Saturday night is fight night. Every fan of mixed martial arts and boxing, not to mention the esteemed Sir Elton Hercules John, knows that.
But as the world pauses to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, combat sports and all other sports have shut down. For MMA fans, that means no top-shelf welterweight scuffle between former UFC champion Tyron Woodley and red-hot Leon Edwards this weekend in London, and no heavyweight fisticuffs next weekend (Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik) or the weekend after (Alistair Overeem vs. Walt Harris).
Just because there are no live fights happening, though, that doesn’t mean we have to give up the dizzying, heart-racing spectator feeling altogether. ESPN is filling Saturday — not just Saturday night, but starting at noon ET — with 11 hours of fighting. It’s a marathon presentation of some of the greatest clashes in UFC history.
This is a challenging time for the world, so hopefully a daylong flurry of phenomenal fighting will make some time pass more pleasantly.
ESPN, noon ET (as part of “UFC 25 Greatest Fights: Nos. 1-4,” airing from noon to 3 p.m.)
The setup: They fought to a split decision nearly two years earlier, with Lawler winning over two of the three judges. Since then, MacDonald has won three fights in a row to earn a shot at the welterweight title — against “Ruthless Robbie,” who by now is champion. MacDonald represents a new generation, fighters who are not rooted in one specific fighting discipline but instead started training in mixed martial arts right from the beginning. Is it time for a changing of the guard?
The moment to look for: It’s not during the fighting — it’s during what is supposed to be a rest period. It’s between the fighting. This bout is so violent that even just the lingering stare-down between Lawler and MacDonald right after the horn ending Round 4 sends chills down the spine.
The stat to take away (this one and those that follow were dug up by Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats & Information): This is the ninth title fight in UFC history to have a finish in the fifth round, the first in the welterweight division. It since has been joined by the Kamaru Usman-Colby Covington fight at UFC 245 in December. At the time of the stoppage, Lawler is losing 39-37 on all three judges’ scorecards.
ESPN, during the noon-3 p.m. ET window and again at 5:30 p.m.
The setup: Rua is one fight removed from a short reign as light heavyweight champion. He’s a veteran of the Pride Fighting Championships, where he won a middleweight grand prix. Henderson has even fancier credentials from the Japanese promotion: He reigned simultaneously at middleweight and welterweight, the only fighter to own two Pride belts at the same time. Henderson has had 36 previous fights, and Rua 25, and finally they will be unleashing their explosiveness in each other’s direction. “Shogun” proves himself to be a prophet by forecasting: “It’s going to be a violent fight, and the fans will be very happy.”
The moment to look for: Rua is bloodied in less than a minute, and several times over the first three rounds it appears that Henderson is on the verge of finishing him. But what does Henderson all but finish instead? The fuel in his own depleted gas tank, late in Round 3. Watch the tide turn.
The stat to take away: This is the first five-round non-title fight to go to decision in UFC history. In his third stint with the promotion, Henderson is in his first UFC fight since July 2009, when he knocked out Michael Bisping at UFC 100. After this one, promotion president Dana White calls it “without a doubt one of the top three best fights ever in MMA. I have so much respect for both of those guys to dig down that deep in a five-round fight. That was like our Ali-Frazier III. It was incredible.”
ESPN, during the noon-3 p.m. ET window and again at 4 p.m.
The setup: Conor McGregor takes on all comers. He demonstrated that mentality eight months earlier when, less than two weeks before he was to challenge for the featherweight title, champion Jose Aldo pulled out with an injury. Without hesitation, McGregor accepted a replacement opponent: Chad Mendes, a wrestler, precisely the style of foe considered to be Conor kryptonite. But the Irishman won by second-round knockout, and five months later he won the belt with a 13-second KO of Aldo. He was poised to become a two-division champ by challenging for Rafael dos Anjos’ lightweight belt. But once again, less than two weeks from fight night, an injury to the champ scuttled the title fight. McGregor welcomed Diaz to the cage instead, then began trading insults with him. It’s on brand for both men, just like the fight that follows.
