Cole Henry, MMATorch Contributor

Yoel Romero (photo credit Gary A. Vasquez © USA Today)

With UFC 221 in the books, it is time to look ahead at what could be next for every fighter on the card.

Main Card

Yoel Romero def. Luke Rockhold

I can’t help but feel that each time Yoel Romero competes, it is in a handicap match against both his opponent and father time. At 40 years old, and with a style so dependent on his explosive athletic ability, common wisdom tells you that Yoel Romero’s prime should have ended years ago, but instead he seems to be competing at a level that is higher or as high as any level that he has competed at in his MMA career. Considering his age, and the recent loss to Robert Whitaker, I think that just weeks ago Yoel Romero was a long shot for a title fight, but in just over 12 minutes of action Romero was able to change everything.

By stopping Luke Rockhold, Romero has firmly established himself as the number one contender in the division. When you consider his wins over Jacare Souza, Derek Brunson, Chris Weidman, and now Luke Rockhold, he really doesn’t have anything else to do besides attempt to win the belt and avenge his only UFC loss to Robert Whitaker.

I think it’s obvious where I am going with this. Despite his recent loss, and the fact that they just fought a few months ago, the only fight that makes sense for Romero is a rematch with Robert Whitaker. This is the fight that we will likely see next, according to Dana White himself, who tweeted “Yes” to ESPN reporter Brett Okamoto when asked if Romero would in fact receive the next shot. White’s word has been questionable in the past, but I think it’s a safe bet that this fight is booked, and I think it makes the most sense.

Fight to make next: Yoel Romero vs. Robert Whitaker (C) for UFC middleweight championship

In December 2015, Luke Rockhold defeated Chris Weidman for the UFC Middleweight Championship and it seemed like the future of the division was set. Since then Rockhold is 1-2 with both losses coming via KO. He is at a cross roads in his career.

Rockhold is a guy who has stated on numerous occasions that he would have no problem leaving fighting to focus exclusively on his modeling career. I haven’t heard him mention the subject in a while but considering where he is currently in his career it will be interesting to see what his next move is. He is obviously still a highly skilled, and highly ranked middleweight, but he just doesn’t seem like he enjoys fighting. I don’t know the guy, and I imagine that people reading this are rolling eyes, but I just wouldn’t be shocked if he doesn’t fight for much longer.

All of that aside if he does stick around he will no doubt be looking to start the rebuilding process. Considering that he is a former champion, he is probably never more than a few fights removed from a potential shot.

One potential fight could be a rematch with Chris Weidman, but I like the Jacare Souza fight for Weidman. So, for Rockhold the fight to make is Derek Brunson. Both are former Strikeforce fighters, and both are still within range of a title shot despite recent losses. Brunson has turned into a KO artist, and along with his wrestling ability he is a tough matchup for anybody in the division. It will be interesting to see how Rockhold handles the power, considering that the takedown might not be easy for him.

Fight to make next: Luke Rockhold vs. Derek Brunson

Curtis Blaydes def. Mark Hunt

Well I figured that Mark Hunt would have a hard time with the wrestling of Curtis Blaydes, but I thought it was a problem that he would be able to conquer. I was wrong, and it is clear that Curtis Blaydes is a fighter to watch in the heavyweight division.

Not many men can say they have been hurt by Mark Hunt, and managed to not only survive, but go on to win. Hunt cracked Blaydes in the first round but couldn’t get the finish and once Blaydes recovered he never looked back. He used his wrestling to great effect, taking Hunt down ten or more times, and beat him up with elbows and punches from the top. Blaydes was dealt a rough hand when he debuted in the UFC, being tasked with facing Francis Ngannou in his debut.

However, since then he has beat all comers, and as the level of opponent increases, so does his performance. The heavyweight division is notoriously shallow and considering that he just beat a top ranked heavyweight in Mark Hunt, it’s likely that Blaydes gets another high ranked opponent next and could be looking at a title shot with another win, or at least a title eliminator fight.

