After losing its championship headliner, its back-up headliner, and its pay-per-view status, UFC 196 was quickly rebranded as UFC Fight Night 82 and slated to air live on FOX Sports 1. The new card, headlined by Johny Hendricks vs Stephen Thompson, became an odd mix of surprise finishes and largely indifferent decisions. It was almost as if the card was aware of its own schizophrenia.

The early preliminary fight built momentum, with Mickey Gall earning his shot at CM Punk and Diego Riva nearly decapitating Noad Lahat with a flying knee, but a boring, three-round decision win for Josh Burkman over KJ Noons quickly pumped the brakes on the show.

The six-fight main card suffered similar peaks and valleys. Mike Pyle scored a TKO win over Sean Spencer, followed by Misha Cirkunov’s nauseating jaw-crank win over Alex Nicholson. A fun, competitive decision victory for Joseph Benavidez kept the audience interested, but back-to-back lackluster decision wins for Ovince St. Preux and Roy Nelson threatened to put most viewers in a coma.

While fans were still trying to get the bad taste out of their mouth, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson went and stole the show, obliterating former Welterweight champ Johny Hendricks with precision striking and flashy kicks. The win was impressive to say the least, but is it enough to catapult him to “Number 1 Contender” status?

Let’s find out as we take a look into the crystal ball to see what’s next for the Fight Night 82 winners!

Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson
Potential Opponents: Tyrone “The Chosen One” Woodley, Rory “The Red King” MacDonald, Robbie Lawler (c)

Stephen Thompson had a coming out party on Saturday night, at the expense of Johny Hendricks and his new six pack. Thompson showed composure during Hendricks’ initial takedown attempts, landed precise counters when Hendricks lunged forward, and nearly put the former Welterweight champ through the cage wall with a beautiful spinning kick, before finishing him with a barrage of punches. It only took 3 minutes and 31 seconds to earn the TKO stoppage, but those three and a half minutes may have been the best of “Wonderboy’s” career to date.

The win, Thompson’s sixth in a row, sends him into uncharted territory: the top five of the division. If he’s smart, Thompson will use the emphatic finish over Hendricks to convince fans and the UFC that he deserves the next title shot – his boyish good looks and polite, charming demeanour won’t hurt his case, either.

Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit went to war in January, but Lawler appears to be healthy and ready to go any time. With a number of notable championship fights already booked over the next couple of months, the UFC could use Lawler-Thompson to add pop to UFC 199 in June or to the (expected) blockbuster UFC 200 in July.

Some would argue that Thompson is still one more top 5 opponent away from a title shot. If the UFC feels this way, there are two top-tier opponents that could do the trick: Rory MacDonald and Tyrone Woodley. MacDonald hasn’t seen action since a 4th round TKO loss to Lawler in July 2015 – an absolute war that showed both fighters’ heart, determination, skill, and ability to absorb ungodly amounts of damage. In spite of the loss, MacDonald’s stock has never been higher. “Wonderboy” may want to steal some of MacDonald’s thunder, which would all but guaranteeing a fight with the champ.

Similarly, Tyrone Woodley hasn’t seen action since a January 2015 win over Kelvin Gastelum. While “The Chosen One” is still claiming that he deserves a title shot, the truth is he’s been inactive for so long that the Welterweight division is threatening to leave him behind. A fight between “Wonderboy” and Woodley would give the winner a one-way ticket to a number one contender’s spot.

Roy “Big Country” Nelson
Potential Opponents: Antonio “Big Foot” Silva, Alexey “The Boa Constrictor” Oleinik

Quick Survey: Who here nearly turned off the TV and went to bed during Roy Nelson’s lackluster win over Jared Rosholt?
You’re not alone.

Although Nelson desperately needed the win after going 0-3 in his last three fights, the unanimous decision did little to improve his standings. His next opponent should be another fighter looking to regain momentum and remain relevant in the heavyweight division. Two fighters come to mind: Antonio “Big Foot” Silva and Alexey “The Boa Constrictor” Oleinik.
Silva is coming off of a TKO loss to Mark Hunt. The UFC doesn’t generally pit recent winners against recent losers, but given Nelson’s performance on Saturday, they may make an exception in this case.

The second option, Alexey Oleinik, will leave some readers scratching their heads and asking, “Who?”. “The Boa Constrictor” has been out of competition due to injury since November 2014. Prior to that, he was on an impressive 11-fight win streak, including two UFC wins over Anthony Hamilton and Jared Rosholt. Oleinik is reportedly on the mend and aiming for a mid-2016 return to action. Nelson could welcome the Russian heavyweight back to the octagon, with the winner emerging on the doorsteps of a top 10 opponent.

Ovince “OSP” St. Preux
Possible Opponents: Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson, “Suga”Rashad Evans

Despite rolling his ankle midway through the first round, “OSP” went on to win a largely uneventful, one-sided unanimous decision over Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante.  The win is a testament to St. Preux’s mental fortitude, although it is certainly also indicative of “Feijao’s” diminished will to fight professionally.

