The 5 Rounds of Okamoto – A UFC heavyweight heist, Khamzat Chimaev’s cap and the future of Jorge Masvidal
We’re in the midst of a very rare bye week in the UFC schedule — and in MMA, in general, actually — with no big fights to watch as we close out March and kick off April.
That said, there’s a lot to discuss and ponder in the sport, including the continued prospect of title hopefuls Khamzat Chimaev and making sense of Jorge Masvidal’s future after a chaotic few weeks. Here are five things on my radar as we sit a week away from the next major event, UFC 273.
1. Try to be patient at the heavyweights
It’s been more than two months since Francis Ngannou defended his UFC heavyweight title against Ciryl Gane in what Ngannou said was the last appearance under his UFC contract. His contract will expire at the end of this year, Ngannou said, and if he and the UFC have not reached a new agreement by then, he will explore options outside of the UFC.
My takeaway: Patience is important here. Things took a turn for the worse between Ngannou and the UFC earlier this year when efforts to reach a new deal continued to fail. Those negotiations are expected to resume at some point, and there won’t be any pressure to do something quickly, as Ngannou had knee surgery this month and can’t fight until 2023 anyway.
At the same time, it feels like this division is on hold. Ngannou’s future is uncertain, and in the meantime, where is Jon Jones? When is Stipe Miocic fighting again? Will there be an interim title as Ngannou recovers? Where do names like Curtis Blaydes, Tai Tuivasa, Tom Aspinall – all of whom have fought over the past month – stand? The UFC schedule is already filling up through July. When will we have clarity at heavyweight?
Ngannou has already started rehabilitation on his knee. I was told that the doctors made him work light movements the night of his operation. He’s back in Las Vegas for physical therapy. Ngannou plans to attend Tyson Fury’s boxing match against Dillian Whyte on April 23 in England. If he does, you know Ngannou will be asked about his interest in Fury boxing in 2023. Hopefully Ngannou and the UFC manage to sit down before that April 23 date to try and be on the same wave length. He’ll be out for a while, but let’s find out what lies ahead in the heavyweight division.
2. It’s almost time for Khamzat Chimaev
I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to Gilbert Burns here. I’m just pointing out that the intrigue around his fight against Chimaev on April 9 is because of Chimaev. The sport was waiting for this. We talked about whether Chimaev is the real deal. We’ve seen what he can do in the Octagon. We’ve heard stories about what he can do in the gym. We want to see him in a real test, which is what Burns, who challenged for the UFC welterweight belt just a year ago, clearly represents.
I was in Sweden a few weeks ago and watched Chimaev train in the gym – and he’s definitely unique. I saw him wrestle with Alexander Gustafsson, a three-time UFC light heavyweight title challenger who is now competing at heavyweight. Chimaev’s physique against an opponent of this size was impressive.
That was several weeks ago, and even then Chimaev was in phenomenal shape. It’s a good sign, because his struggle to gain 170 pounds for his fight against Li Jingliang in October was very real. So real that Chimaev’s team was rethinking how long he could realistically compete at welterweight. But those concerns have lessened in this camp because it has been so lean.
If Chimaev wins, and does so impressively, it will be interesting to see what happens next. The UFC is very committed to a fight between the champion, Kamaru Usman, and ESPN’s No. 4 ranked welterweight, Leon Edwards, which it hopes will happen in July. Chimaev won’t want to wait until the end of the year to fight again. My guess is — again, if Chimaev wins – it will more or less be understood that he has a welterweight title in the bank, and we would see him fight at middleweight in the meantime.
3. Kai Kara-France is a flyweight giveaway
I had no idea what the judges’ scorecards would look like at the end of last weekend’s fight between Kara-France and Askar Askarov. That deciding third round at UFC Fight Night in Columbus, Ohio was near. Before the scores were read, I thought that regardless of this result, Kara-France was going to fight for a title at some point. He proved he was at that top level of flyweight. Even if he lost the decision, I think Kara-France would still be fighting for a title in a year. And when the judges sided with him, it made a title shot virtually inevitable.
The UFC will likely go with Deiveson Figueiredo-Brandon Moreno 4 next. Personally, I would prefer Figueiredo vs Kara-France and Moreno vs Alexandre Pantoja – to give us a breather after another Figueiredo vs Moreno clash. For me this fourth fight is 100% inevitable so why does it have to happen right now? But that’s a personal preference. If it’s Figueiredo against Moreno 4 next and Kara-France faces the winner, that’s perfectly acceptable.
Kara-France has a real shot against either of these guys. What looked like a two-fighter race at flyweight earlier this year has turned into what I believe to be a three-fighter competition. Kara-France could absolutely be the flyweight champion by the end of the year.
4. Predicting Jorge Masvidal’s next fight
Recent attention around Masvidal has been on his alleged attack on Colby Covington on the streets of Miami Beach. His actions after losing in the Octagon to Covington on March 5 are clearly less than ideal. But if history tells us anything, incidents outside the cage don’t always derail an MMA career. So let’s talk about another angle of Masvidal – like what’s next in terms of the fight?
I used to think that if Masvidal ever reached a point where a title shot felt a long way off, he and Nate Diaz would want to see a rematch again. But now that we’re here, I don’t have that feeling. Diaz wanted an immediate rematch after losing to Masvidal by third-round TKO in 2019 and was unhappy with Masvidal that it didn’t happen. Diaz isn’t the kind of guy to say, “Oh, now do you want to fight me? Of course, if it fits into your schedule, let’s do it.” Looks like Diaz has moved on. He even posted on social media asking for a release from the UFC.
And yet, while it may feel like Masvidal is in no man’s land right now — facing criminal charges in Florida, going on a three-fight skid — I could see a scenario where he’s only a to fight away from a title shot, unbelievable as that sounds. If Masvidal were to pick up a win in his next fight and Edwards beat Usman for the welterweight championship, I could see a scenario where Edwards and Masvidal would meet next – because of their history, especially given the “three pieces with the soda” reference. A fight between Edwards and Masvidal is all but guaranteed at some point. And maybe it will happen with an in-game title.
In the meantime, I think Masvidal will face the winner of the April 16 fight between Vicente Luque and Belal Muhammad. Luque’s style, in particular, would match Masvidal perfectly and make for a very entertaining fight.
Darren Till explains how Khamzat Chimaev’s mentality played a role in his decision to train with him.
5. Darren Till vs. Uriah Hall?
Keep an eye out for Hall when he takes part in UFC Fight Night on April 16 in Las Vegas. Hall is the underdog against Andre Muniz. It won’t be an easy fight. But if Hall can win, that would set him up perfectly for a middleweight fight against Till. Even if Hall were to lose, a fight against Till could still be next.
Hall and Till went back and forth on social media, saying they wanted to face each other next. The timing is falling into place. Got to see the fight take place in the UK, after UFC President Dana White said he was considering returning there this year after the big success of the March 19 event in London.
A Hall-Till match seems obvious…but I think it works much better if Hall wins in Las Vegas. So let’s see what happens.