The UFC likens its annual International Fight Week to the Super Bowl, a weeklong celebration of mixed martial arts that culminates each July with a mammoth pay-per-view. Yet for three straight years disaster has struck just ahead of the event, and we’ve ended up with a facsimile of what was supposed to happen. Imagine expecting New England versus Philadelphia and getting New England versus Tampa Bay, or even worse—Tampa Bay versus Cincinnati—and being told by the NFL that there’s no need to worry, because “this is still the Super Bowl!”
It’s been an unlucky run. At the International Fight Week finale in 2015, UFC 189, featherweight champion José Aldo was forced out of his highly publicized fight with Conor McGregor, and replaced with Chad Mendes. At UFC 200, Jon Jones was removed from his light heavyweight title fight with Daniel Cormier after testing positive for a banned substance, and replaced with Anderson Silva. And last year, at UFC 213, women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes withdrew just hours before her fight with Valentina Shevchenko due to sinusitis. That last-minute alteration left UFC president Dana White hopping mad.
So what misfortune lay in store this year for the souped-up UFC 226, which takes place Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena? This time it was featherweight champion Max Holloway who became a casualty of the voodoo pin. Holloway was forced to withdraw from his title fight with Brian Ortega for displaying concussion-like symptoms during fight week. After being briefly hospitalized on Monday to undergo some tests, he appeared groggy for an interview on UFC Tonight on Wednesday—as in, scarily out of it—and was ultimately deemed unable to fight. Was it the weight cut that did him in? A residual sparring-session lump that he received? Or something worse? Nobody is quite sure, but that fight has been stricken from the card, and International Fight Week’s mystifying run of bad juju continues.
Yet if the UFC has learned anything over the years, it’s to prepare for the worst by stacking the living shit out of the card. Even without its original co-main event, UFC 226 is still the best-looking PPV of 2018. And International Fight Week as a whole has felt as big as the UFC intended it to.
Let’s look at it all round by round.
Round 1: The Heavyweight Superfight
Given the eggshell nature of today’s fingers-crossed matchmaking, you never want to take a fight for granted, but from the moment the UFC announced that heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic would face light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, it’s pretty much sat there as a “holy fucking shit” fight on the horizon. The UFC talks about superfights—meaning thriving champion versus thriving champion—all the time, but rarely does the company pull it off. And if it does, rarely are the principals great in the rarefied all-time pound-for-pound sense. Miocic, who has more consecutive heavyweight title defenses than any of the colossi before him, is already arguably the greatest UFC heavyweight of all time; light heavyweight champ Cormier is quietly in a spot to become something even more than that. If he takes out Miocic, as a two-division champion Cormier would make a case for himself as the GOAT.
(Although it should be noted that he’d be a GOAT with an asterisk because of his archnemesis Jon Jones. Cormier lost to Jones twice unofficially, but only once for the record since Jones tested positive for an anabolic steroid in the second encounter. A third clash seems inevitable, especially if Cormier ends up holding two titles in Jones’s absence … so long as Jones is reinstated to compete again while the 39-year-old Cormier is still fighting.)
You can see why the fight world collectively held its breath when Cormier took a tumble after the press conference on Thursday. If he had injured himself just two days before a legacy-defining fight, the UFC might have had to consult an exorcist to evict the hostile tenant causing all of the unholy terror. Cormier limped to the face-off, but later told ESPN that despite some swelling in his leg, he was fine to fight.
That’s a relief, because honestly, what a fight it is. The fight is for the heavyweight title, so Cormier doesn’t have to cut weight to 205, and even with the added girth about the middle, Cormier is surprisingly light on his feet, deceptively quick, and his punches are spring-loaded. His defining trait, though, is that he’s a competitor to the core. He just refuses to lose. Heading into his first fight with Jones at UFC 182, he’d never even lost a round. In most of his fights, 13 of which have been contested as a heavyweight, he dominates as if he wants to make it crystal clear that there are levels to this thing. That the man he’s tossing around is in fact a delusional fool for believing he had a chance.
Miocic isn’t just any man, though. He has the best cardio in the division, and he has one of the sturdiest chins. He took a couple of Francis Ngannou’s best shots his last time out, and absorbed them like the cartoon strongman who swallows a bomb and lets out a smoky little belch after detonation. If Miocic finds anyone’s chin, on the other hand, that fighter is going down. Before Ngannou, he’d finished five fighters in a row. And he’s smart, too. He knows when to pick his shots, just as he knows how to conserve his power and energy.
