Tough roads ahead for UFC’s newest champs

Nov 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Georges St-Pierre (blue gloves) fights Michael Bisping (red gloves) during UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden was host to three title fights — a figure the UFC has grown fond of when putting on its annual mega-events.  But for the first time in this new era of back-to-back-to-back title fights in a single night, all three championship contests resulted in new divisional leaders.

Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Cody Garbrandt and Michael Bisping all lost their titles in sequence Saturday night, paving the way for Rose Namajunas, T.J. Dillashaw and Georges St-Pierre to take hold of the crown atop the 115-, 135-, and 185-pound divisions, respectively.

Becoming a champion at UFC 217 was not expected to be an easy feat for any of the night’s title challengers. Namajunas needed to get past a previously undefeated and largely untested fighter in Jedrzejczyk, needing to become the first fighter in MMA history to hand the Polish striker a loss. Dillashaw needed to do the same, stopping his former teammate in Garbrandt from extending his unbeaten record any further. St-Pierre, meanwhile, needed to shake off any ring rust from a four-year layoff and beat a champion 15 pounds heavier than his own native division.

The tasks, however, would not prove too daunting for this trio.

The goals that lie ahead are a different story.

Namajunas, the third woman to hold UFC gold at 115 pounds since the division was adopted in late 2014, pulled off what is far and away the biggest upset of the night. Few expected the 25-year-old to usurp Jedrzejczyk, and even fewer expected it to happen with a first-round knockout. But she did, providing the MMA community with one of the greatest upsets in the sport’s history.

But that’s kind of the point: nobody expected Namajunas to pull it off, and despite knocking out Jedrzejczyk in the opening round, the victory hasn’t automatically afforded her the aura of an untouchable world-beater Jedrzejczyk had just four days ago.

Nov 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Rose Namajunas (blue gloves) fights Joanna Jedrzejczyk (red gloves) during UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve seen Namajunas struggle in the past, namely against the likes of Carla Esparza, Tecia Torres and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. We know she’s beatable, and so do her contemporaries.

Up next for the new champ will be one of few options: an immediate rematch with Jedrzejczyk, or a title defense against the winner of an expected matchup between former title challengers Jessica Andrade and Kowalkiewicz. Of those three names, Andrade is undoubtedly the toughest matchup for Namajunas, boasting all the skills to provide “Thug” Rose with a short stint as champion. Even Jedrzejczyk, who lasted just three minutes in the cage with Namajunas, would likely be considered the favorite in a possible rematch given her past success.

The second champion crowned on the night, Dillashaw, has his eyes set on the loftiest goal of all the three titleholders crowned Saturday night. Having competed exclusively at 135 pounds throughout his career in the UFC, the two-time bantamweight champion is focused on picking up a second belt. Dillashaw called out reigning UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, inarguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet present day.

Dillashaw certainly has all the potential to pull off a victory over Johnson, both because of his skillset and size. It’s the latter that is of most concern, though, considering Dillashaw has never attempted to make 125 pounds as a fighter, and rarely looks like he has much more he could possibly lose when making the 135-pound limit.

Nov 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; T.J. Dillashaw (blue gloves) yells at Cody Garbrandt (red gloves) during UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Taking on Johnson will likely be the biggest challenge of his career, but it certainly won’t be the end of the steep hills he’ll need to climb to remain champion. Assuming former champion Dominick Cruz gets past Jimmie Rivera at UFC 219 in late December, Dillashaw would likely be defending his title for the second time against his former adversary — virtually the only man to make Dillashaw look less than elite since first winning the title in 2014.

Lest we forget about a possible rematch with Garbrandt down the line. Still one of the best fighters in his class, “No Love” is expected to re-climb the ranks to set himself up for a chance to become a two-time champion himself. Whether Dillashaw still has the belt by the time that happens remains to be seen, but the champ shouldn’t expect to be a heavy favorite going into a potential sequel with Garbrandt in the future.

But while both Namajunas and Dillashaw have tough tasks ahead, it’s St-Pierre whose future looks most bleak.

Becoming one of a handful of fighters in UFC history to hold championships in two different divisions (albeit not simultaneously — congrats, Conor), St-Pierre now embarks on the real challenges that exist within the greatest heights of the middleweight division. Because while Michael Bisping was the man holding the title, few regarded the Brit as the actual best fighter at 185 pounds.

There’s really no consensus as to who belongs at the top, but interim champion Robert Whittaker is certainly in the discussion.

Riding an eight-fight winning streak since abandoning the 170-pound class and entering the ranks at 185, Whittaker has become one of the very best fighters on the planet. A combination of moderate size, incredible speed and daunting power, Whittaker would be a big test for anybody in the middleweight division, including a fighter in St-Pierre, who — if we’re being honest — probably belongs at 170 pounds.

With hungry fighters like Luke Rockhold, Yoel Romero, Ronaldo Souza, Chris Weidman and Derek Brunson all clawing their way to the title, St-Pierre will have his hands far fuller than he ever did while competing at 170.

Of course, there’s the chance the Canadian superstar bypasses a majority of those challenges in favor of an epic blockbuster showdown with lightweight champion Conor McGregor. It’s a fight that makes little sense at the moment, but one that could quickly grow in support once the UFC gets a better idea of how well that fight could do from a pay-per-view front.

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