Morning Matchmaker: Sorting out the murky light heavyweight hierarchy

Alexander Gustafsson (from left), Rashad Evans, Anthony Johnson and Ryan Bader are all in the light heavyweight title mix.

Josh Hedges/Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Z/Getty Images

Ryan Bader entered his name into the UFC light heavyweight title discussion once again. Will one more win earn him a shot? And who should that be against?

Ross Pearson might have earned his way into the lightweight rankings. Where does he go from here?

Sara McMann beat Lauren Murphy in a controversial split decision. How close is she to getting another title shot against Ronda Rousey?

We’ll try to answer all these questions for you below.

RYAN BADER

No, Bader’s win over Ovince Saint Preux on Saturday night wasn’t pretty. Bader had to really grind it out for a unanimous decision victory. Saint Preux didn’t make it easy on him, but the better fighter was clear. The question now is whether this is Bader’s ceiling or if he can actually earn a title shot, which he could earn next.

Who’s next: Rashad Evans

The light heavyweight contender picture is pretty cloudy right now. We know Jon Jones will defend his title against Daniel Cormier at UFC 182 on Jan. 3. After that, there are four others closing in on a shot, led by Alexander Gustafsson. Bader, Anthony Johnson and Rashad Evans are among them. The problem is Johnson and Evans won’t fight, because they are teammates. And you can’t have Evans fight Gustafsson in the event that he beats him and eliminates him as a contender. Evans has already gotten his shot at Jones. At least Gustafsson-Johnson produces an extremely credible challenger. That leaves Bader against Evans, which should be a very interesting battle of former Division I college wrestlers with good boxing.

OVINCE SAINT PREUX

Saint Preux is close, but he’s not quite among the elite in the light heavyweight division yet. The problem is, at 31, it’s hard to tell if he’ll ever get there. The former Tennessee college football player certainly has physical tools and evolving technical abilities, but Bader’s wrestling was a tough matchup. OSP will get another chance.

Who’s next: Rafael Cavalcante

Bader rolled over Cavalcante pretty easily in June. We’ll find out where Saint Preux really is in this bout. "Feijao" has some technical striking with knockout power, but not the wrestling of someone like Bader. If OSP wins, he’ll prove he’s not going to fall into gatekeeper status. If he loses, well, it’s not a great sign for his development. It would be a pivotal fight for his career. At 31, he still has some time to get better.

ROSS PEARSON

One could have made the case for cracking the UFC lightweight contender rankings if he beat Diego Sanchez in June. Unfortunately, the judges robbed him and Pearson was still on the outside looking in. That should change this week. Pearson’s knockout of Gray Maynard will stand as one of the bigger wins of his career so far.

Who’s next: Abel Trujillo

Pearson was supposed to fight Trujillo this weekend until Trujillo got hurt. That fight still makes a lot of sense. Even if Pearson gets into the rankings, those around him on the lower end are pretty tied up. Trujillo, like Pearson now, is close to sneaking into the top 15 and is about one victory away. Also, it doesn’t hurt that both of them have good striking and the fight would likely be very entertaining.

GRAY MAYNARD

Maynard was once thought of as arguably the best lightweight in the world. He was the favorite in both of his title fights with Frankie Edgar. But Maynard ended up losing both of those epic battles and was never really the same afterward. The former Michigan State wrestler has lost three in a row via knockout.

Who’s next: Retirement

The saddest thing is that Maynard was faring so well against Ross Pearson on Saturday night. He was using his wrestling and blending in some improved boxing. Maynard was winning the fight until he was caught with a right hand from Pearson in the second round. It’s Maynard’s choice to make, of course, but he should give retirement a long look. Is it worth it to keep getting punched in the head at age 35?

TIM BOETSCH

Boetsch might have saved his job and picked up the biggest win of his career in one fell swoop. His come-from-behind knockout of Brad Tavares in front of his home state fans in Maine is going to live on his highlight reel forever. The win will allow Boetsch to stay in the middleweight contender rankings — and in the UFC.

