Had UFC 237 occurred a decade ago, it would have been one of the biggest pay-per-views possible. Imagine middleweight GOAT Anderson Silva, the “Prodigy” BJ Penn, José Aldo, and Brazilian royalty Antônio Rogério Nogueira all on the same card, with support roles from Thiago Alves and Clay Guida. That’s the kind of murderer’s row you’d have name checked at a party.
In 2019? Not so much. Noguiera is a fight game fossil, one of those names you see pop up on a card and say, “Hey wait, that cat’s still fighting?” Alves—at one point regarded as a true threat to Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight title—has been steadily careening off toward gatekeepership for years, and he’s 2-4 in his past six fights. Perhaps the most famous thing Guida has accomplished since his epic Fight of the Year with Diego Sanchez in 2009 is to belch for 30 seconds without interruption between rounds. To his credit, that has to be some kind of record.
As for Penn and Silva, two of the best fighters in UFC history? To say there’s a rickety vibe there is a massive understatement. Penn has won exactly one fight since 2010—a 21-second knockout of Matt Hughes—and has staked a 1-8-1 overall record in that time. He has looked increasingly worn out with each showing, which makes you wonder why the UFC keeps booking him into fights. His situation is compounded by recent accusations of domestic violence and substance abuse, increasing the number of red flags flapping astronomically.
Likewise, Silva will appear at Saturday night’s card in Rio with only the last few ounces of his almost preternatural mojo. Since winning his 17th fight in a row in 2012, he has gone just 1-5-(1) in his past seven fights, including a bizarrely entertaining spectacle against Israel Adesanya in his last fight. The guy he is facing on Saturday—Jared Cannonier—isn’t the kind of name the UFC is hoping to get across as a star. He’s more a live, very capable body who—on paper—looks to be a kind of truth serum heading Silva’s way, to divest him of any lingering delusions of ever contending again.
Fortunately the UFC isn’t staking this PPV on the fumes of old glorious names. Aldo isn’t done yet. There’s a chance that he’s making one last pledge for a title shot. And with a strawweight title fight between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade at the top of the card, everything else can be shrugged off as window dressing.
Here’s a glimpse of what’s going on at UFC 237, which is available for purchase on ESPN+.
Round 1: Rose Namajunas Taking the Road Less Traveled
For whatever reason, the 115-pound champion Namajunas hasn’t captivated the imagination the way she seemed destined to when she first appeared on The Ultimate Fighter 20. It could be that she doesn’t share the same values as a typical UFC fighter; she doesn’t like to be fussed over, and—even though she derailed the seemingly invincible Joanna Jedrzejczyk to win the title, and won a rematch six months later—she doesn’t go in for traditional airs of braggadocio.
Instead she projects a lucid, cult-like feeling of somebody who’s discovered an off-the-grid meaning to it all. She’s almost stealthy in her movements in the cage, and marches to the beat of her own drum. That’s why it wasn’t entirely surprising when she agreed to meet a buzz saw like Jessica Andrade in Brazil, where Andrade is from, essentially giving the challenger every psychological advantage. What is Namajunas thinking? Indeed, what the hell is Namajunas thinking.
The 27-year-old Andrade is really just coming into her own. After losing a title fight against Jedrzejczyk at UFC 211 two years ago, she has steamrolled her competition. She took out Claudia Gadelha, Tecia Torres, and Karolina Kowalkiewicz in consecutive fights, the latter of whom she blew away with a wicked punch in the first round. Does any of that add up to doom for Namajunas? If MMA math were a game of rock-paper-scissors, it would go something like: Jedrzejczyk beats Andrade, Namajunas beats Jedrzejczyk—and Andrade beats Namajunas?
We’ll see. If there’s ever been a bigger enigma in a 115-pound frame than Namajunas, I’d like to see them. Back before she dethroned Jedrzejczyk at UFC 217, one of the semi-major story lines centered on Namajunas’s mental state. Was she psychologically fragile, as Jedrzejczyk suggested? We’d seen her go into a reclusive state after losing her initial title bid against Carla Esparza, and then show up with a shaved head for what she feared was a “beauty pageant” fight with Paige VanZant. There was definitely a sense of recoiling from the spotlight, some kind of reluctance to live up (or down) to other people’s ideas and expectations. Perhaps even a rebellion.
