UFC 268: Whos next for Kamaru Usman, Rose Namajunas and Justin Gaethje?

  • MMA columnist for ESPN.com
  • Analyst for “MMA Live”
  • Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun

NEW YORK — Kamaru Usman got the job done at UFC 268, stopping the late surge of Colby Covington to retain the UFC welterweight championship. Usman scored two knockdowns in the second round which nearly put Covington away, but there would be no finish in the rematch and the scorecards were read.

Rose Namajunas also left Madison Square Garden with her title reign intact, defeating Zhang Weili by split decision. This rematch was far different than their first encounter and Zhang showcased a variety of new tactics, the result of her first training camp at Fight Ready in Arizona. Namajunas controlled the end of the fight, keeping Zhang on the ground, and officially closes her chapter with Zhang.

But the first fight on the main card is the one that will be discussed for years to come. Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler, two of the best strikers in the sport, put on a show. Both men were wobbled. Both offered up all they could muster. In the end it was Gaethje with his hands raised high and a title shot on his mind.

So who’s next for UFC 268’s big winners? Let’s take a look at the options:

Kamaru Usman, welterweight champion (defeated Colby Covington by unanimous decision)

Who should be next: Leon Edwards, if Edwards defeats Jorge Masvidal on Dec. 11

The UFC can’t deny Edwards any longer. He’s one of the most deserving title challengers in recent memory, frankly. He’s on a nine fight win streak, which would be ten if he gets past Masvidal.

There have been a lot of false starts with Edwards, many of which weren’t his fault. He’s missed out on some opportunities due to bad luck. He didn’t take full advantage of a massive fight against Nate Diaz earlier this year. And he’s also lost to Usman before, although that’s been a long time now.

He’s certainly been forced to take the long route to a title shot, but there is nowhere left for him to go but a championship fight if he beats Masvidal next month.

Wildcard: Vicente Luque

Luque is an exciting option, and likely to get a title shot in due time. If Edwards were to lose to Masvidal, Luque would be the next most attractive option at welterweight.

So, there is a path for Luque to get the next title shot, but it would require Edwards to lose, and also, potentially, it would require UFC middleweight challenger Robert Whittaker to lose as well. Because if Whittaker takes the belt from Usman’s friend Israel Adesanya early next year, there is a chance Usman could move up in weight and fight for a second belt.

Colby Covington, welterweight (lost to Kamaru Usman by unanimous decision)

Who should be next: Jorge Masvidal

Regardless of whether Masvidal beats or loses to Leon Edwards next month at UFC 269, this should be next. Let’s book this one.

There is possibly no angle in combat sports that sells better than friends turns enemies, and that’s what we have with Masvidal and Covington. Former roommates and friends who are now bitterly against one another. Masvidal has his hands full first, but if he’s able to knock out Edwards in Las Vegas and then cut a promo on Covington — which we know he’s capable of — we could see this next.

Wild card: Stephen Thompson

Thompson slipped up against Vicente Luque in his last fight — a unanimous decision loss back in July. Both of these welterweights need a win over a ranked opponent to get back on track and start talking about a title again. They are in similar spots. It makes a lot of sense.

Rose Namajunas, strawweight champion (defeated Zhang Weili by split decision)

Who should be next: Carla Esparza

Whew. Sigh of relief for Namajunas, who despite looking confident about the outcome, came very close to losing the title on Saturday. That fight was extremely close and came down to how one judge saw a few fine details. That’s nerve wracking, but in the end, Namajunas retains and is now free to move on from Zhang.

Esparza is not a blockbuster fight. It’s not a matchup the UFC will be salivating to make. But once upon a time, Esparza did beat Namajunas for the inaugural strawweight title, and that’s a story worth revisiting. Esparza is also legitimately deserving of the shot, having won five in a row.

Wild card: Marina Rodriguez

Stylistically, this looks like a lot more fun than Namajunas vs. Esparza. Rodriguez is fighting confidently right now. She’s got length and power. She appears capable of challenging Namajunas on the feet.

Rodriguez is likely fighting for the title at some point in her career, and if the UFC really wanted to press her into it now, it’s warranted. But this fight isn’t that much bigger than Esparza, so I don’t see the UFC going away from its rankings to make it.

Justin Gaethje, lightweight (defeated Michael Chandler by unanimous decision)

Who should be next: Winner of Charles Oliveira vs. Dustin Poirier on Dec. 11

If Gaethje doesn’t get the next title shot, “we riot.” That’s what he said going into this fight and anyone who didn’t agree with him then, has to agree with him now. Gaethje has been the victim of woefully bad timing over the last year. He just so happened to be the last guy to lose to Khabib Nurmagomedov, before Nurmagomedov retired.

He was as deserving as anyone to fight for the lightweight championship over the last year, but it didn’t happen only because he was Nurmagomedov’s last title defense. Frankly, Gaethje didn’t need to beat Chandler to prove to anyone he was a title challenger. We knew that already. But those were the cards he was dealt and he beat a very motivated, on point Michael Chandler on Saturday. Give him his well deserved title shot.

Wild card: Nothing

I can’t even come up with anything. If something truly weird were to happen in the fight between Oliveira and Poirier — something that made it necessary they had to fight again, then just let Gaethje wait. Whenever his next fight comes, it has to be for the lightweight championship.

Michael Chandler, lightweight (Lost to Justin Gaethje by unanimous decision)

Who should be next: Islam Makhachev

For the first time since Chandler moved over to the UFC from Bellator, there’s not an obvious opponent for him to fight. There was obviously nothing wrong with this performance, and there is no shame in losing to a man in Gaethje who could hold the belt by the end of his next fight. But Chandler is now looking down the barrel of a two-fight skid, and there’s not an obvious matchup for him.

If I had to guess, I don’t think this is the one the UFC will land on, but it actually makes the most sense to me. Chandler never got a shot at Nurmagomedov. He always thought his style presented Nurmagomedov the toughest challenge. And he doesn’t shy away from difficult fights. His stock is still plenty high in name value, and Makhachev needs one more big fight before he’s ready for a title shot.

Depending how long of a break Chandler needs, this makes sense.

Wild card: Conor McGregor

One thing Chandler showed on Saturday? He’s one of the most entertaining lightweights on the roster. His showmanship and grit made that fight what it was.

Who does McGregor fight when he comes back in 2022? There are a lot of options — and of course there are, he’s the biggest star in the sport. I wouldn’t peg Chandler as the favorite, but it would make sense for a lot of reasons. Chandler has a fanbase now. He’s still highly ranked. Stylistically, he’s a very fun matchup for McGregor.

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