If two big fights and a bunch of filler were ever worth the price of admission, they are at Saturday’s UFC 220 pay-per-view. What makes this Saturday night interesting for MMA fans is that UFC’s is not the only event. Bellator has a big card going on at the same time out in Los Angeles, which will air on the brand new Paramount Network (formerly Spike TV) for free. It’s nice to see the Garden in Boston going head-to-head with the Forum again, like a ghost from the Bird and Magic era — only this time with fists flying.
Here’s The Scorecard for this weekend’s events to help split your loyalties.
Round 1: Stipe Miocic’s Chance to Make History
Much has been made about Francis Ngannou being a timely messiah for the UFC’s heavyweight division (I personally made a big deal of it right here), but from the perspective of big-picture story arcs, this is Stipe Miocic’s night. Not only can he break the UFC’s all-time mark for heavyweight title defenses (which he currently holds a share in with two), but he can do it against a divisional bogeyman that has given everybody — fans, media, his previous opponents, Dana White — a case of the vapors.
This is the way the best UFC title fights work: A contender comes along who overshadows the champion and forces him to rise to spectacular heights come fight night. Miocic’s corner is shrouded in doubt. Despite winning all five of his previous fights via knockout — first-round knockouts in his last four — Vegas has made him the underdog for Saturday night. Honestly, what a beautiful setup for the Cleveland brawler. If Miocic wins this one, he has to be considered right there among the top heavyweights of all time. Perhaps even the greatest, given his slate of conquests.
That’s what makes this one of the best UFC heavyweight title fights ever. It’s power on power, the making of history versus the arrival of the future — a clash of titans.
Leading up to Saturday, Ngannou has hogged the press because, among other things, he obliterates whatever he touches. He’s 6-0 since debuting in the UFC in 2015, and all six wins have come via finish. He has an 83-inch reach, a ton of raw power, and the “it factor,” which the UFC is always looking for. People are compelled to watch a man who fights like he’s got a dinner reservation to keep (and grows violently angry at the thought of canceling).
For his part, Miocic has been a stud. His biggest knock (if you want to call it one) is that he speaks in sports bromides, preferring to let his power hand do the talking. He revels in being a B-side to any marquee matchup because he’s never been all that comfortable talking to media. What he’s comfortable doing it clobbering ridiculously strong men senseless. His knockout of Alistair Overeem at UFC 203 in his hometown of Cleveland was one of the most memorable in UFC history. To think that he did the same to Fabricio Werdum, Junior dos Santos, and Andrei Arlovski — every one of them former champions — only serves as a warning for anybody who thinks he stands no chance against a strong, cold wind like Ngannou.
The simple fact is this: If Miocic lands big first, he also lands last.
Round 2: Daniel Cormier Sneaks in a Title Defense
The most brilliant thing the UFC did to kick off 2018 was smuggle Daniel Cormier into the co-main-event slot for his first — or third, depending on how you do the math during the tumultuous Jon Jones era — light heavyweight title defense against Volkan Oezdemir. Cormier is the most interesting subchampion the promotion has ever known. He’s like one of those bop bags that are filled with sand at the bottom: Hit him as hard as you can, and he just swerves back upright, inviting you to do your worst.
In Cormier’s case, he is 19-0 when fighting anybody other than Jon Jones. In fights with Jones, he is — officially — 0-1-(1). The parenthetical comes from the last fight, which took place at UFC 214 in July. Jones knocked Cormier out to reclaim the light heavyweight title but was subsequently stripped when it was learned he had failed a USADA-administered drug test (again). The fight was then deemed a “no contest,” and — lo and behold — Cormier was back. He inherited the title he just lost, and could now carry on as if that whole unpleasant business out in Anaheim never happened.
This fight with Oezdemir is a novel one. Before last year, the Swiss contender had never competed in the UFC before. His debut back 11 months ago was a less-than-memorable affair against Ovince Saint Preux in which he took home a split-decision victory. The only reason people tuned into see him in his next fight against Misha Cirkunov was that Cirkunov had won four fights in a row (all finishes) and was being groomed for a title shot of his own. Oezdemir had other plans. He took out Cirkunov in just 28 seconds with a punch, siphoning Misha’s mojo completely. He followed that up with a 42-second K.O. of Jimi Manuwa in the clinch, thus stealing Manuwa’s contendership.
It took Oezdemir a grand total of a minute and ten seconds of cage-time to emerge as the light heavyweight title contender. It happened so fast that people could be forgiven if they missed the back-story: Namely, that Cormier beat Oezdemir’s Blackzilians training partner Anthony Johnson back in April and he sees Oezdemir as a “J.V.” version of a “varsity” Johnson.
Given the circumstances of Cormier defending his belt coming off a loss and Oezdemir materializing out of nowhere to meet him, this isn’t exactly a superfight, but it’s the perfect table-setter for the heavyweight title bout.
