The UFC emerged from quarantine a little under a week ago with a card topped by an ultra-violent, orbital bone-breaking contest between Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson. This weekend’s set of scraps, which once again takes place behind closed doors at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, doesn’t quite have as high stakes as last week’s interim lightweight title fight, but for some fighters there is a lot more than UFC gold on the line.
Alistair Overeem vs. Walt Harris
In another, less depressing timeline, this fight has already happened. Heavyweights Overeem and Harris were due to fight last December but that fight was cancelled in the weeks prior after Harris’ stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, was abducted in Alabama.
The search for Blanchard dominated MMA headlines for several days, with the likes of Dana White, Conor McGregor and Jon Jones making public pleas for information regarding her disappearance. Unfortunately, the search reached a chilling conclusion when Blanchard’s remains were found a month after she went missing. Three people have been charged in connection to the case.
Harris has admitted to going through a “dark period” since, but says that he has emerged from the haze by returning to training and competition.
His redemption, if that is the term, comes on Saturday night against former world title contender, the veteran Alistair Overeem. A win for Harris, even dismissing the psychological element for a moment, would be the biggest of Harris’ career and would make it five fights unbeaten for the American – but we suspect it’s worth a lot more than just that to him.
Edson Barboza’s featherweight debut
Former Khabib opponent Edson Barboza has consistently displayed that he is one of the more dynamic strikers at 155lbs but a poor run of form (he has lost four of his last five) has led to him making a decision often made by fighters in his position: let’s drop down a division and try our luck there.
Dropping a weight division isn’t often recommended for a fighter of Barboza’s age (34), given that a person’s body typically has more trouble cutting weight as the years go by. However, he is moving to a featherweight fold which isn’t populated with the same type of oppressive grapplers which dominate the rankings at lightweight, meaning that – in theory at least – he will be presented with more favorable matchups.
Of course, Barboza’s debut opponent at featherweight, Dan Ige, is a very talented grappler who has finished 5 of 13 wins by submission and is an impressive 6-1 in the UFC.
This is a crucial fight for Barboza. A fifth loss in six fights may red flag him for the UFC chopping block, and would represent a significant feather in rising star Ige’s cap.
Some lastminute changes
As with any major sporting event taking place during a global pandemic, you can expect a few late surprises. Two Brazilian fighters who had been expected to compete this weekend were removed from the card due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, while another fight appears in jeopardy as of Friday – but not down to the pandemic.
Chinese fighter Son Yadong is reported to be having Visa issues ahead of his featherweight fight with Marlon Vera, which prompted a decision from the quick-thinking and always game Urijah Faber to hop on the scales during Friday morning’s weigh-in to register a weight of 153.5lbs ahead of a potential catchweight fight with Vera – should Yadong be ruled out and the commission allows it.
Italian middleweight Marvin Vettori also weighed in on Friday after his Wednesday fight Karl Roberson fell apart due to the American experiencing problems with his weight cut – despite there not even being an opponent ready for him. Vettori and UFC matchmakers are understood to be seeking a VERY short notice opponent for the Italian to fight on a little more than 24 hours notice.
The renaissance of Matt Brown
The word ‘violent’ is thrown about a lot in mixed martial arts, but there is a very short list of people to whom the term can be truly applied. Matt Brown is most definitely one of them.
The previously retired Brown makes his second Octagon appearance since emerging from retirement in December when he takes on Miguel Baeza in a welterweight fight, and the 8-0 UFC newcomer will have be sure he is ready to confront the elbow-heavy assault that Brown inflicts on his opponents.
Look for videos of Brown’s finishes of Diego Sanchez and Mike Pyle for evidence of what the Ohioan can do when he’s switched on. Baeza will surely be hoping that he’s not the next man up on the 39-year-old’s highlight reel.
The UFC’s health & safety procedures
You might expect that there is no guidebook for operating a major sporting event while the world remains in the grips of a killer virus, but that’s not true – there is one.
As part of their campaign to hold events again, the UFC (or, at least, their legal reps) produced a dossier aimed at implementing a series of safety protocols to guarantee the safety of those attending as much as possible. These include mandatory, regular testing for everyone at the event, social distancing protocols being observed and fighters being kept apart, among others.
You know what they say about best laid plans, though. An operation of this magnitude was never going to be easy to run seamlessly, but the UFC were left somewhat red-faced when they were forced to divert from a potential PR disaster when Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of a fight with Uriah Hall last weekend.
That fight was scrapped and Souza was removed from the event, but to some the damage had already been done. What’s more, and despite suggestions to the contrary, even Dana White failed to correctly observe social distancing guidelines when overseeing the weigh-ins – even coming into direct contact with Souza.
These types of things cannot be predicted, but the response to it can certainly be measured. And a lot of eyes are on the UFC again this weekend.
They’re the only show in town. Just as Dana White likes it.