The UFC returns to the Motor City this weekend for UFC 218, and the elbows will be flying just as freely as they did in Bill Laimbeer’s day. How do you follow up a card like UFC 217, in which three titles changed hands in the course of one of the most mindblowing hours in UFC history? With a champion who speaks pidgin, a French Cameroonian jawcracker on the verge of taking over the heavyweight division, and a pair of honor grads from the School of Zero Fucks who’ve made it their duty—somewhat literally—to put on the fight of the decade.
Here’s a scorecard breaking down the essentials at Saturday’s UFC 218.
Round 1: The Recurring José Aldo, and the Rematch With Max Holloway
The original headliner for UFC 218 was a featherweight title fight between Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar, a fresh pairing in the division Conor McGregor conquered and abandoned in 2015. That would have been a palate-cleansing fight with ridiculous potential, given that Edgar has destroyed everyone not named José Aldo since 2013 and Holloway has won 11 fights in a row.
I say “would have” because MMA in 2017 is a coal mine in West Virginia that produces enough lumps for every stocking. Like so many main-eventers before him, Edgar was forced out of the fight with an injury, giving way to the new main event—a rematch between Holloway and the rubber man himself, José Aldo. It wasn’t the worst idea, given that Aldo is considered the greatest featherweight of all time, but it wasn’t the one most fans wanted. Not with Cub Swanson—the scorched-earth version, who has won four in a row—out there willing to step in on short notice and finally get a shot at a title.
After all, Holloway already dominated Aldo six months ago at UFC 212. The Hawaiian went to Aldo’s hometown of Rio de Janeiro and took target practice on him, dishing out a sustained lashing that—it was believed—signaled a new day in the featherweight division.
Only it didn’t. By default, Aldo is back. It’s like that scene in The Blair Witch Project when the bewildered campers travel all day to get somewhere (anywhere!) and end up at the same log in the river that they started at. Only this time it’s José Aldo that’s the sinking feeling that we’ve stumbled back upon. No matter how many times the featherweight division tries to move on from him, he keeps showing up in a title bout. Excepting the makeshift half-interim title fight between Anthony Pettis and Holloway at UFC 206, there has literally never been a featherweight title fight without him. He’s always there.
Here’s a quick summary of Aldo’s … unflushability:
2009: Aldo beats Mike Brown to become the WEC featherweight champion.
2010: Aldo defends the WEC belt twice, against Urijah Faber and Manvel Gamburyan.
2011: Aldo is named UFC’s featherweight champion, as UFC absorbs WEC and its lighter weight divisions.
2011-2014: Aldo defends the UFC title seven times and becomes the greatest featherweight of all time (also the only truly great one ever, since there weren’t many 145-pound MMA fighters before him).
2015: Aldo loses everything in 13 seconds to Conor McGregor via a one-punch KO. His route to a rematch is near impossible.
2016: McGregor decides to fight for a lightweight title (which turns into a pair of fights with Nate Diaz), forcing the UFC to introduce an interim featherweight title.
July 2016: Aldo steps back in and defeats Edgar for the interim featherweight title at UFC 200.
November 2016: Aldo is upgraded to undisputed featherweight champion after McGregor—now the lightweight champion as well—is stripped of the belt.
June 2017: Aldo loses the featherweight title against Holloway in resounding fashion, thus making his path to a rematch near impossible.
November 2017: Edgar gets hurt, and in steps … no, it can’t be!
December 2017: I’m back!
If Aldo beats Holloway, reading this timeline will induce vertigo. At that point, Holloway would have to be given the trilogy fight, especially since it was Holloway who had to agree to the unwarranted rematch on short notice. So those are the stakes heading into Aldo-Holloway II: Either Holloway uses a plunger to make sure Aldo goes down this time, or we continue on with Aldo in featherweight championship fights for all of eternity.
(But seriously, it’ll be interesting to see what adjustments Aldo makes for his return fight with Holloway. He showed up for his second encounters with Edgar and Chad Mendes noticeably smarter and stronger, meaning he’s the sort of horror movie villain who learns from his failures and comes back a little more evil than before.)
