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Titles Made From Thin Air

UFC 206 is a fight for what Conor McGregor left behind

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

In some ways, Saturday night’s UFC 206 pay-per-view is the leftovers of last month’s big UFC 205 show in New York City. Tim Kennedy, who was supposed to fight Rashad Evans at UFC 205, is now facing Kelvin Gastelum on the UFC 206 main card, because Evans couldn’t get licensed in New York or Toronto (the culprit: a cryptic MRI). Gastelum himself was supposed to fight Donald Cerrone at UFC 205, yet he missed weight. Now Cerrone has been redirected to a fight with Matt Brown at UFC 206 in what should be a machete affair, two elite sadists hacking away until one of them drops.

Toronto may be getting New York’s tumbleweeds, but it’s also getting a glorious trend in the UFC, one of those divisive, dupe-us-as-you-will pieces of pyrite symbolism that we’ve come to know as the "interim" title. In this case, it’s the featherweight placeholder belt in play, which is essentially a promise ring. The winner of Saturday’s main event, between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis, will earn the right to face Jose Aldo for a featherweight unification bout. (Or at least that was the idea until Pettis missed weight Friday morning, coming in three pounds over the 145-pound maximum. Now it’s not only an "interim" title, but one with very specific caveats. Meaning, if Holloway wins, he gets the bogus belt, while if Pettis wins, he just gets to go on being Anthony Pettis.)

In any case, the interim development is also part of the UFC 205 runoff.

That’s because featherweight champion Conor McGregor capped his moonlighting stint of fights outside of the division by beating Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title in New York. When UFC 206’s original main event between light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson was scrapped because of a Cormier injury, the UFC launched into action by stripping McGregor of his featherweight title (which he has yet to defend) and putting it back up for grabs for those actually still fighting in the division (Holloway and Pettis), leaving McGregor as (only) the lightweight champion. Pretty straightforward, right?

If that weren’t enough, McGregor is still parading around with both belts for everyone to see, as if to warn people against impostors — like, he’ll have you believe, the one who will be crowned Saturday night. The new featherweight configuration has dampened some spirits in the fight game, because when everything is leading to McGregor the division feels like Mardi Gras, beads and booze and a lively atmosphere where anyone can get lucky. When it’s leading to Aldo it’s like Atlantic City on a Wednesday, just some old place that dished up its charms long ago.

Is all this confusing? Hell yes, it’s confusing. (The UFC is a league of daydreams and digressions, if you don’t know by now).

Ultimately it’s a little hollow too. McGregor took the featherweight title with a one-punch, 13-second knockout of Aldo at UFC 194 at the end of 2015. Yet because McGregor is now hoarding belts with no intention of giving Aldo a rematch, Aldo has regained the featherweight title by default just to keep divisional traffic moving. It doesn’t help matters that Aldo quasi-retired recently, and really seems interested in fighting only McGregor. Enthusiasm was the first casualty in all of this. Nobody actually took the belt from McGregor, which means the division rolls on unresolved.

Not that Holloway-Pettis is something to sneeze at, because it’s not. In fact, it’s a damn good fight that just so happens to appear under some wack circumstances. It gets a belt for promo efforts rather than earthbound merit.

Let’s push all that stuff aside and look at UFC 206.

Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis (Getty Images)
Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis (Getty Images)

Pettis vs. Holloway

It’s hard not to like 25-year-old Hawaiian Max Holloway, who showed up to Canada hoping to try what he called the poontang. He meant the poutine, the gravy-drenched fries that are so popular in parts of the country. Fortunately, Holloway is one of those guys who can laugh at himself, which he did about his Freudian slip on Wednesday at the open workouts.

What’s even better to like about Holloway is his nine-fight winning streak, which he started after losing to McGregor back in 2013. How smooth and deft has the reedy featherweight been since that fight? He’s finished six of the nine guys he’s faced, in a variety of ways. He choked out Andre Fili (guillotine), overwhelmed Clay Collard (TKO), cut off the blood flow to Cub Swanson’s brain (choke), and dominated Ricardo Lamas for three rounds. It’s been one hell of a run, nearly impossible to pull off in the land of four-ounce gloves.

Yet he flies in under the radar, in large part because he’s still considered in the minds of many just one of McGregor’s victims. It’s like with Mike Tyson’s early conquests — they just become names trampled upon during a death march. Even though he’s gotten a lot better since 2013, Holloway has become a kind of Tony Tubbs.

The biggest difference in making his bout with Pettis an interim title fight rather than a traditional no. 1 contender bout is that it goes from three rounds to five, something that the former lightweight champion Pettis is accustomed to. Pettis remains one of the game’s most heralded strikers, a highlight-reel fighter who can ricochet off the fence and kick people into dream states (never forget "The Showtime Kick"). Since appearing on a Wheaties box back in late 2014, right before he defended his 155-pound title for the last time against Gilbert Melendez, Pettis has struggled. He lost three in a row, which chased him to featherweight, where he is in the process of reinventing himself.

Was it complacency? Was it Wheaties? Was it that he saw that kick against Benson Henderson in every MMA promo that’s ever been done? Who knows, but he snapped his streak in his featherweight debut against Charles Oliveira, and there was a gleam in Pettis’s eye again after he did.

