For whatever reason, when the UFC visits Toronto, it tends to fixate on a champion with no actual ties to the area to headline the show. Between 2011 and 2013, upstate New York’s Jon Jones defended the light heavyweight title three times in Toronto, all of them memorable fights. The first time, he got Lyoto Machida in a standing guillotine and let him spill lifelessly to the canvas. The second time, he nearly had his arm ripped off against an … enhanced Vitor Belfort, but he came back and won. The third time? He and Alexander Gustafsson went five back-and-forth rounds in what many consider the best fight in UFC history. Jones got the win in that one too.
UFC loves to give fans their local heroes. In the absence of a homegrown star, it assigns one. Toronto has adopted some great champions, with the latest being Hawaiian featherweight titleholder Max Holloway. Nearly two years ago to the day, the last time the UFC passed through the Six, Holloway won the vacant 145-pound title over Anthony Pettis. The crowd that night was especially delighted by the pride of Wai‘anae and gave him a delirious ovation when he landed the body kick that did Pettis in. Holloway said afterward that he fell in love with Toronto and hoped to fight there again, preferably in the summer.
Well, the UFC heard half his request. Holloway will fight surging phenom Brian Ortega at UFC 231 in Toronto this weekend, in what is easily the biggest non–Conor McGregor featherweight title fight the promotion has ever known. All week Holloway’s been enjoying the hospitality of the Toronto faithful, even going so far as to designate the city as the 10th Hawaiian island. Is it weird that the Great North has adopted a kid from halfway around the globe? Hey, the UFC is just happy that he made weight for this fight without incident. Given the year that Holloway has had, nothing could be taken for granted.
The bonus to Saturday night’s card: a fight between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko for the vacant women’s flyweight title. Those two fights alone should make UFC 231 one hell of an event. Here’s a more in-depth look at the entire card.
Round 1: Is This How the “Blessed Era” Will End?
For as good as Holloway has been over the last five years—12-0, with nine finishes—many of his conquests have come against fighters recently divested of their mojo or otherwise on the downswing. Jose Aldo hadn’t lost in 10 years before he met Conor McGregor, but that 13-second knockout at UFC 194 took a big bite out of him. By the time Aldo faced Holloway at UFC 212 in Rio, he’d rebounded with a victory over Frankie Edgar, but there was still a question as to whether he was the same fighter. Holloway looked so good against Aldo that the question seemed answered in the negative.
The list goes on: Anthony Pettis had lost three of his last four fights when he fought Holloway at UFC 206, and Ricardo Lamas had recently been knocked out by Chad Mendes when he met Holloway at UFC 199. Does this mean that Holloway’s recent run is a smoke-and-mirrors ordeal? Absolutely not. He has been so much better than his opposition that he might just be making people look washed-up. The latest doubts about Holloway relate to his health scare while cutting weight for Ortega back at UFC 226. The mystery of what happened in July, the incident that forced the UFC to delay the fight five months, lingers as he heads into this title defense.
Ortega, on the other hand, is trending up. If he has any weaknesses, he’s been stubborn in letting on—or perhaps too strong to have them exposed. After a rocky start to his UFC career, when he was suspended for testing positive for PEDs after he choked out Mike de la Torre in 2014, Ortega won his next six bouts. But to say he won them seems clinical and inaccurate: he showcased himself in those fights, finishing each one in more emphatic fashion than the last. Clay Guida took a flying knee that did him in, and Renato Moicano—undefeated at the time—saw the world turn dark when Ortega grabbed his neck for a guillotine. Ortega did the same to Cub Swanson a year later. Holloway has a lot of neck—an inviting target for a Gracie jiu-jitsu instructor who cuts off people’s air passages just for the fun of it.
Ortega has the look and feel of a fighter about to cross over to the big time. If there’s a guy who is going to beat Holloway at his apex, it’s Ortega, who at 27 years old has a head of steam and an attitude that suggests he believes, in his heart, in his own invincibility. If Holloway is truly healthy and Ortega shows up in vintage form, this should be among the best fights of 2018.
Round 2: Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Valentina Shevchenko
It’s been an odd year for Shevchenko, who has been gone through the hell of two fight camps but competed only once. In her UFC flyweight debut in February, not only did she beat Priscila Cachoeira, she outstruck her 230-3 before sinking the fatal rear-naked choke in the second round. It was one of the most lopsided fights on record, and it all but confirmed what everyone already knew: The newly created women’s 125-pound division was all about her.
Since then it’s been tough sledding for Shevchenko. She was booked to face inaugural flyweight champion Nicco Montaño at UFC 228 in Dallas, but the fight was canceled at the eleventh hour, when Montaño was hospitalized after a botched weight cut. That prompted the UFC to strip Montaño of her title and ultimately reroute Shevchenko to Toronto to face none other than Jedrzejczyk, the former strawweight champion, for the vacant belt. If there’s one fight that can truly kick-start the 125-pound division, this is it. Jedrzejczyk is a hurricane of a kickboxer with a mean streak that we still haven’t gotten to the bottom of. Shevchenko is an absolute killer who can finally compete in her natural weight class.