Even if neither man has the crossover profile of Jon Jones or Brock Lesnar (let alone Conor McGregor), this is one of the best, and biggest, fights UFC could put together. It’s a proverbial chess match between big-bodied grenadiers, one of those rare collisions that will bring out the goose bumps when they enter the octagon just on the pinch-me basis that it’s actually happening. Let’s enjoy the show.
Round 2: Ronda Rousey Becomes the First Woman Inducted Into the UFC Hall of Fame
She remains a polarizing figure in MMA, but if you carefully edit Ronda Rousey’s career—enhancing the good parts, and leaving out the bad—she is a first-ballot Hall of Famer by any standard. Not that the UFC uses ballots, or goes in for any kind of democracy at all, but you know what I’m saying—a little selective memory is all you need to get Rousey into the same company as Cleopatra. When she was winning, she was great! When she lost, well … you know, when she was winning, she was absolutely great!
That’s what the UFC did on Thursday night when it inducted the former women’s bantamweight champion. A tribute video was shown, and Dana White gave an inspired speech about all of Rousey’s trailblazing feats of becoming the first woman in the UFC, the first champion, the first to win in the octagon, the first to defend in the octagon, the first to grace the cover of “every major magazine,” and the first to inspire a legion of young women, to help them believe in themselves and their ability to accomplish anything. All of this is true, of course—she transcended the UFC in ways that no other fighter ever has—but what was left out was the silent, petulant way that she handled defeat after losing to Holly Holm at UFC 193. That part remains glaring and unforgivable for half the population of MMA fans. If she was a champion to millions while winning, she was a recluse of a loser, choosing to sulk powerfully in silence.
Still, the UFC honoring Rousey for all she did in the sport was this year’s no-brainer. If it weren’t for Rousey’s comet-like run from 2013 to 2015, the Fertittas wouldn’t have sold the UFC for more than $4 billion to WME-IMG, and the more than 100 women on the roster would all be fighting for lesser companies. Rousey was exactly what the UFC called her repeatedly on Thursday night, a bona fide “game changer,” and for that she will forever be heralded—but what was novel was seeing Rousey anywhere near a UFC banner and smiling again. It’s been a long time. A long, long time.
Ever since Rousey reinvented herself in the WWE as a pro wrestler, she has slowly began to thaw her own retrospectives and speak—as if slowly coming back into custody of her own backstory—on the subject of what happened at the end there. Rousey has steered clear of the UFC since losing to Amanda Nunes in 2016. She doesn’t show up at events or functions. She doesn’t cut promos. She rarely speaks of it at all, as if the whole thing—from the appearances on Good Morning America to being called the Royce Gracie of women’s MMA (by me) to making young girls cry at the sight of her—were a hallucination.
She has wanted nothing to do with the UFC, nor the fans (and media) that she perceived had turned on her. So for her to show up at the HOF ceremony and acknowledge those fans and to thank everyone for helping make her who she is felt like a little bit of closure. With MMA being like a big dysfunctional family for hard-core fans, it was as if the rebellious daughter finally came back home for the holidays, and for a minute any hard feelings weren’t that hard. There was love and respect in the room. By Sunday, she’ll be wrestling in Bridgeport with her new family, but at least she was decent enough to come back and let the old one praise her a bit.
Round 3: The Heavyweight Highlight Reel
If there’s an upside to Holloway falling out, it’s that the other heavyweight fight on the UFC 226 card—the power-broker clash between Derrick Lewis and the aforementioned Ngannou—became the new co-main event. This is one of the greatest non-title heavyweight fights of all time, judging strictly on a scale of intimidation. This is a pair of rhinos rushing toward each other at cheetah speed. This is the sick sound of fists landing on a slab in the meat locker.
The “Black Beast” Lewis has been in exactly one fight in 13 UFC bouts that has gone the distance, and that was against Roy Nelson, who purposefully turned into human sludge to keep things close. All of his other fights have been fairly easy to understand: It’s smash or be smashed. Lewis hits everything with Hulklike abandon. He doesn’t worry about his cardio; he just wants to destroy things. Quickly. Violently. Without thinking too much about it.
