On paper, it seemed like surging contender, Gilbert Burns would provide the sternest challenge to UFC welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman’s throne to date. With UFC 258 now firmly in the books — I think a lot of people would agree the Niteroi native provided just that, for as long as the fight took place.
Granted, he ultimately fell short against the Auchi native, but so have Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington before him. Covington may have pushed Usman to his very limits over the course of five rounds before he fell to a couple of heavy knockdowns, but I don’t believe many would disagree that Burns put Usman in as much trouble as we’ve ever seen.
A key or maybe route to success for the challenger on Saturday would see him push the pace and utilise a similar gameplan to the one that Usman so often leans on, and for the majority of the first round — he found massive success with it.
Whilst not credited with his early overhand right knockdown, Burns had Usman in what appeared at the time to be in serious vexation, and per the Brazilian himself — he went searching for the finish like Cody Garbrandt in the past, resulting in a switch from a disciplined tactical approach.
It was a real clubbing overhand right from Burns within the opening thirty seconds of the round, and it really seemed that each time he landed, clean or otherwise he was getting the attention of Usman. Composing himself and clearing the cobwebs, although ducking his head right on the centre line on occasion, Usman managed to settle, ahead of some masterful corner work from Trevor Wittman.
The changing tide in the second round was something quite spectacular. “You’re a world champion because of your jab” Wittman quipped to Usman as the rest period ended, in what ushered Usman to utilise just that in the second.
Usman’s jab was really something to behold in that frame. It’s arguably one of the most potent we’ve seen at this level in a long time. It’s not particularly range-finding or snappy, but when it found it’s target against Burns, it appeared to bring with it a lot of quite surprising damage and concern on impact. Executing a beautifully timed pull-counter to stun the Brazilian — Usman’s hands looked poised.
Dropping Burns as a result of another straight hand in the early goings of the third, Usman landed some punishing, accurate ground strikes, eventually stopping Burns after referee, Herb Dean afforded him adequate time to recover. A record-setting victory for Usman who leapfrogs former champion, Georges St-Pierre for the most consecutive victories at 170-pounds — notching his thirteenth on the trot.
Before Saturday’s title fight, flyweight prospect, Maycee Barber made her return to the Octagon following a debilitating ACL tear back at UFC 247 in January of last year — drawing the ever-sharp boxing talent, Alexa Grasso.
Retaining her #9 rank in the division despite her upset unanimous decision loss to veteran, Roxanne Modafferi — Barber welcomed the #15 ranked Guadalajara native, Grasso in her return to action.
Grasso, who plys her trade at Lobo Gym in her native Mexico has always been a poised, real slick puncher since her move to the UFC back in November of 2016. And now capable of retaining ten extra pounds at her new flyweight limit — she looks perfectly-sized for the weight class, appearing wholly dominant in the grappling and clinch exchanges to boot.
Despite a late rallying effort, Barber dropped her second straight unanimous decision loss, but to write off her future based on a second consecutive blemish would be ridiculous. Her hands look as heavy as ever, and I’d be largely surprised if many other flyweights on her level would weather a couple of storms that Grasso did when tasked with that downpour.
Below, join me as I play matchmaker for reigning champion, Usman, challenger, Burns, as well as flyweight striking talents, Barber and Grasso.
Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington/Leon Edwards Winner:
Whilst pen has yet to meet paper on this floated pairing of Colby Covington and Leon Edwards — both are in need of one more victory before drawing Usman in respective rematches, so I’m placing my eggs in a basket which features a matchup of the two title hopefuls before the summer.
Former interim champion, Covington is fresh from a September fifth-round stoppage win over former undisputed titleholder, Tyron Woodley, and while he’s returned to the win column — he’s in a similar boat to Edwards. The Birmingham native may have won eight on the trot, however, the most recent of those successes came against fomrer lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos all the way back in July of 2019.
dos Anjos is a big name there’s no doubt about it, and although he was coming off an arm-triangle victory over Kevin Lee at welterweight, I personally don’t believe you can call for a title shot off the back of that. Granted, if Edwards met with Woodley before the aforenoted Burns took a win over him in May, as was scheduled, a victory on that timeline leaves him undeniable.
