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The Scorecard: Next Big Things

The Last Stylebender and the Highlight try to stake their claim to the future of MMA on UFC Fight Night Phoenix

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With all the prefight hubbub, last weekend’s UFC 223 pay-per-view in Brooklyn—which turned into a story about the party-crasher Conor McGregor and the Russian juggernaut Khabib Nurmagomedov, even though they weren’t fighting—is a tough gig to follow up on. But if there’s special allure to this Saturday night’s UFC fight card in Phoenix (though the fights are technically in Glendale, Arizona) it’s this—it’s free. Gratis fists and kimura bliss, what could be better?

Phoenix is getting an event that is something like 11,000 times more presentable than the UFC’s last card on the Fox flagship (which featured a tapioca pairing of Josh Emmett and Jeremy Stephens in the main event). On paper, UFC on Fox Phoenix has a go-for-broke vibe to it that makes sense for a promotion that is perhaps closing in on a new split television deal with NBC and ESPN. It has some biggish names, a crop of rising stars, a couple of bangers, and some versatile eye candy. Plus, there’s a guaranteed barnburner at the top.

After McGregor’s antics of a week ago and all the flip-flopping going on in the main event with Nurmagomedov, simplicity might be just what the doctor ordered here. And there aren’t any simpler-to-grasp fighters on the UFC roster than Arizona’s own Justin Gaethje, who has a black-and-white approach to the grim trade: either knock him out, or be knocked out. With him there is no middle ground.

So let’s score the key matchups on this fight card, while applauding its relative sanity.

WSOF NYC - Gaethje v Zeferino & Fitch v Shields Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Round 1: Justin Gaethje vs. Dustin Poirier

The UFC has a new toy in Justin Gaethje, who is a living, breathing example of what it covets in a fighter. Back before he cashed in for roughly $360 million during the UFC’s sale to WME-IMG in 2016, UFC president Dana White used to give motivational speeches to all the fighters on a given card on the Friday before the event. What he told them was to leave it all in the octagon, to remember that it’s a show, and to think about the bonus money they could earn by letting their hands fly. In essence, what he was telling them was to fight recklessly, because giving zero fucks brings fans out of their seats.

Some people don’t need the prompts. Gaethje is the sort of fighter who moves forward like a wind-up zombie toy, flinging bombs and slashing away at the lead leg of his opposition using his own leg as a scythe. There are action fighters, who dictate the space and force a response, and then there is Gaethje, who practically screams, “You’re going to have to kill me!” All through his run as the World Series of Fighting’s lightweight champion, Gaethje invited a game of chin-checking roulette. He would happily stand in any man’s wheelhouse and trade leather, banking on the indomitability of his own chin and his own power to put people out.

That formula worked through his first 18 fights, including his come-from-behind Fight of the Year against Michael Johnson in his UFC debut last July. He was undefeated at 18-0 heading into his UFC 218 clash with the equally sadistic Eddie Alvarez. Gaethje lasted until deep into the third round before he finally succumbed to a wicked knee and a barrage of punches.

So whom should the UFC book Gaethje against in the follow-up fight to his first loss? None other than Dustin Poirier, a maelstrom of a lightweight who is right at home in the pocket. Poirier has won Fight of the Night honors twice in his past three fights, and the third one—his out-and-out war with Alvarez that ended in a “no contest” when Poirier took some illegal knees to the head while grounded—should have gotten the bonus as well.

This is fantastic matchmaking, the kind of fight that connoisseurs of barnburners—fights where game plans inevitably fly out the window—can drool over. And yet it’s also a competitive bout within the ranks at lightweight, with Poirier and Gaethje positioned at no. 5 and no. 6, respectively. One of the early premises of the Fox features was to pit contenders against each other in title eliminators. With newly crowned champion Nurmagomedov (presumably) set to defend his title against either Tony Ferguson, Max Holloway, or (yep) Conor McGregor, it would be a stretch of the imagination to believe either Gaethje or Poirier could leapfrog the field.

