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The Scorecard: Road to Rio

Can Amanda Nunes become a historic champion? Can Jacare Souza and Vitor Belfort keep swinging? Will Mackenzie Dern become a star or miss the cut? UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro will chart the course for the future of the Brazilian fight game—and UFC’s too.

UFC/Ringer illustration

In Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa traveled to Russia to face Ivan Drago with plenty of factors working against him. For starters, his wife didn’t exactly believe in him; he was old; Drago, who couldn’t distinguish between a real fight and an exhibition, had snuffed out Rocky’s buddy Apollo, which made things emotional; the Cold War was going on; Rocky possibly had some CTE issues, as he couldn’t distinguish between dining on snails versus eating nails; oh, and Drago was a roided-out killing machine with nary an ounce of human conscience. It didn’t help that Drago was getting home-field advantage in a fight he had every reason to win.

For UFC 224, the UFC’s Rocky — Raquel “Rocky” Pennington — is traveling to Brazil to face the women’s bantamweight champion, Amanda Nunes. This version of Rocky isn’t trying to avenge the death of a friend, but her quest is not without cinematic flare. She’s a vast underdog heading into the bout, coming in on some books as high as +700, and she’s going to Nunes’s home country to try to get it done. If Rocky were to spring the upset over Nunes, it would be a wild surprise in the world of mixed martial arts — but don’t expect the crowd in Rio de Janeiro to be chanting her name at any point during the fight, no matter how poetically things unfold.

Pennington is not going to win Brazil over. If she does her job well, the best she can hope for is to royally piss off 18,000 partisans on Saturday night. For a massive underdog coming back from a broken fibula, her objective is to make everyone go quiet at the end.

What’s great about UFC 224 as a whole is that it’s a smartly booked event featuring Brazilians at varying stages of their careers. Some of them are throwbacks. Some of them are fresh new faces. Some of them, like Nunes, are on the cusp of stardom. When the UFC goes to Rio for a pay-per-view, it likes to make it a celebration of Brazil, and this card checks all the boxes.

Here’s a look at Saturday night’s action.

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Round 1: Nunes vs. Pennington

Since winning the bantamweight title in 2016, Nunes hasn’t exactly captivated the imagination the way Ronda Rousey did during her run, nor even as Miesha Tate did during the brief period she held the title. Part of that has to do with the fact that Nunes beat both Tate and Rousey so soundly that she inspired resentment for trampling longview narratives about how great they were. Part of it was that when she took the title from Tate the belt itself had become like a hot potato, having been passed from Rousey to Holly Holm to Tate to her, all within an eight-month span.

A significant part of her lack of industrial-strength hype, though, is due to UFC president Dana White basically throwing her under the bus in July, after she backed out of her title defense against Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 213 with chronic sinusitis on the day of the bout. Instead of defending his champ’s decision to withdraw at the 11th hour, White questioned her desire for everyone to hear. “The doctor cleared her to fight … she said she doesn’t feel good,” he said. “It is what it is, you can’t make anyone fight.”

Oof. Though Nunes would eventually fight (and defeat) Shevchenko two months later at UFC 215, she emerged as a kind of unreliable problem child instead of looking like a force to be reckoned with.

Now she returns eight months later in her native Brazil, and she’s looking to defend her title for the third time. Going back to the start of 2015, Nunes has been as dominant as they come in the UFC, winning six straight fights. More impressively, she has finished four of those opponents — two via TKO, two via submission — including Tate, Rousey, and Rousey’s fellow WWE pilgrim Shayna Baszler. She beat the immensely talented Shevchenko not once but twice in that span, thus forcing the “Bullet” to go try her hand in the newly established flyweight ranks.

Nunes has lived up to the billing at every stop on her warpath. If there’s been a lack of buzz about her fight with Pennington, it’s because Pennington feels like a stretch contender — a challenger who emerged quietly during a down moment in the division when no other contenders were available/ready/credentialed enough. Still, these are the kinds of title fights — the stay-busy, keep-the-division-flowing, quiet ones — that so often become disruptive. It’s also the kind of fight that speaks to sharp money. Even with a broken fibula that she suffered after an ATV accident, Pennington has been ridiculously durable in the cage. She had a submission victory over Jessica Andrade at UFC 191, and has won three straight decisions since then.

