The UFC returns to Anaheim, California this upcoming Saturday with UFC 241. UFC 241 is an overall great card. However, despite the UFC’s marketing, I hesitate to use the word stacked to describe it. Descriptive vocabulary aside, the UFC’s matchmakers have created some really inspired fights on both the undercard and on the pay-per-view. This is a card worth getting really excited over.
On the televised ESPN prelims is a bantamweight showdown between number ninth-ranked contender Cory Sandhagen and number two Raphael Assuncao. Assuncao is a veteran of both the UFC and the WEC in both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions with a record of 27-6, with wins over Bryan Caraway, Pedro Munhoz, Jorge Masvidal, recent bantamweight title challenger and former WSOF bantamweight king Marlon Moraes, and the former two-time UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw.
Despite wins over solid competition as aforementioned, great longevity within the sports elite ranks, and a respectable record, Assuncao has yet to get a shot at the title, though he was briefly linked to a title challenge against then-champion Renan Barao at UFC 173, opting instead to not fight for the belt to allow his fractured rib, which was injured in his previous bout. Additionally, the two marquee wins over Moraes and Dillashaw eventually led to rematches with both fighters, both of which he lost decisively.
His inability to get that one big win that finally pushes him over the edge has cost him in his career, and it is possible that he could be considered something of a gatekeeper within the 135 pound division. This will be tested against the up-and-coming Sandhagen, who boasts an 11-1 record. Sandhagen’s biggest win came in the form of a close decision against John Lineker. Assuncao is a major step-up in competition, but if the 5”11 bantamweight prospect manages to prove victorious against the hardy veteran in Assuncao, he will prove to the world that he is a force to be reckoned with at bantamweight.
A Main Card Full Of Violence
Moving on to the main card is the first of two middleweight fights on the PPV, that being eight-ranked Derek Brunson against tenth-ranked Ian Heinisch. Brunson has also become something of a gatekeeper at middleweight, fighting top level competition but always losing against the real divisional elites. Brunson, alumni of both Strikeforce and the UFC has fought the likes of Jacare Souza (twice), Anderson Silva, Yoel Romero, Lyoto Machida, current interim champion Israel Adesanya and current reigning champion Robert Whittaker. Those are some great fighters that Brunson has fought, but he has only managed to defeat one, when he knocked out Machida at UFC Fight Night 119 back in 2017. All of the other fighters that was just mentioned have all beaten Brunson, and all except for Silva finished Brunson. To be able to contend with that calibre of fighter requires talent, but unfortunately for Brunson he has just been able to break through.
Heinisch, a former interim middleweight champion in the LFA was picked up by the UFC, and despite only two fights within the UFC (both of which he won) is being thrown to the big dogs quickly. He made his UFC debut at UFC Fight Night 140 in Argentina as a late-notice replacement against TUF winner Cezar Ferreira, winning the fight via decision. His next fight was against Antonio Carlos Junior, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist and former BJJ Brown belt world champion, which was a close, but ultimately clear win for Heinisch. Brunson has been around and floating near the top of 185 pounds for a while, and is a tough test for anyone, but if Heinisch wins, his rise to the top of middleweight will gain some serious momentum.
Moving on to the second middleweight fight of the evening is a showdown between number seventh ranked Paulo Costa against number second ranked and Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling Yoel Romero. This fight has been scheduled multiple times now, originally at UFC 230 last November, but Romero chose to wait and allow injuries acquired during his previous bout to heal further. The fight was once again booked in April in Florida, but Costa was pulled from the bout due to a USADA infraction stemming from the usage of an IV at UFC 212 and UFC 217. Costa was replaced with Jacare Souza, but Romero caught pneumonia, and withdrew. Now that both fighters are ready to fight, the organization has booked it for this Saturday.
Yoel Romero is in an interesting spot in this fight and at this point in his career. At the age of 42 the fact that he is able to fight at the level he has been nothing short of astonishing, especially since he is just a middleweight. Outside of heavyweight, it is rare to see fighters past 40 perform well, but Romero, a freakish athlete, seemingly defies conventional wisdom regarding fighting and age. The word seemingly there is key however, as this will Romero’s first fight in over a year, and his first fight since his five round war against middleweight champion Robert Whittaker. The only area where Romero’s age has showed so far has been in his weight cut. In his last two fights, both of which were scheduled to be for a championship, Romero missed weight, thus disqualifying him from winning a belt in both contests. Since the Costa fight is just a regular bout, Romero will have the extra pound weight allowance.