Who’s next: Eddie Gordon

Boetsch got the victory, but you can’t really call him a contender. Before the Tavares fight, Boetsch had lost three of four and it could have been four straight if not for a controversial split-decision win over C.B. Dollaway last year. "The Barbarian" is a gatekeeper, so give him some youngish fighters and see if they can get over the hump. Gordon looked great at the TUF Finale. This could be a jumping-off point for him.

THIAGO TAVARES

Dominant ground work by Thiago Tavares against Robbie Peralta.

Whoa. Tavares should have moved down to featherweight a long time. Robbie Peralta is a very tough customer and Tavares made quick work of him Saturday night. It might have been the most impressive performance by anyone on the card. Tavares should probably be ranked in the 145-pound contenders top 15 this week.

Who’s next: Cole Miller

Tavares’ jiu-jitsu looked so slick against Peralta. The way he took his back was incredible and then his technique cinching in the rear-naked-choke was extremely sharp. Tavares was a beast on the ground and that’s exactly how Miller is, too. These two would put on a grappling clinic. All you jiu-jitsu nerds would get a serious kick out of this fight. And it will also be pretty meaningful in the featherweight division.

JUSSIER FORMIGA

Jussier Formiga (right) put in one of his best performances against Zach Makovsky.

It probably isn’t an exaggeration to say that Formiga’s unanimous decision over Zach Makovsky on Saturday night was his best performance. The win puts him right in the thick of things in the UFC flyweight title picture. Formiga was actually a pretty significant underdog, but outclassed Makovsky rather surprisingly on the ground.

Who’s next: Dustin Ortiz

Formiga might have looked great against Makovsky on the ground, but Ortiz is a different animal. The Roufusport product has superior grappling and is on a serious upswing with six wins in his last seven fights. Formiga isn’t going to get a title shot with Chris Cariaso getting the next shot against champion Demetrious Johnson and either Ian McCall or John Lineker next in line. Ortiz is the next best option.

ZACH MAKOVSKY

Makovsky was more than a 3-to-1 favorite over Jussier Formiga and turned in a disappointing performance. Formiga ended up dominating Makovsky, a former Division I wrestler at Drexel, on the ground. No one saw that coming. Makovsky remains a flyweight contender, but he could have earned a title shot with a win.

Who’s next: Brad Pickett

If Pickett doesn’t move back up to 135, this could make sense. Pickett is coming off a loss to Ian McCall and looking to get back on track. Makovsky is trying to shake off this defeat against Formiga. The winner would put himself right back in the title conversation, while the loser would be in a difficult position in the division. This bout would really separate the contender from the pretender. It’s a good scrap.

SARA McMANN

Sara McMann came away with a split-decision victory over Lauren Murphy.

McMann wants a rematch with women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, but didn’t necessarily blow anyone away with her performance against Lauren Murphy on Saturday night. McMann dominated positionally, but Murphy landed more than 100 more strikes. McMann won, but not the way she would have wanted.

Who’s next: Sarah Kaufman

This is the fight McMann has been calling for and this is the one that should happen. Kaufman is also one of the best women’s bantamweights in the world and has also already lost to Rousey, so this bout wouldn’t eliminate a prospective contender. Kaufman is recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident and could probably fight before the end of the year. McMann wants to fight again soon. It works out.

LAUREN MURPHY

Lauren Murphy should still be a factor in the women’s bantamweight division despite the loss.

There might not be a woman in the division who can deal with Sara McMann’s wrestling and Murphy did as good as anyone expected as a significant underdog. She outlanded McMann in strikes by a wide margin despite being in bottom position most of the fight. There’s little doubt she can be rather formidable at 135.

Who’s next: Liz Carmouche

It’s not going to get much easier for Murphy. She gets McMann in her UFC debut and now we want her up against Carmouche, another former No. 1 contender? Well, it’s good and bad. On the good side, a win over Carmouche puts Murphy right in the title discussion. Bad is the fact that Murphy is still pretty inexperienced and McMann and Carmouche are both freak athletes. Murphy won’t want the easy way out anyway.