Given her doggedness and her boxing ability — and the idea that it’s her big moment to shine — there are warning signs all over the place not be overly comfortable wheeling Nunes as an autopick on your parlays. Nunes is great, but she’s not seven times better than Pennington. Rocky is a live dog in Brazil at those odds.

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Round 2: Jacare Souza vs. Kelvin Gastelum

Given his youth and power, the 26-year-old Gastelum is an irreverent, legacy-smashing reality check in the fight game — a kind of henchman whom the UFC activates when an old glory needs to be put out to pasture. They did it when they plugged him against Johny Hendricks at UFC 200. They did it by booking him against the ex–Green Beret Tim Kennedy, who retired after suffering a TKO loss to Gastelum at UFC 206. (He subsequently unretired.) They did it for his fight with Vitor Belfort 14 months ago, yet his massive knockout that night was converted into a “no contest” when it was learned that Gastelum had—get this—marijuana in his system.

And the UFC did it again in November after Michael Bisping lost his middleweight title against Georges St-Pierre. What to do with an over-aged British fighter who is no longer holding up a division? I know — feed him to Gastelum! Gastelum brutally KO’d Bisping midway through the first round in the UFC’s first visit to mainland China.

This time it’s the 38-year-old Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, a perennial top-five talent who lurks forever just out of contention (quite literally like an alligator in a lagoon). Jacare has gone 8-2 in the UFC, and has shined in many great ways (knocking out Belfort, choking out Gegard Mousasi, head-kicking Derek Brunson into oblivion), but he’s never been a priority to book into a title fight. The reason for that is complicated, but let’s just say that Jacare isn’t the most charismatic of fighters, nor is he what you might call an expert hypeman. Being a “mild-mannered menace” has always made it a struggle for him to sell PPVs.

One way to look at this co-main event is that it’s a last chance for Jacare to catapult himself into that no. 1 contender’s spot in front of his Brazilian countrymen. That’s the romantic way of looking at it. Another way is that Gastelum is showing up to Rio with hood and scythe, ready to carry off another legend who has overstayed his welcome.

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Round 3: Mackenzie Dern Shows Up Big … Too Big

Dern is just barely 25 years old, a highly decorated jiu-jitsu transfer who has the UFC a little gaga over her potential as a future draw. She was successful in her UFC debut against Ashley Yoder at UFC 222 in March, but not eye-poppingly so. She didn’t wow the promotion (or her audience) into grandiloquent visions, not with hands that looked so green. In fact, she did just enough to get the split decision. Some people even thought she lost.

So how does she follow up a much-hyped, ultimately mediocre first showing? Seven pounds over the 116-pound maximum weight for strawweights, that’s how. Dern hit the scale at 123 pounds on Friday morning for her fight with Amanda Cooper, missing weight for the third time in her young career. Seven pounds. That’s ridiculous. There is coming in a little over, but seven pounds over is the kind of laissez-faire shrugging of shoulders at professionalism that throws Dern’s whole approach to MMA into question.

That asterisk aside, the UFC is gambling a little bit to stick her right back in there against Cooper two months after the Yoder fight, but there are reasons to believe this is the right call. Trotting her out in front of her second home of Brazil is a smart play. And even though Dern competed in the spotlight for years during her ADCC days, she was a little nervous making her debut in the octagon. That part showed.

Lucky for her, Cooper — who came in on weight — is so enamored of the idea of kicking her ass that she needed zero seconds to agree to keep the fight on the card. Equally lucky for Dern, Cooper is just 3-3 in her MMA career, with all three of her losses coming via submission (an armbar, a D’Arce, and a rear-naked choke).

