Three Thoughts from UFC Fortaleza: Moraes, Aldo and Walker
Saturday night marked the second UFC on ESPN card, and while the card might not have had the hype of the first card, there were some incredible performances that changed the landscape of some divisions in the near future, as well as in the long-term. I’ve got you covered with three thoughts from UFC Fortaleza.
1. Marlon Moraes can no longer be denied the title shot he deserves.
The UFC’s bantamweight division has been stuck in limbo for quite some time now, with a feud between former teammates Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw that took over a year to settle, as well as Dillashaw’s failed attempt to move down in weight and wipe out the flyweight division. In fact, the bantamweight title has been tied up by the two fights between the friends-turned-enemies since the last evening we saw Ronda Rousey compete in the Octagon, December 30, 2016, 25 UFC pay-per-view events ago. At that time, Marlon Moraes wasn’t even a UFC fighter.
Moraes came into the UFC in April 2017, as a 12-0 fighter since moving down to bantamweight from featherweight. After a tight split decision loss in his UFC debut to Raphael Assuncao, Moraes passed every challenging test put in front of him, disposing of difficult opponents John Dodson, Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera. Saturday night was the pinnacle of his rise through the rankings when he handily defeated Assuncao by first-round submission to avenge his only loss since 2011.
His precision striking and impeccable jiu-jitsu were on display in Fortaleza in what can only be looked at as a #1 contender bout, against an opponent in Assuncao who has seemingly done everything in his UFC career, apart from fighting for a title.
Including Saturday evening, Moraes has faced three top-seven fighters in his last three bouts, and dispatched of them in a combined four minutes and 57 seconds, with his Assuncao victory being the longest at 3:17.
In a division that desperately needs new blood, Moraes is the answer and it can no longer be disputed that he’s the next one due for a title shot. He’s well-rounded in all aspects of the MMA game and could provide a fighter like TJ Dillashaw fits with his jiu-jitsu.
Unfortunately for Moraes, he’s not quite a household name in the UFC circle yet, which as seen by Assuncao, can always hurt a deserving fighter’s chance at a title. However, what Moraes has going for him right now is that the UFC has started booking champion versus top contender bouts for the near future (Whittaker vs Gastelum, Jones vs Smith, Woodley vs Usman and Nunes vs Holm is rumored), showing that they’re getting away from the “money-fight” mentality that they seemed to have adopted for a little while.
The problem for Moraes is that Henry Cejudo still hangs over the 135-pound division’s head. After defeating Dillashaw easily to defend his 125-pound belt, there are rumors that Cejudo plans on coming up to 135 and trying to become the UFC’s fourth “double-champ”. If the bout comes to fruition, it likely means that Moraes gets stuck in another #1 contender bout with the winner of the upcoming Garbrandt vs Pedro Muhnoz bout. If Moraes declines this bout and waits on the sideline for what’s rightfully his, he risks being passed over for a title shot based on the result of Dillashaw-Cejudo 2. A Dillashaw win would leave Moraes in the driver’s seat for the next shot as Garbrandt wouldn’t get his third crack at Dillashaw in a three-year period and Muhnoz wouldn’t have enough significant wins to get the nod. However, a Cejudo wins opens the door up for Garbrandt, as he’d be a household name who’d be squaring off against Cejudo for the first time.
If Cejudo and Dillashaw do in fact run it back, the best thing that Moraes can hope for is that they run it back at 125-pounds. In this case, Dillashaw will likely go around a year without defending the bantamweight title, which will force an interim bout to go down. Moraes won’t be passed over for an interim title fight and his opponent would likely be the Garbrandt-Munhoz victor.
The best scenario for Moraes is if the UFC doesn’t run back Cejudo-Dillashaw, as he’s the clear-cut contender for the next shot at Dillashaw. The UFC will feel as though they need to build Dillashaw back up after a crushing blow against Cejudo and while I think he provides a stiff challenge, Moraes is probably exactly what the UFC thinks it needs.
If the UFC is concerned about Moraes not being able to carry a PPV card himself, they have a simple solution in the form of UFC 237. The card is set to be held in the 45,000-seat Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Brazil. The card should be stacked with big bouts for Brazilian fighters, and is already confirmed to have a women’s strawweight title fight between Rose Namajunas and Brazilian fighter Jessica Andrade. In addition, a women’s bantamweight championship bout between Brazilian Amanda Nunes and Holly Holm is rumored for the event. Namajunas has never headlined a PPV before, and Nunes’ PPV headlines have never sold well, so bringing in Dillashaw and Moraes can provide the card with some extra star-power in Dillashaw and Brazilian content in Moraes, while not forcing him to carry the card as the sold title fight.
