Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Toughest Potential Opponents For Every Current UFC Champion

As we march towards the halfway point of 2022 and enter a week containing two title fights, now is a proper time to look at the toughest potential opponents for each of the current UFC champions.

Women’s Strawweight: Carla Esparza vs. Tatiana Suarez

tatiana suarez carla esparza ufc
Photo Credit: UFC Twitter (@UFC)

The status for Tatiana Suarez, both short term and long term, remain uncertain. The grappling standout has targeted a return to competition this summer, but there has yet to be any fight announcement made.

If Suarez has finally overcome her latest battery of health issues, she could be on the shortlist for a title fight in multiple divisions, including strawweight, where she holds an overwhelmingly dominant victory over champion Carla Esparza.

One need only re-watch how the 2018 fight between Esparza and Suarez played out to comprehend why she is my selection for Esparza’s toughest matchup. Additionally, Suarez has proven to be better at Esparza’s biggest strength: wrestling.

This presents a bleak outlook for the champion should she ever run it back with the undefeated and hitherto unstoppable Tatiana Suarez.

Women’s Flyweight: Valentina Shevchenko vs. Tatiana Suarez

Valentina Shevchenko, Tatiana Suarez

Shevchenko is one of the two UFC champions who will be defending her title this week when she faces the 19-1 Taila Santos. A case could be made that Santos is the toughest challenge Shevchenko could face among the names listed in the current flyweight rankings.

However, Tatiana Suarez’s plans of moving up to flyweight for her return prior to pursuing champ-champ status has me listing the American once again as the toughest potential matchup for a current UFC champion.

At this juncture, there is no female athlete in MMA who has appeared more determined, more disciplined, and more dominant than Valentina Shevchenko has during her flyweight stint. But thus far, no one has shown any ability to slow down Suarez’s smothering grappling and uncracking cardio.

Some may argue that Suarez has never been in the cage with anyone close to the likes of Shevchenko during her young MMA career, and that may be true. However, she does own a victory over a former UFC champion, Carla Esparza, that was about as lopsided and authoritative as it gets.

One thing we can learn from what Suarez was able to do to a credentialed wrestler in Carla Esparza is that Suarez appears to be levels above everyone at 115 in terms of wrestling ability. And I’m of the opinion that the same would hold true when moving up 10 pounds.

Could Shevchenko, arguably the best female fighter on the planet, stop her? You can bet that she’d be the favorite to do so. But from where I’m sitting, it would be the greatest possible challenge for her at the moment, regardless of the final outcome.

Women’s Bantamweight: Julianna Peña vs. Amana Nunes

Julianna Pena Amanda Nunes

If you ask Julianna Peña who the toughest potential challenge to her bantamweight throne would be, she’d probably just as soon say one of her TUF pupils than UFC 277 opponent Amanda Nunes. After all, she was oozing confidence long before she stunned the world last December, and she may very well turn in a jaw-dropping encore in their rematch.

But the fact remains that Nunes is easily the most credentialed, proven, and dangerous opponent at 135 pounds for any female on the planet, even if that female already owns a recent submission victory over her.

If anything, that makes Nunes an even bigger challenge for Peña than for others. Because it’s one thing to tame a lioness, but it’s an even greater feat to put the animal and its argument for jungle supremacy to sleep.

Women’s Featherweight: Amanda Nunes vs. The UFC

Let’s face it, the only challenge for Amanda Nunes that we can see is the UFC’s ability and/or willingness to actually create a legitimate division for her to defend against.

Flyweight: Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno

Brandon Moreno Deiveson Figueiredo
(via Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

In terms of future challenges and prospects, I’m not afraid to already utter the name of the 21-year-old Muhammad Mokaev. But while Mokaev still has a laundry list to go through to prove himself as a top contender, Moreno already has one win, one draw, and one close decision loss against the current champion.

Therefore, Moreno has shown that the biggest challenge for Figueiredo is a fact-driven no-brainer.

Bantamweight: Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo

Aljamain Sterling, Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo
Aljamain Sterling, Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo

In following with the logic of Tatiana Suarez’s listings, it’s difficult to argue against Cejudo being the toughest potential matchup for a current champion, even if he is inactive at the time being.

The bantamweight division has never been better, and Sterling isn’t short on a list of daunting challenges. T.J. Dillashaw and even Petr Yan, whom Sterling just narrowly defeated at UFC 273, could just as easily be considered the biggest challenge for Sterling.

However, Cejudo’s wrestling background is unmatched, therefore I don’t believe anyone will be tougher for Sterling to use his grappling skills and wide submission arsenal against.

Furthermore, Cejudo has proven to be arguably the best big-match performer in the lower divisions at the moment after being the first man to defeat Demetrious Johnson at flyweight and following that up with three consecutive TKO victories in championship matches, two of which coming over bantamweight GOAT contenders Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw.

Therefore, in terms of credentials and style, “Triple C” must be considered the toughest possible matchup for “The FunkMaster” at present.

Featherweight: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway

Max Holloway Alex Volkanovski
Max Holloway & Alex Volkanovski (Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa)

To beat Max Holloway at all is a career-defining achievement. To beat him twice in a row? That’s difficult enough for many, if not the consensus, to chalk it up as a bad loss for the judges more so than a big win for “The Great.” But three times?

Defeating Max Holloway for a third straight time when the former champion has emerged from back-to-back Fight of the Night awards as the victor and lustrous victor? Now what could possibly be a bigger challenge than that, not just at featherweight but arguably in the entire UFC?