The moment to look for: Not far into Round 2, McGregor shoots for a takedown. When the most precise and potent striker in MMA dives for the legs of a jiu-jitsu black belt with submissions in more than half of his career victories, it’s a signal that something has changed and things are about to — hey, watch your neck!
The stat to take away: Diaz scores his ninth UFC submission, tied for the fourth most in promotion history. The rear-naked choke victory is the only one of his career.
Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor II
March 5, 2016 (UFC 196)
ESPN, during the noon-3 p.m. ET window and again at 4:30 p.m.
The setup: McGregor loves money. But there were not enough greenbacks in all of Las Vegas to persuade him to fight anyone other than Diaz. Their first tangle left a sour taste, and while the “Notorious” one took that defeat with dignity and without excuses, all of his focus immediately shifted toward getting that loss back. Here’s his chance.
The moment to look for: Four seconds in, McGregor lands a leg kick. Four seconds later, he delivers another. He throws five of them before landing a punch. He’s attacking differently than last time, recognizing that others have used this technique successfully against Diaz. In the first fight, McGregor connected with seven of 11 significant strike attempts to the legs. In this fight, he’ll land 40 of 45.
The stat to take away: McGregor becomes the second fighter in UFC history to win at both featherweight and welterweight, joining Kenny Florian. He has since become one of only two fighters to win by KO/TKO in three divisions (adding lightweight, joining Jared Cannonier).
ESPN, 3 p.m. ET
The setup: As the fighters step into the cage, Johnson is the only men’s flyweight champion the UFC has ever known. He won the belt in a four-man tournament in 2011 and defended it 11 times, more than any champion in any weight class in UFC history. Among his conquests was Cejudo, who went into their 2016 meeting undefeated and hauling the weighty credentials of being a 2008 Olympic wrestling gold medalist and walked out as the fifth victim of a “Mighty Mouse” knockout. Cejudo lost his next fight, too, then won two in a row. Now he has come looking for his second shot at Johnson.
The moment to look for: There’s less than a minute to go in Round 1 when Cejudo shoots for a takedown. He doesn’t get it, but the attempt puts him in position to land a solid punch. This scenario will play out again and again. Cejudo, who was 1-for-1 on takedowns in the first meeting, attempts 11 on this night. He lands only three, but every attempt puts Johnson on the defensive in the eyes of the judges, who at the end of five rounds are split on the decision.
The stat to take away: Cejudo becomes the first fighter to defeat Johnson since Dominick Cruz on Oct. 1, 2011, a span of 2,499 days (six years, 10 months, three days). The title change is one of only three in UFC history by split decision (Robbie Lawler at UFC 181, Cruz at UFC Fight Night Boston).
ESPN, 5 p.m. ET
The setup: There is no setup, really. Jones has cruised through five light heavyweight title defenses at this point in his career, and Gustafsson is simply next in line. Despite his 15-1 record and six straight victories, the Swede is widely viewed as not so much a challenge for Jones but his next victim. This is not an indictment of Gustafsson’s ability; it has more to do with Jones’ preeminence. Pundits struggle to find a Gustafsson advantage other than that he’s … taller (6-foot-5 to Jones’ 6-4). Who knew what a tall task this fight will prove to be for the champ?
The moment to look for: With one minute to go in Round 1, Gustafsson puts Jones on the canvas not with a punch but with a double-leg takedown. It’s the first successful takedown against Jones in the UFC. It doesn’t lead to any ground-and-pound or submission tries, but it forces Jones to think beyond the striking matchup. A second moment worth noting: Late in Round 4, just as you begin to relax into the notion that there might soon be a new champion, keep your guard up, because Jones will spin around with an elbow that’ll change your mind. Or rattle it.
