23 MMA thoughts, including why a Shevchenko-Nunes trilogy can wait

MMA

It’s Monday — time for another edition of Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, which airs live starting at 1 p.m. ET on Twitter and YouTube. After it ends, you can listen to the show via the ESPN podcast center.


If we’re being 100 percent honest with ourselves, this hasn’t been a banner year for UFC pay-per-views. We’ve had some good fights here and there but no real blockbuster card just yet.

That’s not entirely the UFC’s fault, by the way. Injuries and bad luck have certainly played a part, but it has been an unfortunate theme in 2019.

Enter UFC 241.

UFC 241 is by far my favorite pay-per-view card of the year, so far. I love the top three fights: Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic 2, Anthony Pettis vs. Nate Diaz and Yoel Romero vs. Paulo Costa. What’s not to love? Throw in prospects Cory Sandhagen, Sodiq Yusuff, Devonte Smith and Ian Heinisch, among others, and we’ve got ourselves a great Saturday night.

We’re just five days away, friends, but until then, here are some thoughts on the week that was in MMA:

1. I think Valentina Shevchenko has a great chance of breaking Demetrious Johnson‘s record of 11 straight title defenses. The gap between her and the rest of the division is quite big. You knew all this before her win over Liz Carmouche, right?

Now, is it fair to say that main event wasn’t entertaining? Sure. It wasn’t. But she did what she had to do to remain champ. I have no issues with her performance at all. I hate when people discuss scorecards in title fights and state you have to decisively beat the champ if you want to win the belt. Not true. You just have to win three of the five rounds, really. But it’s especially not true when talking about the actual champion’s performance. She is the queen. She doesn’t have to go out of her comfort zone to beat the challenger. That’s not on her. I know that mindset doesn’t sell tickets, and I don’t think Shevchenko actually employs that mindset (remember, she is coming off one of the best knockouts of the year just two months ago and her first three fights at 125 pounds going into this main event were all action-packed), so I think the criticism she received after Saturday night’s unanimous decision win over Carmouche is unwarranted. Carmouche didn’t do enough. At all. End of story. On to the next.

2. So who is next for Shevchenko? There isn’t an obvious choice. I’m worried that the UFC will be tempted to go with Amanda Nunes vs. Shevchenko 3 now that Cris Cyborg is gone. Of course, I’d love to see that fight, but I think if they wait a year or two it will be much bigger. Let Shevchenko defend her belt three to five more times before truly contemplating it. Katlyn Chookagian seems to be an option, but I don’t know how eager the brass will be to give her that shot after how the Carmouche fight went. They actually offered her this fight first, you know, but she is getting married in September, so the timing didn’t work out. Maybe Jennifer Maia? Andrea Lee? Maybe she waits a few months and lets Chookagian and Maia fight it out to see if someone can separate themselves from the pack?

3. Bellator women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane would be a fun matchup for Shevchenko, but we know that will never happen. Regardless of who she fights next, I’d love to see Shevchenko fight in her home country of Kyrgyzstan — or at the very least nearby — sooner rather than later. I know there has been some talk of her fighting in Kazakhstan. She’s a legit superstar in that region, and it would be a really cool scene.

4. Please tell me you thought of the late, great Andy Kaufman when Henry Cejudo “challenged” Shevchenko on Twitter Sunday night. If Kaufman’s crusade to become the intergender champion of the world some 40 years ago didn’t come to mind right away, stop what you’re doing and go find the clips right now. Gold. Nice job, Henry.

5. Before we continue our recap of Saturday’s action, a reminder that if you didn’t see our E:60 profile on Daniel Cormier, it re-airs Thursday and Saturday night on ESPNews. Thanks to everyone who sent in feedback on the piece. I’m very glad so many of you liked it and learned how special Cormier is. He is one of the most accessible and down-to-earth athletes I have ever met. I will admit it was difficult talking to him about his daughter Kaedyn, who tragically passed away at just 3 months old, but he honestly could not have been easier to work with on this story. He is amazingly open and forthright, even when discussing all the trials and tribulations he has had to overcome.

