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UFC 208 Says to Hell With Convention

The rebirth of Holly Holm, the return of Anderson Silva, and a pay-per-view in search of a purpose

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Holly Holm is just 1–2 in her last three fights, but heading into UFC 208 she’s in the rare position to make history. Should she find a way to defeat Germaine de Randamie for the UFC’s inaugural women’s featherweight belt, Holm will become the first female fighter to hold titles in two different weight classes. In other words, if she beats De Randamie in Brooklyn on Saturday night, a 2–2 record over the course of her last four bouts will look like something more than ordinary mediocrity. Holm’s got a chance at profound mediocrity. She can turn the dot in .500 into a disco ball.

It helps, of course, that Holm’s other victory in that stretch came against Ronda Rousey at UFC 193, a seismic occurrence that set fire to the airtight narrative surrounding Rousey’s invincibility. As a decorated boxer who trains with striking wizards Mike Winkeljohn and Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, it shouldn’t have been a shock to see Holm dismantle a judoka fresh off the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s "Body Issue," because styles make fights. But it was. It was memorable as hell. Rousey was an 8-to-1 favorite heading into that fight. Holm, like Bethe Correia and Alexis Davis and Sara McMann, was seen as nothing more than a pinkie being dropped into the snake tank. She was expected to be the next Rousey casualty.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Only she wasn’t. She took apart Rousey in ways that nobody had ever come close. She broke down Rousey’s psyche. Strafed her from range. Jacked up her jaw. Head-kicked her into the past tense. The next thing you knew, it was Holm who had the bantamweight title, and it was Holm who was making appearances on Good Morning America. It was more than a transfer of the title belt — it was a transfer of mojo.

That single feat carried Holm through 2016, in which she went a very anticlimactic 0–2. She coughed up the title against Miesha Tate at UFC 196 in March (which was drowned out by Conor McGregor’s loss to Nate Diaz), and then dropped a decision in her bounce-back fight against Valentina Shevchenko in July. Holm went from slayer of MMA’s most transcendent icon to afterthought in a year.

But as sometimes happens in the world of professional fighting, she fell forward. She fell into a title fight in the newly created 145-pound division because, well, "history" has a better ring to it than "mulligan." Never mind that she’s lost consecutive fights, or that her opponent, the Muay Thai fighter De Randamie, is basically a product of the woodwork, or that aside from Holm and De Randamie there’s not a single 145-pound fighter on the roster other than Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino — who is dealing with the United States Anti-Doping Agency after popping hot for an out-of-competition banned substance. It’s happening, and there’s the unmistakable vibe of a charade in the air for UFC 208. The trick is to look past all that.

The women’s featherweight title was created in part for Cyborg — the most dominant women’s fighter of the last decade who can’t get down to the 135-pound bantamweight maximum — and in part because the Brooklyn pay-per-view needed a main event. Holm versus Cyborg was the idea for the inaugural title fight, but Justino said it was too soon of a turnaround after putting herself through weight-cutting hell to fight Lina Lansberg at a 140-pound catchweight in September. Then the USADA thing happened, and that plan went double kaplooey.

So it’s the Dutch fighter De Randamie versus Holm in a lemons-to-lemonade title bout to inaugurate a division with no clear-cut future, and no prospects whatsoever to speak of. It’s a moonlighting weight class that will siphon heavier bantamweights in the short run (like Holm, who at one time boxed at 147 pounds), while unearthing featherweights out there in the world, still at large. Unlike most UFC main events, which cater to the past, present and future, this fight caters to the needy present alone. The UFC has opted to fill in the blanks on the fly.

Not that it’s a bad fight. It’s a fine matchup between versatile strikers. There’s a good chance somebody’s going to get knocked out, which is currency in the UFC (remember the time De Randamie knocked out a man?). But it’s a reminder that MMA is still a very young sport, where "history" is very fluid, and perception very shapeable. Or at least, that’s the premise the UFC is operating with.

Then again, there are other oddities in play for UFC 208, some of which are pretty enjoyable, if a little unconventional.

Anderson Silva (Getty Images)
Anderson Silva (Getty Images)

Dominant Brazilians Return to Face Some Random Dudes

Anderson Silva is the greatest champion the UFC has ever known, with a run from 2006 to 2012 that saw him rack up a 16–0 record, 10 middleweight title defenses, a couple of fantastic cameo appearances as a light heavyweight (Forrest Griffin was never the same after his Silva encounter at UFC 101; he was like the soldier who returned home altered in Deathdream), and a catchweight against Travis Lutter. In a parity-driven landscape where newer generations are training in all aspects of MMA from day one, rather than excelling at individual disciplines, Silva’s run has a real chance of standing the test of time.