Her head was just fine, and the conversation about it was thoroughly beside the point (and frankly uncomfortable). Her two victories over Jedrzejczyk were impressive—once via a stunning first-round TKO, once via a dominant decision—and she hasn’t seemed to suffer any of the side effects that come from the weight of a title. In fact, outside of a super-narrow split decision loss against Kowalkiewicz at UFC 201, she’s been handling her business. She’s a beast on the ground, and—as she showed a great Muay Thai specialist like Jedrzejczyk—her stand-up is on point.
Still, Namajunas is an underdog heading into her clash with Andrade, which is the perfect setup for her. If we’ve learned anything about Namajunas over the years, it’s that she’s not about generating fight game hype, so much as closing it out. She doesn’t necessarily want the pressure of fighting, so much as she wants to become the pressure. The odds are against her? She thrives on that. And if she does to Andrade what she did to Jedrzejczyk, here’s guessing she’s going to be the UFC’s first big anti-star star.
Round 2: Anderson Silva … and Dreams of Conor McGregor
To hear Andy Silva tell it, Jared Cannonier is just a guy in front of him—an exhibition match, of sorts, as he gets ready for a potential super-super-superfight with Conor McGregor. That’s right, the former middleweight champion, who turned 44 in April and has moonlighted as a light heavyweight over the years, wants to fight the UFC’s former featherweight and lightweight king. In 2019, “super” might be a stretch.
Of course, there are three words to describe Silva’s mind-set heading into Saturday night: out of touch. Then again, being in touch with the happenings in MMA has never been advisable, so maybe Silva is on to something. When Nate Diaz bellowed into the microphone that he wanted McGregor after beating Michael Johnson, he ended up with not one but two fights with McGregor. As Shea Serrano says, why not shoot your shot? Why not take on a man 30 pounds lighter than you, and rake in a king’s ransom?
Cannonier has final say in what delusions shall or shall not pass on Saturday night. Cannonier is a thumper, when he wants to be, and he’s a no-frills grinder (somewhat by default). That’s a bad set of facts for “the Spider.” Silva is a stylist who likes to pick guys off from range and, in momentary surges of spirit, break into Ali-esque theatrics. When he was in his mid-to-late 30s, this approach worked pretty well for him. Besides that performance art fiasco he had with Demian Maia in Abu Dhabi at UFC 112, he mostly succeeded at turning a fight into a dancing kill ritual.
But since Chris Weidman stopped him dead in his tracks during one such fit of showmanship, Silva has never quite been the same. He has shown flashes of his old self, at times dropping his hands and sniping from a holster draw, but more commonly he shows flashes of just old. As in slower, more laboring, more locked in his ways. Old.
A lot of people have wondered why the UFC is booking Silva against a rando from the division, when at this point legacy fights are the only thing that make sense. I suspect it’s a way for the UFC to give the Silva ice floe a little kick, if you know what I mean. Since he turned 40, Silva has made more headlines for failed drug tests and suspensions than he has vintage performances. This could be the UFC matchmakers’ way of saying, “It’s been real, old sport.”
Round 3: A Changing of the Guard at Featherweight?
Jose Aldo’s fall from grace was swift. Thirteen seconds, to be exact. That’s how long it took for Conor McGregor to knock him out at UFC 194, to take his belt and to … if not erase, then certainly blur a decade’s worth of dominance. Not that McGregor alone did him in. Aldo lost back-to-back title fights against Max Holloway in 2017 when McGregor took his MMA sabbatical, which put his run of greatness firmly in the past tense. He really did look shot.
Then a strange thing happened in 2018. Aldo came back to win a fight against a bona-fide face-smasher in Jeremy Stephens to get back on track. When he followed that up with a ridiculous TKO of Renato Moicano in February of this year, it was like “Scarface” never left the building. The leg kicks were snapping with velocity again, and his chin—which many suspected had diminished over the years—appeared fortified with, what, sheer defiance?
Jose Aldo is back! And what has the UFC done to reward his twilight resurgence? The company is sticking him in against an undefeated former professional rugby player—a killer who used to weigh over 200 pounds—by the name of Alexander Volkanovski. Volkanovski is built like a jukebox, stout and heavy, disconcertingly immovable. He hits like a truck. He can take your best punch, only to blow a boozy kiss at you. He’s also hungry to make a name, which is exactly what contenders show up to Aldo’s doorstep for.
