The UFC Welterweight division has been heating up in 2023, with new contenders emerging and crafty veterans showing why they still belong at the top of the sport. UFC fans are probably wondering what's in store for some of the weight class's unbooked fighters, so let's look at some matchups that we can hope for later this year.
Decorated Icelandic grappler Gunnar Nelson recently returned from a three-year layoff, scoring two consecutive easy wins since 2022. The welterweight has only lost to the best of the best in the division, with his most recent losses coming against Gilbert Burns, Leon Edwards, and Santiago Ponzinibbio. Regardless, Nelson's inactivity has placed him outside of the rankings, and with the momentum he's riding, he will soon face ranked competition again. Before he jumps back in, Nelson would stand to benefit from one more unranked fight, this time against an opponent who could hold his own in the grappling aspect of the fight. Enter Alex Morono, who rarely turns down an opponent and can threaten anyone with his well-rounded skillset. After his submission win against Tim Means, Morono rebounded nicely from a devastating knockout from Santiago Ponzinibbio. At 5-1 in his last six fights, Morono is also knocking on the door for a ranked opponent, and beating a fighter with a name like Gunnar Nelson can give him the matchup he wants.
These fighters go into a matchup with a calculated approach, showing feints and setting up their strikes rather than blitzing in. Morono should look more aggressive than usual on the feet while avoiding giving Nelson openings for a takedown. If the fight goes to the ground, it's Nelson's world, but Morono's high-level jiu-jitsu could result in an ability to get to the feet. Nelson will be looking for a submission, as Morono will be more difficult to control on the ground than some of his past opponents, and the longer the fight goes, the more it swings in favor of Morono. I'd expect Nelson's grappling pedigree to show through for the win, but it'll be close.
Both Daniel Rodriguez and Santiago Ponzinibbio have tasted the UFC welterweight rankings before. Still, both fighters are sitting at the wrong end of a knockout in their last fights. Both fighters are 36 years old, giving them only a bit more time to potentially return to the rankings. While both fighters have contributed plenty of wars to the UFC, their depleting age combined with their recent results could lead to the loser of this fight receiving the axe from the UFC. Between 2015-2018, Santiago Ponzinibbio went on a seven-fight run with four finishes before being forced out for three years due to injury. Fans must wonder how much of a toll that injury took on his career, given that Ponzinibbio has gone 2-4 since returning. Every fight he has had against ranked opponents hasn't panned out, so it's back to unranked competition for the Argentine Dagger.
Daniel Rodriguez had plenty of hype once as he surged up the ladder, going 7-1 in the UFC from 2020-2022. Rodriguez was since finished by Neil Magny and Ian Machado Garry, marking the first two times he had ever been finished in his career. Both fighters would be delighted with a matchup that evolves into a striking affair, which is what we could expect from this potential fight. Ponzinibbio likes to land power punches and impose pressure by walking down his opponent, while Rodriguez prefers to keep his opponent at range and stalk them down. Because they tend to lead the dance, we could see these two meet in the center of the octagon and bang it out for the fans' pleasure. This is what we call a low-stakes fan favorite.
These two scary welterweight prospects both showed out on the same Strickland vs Magomedov card earlier this month, putting them on the same timeline as we advance. Rinat Fakhretdinov has put the division on notice in his last two fights, first dominating TUF champion Bryan Battle across 15 minutes and then flatlining Kevin Lee in under a minute. "Gladiator" is a Russian grappler with heavy hands, holding a seasoned 22-2 record. With most of his wins coming inside the distance, this prospect is in his fighting prime and is looking to shoot up the rankings. The same could be said for Ecuadorian prospect Michael Morales, who just ground out a solid decision win against Max Griffin, who sits just outside the rankings. Both fighters have accumulated 3-0 records in the UFC, with Morales still keeping an undefeated overall record of 15-0 intact. At just 24 years old, Morales has plenty of time to improve on his already sharp striking, and respectable ground game.
This fight may be too early in the making, with both prospects expected to make it into the UFC rankings in the future. However, both fighters bring the action, so putting this matchup on a PPV prelim headliner is a no-brainer. Morales will come in with the striking advantage, holding a five-inch reach advantage and possessing more of a technical style. However, Rinat can put anyone down with one of those overhand bombs that he likes to catch people with, and he will also hold a grappling edge. Rinat Fakhretdinov and Michael Morales have shown that they're ready for the next step in the division, and it may be time to see who will continue.
After beating up-and-comer Phil Rowe in a razor-thin mirror match, Neil Magny once again proved that he deserves a number next to his name. With 30 UFC fights to his name, the Haitian Sensation is running out of names that he still hasn't fought. One fighter he has yet to test himself against is Sean Brady, who recently pulled out of a fight against Jack Della Maddalena due to an infection. With Magny coming out of his fight against Phil Rowe relatively unscathed, it's realistic to believe these two contenders could be on the same timeline. After facing lower-ranked competition in four of his last five, a company man like Magny deserves a step up in the rankings.
Sean Brady is coming off his first career loss to Belal Muhammad, who stopped him in the second round last October. Brady's jiu-jitsu game is his primary weapon, but Magny's rangy striking style will make him a tough man to get to the ground. This fight won't bounce off the page as an all-action brawl, but it's a high-level matchup between two fighters who like to impose their styles. With questions about Brady's standup and Magny's success against high-level grapplers, they both have questions they could answer in this fight.
Whether this fight goes down at welterweight or middleweight, it's time for Khamzat Chimaev to face a former champion. After an active title run, Kamaru Usman has taken his time to return to UFC action since losing a second straight fight to champion Leon Edwards. Given his past accomplishments, Kamaru Usman's next fight will come against someone at the top of the division. At 36 years old, the Nigerian Nightmare probably only has a few fights left in him, but he will equally look to accomplish as much as possible in the rest of his fighting career. Also, once one of the most active fighters in the promotion, Khamzat Chimaev is likely itching for an opponent as we speak. The UFC has elected to keep him on ice for the perfect matchup, and putting him up against Usman presents much less risk to his brand than a matchup against a Belal Muhammad or another rising contender.
At first glance, Khamzat Chimaev has more to gain from a win in this fight. In reality, Chimaev's activity throughout multiple divisions could work in Usman's favor, as he considers a move to middleweight himself. Beating Chimaev would keep Kamaru Usman relevant at welterweight and potentially put him right in line for an immediate title shot at 185. Usman has expressed a lack of interest in fighting for the title if Israel Adesanya still holds the belt, but picture this: Dricus Du Plessis beats Adesanya to take the "Battle of Africa," and Kamaru Usman, fresh off a win against Khamzat, could be the one to avenge him. All speculation, but it's an exciting thought.