Yet the 41-year-old Silva now finds himself mired in a five-fight winless streak. He was caught clowning against Chris Weidman when he lost his belt at UFC 162, and then shattered his leg in the rematch. He fought (and defeated) Nick Diaz at UFC 183 in what can only be called a Duchampian affair, yet was subsequently suspended for a banned substance that he later claimed was a sexual performance elixir he got from a friend recently returned from Thailand. That was the infamous "blue vial" episode, and it was a rough look. That victory was refashioned a "no contest."

Then he lost a memorable fight against Michael Bisping in England, before returning on ridiculously short notice to fight Daniel Cormier at UFC 200. That fight was both extremely courageous and instantly forgettable. He lost via decision, struggling to stand up for three rounds.

Silva returns this weekend in the co-main event to fight Derek Brunson, who traditionally either knocks people out or gets knocked out. It’s Silva’s least glamorous fight since he took on Patrick Cote, and yet it’s also a kind of test to see what Silva has left. Is he running on fumes? Can he take a punch? Does he have it in him to knock out a guy who is known to leave his chin open for business? Will he still dance, like Michael Jackson on mescaline?

It feels like pushing out another UFC legend on the ice floe. Brunson scored variations of knockouts in four straight bouts before he was violently TKO’d by Robert Whittaker in November. He’s a classic headhunter who is eight years younger than Silva, and who is being given a chance to make a name for himself against the consensus GOAT. Of the five fights Silva has fought in his all-too-human twilight years, this one puts him in perhaps the most vulnerable spot he’s ever been in.

His fellow Brazilians on the main card — Ronaldo Souza and Glover Teixeira — are also fighting irregular names who have everything to gain. "Jacare" Souza, considered a top contender at middleweight, is fighting Tim Boetsch — an ever-dangerous slab of man who has found permanent residence in the upper-middle area of the division. Teixeira is facing Jared Cannonier, the Alaskan fighter known as "The Killa Gorilla," who has only three UFC fights to his name (and a full-time job with the FAA).

Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (Getty Images)
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (Getty Images)

As far as matchmaking goes, we’re into some serious blindfolds and darts. Jacare is keeping busy as he waits on the middleweight champion Bisping to return, presumably to face no. 1 contender Yoel Romero. And Jacare should get by Boetsch, because he believes he’s a reptile, and that’s just what he does — prey on the unsuspecting creatures trying to sip water from his swamp. Souza’s ground game is ridiculous, and his stand-up is underrated. He’s won nine of his last 10 fights, eight of those victories coming via a finish. Jacare is arguably the best UFC fighter to never hold a belt.

Still, there’s some decent merit to this one. Whenever Boetsch is booked as an afterthought in a bout, he has a tendency to turn boar. He was supposed to be a punching bag for Yushin Okami back at UFC 144 in Japan, and just when it looked like he was on his way out he sprang to life in the third round and chopped Okami down in front of his countrymen. He was supposed to be a welcome mat for the crossing-over Bellator welterweight champion Hector Lombard, and he turned into a mulish troll, taking home a split decision. After losing six of eight fights, Boetsch has scored back-to-back knockouts heading into his bout with Jacare.

Can he beat Souza? Probably not. But Boetsch has a way of inflating doubt.

Same with Cannonier, a former heavyweight who finds himself in a similar spot as Brunson. He can cut out a lot of middlemen in the rankings with one well-timed punch against the highly ranked Brazilian Teixeira, who at 37 is in danger of slipping into the dreaded role of gatekeeper.

For the relatively unknown (Cannonier, De Randamie) and the pigeonholed (Boetsch, Brunson), there’s a lot of breakthrough opportunity in play, more than we usually see on a PPV main card. That, in a strange way, has its own wild flare.

Best of the Rest

The unsung fight on UFC 208, the one that could end up stealing the show, is the main card opener between Jim Miller and Dustin Poirier. Miller is a 25-fight UFC veteran who brews his own beer, hunts with a crossbow, and fights like a dog. Poirier is a Next Big Thing stuck in purgatory. He wins a bunch and loses one, wins a bunch and loses one. After losing to Conor McGregor, Poirier came back up to lightweight and peeled off four wins in a row. Then he lost to Michael Johnson his last time. He’s never lost consecutive fights.

The great thing about Poirier-Miller is that it’s not two bounding momentums colliding, as is the norm in UFC booking. It’s the resurrected Miller, who has won three in a row after contemplating retirement less than a year ago, against Poirier, who is all gas-pedal and tire marks. Neither is capable of putting on a boring fight. Both are hospitable in how they fight to their opposition’s strengths. Both scramble with a fury when a fight momentarily slips away from the best-intended game plans.

There are other fun fights at UFC 208 — the "Carny" Nik Lentz’s bout with Islam Makhachev is an art-house feature better suited for Laemmle’s — but Poirier-Miller promises to deliver.

UFC 208 is not your typical UFC pay-per-view, but it has potential. It also has some desperation. The general matchmaking is imaginative, while the featherweight title fight at the top — concocted to make a PPV viable — is really just a stretch of imagination.

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.