Truth be told, I didn’t think I could respect Cormier more than I did going into this project, but my respect for him definitely grew after spending a few days with him in his adopted hometown of Gilroy, California. I knew he cared about his high school wrestling team very much, but I didn’t realize it was that much. It was fascinating seeing him work with the kids and also spending time at his home with his family. These are sides of Cormier I had never seen before, and I enjoyed seeing him like that. And honestly, it’s unbelievable how much he cares about that wrestling team. A team he doesn’t get paid to coach, mind you. When we were there in late January, they were getting ready for a big tournament, and, if you didn’t know any better, you would think they were getting ready for a UFC heavyweight title fight. The amount of time, effort and passion he puts into the Gilroy High School Mustangs is remarkable and admirable. I hope those kids realize how lucky they are.

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3:06

UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier’s second job as a high school coach keeps him connected to his first love, wrestling.

6. I had high hopes for Vicente Luque vs. Mike Perry, and I think that fight actually exceeded my expectations. What an entertaining affair. In the end, I thought Perry won 29-28, but it was super close. No robbery there. Of course, just like the rest of the world, my nose hurt seeing how Perry’s nose looked afterwards. Did you notice right before they read the judges’ scorecards that he smiled when he realized his nose was mangled? One of a kind. Also, I definitely think all the blood pouring out of his head helped him get out of that submission at the end of the fight. What a sport.

7. According to his manager Abraham Kawa, Perry, who had surgery on his fractured nose early Sunday morning in Uruguay, must avoid contact to the face for at least six months. That was a serious break. I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see Perry back for close to a year. Kawa also told me Perry was in great spirits despite the surgery and not being able to fly home right away. He should be. Perry has officially reached Donald Cerrone status in that it doesn’t really affect his stock if he wins or loses anymore. Sure, it would be nice to go on a winning streak, but he has delivered enough and is such a character that the fans seem to love him regardless. That’s a good spot to be in.

8. I didn’t expect Luque, who has now won six in a row and 10 of 11, to call out Stephen Thompson afterwards, but I don’t hate it. He can use a high-profile fight next against a marquee name while the division sorts itself out. Santiago Ponzinibbio would do the trick, as well.

9. Speaking of welterweight, Jorge Masvidal was on fire all week doing media in Uruguay. I know he says he’s not budging on his stance of not fighting before he gets a title shot, but I feel like if you read between the lines he kinda is budging. Call me crazy. Kudos to his management team for getting the UFC to agree before the Ben Askren fight that his next fight after a win over Askren would be for the belt. So now he has a leg to stand on when he says pay me like I’m fighting for the title or let me wait and fight the winner of Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington. Those talks haven’t happened yet, by the way. And in case you’re wondering if Masvidal would have any issues fighting his former roommate and longtime friend and training partner Covington, they aren’t as close as people make it seem these days. No hurdles there, I’m told.

10. How about that Rodolfo Vieira? If you’re unfamiliar with him, he’s a five-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and a former ADCC gold medalist. In other words, he’s really good on the ground. In fact, one could argue he’s the best BJJ practitioner competing in MMA today. And wouldn’t ya know it, he scored a sweet arm-triangle choke in his debut Saturday night. He looks like a light heavyweight fighting at middleweight. See those muscles? Sheesh. Very intrigued to see him progress in the UFC. Also, his nickname, “The Black Belt Hunter,” is phenomenal.

11. And speaking of impressive debuts, Francis Ngannou protégé Ciryl Gané looked solid in his first UFC foray, as well. I definitely didn’t expect an arm-triangle out of him. The former TKO heavyweight champion is definitely a name to remember, as well.

12. Bruce Buffer will forever be synonymous with the UFC and is a living legend, but I very much enjoy when Joe Martinez works a UFC card. He’s a pro with a great delivery. I especially liked him on Saturday night because he mixed in the Spanish very nicely.

13. Good to see Volkan Oezdemir snap his three-fight losing streak (yes, I know the loss to Dominick Reyes was super controversial, but it’s still an L in the record books) and pick up his first knockout (and win) in two years. I thought it was interesting when he said — unprompted — in the post-fight interview that he may have been a bit green when he got that title shot against Daniel Cormier in just his fourth UFC fight. I wouldn’t mind seeing him fight Jan Błachowicz, as he suggested, but Jon Jones is running out of opponents for his desired return in December and Błachowicz could be that guy.

14. I must say, it ruined my summer buzz all week seeing people all bundled up in Uruguay. I know it’s winter there, but still, I didn’t enjoy seeing the jackets and hats. Roll on, Anaheim.