But you know what the winner of this big-time exposure bout might get to do? Fight Nate Diaz. Sticking Diaz in there against Poirier or—lord have mercy—Gaethje would just about send fans of MMA into convulsions.

Round 2: The “Natural Born Killer” Returns

In retrospect, Carlos Condit’s epic early-2016 battle with Robbie Lawler at UFC 195 might have taken a toll on him. Back then, when Lawler was the champion, the welterweights were lopping years off each other’s lives. Johny Hendricks gave more of himself than he ever intended in back-to-back bouts with Lawler, and has gone 2-5 since. Rory MacDonald had a Fight of the Year candidate with Lawler at UFC 189 and it took two years for his crushed-in nose to fully recover. Matt Brown won seven fights in a row heading into his fight with Lawler, and—after taking five rounds of punishment—has gone just 2-4 since then.

Condit has gone 0-2 since the back-and-forth Lawler fight, which he lost by split decision (and, even worse, many people thought he won). When he got submitted by Demian Maia at UFC on Fox 21 in his follow-up fight, he showed up to the post-fight press conference in Vancouver and contemplated retirement. It was difficult to watch Condit—who has stood in there against the very best of his day, and conquered a great many—question if he was still any good.

Taking 16 months off before his fight with Neil Magny didn’t help his path to rediscovery. He lost a unanimous decision at UFC 219, and yet again, a lot of people wondered if that was the end of Condit. Nope. Here he is, back in the great Southwest, willing to check in on himself one more time and find out—live on national TV—if he’s got anything left.

Condit’s original opponent was the recently unretired Matt Brown, who himself is sparring in the twilight of a winding down career. There were poetic underpinnings to Brown and Condit finally fighting after years of beating people up as parallels, but—as we saw last week at UFC 223—the MMA gods don’t like poetry. Brown was forced out with an ACL injury and replaced by the free-swinging “Cowboy” Alex Oliveira, who is still very much in the vital prime of his career. Oliveira is coming off of a great fight against Yancy Medeiros—one of the better fights of 2017, actually, even if he ended up losing—and looking to get back on track.

Will this be the last we see of the former WEC and UFC welterweight champion Condit? It very well could be. But there’s something about a do-or-die situation that seems befitting to Condit’s personality. It wouldn’t be like him to go out with a whimper.

Round 3: The Last Stylebender, Israel Adesanya—the UFC’s Next Big Thing?

With Ronda Rousey’s move to WWE, Conor McGregor’s idleness, and Jon Jones’s ongoing USADA-mandated absence, the UFC finds itself more than ever in a quest to generate new stars. One of the blue chip candidates to break through is Israel Adesanya, the Nigerian middleweight who has that “it” factor that Dana White is always talking about.

What is the “it” factor in MMA? It’s usually a charismatic fighter who communicates his intentions to rule the sport with a tone of inevitability, who calls attention to themselves and then rises to the occasion when it’s time to show proof, who has a grasp of the big picture while running roughshod through the present, and who (because this is still a sport) never loses.

In other words, the “Last Stylebender” Adesanya.

There was plenty of hoopla surrounding Adesanya heading into his UFC debut in February at UFC 221 in Perth. He’d made a bit of a name for himself in kickboxing, and—as a transplant now training out of New Zealand—he had the Australian media ready to burst with anticipation. But there was also a lot of hype surrounding his fight with Rob Wilkinson, who was cast in the dubious role of “spoiler.”

So what did Adesanya do? He marked the cage. Or at least he pretended to, as he mock urinated all over the octagon after he scored a second-round TKO of Wilkinson. And his response to the TKO was to shrug his shoulders, as if his performance wasn’t what he’d hoped. When Ariel Helwani texted him to be on The MMA Hour afterward, Adesanya’s response was “I’ve been expecting you.” It’s that kind of awareness—paired with his ridiculous skill set—that gives him the “it” sheen.

