Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
there’s nothing you can’t do
now you’re in New York
— “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys
Jay-Z and Alicia Keys might not have been thinking about mixed martial arts when they put those lyrics to a tune, but now punching someone else in the face before slapping on an armbar is just one more thing you can do in New York. The UFC has arrived, and the company is kicking things off with a bang.
That bang includes three title fights, topped by a showdown featuring mega-draw Conor McGregor. The Irishman locks horns with Eddie Alvarez in a clash for the promotion’s lightweight championship. Their scrap headlines a UFC 205 card that also features a welterweight title tilt between champion Tyron Woodley and challenger Stephen Thompson. The ladies round out the trio of title affairs when women’s strawweight champ Joanna Jędrzejczyk puts her crown on the line against fellow Polish star Karolina Kowalkiewicz.
The UFC’s trip to New York means a six-fight main card for the pay-per-view broadcast, which still has a listed start time of 10 p.m. ET. The action kicks off earlier in the evening with three preliminary bouts on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET and a four-fight lineup for the Fox Sports 1 prelims, which air live at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Vince Carey and Bryan Henderson preview the historic event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Conor McGregor is back, and this time he’s chasing after Eddie Alvarez’s lightweight title. Can the Irishman become a two-division champion?
Carey: For a long time, if I was asked if there was anyone on the UFC roster that could hold two belts simultaneously, my automatic answer was Jon Jones. In theory, such a thing should be nearly impossible to pull off since a fighter would normally have to clear out their entire division before getting a shot at a second belt. However, McGregor’s drawing power made clearing out the rest of the featherweight division an afterthought in favor of superfights. Now, he’s suddenly fighting for his second UFC title despite never defending his first. McGregor has the chance to pull off something incredible this weekend against Alvarez. Call it a gut feeling, but I think the Irishman will pull it off.
The funny thing about McGregor winning this weekend is that I’m not even sure if he’s the superior fighter. On the feet, this fight is close, with “Notorious” maybe holding a slight advantage. However, I’d take Alvarez in a grappling match all day. I like the Philadelphia native’s cardio to hold up better over the course of five rounds as well. It’s McGregor’s mental warfare and ability to draw opponents into his kind of fight that makes him such a difficult match-up, and those strengths will be twice as strong against a guy in Alvarez who wears his heart on his sleeve. Alvarez at his absolute best is a tough match-up for McGregor, but a wound-up Alvarez coming in hot and looking to make a statement is definitely a more manageable opponent.
If Alvarez is able to fight his fight and keep McGregor guessing by changing levels and mixing things up, then he should be able to take this fight. I’m just not sure he’s going to be able to stick to his game plan as well as he has in the past, especially when McGregor is bound to turn his trash talk and antics up to 100 now that it’s fight week.
This fight is incredibly tough to call. I won’t be surprised if Alvarez wins, but I’m taking McGregor by early TKO to become the first man to hold two UFC belts at the same time.
Henderson: Jones is certainly a logical pick. I’d have put Anderson Silva on that short list, too. I could probably name a few others as well, and McGregor would absolutely be one of them. As the longtime writer of the Out of Obscurity column, I’ve followed McGregor’s career as far back as his Cage Warriors days, when he defeated Dave Hill by submission to claim the British promotion’s featherweight strap and then turned around to capture the lightweight title with a complete destruction of Ivan Buchinger. Notably, he never defended either of those belts — he signed with the UFC before getting his chance to put even one of the belts on the line.
McGregor’s foray into the welterweight division has probably caused more skepticism about his abilities in the lower weight divisions. McGregor is a long fighter — despite checking in at the same height as Alvarez, he’ll enjoy roughly a five-inch reach advantage — who finally found his match at 170 pounds against a lanky fighter like Nate Diaz. Place the Irishman back in his more natural homes at lightweight and featherweight, and his size and range become far bigger advantages.
Alvarez is going to have to get inside against McGregor and take him down. It’s the smart strategy for the champ, but the question is whether he’ll take that approach. Alvarez isn’t afraid to stand toe-to-toe with anyone, and he might just want to prove he’s the better man on the feet in this fight. If that’s his approach, it all comes down to how he handles any early adversity. McGregor’s striking is an asset, and Alvarez has been known to get rocked on occasion in the early moments of fights. He’s usually found his way out of such situations, only truly succumbing to Michael Chandler in their first meeting. McGregor isn’t going to be nearly as forgiving as some of Alvarez’s previous opponents, though.