15. I’m glad Frankie Edgar has finally come to the realization that moving down to bantamweight isn’t a sign of a weakness or anything he should be ashamed of. I’m curious to see how he does against fighters his own size, and I just hope the move wasn’t done too late in his career.

16. Unless a last-minute, big deal is a struck, Max Holloway vs. Alex Volkanovski happening on Oct. 5 in Melbourne, Australia, is a long shot, I’m told. Just too soon after UFC 240.

17. While I was a little surprised she was booked so quickly after getting knocked out, it’s a nice touch seeing Holly Holm scheduled to fight Raquel Pennington on Oct. 5 in Melbourne. They are sending her back to the scene (and stadium) of her greatest triumph against Ronda Rousey in 2015.

18. I love what the California State Athletic Commission is doing with Aspen Ladd. In case you missed it, after the UFC booked Ladd to fight Yana Kunitskaya in December, CSAC executive officer Andy Foster confirmed with ESPN that they suspended her license to compete at 135 pending further documentation from physicians. I love this. If you recall, Ladd looked very ill when she weighed in last month as a bantamweight prior to her loss to Germaine de Randamie. It was a scary sight, seeing her trembling on the scale. A month later she’s booked again at the same weight? This doesn’t seem right. Credit to CSAC for raising the red flag, especially when the fight isn’t even scheduled to be in California (it’s scheduled for Washington D.C.). I’m curious to see how this plays out.

19. Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Massachusetts’ own Calvin Kattar in Boston on Oct. 18 is one to circle on the calendar. Nice test for Magomedsharipov and the high-profile fight Kattar has been looking for.

20. I know fans in the Bay Area were bummed when they found out that the Oct. 12 card was moved from San Francisco to Tampa. San Francisco was definitely penciled in but then the promotion ran into a hotel availability issue. With the new Chase Center opening soon, I’d be surprised if the UFC doesn’t go there at some point in the near future.

21. Pam Sorenson is the new Invicta FC featherweight champion. She’d be a nice addition to the UFC’s 145-pound weight class.

22. I’m excited to go back to Anaheim this week. Orange County is one of the all-time great markets for MMA. I’ve had the privilege of covering a lot of memorable cards there, but my favorite is probably UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Velasquez (you know, because of that infamous Brock Lesnar-Undertaker run-in that I just happened to find myself in the middle of). Funny enough, it was at that event where Daniel Cormier first met Jon Jones. As the story goes, Cormier and Jones bumped into each other backstage and Jones, upon realizing he was talking to a two-time Olympian, said, “I bet that I could take you down.” And that’s how the rivalry started. Nine years later, that arena might host Cormier’s final fight.

23. Man, it feels good to head into a Nate Diaz fight week, doesn’t it? Been far too long. Enjoy the ride, friends.


Monday’s Helwani Show lineup:

1:00 p.m. ET: Weekend recap.

1:05 p.m.: Maycee Barber

The rising flyweight star will preview her upcoming fight against Gillian Robertson and discuss Valentina Shevchenko’s win.

1:25 p.m.: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane

The Bellator women’s flyweight champion, who was in Liz Carmouche’s corner Saturday night, will talk about that fight and what’s next for her.

1:45 p.m.: Eric Albarracin

Paulo Costa’s head coach will preview Costa’s fight against Yoel Romero at UFC 241 and also discuss what is next for Henry Cejudo.

2:05 p.m.: Duke Roufus

Anthony Pettis’ head coach will look ahead to Pettis vs. Diaz this weekend.

2:25 p.m.: Daniel Cormier

The UFC heavyweight champion will preview his title defense against Stipe Miocic Saturday night.

2:45 p.m. Michelle Waterson

“The Karate Hottie” will look ahead to her Oct. 12 fight against Joanna Jędrzejczyk.

3:05 p.m.: Demetrious Johnson

The former UFC flyweight champion will discuss his recent win in ONE and how his career is going fighting for a new organization.

3:25 p.m.: Darren Till

Till will update us on what’s next for him.

3:45 p.m.: Nicolas Dalby

He will talk about his long road back to the UFC after recently re-signing with the promotion to fight at UFC Copenhagen.

4:05 p.m.: Valentina Shevchenko

Shevchenko will discuss her win over Carmouche and what’s next for her.

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