You can’t take anything for granted in today’s UFC, but if the UFC 216 pay-per-view goes off the way it’s intended to—meaning it remains fully intact with no last-minute injuries, weight-cut issues, trips to the ER for rehydration, USADA busts, slips on banana peels, cold feet, sinus flare-ups, or fits of conscience—by Sunday, the fight landscape will look pretty different.
We’ll have an idea about who might challenge lightweight champion Conor McGregor next and know definitively if Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive title defenses (10) has been surpassed by a 5-foot-3 colossus. We may even establish a no. 1 contender in the heavyweight division.
Here’s a look at Saturday night’s card, beginning with the unfortunate circumstances surrounding it.
Round 1: First Event in Las Vegas Since the Shooting
Generally speaking, the fight game does its best work when the two principals—teeming with charisma, driven by mutual animosity—shit talk each other to the point that the only reasonable resolution lies in the laying on of hands. UFC 216 should have been no different, with the brash Kevin Lee fighting for the lightweight interim title against the easily peeved Tony Ferguson in the main event.
Yet in the wake of Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, which left at least 58 victims and the perpetrator dead and more than 500 injured, smack talk seems like total nonsense. There’s simply no outrage to spare, fostered or real. If anything, this fight week has been more about bewilderment.
Then again, therapy is a mysterious process, and distractions can take many forms, especially in Las Vegas. The UFC opted to hold the event as scheduled just six days after the shooting for these reasons. “Our focus right now is on supporting the community and those affected by Sunday evening’s events,” the UFC said in a statement. “UFC 216 on Saturday, October 7 at T-Mobile Arena will proceed as scheduled until further notice.” It’s a heavy-hearted business as usual approach that will take on the gravity of a tribute. As a Las Vegas–based company—and really, the sports brand it’s most synonymous with—the UFC will donate $1 million to the victim’s families and is dedicating the event to the city. A nice gesture by the UFC, and a meaningful one.
Yet you can’t help but wonder about the collective psyche of the fighters themselves, who are spending a week just down the street from the Mandalay Bay and the festival grounds-turned-memorial for the dead. Distractions of any kind are obviously bad in combat sports, but in this case distractions can’t be avoided. Kevin Lee is a Las Vegas resident; Ferguson contemplated attending the Route 91 Festival on the night of the shooting. That’ll play on your mind. Evan Dunham, who fights Beneil Dariush to kick off the main card, is a longtime Vegas resident as well. Heavyweight Derrick Lewis, a Houston resident who a couple of weeks back put aside his fight camp to help rescue people in the fallout of Hurricane Harvey, came right out and said he’s “not focused” and said he was surprised the UFC didn’t cancel the card.
UFC 216 will be a lot of things on Saturday night—poignant, yet distracted, meaningful, yet meaningless, normal, yet not normal at all.
Round 2: “Mighty Mouse” Looks to Rewrite the Record Books
One of the minor quibbles heading into UFC 216 was in the arrangement of the card. There are plenty of MMA purists (yes, those exist!) who believe that flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson’s attempt at a record-breaking 11th consecutive title defense against Ray Borg should be in the headlining spot given the significance of his potential feat (and that the actual headliner, the fight between Lee and Ferguson, is for an interim title rather than an actual one).
On the one hand, this is true. “Mighty Mouse” is currently tied with Anderson Silva with 10 consecutive title defenses, and a victory against Borg will give him sole possession of that almost-impossible-to-fathom record. That should feel like a bigger deal. Johnson hasn’t lost since he competed as a bantamweight back in 2011, which is an eternity in MMA. He’s gotten better and better through his run as the 125-pound champion, beating guys like Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson more soundly the second time than the first, and treating fresh contenders like their whole life has been based on delusion. Borg is like Cassini in this case, crashing into the surface of the thing he studied for so long. (Johnson, like Saturn, is all about that belt.)
Then again, Johnson has never been a draw in the UFC—a contentious point among those who appreciate his ability to out-blur opposition. Johnson aficionados get hyped for his fights, but they get even more upset at others who can't decipher what they're seeing. It makes Johnson one of the strangest cases in the UFC, a sublime fighter who compels snobs to swirl wine around in their glasses talking about “footwork” and “head movement.”
There are other reasons he’s not the main event:
- Johnson was supposed to fight Borg last month at UFC 215 in Edmonton, but the fight was scrapped 48 hours beforehand when UFC doctors deemed Borg unfit to fight. There wasn’t much buzz about his record-breaking fight with Borg the first time through, and there’s been even less in the mulligan the second time through.
- Johnson had (figuratively) butted heads with UFC president Dana White before UFC 215 for refusing to fight former 135-pound champion T.J. Dillashaw. He insisted on preserving the flyweight meritocracy—or, natural pecking order—by fighting Borg. White made it clear he didn’t like Johnson’s attitude. So for him, Edmonton became something like Elba was for Napoleon—a place of exile.
- People haven’t fetishized the smaller weight classes yet, and probably never will. Johnson is a dynamo in the octagon, and the flyweights typically attack like dueling banjos, but at 5-foot-3, he is actually four inches shorter than Napoleon.
- Johnson doesn’t have the war instincts that Napoleon did; for instance, he’s never had a Battle of Borodino. He did, however, headline a PPV at UFC 174 in Vancouver, when half the crowd left during his fourth title defense against Ali Bagautinov. The UFC has a way of remembering things like that.