It’s pretty obvious where I’m going with all of this. Alvarez is a great fighter, and I, too, would not be surprised in the least if he does emerge with his championship belt. However, McGregor has the right mix of skills to expose Alvarez’s tendency to get rocked early and then turn up the volume where others have failed, therefore scoring the finish. While this fight is an extremely tough one to call, I think we’re going to see a new lightweight champ on Saturday night.
This card features three title fights — Eddie Alvarez and Conor McGregor for the lightweight strap, Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson for the welterweight crown, and Joanna Jędrzejczyk against Karolina Kowalkiewicz for the women’s strawweight title. Which champion has the best chance of holding onto their title? Which challenger is most likely to emerge from the event with a title belt?
Henderson: Well, the Alvarez and McGregor fight is the one that’s really too close to call, so that leaves us with the welterweight and women’s strawweight title affairs.
The champion with the best chance to hold onto his or her title? I’m saying it’s Woodley. Granted, the Mizzou Tiger wrestler and two-time NCAA Division I All-American has some holes in his game, but he’s also fighting a challenger who has what might be the most one-dimensional game of any current member of the UFC elite. Wonderboy is a striking phenom with black belts in multiple striking disciplines and seven finishes via some form of knockout. Woodley has demonstrated his own power on the feet, but his wrestling background will allow him to keep Thompson honest and potentially take the fight to the mat. Once on the ground, Woodley has the slick submission skills to keep his counterpart on the defensive or even finish him. With so many more routes to victory, it’s difficult to bet against Woodley retaining his belt.
On the other side of the coin, we have Jędrzejczyk, who has put on plenty of vicious beatings on her opponents but who has also lucked out in two extremely close fights with archrival Claudia Gadelha. Gadelha’s clinch work and wrestling overwhelmed the Polish champ early, before Gadelha ultimately faded, but the Brazilian challenger also dropped Jędrzejczyk with strikes in the first round. Jędrzejczyk’s current challenger, Kowalkiewicz, has a strong grappling and clinch attack of her own. Jędrzejczyk did defeat Kowalkiewicz back in their amateur days, but both fighters have largely improved since that time. While I expect Jędrzejczyk to retain her title, a Kowalkiewicz win would not be a shocker.
Carey: Well, I’ll agree with Mr. Henderson on one point: Alvarez and McGregor is too close to call. As for the rest of his opinions, I’m walking into UFC 205 with pretty much the exact opposite in mind.
My colleague mentioned Woodley’s wrestling as his key to victory this weekend. While he’s 100 percent correct in that assessment, I don’t see things going down in quite the same way. Woodley has some amazing NCAA credentials and has proven to be a great grappler in the cage, but Thompson has been proving himself against this kind of competition for his last few fights. Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger both boasted collegiate wrestling experience, and Rory MacDonald has proven to be one of the division’s most capable wrestlers as well. Yet, Wonderboy kept them all at bay and was able to pretty much walk through these three men. This is what I see him doing to Woodley on Saturday, too.
As for the women’s title fight, after seeing her battle back and put on a clinic for the last few rounds against Gadelha, I’m officially entering “I’ll believe it when I see it” territory when it comes to the idea of a Jędrzejczyk loss. In pretty much every way possible, Gadelha is a bad match-up for the champ with the Brazilian’s pressure and size presenting a nightmare for a range-based fighter like Jędrzejczyk. Yet, Jędrzejczyk knew she just had to weather the storm. Once she did, she came out like a true champion and put a hurting on the Brazilian to get the decision. It’s going to take a phenomenal wrestler with an insane gas tank to beat this champion, and Kowalkiewicz just doesn’t fit the bill. It should be an easy night’s work for Jędrzejczyk.
UFC 205 is a historic event, marking the promotion’s first trip to the state of New York since professional MMA was legalized. What will be the one thing people talk about from this event when they reflect back on it in the years to come?