St. Preux is now back on the winning track after tapping to Glover Teixeira at Fight Night 73 last August. He’s 3-1 in his past four and maintains his spot among the UFC’s top ten light heavyweights.  Now, if he wants to prove that he can hang with the big dogs, there are few dogs bigger than Alexander “The Mauler” Gustafsson. While Gus is on a two-fight skid, the losses came in the form of a tough decision to current champ Daniel Cormier and a KO courtesy of the stone-fisted Anthony Johnson. A win over “The Mauler” would establish “OSP” as a legitimate top 5 contender.

If St. Preux is on the shelf for a while as his ankle mends, he should keep an eye on the April match-up between “Suga” Rashad Evans and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. St. Preux made quick work of Rua in their Fight Night 56 headliner back in November 2014, so people may not be chomping at the bit for an “OSP”-Rua rematch. However, if “Suga” can notch a win in April, a follow-up fight with “OSP” would serve to send the winner deep into top 5 territory.

Joseph Benavidez
Potential Opponents: Winner of Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson (c) vs Henry “The Messenger” Cejudo

Joseph Benavidez put on a hell of a performance against Zach Makovsky at Fight Night 82. He consistently beat Makovsky to the punch, stuffed his takedowns, and made him pay for each attempt by landing clean shots in the clinch and scrambles. The unanimous decision win makes it five straight for the former Team Alpha Male flyweight.

Given the current state of the flyweight division, Benavidez is by far the most logical choice for the winner of the recently announced UFC 197 title fight between Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Henry “The Messenger” Cejudo.
The current champ already holds two wins over Benavidez, but the self-proclaimed “Joe-Jitsu” practitioner has gone undefeated since that December 2013 loss. If Cejudo manages to dethrone the current flyweight kingpin, it may cause a monumental shake up the division, and would immediately set up an interesting stylistic fight with Benavidez.

Misha Cirkunov
Potential Opponents: Nikita “Al Capone” Krylov, Ed “Short Fuse” Herman

It was the snap heard round the… MGM Grand Garden Arena?… Okay, so maybe it wasn’t an earth-shattering win, but the sound of Misha Cirkunov cranking Alex Nicholson’s jaw until it audibly popped was stomach-churning to say the least. Cirkunov’s deadpan assessment of his own performance at the post-fight press conference may be even more unsettling: “…[I’m] very happy with the performance, and especially – not just the submission – but I was able to, like, break his jaw. So, y’know, I’m impressed.” Yeah, not terrifying at all.

Cirkunov ranks slightly higher than Gunnar Nelson on the Emot-o-meter and has Frank Mir’s “tap or snap” mentality.  With two wins in the octagon – granted, against largely unheralded competition – his next fight will have to be someone with the experience and record to help push him into top 15 contention.

One such opponent is Ukrainian-born Nikita “Al Capone” Krylov. At just 23 years old, Krylov already holds a 4-2 UFC record, and is 3-1 since dropping from heavyweight to light-heavyweight. He’s still evolving as a fighter, but has finished all of his three most recent opponents in the first round. The winner of a Cirkunov-Krylov fight would find themselves in a good position to call out someone in the top 15 of the division.

If the UFC is looking to really test the Latvian light-heavyweight’s mettle, they need a tough veteran who isn’t afraid to make things ugly. Bring in Ed Herman, who has alternated wins and losses over his past six fights dating back to January 2013. Herman recently made the move up from 185lbs to the 205lbs division, beating Tim “The Barbarian” Boetsch with a perfectly placed knee to the skull. June 2016 will mark Herman’s 10 year anniversary as a UFC fighter. Cirkunov would be happy to ruin that party, and Herman would relish the opportunity to rain on the Latvian’s parade.

Mike “Quicksand” Pyle
Potential Opponents: Winner of Erick Silva vs Nordine Taleb, Winner of Alan Jouban vs Brendan O’Reilly

As the 43-year-old Randy Couture said after dismantling Tim Sylvia way back in 2007, “Not bad for an old man.”  Granted, the stakes of Pyle vs Spencer weren’t nearly as high as Couture vs Sylvia; and, yes, at 40 years old, Mike Pyle isn’t quite as old as Couture was at the time. Still, it’s hard to deny the guy his props. He’s been fighting professionally since 1999, and has accumulated a 10-6 record since joining the UFC in 2009. Few fighters manage to stay active into their 40s, and even fewer look as good as Pyle did in the final moments of his TKO win over Sean Spencer.  

The win came after circle after dropping two straight for the first time in his 16 year long career. Pyle himself seems to have no delusions about where he stands in the division. He simply vows to continue fighting as long as he can stay competitive. One way to do that is to play the role of gatekeeper for up-and-coming fighters trying to break into the UFC’s top 15. Pyle’s next opponent may emerge in March, as UFC 196 and Fight Night 85 feature a pair of fights between fighters looking to jump into the Welterweight rankings. On March 5th at UFC 196, Erick Silva will face off against Nordine Taleb. Two weeks later, on March 20th, Alan Jouban will fight Brendan O’Reilly. If Pyle wants to prove he can still hang with the (relatively) young and hungry fighters on the UFC’s roster, a fight with the winner of either bout will do the trick.

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.