After a hiatus of sorts, TalkingBrawls’ resident column is back. This Saturday, is undoubtedly the biggest fight in Irish MMA history. #3 UFC Featherweight “The Notorious” Conor McGregor attempts to be the first Irish fighter & fourth European to win a UFC title.
Featherweight #1 contender Chad “Money” Mendes steps in on two & a half weeks notice for the Champion Jose Aldo due to the latter having to withdraw from the contest due to a controversial rib injury. Despite the fight being relegated from a Featherweight World Championship to an Interim Championship match up, the bout has retained it’s Main Event spot. Therefore, the UFC Welterweight Title fight between defending Champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler & challenger #2 Rory MacDonald still occupies the Co-Main Event slot on the card.
The reasoning for this is quite simple from a Zuffa standpoint. The hype train that has driven ticket sales, Web traffic & hopefully the UFC’S PPV numbers for this show is the brash Dub, Conor McGregor. As a consequence coupled with the reality that the two participants of the title fight at 170lbs are very introverted characters, the promotional priority of Mendes v McGregor is arguably unquestionable.
However, keeping with the consistent sporting theme of this particular column, we will consider the genuine world title fight on the card last & the interim title fight just before we get to it. The card overall is stacked with six ranked fights & several combatants that are just hovering outside the top 15 in their respective divisions such as Ireland’s own Cathal Pendred & Neil Seery.
Without further delay, we kick off in the Bantamweight division with highly touted prospect #14 Thomas “Thominhas” Almeida (18-0) & England’s #15 (FLW) Brad “One Punch” Pickett (24-10). This bout kicks off the main card on PPV.
Almeida, although the new kid on the block so to speak, has built a stellar undefeated record outside the UFC. He’s 2-0 inside the octagon with victories over Tim Gorman & Yves Jabouin respectively. He’s definitely one to watch & he’s the biggest favourite on the card, but ironically, his opponent this Saturday is easily the toughest of his career.
Enter Brad Pickett. “One Punch” was, for a couple of years, a perennial contender at 135 lbs. Very much like his fellow countryman “The Count” Michael Bisping, in that he has always been solid in his weight class, but when in a sniff of title contention, would fall short. Hence, Pickett dropped to 125 lbs, hoping for an easier route to a title shot, but with draining weight cuts, getting on in age & possibly on a decline in his career, he went 1-2 at Flyweight. Now, he appears to be content to finish out his career at 135 lbs.
A victory for Almeida would be perfect for continuing his rapid momentum. It would be a great name on his resume & possibly bring him up a place or two in the rankings, but more importantly, would call for a top 12 opponent at least, to further justify the hype. A loss though would put a halt on his rapid ascent & would likely indicate a bit more refininement needed before going against the elite of the division.
A win for Pickett would put him right back in the top 15 at Bantamweight, but it would also tell us if he is ready to re-acquire his position in the weight class from circa 2012. A loss though, may call for the veteran’s retirement.
We move up a weight class to Featherweight. In what is the showcase division of the evening, #8 Dennis “The Menace” Bermudez (14-4) goes to battle with #11 “Lil Heathen” Jeremy Stephens (23-11). This bout is also on the main card.
Bermudez, a TUF 14 runner up, went on a tear thereafter, going 7-0 over the next two & a half years with victories over #5 Max Holloway, Steven Siler & #10 Clay Guida to name a few. However, he ran into a road block in the form of #4 Ricardo Lamas back in December of last year, losing by a first round guillotine choke submission.
His opponent this weekend, “Lil Heathen” is 3-2 in his last five fights. He even had a promising start in the division after an underwhelming run at 155 lbs. He won his first three match ups at 145 lbs over Estevan Payan, Rony Jason & #15 Darren Elkins. However, he has since gone on a skid of 0-2, dropping decisions to #6 Cub Swanson & #7 Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira.
A “W” for Bermudez, especially if impressive, may demonstrate that his loss last year was just a bump in the road. It would also call for a top ten opponent next, before he tests the waters against top five opposition again. A loss, on the under hand, would be a significant set back for the New Yorker, silencing much of his talked about potential in the division.