This fight could very well be to determine who will face Holloway next for the featherweight title. If Volkanovski (19-1) is able to do to Aldo what he did to Chad Mendes in his last (TKO), he would be a no-brainer for Holloway. He’s a fresh matchup, and it would be a fight of straight lines against three-dimensional shapes. The real intrigue here is this: What happens if Aldo wins? What if Aldo, whom we left for dead after the previous Holloway encounters, takes out the undefeated prospect?
Does the UFC make Aldo-Holloway III, even with the series 2-0 in Holloway’s favor? Or does it redirect Aldo to lightweight, into a colossal fight against a Justin Gaethje, say, or a Tony Ferguson—the kind of fight that would end up being much bigger than a Holloway trilogy? The stakes are wild in this one.
Round 4: The End for BJ Penn?
As mentioned above, you’d be hard pressed to find another fighter that inspires such a collective groan whenever his name is mentioned in connection to a fight. Penn is at the point of mulligans. As in plural. When the UFC booked Penn against an aging and basically innocuous Dennis Siver two years ago, it was already a gratuitous affair, and it felt like a last-ditch effort to get the spiraling Penn out of the cage on a high note. That plan backfired. Penn lost a majority decision.
Inexplicably, the UFC afforded him yet another chance to get out gracefully in booking him against Ryan Hall—a cerebral jiu-jitsu player who doesn’t much like punching people in the face. Penn tapped with a heel hook midway through the first round, losing to the closest thing the UFC has to a pacifist.
So what’s up with this fight against Clay Guida? Is there any outcome that would be positive here for Penn, whom many believe continues to fight in order to stay out of trouble in his real life? It’s a complicated thing. UFC president Dana White loves Penn, and it’s easy to imagine Penn coaxing just one more fight out of White, and then just one more. White openly despised watching Chuck Liddell get turned into mush in the latter stages of his career, but somehow seems powerless to shut Penn down. At one point, White mentioned something to the effect that the greater good of Penn fighting (and losing in a sanctioned cage) outweighed the alternative of Penn not fighting (and losing in the unsanctioned wilds of life).
It’s easy to understand that relationship. But should Penn lose this fight to Guida—and if you’ve seen Penn fight at any point over the past five years, such an outcome might strike you as inevitable—there would be no justification for ever booking him again.
What’s scarier is if Penn actually wins. During fight week he mentioned that he’s not just thinking about beating Guida, but making his way back up the rungs to a title. A title? BJ Penn? Again, that collective groan. A win would mean that many more Penn fights on the horizon (presuming he doesn’t get taken down by his legal issues), and if that doesn’t complicate your rooting interest, nothing will.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
Thiago Alves vs. Laureano Staropoli—In his last fight with Max Griffin, Alves was facing a do-or-die situation, having lost four of his previous five fights. He responded by digging about as deep as a veteran possibly can, and pulling out a gutsy split decision. It was a reminder of how much of a fighter he actually is. How will he fare against a 26-year-old prospect from Argentina, someone who has everything to gain by beating a one-time contender? That’s not a question so much as a dilemma. Alves will have his work cut out for him, as Staropoli is a proven finisher.
Francisco Trinaldo vs. Carlos Diego Ferreira—For a long while there, Trinaldo was the greatest active fighter you’d never heard of. He won seven fights in a row between 2014 and 2016, taking out brand names like Yancy Medeiros and Paul Felder. Since then he has gone 2-2 in four fights, but even at 40 years old the Brazilian feels criminally underrated. His TKO over Evan Dunham in his last fight was proof that old “Massaranduba” has gas left in the tank, and this fight with Ferreira—himself a winner of four straight, and yet completely unsung—feels like a quiet storm front moving in.
Antônio Rogério Nogueira vs. Ryan Spann—Nostalgic fight fans will watch “Lil Nog” compete this weekend with a clear understanding that the clock is ticking down. Not me. I think Nogueira will go on fighting forever. He is the kind of guy who could be anywhere from 42 years old (as the program lists him) to 62 (and some might even guess older), and it’s hard to imagine him ever just saying, “I’m through.” They don’t make warhorses like Nogueira anymore. He has been through every kind of battle, every kind of submission attempt and punch combo, every kind of environment since debuting in MMA back in 2001. He has won far more than he’s lost, and at this point the marvel is that he just … keeps … going.