Post-UFC 299 questions: Biggest winners, stars on upset alert, more

With the conclusion of UFC 299, MMA’s leading promotion now turns its focus to what is expected to be its biggest fight card of the year, UFC 300, at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on April 13. But there is still plenty of action to look forward to ahead of the UFC’s next pay-per-view event, including Bellator MMA’s first event since being acquired by PFL late last year.

Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Ian Parker highlight the best performances from UFC 299 before looking ahead at the upcoming events across MMA and giving some advice to UFC lightweight Michael Chandler, who is still waiting to book a fight against Conor McGregor.

Outside of the main event, which UFC 299 fighter had the best win of the night?

Okamoto: Poirier is the obvious answer, I do want to highlight Kyler Phillips, though. Phillips is flying too under the radar. He only has two losses — one was a split decision, the other a majority decision. He has a win over Song Yadong. And Saturday’s performance against Pedro Munhoz was an eye-opener. He’s got things clicking. Phillips has been in the UFC since he was 24 and he happened to come up just short in a couple of fights, but the talent has always been there. Now, he is putting it together at age 28. He’s a breakout candidate this year.

Parker: Poirier had the best win of the night. “The Diamond” took a huge risk with this fight, and not only did he come out on top, he did it in legendary fashion. A devastating loss could have sent Poirier into retirement, instead, his superhero-like performance in the win over Benoît Saint Denis could put him back in the title shot conversation.

Wagenheim: What an abundance of choices, from veteran contenders reasserting themselves (Poirier, Petr Yan) to rising hopefuls giving their career wings (Jack Della Maddalena, Maycee Barber). But there’s nothing as eye-opening as a first impression, and two UFC newbies made memorable entrances. Early in the prelims, 2012 Olympic taekwondo bronze medalist Robelis Despaigne showed off agility unheard of for a heavyweight, knocking out Josh Parisian while he was in fast retreat and off balance. And he did it in 18 seconds. Later, Michael “Venom” Page showed that the flashy skills he’d flaunted for years in Bellator transfer well to the Octagon, as he took apart Kevin Holland and put on a show. I imagine I am not alone in looking forward to seeing more of MVP and Despaigne.

Looking ahead to UFC 300, which betting favorite on the main card should be on upset alert?

Parker: The light heavyweight champ, Alex Pereira. Pereira is a talented striker, but he leaves his hands low and doesn’t have a strong grappling game. Jamahal Hill has the speed, power, and athleticism to pull off the upset in the main event and regain the title he never lost.

Wagenheim: Arman Tsarukyan has won eight of his last nine fights, and the most recent of those victories was his best yet, a knockout of top-five Beneil Dariush in barely a minute. Still, I don’t understand why Tsarukyan is favored over Charles Oliveira, a former champion and winner of 12 of his last 13 fights, with the lone loss coming against current champ Islam Makhachev. Like Tsarukyan, Oliveira owns a first-round knockout of Dariush, and within the past three years he also has finished Justin Gaethje, Poirier and Chandler. Tsarukyan has not faced a murderers’ row the likes of that. I think he and those who bet on him might be in for a rude awakening.

Okamoto: I’ll go with Tsarukyan, as well. Stylistically, a lot of things favor Tsarukyan over Oliveira. He has the wrestling to negate some of Oliveria’s actions on the ground. He has youth but is also relatively experienced, having fought in the UFC only since 2019. He has stopping power. Tsarukyan is a hard worker, and he’s with a good camp at American Top Team, so he’ll be ready to go. But it’s Charles Oliveira, man. This is exactly the kind of situation where Oliveira has shined in recent years. We know Oliveira shows up when he’s in adversity and under duress. If Tsarukyan finds himself in bad positions in the biggest spot of his career, how will he respond? We don’t know the answer yet.

Which fight on one of the four UFC Fight Nights between UFC 299 and 300 are you most looking forward to?

Wagenheim: Erin Blanchfield vs. Manon Fiorot by a mile. What drives my interest in a fight is what’s at stake, and this March 30 main event is all but certain to elevate the winner into a women’s flyweight title shot. But there’s a twist: With champion Alexa Grasso and ex-champ Valentina Shevchenko slated to coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” and then fight each other in a trilogy bout afterward, the Blanchfield-Fiorot victor is going to have to wait. And if it’s Blanchfield, the delay could scuttle any hopes the 24-year-old has of becoming the youngest woman to win a UFC championship (currently, Rose Namajunas at 25). Knowing Blanchfield’s eye-on-the-prize self-assurance, I’m guessing she’d gladly settle for simply taking home the gold whenever the day comes.

Okamoto: Easily Blanchfield vs. Fiorot. Big spot. Great clash in styles. Both are so good at what they do that either will be a potential problem for the winner of Grasso-Shevchenko. Both are in their prime. I won’t give up on whoever loses, though; they’ll have plenty of time to work back toward a title fight. I also prefer a Fight Night that’s not inside the Apex.

Parker: Blanchfield vs. Fiorot is the most relevant. This fight will give us a clear title contender and a fresh face fighting for the title, after Grasso and Shevchenko handle some unfinished business.

Who leaves Belfast with the Bellator light heavyweight and featherweight titles?

Wagenheim: Corey Anderson and Jeremy Kennedy. Anderson because I honestly have never laid eyes on Karl Moore, who has had four Bellator fights but just one on a main card. And Kennedy because everyone loves an upset and Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, loser of two fights in a row, is 36 years old and ripe for one.

Okamoto: I think it’s finally Anderson’s time. He had Vadim Nemkov on the cusp of defeat in 2022, before an unlucky clash of heads ruled it a no contest, and then he lost the rematch. But the light heavyweight title is there for his taking now. And I’ll still take “Pitbull” here, despite his 0-2 skid. Kennedy has been turning in the best performances of his career, but Freire is still the man to beat.

Parker: No question in my mind, it’s Anderson. Anderson has competed with the best in the world in both the UFC and Bellator. He is the better fighter no matter where the fight goes. I lean “Pitbull” here in the featherweight title fight, but only slightly. Kennedy isn’t a big name, but he is a well-rounded fighter. However, he has never had a main event in a major organization. Meanwhile, Freire does this consistently.

Bonus: If you could give Michael Chandler advice on what to do in 2024, what would it be?

Parker: Just wait a little longer. I still have some faith that Chandler vs. Conor McGregor will main event UFC 303 for International Fight Week. If it gets past that point, I think Chandler should campaign for a fight against Nate Diaz. That’s another big name, a winnable fight for him, and he will keep up his exciting fight style. Otherwise, at this point, wait for the big payday.

Wagenheim: Find a new hobby, one more fulfilling than following McGregor around. Since Chandler always ends his mic time with “See you at the top,” maybe he should take up mountain climbing. And when he reaches the peak and spots a Zen master sitting in the lotus position, he can ask for insight on this koan: What is the sound of one man fighting?

Okamoto: He’s waited this long … I would tell him to keep waiting. Who is he going to move on to? What matchup is out there that he’s denying himself by waiting for McGregor? If there were an obvious opponent — if he hadn’t already fought Gaethje and could go for a BMF title, or take on Poirier in a setting like Miami, yeah, I’d tell him to take one of those. But he’s already fought the top names at 155. As wild as it sounds, wait all the way through 2024. If it doesn’t happen this year, I don’t know if he’ll have any choice but to move on.

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