There’s been a lot of talk about how successful an athlete can be crossing over between boxing and MMA, well Claressa Shields is going to put her combat skills to that test.
The No. 1 pound-for-pound female boxer in the world has signed a multi-year deal with the PFL, and she plans to have at least two MMA fights in 2021, and then participate in the PFL’s season format in 2022.
Can she succeed, as former boxing champ-turned-UFC champ Holly Holm once did, or will the differences between boxing and MMA prove too much for the two-time Olympic boxing gold medalist?
Shields’ arrival in the PFL immediately ignited speculation about a possible fight down the road against two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison, who is 8-0 in MMA.
But will Harrison still be in the PFL when Shields is ready to challenge the elite, or will Harrison be pursuing a blockbuster fight against UFC double-champion Amanda Nunes?
One critical fight that’s indeed set to take place is Tony Ferguson versus Charles Oliveira at UFC 256 on Dec. 12. It’s a chance for Oliveira to make a huge name for himself against Ferguson, who had won 12 in a row before losing to Justin Gaethje in May. While Oliveira has won seven straight, none of those victories has come against a fighter with Ferguson’s credentials. Can Oliveira possibly become a contender at 155 with a win?
ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim discusses those topics and more, breaking down what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: Shields will successfully make the transition from boxing to MMA.
Raimondi: This is very real. There’s little doubt. Shields may not have a ton of wrestling or grappling training under her belt yet, but she still has plenty of combat experience. This isn’t some club-show fighter making the jump to MMA. Shields is a legit fighter who can throw hands — with power — as well as any woman in mixed martial arts right now. The last high-profile women’s boxer to make the transition to MMA has done pretty well for herself. Holm, a former three-division boxing champion, shocked the world by beating Ronda Rousey to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title in 2015. Five years later, Holm is still going strong, still one of the best women’s MMA fighters in the world.
There are some differences between Holm and Shields. Holm had a background in kickboxing, so her offensive diversity was already there, even though she was a latecomer to the grappling arts. But Holm also didn’t fully commit to MMA until 2013, the year she turned 32 years old. Shields is only 25 now, very much in her athletic prime. And while we’re talking about athleticism, she already has more of that than many of her peers in the heavier weight divisions. If we’re being honest, there isn’t much depth in those weight classes, so Shields becomes someone to watch right from the jump.
What division Shields will fight in will be interesting. She has boxed at 154 pounds, so the PFL women’s 155-pound division would make the most sense. Could she get down to 145 pounds in the future since the UFC doesn’t have 155? That’s unclear. The biggest opponent for her right now in PFL would be Harrison, but Shields is not ready for that yet. She needs some MMA seasoning and ground training first.
It’s probably too soon to even be mentioning her with the likes of Harrison, Nunes and Bellator champion Cris Cyborg (a friend of Shields). But if Shields does commit to MMA, specifically the ground game, the sky is the limit. It will be difficult, though, if she tries to continue on as a boxer. No one has been able to do both MMA and boxing simultaneously at the highest level.
Real or not: Harrison will eventually fight Nunes.
Okamoto: This is a tough one for me. I find myself going back and forth. On the one hand, Harrison wants that fight (eventually), and I guarantee the UFC would want it, too — assuming both continue to win. And Nunes certainly wouldn’t turn it down, although it’s worth noting she doesn’t need it. And that last part is what is going to make me ultimately go with “not real.”
I don’t think we’ll ever see this fight. Or at least, I don’t think it’s the most likely scenario. There are too many things that need to go right. First off, both need to keep winning. Second, Harrison would, presumably, need to leave the PFL for the UFC — and I don’t think the PFL would make that an easy call for her. That promotion is heavily invested in the Kayla Harrison business, and it figures to do all it can to hang on to her long-term. And third, Nunes needs to keep fighting, which feels far from a guarantee. She has toyed with the idea of retirement on numerous occasions, going back years. Her legacy is secure. Will she even fight into 2022, which is the year Harrison would become a free agent?
As a fan, I hope so, but I can’t say for sure. I’d love to see this fight and I think there is a chance we will see it. But as of today, I’m going to guess it never happens.
