Monday Mailbag: Will Ilia Topuria be the next long-reigning champion? Plus, UFC 300 main event underwhelms

UFC 298 is in the books and we have a new featherweight champion! That’s right, Ilia Topuria became the man to finally unseat Alexander Volkanovski and he did it in spectacular fashion — a brutal knockout that seems very likely to take home Knockout of the Year honors. On top of that, UFC 300 finally has a main event as Dana White announced that Alex Pereira vs. Jamahal Hill will headline the biggest event of the year. So let’s talk about all that and the rest of the fallout from the first great event of 2024.

The Ilia Topuria Era

I lumped all of these together because they’re speaking to the same topic, just from slightly different angles.

Ilia Topuria just turned 27 years old and he’s the undisputed featherweight champion of the world. For comparison, Volkanovski won the title at 31, Max Holloway won it at 25, and Jose Aldo won the WEC belt (functionally the UFC featherweight title) at 23 (youngest champion in Zuffa history). Looking at this, you realize that Volk is actually an outlier in terms of putting together an extended title run as he started late. Topuria is right in the sweet spot as he won’t hit his athletic peak for another year or two, and his true prime should last for the next five to seven years. That’s a problem for everyone else at 145.

But that doesn’t mean we should just pencil Topuria in for nine title defenses and GOAT status. I’ve said it 100 times but defending a title over and over, for years on end, is by far the most difficult thing to do in MMA. It’s that speech from Avon Barksdale in The Wire:

“You’ve only got to f*** up once. Be a little slow, be a little late, just once. And how you ain’t never gonna be slow, never be late?”

You have to be perfect, every time out, for years on end, against the best possible opponents giving you their absolute best shot. Every. Single. Time. You get sick? You lose. You have an off night? Done. Break your hand on the first punch of the night? See ya. You can do everything perfectly and still, sometimes life just happens at you in there.

Not only that, but the task gets harder every time out. There’s more tape on you, your opponents know more about you, and if you truly hold the title for years, then your existence simply shifts the MMA metagame so that the new challengers have developed a style specifically to defeat you, and they’ve been working on it for years. An endeavor which already had zero margin for error now has even less. It’s an impossible task, and only the John Wick’s of the world can pull it off.

Now, is Topuria a John Wick 3.0? If I had to guess I would say no, strictly on principle, but at the same time, it’s tough to see who out there will take it from him right now. Then again, when Max won the belt, nobody saw Volkanovski coming, at least not yet. That may well be the case for Topuria. But of the crop of most likely challengers waiting, I like his chances against all of them.

A rematch with Volkanovski would go the same way, Yair Rodriguez has too many holes in his game, and Brian Ortega isn’t good, so they’re all out. The only two men right now who could have a shot are Holloway and Movsar Evloev, but I’m skeptical on both. Evloev is a great fighter but appears to be physically incapable of finishing any opponent, which means he has to go 25 minutes against Topuria, and good luck with that. To me, Holloway is the most difficult fight for the new champ as Max has one of the greatest chins in MMA history and the volume and boxing to work Topuria over. The issue is that Max is 32 going on 45 and he’s about to fight Justin Gaethje, a man who ends careers. At some point, even the Mark Hunts of the world have their chins cracked, and I just don’t think Max can keep this up forever.

So, long story short, I’m guessing four title defenses.

Featherweight, the division of kings

Here is the list of UFC featherweight champions: Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor, Max Holloway, Alexander Volkanovski, and now Ilia Topuria. That’s two top-15 all-time greats, one top-25 all-time great, and the biggest star in the history of the sport, with absolutely zero chaff in between. Featherweight will never be the best division in the sport (that will always be lightweight) or the most historically significant (light heavyweight and welterweight), or even the most fun (right now it’s bantamweight, but that changes), but thus far it has been the division of kings.

Maybe that changes with Topuria, but as mentioned above, he has a really good shot at carrying on that legacy.

UFC 300

The funniest thing that happened this past weekend was the UFC 300 announcement, which Dana White buried by dropping it immediately after 298 ended. That was not a coincidence. White knew that for as good of a fight as Pereira vs. Hill is, it falls well below the mind-blowing announcement he promised, and so he didn’t want to give it a full news cycle by putting it out on a Tuesday. It was legitimately smart promotion because at the end of the day, UFC 300 is an insane card and once people get over the build-up to the main event, no one will care that it’s not the big one we all wanted.

And no, they couldn’t do any better. We know this because Hill came out and said this only came together on Friday. White and UFC were in full scramble drill to find something, anything other than Leon Edwards vs. Belal Muhammad. This was pretty clearly not their first choice, nor even their fifth choice. It was the one they could make happen and felt the best about. A good promotion would have — and should have — done better, but for the last few years UFC has completely cratered any long-term planning in service of solving the immediate problem. But, oh well.