Stephens is just as desperately in need of a win, if not more so. A victory puts the brakes on his losing streak & creates an opportunity to rebuild within the top ten. A loss though puts him in P45 territory, which does not reflect his talent as a Featherweight.
Next up, we move up two weight classes to Welterweight. This division is flying under the radar this Saturday night, but what takes place in it, has a pivotal role in shaping the landscape at 170lbs. There are three key match ups in it.
The first being world class submission guru & SBG Ireland standout #15 Gunnar Nelson (13-1-1) taking on unranked, but dangerous, Brandon Thatch (11-2). This is also on the main card on PPV.
Nelson, earlier in his career, focused more on straight grappling, where he had success at the pinnacle of the sport in competitions such as the ADCC. By the time he got to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was highly respected in his game & was talked about much as being a player at 170 lbs. He started off with a four fight win streak including victories over Jorge Santiago & Zak Cummings. He lost his most recent fight last October by way of split decision to #10 Rick “The Horror” Story.
His adversary, Thatch came into the UFC with a tonne of hype, blitzing through Justin Edwards & Brazilian Special Forces’ Paulo Thiago. However, he lost in a short notice affair most recently to former Lightweight Champion Benson “Smooth” Henderson, where the smaller foe submitted him by rear naked choke in the fourth round.
Both men have had a lot of hype, both men are coming off their first octagon losses. How will they bounce back? The victor here would no doubt re-ignite buzz around their prospects at 170 lbs, but the loser will have questions to ask themselves. If the loser is Nelson, he may have to think long & hard about dropping down to 155 lbs, while if Thatch falls prey to the Icelandic star, he will find himself further away from being ranked in the division.
Next up, #5 Matt “The Immortal” Brown (19-13) takes on a rising unranked prospect in the division in “The Dirty Bird” Tim Means (24-6). Brown was originally expecting to face Nate Diaz, but when it became apparent that the Zuffa brass were unable to put this fight together, they inserted Means into the contest. This fight headlines the FOX Sports 1 Prelims. Many including this writer, expected this match up to be on the main card, but Brown himself preferred being on cable television with more potential eyeballs on the tube.
Brown resurrected his career with a 7 fight win streak between 2012 & 2014, feathers in his cap including Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, Mike “Quick” Swick, Jordan Mein, Mike Pyle & Erick Silva. He definitely emerged as one of the top contenders & most exciting fighters in the weight class. Unfortunately, he has since lost back to back decisions against current Champion Robbie Lawler & former Champion #1 Johny Hendricks.
His opponent is not as highly ranked this time around though, in fact not yet ranked at all. “The Dirty Bird” had his first stint in the UFC at Lightweight, but struggling to perform with such a severe weight cut, he finished that run 2-2. Now, at 170lbs, he’s 4-1 & looking much better physically in the process. However, his only ranked opponent was #12 Neil Magny, who he lost a unanimous decision to.
Brown needs a win here to re-group. A fight like this, while no walk in the park, is the chance to continue to get better in his overall game & as a result be better equipped to take out the elite in the division. A loss though would be a big disappointment for the Ohio native. He’s not in danger of getting cut, but it would be an unwelcome set back to say the least.
Means has everything to gain here. A win propels him into the top ten & sets up a variety of contender match ups. A loss would not be as damaging for him as for his opponent, but he could lose a bit of momentum.
Before we go to the World Title fight, we switch to the Featherweight division. #1 Chad “Money” Mendes (17-2) attempts to dethrone the self proclaimed king of the division in #3 “The Notorious” Conor McGregor (17-2) for the UFC Interim Title. As mentioned in our introduction, this is the Main Event of the evening.
Mendes is 8-2 in the octagon. He has finishes over names like #15 Darren Elkins, #10 Clay Guida & #4 Ricardo Lamas. His only losses come at the hands of the World Champion Jose Aldo twice.
