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Marina
Rodriguez
is one of the sport’s fastest-rising strawweights,
even if her most recent conquest took place a weight class up from
her usual domain.

The 34-year-old muay Thai specialist took a unanimous decision over
a game but badly outgunned Michelle
Waterson
in the main event of
UFC on ESPN 24
on Saturday, elevating her record with the
promotion to 4-1-2 and inching closer to a title shot. However,
there are still questions to be answered about the completeness of
Rodriguez’s game; most of her difficulties in the UFC have been due
to her takedown defense and susceptibility to being controlled on
the ground, and even the visibly smaller Waterson easily won the
fourth round by dedicating herself to wrestling.

The oddity of a flyweight main event between strawweight contenders
was a symptom of the beleaguered card, which started leaking
fighters a little over a week ago. Twelve fights were whittled down
to 10 over the course of fight week, and in the end only nine made
it to the Octagon. Nonetheless, “UFC Vegas 26” was rife with
winners who need a next step forward. In the wake of UFC on ESPN
24, here are some matches that ought to be made.

Marina
Rodriguez
vs. Weili
Zhang
:
Rodriguez’s UFC record is even stronger than it
looks, as her loss and both of her draws could easily have been
scored in her favor. Put simply, she has chewed up every woman who
hasn’t gone for broke trying to get her to the ground and several
of those who did try. This matchup presupposes that the UFC will
not book an immediate rematch between recently dethroned champ
Zhang and Rose
Namajunas
. Assuming that is the case, the winner of the
Xiaonan
Yan
Carla
Esparza
matchup later this month is likely to get the next
title shot and Zhang needs a bounceback fight. Rodriguez would fit
that bill perfectly, while Zhang would provide Rodriguez a chance
to show herself ready for a title shot beyond all doubt. If the UFC
decides to book Namajunas – Zhang 2 right away, Joanna
Jedrzejczyk
would be an excellent second choice and the
resulting muay Thai clash would be a treat.

Alex Morono
vs. Randy
Brown
:
In Saturday’s co-main event, “The Great White”
pulled off one to tell the grandkids about, stepping up on less
than a week’s notice to put away Donald
Cerrone
with a brutal hail of punches in the first round and
picking up a “Performance of the Night” bonus. For name value,
“Cowboy” is easily the most notable scalp in Morono’s collection.
From a competitive standpoint, however, it merely extended
Cerrone’s winless streak to six, and praise for Morono’s
performance was balanced by speculation over whether Cerrone needs
to retire. Fair or not, it leaves Morono in more or less the same
place he was before the fight: a solid action fighter in one of the
UFC’s deepest divisions, stuck in the logjam just below the
contender level. That same sentence could describe Brown, who ran
through the UFC’s other “Cowboy,” Alex
Oliveira
, two weeks ago at UFC 261. A Morono vs. Brown scrap
would be an instant “Fight of the Night” contender, and the winner
would get a much needed leg up towards the Top 15.

Neil Magny
vs. Vicente
Luque
:
Magny put on a masterful show against Geoff Neal,
drowning the heavier puncher with volume, stifling him and keeping
him off balance with clinches and well-timed wrestling. In so
doing, “The Haitian Sensation” notched his 18th win in the UFC
welterweight division, good enough for second place all-time behind
Georges St.
Pierre
. At 33, Magny continues to sharpen his game, shows no
signs of slowing and remains entrenched at the edge of the UFC’s
rankings as well as this site’s. The same can be said for Luque,
whom Magny called out after his victory Saturday. The matchup is
competitively appropriate, stylistically attractive — “The Silent
Assassin” is unlikely to test Magny’s still-shaky takedown defense
— and would probably be a sensational fight. Book it.

Marcos
Rogerio de Lima
vs. Sergey
Spivak
:
It wasn’t pretty — in fact, it was dreadful to
watch — but de Lima put on a completely dominant performance
against Maurice
Greene
on Saturday. There are positives to be taken from the
three-round blanketing, however. “Pezao,” a striker by preference,
showed himself more than willing to take what his opponent gave
him, ruthlessly exploiting Greene’s miserable takedown defense,
doing just enough from guard to avoid being stood up by the
referee, and nullifying Greene’s quietly dangerous submission game.
The big Brazilian is now 3-2 since moving up to heavyweight, but
all three men he has beaten are out of the UFC. Spivak sports an
identical Octagon record, and while not all of his victims have
washed out of the promotion, Tai Tuivasa
nearly did and Jared
Vanderaa
may next month if he goes 0-2 in his first two UFC
fights. Both de Lima and Spivak could use a win over an opponent of
similar standing.

Gregor
Gillespie
vs. Islam
Makhachev
:
Gillespie answered a whole lot of questions
at UFC on ESPN 24. After 18 months away, in the wake of the first
loss of his career, a devastating head-kick knockout by Kevin Lee,
Gillespie silenced the doubters — myself among them — with a
fantastic second-round TKO of Diego
Ferreira
. To do so, he had to weather a wild first round of
scramble-heavy grappling, getting the worst of it and visibly
wobbling as he walked to his corner at the end of the round.
Gillespie then came back out renewed, leaned on his top-shelf
wrestling, and pounded out the fading Brazilian late in the second
round. For any who were questioning Gillespie’s chin or mental
state after the Lee loss, or wondering whether the compact New
Yorker could hang in the lightweight division, outwrestling and
outlasting the 160-pound Ferreira was an eloquent answer. For a
next step, Gillespie needs a ranked fighter. Makhachev is vocal in
claiming that nobody wants to fight him. Perhaps the UFC’s greatest
fisherman will oblige him.

Phil Hawes
vs. Deron
Winn
?
Apparently this fight is already a done deal,
and according to reports, it was agreed upon even before Hawes’
extremely impressive win over Kyle
Daukaus
on Saturday. Frankly, it makes no sense; Daukaus was
and is an excellent prospect and would have been a borderline
ranked middleweight if he had beaten Hawes. Now it’s Hawes who is
eyeing the rankings, yet must fight a man whose only UFC win at
middleweight was two years ago against a short-notice Eric
Spicely
. It isn’t an especially compelling matchup, either:
Winn must now face a much larger, faster athlete who may well be
able to match him at his own forte, wrestling.


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