His age is important even outside of the weight cut for other reasons as well. Both of his fights with Robert Whittaker were both tremendous fights, but the second one in particular resulted in a lot of damage for both fighters, and how Romero is able to recover from the damage he sustained against Whittaker remains to be seen. Age makes the recovery process harder, so is it that irrational to speculate that the Yoel Romero we see on Saturday could be a changed fighter? This is all speculation of course, and Romero being the athlete he is may look just as he always does. His performance will ultimately show just how much the war with Whittaker took out of him.
For Costa, who has finished every fight he has won as a professional, and is so far undefeated with a record of 12-0, this is a chance to get a win over an elite fighter in the division. Costa holds wins over TUF finalist Uriah Hall, and over former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, both wins came via second round TKO. Yoel Romero has already proven that he is a fighter worthy enough to compete for a championship, but Costa is yet to prove that about himself. If he beats Romero, especially if he knocks out the former interim title-challenger, he will have put the whole 185 pound division on notice.
Romero’s path back to the top is a bit tricky. He is already ranked second, only behind Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker, but since he has lost twice to Whittaker (though the second fight’s decision remains somewhat unpopular) it is tough to imagine him getting a third shot at Whittaker on just one victory. If Israel Adesanya however beats Robert Whittaker in their upcoming title unification bout in October, that would be good news for Romero, provided he wins on Saturday. For Costa on the other hand, the path to the title is far more simple; just keep collecting wins in impressive fashion over top guys, and sooner or later he will make his challenging for a title an inevitability. But before either man can think of a future chance at gold, they must get past each other.
The Return of Nate Diaz
Immediately after that is the co-main event between two fan favourites in former lightweight champion and presently ranked eighth welterweight Anthony Pettis versus the returning lightweight title challenger and Stockton-based star Nate Diaz. Despite the two contesting the bulk of their careers in the lightweight division, this match will be fought at 170 pounds instead.
Anthony Pettis has had some difficulty in finding consistency since losing the belt in 2015, leading to him bouncing between weight classes, between featherweight and lightweight, having a post-championship record of 3-5 from 2016 to 2018. While he was fighting top tier competition in the two weight classes, he was unable to put together a pattern of winning.
In 2019, he decided to move up to welterweight for a fight with karate specialist and two-time welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson. Given that Pettis had never fought at welterweight in the UFC, it seemed like the size discrepancy would be large enough to put Pettis at a clear disadvantage despite the recent success of fighters moving up in weight, and for the majority of the first two rounds, it seemed like it was going as prognosticated. While he wasn’t dominating the fight, Thompson was overall getting the better of his smaller opponent, controlling most striking exchanges and doing some significant damage to Pettis’ face, until late in the second where a thunderous right hand by Pettis put Thompson to sleep.
Diaz has been far less active than his upcoming opponent; this will be his first fight in almost three years. This isn’t the first lay-off of the younger Diaz brother’s career however; he had an eleven month-long break from the sport from 2013 to 2014, in between his dismantling of Gray Maynard to a fight with Rafael dos Anjos, of which he handily lost. After the fight with dos Anjos he took another year off, only to return at UFC on FOX 17 where he routed Michael Johnson and delivered one of the most notable post-fight interviews in the sports history. It was that interview that set up what happened next for Nate Diaz.
His former opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, now the lightweight champion, was scheduled in a champion vs. champion contest against featherweight king and emerging star Conor McGregor at UFC 196, but a foot injury in camp forced dos Anjos out of the fight, forcing the UFC to seek a new opponent for McGregor. The organization decided that the best course was to give Diaz the fight, albeit at welterweight. After several days of trash talk, the fight happened, and Diaz won with an emphatic second round submission.
While McGregor remained the biggest star in the sport, Nate Diaz certainly captured some momentum. The organization then decided to book a rematch between the two. Initially scheduled for UFC 200, the rematch took place at UFC 202, where McGregor avenged the loss with a majority decision in an all time classic. Since the loss, Nate Diaz has been inactive in the sport.