The issue with UFC 300

There is one major issue with the UFC 300 main event though, and that it came on the heels of UFC announcing that 301 is going to Brazil. That’s right, the sport’s leading promotion is heading to Rio de Janeiro just three weeks after UFC 300, and instead of bringing one of its two Brazilian champions to headline the card, they put Alex Pereira on 300 in Las Vegas. Truly an astonishing level of fail.

To go back to the previous answer, this all boils down to UFC’s inability to plan even a little bit. Pereira in Brazil with Alexandre Pantoja in the co-main event is the most obvious home run you could ask for. A literal third grader could have figured that out. But instead, because the UFC did not plan ahead of 300, that all gets burned to the ground, the same way that half the Australian fighters on the roster were booked to fight a month before the promotion went to Australia (and Dricus du Plessis was scheduled too soon to turn around and fight Israel Adesanya despite being the obvious challenger).

There is no reason that Sean O’Malley vs. Chito Vera shouldn’t headline 300. Or (Mike) Heck, Gaethje vs. Holloway is a fine main event, if it was just announced as that originally. Instead, we get this and Brazil gets screwed. I’m sorry for y’all.

Best guess is they give Brazil Tom Aspinall vs. Jailton Almeida as the main event, if Almeida can beat Curtis Blaydes. But still, this is dumb.

Robert Whittaker vs. Paulo Costa

I will not go long on this but several people got in my mentions to be quite upset that I called them stupid for scoring Round 1 for Whittaker. I regret nothing. If you scored that first round for Whittaker, you are a dummy. This is not hard.

MMA scoring criteria prioritizes Effective Striking and states unequivocally that IMMEDIATE impact weighs more heavily than cumulative impact. Robert Whittaker was winning Round 1. Then he got kicked in the head and stumbled around like a drunken frat boy. Costa wins the round. If Costa had landed literal zero strikes before that, he still wins the round on criteria. But he didn’t, he landed plenty and it was a competitive — if clear — Whittaker round, until it wasn’t.

If you need more help on this, check out this wonderful series to learn how to be smarter about judging.

Merab Dvalishvili

This is the only correct take coming out of Saturday. Merab is the best bantamweight on Earth and deserves his day in court. Sadly, if Sean O’Malley beats Chito Vera, I’m not sure he gets it. I wouldn’t want to fight Merab if I was O’Malley, either.

Henry Cejudo

Sadly, the thing I’ll probably remember the most about Henry Cejudo is the oddness of his retirement and the pivot to “King of Cringe.”

Cejudo is/was an exceptional fighter. He was not the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time but his career has been unique and magnificent and better than 99.99 percent of fighters across any discipline. Unfortunately, his MMA achievements have not aged particularly well.

He should not have beaten Demetrious Johnson in the rematch, T.J. Dillashaw should never have fought at 125 pounds, Marlon Moraes went on a losing streak to rival Bigfoot Silva, and Dominick Cruz was ancient when they fought. All of his biggest wins look pretty hazy in hindsight, and even a few of them didn’t look great at the time. So instead we’re left with the thing that has been the most notable about him for the past several years, and that’s his attempt to become marketable with a bad gimmick and his ill-conceived retirement and subsequent return.

Cejudo made a severe miscalculation by retiring as a leverage play for more money. It cost him the prime of his career. Then he came back, which was somehow an even bigger misstep because now instead of retiring as a champ-champ, he will leave the sport with at least a few more losses.

If Francis Ngannou fumbled the bag, Henry Cejudo punted the whole thing to the moon.

Ian Machado Garry

Garry took home split decision win over Geoff Neal in by far the least entertaining main card fight that Garry nonetheless tried to sell as some masterclass in fight I.Q. and execution. My man, it was a split decision. I scored the bout for you, but you were one bad judge away from losing the undefeated record. Perhaps don’t try to convince us this was a brilliant accomplishment. It was a fine win, but it was deeply unmemorable, and for as self-aware as Garry can be, his inability to accept that this was a dud was annoying. Particularly when, as Jordan points out, Shavkat Rakhmonov had a Fight of the Year contender with Neal and then a Submission of the Year contender to end it. You’re compared to your peers, and you just got a C.

As for what comes next, Colby Covington seems to be correct. Covington will probably accept the fight as it’s winnable for him and he would actually be the babyface. It will be a truly heinous build-up, I’m sure, but alas, that’s the world we live in.

Mark Zuckerberg

Except the people Mark Zuckerberg supports lose, while Taylor Swift and the Kansas City Chiefs just won the Super Bowl.

Wanderlei Silva

And last but certainly not least, during UFC 298, Wanderlei Silva was announced as the latest addition to the UFC’s Hall of Fame. If you haven’t listened to the DAMN! They Were Good we did on “The Ax Murderer,” I encourage you to give it a listen, but in the simplest terms possible, this is an unimpeachable induction. Did Wanderlei have the best UFC career? No. But he’s an all-timer of an MMA fighter and one of the few fighters who truly ascended to living legend status. Well deserved.

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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