ground while being able to dictate the terms of engagement on her feet. I could see her being a "champ-champ" shortly.
Okamoto: Yeah, the conversation of female pound-for-pound has been mostly limited to Nunes and Shevchenko for years. Zhang has edged her way into the second tier. Beyond that, the names with the most upside right now are Suarez, Blanchfield and, obviously, Grasso.
Waters: Speaking of Grasso ...
Is she the biggest surprise of the newly crowned champs, and if not, who is?
Raimondi: I would say so, primarily because of who she beat. Shevchenko had never lost at flyweight. Grasso, meanwhile, had her ups and downs as a strawweight, a lighter division. Jamahal Hill was a surprise, too, but he became light heavyweight champ in a fight for a vacant title against 43-year-old Glover Teixeira, who, by all accounts, would be retiring afterward.
Okamoto: Yeah, Grasso, for sure. Not dismissing anything she had done leading up to that point, but the odds were skewed in Shevchenko's favor for a reason. It's been fun to see both Nunes and Shevchenko look vulnerable in recent years, but if we go back to the night of Shevchenko vs. Grasso, of course, the expectation was Shevchenko would win.
Waters: Sticking to the conversation about champions, with four title fights split between the following three UFC PPVs ...
Jamahal Hill defeats Glover Teixeira in front of the Brazil crowd to win the UFC light heavyweight title.
Which defending champion will most likely lose the belt before the end of the year?
Raimondi: I could see Hill and Grasso as underdogs as they go up against the former champions in their weight classes, Jiří Procházka and Shevchenko, respectively. I'm not exactly sure how those fights will shake out, since they aren't even booked yet. But those titleholders are probably in the most precarious positions. Leon Edwards won't have an easy time with Colby Covington, if that fight comes to fruition.
Maisonet: It feels like the UFC would love to see Sean O'Malley be champion...
Raimondi: They probably would, especially if a guy with an Irish name like O'Malley won in Boston. But I think Aljamain Sterling might have something to say about that.
Waters: What about Moreno vs. Alexandre Pantoja? Pantoja already has two wins over Moreno. What are the chances he could get a third?
Okamoto: Moreno vs. Pantoja is just a competitive fight. Pick whichever side you want, but I can't imagine anyone will be super confident in that pick either way.
As for the most vulnerable UFC champs right now, I agree with Marc. Hill and Grasso most likely have the toughest fights in the near future.
Raimondi: I don't think Pantoja has Moreno's number. I think those fights were before Moreno started to fully figure things out. Moreno has improved greatly since those two fights and has the big-fight experience now.
Waters: Opening the conversation to more than just the title fights ...
Which fight are you most looking forward to seeing in the second half of the year?
Raimondi: Excluding Zuck vs. Musk? That's the real BMF fight. Billionaire MFs.
Maisonet: Good grief.
Okamoto: Cory Sandhagen vs. Umar Nurmagomedov is sick, and Sandhagen is a beast for accepting that one. I'm excited, just in general, for the return of Tom Aspinall. I think heavyweight will finally get interesting now, with the emergence of some new names.
Raimondi: In all seriousness, I like the actual BMF title fight: Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje. Both guys are must-sees any time they step into the Octagon, and if they're fighting each other, look out. No chance there aren't fireworks in that one.
Maisonet: I'm looking forward to Sterling vs. O'Malley, not necessarily because I think the fight will be dramatic or dynamic -- I believe Sterling will control O'Malley for five rounds -- but I just want to see how the UFC responds to a champ who feels largely underappreciated and who has essentially cleaned out the division outside of his bestie -- who he will not fight. Hello, Merab Dvalishvili.
Waters: The ESPYS recently announced the "Best UFC Fighter" nominees: Edwards, Jones, Makhachev and Nunes ...
The Salt Lake City crowd and the announcers can't believe what they're seeing after Kamaru Usman is knocked out cold by Leon Edwards.
Who's your pick to win?
Okamoto: Edwards. That kick in the final round of a fight he was losing to the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world is one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history. It's one of the greatest kicks in UFC history and greatest upsets in UFC history (the odds of him winning that fight in the fifth round after the way it went to that point had to be about 100-1). He nailed the postfight speech. And then he went and beat Kamaru Usman again on home soil in England. The fighter of the year is Leon, no question.
Raimondi: It has to come down to Edwards and Makhachev, and a case could be made for both. Each had wins over opponents considered the best pound-for-pound in the world. I'd lean Edwards just because of the enormity of that knockout of Usman last August. If he won, Usman would have tied the record for the longest winning streak in UFC history. Then Edwards went out and had a comprehensive victory against him in March, showing it wasn't a fluke.
Waters: Makhachev. And it's a pretty easy choice for me. Only once, to my knowledge, have we seen a fight that is literally for the title of "best fighter on the planet." And in that fight, which turned out to be an instant classic, Makhachev got his hand raised in the end (even though I thought Volkanovski won). What Edwards did, dethroning the then-No. 1 P4P fighter (Usman), was impressive. But Makhachev beating the No. 1 P4P fighter in the sport to become, arguably, the new No. 1 tops that to me.
Maisonet: Can I go "Brewster's Millions" and pick none of the above? The correct answer is Alexander Volkanovski -- the man went up in weight against someone with more height, reach, strength and possibly better grappling and lost by a decision that many folks debated whether it was the right call. It was a loss for recording purposes, but Volk won over his fans and critics at UFC 284.