It’s difficult to properly assess the stakes of this fight, as the risk of Diaz going on another long layoff as has been typical for his career, and Pettis’ move to welterweight not feeling like a permanent move dampens what could be at play in this fight. There is the shadow of McGregor lingering over Diaz (and possibly Pettis depending on how the fight goes) and the UFC may thrust the winner of the fight into the fray of the welterweight title picture, but overall this feels like just a fun fight between two fan favourites with the UFC trying to boost PPV sales by featuring one of the sports biggest draws.
This Is The Main Event Of The Evening
And then the main event of the card, for the heavyweight championship of the world, the rematch between the reigning, defending champion Daniel Cormier and former champion Stipe Miocic. While this fight was originally not supposed to happen — it had seemed following the in-cage incident between the two following UFC 226 that Brock Lesnar would return from the WWE and challenge Cormier for the belt in an effort to retake UFC gold, but the negotiations to bring him back failed in all likelihood due to financial concerns over the ESPN deal and the PPV model. With Lesnar retired, and at the time the two other contenders in Francis Ngannou and Junior dos Santos set to face each other, Miocic was granted the rematch, a chance to prove that the last fight was just a fluke.
In case you forgot, Daniel Cormier is an all time great at both heavyweight and light heavyweight, and is presently ranked as the pound-for-pound king. He is undefeated at heavyweight, and has only lost to Jon Jones, his ultimate rival at 205 pounds, and both of those losses are heavily tainted in controversy. He holds wins over Jeff Monson, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson, Dan Henderson, Anthony Johnson twice, Alexander Gustafsson, Anderson Silva, Volkan Oezdemir, Derrick Lewis, and Stipe Miocic.
He has wins over four former UFC champions, and all of these fighters except for Roy Nelson have challenged for a UFC title on at least one occasion. He won the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix as an alternate, he was the second ever fighter to hold a UFC belt in two different weight classes simultaneously; the second ever “champ-champ” and the first to actually defend one of their belts as a double-champ. He was almost unanimously proclaimed fighter of the year last year. He’s been to the Olympics as a wrestler, even though he didn’t win a medal. Cormier has accomplished so much in his career.
While Miocic lacks that level of a resume, his record is impressive in its own right anyways, legendary even. Miocic broke the record for most consecutive heavyweight title defences within the UFC, with three. Miocic has wins over Roy Nelson, Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem, Junior dos Santos, and Francis Ngannou. All of those wins except for those over Nelson and Ngannou came via finish, and all of the finishes except for the one over Mark Hunt were first round knockouts.
The accomplishments of Miocic have been somewhat overlooked recently due to his layoff before this fight; he has not competed since losing the title to Daniel Cormier last July at UFC 226, but just because he took time off does not make him any less impressive. On the note of the layoff, this is his first extended period of time that he hasn’t been fighting in, and while I am normally skeptical of the benefits of a layoff, as I am with the aforementioned Nate Diaz, in the case of Stipe Miocic it is possible that a year off may be what he needed for his health. He didn’t just lose to Daniel Cormier; Cormier knocked him out, and a brain needs time to heal after. If not for anything else, Miocic was smart for the sake of his brain to avoid fighting, and despite Cormier’s criticism, it turned out that waiting out Cormier was the smart ploy to get that immediate rematch.
This rematch is being billed by some as a fight to determine who is the greatest heavyweight of all time. This strikes me as an example of recency bias ever-familiar to the MMA world. Simply due to his longevity within the sport, his continued ability to win and dominate the division, I think it is extraordinarily difficult to top Fedor Emelianenko in regards as to who is the best heavyweight of all time is, but the winner of this fight will be much closer to that status.
Besides, this fight doesn’t need to be about who is the best ever to not be a great fight with massive consequences. Can Daniel Cormier beat the man he took the heavyweight title from again? Can he prove that even at 40 he is still the baddest man on the planet? Or will Stipe Miocic reclaim the throne from the usurper? Will he restore normalcy to the division he was on top of for so long? We will find all of this out, and more on Saturday evening.