Decide who will next challenge the UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman is perhaps the hottest topic in MMA, and they’re some of the biggest names in the sport.
Usman sent Gilbert Burns about the third round of TKO at UFC 258 on February 13th, and he immediately called out Jorge Masvidal as his closest opponent. At least from a financial point of view, it made sense.
Don’t close the book on a Usman-Masvidal rematch just yet 👀
– ESPN MMA (@espnmma) February 22, 2021
But who deserves the opportunity to take the title shot the most?
Masvidal has not won a fight since the win Nate Diaz on November 2, 2019. His only other fight since then was a unanimous loss to Usman last July, but he accepted that fight with six days notice. Masvidal has loudly said that a full training camp would make all the difference.
Covington gave Usman his toughest fight in the UFC. A judge had led Covington 3-1 into the fifth round on December 14, 2019, but Usman reached another level and stopped Covington. Covington bounced back in the fifth round with a hiatus from the former champion Tyron Woodley on September 19th.
Edwards has not fought since the beating Rafael dos Anjos on July 20, 2019, this was his eighth win in a row. His last loss was a unanimous decision for Usman in 2015. Edwards is set to fight Belal Muhammad on March 13, UFC President Dana White had spoken about a matchup between Edwards and Covington, but Covington was apparently not interested.
Wonderboy is the only contender who didn’t lose to Usman. He has won his last two fights but lost two in a row before.
Usman, for his part, has at least publicly cooled down to a Masvidal rematch. There seems to be real animosity with these two, and Usman may not like it when Masvidal benefits from the excuse that he only lost because of a shortened camp.
Usman also told MMA Junkie that Covington made a mistake by not taking up the fight against Edwards. Covington said he was in championship business and stated what he thought should be at stake in the next fight.
ESPN reporters Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim disagree on which approach to take and they are ready to clear their cases.
Wagenheim: I will first narrow the candidates down by one: give the title shot to everyone except Masvidal. I’m disqualifying him because he has a loss. Do not get me wrong; I love to see Jorge fight. I even love the way he carries himself ahead of his fights because I know he lives every word that comes out of his mouth. We have grainy YouTube evidence of this from his days of fighting in the backyards of South Florida. But championship fights require – or should require – more than a badass person.
I do not accuse Masvidal of accepting Usman’s reputation; I wouldn’t expect anything less from him or a fighter with championship aspirations. I don’t even blame Usman for doing the callout because he realizes Masvidal is a money fight. But someone has to be the adult in the room, and that’s up to the UFC matchmakers. If they want their championship belts to mean anything, they have to book legitimate title fights. This wouldn’t be one.
Raimondi: All of these points are recorded, Jeff. I understand where you are from. But to say that anyone but Masvidal should get the next title shot? I think that’s a step too far. In fact, I would argue that no one has really made an extremely convincing case lately. Edwards hasn’t fought in 19 months. Usman finished Covington. Thompson is only two fights away from defeat Anthony Pettis and a one-on-one losing streak. Michael Chiesa is still a win or two away. In those cases where there is no outstanding competitor, the UFC will do what the best business does. And this is Masvidal, whose only loss since 2017 was to Usman when he stepped in six days in advance last summer. In addition, Usman called Masvidal out. The reigning champion should have a say in who his next title defense will be against, don’t you think?
Wagenheim: No Marc, I don’t really think that Usman or any champion should have a voice in choosing a challenger. The person wearing the belt is the prey, not the hunter. I recognize that the most important syllable in the word “price war” is the first. Money fights are real and I am everything to them, but they should have a path parallel to the championship track, with only the occasional and random meeting at the intersection.
But again, I’m not criticizing Usman for wanting the biggest payday for his family. This is about the role of the UFC in overseeing their championships. I know that martial arts are different from other sports. But in any sport aimed at championships, winning has to be a factor. If the NFL had been run by UFC matchmakers, the Super Bowl earlier this month likely would have pitted the Buccaneers against the Chiefs, rather than the Patriots. Tom Brady versus Bill Bellichick – this is the money fight. Who cares that the Pats went 7-9 and didn’t qualify for the playoffs?
Raimondi: Here you and I have never seen eye to eye. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but comparing MMA to the NFL is not apples for apples. The UFC is a promotion – it’s not a league. UFC is active in the sale of pay-per-view events and broadcasting contracts. That’s just the nature of MMA. It has a very different structure than other sports. There is no season or playoff unless we are talking about PFL. Ultimately, the fans decide who will fight for the title and at major main events. It’s sure to be some kind of popularity contest. If Masvidal is a compelling fighter that more fans want to see, he’ll have one leg up in matchmaking. I am not saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing. But it is reality and we have to accept it for what it is.
