The names of the longest reigning champions in UFC history are all current or future hall of famers: Demetrious Johnson, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Valentina Shevchenko and Jose Aldo. Those six had title reigns with at least seven successful title defenses, but — at least for now — the days of champions having lengthy runs with the belt around their waist seem to be numbered.
Alexander Volkanovski is the only reigning champion with more than one successful title defense (five), as belts have changed hands or been left behind (Amanda Nunes) in five of the last seven pay-per-views. Five current champions — hello, Sean Strickland — have zero title defenses. And three of the UFC’s 12 weight classes are currently vacant. (Goodbye women’s bantamweight?)
As we turn to the fall schedule, there are three confirmed title bouts with two current champs — Alexa Grasso and Islam Makhachev — trying to carve out their legacy. In the case of the third fight, Jones will look to add to his resume as not only the best 205-pounder ever but also one of the best heavyweights.
But what do the analytics behind the fights suggest about these marquee matchups? Using predictive models agnostic of betting lines, we examined how each champion’s matchup appears from a favorability view.
Essentially, is this a good matchup for the champion or the challenger? The inputs consider each fighter’s performance metrics inside the Octagon and select factors about the fighter outside the cage. The higher the score, the more favorable the incumbent champ matches.
These scores don’t indicate how to bet the fight versus the relative favorability running from the riskiest to the best matchup.
Reed Kuhn and Ian Parker look ahead at three future title fights — including Grasso’s flyweight title defense against Shevchenko at UFC Noche (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+) — that are currently scheduled along with a couple of fights that are likely to get booked. Kuhn provides the model projections for each fight, while Parker details the betting perspective.
Confirmed UFC championship bouts
Women’s flyweight title: Alexa Grasso (c) vs. Valentina Shevchenko, UFC Noche on Sep. 16 (Watch on ESPN+)
Analysis: -0.07, mildly unfavorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Shevchenko was a clear favorite in her stunning loss to Grasso, so the odds should be more even this time around. And yet, Shevchenko still has performance advantages, just not so much that she should be a heavy favorite again. The Bullet was likely ahead on the cards before Grasso submitted her. If the market believes the first fight was a fluke, there could be value once again on the underdog Grasso as she’s in her prime at age 30 and still improving as a fighter. Plus, Grasso enters this fight as the incumbent champ fighting with the crowd likely in her favor.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Shevchenko to win. Some might consider their first bout a top 5 upset in the history of the UFC. Grasso took Round 1 in with her boxing and striking output. In Rounds 2 and 3, the judges scored it for Shevchenko, who started to find her rhythm and looked like she was en route to another win. In Round 4, Shevchenko was continuing her momentum and maybe even got too confident as one mistake caused Grasso to take her back and seize the opportunity. At +150, I expect many bettors to be on the new champ, Grasso, but I am going the other way as Shevchenko’s a favorable money-line bet at -185.
Lightweight title: Islam Makhachev (c) vs. Charles Oliveira, UFC 294 on Oct. 21
Analysis: +0.31, strongly favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: This pairing has the intrigue of a chess match between Makhachev’s wrestling and Oliveira’s submission game. The latter has always made Oliveira a live dog, but Makhachev’s recent striking proved he could keep the fight standing and test his opponent’s chin instead of his ground game. The last meeting saw Makhachev winning on both levels, so this rematch appears to have potential for the same.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Makhachev inside the distance. I love Oliviera; he is one of the most exciting fighters ever to grace the Octagon. But he is running into his kryptonite in Mahkachev. I don’t see this fight going much differently, as Oliviera is the same fighter he was two fights ago, and I believe that Mahkachev will be the one to continue to get better. Mahkachev inside the distance will be the play for me.
Heavyweight title: Jon Jones (c) vs. Stipe Miocic, UFC 295 on Nov. 11
Analysis: +0.35, most strongly favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Now beyond 40, the best days of Miocic are likely behind him, while Jones has now shaken off the cage rust from his long layoff. They’re headed in different directions, with Miocic having to return from his two-year hiatus. Miocic is a boxer-wrestler hybrid, but he’ll have trouble with Jones at a distance. And if the fight goes to the mat, Jones has the better finishing potential.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Jones inside the distance. It likely won’t happen in Round 1, as I don’t see Jones tagging Miocic on the feet — and Stipe will be able to scramble initially — but I think Jones will get a finish against Miocic, similar to what he did against Ciryl Gane in his heavyweight debut. Throughout the fight, the top pressure of Jones will eventually lead to a finish. Jones inside the distance looks like the play, but if you feel like getting a bit greedy, Jones by submission should have a fun number on it.
Projected UFC championship bouts
Welterweight title: Leon Edwards (c) vs. Colby Covington
Analysis: -0.06, slightly unfavorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: An incumbent champ showing up less favorably could be a fight night dog, depending on market movements. With two wins over former champ Kamaru Usman, Edwards has twice done something Covington could not, despite two tries himself. But Edwards will face a considerable volume disadvantage, as Covington typically outpaces him by more than 2-to-1 on the feet. Add in the challenger’s wrestling credentials, and suddenly, the current champion could face uphill rounds on multiple levels. This matchup is the closest of all the current booked and projected title fights.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Over 3.5 rounds. In Covington, Edwards will have to fend off the high pace and relentless wrestling he puts forward, similar to Usman in the first fight. I see bettors looking for this fight to go into the later rounds. Covington is exceptionally durable, and Edwards could spend all five rounds defending takedowns while trying to counter.
Men’s bantamweight title: Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Ilia Topuria
Analysis: +0.21, mildly favorable for the champion.
Kuhn on what the numbers mean: Volkanovski is undoubtedly flirting with GOAT status at featherweight, having proved his striking against elite talent. While Topuria cemented his title shot with a lopsided win, the quality of his opponents is nowhere near what the champ has faced for the last few years. A fresh face in the title picture is welcome, but don’t expect Topuria to see nearly the same success he had while earning his title shot.
Parker on where the bettors lean: Volkanovski by decision. Before his last dominant performance against Yair Rodriguez, Volkanovski put on a gritty performance in which many thought he won against the lightweight champion Mahkachev. A win here over Topuria might get him that rematch he desires. Topuria is a good wrestler with technical boxing and carries a ton of power. In his fight against Josh Emmett, Topuria showed every aspect of his game, and he looked flawless. However, the difference between fighting Emmett and Alexander Volkanovski is vast. Look for Volk to win by decision and the fight to go the distance.