Round 2: Francis Ngannou Gets His Biggest Shot to Date Against Alistair Overeem
The UFC’s heavyweight division is a cold and merciless place, where getting bludgeoned a third of the time usually translates to success (so long as you’re the one doing the bludgeoning the other two-thirds). How else to explain that the UFC’s heavyweight record for title defenses—of which current champion Stipe Miocic has a share—still stands at two? Every third time out, even the most skillful and intimidating big man—whether he’s a contender or not—discovers that smelling salts sting the nostrils.
Therefore it’s especially unusual to get a prospect climbing up the rungs these days with a scalp collection like Francis Ngannou’s. Since debuting against Luis Henrique in 2015, the French Cameroonian fighter is 5-0 in the UFC, with five stoppages, four of which were knockouts. His past three stoppages have occurred in the first round, between the minute-and-a-half and two-minute marks. He calls himself “The Predator,” and he’s fairly no-nonsense about he wants to do. He wants to knock people out. And so far he’s communicated that want very clearly. He did it against former champion Andrei Arlovski in his last fight, giving him a name-brand victim to set up a (potential) title eliminator against Alistair Overeem.
Ngannou is one of the few breakout stories of 2017, a vicious headhunter who has that feel to him as a champ on the rise. At 31 years old, it’s a little weird to even consider him a prospect, until you take into account that he got started very late in MMA after leaving Cameroon at 26. He’s a skilled boxer who’s packing major power, enough that each of his fights thus far has been a showcase of it. He has an 83.5-inch wingspan, a hair’s breadth shy of Jon Jones. And there’s this, too: He’s a spring chicken by UFC heavyweight standards, one who has taken very little damage. Miocic, the champion, is 35. Overeem is 37. Third-ranked Fabricio Werdum is 40, and Cain Velasquez is also 35. Mark Hunt, who rounds out the top five in the division, is freaking 43.
All of them have been crashing into each other for years, just scribbling red ink all over each other’s Carfax. Ngannou is that fighter that comes along, much like Jones did at light heavyweight, and ages everyone in dog years. He has a real chance to do that on Saturday night against one of the sturdiest knockout artists on the roster in Overeem, who has won six of his past seven fights (four via TKO/KO). Should Ngannou make it six in a row—and turn Overeem into another emphatic example of the kind of power we’re dealing in—a date with Miocic would loom large.
Prediction: Fight won’t get past the first round, even if Overeem tries to drag it out. Eighty-three-and-a-half inches of wingspan and power has a way of snuffing out conservative game plans.
Round 3: FOTY? Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje Might Just Be That …
When he finds himself against a like-minded slugger—as he did against Dustin Poirier in May, and like he did when he fought Michael Chandler the first time in 2011—Eddie Alvarez’s fights are ill-advised, borderline pornographic expressions of fighter heart. They give definition to the term “barnburner,” for they are forever flammable. His chin? Nothing more than an invitation. The other guy’s chin? A law to break. There is really no sense of self-preservation in a vintage Eddie Alvarez fight. There is only the collective gasp of cageside witnesses.
And yet … if there’s one fighter on the roster who has more delirious fun in another man’s wheelhouse, it’s Justin Gaethje, whom Alvarez meets on the main card at UFC 218. Gaethje’s UFC debut against Michael Johnson back in July was enough to make even the most sanguinary Alvarez fight feel PG-13. Gaethje got dropped late in the first round with an uppercut and somehow survived. Yet by the time the horn sounded for the second round, he came back out with that cornball smile he’s been wearing since crawling out of the copper mines of Morenci, Arizona. The thing is, Gaethje doesn’t feel alive until the first sign of blood. We saw it a bunch of times in the WSOF, where he thrived as a reckless, leg-whipping, wind-up-toy of a champion through six title fights. He knows his style is a stupid gamble, and he just doesn’t care. He invites people to knock him silly.