Also, I wholeheartedly disagree with you that a champion shouldn’t have a say in who to fight next. UFC fighters are independent contractors who should definitely have a say in their career path. The UFC sponsors fighters; It shouldn’t boss fighters around like an authoritarian state. Booking a title fight is a business transaction between two fighters and the promotion. This shouldn’t be a fiefdom.
Wagenheim: “Accept it for what it is”? Never! You know me, Marc. I am all for independent contractors who can choose their career paths. And yes, I want all fighters to make a ton of money. However, this argument is really about the shiny belts that only 11 fighters from a UFC roster of several hundred athletes had around their waists. These straps are not meant to mean someone is selling the most pay-per-views or has a large following on social media. For this, the UFC has developed a “BMF” belt that Masvidal owns. Let him defend this one and call it a “championship fight”. But leave the battle for real championship to those who have earned their way into the cage.
Raimondi: I respect your consistency and your (perhaps naive) traditionalism when it comes to UFC titles and title recordings. In a perfect world, what you said would be the case. But capitalism says otherwise. So Jeff, because you think anyone other than Masvidal would be better suited to a title shoot, who would you choose? I hate the word “deserve” in MMA – who should say who deserves what? – but who do you think deserves to fight Usman for the belt next?
Wagenheim: If Covington had made it 50 seconds more on his 2019 Usman Challenge, he’d definitely be the guy. But instead of this fight being remembered as the close fight, the lingering image is Usman dropping him and taking him off. Not a selling point for a rematch. (See? I can Talk about martial arts capitalism.) So I agree with what you said above Marc: Nobody stepped forward and separated from the crowd of competitors. But if I were the matchmaker, I would still give Colby the title. He’s second in the division for a reason and bounced back with a win over an ex-champion. And I think a legitimate title fight rematch would generate more heat for the UFC than Usman-Masvidal 2.
But if the matchmakers had chosen to give the shot to either Edwards or Thompson instead, to book a championship bout with brand new cars, I would be fine. Actually, I prefer to watch weight differences roll forward with new matchups rather than get stuck in an endless spinning cycle from restore to restore. Yes, Usman and Edwards met in 2015, but Leon has played a massive role since then. Suffice it to say that there is currently no perfect matchup. Perhaps the UFC should book three fights at once: a Usman-Covington 2 main event with an Edwards-Thompson co-main, and the winners meet a few months later. Bam! The welterweight division 2021 has been determined.
Raimondi: That’s not bad at all. Actually pretty good matchmaking. I wouldn’t be against Usman against Covington 2. But what should have happened was Masvidal against Covington to fight Usman for the title for the winner. We wouldn’t even have this conversation if that went down. Unfortunately we lost this grudge game, and who knows if it will ever happen? Covington doesn’t seem to have an opponent in line for him as he doesn’t take the Edwards fight suggested afterwards Khamzat Chimaev fell out. I think it’s safe to say that the UFC doesn’t like doing business with Covington. He should have gotten a title shot against Woodley when Woodley was champion, and he always failed. Maybe the UFC is at a dead end with Covington here again.
One thing we forget with all of this is the prospect of Usman and Masvidal facing each other in The Ultimate Fighter. It’s the return of the UFC’s quintessential reality series, and there’s no doubt the promotion aims to make a splash with a rivalry matchup and big stars. That’s another reason Usman vs. Masvidal 2 makes sense. The UFC can bring these guys to a PPV main event with a lot of money – and on ESPN + weekly as a coach at TUF. It’s not quite a three-part soda. But that’s a pretty good combination.
Wagenheim: I think we can all agree that many missed opportunities have led us to where the welterweight division is now. Part of the blame lies in matchmaking restrictions during the COVID-19 era and part of dead ends in financial negotiations. But why has Masvidal been allowed to sit idly since July? Why was Edwards essentially booked as a gatekeeper for an aspiring prospect in Chimaev rather than fighting another title contender? Usman is a hot opponent right now and it would have been ideal to have a challenger to play a role.
The champion was quoted saying Covington made a mistake by not fighting Edwards and I understand where Usman is from. The winner of that race would have built a lot of momentum and added drag to the next 170 pound title fight. But did Colby really make a mistake? We will see. What if Covington still gets the title shot without risking his place in line? The UFC’s matchmaking in the title fight has no clear criteria, so fighters fight for their position rather than for them. It is as if TUF fighters make a name for themselves with antics in the house, not with appearances in the cage. In that regard, the sport itself sometimes tastes like a reality TV show.
Raimondi: Yes indeed. And do you know what that taste tastes like, Jeff? Money. The UFC is worth billions. Obviously the doctorate is doing something right. And Usman vs. Masvidal 2 would only add to that bottom line.