This weekend’s UFC 215 pay-per-view was going to deliver two title fights to the fight-starved denizens of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Yet late Thursday night the main event between flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and 24-year old contender Ray Borg fell apart when word came out that Borg had been nursing an illness and would be unable to make the walk.
Ain’t that some shit? Only in the UFC—and more specifically, only in 2017’s UFC—do fighters pull out of main-event bouts so close to the purse strings. It happened as recently as UFC 213, when Amanda Nunes withdrew from her bantamweight title defense against Valentina Shevchenko on the day of the fight. And it happened when Khabib Nurmagomedov was hospitalized after a bad weight cut a day before his interim lightweight title fight with Tony Ferguson at UFC 209 in March.
These days the fight within the fight is to simply make it to the octagon. Still, at least one title will be on the line Saturday night, with a couple of former champions competing, plus a bunch of intrigue bouts that matter considerably to the niche hardcores (and might drop a few jaws for those just peeking in).
Here are the five things you should know heading into UFC 215.
Round 1: Buzzkill
Let’s face it, even if Demetrious Johnson had stayed on the card, UFC 215 was one of those events that had the strange effect of being totally stacked and at the same time perfectly underwhelming. Maybe that was because any promotional efforts for this unfortunately timed PPV have been swallowed up by Conor McGregor’s media-warped boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. a couple of weeks back. In that sense it probably wouldn’t have mattered if it were Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre headlining the card; that’s a tough act to follow.
Or maybe it’s because of the estranged people wearing the belts.
What Johnson brought to the table was conflicting attitudes about his general greatness and history. He’s one win away from breaking former middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive title defenses (currently 10), which “Mighty Mouse” tied in April. A lot of people thought the UFC should make a bigger deal of this, while others could hardly hold back a yawn. Still, dangling a bit of history at the top that the octagon’s littlest badass was about to become its biggest all-time achiever had a certain kind of PPV juice, even if the UFC itself wasn’t exactly tossing confetti in the air to preemptively celebrate the feat.
But these days people fall out of big cards during fight week more and more regularly, making every event appear strictly hypothetical until the moment you see Fighter X enter the octagon with Fighter Y. This is problematic for everyone. It’s a nightmare for the UFC, which wasted a ton of money on promotional material and now suddenly has to deal with ticket refunds and unplanned production issues. It’s a buzzkill for fans, who want to see on the dinner table exactly what they ordered from the menu. And it’s a trip to the liquor store for anybody covering the sport (like me, who wrote a nice little preview about Demetrious Johnson being like Napoleon, about as relevant now as all those Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl LI champions hats that got made).
Think about that. Imagine John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg falling through at the last minute. Or Hagler-Hearns. Of if Game 6 of the 1987 NBA Finals had been called off because Larry Bird had a bout of nausea or Magic couldn’t rehydrate. It’s true that fighters these days are not only cutting weight but protecting status and big-picture earning potential, as well as dealing with the USADA minefield and the eggshell nature of training intelligently (so as not to get hurt). But in today’s book-’em-and-cross-your-fingers climate, even the fighters themselves are accounting for disaster just before an event.
Well, the opportunistic ones, anyway.
People like Sara McMann, who will fight Ketlen Vieira in a prelim match before the UFC 215 PPV. Sensing that either Nunes or Shevchenko might fall out of Saturday’s bantamweight title fight that now becomes the main event, on Wednesday she declared herself ready to jump in as a last-second replacement. This is the new norm in the UFC.
Round 2: Nunes Back! (Knock on Wood)
Bantamweight champion Nunes took a public lambasting from UFC president White recently, for everything I just mentioned in Round 1. Her rematch with Shevchenko was supposed to be the main event of UFC 213 in July, but on the day of the fight Nunes pulled out with chronic sinusitis—an explanation that didn’t sit well with the UFC boss, who saw it as a sign of weakness.
“It’s not like [Nunes] was like, ‘I’m absolutely refusing to fight.’ She said, ‘I don’t feel right, I don’t feel good,’” White said at the time. “I think that it was 90 percent mental and maybe 10 percent physical. I think a lot of fighters have had times where they don’t feel right.”
