The Remix, Volume 9: Light heavyweight landscape, 'Double Champs' and emerging talents

Jon Jones
(Getty Images)

Every week, we’ll release a new MMA mix tape entitled “The Remix” that looks back at not only the biggest stories of the last seven days, but some of the ones that aren’t getting enough attention too, with some weekly awards and a prospect to watch going forward added in for good measure.

Light Heavyweight Landscape

As soon as Jon Jones had the light heavyweight title wrapped around his waist again, the groans about having arguably the greatest fighter to ever grace the Octagon lording over division once again began.

Everyone likes to beat up on the light heavyweight division — to complain about the lack of depth and fresh names working their way up the rankings and lament that every potential championship matchup seems pointless because Jones is that much better than everyone else. It’s an easy attack, but also one that feels pretty lazy and, frankly, incorrect given the current landscape of the 205-pound weight class.

Anthony Smith has looked outstanding since relocating to the light heavyweight ranks, collecting three straight stoppage wins to climb into the Top 5 in the division. Dominick Reyes continued to show upside and potential by working his way through some new terrain against Ovince Saint Preux. Corey Anderson remains a work in progress, but he’s clearly making progress, as he showed by defeating Ilir Latifi to pick up his third win of the year on Saturday night at UFC 232.

There are others with the potential to establish themselves as factors in the light heavyweight division within the next 12 months as well — fighters like Jan Blachowicz, Thiago Santos, and Misha Cirkunov — plus whatever new arrivals show up and make a splash in 2019.

No one in that group is a major star and a matchup with Jones wouldn’t carry as much mainstream appeal as a trilogy fight with Daniel Cormier or Saturday’s rematch with Alexander Gustafsson did, but they’re all worthwhile ventures because one of three things will happen:

  1. Jones dominates and further cements himself as the best fighter of all-time by continuing to pile up impressive performances,
  2. Jones wins, but is pushed much harder than anticipated, resulting in his challenger getting a major rub; let’s call this “The Gustafsson Effect.”
  3. Jones gets beat and everyone is forced to question everything they thought they knew about this sport.

And before you say, ‘It’s never going to happen,’ remember that very few people thought Gustafsson was going to push Jones to his limits the first time around.

Or that TJ Dillashaw was going to waltz in on relatively short notice and style on Renan Barao.

Or that Michael Bisping would actually knock out Luke Rockhold.

Instead of being salty, be excited that one of the greatest talents in UFC history is back and there are a bunch of hungry new contenders eager to test themselves against him in the future.

Double Champs are Great … Except They’re Not

The look of pure joy and excitement on Amanda Nunes’s face Saturday night when Dana White handed her matching UFC championship belts was one of the highlights of the year.

Fresh off her surprising 51-second drubbing of Cris Cyborg, there was Nunes — the dominant, but often dismissed bantamweight champion — beaming with pride and filled with adrenaline, running laps around the Octagon before jumping into the arms of her long-time head coach, Conan Silveira.

All three instances where the UFC has crowned two-weight world champions have been magical moments and holding two championships at the same time is an incredible accomplishment that people still probably don’t appreciate fully, especially now that it has happened three times in two years.

But once the excitement dies down and it comes time to start thinking about the logistics of having one fighter reigning over two different divisions, reality kicks in and everyone is forced to recognize that double champs are great for those special post-fight moments, but terrible when it comes to keeping things moving in those two weight classes.

Titles go long periods without being defended. Contenders stack up and end up getting knocked out of the queue simply because they need to stay active. One injury prompts the introduction of interim titles no one puts value in and that are often discarded, written out of the show without any real explanation like Judy Winslow.

And if a “Double Champ” vacates one of their titles, the next fighter to hold the belt has to deal with the constant ‘Yeah, but they didn’t beat (insert name here)’ refrain, which automatically lessens their standing as champion through no fault of their own.

Nunes’s situation is a little different because there isn’t really a featherweight division; it’s her, Cyborg and Megan Anderson, with special guest appearances by Holly Holm and Cat Zingano, so she could pick her spots and potentially defend both.

But bouncing between divisions is difficult and isn’t as straightforward as gaining or losing 10 pounds.

There was a reason Nunes wanted a long run-up to her fight with Cyborg and it’s not like she can now just turn around, shed the mass she added and make the cut to bantamweight four months from now to defend that belt. It’s going to take time, which means contenders are going to have to wait.

Thankfully, there is no one who really stands out as an obvious challenger at the moment — in part because the belt has been held up due to Nunes’s fight with Cyborg — so the UFC can use the next three or four months to mint a new No. 1 contender, but that means the featherweight title is out of rotation, leaving the company short one championship belt being defended.

