UFC 298 takeaways: Topuria’s win signals a changing landscape at featherweight

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What were the biggest moments from UFC 298? Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim offer up their final thoughts after an 12-fight card in Anaheim, California, on Saturday night.

Topuria’s win signals a changing landscape at 145 pounds

Wagenheim: The narrative during the leadup to this event was that Alexander Volkanovski, at age 35, is too old to be a UFC champion. A long list of fight results serves as evidence of that truth, but let’s set it aside for a moment. Nothing should diminish the accomplishment of Ilia Topuria.

The undefeated 27-year-old from Spain is the UFC men’s featherweight champion because he stood toe to toe with the greatest 145-pounder mixed martial arts has seen and knocked him out cold. Max Holloway couldn’t do it in three tries. Jose Aldo didn’t come close, and neither did Yair Rodriguez, Brian Ortega or Chan Sung Jung — collectively, the best the weight class has had to offer in recent years.

Topuria had never been in the cage with the likes of any of those fighters. The other narrative that circulated in the days before this fight — aside from the historic lack of success that male fighters 35 and older have had in title bouts at lower weight classes — was that there are levels to this sport. Topuria learned that reality early in this fight, as his aggression was met by Volkanovski’s counterpunches and a steady attack of leg kicks.

But Topuria kept going forward. And early in Round 2 he connected flush with a right hand that stiffened Volkanovski.

The sight of Volkanovski motionless on the canvas was reminiscent of the immediate aftermath of the head-kick knockout in his rematch with lightweight champ Islam Makhachev in October. There was a question coming into the title fight whether Volkanovski was fully recovered from his last matchup, but again, let’s not diminish what Topuria did in claiming a title that, in the leadup, he was so vocally confident would be his on this night.

Volkanovski won 11 straight featherweight fights, despite two losses in his quest to add the 155-pound belt. His five title defenses were more than twice as many as the next most accomplished UFC champ has. Now, the longest UFC title reign belongs to Leon Edwards, who has owned the welterweight belt since August 2022 — just 18 months ago.

Whether one declares that, in general, MMA is a young fighter’s game, or zeroes in on Topuria as the next big thing because he’s the UFC’s only undefeated champion, this night makes it clear that the landscape is changing. If Holloway can get past Justin Gaethje in April, for example, he’ll be back in play as a potential title challenger, a status that was unlikely while Volkanovski held the belt.

Topuria planting his flag at the top of the mountain changes everything for everyone near the peak of the featherweight division. And the confident new champ seems to be the type of fighter who’ll welcome all challengers.


Can Ian Machado Garry continue to rise above the noise?

Raimondi: Machado Garry picked up the biggest win of his young career Saturday night, yet it seems the venom that UFC fans have for him has only increased exponentially. Maybe that will prove to be a positive thing for the young fighter — it’s better to have fans boo you than be indifferent to you. But Machado Garry’s career trajectory from here is a unique one.

Beating Geoff Neal is nothing to sneeze at. Neal was the most formidable opponent yet for the 26-year-old Irishman, a durable power puncher with real boxing skills. But Machado Garry won a tactical, intelligent performance rather than an exciting one. MMA fans are fickle. Had Machado Garry gone out and wiped Neal out — again, no easy task — he might still have been booed, but there surely would be a measure of respect there. Like, hey, we don’t like this guy, but he’s really good.

There was none of that at UFC 298. The boos were intense from the fans in Anaheim when the split decision was read and only intensified during Machado Garry’s post-fight interview. It was surely better to inch out a close decision over Neal than end up staring up at the lights after a big left hand, but that wasn’t anything the fans at Honda Center cared about at the moment.

For those scoring at home, UFC fans don’t like Machado Garry because of some run-of-the-mill trash talk and his relationship with his wife Layla, who wrote a satirical book a decade ago — before they were married — called “How to be a WAG.” Some fans also don’t like that Machado Garry hired his wife’s ex-husband, and the father of Machado Garry’s step-child, to be his nutritionist. The whole fan reaction has been bizarre.

Machado Garry has all the tools. He’s a good-looking and charismatic kid who may not have found his full voice yet in interviews. He’s also an excellent fighter and someone who, at his age, projects to be at the top of the UFC welterweight division for a long time. Yet, he has all this criticism from fans, some deserved and most not. Seeing how he deals with it all moving forward will be interesting. It’s far more negative noise than a typical prospect on the rise has to deal with.

What should be next: Colby Covington

Okamoto: This is the one, 100 percent. One million percent. Machado Garry has always done a good job of having a plan in place the second a fight is over, and he’s been building this one for a while. Whether real or fake, the perceived level of animosity between these two would be extremely high. Neither of them is very popular right now in terms of fans wanting to see them win. But they are popular in that they are consistently in the headlines. You put them together, and that’s going to increase tenfold. Fans will care about this matchup, and if you’re the UFC, you’re giving a guy on the rise (Machado Garry) an opportunity to build his brand off a guy who seems to be (according to his last fight) on the decline.