Apart from perhaps Tony Ferguson, there’s no fighter in the UFC that deserves a title shot more than “Magic” Moraes, and the UFC 237 stars line up too perfectly to not grant him his wish, even if it has to be in an interim capacity.
2. Jose Aldo is still a player in the featherweight title picture
Saturday marked back-to-back impressive performances from the former featherweight champion of the world, as he provided another speed bump on Renato Moicano’s journey to featherweight contender.
While he’s proven to still be an elite fighter in a division filled with crafty artists, Aldo’s path to reclaim UFC gold is hindered by the fact that he’s already had two chances at the current featherweight champion, Max Holloway, losing both inside the distance. He realistically only has one more shot at “Blessed” Max, and he likely needs to rack up one more significant victory before the UFC gives him another shot. Assuming Holloway doesn’t move up to lightweight to challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov (which is actually a very real possibility), Holloway’s next attempted conquest will likely be against grizzled-veteran Frankie Edgar, or the relatively unknown 19-1 Aussie, Alexander Volkanovski.
If one more victory is all that Aldo requires to get a chance at reclaiming his throne, why not match him up against the only man ahead of him in the featherweight rankings, and the only other man to defeat Moicano in MMA, Brian Ortega? After coming off a difficult loss to Holloway, the UFC might look to book Ortega against an easier opponent to build his allure back up, but Ortega has never been one for taking the easy way out, and Aldo likely represents his best chance to quickly get back into the title picture.
If Holloway heads up to lightweight, Aldo could find himself in an interim belt contest against Edgar or Volkanovski, but if not, a number #1 contender bout with Ortega makes the most sense for both parties, and the aforementioned UFC 237 would be a great card to play host for the Brazilian Aldo.
A move to lightweight has been rumored for Aldo, but if UFC gold is still the goal, the move doesn’t make a lot of sense. The division has come to a standstill with Khabib and Conor McGregor’s suspensions following the UFC 229 melee, and Aldo will likely have to wait his turn, or show up to a couple of bouts between top contenders Tony Ferguson, Dustin Poirier and McGregor. Heck, there’s even a rumor that Georges St. Pierre might make the weight cut to fight Khabib to become a three-division champion.
Saturday night showed that Jose Aldo is still alive and kicking in the upper echelon of the featherweight division. His incredible Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai still give even the best fighters fits, and with the lack of clarity at lightweight, the time is right for Aldo to remain at featherweight and fight another top contender to earn what will likely be his final chance at reclaiming UFC gold.
3. If the UFC plays its cards right, Johnny Walker could become their next wagon.
The UFC may have the breath of fresh air that the light heavyweight division has been desperately craving. Since mid-2013, only three men not named Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier, Anthony Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson have challenged for the light heavyweight title, either in an undisputed or interim capacity. All three men lost both their championship bouts as well as their following fights. Not a great look for a division that’s trying to find their next big star.
While the reappearance of Jon Jones has helped sparked renewed interest, Saturday night provided us with another potential star to keep our eyes on in the 205-pound division, 26-year-old Johnny Walker.
Discovered on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender series, Walker has easily dispatched of his first two UFC opponents, in a combined 2:12, including a 15-second victory on Saturday against Justin Ledet.
Walker displays elite striking that comes from anywhere, as seen by his two UFC’s KO’s coming in the form of an elbow, and a spinning back fist and punches. Although he’s coming from unorthodox angles, Walker possesses high-level power that will serve him well in a division of heavy-hitters. While we haven’t seen him work the ground a ton in his MMA career, he doesn’t appear uncomfortable on the mat and found himself in good positions to finish a few fights by ground-and-pound and even has two submissions to his name.
The defense still hasn’t been fully tested and he can attack wildly on occasion, so the UFC needs to be careful, build him up slowly and not give in to the temptation of trying to rush a new star in a division that desperately needs one. The main card of a UFC Fight Night is never a bad option, but I’d like to see Walker get himself on the undercard of a PPV for his next bout. As for his next opponent, I’d be happy to see the UFC give him another grappling challenge. Although Ledet is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, the bout didn’t last long enough to see how Walker might handle the pressure.
The UFC might have their solution to a long-time problem. A young, charismatic fighter with highlight-reel abilities is never a bad thing to have on the roster, but Dana White and company need to make sure Walker isn’t brought up too quickly at the risk of having him fizzle out, like so many 205-prospects before him.