For the third straight year since the state of New York lifted its archaic ban on mixed martial arts in 2016 after nearly two decades, UFC will invade “The World’s Most Famous Arena” on Saturday on the first weekend in November.
The major difference, however, between this weekend’s UFC 230 card at Madison Square Garden and its two predecessors is the lack of marquee title bouts after injuries and happenstance forced the promotion to scramble at the eleventh hour.
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Still, UFC 230 is an interesting card just the same, featuring a tasty heavyweight title fight atop the marquee. Let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering the event:
1. Wait … what happens again if Derrick Lewis wins the heavyweight title? Fresh off an impossible come-from-behind victory over Alexander Volkov at UFC 229 in October, when “The Black Beast” rallied for a one-punch knockout in the closing seconds, Lewis’ stock couldn’t be any hotter. His colorful post-fight interview, in which he removed his shorts because “my balls was hot,” also helped him jump upwards of 600,000 Instagram followers overnight. As a band-aid to save the card, having Lewis as the pay-per-view B-side opposite heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier couldn’t be a more perfect situation for UFC given his ability to talk and fun fighting style. But is UFC — or even Cormier, for that matter — prepared for what might happen should Lewis actually win?
Granted, the scenario doesn’t seem likely given the gap in talent between fighters, evidenced by the fact that Cormier conveniently shot down former champion Stipe Miocic’s offer for a rematch yet accepted Lewis. While the fight is fun on paper, it isn’t perfect. DC still has an injured right hand from his July stoppage of Miocic that was supposed to keep him out until 2019. Lewis, meanwhile, lost nearly every second against Volkov and enters his second fight in 28 days without the proper time to recover from over 70 strikes to the head. Lewis was also very vocal after beating Volkov that he didn’t want a title shot because he doesn’t have five-round stamina and Miocic was more deserving. Should Lewis lose as expected, all is well. But he has a chance to alter, if not spoil, the best-laid plans of Cormier and UFC in terms of either a PPV bout against Brock Lesnar or a Cormier-Jon Jones trilogy.
2. Someone has to say it: This doesn’t feel like a UFC at MSG card. Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way. We know why we are here and, as was stated above, UFC’s attempt to cut and paste at the last minute still produced something worthwhile. All this despite injuries to Dustin Poirier and Luke Rockhold and Jon Jones proving unable to make as quick of a turnaround as expected after the lifting of his USADA suspension. Still, this is MSG. It’s supposed to feel different and special, mostly because UFC battled so long to get the sport legalized again. In the end, this one simply doesn’t. It also felt like UFC never quite had a true handle on a main event from the beginning after coming out strong with a stacked undercard and a Nate Diaz-Poirier co-main. UFC president Dana White also botched the announcement of a puzzling Valentina Shevchenko-Sijara Eubanks women’s flyweight title bout only to then pull it just as quickly. Circumstances notwithstanding, MSG 3.0 could have and should have been better.
3. Where the heck is Nate Diaz!?!? We were so close to seeing the beloved anti-hero of the UFC finally make his return to the Octagon after a messy two-year layoff in which Diaz, according to the UFC, did nothing but turn down fights in hopes of a trilogy against Conor McGregor. Diaz has largely disputed UFC’s retelling at every turn yet agreed in August to return against Poirier in a must-see lightweight bout that could’ve determined the next title challenger in the sport’s deepest division. Yet Diaz threw a fit at the press conference announcing the fight and walked off when it was revealed McGregor was returning a month earlier to face Khabib Nurmagomedov and trouble brewed from there.
Diaz went on to further draw the ire of White by falsely tweeting out his fight with Poirier would be for an inaugural 165-pound title that doesn’t exist. After Poirier pulled out with injury, Diaz was pulled from the card as well, with White saying he had no plans to get Diaz another fight “until he really wants it.” White has rarely ever been in sync historically with Diaz and handling the Stockton, California, product from a promotional sense is a job that doesn’t appear easy. But Diaz, fresh off a pair of bouts with McGregor that broke or challenged PPV records, is a fan favorite with a fun style who moves product and creates attention. Considering the 155-pound division is overflowing with exciting names, allowing him to just fall off of Saturday’s card altogether was a poor financial decision for the company.
4. Chris Weidman’s quest for one more run at the middleweight title. At 34 and with injuries that have kept him idle for more than a year, Weidman enters Saturday in need of yet another big win to put his three-fight losing skid in recent years further in the rearview mirror. After injuries forced Rockhold to pull out of their rematch which eventually became the card’s co-main event, Weidman now finds himself facing fellow veteran Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, who was originally scheduled to meet David Branch on the undercard. At 38, Souza is looking to create his own final chapter and another shot at the belt. Yet a victory for Weidman is nothing short of crucial to avoid becoming just another big-name opponent. Weidman, who submitted Kelvin Gastelum in 2017 before Gastelum went on to secure a shot at champion Robert Whittaker that’s expected for early next year, has stated publicly that the Souza fight is now a No. 1 contender’s match. With the division slowly entering a reloading period and lacking extended depth, he might be right. It’s all-or-nothing time for the “All-American” who will fight not far from his hometown of Baldwin on Long Island.
5. “The Last Stylebender” looks to get closer to being next in line. If there’s a more exciting prospect in the category of “he might have next” than middleweight Israel Adesanya, we haven’t met him. At 29, the native Nigerian who came of age in New Zealand, brings the kind of cocky and dangerous kickboxing style that turns heads. With a body like Jon Jones and an exciting style akin to Anderson Silva, the 14-0 Adesanya is fresh off his first main event opportunity in July when he dominated Brad Tavares at “The Ultimate Fighter” Finale in Las Vegas. Just three fights into his UFC career, there are big things expected for him. Saturday’s bout against the always dangerous Derek Brunson seems like the perfect test to find out just how close Adesanya is to lapping veterans like Weidman and Souza and knocking on Whittaker’s door.
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