The big fight pub atmosphere was alive and well on Sunday with a buzz I haven’t experienced in some time.
What a card. My goodness, what a card.
Call it recency bias, call it a short memory – call it whatever you like – but there quite simply has not been a more drool-inducing collection of fights thus far in 2019. With fan favourites, future hall-of-famers and divisional kingpins, this card is a near excessive buffet for the hungry fight fan.
Since I last engaged in mixed martial arts coverage in the immediate aftermath of UFC 239, we’ve seen icons of past and present re-establish themselves in emphatic fashion, much-maligned figures continue their winning streaks and one of the best female fighters on the planet unceremoniously dumped out of the UFC.
And as if all that wasn’t enough, a potential fight of the year candidate managed to rear its head last week in Uruguay. Vale Mike Perry’s nose, we hardly knew ya.
Unfortunately there is far too little time to unpack such events, with this weekend’s pay-per-view approaching faster than a Masvidal flying knee. So with one eye on Anaheim and the other on my dimly lit computer screen, let’s dive into my pillars of prediction.
My Fort Knox: Devonte Smith vs Khama Worthy
A relatively simple match-up here, but one with enough uncertainty to leave the door open to an upset.
Devonte Smith was initially set to face John Makdessi prior to his undisclosed injury, a well-earnt step-up in competition against a 16-fight UFC veteran, before he drew former Max Holloway opponent Clay Collard.
If that wasn’t enough fight week disruption, we then learnt Smith’s opponent had changed once more to relatively unknown Pennsylvanian Khama Worthy, who to his credit is riding a five-fight win streak.
Despite all this volatility I suspect it will hardly upset the bravado of Smith, a polished striker enjoying the hype drawn from four consecutive first-round stoppages. ‘King Cage’ is a prototype fan favourite who will undoubtedly add another knockout, technical or otherwise, to his current streak.
With names like Alexander Volkanovski, Brian Ortega, Zabit Magomedsharipov and Ryan Hall representing the insurgence of a new generation of challengers to the dominant champion Max Holloway, it is a perfect time for Smith to throw his hat into the ring.
Open Pandora’s box: Daniel Cormier vs Stipe Miocic
This is the fight set to have the broadest-reaching implications across the UFC and subsequently bring forth the greatest level of uncertainty.
It may seem simplistic to choose the main event in this subheading, but the result of this fight will irreversibly affect the careers of multiple future hall-of-famers.
Let’s say Stipe Miocic wins via first-round technical knockout – he would effectively re-establish himself as the most dominant heavyweight in the organisation’s history and convince the masses that the first fight was an unfortunate bump in the road. This will in turn provide the impetus for a rematch with the much-improved Francis Ngannou, another opportunity for Stipe to strengthen his understated legacy.
Furthermore, if Daniel Cormier were to lose, and if he were to lose in particularly dramatic fashion, he will significantly reduce the currency of a third fight with rival Jon Jones as well as raise the likelihood of immediate retirement. Can the same level of fanfare and public engagement be drawn from a third chapter if it isn’t between the UFC’s top two pound-for-pound athletes?
However, say Cormier makes good on the first fight and stops Miocic with authority – the stakes for a third fight with Jones would be elevated to sky-high levels. The pudgy, constantly-smiling Cormier will have convincingly vanquished all who were placed in front of him bar one – his mortal enemy and the greatest of all time.
An opportunity to enter the all-time upper echelon is on offer to both men, and it has ‘instant classic’ written all over it.
Don’t move, don’t blink: Nate Diaz vs Anthony Pettis
If there’s one fight this year to be superglued to your chair for and observe with razor-sharp focus for however long it lasts, I promise you it’s this one.
It would be somewhat reductive to say that these are two of my all-time favourite fighters – you know they’re my favourites and I know they’re yours too.
On one hand there is Anthony Pettis, talented beyond comprehension, has bounced around weight divisions with inconsistent returns since losing his lightweight strap to Rafael dos Anjos in 2015. But his latest move, upwards to welterweight, is perhaps the most intriguing, as his knockout of Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson saw an ominous blend of newfound power with his trademark creative striking.
If Pettis can overcome Diaz, who makes up for his lack of divisional standing with big-name recognition, he will justify this latest career shift and add his name to the growing list of viable welterweight contenders. A successful result in Anaheim will not only validate Pettis’s title aspirations, but it will also nudge Dana White to propel him to the spotlight given the stylistic point of difference he represents against pace-pushers Kamaru Usman, Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington.
And then there is Nathan. From smoking a joint at open workouts to no-showing his face-off with Pettis, Diaz has lived up to every bit of his enigmatic and intriguing gangster persona.
I am hoping that Diaz’s identity outside the cage returns in tandem with his identity inside it, as his fluid boxing, granite chin and elite jujitsu is one of the more engaging skill sets possessed by any fighter currently competing in the UFC. And despite the fact that Diaz at welterweight has been something of a mixed bag, I expect that his aforementioned tools will return in force when the time comes to touch gloves.
The Diazes have never been about championship glory; it’s not in their nature. A win over Pettis will simply remind other fighters to keep their eyes down when walking past Nate. That said, something does tell me that if Nate can emphatically return against Pettis, the likelihood of a third fight with Conor McGregor, who seems to become more unhinged and volatile by the day, will increase dramatically.
Outside of the intriguing ramifications this fight brings, it is quite simply a cracking match-up. A stylistic contrast that fans have subconsciously dreamt of for years, as well as a meeting of two iconic personalities with vast and overlapping fan-bases to accompany them.
My pick? Flip a coin.
The parting glass
Finally, the takeaways that couldn’t jostle their way into the spotlight.
The Diaz-Pettis fight perhaps only knocked off the Yoel Romero-Paulo Costa bout on the basis of brand recognition. These two Adonises are among the most flinch-inducing strikers on the planet and are certain to wreak further havoc in the middleweight division, a car-crash fight of the year contender here.
Ian ‘The Hurricane’ Heinisch is one of the more underrated middleweight contenders going around, currently riding a five-fight win streak and sitting inches outside the top 15. A win over Derek Brunson, an established name, would do wonders for his career. Brunson’s fight earlier against Elias Theodorou was perhaps the worst I have seen this year, and given Heinisch preference to dominate from the ground, watch with cautious expectations.
The theme of rising contenders set to seize their opportunity against an established division contender continues with Cory Sandhagen taking on gifted grappler and Raphael Assuncao at bantamweight. This is a fight with an enormous amount of divisional significance to be hiding on the undercard. Don’t let it pass you by.
And that’s that. Now all there’s left to do is look forward to what Anaheim has to offer when the bells ring and the talk stops. I can’t hardly wait.