Back in the day, the UFC would garnish its pay-per-views with titles, little bang-for-your-buck suggestives like UFC 53: Heavy Hitters and UFC 70: Nations Collide. If that was still the company’s practice, Saturday night’s big PPV could easily be called UFC 230: Best Intentions.
There were high hopes for the UFC’s third trip to Madison Square Garden, many big plans and grand schemes. At one point there was speculation that Georges St-Pierre might fight Anderson Silva in the ever-elusive “superfight” that has been teased for years—even if it would be more for nostalgia’s sake in 2018. That didn’t materialize. When USADA finally came back with a retroactive 15-month suspension for Jon Jones — thus making him conveniently eligible to fight on November 3 — the suspicion was that Jones was the ace in the hole to headline the card. Perhaps he and Alexander Gustafsson would have their much-coveted rematch at the Mecca of the fight world?
Nope. UFC president Dana White delivered the bad news: Jones wasn’t in fight shape. Instead Jones is set to make his comeback on December 29 at UFC 232 in Las Vegas.
One fight that had already been made for UFC 230 — a lightweight bout between national treasure Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier — began to look like the hidden gem sitting there right under the UFC’s nose. Diaz started lobbying for the fight to be upgraded to the main event as the first bout in the “superfighter division” — a newly imagined 165-pound weight class in which he and Poirier could battle for the inaugural belt in a five-round fight. This movement picked up tons of steam on social media, but failed to pique White’s interest. He shot it down somewhat unceremoniously. And not long after, the fight itself was cancelled when Poirier got hurt. From midcard to main event to cancelled: the UFC life cycle.
In a moment of desperation, it was announced that the little-known Sijara Eubanks would fight Valentina Shevchenko for the women’s flyweight title in the main event, there was near mutiny in the ranks. Didn’t the UFC say that whenever it came to MSG it would put on an epic show? Eubanks versus Shevchenko didn’t feel epic.
Then Derrick Lewis landed a late Hail Mary knockout of Alexander Volkov at UFC 229 on October 6 and that punch landed like an epiphany. Within days, the UFC convinced current heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier to defend his belt against Lewis in New York, and presto — we got the strangest left-field main event at least since Al Iaquinta stepped in on short notice to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223. Is it the glamorous main event the UFC hoped for? Not really, but at least there’s a major title in play — and so long as Lewis has the power in his hands to knock people out, the old puncher’s chance is enough to feed the imagination.
Here’s a look at the UFC 230 PPV in its final form, which after all the fits and starts isn’t all that bad.
Round 1: Can Derrick Lewis Do the Unthinkable?
Daniel Cormier has never lost to anybody not named Jon Jones, which is enough for Vegas oddsmakers to make him a 7-to-1 favorite heading into Saturday night. Yet wouldn’t it be so UFC for Lewis to show up and smash him with one thunderous bungalow and take home Cormier’s heavyweight title? Because the UFC is so acquainted with the precepts of Murphy’s law, this scenario doesn’t feel all that far-fetched. You should never look past your opponent, and it’s not just that Cormier is looking past Lewis—the UFC itself is looking past Lewis, already penciling in Cormier vs. Brock Lesnar for early next year.
Besides, we’ve seen it happen as recently as UFC 199, when Michael Bisping — a chewed-up contender in his late 30s who’d been all but dubbed a non-threat heading in — showed up on two weeks’ notice and knocked Luke Rockhold out for the middleweight title. Not only did Bisping change the narrative in his favor, he kept the title hostage for 17 months, circumventing actual contenders — like Jacaré Souza, Robert Whittaker, and Chris Weidman — and instead fighting a then-44-year-old Dan Henderson and a middleweight moonlighter in St-Pierre.
What happens if Lewis knocks out Cormier like he has seven other guys in his past 10 fights? It ruins a lot of fun things that the UFC has planned. Cormier is all but guaranteed the mega-fight with Lesnar in the new year, yet if Lewis ends up with the title that fight would no longer be viable. At that point, Lesnar—and UFC—may wait to see how Jones does against Gustafsson at UFC 232. A Jones-Lesnar fight at heavyweight wouldn’t even need to have a title affixed to it; the thing would sell because it would warp the imagination. Cormier has a lot to lose on Saturday night: his title, his superfight, and the chance to face both of his top rivals.
