At this point, 24 years after it held its very first event, the UFC is no longer a rough-and-tumble spectacle with fighters who scrap in the hospital after their official bout and champions who shit on featured sponsors in the octagon. After being sold for $4 billion last year, the promotion has continued to try and streamline itself and smooth over its roughest edges, and even if their biggest draw is a kooky Irish madman who talks evil shit, the UFC is still trying to edge underwear fighting towards the mainstream. More money has softened the sport’s wilder personalities, but on a purely sporting level, the mixed martial arts are incredibly good right now.
There’s no better example of that than UFC 214, which takes place tomorrow in Anaheim. It’s easily the best card of the year, and probably the best since UFC 205. You likely know that the main event is the long-anticipated rivalry fight between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier for the light heavyweight belt and the very soul of both men. It’s going to be an incredible orgy of violence, and unlike the last time they were supposed to fight, both men made weight and neither man took off-brand Cialis for their, ahem, “huge cock.”
But that’s just one of the many fights worth giving a shit about on the card! Even after the strongest man alive had his bout with John Makdessi called off, UFC 214 has a children’s treasury of intriguing fights on the card.
Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia (Welterweight Title Fight)
The co-main event is a strange little clash of styles. Maia is 39 years old, has fought most people worth fighting at welterweight and middleweight over the last eight years, and is one of the last true jiu-jitsu specialists remaining in the UFC. He’ll bob his head and catch dudes with the occasional combination, but his game is all about grappling and turning himself into the most annoying possible backpack of an opponent. When he fought Jorge Masvidal at UFC 211, each round went sort of the same: The striker would try and land as much as possible before Maia inevitably pounced on Masvidal and squeezed him like an anaconda as Masvidal tried in vain to escape. Maia didn’t get the finish, but he drained his opponent’s ability to fight back.
The difference between Woodley and someone like Masvidal is that Woodley is liable to knock Maia’s head off with a big right hand any time the Brazilian tries to shoot a takedown. The welterweight champ won the belt by making Robbie Lawler see stars, and while he’s a perfectly fine wrestler, he’s not going to outgrapple Maia. His tendency to back up against the fence helps him set up his favorite punch combo, but Maia is deadly against the edge of the cage, so Woodley might not even want to try to set one of those up.
If Woodley keeps the fight off the fence and lands the right a few times, Maia is probably fucked. If the fight goes longer than three rounds, Maia might also be fucked. Woodley is the favorite (rightly so) and seeing as how he’s already 35, he wants to leverage his championship belt into a money fight or two before he hangs his gloves up. It’s not that he doesn’t respect Maia, exactly, he just sees himself in a different stratosphere. That’ll go out the window if Maia can grab his legs and squeeze his head off, and watching him try to get close enough to do so will be entertaining as hell. Woodley’s not invincible, and there’s nothing as frustrating as fighting against a jiu-jitsu master.
Cris Cyborg vs. Tonya Evinger (Women’s Featherweight Title Fight)
Evinger is the former Invicta bantamweight champ with a 19-5 record heading into her UFC debut. She’s good! However, the point of this fight is to see Cyborg wreck shit. She’s won 17 straight fights and the last 11 have been knockouts. (I’m counting a TKO win that was later overturned after she popped a positive here.) She’s so terrifying to fight that Germaine de Randamie gave up her belt to avoid facing her.
Can Evinger counter Cyborg’s relentless, violent pursuit of a 12th knockout? I doubt it! Lot of good punches to be had in this fight.
Robbie Lawler vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (Welterweight)
Robbie Lawler has been fighting in the UFC since the Mesozoic era and yet he’s somehow never fought against fellow lifer Cowboy Cerrone, despite the UFC trying to make the fight three times and despite Cerrone having gone through years-long stretches where he fought every three weeks or so. Lawler is as liable as anyone in the company to give fans a gory splatter-fest, and his five-round war against Rory MacDonald is about as good and brutal as a MMA fight can possibly be. The most nauseating part of this nauseating sport is when a fighter is broken and clearly hurt and yet keep pushing into the fray for more. Few fighters throw themselves towards danger as lustily as Lawler does, even though he’s been doing this for 16 years.
