Six fighters rolled the dice and emerged with big wins on the main card in Atlantic City this weekend. Frankie Edgar rebounded from his knockout loss to Brian Ortega at UFC 222 with a win over Cub Swanson. David Branch and Aljamain Sterling got back into the win column with big wins over Thiago Santos and Brett Johns respectively. Justin Willis and Dan Hooker both extended their UFC win streaks to three fights each and in the main event, Kevin Lee worked his way into the lightweight top five with a stunning victory over Edson Barboza.
Lets take a look at who could be next in line to face Atlantic city’s main card winners.
Dan Hooker (16-7-0)
Kicking off the main card, Dan Hooker took just three minutes to hand Jim Miller his fourth consecutive loss. The first round KO win puts the 28-year-old on a three fight win streak and considering the emphatic nature of the finish, I expect Hooker to receive a ranked opponent in his next fight.
In his octagon interview after the fight, Hooker took the opportunity to call out his interviewer, top 15 lightweight Paul Felder (15-3-0) in one of the more polite call outs of recent times.
“I want a ranked opponent next, and I just so happen to be standing across from a ranked opponent without a fight. So if you’ll do me the honour next, we’ll get Sean (Shelby) to match it up.”
It is a fight which makes sense for both lightweights. Both would be putting their three fight win streaks on the line and with five of those six combined wins coming via KO/TKO, there are likely to be fireworks the next time the two meet in the octagon.
Aljamain Sterling (15-3-0)
With his unanimous decision victory over the previously undefeated Welsh prospect Brett Johns, Aljamain Sterling put his first round KO loss to Marlon Morares firmly behind him. The New York native moved his UFC record to 7-3-0 with an impressive performance against Johns. Sterling has proven he is capable of delivering when it matters most and with two of his three loses coming in the form of closely fought split decisions, he is absolutely ready to make another push forwards and tackle an opponent higher up the rankings.
Assuming he receives a new UFC contract, John Dodson (20-9-0) would make an intriguing test for Sterling. Dodson has become something of a gate keeper to the top five in the bantamweight division and looked unconvincing when picking up a split decision victory over Pedro Munhoz in his last appearance. Dodson certainly has the skills to trouble Sterling. A win for either fighter would put them in prime position to make a push into the highly competitive top end of the bantamweight division.
David Branch (22-4-0)
It would be fair to say that the start of David Branch’s UFC career hasn’t quite gone to plan. The former WSOF champion debuted with a win over Krzysztof Jotko at UFC 211 but followed that up four months later with a dramatic second round KO loss to former UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. Seven months after being handed his first loss since 2012, Branch bounced back in emphatic fashion against Thiago Santos.
With his place in the UFC middleweight top 10 secured, Branch will be looking to build some momentum and make a run at the top five. UFC veteran Derek Brunson (18-6-0) is currently ranked at number seven and his last outing was a first round KO loss to Jacare Souza in January. Both fighters believe they have enough left in the tank for a run at current champion Robert Whittaker and a match up between the two will provide the winner with the platform they need to push forward and break into the elusive top five.
Justin Willis (7-1-0)
Justin Willis extended his unbeaten run to seven fights with a comfortable unanimous decision victory over Chase Sherman. The AKA trained 30-year-old is now 3-0 in the UFC and in a relatively shallow heavyweight division can only really be one more win away from cracking the top 15.
The fighter to put him in a position to face a ranked opponent is Shamil Abdurakhimov (18-4-0). The 36-year-old Russian last fought in November 2017 where he too picked up a win over Sherman. Abdurakhimov has a significant experience advantage over Willis and will provide a true test of the American’s capabilities and readiness for the next step.
Frankie Edgar (23-6-1)
Edgar was all set for a shot at the featherweight title at UFC 222 before champion Max Holloway picked up an injury which led to him dropping out of the contest. With Brian Ortega stepping in and knocking out Edgar at short notice, many would have forgiven Frankie for taking some time out before getting back to business. With his win against Swanson, Edgar puts his loss to Ortega firmly in the rear view mirror and places himself back at the head of the queue for a shot at the belt.
Now he has fought his way back into the win column, it makes perfect sense for Edgar to take a little time off, wait for Holloway (19-3-0) and Ortega (14-0-0, 1 n/c) to compete for the featherweight title at UFC 226 this July and finally get his chance at the UFC featherweight gold against the winner.
Kevin Lee (17-3-0)
Kevin Lee has talked a big game over the past year or so and on Saturday night he backed that talk up with an impressively dominant victory over Edson Barboza in the main event. Lee survived a scare in the third round of the fight after Barboza connected with a beautifully executed spinning wheel kick which left the 28-year-old spaghetti legged in the centre of the octagon. Lee somehow retained his composure and survived, going on to win the fight via a doctors stoppage in the fifth round. It was a performance which was easily on par with Khabib Nurmagomedov’s one sided mauling of Barboza last December. While Lee will likely receive no small amount of criticism for failing to make weight prior to the fight, the performance he delivered in Atlantic City will do nothing but raise his stock in an already stacked lightweight division.
While Lee surprised nobody in calling out reigning lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in his post fight octagon interview, he will likely find himself a little too low on the list of potential suitors to be granted the next shot at the belt. A more realistic option for his next bout would be Eddie Alvarez (29-5-0, 1 n/c). Alvarez also wants a chance to fight for the lightweight gold but is coming off a no contest against Dustin Poirier and is 1-1-0, 1 n/c in his last three fights. With that in mind, he doesn’t really have the strongest case for a shot at Khabib despite being ranked at number 3 in the division. A win for either fighter would give them the ammunition they need to successfully petition for a shot at the champion later this year.