What’s startling is that when they do, as Johnson did, he starts staggering around on unsteady toddler legs, and just keeps coming. You could see the horror in Johnson’s eyes as he pieced himself back together midway through the second round, after he’d been rocked again. Then, when Gaethje landed his own uppercut that hurt Johnson, it was as if there were never any cobwebs to begin with. He just stalked Johnson down and landed. Calculated. Like he’d made it through the grinder, just as he thought he would. And when Johnson spilled on the canvas, ready to be done, Gaethje—like a monster—told him to get back up so he could punish him some more. It was nasty.
Johnson swore he wouldn’t get into a brawl with Gaethje, knowing that was exactly what Gaethje wanted. Alvarez? He swears he will, and that makes Alvarez-Gaethje the kind of fight that won’t comfortably fit in the 21st century. Knowing how precious little Gaethje cares for his own well-being once the doors are locked, Alvarez is down for a game of chin-check roulette.
“I’m going to be honest, I don’t fucking know what’s going to happen on Saturday,” he said on Monday, during an appearance on The MMA Hour. “I will tell you this, it’s going to be nuts. I’ve spent a good deal of this training camp working on not giving a fuck myself.”
Shut the drapes when watching this one.
Round 4: Flyweights Duke It Out for—Maybe—the Chance to Fight Demetrious Johnson
If the UFC is smart, it’ll convince (read: pay) current flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson to take on newly crowned bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw in his next title defense down at 125 pounds. That’s the match UFC president Dana White wants because it would pique broader interest in a fighter many consider the best pound-for-pound in the world.
Yet if an agreement can’t be reached for Dillashaw-Johnson, Saturday’s bout between Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis could very well become a consolation title eliminator. The 24-year-old Pettis, whose brother Anthony was the UFC’s lightweight champion not so long ago, is at least some fresh blood at the top of the division. He has four straight victories, but if there’s a knock on him it’s that he fully uses the allotted time to get it done. All have been decisions, his last a one-sided five-rounder against Brandon Moreno.
On the flip side, the wrestler Cejudo—who lost a title bid against Johnson in April 2016 at UFC 197—looked as good as he ever has his last time out, plowing right through Wilson Reis at UFC 215.
A hundred years ago maybe it would be different, but these days there aren’t a lot of body types that can reach 125 pounds. And some of the flyweight contenders that have emerged over the past year couldn’t generate much buzz in facing a virtuoso like Johnson. If Pettis or Cejudo can make an emphatic statement on Saturday night, perhaps Johnson will find an organic contender within his own division to face next.
If not, Cejudo-Pettis will only serve as a catalyst for Dillashaw going down for a chance at a second title.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
A couple of other fights to watch out for at UFC 218:
Tecia Torres vs. Michelle Waterson—Usually the UFC likes to put on an action fight to kick off its PPVs, and this strawweight crossroads should uphold that idea (and then some). Torres has gone 5-1 in the UFC—her only loss coming against current champion Rose Namajunas back in 2016—and is on the verge of a title shot. For all her merit, the “Karate Hottie” Waterson is the “star in waiting.” She recently lost to Namajunas, too, but having appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s “Body Issue” and popped up as a guest analyst on Fox Sports 1, you can kind of see who has the marketing behind them. This should be a frenzied fight, with a chance for Torres to finally snatch some spotlight.
Charles Oliveira vs. Paul Felder—Since Felder debuted in 2014, he’s sustained as an intrigue who might one day make some waves. To this point he’s done so more in the broadcast booth, having emerged over the past six months as a pretty damn good color man for UFC telecasts. Now he’s on the verge of making his first real run in the lightweight division, having finished his past two fights against Alessandro Ricci and Stevie Ray in the first round. Oliveira has been hit or miss, but he’s feisty, and his submission game is among the best in the division. This is a classic striker versus grappler matchup, and a pretty big fight for Felder if he wants to get to the next level of competition.
Cortney Casey vs. Felice Herrig—Don’t look now but the eye-rolling star of The Ultimate Fighter 20—Felice Herrig, who considered retiring not so long ago—has won three fights in a row, and suddenly finds herself in a spot to make some noise. Casey is coming off a messy ordeal in her last fight at UFC 211 with Jessica Aguilar—winning a decision, getting accused of doping, having her win taken away, being exonerated, getting her victory back—and is ready to vent. This is a sneaky setup for a good fight at just the right time.