Covington was continously linked with a high-stakes matchup against former American Top Team teammate, Jorge Masvidal — possibly with the two featuring as the coaches in the relaunch of The Ultimate Fighter. With Khamzat Chimaev’s lingering health issues stemming from his positive COVID-19 test last year, those plans have been shelved with Covington in talks to replace the Swede against Edwards instead.
Usman has of course already bested Covington as recently as UFC 245 in December of 2019, and at UFC Fight Night Orlando back in December of 2015 — he took home a unanimous decision win over Edwards, handing the Team Renagade BJJ & MMA mainstay his most recent professional loss. While the incumbent titleholder has called for a rematch against Masvidal, this time with a full-camp, that’s a fight I’m not particularly interested in at this time, given the fact Covington or Edwards lay in wait — with both coming off wins.
Gilbert Burns vs. Stephen Thompson:
Burns is sure to call for a quickfire Octagon return in hopes of earning another title opportunity before the end of the year, and while one could suggest pitting him against the loser of the targeted tie between Covington and Edwards — that could leave him sidelined for longer than hoped.
Former two-time title challenger, Stephen Thompson certainly isn’t the forgotten man at 170-pounds, however, given the fact brash contenders like Covington and Masvidal share the upper-echelon with him — he’s rarely involved in those type of matchups.
He’s won two straight since his surprising knockout loss to recent PFL signing, Anthony Pettis — taking dominant unanimous decision wins over Vicente Luque and Geoff Neal. The above mentioned Edwards has continously distanced himself from a bout with the Simpsonville striker, claiming fighting a contender ranked lowe than him does nothing for his title hopes — I’d tend to disagree. Any win for Edwards beyond July of 2019 would’ve most likely seen him feature in a welterweight title fight by now. The streaking contender’s interest in a matchup against the returning Nate Diaz would also prove to be quite the contraction, given the fact the Stockton native is unranked.
Thompson has noted his interest in a BMF vs. NMF rematch against Masvidal in his next outing — and while I wouldn’t be surprised if the promotion made the rematch between Usman and Masvidal, I’d be much more receptive of the former re-run before we see the latter. If Burns hopes to score an Octagon return in quick fashion, a summer pairing with Thompson offers an interesting prospect to traverse.
Jessica Eye vs. Alexa Grasso:
With two wins in two since her leap to the flyweight limit back in August of last year, Grasso is primed to crack the division’s official top-ten ranks. UFC president, Dana White noted at the press event following UFC 258 how the organization had viewed Grasso as a potential breakout star in her native Mexico, on the same trajectory as former bantamweight champion, Ronda Rousey.
Rushing the 27-year-old off the back of her judging win over a prospect like Barber would be quite foolish at this stage in time. She’ll likely occupy Barber’s #9 rank upon the release of the official rankings later this week, so I’m suggesting a pairing against former title challenger, Jessica Eye.
On paper, the matchup is quite logical. Grasso gets the opportunity to knock back a former title challenger, while for Eye, if she can dislodge the Mexican — it’s clear to see she’s still there or thereabouts at 125-pounds within the top-ten. Likely a striking affair over the course of a three-round bout — that’s also an appealing proposition.
Maycee Barber vs. Ariane Lipski:
I’m a big fan of this potential matchup. Two really intriguing prospects coming off high-profile defeats, but whoever emerges would likely land back in the top-fifteen. Granted, Barber still holds the #9 slot at 125-pounds, but Saturday’s loss to Grasso may spell an end to her time in the top-fifteen.
Former KSW flyweight champion, Lipski didn’t have the initial rise through the flyweight ranks as Barber, however, she finally got off to a winning run at the third time of trying — lodging a win over Isabela de Padua. Grabbing a highlight-reel submission win on ‘Fight Island’ last July, the Curitiba native took home a kneebar victory over compatriot, Luana Carolina.
Catapulted to a UFC 255 slot in November against Antonina Shevchenko, the elder sister of current flyweight champion, Valentina, the 27-year-old suffered an eventual second-round knockout loss due to ground strikes.
Barber may have dropped two consecutively, but as with Lipski, you can’t write either of them off as a result of their current form. I’d even be hesitant to call it a day on future success in the UFC for either if they manage to stand opposite each other in the future. Bags upon bags of potential for both, with experience coming with each Octagon outing.