For a minute there in early February, it looked like UFC 222 might be scrapped altogether. The UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway was forced to withdraw from his title defense against Frankie Edgar with an injury, and the UFC doesn’t traditionally put on pay-per-views without a championship fight. With everybody else booked, hurt, or otherwise engaged, there were very few options to save it.
So, what magic did the UFC come up with this time?
Though Conor McGregor swears he called UFC president Dana White and offered to step in and fight Edgar on short notice (at a catch weight), that’s not going to happen. Instead, the savior for UFC 222 ended up being its women’s featherweight champion, Cris “Cyborg” Justino, who defeated Holly Holm in December and was planning to return later in the year. On Saturday, she will defend the title in an impromptu matchup against the Russian fighter Yana Kunitskaya, who could just as easily go by the name Victim 21. And the UFC then found a new opponent for Edgar, too—145-pound contender Brian Ortega.
Presto. Another event saved. Cyborg, who has had her share of problems with Dana White over the years, was able to dawn a cape in this situation. The good news is that UFC 222 has plenty of depth behind it, so let’s get down to scoring Saturday night’s action.
Round 1: Cyborg vs. Yana Kunitskaya
It’s not often that a UFC debutante gets a crack at the title right out the gate, but that’s the spot Kunitskaya, 28, finds herself in—a nearly anonymous 10-to-1 underdog being thrust into a highly visible fight with almost nothing to lose. Even though she’s been competing a class lower as a bantamweight in the all-women’s Invicta FC, she gets to fight for the featherweight belt in her first-ever UFC bout because right now the entire division is comprised of single terrifying name—Cyborg.
It’s a name that makes people in the general vicinity take shelter and hide under desks. A name that made the UFC’s inaugural featherweight champion, Germaine de Randamie, skedaddle back down to bantamweight. A name that ended Gina Carano’s fight career, and hovered over Ronda Rousey like a swarm of locusts during Rousey’s historic title run from 2013 to 2015.
Nineteen women have stood in against Cyborg since 2005, and 17 have had to be rescued by the referee (and let’s #neverforget referee Kim Winslow taking her damn sweet time in saving poor Jan Finney back in 2010). The only ones to go the distance with her were Kunitskaya’s training partner Holm, a savvy world-class boxer, and Yoko Takahashi in a three-round fight back in 2008. Otherwise, they’ve all been vanquished in violent ways, usually by first-round TKO.
Kunitskaya (10-3 with one no contest) isn’t so much a surging contender as she is a tall, larger-framed volunteer seizing a unique opportunity. Not that she hasn’t competed well and at times flashed some power. She won the vacant bantamweight title in Invicta FC via a unanimous decision against Raquel Pa’aluhi her last time out, and ruled the Lithuanian/Russian theaters in 2010-12. Yet she only won the Invicta FC title because Tonya Evinger—who beat her last March—had bolted Invicta FC to face Cyborg herself for the title that de Randamie vacated.
It’s been a game of pluck-and-plunk to find challenges for Cyborg. Evinger put up a good fight but ultimately got finished by a flurry of knees in the third round. If Kunitskaya can perhaps use her reach, and try to get into the later rounds with Cy … ha, I can’t do it.
Let’s face it—Kunitskaya has her work cut out for her.
The impressive thing about Cyborg is that she isn’t the unhinged fists a blazing hellcat she was when she first came over to the UFC 18 months ago. These days, she’s patient. She lurks until the moment is right to attack. Her fight with Evinger got a little contentious at times, but it felt like a cat playing with its food. Once she came on, she came on. With Holm, who has an incredible chin, she dominated during the 25 minutes. She was elusive, efficient, and precise. Cyborg landed 118 of 223 of the significant strikes she threw, while Holm only connected on 44 of 227.
Holm, a striker by trade, was only a third as effective as Cyborg. That was eye opening. If Kunitskaya opts to stand with Cyborg, it’ll be a fun gamble for as long as it lasts. This fight is a tailor-made showcase for Cyborg, and sets up perhaps a fight later in the year against Megan Anderson, Cat Zingano, or—if she holds court at UFC 224 in May and gets by Raquel Pennington—the women’s bantamweight champion, Amanda Nunes.
Round 2: Edgar vs. Ortega
Let’s not rag on Max Holloway for missing this fight—one of the refreshing things about him is that he wasted zero seconds accepting Frankie Edgar as his next challenge for the featherweight title after beating Jose Aldo in December. In a day and age when champions routinely search out “money fights” and play hard to get for actual contenders, Holloway is that rare throwback to a more innocent (and hungrier) time.
Then again, so is Edgar. When Holloway pulled out of the fight last month with a leg injury, Edgar never gave a second thought about remaining on the card. He was training and ready for whoever the UFC wanted to throw at him. A fight against McGregor would have been epic from his perspective, though nobody is really sure the caveats in play to make that happen (or even how serious that was). So, who’s the most dangerous opponent that the UFC could give Edgar, the kind of guy who could dislodge him from the pecking order and take his place in line to fight Holloway when he comes back?
“T-City,” Brian Ortega, the herald of the New Class. The undefeated Ortega, 27, has been on a slow build since his somewhat inauspicious debut back in 2014 (he tapped Mike de la Torre in the first round but popped hot for a steroid and was promptly suspended for nine months). Since then he has finished all five of his opponents, each of whom was a step up in competition from the last. His knockout of Clay Guida at UFC 199 was the first big eye-opener, but he has outdone himself twice since then. He choked out the previously unbeaten Renato Moicano at UFC 214, then did the same to Cub Swanson in December in one of the more impressive performances of the year.
Ortega actually finished Swanson twice that night. Swanson was saved by the bell in the first round, and then found himself trying to keep his head from popping off when Ortega sunk the guillotine in the second.