Then again, he doesn’t seem overly worried about that possibility — and of all the fighters who take risky “stay busy” fights, Cormier is the least likely to blow it. He has made a career out of fighting people on short notice, facing the likes of Bigfoot Silva, Dan Henderson, and Anderson Silva under less-than-ideal circumstances (and trouncing all three). The main danger area is Lewis’s power, which — as he displayed once again against Volkov — remains in effect through the whole course of a fight. One relaxed moment to catch his breath might prove fatal for Cormier, if he keeps his head stationary and his hands down.
What feels like the smartest game plan for Cormier is to take Lewis down and keep all 265 pounds of his deadliness writhing on the canvas, trying to get up. Cormier has the precision and power in his hands to take out Lewis standing, but the safe play — the path of least resistance in his Road to Lesnar — is to use his wrestling to wear Lewis out. Otherwise he might find himself living out a nightmare: That is, doing the color commentary for a fight between Derrick Lewis and Brock Lesnar come February.
Round 2: Jacaré Souza Finally Meets Chris Weidman
Back before Bisping took the title from Rockhold, there was a four-faced hydra at the top of the middleweight division — Rockhold, Weidman, Jacaré Souza, and Yoel Romero. Long Island’s own Weidman has faced two of them, yet he’s never taken on Souza, a veritable Venus flytrap on the ground who treats grown-ass men like flies.
Perhaps this fight is arriving a few years beyond both of their peaks, but Weidman and Jacaré are perennial contenders at middleweight. Weidman was supposed to be facing Rockhold in a rematch of UFC 194, to try to exact a little revenge on the man who took his title. Rockhold was forced to withdraw a couple of weeks back with an injury, therefore making Jacaré a silver-lining opponent.
But still, it’s got that elusive element of excitement. What to expect Saturday night is anybody’s guess. Weidman has been injury prone throughout his career, and hasn’t fought in 16 months. The last time we saw him was in a do-or-die fight against Kelvin Gastelum on Long Island, when he snapped a three-fight losing streak in fairly dramatic fashion. He tapped Gastelum out with an arm-triangle choke. In Weidman’s time away, Gastelum has risen like a phoenix to get the next middleweight title shot against Robert Whittaker. In other words, Weidman’s time away has bizarrely upped his standing in the ranks.
Jacaré is 38 years old, and still the most dangerous grappler in the division. If Weidman wants to use his wrestling to take Souza down, he’ll do it at his own peril. But if Souza’s fight with Derek Brunson from earlier this year reminded us of anything, it’s that you can’t sleep on his stand-up game, either. He’s not afraid to stand in and trade for as long as it takes to gain an advantage. It would be surprising if Jacaré didn’t test the durability of Weidman’s chin early, just to see if he can’t make it an early night.
The subtext of this fight is Weidman returning to Madison Square Garden, where he was brutally knocked out against Yoel Romero back in 2016. It was a partisan crowd for him that night, and it will be again on Saturday. You wonder if the pressure of fighting at home will benefit him, or ultimately work against him.
Round 3: Coming-out Party for “The Last Stylebender?”
When Derek Brunson is on, he doesn’t waste time. His past six victories have come via first-round TKO or knockout. His destruction of Lyoto Machida last October was a reminder that he is among the hardest punchers in the middleweight division. Yet when he can’t get going, Brunson becomes the target.
In other words, his fight against the phenom Israel “The Last Stylebender” Adesanya has all the makings of a feast-or-famine affair. Adesanya is the brash, undefeated buzz name in the industry right now, having won his first three UFC fights with an escalating sense that we haven’t yet seen all that he is capable of. In Adesanya’s last fight with Brad Tavares there was a feeling that he might be biting off more than he could chew. Turns out he wasn’t. He styled on Tavares and — though he couldn’t score a finish — ultimately came away looking very comfortable with the comparisons to Jon Jones and Anderson Silva.