Getting a surging fighter who feels invincible (like Holloway) against a guy who knows all about his own vincibility, and in fact has turned that knowledge into an act of revival (like Pettis) is enough intrigue to do away with concerns of an imaginary belt. This fight has some depth.

Donald Cerrone and Matt Brown (Getty Images)
Donald Cerrone and Matt Brown (Getty Images)

Brown vs. Cerrone

Sometimes you get a fight that just makes instinctual sense, the kind of fight that has you closing the drapes a little bit for no good reason, other than to darken the room. This is one of those fights. Cerrone’s earlier booked fight with Gastelum felt a little mercenary, just something to keep "Cowboy" Cerrone busy. His fight with Brown has some serious "meet me at the bike rack after school" tension, though.

Brown likes to stalk forward and brawl. Cerrone has never met a forward-moving brawler that he didn’t cherish kicking in the head. Cerrone has been a monster since switching to 170 pounds, going 3–0 with three finishes. Brown has always been a monster at 170 pounds. The sense of overall self-preservation in a fight like this is at an all-time low, which of course will captivate voyeur interest. This fight is the anti-PC. I can already hear Smokey from Friday screaming, "You got knocked the fuck out!" — though I’m not sure whom he’ll be speaking to.

Brown has been in a foul mood all week. He’s lost back-to-back fights, and four of his last five. Yet there’s a reason he calls himself "The Immortal," which goes far beyond him surviving a heroin overdose back in the day. He lost four of five fights between 2010 and 2011, prompting many to believe the game had passed him by. Then he won seven in a row, six by TKO or KO, and established himself as this kind of prehistoric figure — like a shark, devoid of conscience — that really endeared him to MMA fans.

Now his back’s against the wall again and he’s got that same shark-eyed look.

Cub Swanson and Doo H0-choi (Getty Images)
Cub Swanson and Doo H0-choi (Getty Images)

Cub Swanson vs. Doo Ho-choi

Doo Ho-choi could be your clerk at the grocer, or the contralto in your church choir. He looks like this sweet kid who practices good manners in the mirror. Yet what he is is a cold-blooded executioner who gets off on going into a cage and parting people from their senses.

The 25-year-old South Korean fighter, who goes by "The Korean Superboy," hasn’t even stuck around to hear the judge’s score cards in more than five years. All of his fights in the UFC so far — against Juan Puig, the hard-hitting Sam Sicilia, and the tough veteran Thiago Tavares — have ended in first-round knockouts. He’s like Ed Norton in Primal Fear, who turns from Aaron Stampler to "Roy" as soon as he hears the cage door click.

This will be his highest-profile fight to date. Cub Swanson has a good name that goes back to the WEC days, and he looks like he’s returning to his old self again, having won a couple of fights in a row.

What’s fun about a matchup like this is that Swanson — a fighter’s fighter who for so long has been a lesser cult fixture for diehards — is being cast as a springboard for Choi. Should he beat "The Korean Superboy," it might feel a little off-putting, a misprint in the UFC’s star-making script, much the same as when Bryan Barberena took out UFC darling Sage Northcutt. In that way, Swanson’s best outcome in a fight like this is to depress people by taking out The Latest Prospect With A Little Shine. What a thankless gig.

Jordan Mein and Emil Meek (Getty Images)
Jordan Mein and Emil Meek (Getty Images)

Best of the Rest

There is other action to be found on UFC 206, namely in guys like Lando Vannata, who put on a left-field Fight of the Year candidate against Tony Ferguson earlier this year, and who will take on Canada’s own free-swinging John Makdessi. That fight will require smelling salts. Nikita Krylov (who at one time had the nickname "Al Capone") has never been in a boring fight, and he won’t be in one against Misha Cirkunov, either. And there’s something karmic about the Gastelum-Kennedy fight. Gastelum has missed weight on three different occasions, and his punishment is to stand in against a Green Beret sniper with a big-time chip on his shoulder.

Kennedy is one of the founding board members of the newly developed Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association, which is seeking better treatment in pay and health care from the UFC.

Yet the one name on the card to watch out for is the Norwegian Emil Meek, the Viking-looking fighter who carries a double-bladed ax and wears a prototypical red beard. Meek, who naturally has the nickname "Valhalla," is making his UFC debut, but he arrives with plenty of clout. Back in May, Meek was given the bleak task of fighting Rousimar Palhares in the Italian-run Venator promotion. The muscle-bound jiujitsu ace Palhares was banished from the UFC for holding submission holds too long — and for a general lack of human decency — which has long made facing him an enter-at-your-own-risk proposition. Meek took the fight, blitzed Palhares and knocked him out in 45 seconds, became an instant folk hero in his native Norway (where MMA is still illegal), and punched his ticket in the UFC.

He’ll face Jordan Mein, who is returning from retirement, in what should be a fun fight. Meek carries a very real ax, which on a card like UFC 206 goes a long way toward making you forget about whatever imaginary belts might otherwise be in play.

This story has been updated with information regarding Anthony Pettis missing weight Friday morning.

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.