Every weight class in the UFC has its intrigue, but nowhere are the twists and turns as dramatic and volatile at the top as they are in men’s bantamweight.
Merab Dvalishvili put on a historic performance in winning a lopsided unanimous decision over former champion Petr Yan in the main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday in Las Vegas.
In winning for the ninth time in a row, including his eighth straight in bantamweight division (tying the longest streak in UFC bantamweight history, held by Aljamain Sterling), Dvalishvili set a UFC record with 49 takedown attempts, breaking the mark held previously by Cain Velasquez with 33. Forty-nine! No wonder why this guy is known as “The Machine.”
Dvalishvili landed 11 of those takedown tries, giving him 74 in his UFC career — tying him with Demetrious Johnson for the fourth most in any division. But even the 38 tries that were unsuccessful affected the fight, draining Yan before three rounds were gone and leaving his usually stout boxing susceptible to being picked apart by Dvalishvili. Dvalishvili outlanded Yan 147-70 in significant strikes on Saturday night.
A performance like this begs the question: What’s next for the big winner? When asked that very question inside the Octagon after the fight, Dvalishvili pointed across the Octagon at the bantamweight champion Sterling.
But this was not a callout.
Dvalishvili is not just a training partner of Sterling. The two consider each other brothers. They’re not fighting anytime soon.
“Hey, man, he’s my brother and he’s real champion,” Dvalishvili said. “Only me and him know who’s real champion, you know? He’s the real champion.”
So Dvalishvili is on a dead-end street? Not exactly.
“Whenever he decides to go up in weight class and fight the next challenge, wherever will be there, I will fight for title,” he said. “Of course I want to be champion! And now I prove again — I prove again — I am ready!” — Jeff Wagenheim
What’s next for top fighters after UFC Fight Night?
Brett Okamoto hits on the big winners and top stars from Saturday night’s action by playing matchmaker for their potential next matchups.
Merab Dvalishvili, bantamweight
Who should be next: Winner of Marlon Vera vs. Cory Sandhagen on March 25
Look, this kind of performance earns you a title shot. But Dvalishvili doesn’t want the title shot as long as his good friend Sterling is the champion, which is his right. So, what does that mean for him and the division?
It means he’ll be asked to take another fight. Sterling is not moving up to featherweight any time soon. He’s got Henry Cejudo on May 6, and if he wins that, he’s not about to leave the division before taking a money title defense against Sean O’Malley. So, Dvalishvili will be asked to defend his spot in line, which will be against the winner of Vera and Sandhagen.
Wild card: Henry Cejudo
If Cejudo beats Sterling, he’ll end up fighting O’Malley afterward. Even in this situation, Dvalishvili wouldn’t be next. However, if O’Malley were to miss out on the fight for some reason, Dvalishvili would be an obvious replacement to challenge Cejudo for the title and avenge his teammate’s loss.
Petr Yan, bantamweight
Who should be next: Winner of Song Yadong vs. Ricky Simon on April 22
We see unpredictable stuff every week in MMA. Nothing should really “shock” us anymore. But even with that said, Yan dropping four of his last five fights is one of the oddest things that’s happened in recent years. Before he fought Aljamain Sterling for the first time (and even after he lost via DQ), he was considered a top-10 pound-for-pound talent.
This fall has been a drastic one. Yadong or Simon might feel like a letdown opponent for him right now, but one of these two will get a win in April, and at that point, people will take notice of what they’ve both been doing in recent fights. Both are wickedly talented and entertaining to watch. I could see a matchup between Yan and either one commanding a lot of limelight when it eventually happens.
Wild card: Deiveson Figueiredo
Figueiredo is moving up to bantamweight and looking for a big fight. He has yet to say precisely when he’ll make the jump, but he just fought in January. Yan is going to need a bit of a break after this loss. This is a fight you could pencil in for even the second half of 2023, get it on the books early and let fight fans look forward to it for several months. Despite their recent losses, this would be a marquee fight and bring one of them back to life into title contention in a huge way.
Alexander Volkov, heavyweight
Who should be next: Serghei Spivac
This one writes itself. There aren’t many options for Volkov if you go by the following criteria — someone is ranked above him, coming off a win and hasn’t fought him before. It’s not as if Volkov will fight Jon Jones in his next bout. Spivac makes all the sense in the world. He was ranked just ahead of Volkov going into this weekend, and he’s coming off an impressive win over Derrick Lewis. Neither of these guys are in title contention at the moment, but the winner of this proposed bout would start to get into that conversation.
Wild card: Tai Tuivasa
Two standup fighters. If the UFC wants a fun addition to a pay-per-view card, Tuivasa always fits the bill and Volkov would be an appropriate dance partner. Spivack is the most likely option, but depending on timing and the UFC’s needs on certain cards, I could see a Tuivasa vs. Volkov booking.
Nikita Krylov, light heavyweight
Nikita Krylov grabs first-round submission win over Ryan Spann
Nikita Krylov gets Ryan Spann to tap in the first round to take home the victory.
Who should be next: Aleksandar Rakic
Big win for Krylov. He’s had his missteps over the years, but if you look at his body of work, it’s highly competitive with the best of this division — and he’s a lot younger than some of those other names. This guy is still only 30, and this win will have him in Top 5 contention. There are several potential fights next. Rakic is the most obvious.
Granted, it’s not perfect. Rakic is coming off a loss and hasn’t fought since May 2022 due to an injury. But he’s ranked No. 4 and has a dynamic skill set, just like Krylov. There are a lot of unknowns with this weight class, starting with the recovery of former champion Jiri Prochazka from shoulder surgery. But knowing what we know right now, this matchup for Krylov makes the most sense.
Wild card: Jamahal Hill for the UFC light heavyweight title
This is wild, wildcard. This is out there. Krylov’s next fight seems unlikely to be for a championship, but I can see a world in which it would. Hill just got a title shot in January when he was ranked No. 7 by the UFC, and Krylov was ranked No. 6 by the promotion going into Saturday’s fight against Ryan Spann. UFC president Dana White didn’t love the most recent performances by Magomed Anakalaev or Jan Blachowicz. There’s a good chance the UFC will ask Hill to defend his title before Prochazka is ready. Could Krylov sneak into that spot? It’s not likely, but not impossible, either.
Mario Bautista, bantamweight
Mario Bautista uses impressive rear-naked choke to grab first-round win
Mario Bautista grabs a first-round win via rear-naked choke over Guido Cannetti.
Who should be next: Cody Garbrandt
I think Bautista nailed the callout. When he first said Garbrandt, I didn’t hate it but figured there’d be more suitable options. And I don’t know how interested Garbrandt would be. But as I look through the bantamweight roster, this callout makes a lot of sense. Bautista is very good. He’s a bit overlooked because of how deep the division is, and his UFC record of 6-2 is solid.
Behind the scenes though, people in the know are aware of how much potential he has as he enters his prime at age 30. He’s also a friend and training partner of Sean O’Malley, who Garbradnt would love to fight at some point. There’s a bit of story here, which incentivizes Garbrandt to take the fight. If Garbrandt were to beat him, it would say a lot about how much he has left in the tank. Smart call out by Bautista.
Wild card: Davey Grant
Grant had a great win on Saturday and, like Bautista, gets a little overlooked in this division because he’s had some ups and downs. This guy holds wins against quality opponents in Marlon Vera, Jonathan Martinez and Raphael Assuncao. This matchup would make a lot of sense.