Monday Mailbag: Magomed Ankalaev’s big win, Jim Miller’s UFC 300 opponent, and UFC 297 storylines

Howdy, friends!

The first UFC event of the year is in the books! At UFC Vegas 84, Magomed Ankalaev obliterated Johnny Walker, Manel Kape obliterated his chances at a flyweight title shot, and Jim Miller continues to obliterate the UFC record book. Let’s talk about all of that, plus it’s on to UFC 297!

Magomed Ankalaev

Sidestepping the obvious Kadyrov bait (he’s not a good person but it’s also difficult to totally judge the fighters he supports because, you know, he’s can do terrible things to them if they don’t go along with it), let’s talk about Mr. Ankalaev.

For about three years, I’ve been convinced that Ankalaev is the best light heavyweight in the world. (Right after Dominick Reyes got robbed against Jon Jones and then sparked out by Jan Blachowicz, that’s when I was like, yeah, it’s probably Ank.) However, the fates and Ankalaev’s own failings have conspired to keep him away from the title. I think this year that might finally end.

The light heavyweight title picture is an abject disaster right now. Alex Pereira is the champion and deserves to be it, but does anyone really think he’s the best light heavyweight on Earth? “Poatan” walks in the light, but there are a half dozen fighters who would be betting favorites over him. Same for Jamahal Hill. Hill looked incredible against Glover Teixeira, no doubt about it. But Glover is also ancient and that performance was so far from Hill’s normal outings that it’s hard to know if he was just on one that night. Hill could easily be another Cody Garbrandt figure, and fall off a cliff from here on out.

In contrast, Ankalaev is steady. Outside of one literal last-second Hail Mary submission loss to Paul Craig, Ankalaev has never lost and he’s been quietly stacking up good wins over top-ranked fighters for years. If there’s anyone to bank on to bring stability to this weight class, it’s him. And with Pereira looking to fight soon, and Hill still sidelined with injury, it seems like he might get his chance. I expect Ankalaev to face Pereira in the main event of the rumored return to Brazil, and then he’ll go about putting together a real run of title defenses in one of the marquee divisions in the sport.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, Khamzat is too small to succeed against Ankalaev.

Manel Kape

I don’t know about foreshadowing, but whoa buddy did he fumble the ball this weekend.

On Thursday, news broke that Amir Albazi was out of his fight with Brandon Moreno and that Brandon Royval would be stepping in. That was a huge break for Kape, who now had the inside track for a title shot, since the winner of Brandon-on-Brandon violence wouldn’t make a ton of sense for Alexandre Pantoja’s next defense. All Kape needed to do was make weight, win the fight, and cut a promo. Then he would be fighting for the belt against Pantoja, probably in the co-main event of the UFC Brazil card. Instead, he’s screwed.

This is Kape’s second weight miss and his second miss by a lot. That does not instill the powers that be confidence in your ability to make championship weight, and thus disincline them to book you in title fights. Moreover, now who knows where he goes next. He’ll have to fight and may well need two more wins before he’s back in the title picture. And given how often Kape fights fall apart (be it his fault or otherwise), two fights might take him four years.

It was an egregious misstep by “Starboy” and he has to be kicking himself right now.

Jim Miller

In the immortal words of millennial candy commercials: There’s no wrong way to eat this Reese’s.

Jim Miller rocks. He’s 40 years old and still scrapping his ass off in a weight class where fighters age like bread. On top of that, he’s somehow become more exciting as he’s gotten older. Miller was never boring, but there was a big stretch of his “prime” career where he was a bit of a decision merchant. But the man is weapons-free the past few years and it’s been electric viewing. As such, there is almost no way to go wrong for UFC 300.

That being said, if I had my druthers, the Paul Felder callout is a good one and I’d love it, not only because it’s a great fight but because it would get Felder back in the cage, and he’s also an electric watch. But if Felder decides against it, Bobby Green would be my next choice. Just a scrap and a half. But even the Matt Brown fight is fine (though I’m less interested than many, I think). There’s just no wrong answer here as long as the opponent is a recognizable face.

As for the 50 fights, right now he’s got 43 UFC bouts under his belt. That’s more fights in the promotion than years alive, and I think there’s a pretty good chance he gets to 50. We know he’ll at least get to 44, but just look at his performance on Saturday. Did that look like a man close to hanging up the gloves? (Mike) Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if he got to 60 fights. Jim Miller is a badass and he’s on his way to setting an unbreakable record. Enjoy it while you can.

UFC 297

This Saturday, Sean Strickland defends his middleweight title against Dricus du Plessis in the main event of UFC 297. When the dust all settles, I think “DDP” will be the new champion, but either way, I’m certain that middleweight is about to get wacky.

Strickland upsetting Israel Adesanya set in motion the chaos factor for 185 pounds. This happens basically every time a long-reigning champion loses the title. (I know that Adesanya was not long-reigning at the time, but that’s splitting hairs.) Someone upsets the dominant champion, we wonder if he or she will now carry the mantle, instead that fighter loses pretty soon after and the belt swaps around for a bit until finally settling with the new champion. This is the circle of MMA titles, and middleweight is now about to experience it.

Has Sean Strickland leveled up and now he’s about to go on a title run? I guess it’s possible. That was an incredible performance against Adesanya. But I also saw him lose to Jared Cannonier 13 months ago.

Is Dricus du Plessis the next great middleweight champion, ready to physically dominant all who step in the cage with him now that he can breathe? Again, I guess it’s possible, but I saw him struggle aggressively with Darren Till just 13 months ago, and I’ve always thought Till was bad.

Both men who are fighting for the belt on Saturday have clear strengths, but they’ve also go blatant weaknesses and it seems like a stretch to assume that either has a long title reign in them. So instead of thinking about that, let’s just enjoy this for the chaotic mess that it is and sit back and revel in the show.

Juliana Peña

In case you were unaware, Raquel Pennington takes on Mayra Bueno Silva for the vacant women’s bantamweight title in the co-main event of UFC 297. Julianna Peña will face the winner later this year.

I assume Pennington. For one thing, Peña and Pennington have a long-standing beef that has never been settled. For another, Peña is no dummy, and Pennington is a much easier fight than “MBS.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big supporter of “Rocky.” She’s a classic overachiever and those fighters always deserve a ton of credit. Pennington has undeniably made the most out of her talent — it’s just that there isn’t a wealth of it to work with. That’s why she’s consistently fallen short against the upper, upper echelon of fighters when she’s faced them. I’m not saying Peña is in that tier, but Peña is clearly the more talented fighter of the two.

MBS, on the other hand, is not just talented but also dangerous. Two-thirds of Pennington’s career wins have come by decision. Two of Bueno Silva’s 10 have come by decision. These two women are not alike. MBS comes to finish fights, and that will always be more dangerous than a decision merchant. It’s the difference between running and passing in football. Sure, you can win with ball control, grinding out four yards a carry and controlling the clock, but it’s a (Mike) Heck of a lot easier to get a 75-yard touchdown bomb.

Still, I’d probably pick either woman to beat Peña, purely on principle.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets (Xs?)! Do you have any burning questions about things at least somewhat related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew, and I will answer my favorite ones! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane, just so long as they are good. Thanks again and see y’all next week.

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