What makes this one even more interesting is that Ngannou—the hardest hitter in the division—is coming off a loss in which he was exposed for living just as incautiously. Miocic weathered the early storm and sapped Ngannou’s will by taking him down repeatedly through the championship rounds. Lewis won’t do that. Lewis will try to knock his jaw through his ear hole. And Ngannou loves that kind of party. Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski tried to play that game with Ngannou, and both got knocked out before the fight was two minutes old.
In the UFC they love that old cliché, “don’t blink.” It’s usually just some B.S. they say to drum up excitement. In this fight? Seriously. Don’t blink.
Round 4: Paul Felder Steps in to Face Mike Perry
Of all the people who’ve been affected by the UFC’s never-ending carousel of fight fallouts and spontaneous rebookings, it’s Paul Felder. At UFC 218, Felder was slated to fight Al Iaquinta, but—when Iaquinta pulled out with an injury—ended up fighting Charles Oliveira. When the UFC tried to play back the Iaquinta fight at UFC 223 in Brooklyn, Iaquinta was plucked to take on Khabib Nurmagomedov on 24 hours’ notice to save the event, leaving Felder opponentless.
This time, Felder was booked to face James Vick next week at a UFC Fight Night in Boise, but found himself on the outside looking in (yet again) when Vick was rerouted to face Justin Gaethje instead. Just as Felder was throwing his hands up in frustration, Yancy Medeiros fell out of his fight with the incendiary Mike Perry, leaving an opening for Felder to jump in. And he did. He wasted zero seconds in volunteering.
What’s great about this fight is it’s roundabout excellent matchmaking. Felder, who doubles as a color man on UFC telecasts, is just coming into his own as a fighter. He’s scored three straight KO finishes and needs a showcase bout with a “name” fighter to make the leap to contention. Though Perry hasn’t exactly warranted the reputation in the octagon, he is a higher-profile fight for Felder than the dangerous James Vick, strictly because he’s such an outspoken figure outside of it. He has garnered plenty of attention by colorfully discussing his time in the clink and blowing people up on Twitter. Perry is a fighter that people tune in for, in part because his heart makes up for lapses in talent. He’s lost his last couple of bouts and needs to beat Felder to help salvage his burgeoning cult status in the game.
So you’ve got one fighter poised to bust out and steal some mojo and the other hungry to live up to his own hype. In other words, the Fourth of July is arriving a few days late in Vegas, but make no mistake—it’s arriving.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Lando Vannata vs. Drakkar Klose: The verdict is still out on Lando Vannata as to whether he’s an elite fighter, but one thing we know for sure: He’s a highlight reel of an action figure. Starting with his short-notice UFC debut against Tony Ferguson, Vanatta has showed very little concern for self-preservation in the octagon, which is one of the reasons he has taken home $50,000 fight-night bonuses in all four of his UFC bouts thus far. It’s also why he’s 1-2-1 in those fights, with his lone victory coming via a ridiculous spinning wheel kick of John Makdessi at UFC 206. Klose might try to make this fight a little more methodical, but the hunch is that he won’t succeed. Vannata’s good at drawing out a fighter’s reckless side. From a spectator’s standpoint, that’s a fun thought.
Mike Chiesa vs. Anthony Pettis: You might remember that this fight was supposed to take place at UFC 223 in April, but was postponed after Conor McGregor and his droogies attacked a bus in the bowels of the Barclays Center—the infamous Dolly Incident. Chiesa was on that bus and suffered lacerations on his face from the shattered glass. He’s all healed and back to the business of facing Pettis, a striking phenom who happens to be one of the UFC’s great conundrums. After winning five straight fights and the lightweight championship, Pettis has struggled mightily to regain his identity as “Showtime.” He has gone just 2-5 since 2015, with dalliances as a featherweight coming up short. He suffered a rib injury in his last fight against Dustin Poirier (a loss) and finds himself not necessarily fighting for title contention so much as relevance.
Raphael Assuncao vs. Rob Font: Assuncao is the quietest great fighter to ever anonymously operate in the top five of his division. He has gone 10-1 in his last 11 fights as a bantamweight, and—perhaps because of his nondescript fighting style and/or his tapioca personality—still seems light-years away from a title shot. At this point I think the UFC is trying to find the fighter to do away with him and get him away from all its titleholders because it scares the organization to have to market a man with a tattoo of an orangutan on his rib cage. Rob Font is the next man the UFC has commissioned for the job. Font is coming off the biggest win of his career against Thomas Almeida. His task would seem simple: get rid of Assuncao. (Yet that is the hardest task of the UFC 226 prelims.)