Let’s be honest: Everybody loves a bit of drama.  It gets the juices flowing.  You don’t have to be ashamed. It’s human nature. 

On paper, last Sunday’s UFC Fight Night 81 offered its fair share of drama for both hardcore and casual fans alike. The main and co-main events featured a quartet of current and former champions jostling for space in the upper tiers of their respective divisions. A heavyweight clash on the undercard saw one fighter rolling the dice on the last fight of his contract versus another who was just hoping to kick of the new year off by erasing the memories of a turbulent 2015. Add to that a sprinkling of fresh-faced prospects, some resurging vets, and a couple of crowd-pleasing gatekeepers, and UFN 81 was shaping up to be a captivating and entertaining card.

The thing is, as much as we love these underlying conflicts, we ultimately want them to come to a satisfying resolution. And that’s the trick part. While UFN 81 set up the pre-fight conflict perfectly, many fights failed to deliver on the definitive resolutions UFC fans so desperately wanted.

But don’t despair. When fights leave fans with more questions than answers, The MMA Corner is here to help. Let’s navigate UFN 81’s murky waters to see what’s next on the horizon for the fighters.

Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz
Potential Fights: T.J. Dillashaw, Urijah Faber, Raphael Assuncao

Props to Cruz for being one of the most mentally tough athletes in all sports. From May 2012 to late 2015, he undergoes numerous surgeries to fix torn ACLs in both knees and a serious groin injury. He rides a three year rollercoaster from injury to rehab to training to re-injury to rehab and back again.

Then, against the odds, he fully recovers and books a title fight versus T.J. Dillashaw on January 17th 2016.  On that anomalous Sunday night card, he steps into the octagon for only the second time in five years and takes back the belt that he never truly lost.

During the fight, Cruz looked as quick, technical, and elusive as he has ever looked in his MMA career. Yes, his movement clearly slowed as the fight progressed and Dillashaw was able to capitalize on this, winning the last two rounds. However, given the injuries suffered and the forced inactivity, Cruz looked stellar against the quick, powerful Dillashaw.

Here’s where things get complicated.

Cruz was given the split decision win, but it was close. Very close.

Was it close enough to justify an immediate rematch? Unsurprisingly, Dillashaw thinks so. Cruz himself seems to believe the matter was settled at UFN 81 and wants to move on to the next challenge. Ironically, “moving on” will force Cruz to retrace his past, as Urijah Faber, the only person to ever beat Cruz in his WEC and UFC career, is likely the next in line at 135.  Faber has bounced between 135 and 145 over his past couple of fights, and lost a clear cut decision to Frankie Edgar at 145 in May 2015, but he’s coming off of a gritty win against Frankie Saenz at UFC 194.  In the UFC’s relatively thin bantamweight division, Faber has enough clout to talk his way into title contention, especially considering the weird love-hate triangle emerging between him, Cruz, and Dillashaw.

Then there’s the matter of Raphael Assuncao. Hardcore MMA fans will know Assuncao as the Brazilian bantamweight currently on a seven-fight run and the last man to beat Dillashaw (prior to Cruz at UFN 81). Casual fans will know Assuncao. Assuncao has been on the sidelines since an October 2014 decision win over Meisha Tate’s boyfriend Bryan Caraway. Still, seven consecutive wins in the UFC is an achievement that deserves serious respect, even if most of those wins came against fighters outside of the top 10 rankings. Unfortunately, Assuncao has been mostly unable to “move the needle”, so if he wants a shot at gold, he’s going to have to do something to capture the public’s and the UFC’s attention, because sometimes simply winning isn’t enough (just ask Frankie Edgar).

T.J. Dillashaw
Potential Fights: Dominick Cruz, Urijah Faber, Raphael Assuncao, John Dodson

Dillashaw put on a valiant performance against Cruz in the main event of UFN 81, managing to push the fight to a close – his supporters might say, “contentious” – split decision. Unfortunately, two of the three judges scored the fight in Cruz’s favor, reuniting “The Dominator” with his bantamweight belt, and no doubt leaving Dillashaw with a bitter taste in his mouth.

The former UFC 135-pound champ initially insisted that he thought he’d “done enough to win” and hinted at wanting an immediate rematch. However, by the time the fighters assembled for the post-fight press conference, he seemed to have resigned himself to working his way back to the belt. Looking at the numbers and considering how close some of those rounds were, Dillashaw certainly has a case for a rematch if he wants to push the issue. The problem is, if he demand an immediate rematch at this point, he’ll find himself swimming against the current. Cruz vs Dillashaw II doesn’t yet hold the same allure as, say a Lawler vs Condit II. Without that fan-driven intrigue, the UFC isn’t likely to pounce at the rematch idea. **Subliminal message to UFC President Dana White and matchmaker Joe Silva: Book Lawler vs Condit II**

Instead, Dillashaw might be better served to lobby for a match-up with former training partner, mentor, and founder of Best Bros Forever, Inc Team Alpha Male, Faber. Although “The California Kid” wants a trilogy fight versus Cruz, it would only take a few passive aggressive tweets or a deleted Instagram post, a la Jon Jones, from Dillashaw to get fans and the media on the Faber-Dillashaw wagon. Even without the extra layer of drama, a fight between two strong wrestlers with very different striking techniques makes stylistic and matchmaking sense: a win for Faber makes him the unquestionable number one contender, while a win for Dillashaw gives him the momentum he needs to demand another crack at the belt.

