The UFC will visit Madison Square Garden for the sixth time in the promotion’s history on Saturday (main card on ESPN+ PPV at 10 p.m. ET, prelims on ESPNews/ESPN+ at 8 p.m.) with a middleweight championship bout between Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira.
New York City has grown accustomed to the UFC bringing deep cards to MSG. This one is no different, with the inclusion of a strawweight title fight between Carla Esparza and Zhang Weili and a lightweight feature of Dustin Poirier against Michael Chandler.
Here are a few notes and nuggets surrounding the UFC 281 pay-per-view and the sport as a whole.
There’s a changing of the guard coming at 155 pounds
The lightweight division has a new champion in Islam Makhachev, but beyond that, this division is about to get a makeover. Over the past five years, it has essentially been the same names at the top: Poirier, Chandler and Justin Gaethje. Before that: Tony Ferguson. Plus Conor McGregor, of course, always looms, despite just one win at lightweight in the UFC. And most recently: Charles Oliveira.
Things are likely about to change, though. All of those names I just mentioned, for the most part, have already fought. So, for the sake of fresh matchups, and giving up-and-comers opportunities, they’re going to have to fight down in rank. That makes Poirier vs. Chandler on Saturday a high-stakes fight, as the loser will inevitably be in a much tougher spot for his next booking.
One of the new names looking to fight up is Rafael Fiziev. The UFC has an interest in booking Fiziev against Gaethje, but Gaethje hasn’t jumped at it. You have to wonder if that could change, though, with Makhachev dethroning Oliveira last month. If the UFC tells Gaethje he could get a title shot against the new champion with a win over Fiziev, that would offer a great incentive.
Speaking of lightweight title fights …
Immediately following UFC 280 last month in Abu Dhabi, it looked like we were all set to see featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski move up in weight to challenge Makhachev for a second belt. But if you look at their social media feeds as of late, that contest appears to be in jeopardy.
Volkanovski has asked Makhachev to be a man of his word and take the fight, and Makhachev responded it’s not up to him to pick his next opponent. Behind the scenes, the UFC does have hesitation, and that hesitation fits into their business views. A champion vs. champion fight is great, except for the fact that one of those champions has to lose. And if it’s Volkanovski, the UFC probably doesn’t love the idea of (arguably) lessening his appeal as its featherweight champ. For the record, I think Volkanovski deserves the opportunity, and I’m hoping the UFC makes the fight.
As of this moment, however, it’s looking like it could be Makhachev against a different contender in March, while Volkanovski takes on a featherweight contender in February in Perth. For now, it’s still up in the air.
When the UFC was looking at booking Edgar’s final fight, there was some serious talk about it being against Adrian Yanez. Personally, I’m glad they moved on to Chris Gutierrez. Both are tough fights for Edgar, but obviously Yanez is known as a heavy hitter. And as much as Edgar is fully capable of winning that fight, there would also have been a higher chance of him getting knocked out, which literally no one wants to see.
My favorite fight of all time is Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II, when he survived probably the worst round of his career to open the fight, then battled all the way back to a draw. I actually thought he won that fight by the way, and I thought he won a rematch bout against Benson Henderson in 2012 that would have made him a two-time lightweight champion. And my favorite walkout is Edgar’s sprint to “Kick in the Door” by The Notorious B.I.G. I am very much looking forward to his final walkout, and this sport is going to miss him.
I believe one of the reasons people fall in love with mixed martial arts is that it’s so personal. Viewers get to know the athletes in ways you just don’t get in other sports. There’s a better sense of what these athletes sacrifice and risk, which makes their wins and losses so much more meaningful.
The two fighters at UFC 281 for whom fans will feel that the most are Dan Hooker and Dominick Reyes. In an interview Hooker did recently with Submission Radio out of Australia, he referred to his back-to-back first-round losses as an “ego death,” — basically, a fighter is supposed to feel indestructible and unbeatable, which is nearly impossible coming off two losses. But at the same time, he also said there was no hiding from the holes in his game coming off two losses.
Saturday’s fight against Claudio Puelles is a massive one for Hooker. Since October 2021, he has lost two fights in combined cage time of less than five minutes. Amid the pandemic, few UFC fighters have sacrificed as much as Hooker, as he was routinely caught up in New Zealand’s COVID-19 quarantine requirements. As a viewer, regardless of the result even, you want to see Hooker’s sacrifices rewarded with a better performance.
The same is true of Reyes, who has lost three in a row, two by knockout. The 32-year-old has taken more than a year off, in part for the health of his brain. He relocated his camp for this fight to Connecticut, to train with Glover Teixeira and Pereira. This is the same Reyes who almost beat Jon Jones in a light heavyweight title fight in 2020. Whether he wins or loses on Saturday, you want to see a performance that looks like that Reyes.
I’ve been fortunate enough to cover UFC events all over the world and I’m telling you, there really is nothing quite like a Saturday night in Midtown Manhattan with all of the history in that building. It feels like everything is turned up a level. I really felt that on the night of the first one, UFC 205 back in 2016, but it continues to happen every time. The big fight feels.
So, to wrap this up, before we jump into this weekend’s fights, my top three UFC moments in Madison Square Garden:
As far as MMA beefs go, this one was as real as it gets. The emotions going into it went beyond just the two men involved. It was a heightened fight week for the camps, the families and everyone around Dillashaw and Garbrandt, because of the history, the leaked knockout footage from camp and the animosity between coaches Urijah Faber and Duane Ludwig. And then the momentum swings, in a two-round fight. Unforgettable.
2. McGregor becomes double champ, 2016
Obviously, one of the main reasons McGregor is such a star is that he performed in the biggest moments of his career. That has fallen off as of late, but in his run to the top he didn’t just win, he performed. Making history in the way he did, in what was the UFC’s first trip to New York City, is what has made him a global star, even more so than the Jose Aldo knockout.
1. Rose Namajunas upsets Joanna Jedrzejczyk, 2017
I don’t think anything will ever top this. If I don’t think McGregor’s double-champ moment tops it, then what will? Anyone who watched the Namajunas upset play out knows it doesn’t get any better. No one believed Namajunas was going to win that fight. Jedrzejczyk stared her down at the weigh-in, as Namajunas softly recited the Lord’s Prayer. And the image of Namajunas crying as the belt went around her waist — straight out of a movie.