So despite emerging as one of the most dominant women fighters in UFC history, Nunes has sustained a black eye without stepping foot in the cage (from the boss, no less, whose job it is to promote her). Still, whenever Nunes has entered the cage in the last two and a half years, she’s been nothing short of ridiculous. She has finished four of her last five opponents; the only one who survived to hear the scorecards was Shevchenko in 2016. And after blasting Miesha Tate and Ronda Rousey (into retirement), just making it the distance with Nunes is one hell of a consolation prize.
Shevchenko is the real deal, too. She has gone 3-1 in her first four fights in the UFC; her only loss was the aforementioned Nunes squeaker. In her last fight, she arm-barred Julianna Peña from the guard. She is regarded as one of the best—if not the best—strikers in the division, and one of the most accommodating for a brawl. In other words, this fight has all the makings of a classic. And it’s finally happening—just a couple of months later than expected.
Round 3: The Sneaky-Good Fight
Neil Magny has been one of the UFC’s most prolific fighters since 2014, with a whopping 13 fights, making his 11-2 record during that span all the more remarkable. That’s hard to fathom in today’s UFC, where most fighters compete (generously) two or three times per year. And it’s not like he’s taking out tomato cans and stumblebums; Magny is coming off of a victory over former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and recently beat Erick Silva, Kelvin Gastelum, and Hector Lombard back-to-back-to-back. Still, for whatever reason, he’s unsung in the “contender” sense.
That could change Saturday night.
Magny is facing ex-lightweight-champion Rafael dos Anjos in a fight that exceeds common imagination. RDA looked good in his welterweight debut against Tarec Saffiedine in June and is now putting the feelers out there to see if 170 pounds will be his permanent home. At his best, Dos Anjos is a demon of pace, the kind of relentless battle bot who can take his opposition into the deep water right away if that opposition is incautious enough (see his fights with Anthony Pettis and Nate Diaz).
Put RDA with Magny together? It’s like dropping a pair of betta fish into the same jar—a couple of ornate and otherwise peaceful looking creatures that you know will scrap (and scrap) until somebody puts a stop to it.
Round 4: Back to Alberta
UFC 215 is the organization’s return to Alberta, Canada, where — it might be remembered — the promotion put on one of the most depressing pay-per-view stinkers of all time in 2012. That was at UFC 149 in Calgary, a cursed card that went through something like a thousand iterations after a slew of injuries endlessly altered it. (Mauricio Rua, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Michael Bisping, and Jose Aldo were all scheduled to be on the card at one point or another, yet none appeared.)
What Calgary ended up with was a sad, almost apologetic event that left everyone wondering why the UFC bothered. Former Bellator champ Hector Lombard made his long-awaited UFC debut, and lost in a toilsome affair to Tim Boetsch. James Head, who never belonged behind a paywall, had a forgettable fight with Brian Ebersole. Cheick Kongo and Shawn Jordan’s heavyweight bout bordered on existential. And Renan Barao’s main-event victory over Urijah Faber for the interim bantamweight belt didn’t come close to expectations.
Dana White said the UFC owed Calgary a mulligan and promised to bring back a better card. That was five years ago, and the UFC hasn’t set foot in the Saddledome since. The card in Edmonton is as close as the UFC has gotten and possibly ever intents to.
Round 5: The Undercard
UFC 215 has some impressive depth behind the main and co-main, so here’s the best of the rest.
Ilir Latifi vs. Tyson Pedro: This light heavyweight bout will not need judges. Given the clash of styles, if the jiu-jitsu player Pedro wins, it’ll be via submission, and if Latifi wins, it’ll be via knockout.
Jeremy Stephens vs. Gilbert Melendez: The former Strikeforce champion Melendez might be at the end of the line here, as he tries to snap a three-fight skid with a cameo at featherweight. Still, Melendez is one of the great action fighters of the day, and Stephens will chin-check with the best of them.
Henry Cejudo vs. Wilson Reis: On paper it’s a battle between Johnson’s conquests, but in reality it’s a damn nice fight between a guy with as-of-yet unrealized potential (Cejudo) and one of the division’s sneakiest winners (Reis).