Real or not: The Ferguson fight will prove to be a breakout moment for Oliveira.
Wagenheim: I think this is real, or at the very least a real possibility. Oliveira has won seven fights in a row, all finishes, yet he’s still mired back in the pack among lightweight contenders. This is his opportunity to step forward.
Oliveira’s string of conquests has come against fighters not quite at Ferguson’s level, but it’s fair at this point to question whether even Ferguson himself is at that elite level. He is coming off a May knockout at the heavy hands of Justin Gaethje, one of the most brutal beatdowns in recent times. What will be the residual effects?
In other words, Oliveira is getting his shot at Ferguson at an advantageous time. “El Cucuy” might be as good as new on Dec. 12, but history suggests otherwise. Fighters who get brutalized often do show the consequences in their next outing.
Ferguson, even at his best, is prone to putting himself in dangerous positions, then relying on his unorthodox knack for fighting his way out. But with Oliveira, there’s not necessarily a way out. He has 14 submissions in the UFC, more than anyone in history. Give him an inch, and he’ll take an arm.
Whatever the outcome, it’s going to be fun getting there. Oliveira has 16 postfight bonuses, the second most in UFC history. Ferguson has 11. Watch those totals grow before our eyes.
Real or not: Deiveson Figueiredo is making a mistake by turning around so quickly.
Joe Rogan is high on Deiveson Figueiredo’s performance after a first-round finish of Alex Perez at UFC 255.
Helwani: No way. Not real. This is a brilliant move on his part. First of all, Figueiredo didn’t get hurt on Nov. 21 in his win over Alex Perez. That’s most important. Second, he’ll make history when he fights on Dec. 12 because that will be the quickest turnaround for a champion ever. That’s a huge feather in his cap. Third, fans and the company simply love a fighter who turns around quickly — just ask Khamzat Chimaev. A move like this only endears him to, well, everyone, and helps expedite his growth as a star. Fourth, this will help keep his weight down. There’s no doubt he’s a big guy, but the quick turnaround will preclude him from getting too big because he agreed to this fight before he left the Apex last week. There wasn’t any time to get out of shape.
He’s sharp and in shape and has a chance to seal his fate as the 2020 male fighter of the year by headlining his second straight pay-per-view. A no-brainer if there ever was one.
Of course, he has to win, and I think Brandon Moreno is a tougher fight than Alex Perez, but it’s a risk worth taking, especially when you consider the luxury of just being able to stay in Las Vegas. Hindsight might prove otherwise if Figueiredo ultimately loses, but I like the move a lot for a budding star.
Real or not: The UFC heavyweight title will be defended more than once in 2021.
Stipe Miocic explains why Francis Ngannou deserves the next heavyweight title shot, but says the result will be the same as their first bout.
Raimondi: It has to be, right? Heavyweight has been the slowest-moving division at the top for several years. The title has been defended only five times in the past three calendar years — and three of those defenses were in 2018.
For the most part, it’s no one’s fault. Daniel Cormier beat Stipe Miocic for the belt in July 2018, then turned around pretty quickly to defend against Derrick Lewis three months later. Then, Cormier needed back surgery, which put him out until a rematch with Miocic in August 2019. Miocic beat Cormier, but suffered a torn retina in that bout, which sidelined him for a year. Miocic won the trilogy over Cormier back in August and now is unlikely to defend the belt again until the first quarter of 2021 (or later). Injuries do happen at the highest level, and we’re talking about a pair of athletes in their late 30s and 40s.
Miocic is likely to face Francis Ngannou next. If that fight does happen in early 2021 as expected, there is plenty of time for the winner to get at least one title defense in before the end of next year. If Ngannou wins and becomes champ, he’d like to defend the belt twice within 2021, a source close to the rising UFC star told me this week.
The next title challenger, regardless if Miocic or Ngannou wins, will probably be former longtime light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, arguably the best UFC champion ever. There will be major incentive for Jones and the UFC to get that fight done. Jones has not fought since last February, and if his next fight is for the heavyweight title, it will be well over a year in between fights for him. With all of those things factored in, I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll see multiple UFC heavyweight title defenses in 2021.