McGregor, now an Irish superstar making his name internationally is 5-0 in the UFC. He has finished Marcus Brimage, Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier & #14 Dennis Siver. He also has a unanimous decision victory over #5 Max Holloway, who he won a straight forward decision over with a torn ACL that occurred during the fight.
A victory for Mendes would be his lifeline to a third title shot against Aldo. Without this opportunity, it would have taken a special streak of wins to get such an opportunity, but having the interim title would put him in line to unify the titles with “Scarface”. A loss you would have to think, puts him at the back of the queue.
A win for McGregor though solidifies him as the number one contender & gives him his long awaited world title shot against Jose Aldo possibly before the end of the year. It may be bigger than the original match up scheduled for this weekend with the narrative of McGregor overcoming the dreaded “wrestler” & arguably the tougher style match up. A loss though would be a set back, but the extent of the set back would depend on the manner of the loss. A shut out or decisive finish, would send McGregor back to the drawing board, but a close or controversial loss, may keep the McGregor train rolling. One thing that it is likely, a loss would be more realistic to set up a Dublin return in October than a victory.
Finally, back to Welterweight for the World Title fight between the Champion “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (25-10) & #2 Rory MacDonald (18-2). This is the Co-Main Event on Saturday & a rematch from 2013.
It’s interesting when you consider some similarities between the two men. “The Ruthless One” made his UFC debut in 2002 at just twenty years old under the Miletich Fighting Systems team. He was a young kid with frightening power & raw athleticism. He was being marketed as the next big thing, following in the footsteps of mentor & then Champion, Matt Hughes. However, he had ways to go in terms of maturity & refined technical prowess. His initial UFC run ended at 4-3. After years of moving around different promotions, fighting mainly at Middleweight, Lawler finally returned to the octagon in 2013 to Welterweight. Since then, he has amassed an impressive 6-1 record, his lone loss to former Champion Johny Hendricks, but he avenged this loss to win the title. He also holds wins over Josh Koscheck, the aforementioned Rory MacDonald, #9 Jake Ellenberger & #5 Matt Brown.
Rory, on his own end, likewise made his UFC debut at the age of twenty. He burst onto the scene with a lot of raw potential, similarly he was also in the shadow of his own mentor in the form of the current Champion at the time Georges “Rush” St. Pierre. MacDonald is 9-2 in the octagon. His first loss was in his second outing to #4 “The Natural Born Killer” Carlos Condit. From there he went on a 5-0 streak that put him in the mix with great wins over men like Nate Diaz, Mike Pyle, the upcoming hall of famer B.J. Penn & Jake “The Juggernaut” Ellenberger.
He then suffered a loss to the current Champion Robbie Lawler by split decision. After his first loss, Rory appeared to be obsessed with a revenge match against Carlos Condit, but after the Lawler loss, we have witnessed a more mature version of MacDonald in that he has rather been obsessed with becoming a better fighter. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this title fight on Saturday is that we are going to see two different fighters.
If Lawler can win the match, it will be his first successful title defence. You know he will be remembering the famous quote from his friend Matt Hughes “If you win a title it sure may be luck, but if you defend it, it’s yours”. I would expect next in line would be former Champion Johny Hendricks for the rubber match to see who wins their trilogy. If he loses, I have no doubt he will be back in soon enough against a top five opponent if available. This is a division stacked with contenders, so we may see the Championship change hands a few times in the next couple of years.
If MacDonald wins, he makes the first significant stride in stepping out of Georges St. Pierre’s shadow. Barring controversy, he would likely face Hendricks next. However, a marketable rematch may be against his first loss, Carlos Condit. A loss though, still allows MacDonald to rebuild & continue to get better, at 25 years old.
Will the UFC crown it’s first Irish Champion or will Team Alpha Male gain their second UFC Champion? Will American Top Team hold on to their first World Championship or will Team Tristar return to dominance in the Welterweight division? Tune in Saturday night to find out who takes what’s on the line on PPV (BT Sport in Ireland & the UK).
Photo Credit: Zuffa LLC