Burning MMA questions: Identifying the best heavyweights, upcoming fights and 'Ruthless' moments

Sergei Pavlovich makes quick work of Tai Tuivasa (1:10)

Sergei Pavlovich needs less than 60 seconds to finish off Tai Tuivasa in front of a disappointed Orlando crowd. (1:10)

It's been a massive week of breaking news in mixed martial arts, as the last five days have included the end of Francis Ngannou's free agency and the return of the UFC's notorious BMF title.

Ngannou (17-3) sent a shockwave through the sport Tuesday when he announced he'd signed a multi-fight deal with the PFL -- a deal that includes an executive position in PFL Africa, which is scheduled to launch in 2025. Later that day, the UFC announced Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje would meet at UFC 291 on July 29 for the BMF belt.

Also, according to UFC president Dana White, Aljamain Sterling will face Sean O'Malley at UFC 292 in Boston. And (!!) the UFC is headed back to Australia for a second pay-per-view of 2023, when it takes UFC 293 to Sydney on Sept. 9 (U.S. time).

What are we to make of some of the recently made fights and signings in the sport? ESPN's MMA correspondents Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim break it all down, including a look back at the historic run of Robbie Lawler.

Which fight intrigues you most on UFC Fight Night this Saturday?

Wagenheim: Maybe I'm stubborn, but when I see a young fighter who appears to be a prospect, it takes a lot for me to look away. So Edmen Shahbazyan's co-main event against Anthony Hernandez has my interest.

Shahbazyan dropped three fights in a row after an 11-0 start to his career, but he broke out of the skid with a TKO win in December. Is the 25-year-old finally ready to live up to his "Golden Boy" nickname?

Okamoto: The main event, because it's crucial for Mackenizie Dern. It's crucial for both, don't get me wrong, but ever since Dern signed with the UFC in 2018, there's been a heightened interest in her ceiling because of the ace card she brings to the table with her jiu-jitsu. On any given night, Dern is capable of submitting anyone. It's always been a question of whether the rest of her game could catch up and put her in a position to use that world-class jiu-jitsu.

She's five years into her UFC career, and the jury is still out. If she loses here, she will have lost three of four. That doesn't mean it would end the road for her. I still think she has time (at age 30) to develop, but a loss will considerably lower her ceiling in the eyes of many.

If Jones and Ngannou are the best heavyweights in the world, who's No. 3?

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Okamoto: Sergei Pavlovich. Pavlovich is almost similar to what Ngannou was a few years ago, during his rise to champion. He's scary. He has otherworldly power. He's fighting with unparalleled confidence. How can you answer this question with anyone but Pavlovich? To keep things interesting, long-term, I still love Tom Aspinall's skill set, and I believe he'll be one of those guys who shines in different ways as his career unfolds. But we'll see. It's hard to be perfect in heavyweight MMA, where one second can add you to another man's highlight reel.

Wagenheim: It has to be Pavlovich. His last two wins were first-round TKOs of fellow top-five heavyweights Curtis Blaydes and Tai Tuivasa, and overall the 18-1 Russian has won six in a row -- all first-round knockouts. Yes, Stipe Miocic is still out there, and he's an all-time great. But it's been over two years since Miocic last fought and nearly three since his last victory. I'll take the scarily active big guy.

What is the best fight on the upcoming June and July PPVs?

Dricus Du Plessis flattens Trevin Giles with one punch

Dricus Du Plessis needs just one punch to knock out Trevin Giles in their prelim bout at UFC 264.

Wagenheim: Two of the three PPVs during those months are headlined by title fights, but I'm even more jazzed for the main event of the other premium card -- UFC 291 on July 29, featuring the rematch of Poirier and Gaethje. The title implications are unclear, since the June 10 meeting of Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush has just as much of a chance to produce the next challenger for lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. But I'm going to follow the Wagenheim Rule of Ranking MMA Fights: a Gaethje fight always is No. 1. Adding Poirier to the mix makes it a slam dunk.

Okamoto: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodriguez. At the moment, anything that involves Volkanovski is must-see. He is operating at a level we've rarely seen in MMA. How this man competes right now -- the physical and mental preparation, the confidence, the adjustments, the intelligence, the small nuances -- is brilliant. It's sheer excellence.

And yet, this is a sport in which excellence can and does lose all the time. Because it takes one shot, one moment that happens to belong to another athlete. Rodriguez is now carrying the feel of a dangerous, dangerous title challenger. It just feels like he won't be denied in July. This is as good as it gets, right up there with Volkanovski's attempt to move up to lightweight against Makhachev earlier this year.

Is Robert Whittaker vs. Dricus Du Plessis the right next big fight at middleweight?

Okamoto: From a rankings perspective, it makes sense. Whittaker (No. 2) facing Du Plessis (No. 6). That's pretty self-explanatory. Good fight. If you're looking at it from a sense of trying to get your dominant champion, Israel Adesanya, new matchups -- no, it does not make sense.

Adesanya has already beaten Whittaker twice. That doesn't mean Whittaker can't come in and beat him in a third fight, nor does it mean Whittaker should never get another chance at a title because he's 0-2 against the champ. However, from a storyline and excitement perspective, a trilogy bout in a 2-0 rivalry doesn't feel as enticing as new blood. However, I think we just saw why this fight got booked, and that is the UFC announcing UFC 293 in Sydney. Because if Whittaker does beat Du Plessis and sets up a third fight, that trilogy will be very well received in Sydney. So, it's a win-win for the UFC. Either new blood for the champ (Du Plessis) or a blockbuster gate for the Aussie challenger (Whittaker) in Sydney.

Wagenheim: I love the booking and love that the fight has been designated a No. 1 contender eliminator. Yes, Whittaker has lost twice to the champion, Adesanya, but how long can the consensus No. 2 middleweight remain in limbo? He's already beaten Marvin Vettori and Jared Cannonier, who meet June 17 in another clash of top-five 185-pounders. Now, if Whittaker can halt the seven-fight winning streak of Du Plessis, he'll have secured another shot at gold. And if Du Plessis becomes the first fighter in nine years who's not named Adesanya to defeat Whittaker, he will have earned his big shot.

With Robbie Lawler retiring this summer, what is your favorite 'Ruthless' moment?

Wagenheim: Every longtime MMA fan has the same favorite Lawler moment. It was July 11, 2015, and the horn had just sounded to end Round 4 of Lawler's UFC welterweight title defense against Rory MacDonald. It had been a violent first 20 minutes, during which each man was on the verge of being finished. And now, rather than retreating to their corners for a rest, Lawler and MacDonald just stood at the center of the cage and stared at each other. Their bruised, bloated faces wore masks of blood as they exchanged a glare for three or four seconds that felt like an eternity. Lawler would win by TKO a minute into the fifth, ending one of the greatest UFC fights ever. But the icy mid-fight staredown has lived on as one of the most iconic moments in MMA history.

Okamoto: Wagenheim nailed it. Nothing else to say. It's not only the best moment in Lawler's career, it's one of the best in the sport.

Wagenheim: Additionally, I'll go back even farther in time to note a personally significant Lawler moment -- when "Ruthless Robbie" won the first MMA fight I saw in person. It was at UFC 45 in 2003, years before I started covering the sport. I was awed by Lawler winning a rugged battle with Chris Lytle from my balcony seat at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. I'd watched some MMA on TV, but seeing it live was a visceral experience that left an imprint. And later that night, as I stood near the arena entrance, Lawler came out. Seeing him up close, I couldn't believe how a babyface 21-year-old could fight so ruthlessly. That hammered home an understanding that fighters are just different from the rest of us.