As much as Saturday’s co-main event was an intriguing fight that produced an incredible finish and magical moment in the cage for Nunes, having these “Champion vs. Champion” fights ultimately do more harm than good.

Emerging Ranks Have Never Been Better

The amount of quality emerging talents competing in the UFC has never been greater.

In every division, there are a handful of promising fighters starting to work their way up the ladder, turning in strong performances and establishing themselves as prospects to track with each passing event.

Whether it’s promotional newcomers, grinders finally getting their shot or established names switching weight classes, this year has shown that there is never a shortage of talent competing in the Octagon and there are some impressive competitors looking to work their way into contention in every single weight class.

And all it takes is a coupe of fights to go from ‘unknown’ to ‘in the mix’ or maybe even challenging for championship gold.

Not many people were checking for Alexander Volkanovski when 2018 began, but the former rugby front rower throttled Jeremy Kennedy, Darren Elkins and Chad Mendes to end the year as a Top 5 featherweight, declaring himself as “Max Holloway’s Worst Nightmare.”

Hardcore fans were already in love with Petr Yan, but in the span of six months, the 25-year-old bantamweight used three wildly-entertaining performances to establish himself as one of the most intriguing new additions to the pack of contenders in the 135-pound weight class.

They’re just two examples taken from Saturday’s year-end event at The Forum, but there are countless others just like them who have made meaningful strides in 2018 and should continue to do so next year.

So keep your eye out for them!

Fight of the Weekend: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Chad Mendes at UFC 232

The “hobbit fight” as Volkanovski called it, started as the two Spidermans’ meme come to life in the cage, but quickly turned into an electric back-and-forth that launched the Australian into contention.

While it began with the similarly built featherweights circling each other and looking for openings, this one morphed into a high-level battle between the proven Mendes and the promising Volkanovski, with each attack and counter giving us a greater understanding about where each man sits in the division.

Volkanovski was the one pressing forward and he had little trouble getting back to his feet whenever Mendes took him down. He threw crisp, clean combinations and suffocated the Team Alpha Male fixture with his pace and pressure, taking advantage of Mendes’s tendency to rely on explosive techniques to deplete his energy reserves.

Although Mendes had his moments, this was a coming-out party for “Alexander the Great,” who became just the fourth person to best the two-time title challenger and divisional staple.

Submission of the Weekend: Ryan Hall submits BJ Penn (heel hook) at UFC 232

Before I say anything about this finish, just watch the clip below and see what happens:

This is one of the most beautiful, technical, devastating submissions I’ve ever seen inside the cage. We’ve seen numerous people try to hit Imanari rolls and we’ve seen heel hooks and various other leg attacks, but the fluidity and execution of Hall’s entry, attack and finish is a thing of beauty.

He was figure-fouring his legs and positioning the heel before Penn could react and had that submission torqued in an instant. This is high-level stuff and Hall made it look like no big deal because he’s that damn good on the ground.

This was an exquisite finish.

Knockout of the Weekend: Amanda Nunes stops Cris Cyborg at UFC 232

What else could it possibly be?

Nunes walked into the Octagon, waded into the pocket with Cyborg and left her laying face-down on the canvas in a heap. And she did it all in 51 seconds. “The Lioness” said she was going to be the one to end Cyborg’s lengthy winning streak and dominant ways and not only did she make good on her prediction, she did so in blistering fashion.

Not only did she blast Cyborg with some massive shots, but Nunes took a couple in return as well and didn’t back up an inch. She simply fired back, landing inside Cyborg’s wide hooks and using her speed advantage to make history.

Prospect to Watch after this Weekend: Montel Jackson

Picking Petr Yan would be easy because he mopped the floor with a ranked fighter and should be in the mix at bantamweight by the end of 2019, but I’m taking a more long-term approach to this one and recommending you keep tabs on Jackson.

The 26-year-old submitted Brian Kelleher in the opening bout of the evening at UFC 232, stinging him with strikes before latching onto a D’Arce choke and getting the finish just 100 seconds into the fight. It was a great bounce-back win for Jackson, who lost his debut against Ricky Simon at UFC 227, and a performance that highlights the vast upside he possesses.

Here’s the thing with Jackson: he’s only been a pro for 18 months and he’s already registered a first-round stoppage win over a very respectable UFC talent.

This wasn’t some guaranteed win over an overmatched opponent — Kelleher has been in there with solid competition throughout his UFC run and earned a couple strong victories over his own — and the loss to Simon is nothing to hold against Jackson either.

He has outstanding size for the division, works with a good crew at Pure Vida BJJ/MMA in Milwaukee and has an excellent foundation to build upon going forward. If he can go from making his pro debut to quickly putting away Kelleher in 18 months, imagine how good he might be in another 18 months?