Carey: It’s really tough to answer this question before the actual card takes place. If McGregor wins, this card is just as likely to be known as the card where the Irishman became the first man to hold two belts simultaneously as it is to be known as the first card in New York. Don’t get me wrong, this is a huge deal for the sport and the card definitely deserves the treatment it’s getting. However, after another 10 or 20 events at MSG, fight fans are going to take NYC for granted. On the other hand, if McGregor wins, then he’s the first guy in the over 20-year history of the UFC to be able to claim such a feat. It might be 20 more years before someone does it again. A victory for McGregor absolutely makes him the story of the night.
However, there’s a legitimate 50/50 chance that Alvarez holds onto his belt this weekend. If he does, this card will probably be remembered just for how damn good it is from top to bottom. Since UFC 200 didn’t quite make it to fight night intact, this weekend will mark the first time in over 15 years that the promotion will have three titles defended on the same night, and the rest of the card is about as good as it gets. After how good UFC 200 was on paper, I would have said it was impossible for the UFC to beat it in 2016. Yet, the company has proven me wrong with this card. If the action delivers, this could go down as one of the all-time great nights of fights in history.
Henderson: My colleague nailed it in the second part of his response. Initially, this might be known as the first NYC card from the UFC following MMA’s legalization in the state. Or, it might be known as the night McGregor cemented his legendary status with the promotion. However, in the long term, this might be remembered as possibly the best card the UFC has ever constructed. I did cringe at my colleague’s assumption that it remains intact all the way to fight night. If it doesn’t, I’m blaming you for jinxing it, Mr. Carey.
In all seriousness, though, we’re looking at an event lineup that features relevant bouts all the way to the evening’s leadoff hitters, Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian. When was the last time you could turn on a UFC event and say that you genuinely cared about each and every fight? UFC 200 was the only other one that came close, and even it didn’t seem to pack this much intrigue into one night.
This card is stacked with former champions, with Chris Weidman, Miesha Tate, Frankie Edgar and Rashad Evans all set to compete. Which one of these former titleholders has the best night and, more importantly, which one has the best chance at using the big stage to springboard themselves back into the title mix?
Henderson: Edgar will have the best night, but Tate will have the biggest springboard, assuming she wins.
Let’s remember that Edgar’s last fight was an interim title showdown against José Aldo in which Edgar performed admirably. Before the Aldo fight, the former UFC lightweight champion had scored a series of featherweight victories against top contenders Chad Mendes and Cub Swanson and top-tier fighters Urijah Faber, B.J. Penn and Charles Oliveira. That’s not too shabby of a winning streak bracketed by losses to Aldo. Now, he’s fighting Jeremy Stephens.
The power puncher Stephens is a much improved fighter who outworked Renan Barão recently, but this is still a guy who loses to the likes of the aforementioned Swanson and Oliveira. Edgar’s volume-based attack should allow him to score points in each round. He just needs to focus on head movement and footwork while not allowing Stephens to land any haymakers. Barão couldn’t adapt to the strategy Stephens employed, but Edgar should be able to do so without breaking much of a sweat.
Edgar is a perennial contender who will get another title shot as long as he keeps winning his non-title fights, but Tate will get back to the top in quicker fashion. Why? Well, the women’s bantamweight division has been a game of musical chairs at the top. Amanda Nunes beat Tate, who beat Holly Holm, who beat Ronda Rousey, who beat Tate. Now, Rousey is challenging Nunes to complete the circle of MMA life. If Rousey wins and chooses to continue to compete, then Tate might have a difficult time getting back into a title shot. Rousey vs. Tate is a pretty tired match-up, despite any new circumstances the UFC could spin into the equation. Yet, those new circumstances could lead to another showdown (after a somewhat easier sell of Rousey vs. Holm II, of course). If Nunes wins, then Tate, along with Holm, could have renewed hopes at a quick turnaround to another championship affair.
Carey: I’m completely on board with my colleague’s choice of Tate to jump right back into the thick of the title picture. “Cupcake” is a ridiculously good fighter and is marketable in a division where star power seems to matter just as much as any current winning streak. It’s easy to see her using a win on the big stage to put herself back in the mix. The pick for which one of these fighters is going to be most impressive is more difficult, but I’ll mix it up a bit and take a shot in the dark by picking Evans to turn some heads in his middleweight debut.