I like the idea of a fight with Fabrico Werdum, but he has a date with Alexander Volkov and I get the feeling that Blaydes will be ready to return very soon. Alistair Overeem is a guy who has had many ups and downs in his career. He is coming off a brutal KO loss to Francis Ngannou, but is still one of the top heavyweights in the world. He will serve as a very stiff test for Blaydes, but anybody that can beat Overeem is probably worthy of a title shot and I think the division needs a fresh contender now that Ngannou has been defeated by the current champion.

Fight to make next: Curtis Blaydes vs. Alistair Overeem

Mark Hunt had a rough performance Saturday night. He was out grappled, out worked and suffered what was the first decision loss of his long MMA career (Blew my mind to find this out. Hunt did drop a decision loss to Brock Lesnar at UFC 200, but that result has been overturned). Despite the loss, Hunt still did show off some of his trade mark power and managed to stun Curtis Blaydes mid-way through the first round. It was downhill from there though, and Blaydes left little doubt about who the better man was, at least on Saturday night.

With the Blaydes fight now out of the way we are down to one, and I get the feeling that Hunt won’t resign once his contract ends. He has been very vocal about his displeasure with the UFC, and I just can’t see a situation where he re-signs when he could easily go fight elsewhere. Bellator would be a decent option for him. He could also return to kickboxing, or even return to MMA in Japan (Considering his current stance on PEDS, signing with Rizin or a promotion like that seems counter intuitive, but stranger things have happened.) Before any of that though, he will have to compete in his final contracted UFC fights. He has mostly fought in Oceania recently, and I think that’s where his UFC career should end. Mark Hunt vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov as the main event of an Australian fight night card makes the most sense here. If this was the WWE I would suggest that they give Hunt an opponent that could make a name off him. But instead I think the UFC will milk Hunt for one last Australian card headliner and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Fight to make next: Mark Hunt vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov

Tai Tuivasa def. Cyril Asker

Tai Tuivasa is Mark Hunt 2.0. They are both hulking heavyweights, with pro boxing and kick boxing experience, as well as massive power. One difference though is that Mark Hunt is 43 years old…Tai Tuivasa is 24.

Cyril Asker never stood much of a chance once the fight started. Tuivasa attacked often and early and did major damage with standing elbows. Asker was in defense mode from start to finish, and though his chin held up for a while, the finish seemed inevitable. Tuivasa has shown us that he can fight, so now it’s time to turn up the competition.

Tuivasa has a unique combination of youth and skill, something rarely seen in the heavyweight division. Considering his age, he should be brought along slowly, so that he can properly develop and a situation like the one we recently saw with Francis Ngannou can be avoided. I mentioned his hard-hitting style, and we all watch the sport for excitement, right? Todd Duffee has been out with injuries and hasn’t competed since 2015 but recently mentioned a possible November 2017 return date. That date passed, but hopefully we will get him back soon. Both guys hit hard, and Duffee serves as a good veteran test for Tuivasa.

Fight to make next: Tai Tuivasa vs. Todd Duffee

Cyril Asker has had a rough go in the UFC but has managed to sandwich a win between each of his losses and for that reason I think he will survive the chopping block. Asker is now tasked with rebounding from a violent and decisive loss to Tai Tuivasa. He offered up no offense, and instead mostly just covered up and attempted to avoid damage. He never had a chance to implement any game plan that he may have had, but he did show his toughness. He will need it in his next fight.

Anthony Hamilton is no guarantee to remain on the UFC roster following his fourth straight loss this past November. If he is kept around he will be a guy fighting for his roster spot, and desperate men are often capable of incredible things. The same can be said for Asker.  That sounded a bit dramatic…but I’m trying to convince you that this is a good fight so just bear with me.

Fight to make next: Cyril Asker vs. Anthony Hamilton

Jake Matthews def. Li Jingliang

Jake Matthews picked up his second straight win by halting Li Jingling’s four-fight win streak. Jingliang had picked up a lot of steam recently with his KO wins, but Matthews used his grappling to win the fight. Matthews is only 23 years old and has already competed 9 times in the UFC.

