What’s this? A UFC event that features only 10 total bouts to close out the year? It’s almost as if somebody isn’t trying to monopolize our New Year’s Eve’s Eve with a bunch of filler fights which … wait, what’s that? That UFC 219 was supposed to highlight the return of former bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz until he fell off the card (with a broken arm) and was replaced with John Lineker, who himself fell off the card (with a tooth infection), leaving Jimmie Rivera without a dance partner? Or that the ax-wielding pillager Emil Meek had his fight with Kamaru Usman postponed due to visa issues? Or that kickboxing champ Gokhan Saki suffered a knee injury, forcing him out of his bout with Khalil Rountree?
That sounds more like the UFC we’ve come to know and love in 2017!
Call it UFC 219: The Last Decimation.
In this case, though, Saturday night’s UFC pay-per-view is not only stripped down to the bare essentials, it’s exactly how a fight card should look. Ten fights featuring a range of fun intrigues, some wild cards, and an MMA behemoth. Who needs six hours of action when a lean five will do the trick?
Let’s take a look at this happy accident.
Round 1: Cyborg Finally Faces a Threat in Holly Holm
Taking nothing away from Daria Ibragimova or Charmaine Tweet or—oh, goddamnit—poor Faith Van Duin, but it’s been a long time since Cristiane “Cyborg”
has faced anybody that poses anything resembling an actual threat to her. When was the last time the featherweight champion fought someone that didn’t appear like steak being slid under the door?
You’d have to go back to her days coming up in Curitiba, where she lost her pro debut in 2005 against Erica Paes. Otherwise never. For a dozen years Cyborg’s been just like her name implies—a cold-blooded, not entirely human force of bludgeoning unpleasantness who ragdolls people for money (11 of her 20 fights have ended in the first round). Who can possibly compete with that? More pointedly, who would really want to?
Enter Holly Holm, the lanky decorated ex-boxing champion who isn’t going to be intimidated by any moonlit banshee the UFC can throw at her. Holm has been through this scenario before, going up against an “invincible” Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 back in 2015. We all saw what Holm did there. She looted Rousey, took her mojo and drive, then shut her down with a head kick in the second round. Rousey was never the same.
What’s interesting is that Holm wasn’t either. She lost her next three fights after that, though in each one of them, she was either winning, should have won, or—in the case of her fight with Germaine de Randamie—kind of did win (but lost anyway on the scorecards, after being socked on two separate occasions after the bell). Because of that, even though she defeated Bethe Correia back in June to snap the streak, here we are again, (mostly) sleeping on her.
Does Holm have a chance on Saturday? Hey, the feistiest opponent Cyborg has faced was Tonya Evinger, the bantamweight who came up to fight her for the vacant featherweight title in July. Evinger did the old piss-and-vinegar approach, dogging it against the bigger, more powerful opponent, minimizing damage in exchanges, and making things ugly when in close, and she somehow lasted into the third round. That’s a moral victory when talking about Cyborg. Only Marloes Coenen, who lasted into the fourth, has ever gone longer in the cage with Justino.
Evinger—just like Leslie Smith and Lina Lansberg, the other opponents Cyborg has squashed since coming to the UFC—wasn’t built like a featherweight. And she certainly wasn’t built like the Cyborg brand of featherweight, one that cuts 25 pounds just to whittle down to 145.
The 36-year-old Holm is the closest we’ve seen. She too cuts a lot of weight. She’s 5-foot-8 with a 69-inch reach. Cyborg is 5-foot-8 with a 68-inch reach. Holm hits hard and knows how to snipe from range. Her kicks are deadly. She can keep fights standing. If there’s a compelling reason to tune into the UFC 219 main event, it’s that for once, Cyborg is picking on somebody her own size.
Round 2: Khabib Nurmagomedov Is Finally Back
If there’s been a knock on perennial lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s that he’s become a stranger to the UFC fan base. Since April 2014, Dagestan’s greatest hope has fought just twice—and one of those barely counts, having come against a cage drifter named Darrell Horcher. He was supposed to face Tony Ferguson for the lightweight interim title back in March but was forced out of the bout after a botched weight cut sent him to the hospital the night before.
Because of injuries and weight concerns, Nurmagomedov’s career has teetered between promise and buzzkill.
Still, scarce though he’s been, there’s no bigger source of intrigue in the division. Nurmy is the equivalent of a human pestle, and just about everyone he’s faced—from current welterweight contender Rafael dos Anjos to Michael Johnson to Abel Trujillo, whom he took down a record 21 times back in 2013—becomes the mortar. That Russian sambo translates well for him in the Octagon. If he were to fight current lightweight champion Conor McGregor or interim champ Ferguson, sharp’s money would inevitably fall to his side—that’s how good he is.