After suffering multiple knee injuries and having to sit out for over two years, Evans made his return to competition last fall. The results haven’t been what the former light heavyweight champion had hoped for, however. After dropping his return bout to Ryan Bader in October 2015, Evans suffered an even more high-profile defeat in his next outing when he was knocked out in under two minutes by Glover Teixeira in one of the worst performances of “Suga’s” career. Now looking to reinvent himself at 185 pounds, Evans will turn in a throwback performance on Saturday.
Evans may be heading into this bout against Tim Kennedy as the underdog, but I’m not convinced Kennedy is going to perform at his best while fighting for the first time in over two years following a hiatus of his own. Ring rust is very real, as Evans found this out first hand when he made his return last year. Kennedy has a good chance of running into some of it this weekend. This is a massive card and fighting someone like Evans on free TV is a tremendous opportunity even for a proven fighter like Kennedy. The former Army Ranger could either suffer an adrenaline dump or just run out of gas after not fighting for a few years.
The 37-year-old Kennedy has only been finished once in his 15-year career and in over 20 fights, but Evans adds a second knockout loss to that resume this weekend.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Carey: I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret… There is no sleeper fight on this card, just a whole bunch of good ones that everyone has ranked differently in their heads. So while I know you’re not sleeping on it, I will say that I’m extremely excited to watch Jim Miller and Thiago Alves go to war in the main event of the Fight Pass prelims. Alves is beautifully violent. Miller loves to get into a bloodbath. It’s going to be awesome.
Henderson: My colleague is correct in implying that this is a truly stacked card. By virtue of its depth, the only reasonable choice for a sleeper would be one of the earliest fights of the night. My fellow writer opted for Alves and Miller, but I’ll go for Liz Carmouche and Katlyn Chookagian.
The 32-year-old Carmouche has been in the cage with former champs Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. She has defeated Invicta champ Lauren Murphy and topped rising strawweight star Jessica Andrade in a bantamweight encounter. She beat Kaitlin Young and Valentina Shevchenko, and she’s been defeated by the likes of Marloes Coenen and Sarah Kaufman. In other words, Carmouche is a seasoned veteran and a tough test for any up-and-comer.
Chookagian is that up-and-comer. The New Jersey-based fighter entered the UFC with an unblemished mark through seven fights and worked her way to a decision nod over the aforementioned Murphy to claim victory in her Octagon debut. Chookagian is a strong fighter with a bright future, but she has to get through Carmouche to keep moving forward. If she emerges with the win in this one, Chookagian could be well on her way to bringing some fresh blood to the list of 135-pound female contenders.
Pair this card with…
Henderson: A celebration of the UFC’s arrival in New York. Cue up Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Pull up “Empire State of Mind” from Jay-Z and Alicia Keys on your iTunes playlist. The UFC is in New York. The card is stacked. It’s time to celebrate professional MMA’s long overdue arrival at Madison Square Garden.
Carey: Some New York style pizza, some drinks, and as many of your friends that enjoy the fights as possible. As hardcore MMA fans, too many of us spend Saturday nights watching random fights on Fox Sports 1 or shelling out $60 to watch one of the UFC’s more lackluster pay-per-view efforts alone. Not this weekend. Get the crew together and have a blast watching one of the best cards of all time.
|Fight||Carey’s Pick||Henderson’s Pick|
|Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)|
|LW Championship: Eddie Alvarez vs. Conor McGregor||McGregor||McGregor|
|WW Championship: Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson||Thompson||Woodley|
|Women’s StrawW Championship: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz||Jędrzejczyk||Jędrzejczyk|
|MW: Chris Weidman vs. Yoel Romero||Weidman||Romero|
|WW: Donald Cerrone vs. Kelvin Gastelum||Cerrone||Gastelum|
|Women’s BW: Miesha Tate vs. Raquel Pennington||Tate||Tate|
|Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)|
|FW: Frankie Edgar vs. Jeremy Stephens||Edgar||Edgar|
|LW: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Michael Johnson||Nurmagomedov||Nurmagomedov|
|MW: Rashad Evans vs. Tim Kennedy||Evans||Kennedy|
|WW: Belal Muhammad vs. Vicente Luque||Muhammad||Muhammad|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)|
|LW: Thiago Alves vs. Jim Miller||Alves||Alves|
|MW: Tim Boetsch vs. Rafael Natal||Natal||Natal|
|Women’s BW: Liz Carmouche vs. Katlyn Chookagian||Chookagian||Chookagian|