After a year-long layoff, Tarec Saffiedine returned to the cage on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 34, where the former Strikeforce welterweight champ went the distance with Hyun Gyu Lim, inflicting damage while rarely relinquishing control en route to a clear-cut unanimous decision win. It was a solid performance by the Belgian kickboxing ace – nothing spectacular happened, but nothing really bad happened either. Saffiedine showed almost no ring rust nor “Octagon jitters”. He went in, got the job done and got the win after five rounds, and now the welterweight division – which is suddenly wide open with champ Georges St. Pierre’s retirment – has itself another upper echelon competitor. So who should Saffiedine fight next? And more importantly, who should he not fight next?

Who Saffiedine should fight next:

  • Jake Ellenberger – This bout was supposed to happen at UFC Fight Night 34, but Ellenberger suffered a hamstring injury and was replaced by Lim. It is still a good match-up, though. Ellenberger has long been near the top of the division, and while he can’t seem to break into ranks of the truly elite, his dangerous punching and strong wrestling makes for the kind of threat that really tests opponents. A fight against Saffiedine would determine either one of two things: Saffiedine is ready to fight for the belt, or he’s not ready to fight for the belt.
  • Martin Kampmann – It seems like everyone on their way up to the top or on their way down from the top takes on Kampmann at some point, so why not give Saffiedine a turn? Like the former Strikeforce champ, the Dane is well-rounded and extremely capable on the feet, and when it comes to toughness, Kampmann might even have the edge. This pairing would be a good litmus test for both men.
  • Rory MacDonald – MacDonald derailed his own hype train with his last performance, and now folks are wondering if he’s even got championship material inside him. I say pit the Canadian against the Belgian striker and let’s see what they’ve got for each other. Both men are “thinking” fighters. The question then would be: Who thinks better? 

Who Saffiedine should avoid:

  • Ryan LaFlare – There’s nothing more dangerous than momentum, and with three wins in the Octagon in 2013 – two of which came within a month of each other – LaFlare’s got a ton of it. Can Saffiedine beat him despite that momentum? Sure, but why risk it? There is no upside to fighting LaFlare at this point, no reward worth the risk. Let these two meet further down the line. Right now, Saffiedine’s got too much to lose (i.e., his spot in the division) to face someone on such a steady climb.
  • Robbie Lawler – Yes, Lawler’s got Johny Hendricks and a welterweight title shot next on his plate, but regardless of what happens there, the veteran fighter will always be a bad match-up for Saffiedine. Stylistically, Lawler is everything Saffiedine is not – which is to say, he’s an explosive striker and fight finisher – and while the Team Quest rep has definitely got skills and experience, all that means nothing in the face of a flying knee or overhand right that comes out of nowhere.
  • Anyone from The Ultimate Fighter – Why bother? Unless someone wants to toss Saffiedine a softball, facing a TUF veteran right now would be a complete waste of time (waste of time in that Saffiedine would kill them).

He looked great in his Octagon debut on Saturday. Now the real test begins for Tarec Saffiedine. Give him someone good next.