The month of March brings with it March Madness in college basketball, which is considered by many to be the best three weeks in all of sports. The UFC also likes to bring a little madness of its own during this time of year. Who can forget the crazy UFC 196 pay-per-view that took place around this time last year, when Nate Diaz shocked the world by choking out Conor McGregor and Miesha Tate embarked on an improbable comeback to dethrone Holly Holm? Now, the madness is back again in March, this time by way of UFC 209.
The event is headlined by two title fights that each has its own unique set of circumstances. The main event is a rematch for the welterweight title between champion Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. These two men met at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden last year and engaged in a hard-fought battle that ended in a majority draw. Both guys took each other’s best shots and each looked rocked on more than one occasion. Will “Wonderboy” finally taste UFC gold, or will “The Chosen One” keep his belt?
The co-headliner is once again a battle for one of the UFC’s newest preferred toys: an interim title. Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov will fight for the interim lightweight title, while actual champion Conor McGregor continues to focus more on publicizing a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, Jr., that will likely never happen. Ferguson is undefeated in his last nine fights and has only lost once overall since 2009. Nurmagomedov is undefeated in his career, period, but has only fought twice in roughly the last two years, with both of those fights coming in 2016.
The UFC 209 main card also features household names like Rashad Evans, Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt, as well as breakout fighters like Landon Vannata and Daniel Kelly. The UFC Fight Pass preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 4, with the Fox Sports 1 preliminary card starting at 8 p.m. ET and the pay-per-view main card starting at 10 p.m. ET. In the meantime, Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Vince Carey are here to get you ready for the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
After fighting to a majority draw in November, Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson will clash once more for the UFC’s welterweight title. Will this fight be dramatically different than their first meeting?
Carey: Woodley hits like his gloves are full of concrete. Thompson has one of the better highlight reels in the sport due to his ability to knock other men out cold. Therefore, the end result of this one could very easily end up looking dramatically different.
These guys are both finishers and have had 25 minutes of experience against each other in the cage. After a ridiculously close draw in November, things will be a lot more clear this time around. Thompson did a lot of good things in the first fight. He controlled the distance for the majority of the bout and kept Woodley on the feet. He was also able to avoid the champion’s power, outside of the disastrous near knockout in the fourth round. However, Woodley looked to have the fight won before he gassed himself out a bit looking for a finish, and he’ll get the job done more convincingly in the rematch.
The initial meeting between Woodley and Thompson was almost strictly a stand-up affair, with the lone takedown from Woodley coming early in the fight. The champ’s decision to go out and bang with “Wonderboy” was a bit surprising to some that thought he might try to use his wrestling advantage against the lifelong striker, but T-Wood more than held his own and landed the closest thing to a fight-ending shot as we saw in the fight when he connected with a vicious hook. After enjoying some success on the feet in the first meeting, there’s a good chance that Woodley will look to do a lot of the same in the rematch. Since Thompson wants to stay upright as well, we’re getting another striking battle this weekend. Woodley may mix in a few more takedowns than his lone effort in the last fight, but he won’t attempt to grind out the striker.
Going toe-to-toe on the feet with a striker as good as Thompson is dangerous, but the champ has fast hands, he hits hard, and he’s become a hell of a striker in his own right. Throw in that just the slightest mistake by Thompson could result in “Wonderboy” getting planted on his back, and it’s not hard to see why Woodley is a bit more challenging for Thompson to figure out than the striker’s victims of the past. After coming oh so close to getting the finish in the first meeting, Woodley’s hands get the job done the second time around in a knockout title defense for the welterweight kingpin.
Huntemann: Woodley will be a lot more aggressive in this fight. It seemed that he took Thompson a little too lightly in their first meeting. He still hit “Wonderboy” with some hard shots, but he didn’t truly respect Thompson’s skill set, and it almost cost him. Woodley quickly realized that Thompson is more than just a babyface. The dude has a legit skill set and, as we’ve seen before, he can unfurl some unexpected kamikaze finish out of nowhere.
Woodley’s newfound aggression will serve him well in this fight and allow him to leave no doubt as to whom the winner will be. Woodley will finish Thompson. When he hits you, you feel it. And you feel it hard. Furthermore, Woodley is coming into this fight with something to prove. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder and doesn’t think he’s getting the respect he deserves as one of the better champions in the UFC.
Thompson took Woodley to his limit in their first meeting. He is capable of doing it again. However, Woodley fights angry, like it’s his life mission to show everyone that he’s one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world. The rematch serves Woodley well. He’ll land that one hard shot that puts Thompson’s lights out and shows the world that Woodley is a man to be reckoned with.
With UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor on a leave of absence, the organization is adding another interim belt to the mix. The two men vying for the crown are Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. Who wins, and does either man stand a chance against McGregor in an eventual showdown?
Huntemann: I’ve made no secret of my loathing for the UFC’s newfound love of “interim” titles. I continue to be flabbergasted as to why UFC President Dana White feels the need to attach a title belt to everything. What happened to simply having No. 1 contender bouts? Have those become a thing of the past, all of the sudden? The UFC seems to be jumping on the “everyone gets a trophy” bandwagon and handing out interim titles like candy, thus quickly devaluing its actual title belts in the process.