The stat to take away: Jones and Gustafsson combine to land 244 significant strikes, all of which come while on the feet, according to UFC Stats data. Gustafsson lands 110 significant strikes, which at the time is the most landed against Jones (since eclipsed by Dominick Reyes) and most for a title challenger in a loss (since eclipsed 12 times).
ESPN, 6 p.m. ET
The setup: Neither of these middleweight contenders wanted the other. They both had their aim set on the champion, Robert Whittaker. But Whittaker couldn’t remain healthy enough to defend his belt. So these two were booked for an interim title fight, the flashy star-in-the-making against the too-short meat-and-potatoes guy. Who could have expected the classic that these two will produce?
The moment to look for: As the fighters emerge from their corners for Round 5, Adesanya looks like a beaten man. He was wobbled by a head kick late in the fourth, stumbling against the cage with Gastelum in pursuit. “The Last Stylebender” was bloodied and exhausted. Somehow, he managed to change the narrative. Like a champ.
The stat to take away: Adesanya scores four knockdowns in the final round, becoming the third fighter in UFC history to get four in a round. Josh Emmett did so in October 2017, and Khalil Rountree Jr. achieved the feat against Eryk Anders in the fight right before Adesanya-Gastelum.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor
Oct. 6, 2018 (UFC 229)
ESPN, 7 p.m. ET
The setup: Pull up a chair. This might take a while. OK, here’s the short version: Nurmagomedov owns the lightweight championship, and McGregor once owned it, had it stripped while detouring through the boxing world (and then making a trip to the bank for a large deposit) and now wants the belt back. The longer version of this story includes props, such as a steel dolly and a bus filled with fighters.
The moment to look for: Fifteen seconds in, Nurmagomedov shoots for a takedown. Shocker, right? The thing is, this attempt happens not against the cage, his favorite spot. The fight is in the center of the Octagon, and McGregor clearly has prepared well for this moment. He fends off the takedown try, and the crowd roars. But Nurmagomedov remains glued to the leg he has grabbed, and more than 30 seconds later, despite McGregor’s best defensive efforts, the fighters are on the canvas, against the cage, with the champion on top. Same as it ever was.
The stat to take away: Nurmagomedov scores three takedowns and outlands McGregor on the ground 45-6, according to UFC Stats data.
Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz
Nov. 2, 2019 (UFC 244)
ESPN, 8 p.m. ET (main event of a three-hour presentation of eight fights from UFC 244)
The setup: Someone has to be the baddest, and neither of these guys wants to cede the honor. With no world championship on the line, the belt that is to be awarded to the winner is a symbol of supremacy only in a street-cred context. And that is what matters most to both of these guys. Oh, yeah, they’ll make a few bucks, too.
The moment to look for: Masvidal lands a lead elbow before the fight is a minute old, and when Diaz ducks away from a follow-up onslaught of punches and more elbows, “Gamebred” hurts and bloodies him with a kick to the face. Diaz’s vaunted resiliency will keep the fight going until the cuts above and below his right eye prompt the cageside doctor to advise that it would be unsafe for him to continue.
The stat to take away: Masvidal becomes the fifth welterweight in UFC history to win three fights in a calendar year by KO or TKO, joining Matt Hughes (2002), Matt Brown (2012), Mike Pyle (2012) and Donald Cerrone (2016).
The other UFC 244 fights to be broadcast: Andrei Arlovski vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik, heavyweight; Brad Tavares vs. Edmen Shahbazyan, middleweight; Corey Anderson vs. Johnny Walker, light heavyweight; Kevin Lee vs. Gregor Gillespie, lightweight; Derrick Lewis vs. Blagoy Ivanov, heavyweight; Stephen Thompson vs. Vicente Luque, welterweight; Kelvin Gastelum vs. Darren Till, middleweight. No spoilers, but let’s just say the majority of these bouts are going to end by knockout. Enjoy, and stay safe.
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