As I was watching his fight with Jingliang I already had his next opponent in my head. Randy Brown is coming off a great win over Mickey Gall and has won 3 of his last 4 fights. Brown and Matthews are both strong grapplers, with good cardio and this should be an exciting fight. Both guys are young and could be future stars of the division somewhere down the road. In the meantime, I like this matchup.

Fight to make next: Jake Matthews vs. Randy Brown

Li Jingliang has become one of my favorite fighters to watch. I like his style, and honestly, I think that a Chinese champion would be a cool thing to see in MMA. Guys like Jingliang show how far MMA has reached, and that it really is a world-wide sport. In the early days of MMA, the sport was dominated by Americans and Brazilians, but since then we have seen the rise of European and Asian fighters and its cool seeing the personalities of some of these guys and the different fighting styles they specialize in.

Jingliang no doubt has a bright future despite this loss, and I’m excited to see him return. Now despite what I just said, I do feel obligated to comment on the blatant eye gouging foul that he committed against Jake Matthews. It was violent, dirty, and no doubt a foul, but still at the end of the day it’s a fight. I have seen some speculation that he could face disciplinary action but until something happens on that it is hard to comment.

As far as his next fight goes, Ryan Laflare is the guy. Laflare is a grappler, and it was grappling that gave Jingliang problems in the Matthews fight. But he obviously needs to fix that hole and Laflare will serve as a good test and allow us the chance to see if Jingliang has improved.

Fight to make next: Li Jingliang vs. Ryan Laflare

Tyson Pedro def. Saparbek Safarov

Tyson Pedro looked incredible in defeating Saparbek Safarov. He pulled off a really nice Kimura sweep, and got the tap in the first round. Along with Dominick Reyes, Pedro is my favorite prospect at 205, and I really like bringing these guys along slowly. Gian Villante is always ranked near the low end of the top 15 and is a great test for anybody in the light heavyweight division. He will get in Pedro’s face and make him work, and it’s a test that I want to see Pedro take on.

Fight to make next: Tyson Pedro vs. Gian Villante

Saparbek Safarov did what he could but ultimately Tyson Pedro proved to be too much. Still though Safarov is a combat sambo champion, so it’s still possible that he can find some success in the UFC. He will no doubt be seeking a more positive outcome in his sophomore UFC appearance. Josh Stansbury is a guy that I don’t know much about, but he seems like a guy that will give Safarov a chance to rebound. Perhaps Stansbury can pull off a win here and extend his own UFC career.

Fight to make next: Saparbek Safarov vs. Josh Stansbury

Fox Sports 1 Prelims

Dong Hyun Kim def. Damien Brown

Fights to make next:

Dong Hyun Kim vs. Scott Holtzman

Damien Brown vs. Alvaro Herrera

Israel Adesanya def. Rob Wilkinson

Fights to make next:

Israel Adesanya vs. Karl Roberson

Rob Wilkinson vs. Darren Stewart

Alexander Volkanovski def. Jeremy Kennedy

Fights to make next:

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Myles Jury

Jeremy Kennedy vs. Rick Glenn

Jussier Formiga def. Ben Nyugen

Fights to make next:

Jussier Formiga vs. Matheus Nicolau

Ben Nyugen vs. Sergio Pettis

UFC Fight Pass Prelims

Ross Pearson def. Mizuto Hirota

Fights to make next:

Ross Pearson vs. John Makdessi

Mizuto Hirota vs. Alex White

Jose Quinonez def. Teruto Ishihara

Fights to make next:

Jose Quinonez vs. Louis Smolka

Teruto Ishihara vs. Matt Schnell

Luke Jumeau def. Daichi Abe

Fights to make next:

Luke Jumeau vs. Niko Price

Daichi Abe vs. Frank Camacho

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