OK, rant over. Since McGregor seems content to continue promoting his publicity stunt, er, proposed boxing match with Mayweather, we should probably just consider Ferguson/Nurmagomedov to be for the actual UFC lightweight title, since the winner seems more likely to defend it before McGregor defends the actual belt. I’ve been on the Ferguson bandwagon for a while now, and I’m thrilled that he’s finally getting a long-overdue title shot. So I see no reason to change my mind about him winning this fight.
Nurmagomedov deserves to be lauded for his undefeated record. It’s almost unheard of that a fighter makes it 24 fights into his MMA career without suffering a single loss. Nurmagomedov’s wrestling is second-to-none. His fight against Michael Johnson at UFC 205 was proof. He simply smothered Johnson to the mat and even at one point told Johnson to just give up to prevent suffering further indignity. Also, Nurmagomedov has wrestled bears in his past, allegedly, so you know he’s as tough as they come.
However, Ferguson has the tools to neutralize what Nurmagomedov does best. Ferguson has split his victories that have come via finish between nine knockouts and eight submissions. He can beat an opponent in many different ways. He hasn’t had a knockout finish since 2014, but he’s quick, elusive and hits hard and fast. He’ll use his striking to keep Nurmagomedov at bay, so he won’t be suckered into a wrestling match. Yet, Nurmagomedov is also too smart to get into a striking contest with Ferguson, so I expect this one to go all five rounds.
It’s Ferguson’s time to be champion, albeit an interim one. If or when Ferguson gets his shot at McGregor, it all depends if he can keep his cool and not get suckered into McGregor’s mind games. It’s probably what McGregor does best, and he’s used it to defeat many a fighter before they even step into the Octagon with “The Notorious.” Just ask José Aldo or Eddie Alvarez.
Carey: Before I say anything about the fight, I have to give my fellow panelist a round of applause for his little rant about the interim title problem the UFC has had the last few years. I could easily get caught up in the ridiculousness of the situation and go on a tangent myself, but I’ll just say I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Huntemann and leave it at that.
My colleague may be a longtime passenger on the Ferguson bandwagon, but I’ve been touting Nurmagomedov since he tossed around Kamal Shalorus in his UFC debut back in 2012. It’s finally time for the undefeated wrestler to get his hands on some UFC gold. Injuries basically killed two years of the Dagestani fighter’s career, but Nurmagomedov came back with a vengeance and picked up right where he left off: throwing dudes around the cage and basically “big-brothering” his opponents. The aforementioned Johnson is a solid lightweight — and the last man to beat Ferguson — but he was completely overwhelmed by Nurmagomedov’s grappling game. I can’t see how Ferguson avoids a similar fate.
“El Cucuy” has been excellent over the last few years and is getting a well deserved shot at gold here, but he’s never fought a grappler as good as Nurmagomedov before. Ferguson has a slick submission game, including a lethal d’arce choke that he’s been known to jump on if given the opportunity. He also possesses legit knockout power and some high-level striking. However, if this fight goes the distance, it’s hard to imagine that Nurmagomedov doesn’t score a takedown or two in at least three of the rounds. That’s all it will take for “The Eagle” to shut down an opposing fighter’s offense.
I’ve got Nurmagomedov by decision. If McGregor wants to step back into the cage again anytime soon, I’m leaning toward taking Nurmagomedov over the Irishman as well. We saw Chad Mendes have some success against McGregor by dragging him to the mat and putting in some work, and McGregor’s lone UFC loss to Diaz came on the mat as well. Nurmagomedov is always a double leg away from sending the fight into his world, but that’s not a place that McGregor wants to visit.
Daniel Spitz and Cynthia Calvillo — do we need to know these names?
Carey: There’s potential here in both cases, but since neither fighter has more than a handful of fights, it’s tough to gauge exactly how good Spitz and Calvillo can be.
Spitz is one of the rare heavyweights that prefers to take his opponents to the mat. It’s a strategy that’s done well for him thus far, as he’s earned over half of his career wins by submission. If he can get passed Mark Godbeer this weekend, then Spitz, who’s just 26 years old, could be someone to keep an eye on.
Calvillo is also one to watch. She’s 3-0 with a couple of knockout wins on her resume already. The 29-year-old Team Alpha Male member also holds an amateur win over the highly touted Aspen Ladd, the lone blemish of Ladd’s professional or amateur careers. This fight against Amanda Bobby Cooper, another fighter with potential, will be a good starting point in Calvillo’s Octagon career. She could make an impact.
Huntemann: Since Calvillo is a strawweight and Spitz is a heavyweight, it’s a tale of two divisions with these fighters.
The strawweight division is one of the deepest in the UFC, so it’s probably going to take a while for Calvillo to establish a name for herself if she gets past Cooper — which I think she will do.