Defeating UFC Vegas 56 co-main event winner Movsar Evloev is a close second for toughest challenges for Volkanovski. Evloev has all the makings of a future title challenger, and by the time he does challenge for the title, he’ll be much more prepared for the task at hand.

But three straight wins over Max Holloway is similar to going 3-0 over a 65-plus win team in the NBA Finals. No challenge at featherweight is harder than that.

Lightweight: Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev

Islam Makhachev, Charles Oliveira
Islam Makhachev, Charles Oliveira (Image Credits: Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC & Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Despite what many would have you believe with their talks of résumés and “top-5 opponents,” Islam Makhachev is, I dare say, clearly the biggest challenge for Charles Oliveira. First of all, when you win 10 straight fights, with over half of the wins being finishes, that isn’t by accident. Nor is it an accident that you don’t have a top-5 win during such a run.

The most logical explanation is that many fighters in the rankings have wanted no part of Makhachev because any working eye, whether lazy or astute, can see that Makhachev is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

Does that mean these professional fighters are “afraid” of what Makhachev would do them physically? Hardly. It just means people, regardless of the occupation, tend to not like the idea of losing…

While it’s true that Makhachev’s next-level grappling makes him a steep stylistic assignment for the lightweight submission GOAT Oliveira, Oliveira’s grappling along with his aggressive striking would make him the toughest challenge for Makhachev as well.

Let’s just hope this fight happens while both are in their primes with insane winning streaks to nip any potential Khabib/Ferguson vibes in the bud pronto.

Welterweight: Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev

Khamzat Chimaev Kamaru Usman
Khamzat Chimaev, Kamaru Usman (Image Credits: Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC & Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

I have a shameless confession to make: I probably would have named Khamzat Chimaev as Kamaru Usman’s biggest challenge back when he slept Gerald Meerschaert in 2020. His follow-up smeshing of Li Jingliang followed by a gritty win over top-5 opponent Gilbert Burns only further validated the initial eye test.

Chimaev remains undefeated, and after four fights of relentless domination, he showed that he could also dig deep and keep rolling when faced with adversity.

As it relates to Kamaru Usman, Chimaev’s flawless freestyle wrestling record and status as a three-time Swedish national champions poses similar obstacles that Colby Covington did. However, Chimaev has more power in his punch than Covington and arguably more confidence being that he is undefeated.

A third win over Covington for Usman is a massive challenge. But Usman’s path to beating Covington remains outpowering him on the feet for either a finish or more impactful moments throughout the course of the fight to win a decision.

Does the same hold true in a potential bout against Chimaev? It’s fun to speculate, but at this point, being the first man to beat “Borz” is the biggest challenge for the reigning champion.

Middleweight: Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira

Alex Pereira Israel Adesanya

This is taking nothing away from Jared Cannonier or even Robert Whittaker, whom Adesanya has defeated twice, but I’m going to have to go with the newbie as Adesanya’s biggest challenge. The reason for that should be fairly predictable: Pereira holds two kickboxing wins over Adesanya, including a KO.

Now yes, I get it, this is MMA, not kickboxing. I’ll also concede that Adesanya should and would be the betting favorite because of that rudimentary fact.

But when have we known Adesanya to adopt a grappling-heavy game plan? Would he even be willing and able to do that? Because odds are, a fight between Adesanya and Pereira would take place standing. And if that’s the case, I’m finding it difficult to see anyone who would be a tougher matchup for Adesanya than Pereira both stylistically and, most importantly, historically.

Light Heavyweight: Glover Teixeira vs. Magomed Anakalev

Glover Teixeira, Magomed Ankalaev

This was another tough one. Not unlike Valentina Shevcheno, who will also be defending her title this weekend, Teixeira has a tough task ahead of him. In his case, he’ll be taking on the freestyling wildman Jiří Procházka.

Many would very understandably consider Procházka to be the biggest threat to Teixeira and perhaps any light heavyweight in the world. But I think we all know that Teixeira has a clear path to victory over Procházka, whether or not he’s able to successfully exploit it, which is to outgrapple Procházka for the win.

In the case of Ankalaev, who is also a very strong grappler, that path to victory is completely in question. And on the feet, Ankalaev has also proven to be dangerous against any man, especially an opponent who is over 10 years older and who has taken substantially more damage throughout his career.

Also, strictly as a competitor, Ankalaev is literally one second away from being an undefeated fighter, so he has proven how difficult he is to defeat over time.

For these reasons, I do not believe Teixeira could face a more dangerous challenge than Magomed Ankalaev. However, should Teixeira get past Procházka and then rematch Blachowicz next, this may be one “challenge” that Teixeira never has to meet should the 42-year-old opt to retire instead.

Heavyweight: Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones

Francis Ngannou Jon Jones

As tempting as it is throw out a hot take and say Ciryl Gane despite Ngannou just having beating him, how can you not give this to Jon Jones? Yes, Jones will be in a new division, but the fact that no one has defeated him, let alone knocked him down, makes it hard to envision any man being able to run right through him, even this Predator who has often been called the scariest KO artist in UFC history.

And if Ngannou fails to knock Jones out, then unlike with Gane, it’s pretty difficult to imagine a grappling-heavy game plan being a plan B against a wrestler like Jones.

So when your path to victory is most likely KO or bust against Jon Jones, well, that right there sounds like a pretty darn big challenge.

The only challenge bigger? Based on past negotiations, that may very well be getting these two in the Octagon together at all.

What do you think? Who are the biggest challenges for the current UFC champions in YOUR opinion?

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