UFC 224 is in the books and more than a few people will be feeling sheepish as they scroll through social media this morning. Many fans had publicly written this event off for lack of star power, but when all was said and done, UFC 224 was one of the more entertaining cards in recent memory. Even the UFC themselves took the time to reference the criticism they had received in the lead up to the event.
On the main card alone we were treated to walk off KO’s from Lyoto Machida and John Lineker, as well as a knockdown followed by a swift submission from Mackenzie Dern. Not to mention there were also two outstanding 5 round fights with Kelvin Gastelum and Jacare Souza needing the judges to separate them and Amanda Nunes putting an end to a rough night for Raquel Pennington before the fifth round was over.
Let’s take a look at what could be next for Amanda Nunes and the other main card winners, following an entertaining night of action in Rio de Janeiro.
Lyoto Machida (24-8-0)
Kicking off the main card, former champion Lyoto Machida sent fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort into retirement in dramatic fashion after just one minute of the second round. The spectacular knockout win gives Machida his first two fight win streak in a little over four years and while one final run at the title is unlikely, he proved that he still has plenty to offer the sport, 15 years on from his professional debut.
In his post fight interview, Machida admitted he had someone in mind for his next outing and joined the lengthy queue of middleweights and light heavyweights calling out former champion Michael Bisping (30-9-0).
Bisping has recently confirmed that he is “probably retired” and only a significant offer would entice him back into the cage. He also explained that offer would likely need to be at 205lbs rather than at middleweight. Would a light heavyweight match up between the two future hall of famers be enough the draw him into the octagon for one last hurrah? Only time will tell.
John Lineker (31-8-0)
John “Hands of Stone” Lineker lived up to his name on Saturday night with a stunning one punch KO of American bantamweight Brian Kelleher. While a win over unranked Kelleher is unlikely to do much for Lineker’s number six ranking, the 27-year-old knockout artist is likely to be looking for an opponent above him in the bantamweight rankings for his next fight.
With everyone above him in the rankings already booked to fight in the coming months, Lineker is somewhat short of options. The fight which makes the most sense, would be for him to face whoever picks up a loss when Jimmie Rivera (21-1-0) faces Marlon Moraes (20-5-1) in June.
Mackenzie Dern (7-0-0)
Arguably the biggest talking point heading into UFC 224 was Mackenzie Dern’s weight. Coming in a little more than 7 pounds above the strawweight limit, Dern received a significant amount of criticism from both her colleagues and fans around the world. Just 2 minutes into her second UFC appearance, Dern landed a huge over hand right which knocked her opponent, former amateur golden gloves winner Amanda Bobby Cooper, to the canvas. Dern was quick to take advantage, bringing the fight to a close via rear naked choke just seconds later.
Putting the weigh in to one side, it was an impressive performance from the BJJ world champion. Certainly a marked improvement on her UFC debut just eight weeks prior. Unfortunately for Dern, the win will forever be marred by her missing weight by such a significant amount and the damage to her professional reputation which comes with that.
Dern addressed her disappointing performance on the scales during the post event press conference.
“On Friday, at 9 a.m. I wasn’t cutting anymore weight, I was in the sauna and there’s no more water coming out, I wasn’t sweating. I couldn’t walk anymore and the commission said you can’t keep going. Thankfully, Amanda accepted the fight. I’m ashamed at that. I don’t want that to happen again but it’s a mistake.” Dern said. “The UFC is investing in me and I’m going to work with them not to happen ever again.”
Dern went on to confirm that she had been informed that the UFC wanted her to move up to flyweight following the failed weight cut.
“My manager said that the UFC would want me to move up in weight. I believe that they won’t,” Dern said. “On Friday, [UFC matchmaker] Mick [Maynard] called me and said we have in institute here in Vegas and we’re going to invest in you, we want you here, we’re going to work with you so I said I’m going to work with you guys. I can’t lose that opportunity to get all this help from this organization that is so big and it’s going to help me make weight.”
With the BJJ star seemingly intent on remaining in the strawweight division, it’s time to consider the next step in her development. Juliana Lima (9-5-0) sits just outside the top 15 at 115lbs. With twice as many professional fights as Dern, Lima would provide a stiff test for the 25-year-old. Lima fell short in her last two bouts against Tecia Torres and Randa Markos and a victory over Dern would provide a quick change in career trajectory for the 36-year-old Brazilian. For Dern, this would be her final chance to prove she is capable of hitting her mark at strawweight and should she be victorious, a ranked opponent would be likely for her next fight.
Kelvin Gastelum (15-3-0, 1 nc)
Kelvin Gastelum continued his mission for gold on Saturday night, doing enough to earn an extremely close fought split decision win over number 2 ranked middleweight Jacare Souza. It was a mature performance from the 26-year-old. It’s notoriously difficult to earn a split decision win as an underdog when fighting someone in front of their home crowd, but Gastelum managed it.
Having beaten the former champion and the number two contender in his last two fights, there is only one viable fight for Gastelum. He needs to face the winner of Yoel Romero (13-2-0) vs Robert Whittaker (19-4-0) and get his shot at the gold he covets so much. The UFC middleweight division is in a transition phase at the moment with a number of veterans reaching the end of their careers and it has provided the perfect environment for Gastelum to make his rapid climb to the top of the pile. With Luke Rockhold contemplating his future at 185lbs and former champion Chris Weidman recovering from injury, like it or not, Gastelum is next in line for a run at the belt.
Amanda Nunes (16-4-0)
Amanda Nunes finally seems to be getting the respect she deserves. In a dominant display she outgunned a game Raquel Pennington over the course of four rounds, leading to Pennington telling her corner that she was done. Her corner ultimately talked her down and sent her back out for the fifth round, a decision which has led to an overwhelming amount of criticism from professional fighters everywhere. As expected, Pennington had little left to give and was finished by a flurry of Nunes strikes halfway through the final round.
The win fires Nunes into the record books with more finishes (7) than any other female fighter in UFC history.
With Pennington safely dispatched and her third title defence in the bag, focus will naturally shift to what might be next for the bantamweight queen.
With the number one ranked 135lb fighter Holly Holm enjoying some time at featherweight, and number three ranked Julianna Pena on maternity leave, there are limited options for Nunes in her own division. The obvious choice for her next title defence would be the number four ranked contender, Ketlen Vieira (10-0-0). The 26-year-old Brazilian is yet to taste defeat in ten professional fights and most recently earned a hard fought split decision win over perennial contender Cat Zingano.
There is, however, an alternative path for Nunes to tread should everything fall into place. Prior to booking the title defence against Pennington, there had been extensive talk of Nunes stepping up to 145lbs to take on arguably the most feared women in MMA, Cris Cyborg (20-1-0). The reigning women’s featherweight champion seemed to have reluctantly come around to the idea of putting her belt on the line against Nunes before the Pennington fight was announced. It now seems highly likely that those conversations will be rekindled in the coming weeks, perhaps targeting a fight before the year is out.