Wildcard: Vicente Luque

If they can’t convince Covington to take the fight, my guess is they’ll go back to the Luque matchup, which was supposed to happen in December until Machado Garry got sick during fight week. Luque has since booked another fight against Joaquin Buckley in March. If he wins that one, then rebook this. But man, Covington makes so much more sense. I hope it happens.


The Rise of The Machine: What’s next for Merab Dvalishvili?

Wagenheim: Merab Dvalishvili keeps getting better.

I’m not referring to an evolution in his career, although he has won 10 in a row after dropping his first two UFC outings. No, I’m talking about Dvalishvili’s ability to raise his level while in a fight. After Henry Cejudo got off to a fast start, Dvalishvili kept coming and coming, undeterred. He gradually wore down his older opponent and seized total control.

And while Dvalishvili initially veered away from his usual wrestling-heavy strategy, which made sense while in with a one-time Olympic gold medalist wrestler, he eventually got his grappling game going, and Cejudo could not slow him down. Dvalishvili was successful on five of his 11 takedown tries, and with the fight hanging in the balance in Round 3, he spent about half of the decisive five minutes in control on the ground or in clinches.

The victory all but certainly earned Dvalishvili a date in the Octagon with the winner of next month’s title bout between Sean O’Malley and Marlon Vera. “Suga Sean” was watching from cageside, and his takeaway had to be that if he cannot hurt Dvalishvili while they’re on the feet, he’s going to be in for a bad night once Dvalishvili takes him to his world.

What Should be Next: Winner of O’Malley vs. Vera at UFC 299

Okamoto: UFC commentator Joe Rogan told Dvalishvili inside the Octagon that he would get the winner, which was a bit surprising, if I’m being honest. Not because Dvalishvili shouldn’t be next, but the UFC typically doesn’t like to make things official so quickly after a fight. It certainly makes all the sense in the world for Dvalishvili to be next. He’s won eight in a row, including three straight over former champions. He’s been dominant during that run, and looks like a legitimately nightmare matchup for anyone in the division. Cejudo looked good early in this three-round fight, so I’m not willing to say Dvalishvili should be favored over anyone in the division, but that might be the reality after Saturday. I do think he’ll get his shot next.

Wildcard: Cory Sandhagen

How can you not feel for Sandhagen? He’s done all that’s asked of him and then some. He beat “Chito” Vera not long ago, and next month, he’ll have to watch Vera fight for a UFC championship. He was willing to face Umar Nurmagomedov last year when no one else in the division wanted to do so. I don’t see Sandhagen waiting around for two more title fights to get his shot, so I imagine he’ll take another fight later this year. However, depending on what happens at the top, if there is any delay in Dvalishvili getting a title shot, the UFC would probably book this fight as an official No. 1 contender bout.


Okamoto: What should be next for Topuria and Whittaker after UFC 298?

Ilia Topuria, featherweight champion

What should be next: Max Holloway

This is why the booking of Holloway vs. Justin Gaethje for UFC 300 was awesome, but also puzzling, in a sense. Topuria vs. Holloway is easily the fight to make. It’s the fight that has to happen. But now, there is a significant hiccup, because Holloway has a huge fight booked at a higher weight class. This fight should be the conversation right now. I’m not crying about it because Holloway wanted the Gaethje fight, and he told me he would not regret the decision, even if Topuria did win, and he essentially risked a title fight to have the BMF fight. This isn’t a bad situation, but a better one would have been having Holloway ready for Topuria. We’ll see if this still happens anyway … UFC 300 will have a major impact on what happens at 145 pounds.

Wildcard: Winner of Yair Rodriguez vs. Brian Ortega next week

The timing couldn’t be better, obviously. That’s a big fight next weekend in Mexico City, and the UFC could easily start promoting it as a No. 1 contender fight.


Robert Whittaker, middleweight

What should be next: Khamzat Chimaev I think Chimaev should get a UFC title shot. I know I’m maybe in the minority on that, but at this point, it feels like the Chimaev saga has been going on forever, and I’m ready to see his true potential. Let’s find out where the guy is. That said, there’s much to pick through at the top of middleweight right now. Dricus Du Plessis needs to fight Israel Adesanya and he needs to fight Sean Strickland again. Adesanya and Strickland need to fight again. Those are all fights that need to happen for us to have a real sense of clarity at the top. Unfortunately for Whittaker, he’s the odd man out of those matchups. So, what else is there? There’s not much else that really looks exciting. What feels right for a fighter with Whittaker’s resume? Chimaev — would make sense and feel exciting.

Wildcard: Brendan Allen If Allen beats Marvin Vettori in a UFC Fight Night main event in April, there will be a lot of momentum behind him, and he’ll be deserving of a move up the rankings. Having Whittaker defend his spot in line against a surging contender like that would be a good move.

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