If Faber is granted a shot at Cruz for the belt, Dillashaw might want to jump on the UFC’s rematch train with a fight against Raphael Assuncao or John “The Magician” Dodson. Dillashaw famously lost to Dodson by first round TKO at The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale in 2011. After that loss, Dillashaw went on a four-fight winning streak which included three finishes. That streak came grinding to a halt – literally and figuratively – when Dillashaw lost to Assuncao via split decision. Now that Dillashaw is back on the road to title contention, avenging a previous loss may be just what the doctor ordered.

Eddie Alvarez
Possible Fights: Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, Nate Diaz

You could say Eddie Alvarez took the classic Land Rover approach en route his wrestling-heavy split decision win over Anthony “Showtime” Pettis at UFN 81: It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done. Alvarez used the blueprint drafted by Clay Guida and Rafael Dos Anjos, smothering “Showtime” against the cage, landing in the clinch when he could, and making Pettis’ normally flashy striking a non-factor.  

The win makes it two in a row for Alvarez. The former Bellator lightweight champion now finds himself sitting among the top dogs of the UFC’s crowded 155lbs division – all the more crowded since a certain Notorious featherweight is jumping to the front of the lightweight line-up to challenge RDA in March.
Alvarez could take the “wait and see” approach with RDA vs McGregor, but that’s a risky gamble in the mercurial lightweight standings. Instead, his best bet is to separate himself from the rest of the 155lbs pack by campaigning for a fight with one of his fellow top 5-ers, namely Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, or Nate Diaz.  

Nurmagomedov has been on the sidelines due to injuries since a 2014 win over RDA, but many still consider him the division’s true number one contender. “The Eagle” shares Alvarez’s swing-for-the-fences mentality on the feet, and has the Sambo grappling base to match Alvarez’s wrestling game.

In Ferguson, Alvarez finds an opponent on the sunny side of a seven fight winning streak, with notable wins over Abel Trujillo, Gleison Tibau, Josh Thomson, and most recently Edson Barboza. An impressive win over the surging lightweight would be enough to justify a shot at whoever holds UFC gold after UFC 197.

Finally, if Alvarez wants to make waves while making his case for a number 1 contender spot, look no further than Nate Diaz. The Stockton native returned to action in December 2015, picking apart Michael Johnson with crisp boxing for three rounds. The win – and the epic post-fight interview – immediately put Diaz back on the radar of every UFC lightweight. A win for Alvarez could hijack Diaz’s self-propelling hype train, giving him a one-way ticket to a title shot.

Travis Browne
Possible Fights: Winner of Josh Barnett vs Ben Rothwell, Junior Dos Santos

After going 6-1 in his first seven UFC fights, including nasty KO wins over Josh Barnett, Alistair Overeem, and Gabriel Gonzaga, Travis Browne has alternated wins and losses over his past four outings. He finds himself in the win column after his third round TKO of Matt Mitrione at UFN 81, breaking Mitrione’s orbital bone and separating his shoulder in the process. The win, however, didn’t come without some controversy. While the third round finish itself was brought on by clean ground and pound, Browne caught Mitrione with two accidental eye pokes earlier in the fight, impairing Mitrione’s vision and drawing the ire of the Boston crowd.

The heavyweight division is particularly busy at the moment, making Browne’s next steps unclear. One possible option is the winner of the January 30 fight between “Big” Ben Rothwell and Josh “The Warmaster” Barnett at UFC on FOX 18.  Rothwell has the durability and power to further test “Hapa’s” top 5 mettle; and although Browne already holds a KO win over Barnett in 2013, “The Warmaster” is a legend of the sport and perennial top 10 fighter.  A rematch at this pivotal time in the heavyweight division would help paint a clearer picture of where each fighter truly belongs in the standings.

If the winner of Rothwell vs. Barnett gets shortlisted for a number one contender shot against someone other than Browne, another possible option for the Hawaiian heavyweight is former champ Junior Dos Santos. Admittedly, the UFC doesn’t normally match-up winning and losing fighters (Dos Santos lost to Overeem at UFC on FOX 17 in December 2015), but the eye-poking incidents had an undeniable impact on people’s perception of Browne’s win at UFN 81. A fight with JDS, who has also alternated wins and losses in his last six fights, would give Browne a shot to redeem himself and make a definitive statement on his claim to a top five spot in the division.

About The Author

Jonny Hodds
Contributor

Jonny Hodds geeks out over MMA, RPGs, comic books, board games, documentaries, and all things horror/sci-fi/fantasy related. When he was 10 years old, he was shown a karate video of a “master sensei” getting kicked in the junk repeatedly without flinching. To this day, he still believes this is the only true form of mixed martial arts. He also spends far too much time online for his own good.