CHICAGO — There were plenty of storylines going into Saturday’s UFC 238, and there might be even more of them to discuss coming out of the event.
After looking terrible in the opening round of his bantamweight title fight against Marlon Moraes, flyweight champion Henry Cejudo delivered one of the most memorable performances of the year to claim his second championship via third-round TKO.
What’s next for Cejudo, Shevchenko, Ferguson, Cerrone and the other top names of UFC 238? Here’s ESPN’s take.
Henry Cejudo, bantamweight
Result: Defeated Marlon Moraes via third-round TKO
Next: Aljamain Sterling
I kind of agonized over this one, honestly. Because a big, big part of me would be completely on board with Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz. To recap, Cejudo has now defeated Demetrious Johnson (maybe the best fighter of all time), two-time champion TJ Dillashaw and knockout machine Moraes. Going from that to Cruz, the best bantamweight of all time, would be a great way to keep momentum going. As a fan, I’d be all about this.
But the reality is, Cruz has not won a fight since June 2016. He has not even been in a fight since December 2016. Sterling is coming off one of the most impressive performances of his career, a decision against Pedro Munhoz on Saturday. He looks great and he’s deserving of a shot. I want to see Cejudo vs. Cruz someday, but Sterling is the right matchup now.
Marlon Moraes, bantamweight
Result: Lost to Henry Cejudo via third-round TKO
Next: Petr Yan
Why not? I know the UFC doesn’t like to book fights between one guy coming off a win and another coming off a loss, but this is the right fight, is it not? Yan has looked nothing short of incredible in the UFC. He’s gone 5-0 in a span of 12 months. He’s coming off Saturday’s convincing win over Jimmie Rivera in a bout he told me he didn’t have the best training camp for.
Moraes looked great against Cejudo before things turned in a big way in the second round. Stylistically, this fight would be a huge crowd pleaser. The UFC doesn’t need to follow its unspoken rule about “winners fighting winners” … because the promotion makes its own rules! I like this fight a lot.
Valentina Shevchenko, flyweight
Result: Defeated Jessica Eye via second-round KO
Next: Katlyn Chookagian
I’m not gonna lie. I fear for Shevchenko’s opponents right now. Genuine fear for their well-being. I know Shevchenko is only one title defense in, but I’m already wondering if she could pass Demetrious Johnson’s UFC record of 11 consecutive title defenses. She is that dominant. And this 125-pound division — no disrespect — it does not have the talent to challenge her right now.
The best it can offer at the moment is Chookagian, who is an impressive 12-2 (with both losses coming via split decision). Chookagian has separated herself from the pack, and she’ll still be a massive underdog to Shevchenko. She deserves the shot and she should get it. And I will be crossing my fingers for her safety if she does.
Tony Ferguson, lightweight
Result: Defeated Donald Cerrone via second-round TKO
Not only is Ferguson the most deserving lightweight contender, he might be the most deserving title contender in the history of the UFC. I don’t need to sit here and tell you why Ferguson’s next fight should be for the belt, because it’d be stating the obvious. The man has won 12 fights in a row.
The only thing that would prevent Ferguson’s title shot is the 800-pound gorilla that is Conor McGregor. McGregor wants a rematch against Nurmagomedov, and the UFC knows that’s a lucrative fight.
You know what I would love to see? I would love to see the UFC invest in educating the casual fanbase why it should watch a Tony Ferguson lightweight title fight. I would love to see Dana White go out and promote like he’s never promoted before. Don’t ask casual fans to tune in to a UFC title fight. Tell them why they have to watch this UFC title fight. Tell them why Ferguson is getting the shot, not McGregor. Address it. Build it.
Maybe I’m naive, but I think there’s a way to do right by Ferguson and the sport, and still have it make sense from a business standpoint, because the mere fact the UFC would opt for something other than an obvious money fight involving McGregor would intrigue casual sports fans and force them to say, “OK, tell me about this Tony guy.”
Donald Cerrone, lightweight
Result: Lost to Tony Ferguson via second-round TKO
Next: Jose Aldo
If Cerrone’s heart was broken on Saturday, after watching his lightweight title campaign take a major hit, he didn’t show it. He was all smiles in the back. He shook my hand on his way out of the arena and said, “See you at the next one,” with his family, friends and young son in tow. Come Monday, I imagine he’ll be on a boat somewhere sipping Budweiser. Not a care in the world.
And when he does return, can you imagine if it were a lightweight bout against the great Jose Aldo? I mean, I remember thinking when Cerrone fought Robbie Lawler, “I don’t know how I could be more hyped.” And then, on Saturday, when he walked to the Octagon to face Ferguson, I again said, “Not sure how I could be more hyped.” Cerrone vs. Aldo in Brazil? That would be hype overload for me. Aldo is coming off a loss to Alex Volkanovski. He’s done it all at featherweight. His coach told me this year he’s considering moving up. Let’s do it. Lightweight. Two legends.