Tomorrow night’s UFC 194 card is going to be one of the biggest of the year, if not the biggest. It looks like they may set the UFC’s gate record, at least for Las Vegas, and if July’s UFC 189 (the last Conor McGregor fight) is any indication, then it will be a huge smash hit on pay-per-view, as well. On top of all that? It’s an incredible night of great fights on paper, quite possibly the greatest that the UFC has ever put together. How great? The top two fights are probably the two best that the UFC can put together right now. Injuries have been minimal, with the main card and featured prelim all surviving intact.
So, what do we have to look forward to, from the main event on down?
UFC Featherweight Championship: Jose Aldo (c) vs. Conor McGregor (ic)
The biggest marquee fight in the promotion (well, until the potential Holly Holm-Ronda Rousey rematch took that mantle) is finally here. Not all of the most anticipated fights necessarily have the potential to provide great action, but this one most certainly does: Two very different shades of great strikes, one of which throws at incredibly high volume and hits really hard. The only way it wouldn’t be entertaining is if Aldo is able to exploit a hole in McGregor’s grappling and decides to stifle him. That doesn’t seem likely, though.
My gut says McGregor wins, but it’s razor thin.
UFC Middleweight Championship: Chris Weidman (c) vs. Luke Rockhold
The best fight in the history of the middleweight division and quite possibly the best fight the UFC can book right now. Both traditionally have exciting fights, are well rounded in very different ways, and provide unique challenges to the other. Weidman may be the man who beat Anderson Silva twice, but he hasn’t really had a tough stylistic test the way Rockhold will be. Both are fantastic on the ground (if they didn’t go into MMA, both would probably be world champion caliber submission grapplers) to the point that’s the big question mark of the fight. Also: Weidman is coming in light, probably to gain stamina and so he can rehydrate easily without the now banned IV infusions. Will he be a different fighter? That remains to be seen.
This is considerably closer than the main event and right now I’m picking Rockhold, but don’t hold me to it…
Middleweight: Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Yoel Romero
The winner of this fight almost certainly gets a shot at the Weidman-Rockhold winner. This is the third time this fight has been put together this year, with injuries getting in the way. Both are aging great athletes who are world class grapplers, with Jacare being the Brazillian Jiu Jitsu player and Romero was both a world champion and Olympic Silver medalist in freestyle wrestling. Jacare looks to either knock you out with a punch or drive you to the fence while trying so he can take you down and submit you. Romero, being a freestyle wrestler not from the USA (freestyle has much less matwork than American collegiate/folkstyle wrestling) tends to use his takedowns as a change of pace to disrupt the fight. The result? A lot of explosive, violent moments.
This is Romero’s fight, stylistically. Jacare could crack him, but he’s gotten great at managing distance, and he’s not getting taken down. Regardless, there should be some craziness while it lasts.
Welterweight: Demian Maia vs. Gunnar Nelson
This is the great on paper fight with the greatest likelihood of being boring. It cones down to where the fight ends up taking place. Both are high level Brazillian Jiu Jitsu black belts, with Maia being one of the best ever (as well as possibly the best at adapting his BJJ to MMA), but Maia is a much better wrestler with a near-inescapable top game. Nelson is the better striker, with an extensive karate background going back long before he ever did BJJ. Maia is not a BAD striker, but it lagged badly behind his grappling. On the feet, Nelson wins. On the ground, Maia wins. The latter is more likely, and if it happens, it could slow down the fight a bit. But if you like to watch Maia do his thing, it’s more than fine. The one X factor is the crowd: Nelson trains with Conor McGregor and is considered an adopted Irishman by the fans who travelled en masse to this card.
Featherweights: Max Holloway vs. Jeremy Stephens
Holloway is probably the most entertaining fighter in the UFC right now. He works at a really fast pace with a diverse arsenal of strikes and isn’t afraid to hunt for a submission in clever ways. He’s also incredibly smart and technical; so he’s got something for everyone. Stephens is a powerful striker coming off a fight of the year candidate against Dennis Bermudez that he finished with a flying knee. There’s no way this fight won’t be fireworks. But Holloway is just too good right now and too durable to think Stephens takes it. This is a perfect opener.
If you’re a casual fan who just orders the biggest and best fight cards, UFC 194 is for you.