Ranking the fights at UFC 303: With no McGregor-Chandler, who steps up?

The date of UFC 303 has been circled on many a calendar for months. Even sports fans who rarely watch an evening of mixed martial arts had made plans to do just that on June 29, if only for the pomp and spectacle. This coming weekend was slated to be the long-anticipated return of Conor McGregor, by far the brightest star in MMA, a crossover phenomenon familiar even to folks who don’t know a front kick from a rear-naked choke.

But at the beginning of this month, everything went sideways. The UFC had scheduled a June 3 news conference in McGregor’s hometown of Dublin to promote his comeback fight with Michael Chandler, then abruptly canceled the event that morning without explanation. For more than a week, there was silence from the fight promotion while fan speculation ran rampant through potential scenarios. Finally, on June 13, the UFC announced that McGregor was injured and would no longer headline UFC 303.

Devotees of gaudy extravaganza were inconsolable, no doubt, but for hard-core MMA fans, there was a consolation prize: an upgraded main event.

Yes, it’s true that neither light heavyweight champion Alex Pereira nor his challenger, former champ Jiří Procházka, is in McGregor’s league in terms of fame or infamy. But the McGregor who was to fight at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas this weekend is similar to Elvis from the Vegas years, still riding idolization built upon his virtuosity and panache from a long-gone era. The new UFC 303 headliners, by contrast, are at the top of their game. Pereira is possibly the most “anytime, anyplace, anyone” fighter in the sport, as evidenced by his agreeing to put his belt on the line against the dangerously avant-garde Procházka on two weeks’ notice. If there were BMF power rankings, Pereira would push high on the list.

Before ruling the UFC’s 205-pound weight class, Pereira reigned at middleweight. Before that, he was a two-division kickboxing world champ. That’s a lot of achievement for someone with just eight Octagon appearances. How new to the game is Pereira? The guy he’s replacing, McGregor, last fought in July 2021. Pereira didn’t make his UFC debut until four months after that.

Saturday’s reinvigorated main event is a rematch of the fiery fight last November in which Pereira won the belt. It was tightly contested and swung in both directions — mostly toward Procházka, honestly — before Pereira landed a left hook counterpunch in Round 2 that was the beginning of the end. Speaking of beginnings, though: The most spine-tingling highlight came during prefight introductions, when the fighters stood in their corners staring across the cage at each other, neither man moving a muscle. If Pereira and Procházka can bring that chilling energy again Saturday, we’re in for a good one.

Several storylines will play out at UFC 303. Here are the most intriguing, framed as questions to be answered on fight night.

1. It’s the right fight, but is it the right time?

Light heavyweight championship: Alex Pereira vs. Jiří Procházka 2

A lot of praise has been heaped upon UFC CEO Dana White and right-hand man Hunter Campbell for resuscitating this fight card after McGregor’s devastating withdrawal, and I’m not here to deny that the UFC brass responded heroically.

But as much as there is to love about the replacement main event, I have a queasy feeling about the timing. I would prefer that fighters in a bout with major stakes, such as a championship, have a full training camp to prepare. Two weeks is not enough time for us to be assured that both men will enter the cage at their best.

What slightly alleviates my concern is that these fighters shared the Octagon just seven months ago. They’re familiar with each other and knew this rematch would come someday. And in the case of a fight against Procházka, would even an extended camp ensure that one is prepared for his gung-ho brand of unpredictability, anyway? Still, this is a rare case where MMA would be better off — for the level of competitiveness and ultimately the fans — if it were more like boxing, which operates on the fighters’ calendars, not the promoter’s.

Having said all of that, I’m ready to strap in for a Plan B that’s Grade A all the way. Let’s go.

2. Will there be enough room in the cage to fit all the showmanship?

Welterweight: Ian Machado Garry vs. Michael “Venom” Page

Fights appeal to us for a wide array of reasons. There are bouts where a shiny belt is on the line or an imminent shot at a strap is up for grabs. There are fights where trash talk sucks us in and also the Justin Gaethje-style matchups that spew no mean words, just promise wall-to-wall violence. And then there’s this matchup right out of a video game.

I like to think of a main card opener as setting the tone for what’s to follow. And while I don’t expect anyone on the pay-per-view card to fight like Garry or MVP, I believe these two will be influencers. Both men are creative and aggressive strikers, although they approach the stand-up art from different angles. Both are offensively minded while remaining defensively sound. That suggests this will be an action fight with twists and turns, a tough act to follow.

And if Garry makes his strong leg kick game a difference-maker, it could foreshadow how Pereira approaches the main event.

3. Can we count on this fight to signal a resumption of active duty?

Featherweight: Brian Ortega vs. Diego Lopes

Ortega has competed just five times since 2018, and he’s lost three of those fights. But the first two defeats came in UFC title challenges against Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski. The other loss happened because of an injury, when Ortega dislocated his shoulder during a 2022 meeting with Yair Rodriguez and could not continue. After a year and a half of recovery, Ortega returned in February and choked out Rodriguez in a rematch.

So, numbers don’t tell the whole story of Ortega’s recent career. But five fights in nearly six years? This meeting with Lopes, a prospect who has won five of his last six bouts, will serve as a measuring stick that should let us know whether “T-City” still has residency in Contenderville.

4. Have any 205-pounders not been booked in this fight?

Light heavyweight: Anthony Smith vs. Roman Dolidze

Resilience is necessary for an MMA fighter, and the same is true for an MMA matchmaker.

That attribute was shown in the spruced-up rebooting of the main event, but this fight has taken the flexibility and resolve of UFC executives to a whole different level. Originally, the UFC 303 co-main event was scheduled to pit former light heavyweight champ Jamahal Hill against Khalil Rountree Jr. A fight like that — contested between contenders in the same weight class as the main event — serves as a safety net, providing a fallback plan if one of the headliners should drop out.

But the safety net became frayed when Rountree withdrew and was replaced by Carlos Ulberg. Then Hill pulled out as well, and Smith was inserted to face Ulberg — until Ulberg dropped out and was replaced by Dolidze. This dizzying turn of events left the safety net in tatters.

This could be a fun scrap, but I’m reluctant to say much about it because several days remain before fight night. Who knows whether the game of musical chairs is over?

5. What kind of presence will the man who isn’t there be?

Conor McGregor vs. an uncertain future

There’s been no indication that McGregor will be in attendance at UFC 303, but at the very least, he will be a ghostly, overshadowing presence. That will be the case even if the T-Mobile Arena video screens and UFC telecast do not make reference to his absence or future. When announcing McGregor’s withdrawal two weeks ago, White barely mentioned him before quickly moving on to who was going to fight. Of course, the UFC CEO’s focus that day was to sell tickets and pay-per-views, and dwelling upon what fans were not going to see wouldn’t have been the shrewdest marketing strategy.

But if UFC 303 passes without a word about the biggest star in the company, it could be interpreted as a premonition of what is to come — or not come — in a sport that misses his star power. By Saturday night, when McGregor should be walking out to the tin whistle splendor of “The Foggy Dew,” he instead will be just 11 days shy of three years since he last fought. How far into his fourth year of inactivity will it be before he returns? Will he return?

If I had to guess, McGregor will spend Saturday night with a pint of his stout in one hand and his tweeting device in his other. He might be gracious in his praise for some, and he likely will have harsh things to say about others. But rest assured that this will not fully be the UFC 303 headliners’ night. Conor McGregor has never been one to relinquish the spotlight.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top