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  • Cooper Burke

Climbing the Ladder: UFC Fighters Who Deserve a Title Shot

At any given time, there are over 400 fighters on the UFC roster, and they come and go with a frequency uncommon in professional sports. However, there are 168 ranked fighters throughout the UFC’s 14 divisions, and yet there have only been 136 champions in the history of the promotion. Being champion is an honor that few fighters have earned, and it is something that stays with them for life. No matter what they wind up doing, they will always be referred to as a “champion” by fans and fighters.

This is why a UFC title is one of the most coveted awards in the sporting world, and many fighters never even get close. However, those that win the championship consider it one of their greatest accomplishments. Most fighters would do anything for a title shot, and being a title challenger is one of the most coveted positions in sports.

Belal Muhammad

Welterweight standout Belal Muhammad is a force to be reckoned with at 170 pounds. “Remember the Name” has made sure that nobody forgets about him. He has gone on a nine-fight winning streak if his no-contest due to an eye poke against Leon Edwards is disregarded. He sports wins over Sean Brady, Gilbert Burns, Vicente Luque, Demian Maia, and Stephen Thompson in his last five, an unprecedented run at the top of the weight class not seen in some time. The win over Brady was impressive, as Muhammad fought an undefeated Brady who tore through welterweight, coming into the fight 15-0 with finishes over Jake Matthews and Christian Aguilera. Muhammad fought in a style new to him, as he avoided the smothering top game from Brady and kept it on the feet. Muhammad was hitting so hard that he put Brady away standing up in the second round. [link to finish] He deserves an opportunity at the title, especially after Leon Edwards dispatched Colby Covington via decision last weekend. MMA media, including announcer Jon Anik, believe that Muhammad has the body of work to earn a crack at the title in 2024. The argument that he is sitting on a title shot makes little sense, as well, as Muhammad last fought against Brady in May of 2023, and Covington earned his shot after over two years away. Arguably, Shavkhat Rakhmonov is next in line, but not before Muhammad gets his due.

Merab Dvalishvili

The Georgian Merab Dvalishvili has not lost in the UFC in over five years, and it is easy to see why. He brings a wrestling-heavy attack heavily influenced by the Eastern European style of Combat Sambo, something that rose out of the USSR in the 1980s. Dvalishvili sports wins over Jose Aldo, Petr Yan, and Marlon Moraes, all on a nine-fight winning streak. Lots of personalities argue that Dvalishvili is a “boring” fighter, much like Muhammad. His game plan often consists of heavy top pressure and ground shots. He has only one finish in the UFC, and this came as he beat the aging Moraes in the second-to-last UFC bout. However, his ground dominance and wrestling pedigree is undeniably one of the best in the division, and even the entire promotion. The body triangle is a favorite of his to keep control, as well as maintaining hooks to dictate his opponents’ movement from the back position. Dvalishivili refused to take a title shot against his teammate Aljamain Sterling from Serra-Longo Fight Team, and so he stood high atop the rankings for some time. As of Dec. 10, Dvalishivili steps up against former UFC bantamweight and flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, who lost his last fight against Sterling. Ideally, the winner of this fight deserves a title shot.

Cory Sandhagen

Fellow Colorado bantamweight Cory Sandhagen certainly isn’t a boring fighter. He has back-to-back highlight KO wins over Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar, coming by spinning wheel kick and flying knee respectively. He is regarded as one of the most dynamic fighters in the promotion, and he beat Yadong Song, Marlon Vera, and Rob Font. His biggest win was the complete domination of Marlon Vera from bell to bell, that was somehow scored as a split decision, which meant that Chris Lee scored the fight for Vera. Most scorecards on scored the fight 50-45 Sandhagen, and some had the fight 50-44, an even more dominant performance. Not a single media member scored the fight for Vera. The UFC booked Vera for the next title shot against Sean O’Malley despite Sandhagen dismantling Vera for 25 minutes, much to the chagrin of observers around the world. The UFC argued that Sandhagen’s fight with Rob Font was not eye-catching enough to earn him a title shot. However, Sandhagen revealed after the fight he tore his rotator cuff, which explained a ground-heavy performance from someone who is usually a striking-first fighter. The recovery time for that injury is around six months to a year, and it makes sense to give other fighters title shots before him. However, giving Vera a title shot before both Dvalishvili and Sandhagen is malpractice on the part of the UFC, and only serves to delegitimize the promotion’s matchmaking. Sandhagen should have a chance at a championship belt when he returns from injury, and then all is right in the world.

Charles Oliveira

Former UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira has proven time and time again that he is among the best, only losing once to Islam Makhachev in 12 fights. He lost his title due to an unfortunate weight miss, as the scale he used to measure his weight cut in the hotel was 1.5 pounds off of the actual number. He did beat Justin Gaethje by first-round rear naked choke, but lost to Makhachev in the second round of their bout. In his next outing he battered Beneil Dariush on the ground in what was unquestionably the number-one-contender fight for the lightweight division. He outstruck the American 37-32, but landed huge shots from the top after knocking Dariush down to put the fight away. That performance proved that Oliveira is still heads above almost everyone in the division, and he certainly has the skills to dethrone Makhachev. Oliveira is one of the greatest grapplers the world has ever seen, and so if he can develop a plan to beat Makhachev’s combat sambo, he can dictate the pace of the fight. He is realistically the only man who can challenge Makhachev right now. The UFC would have to bypass him and go to Gaethje, who he beat, for any alternative to an Oliveira title shot. Barring injury, this has to be the way that the promotion goes.

Tom Aspinall

The promotion is in between a rock and a hard place with Jon Jones’ shoulder injury, which sidelined him from a potential fight with Stipe Miocic. As a result, the UFC booked Tom Aspinall and Sergei Pavlovich for the heavyweight interim title. Aspinall dropped Pavlovich early in the first, and the fight was over from there. He remains one of the shiftiest heavyweights on the roster, and he has a huge right hand. None of his wins have gone out of the first round, and his only UFC loss was a result of a freak knee injury. It remains clear that Aspinall is the hottest fighter in the division, and passing over him in favor of Miocic because that is what Jon Jones wants makes little sense. Jones said on Twitter: “Now I have newcomers requesting I get my championship stripped. Zero wins over legends, zero title defenses and already thinking you can call the shots to Dana, that’s hilarious. Jones likely has little say on the future of the division even as a champion, as he has never defended his heavyweight belt, and will be coming off at least a year-long layoff on the heels of a three-year layoff when Jones fought Dominick Reyes. After all, Aspinall is the interim champion, and thus has to be in line for the next opportunity at Jones’ title.

Each one of these fighters deserves a crack at UFC gold, and it is likely we see at least one of them holding a belt by the end of 2024. The UFC produces new stars all the time, and these fighters have to capitalize on the opportunity that lays before them in the next calendar year to accomplish huge career goals. 

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