There used to be a joke about Edgar that went like this—he didn’t start fighting until blood appeared on his face. Edgar is a flickering, pressuring, never-ceasing dynamo of a featherweight who keeps a manic pace for as long as the fight goes on. Though it happens less frequently now that he’s at 145 pounds, he tends to get hit early, which only serves to piss him off. A nice clop on the nose only activates him. And he gets better as the fight goes on. He sapped the will out of Yair Rodriguez last May for 10 consecutive minutes, one of the greatest landslide victories of the year.
And here’s a fun fact: In 28 professional fights, he has lost only once in a non-title fight. That was 10 years ago against Gray Maynard. Otherwise, he is 13-0 in fights when no belt is on the line. He is, in a nutshell, where contenders go to die.
What makes Ortega interesting as a challenge is that Ortega heats up as his fights go on, too. In his last five fights, he finished four of them in the third round. He put away Swanson in the second. This fight may start fast and furious and then settle into an out-and-out war.
Round 3: Sean O’Malley Ready to Put on His “Sugar Show”
It’s not everyday that a prospect comes up who is equally famous for knocking people out as he is for sharing a blunt with Snoop Dogg, but not everybody is “Sugar” Sean O’Malley. To use O’Malley’s own words, he has “the it” that the UFC is always on the lookout for.
Hard to argue given the small sample size we’ve seen of him. O’Malley burst on the scene at just 22 years old on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series when he smoked Alfred Khashakyan with a right hand, scaled the fence, and then proceeded to yell, “Welcome to the Sugar Show!” Dana White just stood there with his mouth open saying, “Wow … wow.”
With his Bob Ross Afro and a body canvassed with tattoos, O’Malley is the embodiment of the old Jolt Cola slogan: “All the sugar and twice the caffeine.” He throws spinning back fists, lunging uppercuts, and as many flying knees as he can get off, and is still young enough to believe in his own invincibility. So far, it’s worked. He’s 9-0 overall and 2-0 in the UFC. In his last fight, against Terrion Ware, he was able to score a unanimous decision victory while displaying his striking prowess.
The UFC likes him so much that it booked him in the swing fight on Saturday PPV against Andre Soukhamthath, a fellow banger who will accommodate young O’Malley, now 23, in the pocket. This is one of those setups where O’Malley could end up stealing the show, particularly if he walk-off KOs Soukhamthath like he did Khashakyan.
Round 4: Mackenzie Dern Makes Her Debut
Some fans wanted to see the 24-year-old jiu-jitsu ace Mackenzie Dern get another fight or two before making the leap to the UFC, but let’s face it—the fact that she’s been tracked so closely since segueing into MMA back in 2016 speaks to her star potential. The UFC is ready to capitalize on that.
Here’s what the UFC has in Dern: A charismatic, photogenic, human origamist who won an ADCC world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The UFC needs stars, and Dern checks that box. She has shown that her grappling skills are transcendent enough to overcome strawweights in LFA and Invicta (she’s notched three submissions in five fights), but how far along is her stand-up? Her clinch game? How will she do in scrambles? Does she have a chin? And can she make weight regularly, after missing on two separate occasions?
These are the pressing questions.
Lucky for her she is facing Ashley Yoder (5-3), who is more of a submission specialist herself than a knockout artist. Like O’Malley, this could be the start of something big for Dern if she doesn’t succumb to the “octagon jitters” in her debut. The UFC could have easily put Dern behind the paywall just to add a little more bang for the buck, but as it is she is booked as the last televised prelim before the PPV. That spot, which will air on FS1, carries a lot of exposure—and pressure.
Round 5: Best of the rest
C.B. Dollaway vs. Hector Lombard—It’s been a strange ride for both Dollaway and Lombard, each of whom hasn’t been able to slalom past the bigger names in the middleweight division. Dollaway snapped a three-fight skid his last time out against Ed Herman, but he’s been battling back issues after an elevator incident a few days before his UFC 203 fight with Francimar Barroso. Lombard is fighting for what’s left of his mystique since coming over as the Bellator middleweight champion in 2011. Now 40, he has lost four fights in a row and even his last victory, against Josh Burkman in 2015, was overturned into a “no contest” when he tested positive for a steroid. This fight is do-or-die for the man who calls himself “Showeather.”
Stefan Struve vs. Andrei Arlovski—The last time Arlovski went on a sustained losing streak was back in his Strikeforce days, when it seemed like everyone was knocking him out. He responded to all the eulogies being written about him back then by going 10-1-1 in his next 12 fights as he found his way back into the UFC. Just when it seemed like he was on the verge of contending for another UFC heavyweight title, he went into a free fall again, losing five in a row. He snapped the streak in his last fight against Junior Albini, but it was a pretty ugly affair. Facing the 7-foot Struve is less than ideal to rediscover some mojo, but if Arlovski doesn’t get it done here, you have to wonder if the eulogies will start showing up again.
Cat Zingano vs. Ketlen Vieira—Zingano is one of the rare fighters who was excited about the idea of fighting Cyborg, but the timing hasn’t worked out. In fact, very little has worked out as far as finding herself a dance partner. She’s been on the shelf involuntarily for a year and a half, having last appeared at UFC 200 against Julianna Peña. After all that time she’ll return against the undefeated Vieira (9-0) and look to get back on track. It feels like eons ago since Zingano was coming up the ranks as an undefeated fighter herself heading into her UFC 184 encounter with Ronda Rousey. She came out overaggressive and lost that fight in 14 seconds. Then, she lost a decision against Peña. She hasn’t won since her 2014 TKO of current champion Amanda Nunes at UFC 178. If anybody is in dire need of a big-time showing, it’s Zingano.