This is one of those fights where the story lines will be trading blows like the fighters. On the one side (Brunson) you have a seasoned knockout artist who would love to ruin all of tomorrow’s parties by taking out the most hyped up-and-comer since Conor McGregor, while on the other side you have a sniper of untold proportions, who has the look of a fighter ready to break through into stardom.
This fight kicks off the main card for a reason: the UFC knows it will be explosive, and that it could double as a showcase for Adesanya.
Round 4: Sijara Eubanks Ready for Her Moment
Give Sijara Eubanks this much: Even though this is officially only her second fight in the UFC, she doesn’t take any shit. When the UFC booked her into the main event for this card against Shevchenko, Eubanks was ready to prove that she belonged under the same bright lights that lit up Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali back in the day. When the UFC changed its mind—putting Cormier-Lewis atop the card, and shifting Shevchenko back to a match against Joanna Jedrzejczyk for the vacant flyweight title at UFC 231—Eubanks subjected Dana White to a blue streak of NSFW invective, letting him know exactly all the ways in which he jacked up the situation.
Does that audacity translate into victories in the octagon? We’ll see. The sample size is small, but Eubanks is only 3-2 in her pro MMA career. After winning three exhibition matches while a contestant on The Ultimate Fighter 26, she was unable to fight Nicco Montaño in the finale due to kidney failure during the weight cut. She missed weight this time, too, coming in at 127.2 pounds, which doesn’t help her cause to earn a title shot. Still, she debuted somewhat impressively against Lauren Murphy back in June, scoring a unanimous decision. How will she fare against Roxanne Modafferi, who she beat unofficially in the semifinal round of TUF26?
Here’s all I know: If she wins, it could get interesting when she grabs that microphone. Eubanks isn’t a household name in the world of MMA yet, but she’s long been a legend in her own mind. She was promised a shot for the flyweight title against Shevchenko, and here’s guessing she demands what she was promised.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Jason Knight vs. Jordan Rinaldi—To kick off his UFC career, Jason “The Kid” Knight looked like he’d been issued straight from Hell; early on he had four straight wins and looked like a wiry, Mississippi-born version of Chris Leben in that he fought with reckless abandon. Then it all went south with a loss at UFC 214 against Ricardo Lamas. From there it just got weird. In Knight’s fight with Gabriel Benítez he was docked a point for biting Benítez’s finger during the fight, a Tyson-esque occurrence that to this day defies explanation. He lost his next time out against Makwan Amirkhani, giving him three losses in a row. A fourth against Rinaldi and Knight’s early dynamics will look like a flash in the pan.
Shane Burgos vs. Kurt Holobaugh—Hailing from the Bronx, Burgos will have the crowd behind him at MSG, but the real question is, in what form does he return? We haven’t seen him since his encounter with Calvin Kattar back at UFC 220 in January. Going into that fight he was 10-0 and riding extremely high off his victory over Godofredo Pepey, yet Kattar pieced him up in ways that can stay with a man. Does he have the same confidence? Did he fix the holes in his stand-up? Is there the residual taste of leather in his mouth after eating so many of Kattar’s jabs? Holobaugh is the right guy to try to find out. Having emerged from Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, it’s a bubble fight for the Louisianan, and desperate people tend to fight desperately.
David Branch vs. Jared Cannonier—This is the swing bout on the card, right in the middle of the pay-per-view, and it promises to be good. David Branch is a heat-thrower. As a former two-division champion in the now-defunct WSOF who was cast off by the UFC earlier in his career, he’s always got a chip on his shoulder. And if his last fight against Thiago Santos is any indication, Jared Cannonier had best keep his hands up. Branch obliterated Thiago Santos in Atlantic City by letting out a lot of pent-up rage. Cannonier — who also throws mean leather — is coming off of back-to-back losses, and could be on the cusp of losing his roster spot. Both have something to prove, which means the action should be furious.