Neither man has the chin they once did, but this is a pure action fight. Cerrone is a world-class troll and a crowd pleaser who will do cool kicks, try to keep Lawler at range, and could pull off some grappling moves much more sophisticated than you might think a guy who both is and is pretty interested in convincing you he is a brawler out of some back alley is capable of; Lawler, while he’s become a far more technically-refined striker over the years, is essentially a caveman. Simply put, they will give you what you want. This doesn’t feel like a fight that will go the distance, and given the probable density of strikes, that’ll be just fine.
Jimi Manuwa vs. Volkan Oezdemir (Light Heavyweight)
UFC organizers slapped an extra light heavyweight fight on the card in case Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier missed the fight due to some last minute drama. Both former champions made weight, which means Manuwa and Oezdemir will fight after all, and it should be plenty entertaining on its own.
Oezdemir and Manuwa are both strikers by nature, and while Oezdemir is a very weak wrestler, Manuwa hasn’t landed a takedown in four years. Each man has a win over Ovince Saint Preux on his résumé, and the winner of this one should be in line to lose to the winner of Cormier vs. Jones sooner or later. Oezdemir only has two fights in the UFC, but he’s a dangerous kickboxer with knockout power. The last time Manuwa fought, he delivered this tremendous one-punch knockout.
For the fifth fight on a PPV card, a brawl between top-five contenders (both of whom are looking for knockouts at all times) is not bad at all.
The true depth of UFC 214, however, is the free FXX prelim card. The most entertaining MMA fights are evenly-matched bouts held between fighters who want to stay on their feet. Wrestling is fine, but it’s less thrilling to see someone grind their opponent into the mat than watch them go for head kicks and boxing combinations. This tends to happen more at the lower weight classes too, and even then, it’s more entertaining to watch smaller people throw a higher volume of strikes than it is to have to watch heavyweights lumber around. Thankfully, the four fights on the preliminary card are all just about perfect.
Three of the four fights are at featherweight and the fourth is at 140 pounds (halfway between bantamweight and featherweight), thanks to some weirdness with Renan Barão’s weight cut. Barão is the former bantamweight champ who is fighting up five pounds because the California State Athletic Commission won’t license him at 135 pounds due to of a nasty weight cut back in 2014, where he cut too much weight and was hospitalized after woozily smashing his head on a bathtub. He used to be an unrelenting pressure fighter, although he’s slowed down a bit over the past few years. Sterling has only fought above 135 pounds once, but he’s no joke. He’ll try and wrest Barão to the mat, which he’ll probably have some trouble with, since Barão has never been taken down in his UFC career and he throws hard in the pocket. Still, if Sterling can get the win, it’d be the biggest of his career.
As for the featherweights, Andre Fili and Calvin Kattar, who are both big for the weight class, kick things off before Brian Ortega and Renato Moicano square off.
Both Moiocano and Ortega are top-ten featherweights, both are still young, and, most critically, both are undefeated. Moicano is probably the better fighter and definitely the better wrestler, although Ortega has scored a pair late knockouts in his UFC career. Whichever fighter wins is probably going to earn a fight against one of the bigger names in the division.
Speaking of those bigger names in the division, the final fight of the FXX card sees Ricardo Lamas take on surging contender Jason “Hick Diaz” Knight. Lamas is wily and tough, and he’ll pounce on any openings that Knight gives him. Knight will not be shy about mixing it up, and he’s earned his nickname by taking shots and chattering at his opponents in the cage while they smack him around. He does not appear to give a fuck, and this is a fight where both men will knock the stuffing out of each other.
This fight’s free, but it could easily be on the main card. In fact, any of these four fights would be a worthy early fight on a PPV card, which is wild considering how delectable the main five fights will be. With three of them potentially slated for five rounds, this could be one of the longer events as well. If you buy one UFC card this year, make it this one. It won’t get any better.