If this were origami, Cooper would be the paper in this matchup. It’s meant to be a true arrival moment for Dern, even if she did mess that up coming in so far above weight. Dern doesn’t need good hands to showcase well here — though she might need a good chin. Cooper is not afraid to let the leather fly, and it would be a colossal backfire if she were to land that one shot that blows up Dern’s hype before it ever reaches an audible pitch. Realistically, though, the only hands that will mean anything here are the ones that are tapping.

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Round 4: Vitor Belfort vs. Lyoto Machida

For well over a decade, one of the fun, long-standing games within the game has been trying to figure out what future UFC hall of famer Vitor Belfort means. There was the time he started referring to himself alternately as an old lion and a young dinosaur, which prompted a good many memes. There were multiple times he said we were seeing the last of Vitor Belfort in the cage, only to see him again five months later. There were the Zen meanderings, like when he said that the river makes the water flow, and that’s how he lives. Flowing. Flowing with the river.

Even his nickname, “The Phenom,” is a little confounding when attached to a 41-year-old man.

This time, as he gets set to face his fellow countryman and former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in a twilight bout, he’s back up to his old tricks. On the question of retirement this time through, Belfort had this to say to MMA Junkie:

“I’m not retiring because when you retire, you’re still getting paid. I’m not getting paid, so I’m not retiring.”

Easy to comprehend, right? Not so fast.

“But this is my last fight,” he said. “That’s important because people say, ‘OK, what’s the legacy you’re leaving?’ Legacy is not what I did for myself. It’s what I’m doing for the next generation. So I think I’m leaving one of the biggest legacies in the sport, for sure, worldwide. And I’m not retiring because I’m not getting paid after I finish [fighting], so I’m looking for jobs. I’m looking for opportunities.”

Sounds like the old lion is definitively not fighting again and isn’t exactly retiring, but then again not not fighting and not not retiring, unless he is.

“But this is my last fight, for sure, and I’m very content with what I accomplished in this sport,” he said. “But I still believe I can contribute so much with the sport, and I love what the UFC is doing, creating the [UFC Performance Institute] and creating all that. But we have so much left to do.”

I’ll admit it: I’ll miss Vitor Belfort when he’s gone, if he ever actually leaves.

Round 5: Best of the rest

John Lineker vs. Brian Kelleher—If John Lineker didn’t have issues making weight, there’s a chance that right now we’d consider him one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the game. As it is, he just couldn’t keep his frame down to 125 pounds, and now finds himself resigned to life as a bantamweight (135 pounds). His only loss in the past four years was to current champion T.J. Dillashaw, which means there’s still time for the 27-year-old mão-de-pedra to flex all over the ranks. It won’t be a cakewalk against Kelleher, though. The New Yorker is coming off a resounding one-sided victory over Renan Barão, and is 3-1 in the UFC. This might quietly turn into Lineker’s toughest test outside of Dillashaw. And it might, very quietly, turn into a springboard moment for Kelleher into the top five.

Cezar Ferreira vs. Karl Roberson—There’s a feeling that the 33-year-old “Mutante” Ferreira hasn’t quite lived up to his potential, but over the past couple of years he’s seemed hell-bent on changing all of that. Ferreira has won four out of his past five fights, forcing stalwart Nate Marquardt into retirement after his last bout in November. He’s a fan favorite in Brazil. But if he loses to Roberson—who came up via the UFC’s Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and is still undefeated—we’ll begin to wonder if his “potential” was more about “unrealistic expectations” all along.

Junior Albini vs. Oleksiy Oliynyk—Look, the first time we saw Junior Albini was heartwarming. He couldn’t afford to buy his young daughter toys heading into his UFC debut, yet after knocking Tim Johnson out and earning a $50,000 bonus he spoiled her with presents. That was awesome. But in his last fight he showed up in the equivalent of an adult diaper, and put on a sludgefest with Andrei Arlovski that won’t soon be scrubbed from memory. That was unawesome. Which way will the vibes go for his fight with the 40-year-old Russian Oliynyk, whose past 14 victories have all been finishes? Brazil will be counting on a knockout from Albini, but this feels like a 50/50 ordeal between thumpers. Whoever lands big first very likely wins.