This fight is made even better by the fact that Jedrzejczyk has a history with Shevchenko going back to the amateur kickboxing circuit. They met three times between 2006 and 2008 in Asia, with Shevchenko prevailing in each fight. It was only a matter of time before they crossed paths in MMA. When Jedrzejczyk was destroying everyone as the UFC’s strawweight champion and on the verge of breaking Ronda Rousey’s record for most consecutive title defenses, the lesser-known Shevchenko earned an almost mythical vibe for having solved her in a previous life.
Even though the flyweight division was tailor-made for Shevchenko, the historical value of the fight belongs to Jedrzejczyk. If she wins, she’ll become the first woman to win titles in two different weight classes. Even during her dash through the strawweight division between 2015 and 2017, Joanna Champion was talking about a second title at flyweight. To get it, she will have to snatch a pearl from the jaws of a tiger, but one thing’s certain: For as dominant as Shevchenko is, Joanna is 10 times as mean, and being a near 3-to-1 underdog won’t sit well with Jedrzejczyk. She tends to take such things personally. Put those ingredients together in a cage for 25 minutes, and it’s a batten-down-the-hatches affair.
Round 3: Claudia Gadelha vs. Nina Ansaroff
To this point, Ansaroff is more famous for being bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes’s fiancé than she for being a contender, but she has quietly emerged as a force in the strawweight division. Ansaroff has won three fights in a row, looking better each time out. Now she is booked against Brazilian hellion Gadelha and, in popular UFC parlance, this is her moment of truth.
Gadelha isn’t a hard out so much as she is an unholy terror in the division, a fighter who will leave her opposition in shreds even if she loses (and especially if she wins). In 2014, Gadelha fought Jedrzejczyk for the first time and lost a razor-thin split decision that most thought she won. Before Rose Namajunas came along and took out Jedrzejczyk, Gadelha was Jedrzejczyk’s rival. Now that Jedrzejczyk is up at flyweight, this could be Gadelha’s time to shine at strawweight.
This fight will be the preliminary main event, a spot that the UFC uses to encourage people to buy pay-per-view. In other words, the company thinks it will deliver. Given both Gadelha’s reputation of bringing heat and that it’s the biggest fight in Ansaroff’s career, this is a dark horse for fight of the night.
Round 4: Hakeem Dawodu vs. Kyle Bochniak
Speaking of breakout moments: This could be one for “Mean” Hakeem Dawodu. As a Calgary native, he will have the Canadian crowd on his side, and he has two things working for him that most fighters don’t: dynamite in his hands and the kind of backstory that the fight game loves.
Dawodu grew up on the streets and spent the bulk of his adolescence in and out of juvie. His mother gave birth to him in her teens. His father was deported to Jamaica when he was only 6. There were periods of homelessness and bouts of lawlessness. When a probation officer allowed him to enroll at a Muay Thai gym in Calgary instead of attending anger management, he found his calling. He had his first amateur kickboxing fight at 17. Next thing you know he was 42-5, with gold medals and belts with the WKA and the IKF, en route to a professional kickboxing record of 9-0 before segueing to MMA.
So far he is 1-1 in the UFC, but with a certain star quality. He has the kind of charisma that the UFC covets, and he’s capable of knocking people out with one false move. This fight with Bochniak on the main card should serve as his greater introduction to the MMA world.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Jessica Eye – The other flyweight fight has a salty dog in play. Jessica Eye hates the idea that the UFC gave Jedrzejczyk a title shot when she hasn’t yet competed at 125 pounds, especially given that Eye herself has gone 2-0 since the weight class was introduced. Eye will have her hands full with Chookagian, but if she’s able to score another win she’ll have a compelling case to fight the winner of Jedrzejczyk-Shevchenko.
Alex Oliveira vs. Gunnar Nelson – It’s a virtual lock that somebody will get finished in this fight. Oliveira is a tempestuous fighter who looks to end a fight as quickly and as emphatically as possible. In his last six fights he has put away four guys (two by chokes, two by KO), been rendered unable to continue (when Tim Means landed illegal knees to his head), and has been TKO’d by Yancy Medeiros (in one of the great unsung fights of 2017). Nelson? He’s a jiu-jitsu whiz who taps people out before they realize they are in danger. He also bulked up like a Venice Beach strongman for this fight, so there are omens in the air.
Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Gilbert Burns – Aubin-Mercier, a sweet, bespectacled fighter from a sleepy suburb of Montreal, has used his decidedly unmenacing characteristics to his advantage, ironically establishing himself as “The Canadian Gangster.” He wears a mustache, a fanny pack, and a bandanna, all of them with a complete absence of menace. (Reebok even made a special OAM fight kit that included a fanny pack and a mustache.) The thing is, Aubin-Mercier can also fight. Before his setback against Alexander Hernandez in July, he had won four in a row. This fight with Burns is a get-back-on-track affair for one of the fight game’s most endearing cult figures.