The victory over Wilkinson made his record a perfect 12-0 since he debuted in MMA in 2012. Now the UFC has booked him against a 24-year-old Italian fighter, Marvin Vettori, who is 2-1-1 in the UFC. This is, again, perfect matchmaking. Vettori is still rough around the edges, yet a formidable task for Adesanya. It’s easy to appreciate the fight ending up on broadcast television, especially from the insider’s perspective.

There’s a feeling that Adesanya is secretly the main attraction on Saturday night’s fight card—and that’s because of that “it” factor too.

MMA: UFC 218-Torres vs Waterson Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Round 4: The Karate Hottie

One of the usual suspects that the UFC likes to roll out on its Fox broadcasts is the strawweight Michelle Waterson—the infectious 32-year old “Karate Hottie.” Waterson is about as marketable as they get. She’s a good-looking, free-spirited, dedicated mixed martial artist who happens to be a mom, to boot. She fights like a feral beast, yet she’s never out of control. She’s photogenic, yet can kick an apple off the top of your head. She checks a lot of boxes when trying to identify a “potential star.”

The only thing she hasn’t done all that well is win.

Heading into her main-card kickoff fight with Cortney Casey, Waterson has lost back-to-back fights. There’s no shame in losing to Rose Namajunas, which she did last April, but losing a decision to Tecia Torres at UFC 218 stung. This fight with Casey becomes a pretty crucial fight for her to show well in. A third loss in a row and all the aforementioned attributes lose some meaning. It’s not an easy ask, either, going against Tucson, Arizona, native Casey. The crowd might skew toward its homegrown talent, and Casey is a scrapper. She gave Felice Herrig fits in the exchanges in her last fight, and tapped out a very talented fighter in Randa Markos.

The UFC loves to kick off its four-fight main cards on Fox with a flammable fight that will heat any living room. Waterson, with her back against the wall, has the potential to do that against somebody as game as Casey.

Round 5: Best of the Rest

Wilson Reis vs. John Moraga: What’s not to love about a frenetic flyweight battle where one guy (Moraga) is in the position to send the other guy (Reis) off on an ice floe? That’s the setup here. Reis had won three in a row heading into his 125-pound title shot against Demetrious Johnson and, after getting armbarred in one of the most ridiculous finishing sequences in UFC history, now finds himself trying to snap a two-fight skid. His last time out he served as a punching bag to the reinvigorated Henry Cejudo, getting knocked out in the second round. It doesn’t get any easier Saturday night for the Brazilian, who is fighting in Moraga’s backyard. Moraga has looked sharp in his past two fights, scoring victories over Ashkan Mokhtarian and Magomed Bibulatov, the latter of whom he knocked out. This one should have some action.

Dhiego Lima vs. Yushin Okami: Once upon a time, Yushin Okami was not only the best Japanese fighter on the UFC’s roster, but a pillar of the pay-per-view main cards. These days he’s practically flying under the radar as a prelimist. Okami had long been a fearsome middleweight who can get the job done. He returned to the UFC in September as a light heavyweight after a four-year journey with other promotions, and got tapped out with a seldom-seen Von Flue choke against Ovince Saint Preux. He returns as a welterweight—some 35 pounds smaller—to try to resurrect his career against Lima, a fighter who has never quite lived up to potential.

Arjan Singh Bhullar vs. Adam Wieczorek: In the Reebok era of the UFC, there have been some missteps—from name misspellings on the fight kits, to the controversial tiered pay structure—but one incident specifically got some headlines. That was when the Canadian Indian Sikh fighter Bhullar was forbidden from wearing his turban to the octagon at UFC 215, because it violated the Reebok dress code. The heavyweight Bhullar went on to have a successful debut, defeating Luis Henrique, to raise his record to 7-0. For his second UFC fight—against Adam Wieczorek—he’ll be allowed to wear the turban, and showcase more fully who he is: an Olympic wrestler from Canada who happens to be of Indian Sikh descent. That’s important for the UFC, which has been trying to make inroads with India for a long time.