On the other hand, the UFC’s heavyweight division is still in need of fresh talent, even with the emergence of guys like Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou. Spitz has a better chance of making an impact right away. It didn’t take long for Lewis and Ngannou to enter the heavyweight title conversation, so Spitz’s path to being a household name among UFC fans is just a wee bit shorter than Calvillo’s path.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 209?
Huntemann: Daniel Kelly. Save for an appearance at UFC 193, he’s mainly toiled away on those Fox Sports 1 Fight Night cards that start way too late on Saturday or Sunday nights. If you haven’t had the chance to see Kelly fight yet, you’re in for a treat. The veteran Aussie has only lost once in his career and scored impressive victories over Chris Camozzi and Antonio Carlos, Jr. Now he’s smack dab in the middle of a pay-per-view that boasts two title fights, and he gets to face Rashad Evans, one of the more well-known fighters of the last 10 years. This is a huge opportunity for Kelly to notch a proven name and former champion onto his belt.
Carey: While my colleague’s choice of Kelly is a pretty damn good one, I’m actually going with the Aussie’s opponent, “Suga” Rashad, as my big winner. I love watching Kelly fight, but his name isn’t exactly one you’d expect to see opposite a former world champion on a pay-per-view main card. Under normal circumstances, this fight might have felt like a missed opportunity for Evans. Just a few months ago it looked like “Suga’s” career could be in jeopardy. After fighting only twice in the last four years and having two bouts against Tim Kennedy called off late last year when he was unable to get medically cleared, Evans can notch a huge win just by getting back in the cage this weekend.
The biggest loser?
Carey: I can’t help but feel a little sorry for Lando Vannata, even though he’s making his pay-per-view debut this weekend. After putting on a barnburner of a fight against Tony Ferguson in his UFC debut last year and then scoring a “Knockout of the Year” contender over John Makdessi in his last outing, Vannata should be fighting someone a bit more substantial than David Teymur. Yes, Vannata may only be 1-1 in the UFC, but it’s a damn impressive 1-1. He’s a guy with star potential. Teymur has had a couple of good performances, but it would have been a lot more fun to see Vannata fight a borderline ranked opponent or a longtime vet.
Huntemann: I use the term “loser” loosely here, because I think he will win his fight, but I’m going with Mark Hunt. It’s through no fault of Hunt’s own, either. The guy just seems to be getting the short end of the stick lately from the UFC brass. He stepped up on short notice, like a good soldier, to face Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 last year. He ended up meeting a juiced-up Lesnar who was not subject to the same USADA testing protocol as other fighters.
Would Hunt have defeated Lesnar if Lesnar were clean? We don’t know. But it wasn’t an even playing field in that fight, that much is clear. Now Hunt is facing another fighter who’s had doping allegations follow him for much of his career in Alistair Overeem. Fortunately for Hunt, Overeem seemed to be humbled in his last fight when he was knocked out by UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. Hunt will take out his frustration on Overeem and stick it to the UFC by scoring another knockout victory.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Huntemann: The FS1 prelim fight between Luis Henrique and Marcin Tybura could bring about one of the more memorable finishes on this card. Henrique has won two in a row, both by submission, since losing his UFC debut to the uber-dangerous Francis Ngannou. Tybura is coming off a knockout victory of his own in his last fight, and anytime you get two big boys in the Octagon, the potential for something memorable happening increases exponentially.
Carey: How can you not love a prelim fight between undefeated, submission-specialist light heavyweights? Tyson Pedro is 5-0 with four of those wins coming by submission. Paul “The Bear Jew” Craig is in the running for best nickname in MMA and has a 9-0 record with eight wins coming by tapout. This has the potential to be a lot of fun. Since neither of these guys have ever hit the judges, it’s also likely to end in a finish. Count me in.
Pair this card with…
Carey: The fight between Woodley and Thompson at UFC 205. Heading into the rematch, why not watch the draw from last November? Isn’t that what the $10 Fight Pass subscription is for? Conor McGregor competed on the same card, and there was no clear winner between Woodley and Thompson. McGregor’s presence may have caused the fight world to overlook how good the welterweight title fight was that night. Do yourself a favor and give it another shot before watching the second chapter on Saturday.
Huntemann: Your favorite sports bar. Again, March Madness is upon us. So if you’re a college basketball fan (which you should be, because March Madness is awesome), then you’re likely going to spend quite a bit of time at your favorite watering hole anyway, watching the games. Why not also go there to watch what should be a good night of fights?
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW Championship: Tyron Woodley vs. Stephen Thompson
Interim LW Championship: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson
MW: Rashad Evans vs. Daniel Kelly
LW: Lando Vannata vs. David Teymur
HW: Mark Hunt vs. Alistair Overeem
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Marcin Tybura vs. Luis Henrique
FW: Mirsad Bektic vs. Darren Elkins
BW: Iuri Alcântara vs. Luke Sanders
HW: Daniel Spitz vs. Mark Godbeer
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
LHW: Paul Craig vs. Tyson Pedro
Women’s StrawW: Cynthia Calvillo vs. Amanda Bobby Cooper
BW: Albert Morales vs. Andre Soukhamthath
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