In the weeks before the UFC calendar was decimated by the onset of the coronavirus which would soon lay waste to the UFC’s plans for 2020, a lightweight main event between top contenders Dan Hooker and Paul Felder suggested that the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion was set for a bumper year.
With Conor McGregor returning to action a month prior against Donald Cerrone in what was intended to be the first of a three-fight ‘season’ for the Irishman, New Zealand’s Hooker announced himself as a bona-fide player at 155lbs (and potential future opponent for McGregor) when he emerged on top in a supremely entertaining back-and-forth encounter with perennial lightweight threat Felder.
But it didn’t come easy. The notoriously gritty Felder rarely took a backward step throughout the 25-minute fight – his swollen face wearing the damage of a punishing opening to the hostilities. If Hooker got the better of the early exchanges, it was Felder who appeared to have more in his gas tank in the later rounds as he pushed forward in an attempt to sway the bout in his favor.
Ultimately though, it was Hooker who got the nod from the three cageside judges – but this was one of those fights where the prizefighting cliche of ‘there is no loser here’ applies, and while that was likely of little consolation to ‘The Irish Dragon’, the fans who witnessed the thrilling tussle will certainly agree.
Once upon a time, the pinpoint striking of Polish fight queen Jedrzejczyk was such that she was considered to have no equal in the women’s strawweight fold. Her air of invincibility was shattered, however, when she suffered two straight world title defeats to Rose Namajunas (first by TKO, then by decision) leading many observers to say that Jedrzejczyk’s time in the spotlight had passed.
Meanwhile, and while the story of the Pole’s title reign was unfolding, an unheralded Chinese fighter was making her own journey to the top of the division. Zhang Weili debuted in the UFC in mid-2018 with a 16-1 record and, one fight at a time, began to announce herself as a serious threat in the division.
The Chinese took just over 40 seconds to win the world title in a whitewash against Jessica Andrade to set up a fight with Jedrzejczyk who was still dealing with accusations of being a spent force in the division she once lorded over.
Not so. While Jedrzejczyk would ultimately come out of the fight with Weili on the bad end of a split decision, she was lauded for her all-energy, never-back-down performance throughout the five-round main event – and much like the aforementioned Paul Felder, was left with a grotesque swelling on the fight side of her face.
Zhang Weili proved that she is the clear pace-setter at 115lbs. And Jedrzejczyk? Despite those losses mounting on her record, the UFC 248 headliner proved that she is far from the spent force that some had predicted.
This was a pivotal fight for both men. Poirier, a longtime standout in the lightweight frame, was returning to the cage for the first time since his third-round submission defeat to UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov some months prior. For Hooker, the fight was a reward for his emphatic performance earlier in the year against Paul Felder, and an opportunity to usurp the American fighter’s position at the summit of the rankings.
And both men fought as if they knew they had something to prove. Hooker rolled out the same blueprint which brought him so much success against Felder, but they say that pressure creates diamonds and Poirier found himself in exactly the type of firefight in which he shines.
As the fight wore on, it was Poirier whose striking began to assert itself in the later rounds and cement his position as being one of the lightweight division’s true standouts. It also exorcised the demons of his submission defeat to Nurmagomedov months beforehand, and led to him being once again paired with Conor McGregor in what will be 2021’s first high-profile fight.
And perhaps no fighter at 155lbs is more deserving of a second ‘red panty night’ than the never-say-die Dustin Poirier.
After once again being robbed of a fight between Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov (for the fifth time, incidentally), fight fans’ disappointment was assuaged somewhat when the UFC rolled out Justin Gaethje as the Russian champion’s replacement to take on Ferguson, who at the time was sporting a 12-fight, eight-year undefeated streak.
Very quickly, though, it was apparent that this was a different type of challenge any that Ferguson had recently faced. Always a challenging fighter, Gaethje rolled out a much more measured performance which highlighted his talents and, crucially, restricted his limitations. Gone were the days of Gaethje’s chin-up style of brawling, replaced instead with a disciplined performance in which he picked and chose his moments to engage.
Ferguson just couldn’t get going. Every time he advanced he was met with a stiff crack to his chin and by late in the fight, the damage began to take a toll. A late salvo of strikes from Gaethje sent a dazed Ferguson careening towards the cage, prompting the referee to step in and declare the fight – along with the mystique associated with Ferguson’s undefeated streak – over.
A late candidate, and perhaps even frontrunner, for 2020’s best fight came just last weekend in the UFC 256 headliner between flyweight champion Figueiredo and Mexico’s Moreno.
Brazil’s Figueiredo took the fight just three weeks after his most recent title defence against Alex Perez – a UFC record – but if that fight was a relatively easy one for the once-beaten Figueiredo, Saturday’s was anything but. Throughout 25 intense minutes, both fighters traded all sorts of (sometimes illegal) shots en route to a fight which was ultimately scored as a draw and for which Dana White giddily proclaimed a sequel will be forthcoming early next year.
This represented something of a change in tack from the UFC president who had previously come close to closing the UFC’s 125lbs fold after noting that fans were slow to get behind the weight class and its fighters. But if that is ever going to change, last Saturday’s fight will likely be crucial to that.