- Conor McGregor.
Round 3: McGregor may be out there waiting on the winner of Lee-Ferguson
The Lee-Ferguson fight could be a major deal. Kevin Lee is a firebrand originally from Detroit who speaks his mind, dresses like a cross between the Rock and Russell Westbrook, and generally kicks the shit out of people. He has had come-from-behind victories (Francisco Trinaldo), resounding finishes (poor Jake Matthews), and moments when he steals the show by touching a sore spot (look what happened when he brought up Michael Chiesa’s mom).
In other words, he’s a star in the making.
Yet his lightweight interim title fight with Tony Ferguson—himself a crash-and-burn, forward-moving action fighter with demonic cardio—becomes more significant because of one thing: Conor McGregor.
Now that McGregor is (presumably) back from his spree with boxing’s Floyd Mayweather, the question of who’s next is the most pressing one. If Lee were to demolish Ferguson on Saturday night to win the placeholder title, thus snapping Ferguson’s ridiculous nine-fight win streak, he could make a compelling case for McGregor on the microphone afterwards. Lee has the personality to light McGregor’s eyes up with dollar signs, much like Nate Diaz can. He has the ability to cross personal boundaries and make things uncomfortable, which always brings the voyeurs over to the shades. If anything, Lee could interest McGregor because Lee would accommodate McGregor’s style in and out of the cage.
Then again, should Ferguson win, all bets might be off. Ferguson is just such a sadist in the octagon, and so nightmarishly unrelenting, that it’s puzzling that he hasn’t become a star. Perhaps if he and Khabib Nurmagomedov had fought as they were supposed to at UFC 209, he would be. But it didn’t happen. Nurmy withdrew last minute, and here we are.
A victory over Lee would bump up his stock, as well as his air of mission and invincibility. That’s a high-risk, low-reward proposition for a fighter like McGregor, who knows right now he’s every man’s lottery ticket. Should Ferguson win, there’s a good chance McGregor defaults to the Diaz trilogy, and Ferguson holds an interim title longer than should be legal.
Round 4: The Heavyweights
Former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum hasn’t had a good vibe of late. He got into a homphobic verbal scrap with the lightweight Ferguson at a media luncheon last week, which might have flown under the radar if he didn’t hold ties to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov Ramzan Kadyrov, who condones the torturing of gay people.
At 40 years old, Werdum has evolved into anti-PC goon matter. If the mainstream media paid him a lick of attention, he’d be skewered on a spit.
As it is, he’s just a mixed martial artist, confined to a niche world. Still, there are plenty of people hoping that Derrick Lewis—“The Black Beast,” as he calls himself—beats some sense into him. Lewis is a feast-or-famine heavyweight who carries massive power in his hands. When he knocks people out, which has happened in eight of his nine victories, he gets down on all fours, slams his fists into the canvas, and roars. It’s one of the more frightening occurrences in sports. And if Werdum is hated for his behavior of late, Lewis is lauded for his. His relief work in Houston has been well-documented, but even at his most ornery he can be endearing. Check out his Twitter feed. It’s gold.
Though Lewis got knocked out against Mark Hunt in June, he had won six in a row before that. A win over Werdum could be enough to push him towards waiting champion Stipe Miocic, in what would be one of the more menacing title bouts in a long time.
Caution this line of thinking though, because Werdum is a big-game hunter. It was Werdum that brought Fedor Emelianenko’s decade-long winning streak to an end in Strikeforce (and then did away with his mythos), and it was Werdum that took apart Cain Velasquez to unify the title at UFC 188 in 2015. Werdum has upset fans and legends alike, indiscriminately, which is a feat unique to him.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
The top three fights on UFC 216 should be worth the price of the PPV, but the main card curtain jerker between Dariush and Dunham should be interesting — especially with Dunham in his hometown of Las Vegas at such a time.
But there are a couple of other bouts on the prelims that are pretty damn good, too.
Will Brooks vs. Nik Lentz: “Ill” Will Brooks has his back against the wall here a little bit, having lost twice in a row after narrowly beating Ross Pearson in his UFC debut last July. As the reigning Bellator champion coming over, very few predicted he would slip as hard as he has, particularly against mid-tier fighters like Alex Oliveira and Charles Oliveira. The thing is, he’ll be in a dogfight with Nik Lentz, who engages in nothing but dogfights. The aspect of “survival” sometimes makes a bout like this into something desperate, and therefore memorable. This one is a sleeper.
Bobby Green vs. Lando Vannata: If it’s dynamite you like, this is the fight. Green is an audible fighter (meaning he talks a lot in the cage), who backs it up with a fairly steady diet of punches. At 25, Vannata has proven himself to be one of the UFC’s accidental tourists who ends up dropping jaws. He had that spinning wheel kick KO of John Makdessi last December, as well as an all-out war with Ferguson in his debut. With Green having lost three in a row, and Vannata only having one speed (“go”), somebody is likely going to be put out in this one.
John Moraga vs. Magomed Bibulatov: They are flyweights. You might have to go back and watch some of the action in slow motion to see what was going on in the exchanges. Moraga could make a case that he’s “back” with a win against the undefeated Russian. Bibulatov has a chance to expedite his journey toward champ Demetrious Johnson, who is forever in need of new challenges. Who knows, maybe Bibulatov will get his turn to try and end Johnson’s historic run at some point in 2018.