Round 3: Matt Bessette — The Survivor Comes Home
One of the main cogs in any Bellator event at the Mohegan Sun over the last few years has been Matt Bessette — a local kid who brings hundreds of fans out from around New England to watch him fight. He has quite a story: Bessette was diagnosed with leukemia at 3 years old, overcame it, and fights on as a fan favorite.
Now, after competing on Dana White’s Lookin’ For a Fight contender series, he makes his return to New England, this time in the UFC. He faces Enrique Barzola during the prelims. He likes to take a punch because it makes him feel alive. Here’s what he told me a couple of years ago, when I asked him about what he thinks of pain:
That’s why I like fighting. I like it. Not that I like being hurt … but being hurt isn’t too bad if you compare it to anything else that can happen in your life. If you get hit, who gives a shit? Growing up, I had a few friends who for some reason always thought it was a good idea to punch me in the face. I would take a punch, and they would throw it as hard as they could. It became a kind of game. My chin is pretty evil.
Regardless of what happens, Boston will turn up to support Bessette for being a survivor, a literal fighter, and — if we’re keeping it real — the perfect kind of masochist for the UFC. It helps that he’s must-see TV: All 11 of his previous bouts have ended in finishes (nine of them in his favor).
Round 4: Rory MacDonald Challenges for Bellator Title
Bellator’s card in Los Angeles is far deeper than the UFC’s event, featuring blue-chip prospects (decorated wrestlers Aaron Pico and Joey Davis), legacy-bearers (Royce Gracie’s son, Khonry Gracie), a former champion (Michael Chandler), and iron fists (Georgi Karakhanyan). But just like with the UFC, the two fights at the top give it prestige.
The best bout on the card is the welterweight title fight between Rory MacDonald and Douglas Lima. One of the stigmas that Lima carries as the champion is that he is Bellator — he has been, still is, and maybe always will be. For UFC snobs, it makes his prowess hard to comprehend. Yet in facing MacDonald — who signed with Bellator as a free agent in 2016, and owns a win over current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley — Lima gets a chance to showcase himself against an elite. Should he beat MacDonald, it says that not only is Lima every bit the champion Bellator has said he is, but — by extension — that Bellator’s fighters aren’t second fiddle to the UFC’s.
Yet MacDonald is the rightful favorite here. After taking a year off to properly heal the nose that Robbie Lawler originally busted in the Fight of the Decade at UFC 189, MacDonald looked like his old self against Paul Daley in his Bellator debut back in May. He beat Daley everywhere and submitted him with a rear-naked choke in the second round. The ultimate goal is for MacDonald to snap up the welterweight title from Lima, then make his way towards the middleweight belt (currently held by Rafael Carvalho), and then — who knows — march on to light heavyweight to face Ryan Bader. He wants to storm the ranks like Sherman did the South, and right now he’s the most compelling star in Bellator.
Though Bellator president Scott Coker has thrown cold water on the idea, MacDonald has even lobbied to be an alternative in Bellator’s heavyweight tournament. Speaking of which …
Round 5: The Heavyweight Tourney Kicks Off With Rampage Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen
It’s true that neither Quinton “Rampage” Jackson or Chael Sonnen are thought of as heavyweights, but let’s face it — both fighters are at that point in their careers where cutting weight to make money seems dumb when the option to not cut weight and make money is out there. And besides, Bellator’s heavyweight tournament field is all about imagination — it’s an asylum of non-heavyweights, old heavyweights, legends, and mean-looking dad bods. There’s really never been anything like it.
It kicks off with Rampage versus Sonnen in the opening round of the quarterfinals, a fight that was somewhat controversially bumped up to the main event, ahead of MacDonald-Lima (given the recognizability of the names). This is the kind of fight that could be badass or tragically bad, giving intrigue one hell of a span.
Jackson last fought in March against Muhammad Lawal, dropping an altogether forgettable decision. Even though he’s only showed up three times in nearly four years, there’s something about “Rampage” — the chain? the howl? the grimace? — that always gets the blood boiling. He’s a PRIDE and UFC legend who carries a big sense of nostalgia for MMA fans.
Sonnen is, of course, happily in his twilight, doing gravy gigs after all the money he made helping change the UFC forever. It was Sonnen unabashedly poking the bear, then middleweight champion Anderson Silva, that captured MMA’s imagination back in 2010. He was the UFC’s biggest star for the next couple of years despite never being its best fighter. Those fumes are real even as he heads up the Bellator tourney as a longer-toothed gangster from West Lynn (he’s now 40). Sonnen is still a star, though he doesn’t glint quite like he used to.
The good news is Sonnen looked pretty good his last time out against Wanderlei Silva. He won a dogged decision using his wrestling. Jackson hates wrestlers, and he made that known shortly before he left the UFC.
The winner of Jackson-Sonnen will advance to the semifinals to face the winner of Fedor Emelianenko–Frank Mir, who square off in April. The timing should be perfect for everyone wanting to take in as much MMA as possible on Saturday night. With Bellator’s main card starting at 9 p.m. ET, the main and co-main should be done just in time to switch over to the two big UFC 220 PPV fights.
It’s two big cards combining to make one super night.