It’s hard to bet against a man who wrestled bears in the Caucasus and barely allows his opponents a chance to breathe.
His comeback fight on Saturday against Edson Barboza is really some fantastic matchmaking. Barboza—who still owns one of the greatest highlight reel knockouts of all time, evaporating Terry Etim at UFC 142—is right now in the business of quietly dismantling the game’s best. In his last three fights, he has taken out former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez, and Beneil Dariush, whom he caught with a flying knee.
Given the action-forward style of Barboza and Nurmagomedov’s relentless nature, this fight has all the right ingredients to be something special. The winner should be in line for a title shot, but there’s a lot to sort out with McGregor and Ferguson (right now idly) staring each other down. This is the kind of fight that is so good in the present that it doesn’t really matter how it pays forward.
Round 3: Cynthia Calvillo, the Sudden Contender
Outside of a half dozen or so diehards, nobody knew who Cynthia Calvillo was to begin the year—yet here she is making a bid for a title shot in the strawweight division, having gone 3-0 in the UFC since debuting in March against Amanda Cooper. That’s MMA for you. You can go from the woodwork to the center of the marquee in the space of a year. (Same thing is going on with Volkan Oezdemir, who made his UFC debut in February and— after winning three in a row—is currently slated to fight Daniel Cormier for the light heavyweight belt at UFC 220 in January, due process permitting.)
Should Calvillo beat former strawweight champion Carla Esparza at UFC 219, it’s not inconceivable that she could nudge ahead of Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the next crack at champion Rose Namajunas. The UFC is very high on Calvillo’s star potential. Not everyone gets to fly around on Dana White’s private jet, but Calvillo has already done that. The UFC booked her in a nice showcase gig against Scottish fighter Joanne Calderwood last time out, and Calvillo passed with flying colors.
The feat was made all the more impressive given that the fight was held in Glasgow before a partisan crowd for Calderwood. Should Calvillo win her fourth fight in 2017, not only would she hold the distinction of winning more bouts than any other fighter this year (per FightMetric), but she would place herself well into the realm of breakout stars heading into the new year.
Round 4: The Return of Carlos Condit
Carlos Condit is one of those beloved hard luck fighters that you can’t help but feel for. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that he won the interim welterweight title against Nick Diaz, and then, for a brief moment, when it looked like the entire world might be his, knocked the sense out of Georges St-Pierre in the unifying bout at UFC 154. It wasn’t to be. GSP ultimately recovered and won a decision, and it’s been a slippery slope since for the “Natural Born Killer.”
Here’s Condit’s sad run since then:
- He lost a decision to Johny Hendricks at 158 in a title eliminator.
- After scoring a TKO win over Martin Kampmann, his fight with Tyron Woodley was cut short when he suffered a knee injury in the second round and couldn’t continue.
- After another impressive win, this one over Thiago Alves to get into title contention, he found himself on the dubious end of the scorecards in his title bout with Robbie Lawler at UFC 195. Most people thought he won the bout, which was on the short list for Fight of the Year.
- In his last fight, he got tapped out by Demian Maia in a little under two minutes.
The UFC didn’t do him any favors by matching him against Neil Magny in his first fight in 16 months. Magny has gone 12-5 in the UFC, and has victories over Kelvin Gastelum, Hector Lombard, and Johny Hendricks. He’s just the kind of fighter to put Condit away for good.
In other words, it’s either going to be a celebratory welcome back for Carlos Condit, or another reminder that in the UFC, happy endings are hard to come by.
Round 5: The Best of the Rest
Dan Hooker vs. Marc Diakiese – With the fight between Lineker and Rivera off, the lightweight fight between Dan Hooker and Marc Diakiese has been moved to the main card (meaning behind the PPV paywall). American fans haven’t gotten to see a lot of the Kiwi Hooker up close, as six of his seven bouts have occurred overseas. His KO of Ross Pearson turned a few heads back in June. But the real attraction is Diakiese, the Congolese-English prizefighter who turned up on a lot of people’s radars with his ridiculous knockout of Teemu Packalén. He did lose his last fight (narrowly, by split decision), but there’s a ton of star potential for the 24-year-old they call the “bonecrusher.”
Myles Jury vs. Rick Glenn – People mostly forgot about Myles Jury after he took back-to-back losses to “Cowboy” Cerrone and Charles Oliveira and then disappeared for 16 months, but he did win his first six fights in the UFC. And in that return fight against Mike De La Torre at UFC 210, the verdict is that the new Jury looked more like the old Jury, meaning it could be a long night for Glenn. Or … or will it? Glenn is the former World Series of Fighting featherweight champion whose debut against Evan Dunham was admittedly a dud. But he has slowly returned to form by scoring wins over Phillipe Nover and Gavin Tucker, which makes this a fight of revitalized momentums.