Ever since Marlon Moraes beat Jimmy Rivera in 33 seconds back on June 1 in Utica, N.Y., he’s deserved a bantamweight title fight.
With his first-round win in Saturday night’s main event in Fortaleza, Brazil, over the only fighter who had beaten him since 2011 — Raphael Assuncao — Moraes (22-5-1), put an exclamation point on the word “deserved.” This was not just three straight first-round wins, but three straight over Aljamain Sterling, Jimmie Rivera, and Assuncao, three of the best in the division.
But as they say in aerospace, “Houston, we have a problem.”
The downside of champion vs. champion fights in divisions with real depth is that deserving contenders end up waiting for what they’ve already earned for far too long. From a UFC standpoint, that’s not the worst thing. It’s far better to have a variety of big fights with interesting contenders than none at all.
When flyweight champion Henry Cejudo was signed to fight bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, the idea, at least for the bantamweight division, is the fight would happen and then Dillashaw would move on to the deserving contenders, Moraes in particular.
But Cejudo’s quick win, which Dillashaw has tried to push as a controversial stoppage, has led to a strong interest level in doing it again. Dillashaw wants it at flyweight, which makes no sense. Doing it for Dillashaw’s title makes all the sense in the world.
But if we go by marquee value — and in the end, almost all UFC decisions come down to that — there would be more interest in Dillashaw defending his title against Cejudo than Moraes.
But in doing so, that leaves both Moraes and flyweight Joseph Benavidez sitting and waiting for title shots in their respective divisions that are long overdue.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed For Five stars of Saturday’s show.
MARLON MORAES — So often champions from other companies show up in the UFC and fail to deliver. Hector Lombard looked like a killer in Bellator and had problems in the UFC. Will Brooks looked like one of the world’s top lightweights in Bellator and did nothing in the UFC, and was gone shockingly fast. Even Justin Gaethje, who is a legitimate UFC headliner due to his quality of fights, went 17-0 in being the top star of the World Series of Fighting, and has gone 2-2 since in the UFC,
When Moraes, the longtime WSOF bantamweight champion, lost his UFC debut to Assuncao, he looked like he was another addition to that list. But not anymore.
His next move should be easy: A title fight with Dillashaw (16-4). But it’s not that simple. If Dillashaw and Cejudo are matched up next, Moraes can sit and wait for how it all plays out. The worst thing for him is if Dillashaw gets his way and somehow the rematch is at flyweight, and then Cejudo wins again, because the clamor would be for a third match at bantamweight.
To keep that from happening, the rematch should be at bantamweight and Moraes should get the winner. If somehow that doesn’t materialize, Moraes should face the winner of the UFC 235 fight between Cody Garbrandt (11-2) and Pedro Munhoz (17-3). Even with no title at stake, Moraes vs. Garbrandt would be one of the biggest lighter-weight fights of this year.
JOSE ALDO — Aldo (28-4) this past week talked about retiring at the end of this year. But after the fireworks in his second-round finish of Renato Moicano, he looked ready for another title run.
The problem is featherweight champion Max Holloway has beaten him twice. Aldo could move to lightweight and have an endless supply of great matchups, but that would also be a path to a title shot far longer than the year he’s giving himself before he finishes.
At featherweight, there is an obvious next opponent in Brian Ortega (14-1). A win gets neither man a title shot even though they are probably the second and third best in the division, but it’s the right fight to make.
DEMIAN MAIA — At 41, the king of the dad bods showed once again on Saturday that if he can get the right position, he can beat almost anyone at welterweight.
Maia (26-9) stopped Lyman Good (20-5, 1 no contest) by being the good version of Demian Maia, the one who doesn’t think he’s a striker but knows very few can keep up with him in a pure grappling match.
With his career clearly near its sunset, Maia is unlikely to ever win a UFC championship or even get another title shot.
What he may be fighting for is a Hall of Fame career based on longevity. Maia is near the top in three important UFC all-time categories: He’s tied for third for most fights with 29 with Jeremy Stephens and Michael Bisping, behind Jim Miller at 31 and Donald Cerrone at 30; he’s tied with Bisping and Georges St-Pierre for second place in wins with 20, behind Cerrone’s 22; and he’s tied with Nate Diaz for third for most submissions with nine, behind Charles Oliveira with 12 and Royce Gracie with 10.
As far as what is next, Michael Chiesa (15-4) looks like a good next opponent, because both men are so strong on the ground. Another prospective interesting style matchup would be with Ben Askren (18-0), regardless of whether Askren wins or loses in his UFC debut against Robbie Lawler on March 2 in Las Vegas.
CHARLES OLIVEIRA — The submission king moved to 26-8, with 1 no contest, with his win on Saturday over David Teymur.
Kevin Lee (17-4) would make for a good next challenge as far as a top rankings match goes. Another fight that would have intrigue is Oliveira vs. Gregor Gillespie (13-0). Gillespie needs a top-ranked test and this would be the classic jiu-jitsu vs. wrestler battle.
JOHNNY WALKER — Every so often, somebody unknown and really untested comes along and people think they have what it takes to be a big star. Sometimes they pan out and sometimes they don’t. Often people get ahead of themselves when fighters debut in UFC with quick wins.
Walker (16-3) has it, in the way Conor McGregor, Erick Silva, Houston Alexander, Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones, and Sage Northcutt all had it in when they started in the UFC. In other words, he looks like he’s got real potential and he could end up as a major star, or just as easily a “Whatever Happened to?”
Still, after his 15-second win over Justin Ledet, one could see in three years a Jones vs. Walker fight being huge, or in hindsight in three years, the very idea they were put in the same sentence could be looked back on laughable.
What Walker has right now is being 6-foot-6 with an explosive and creative offensive skill set. That is similar to early Jones. (His near disqualification in those 15 seconds after he had the fight nearly won points to another issue that shouldn’t be there 19 fights into a career: A problem with rules.)
A good next step for Walker would be Ion Cutelaba (14-3) or the winner of this coming weekend’s fight in Melbourne, Australia with Jim Crute (9-0) vs. Sam Alvey (33-11).