Despite a few last-minute fallouts in recent years, the first weekend in July is typically set up by the UFC to produce one of its biggest cards of the calendar year.

Taking place during International Fight Week, during a three-day stretch that also includes Ronda Rousey’s induction into the UFC Hall of Fame and what could be the last “The Ultimate Fighter” finale, UFC 226 on Saturday is no different with a pair of title fights taking center stage.

Let’s take a closer look at the biggest headlines and stories entering this star-studded show from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

1. Daniel Cormier’s alternate route to immortality. There’s little question that Cormier, the UFC’s light heavyweight champion, is already on his way to a Hall of Fame climax shortly after he decides to call it a career. But when it comes to entering that upper room of mixed martial arts royalty that is typically reserved for those who reside within the G.O.A.T. conversation, Cormier may have found his only possible route that doesn’t include a win over heated rival Jon Jones as a prerequisite. While a victory by Cormier in Saturday’s main event against heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, which would make him just the fifth two-division champion in UFC history (and second to do so simultaneously) doesn’t necessarily guarantee DC would enter said discussion, it certainly would help him fill the Jones-sized hole in his resume. In one night, Cormier has a chance to rewrite the first line of his own legacy from “career B-side and bridesmaid of Jones” to one of the greatest big men in history. 

2. Miocic quietly marches on. He may not be the best advocate for his own greatness as a blue-collar and largely unassuming champion, but Miocic continues to build what is becoming one of the best reigns in UFC heavyweight history. His three consecutive title defenses are already a UFC record and Miocic now enters a chance to record what would likely be the best victory on his resume. Miocic may not be flashy or braggadocios but with power in both hands and a resiliency to take punishment and power forward, he continues to quietly distance himself from other greats the division has produced.

Can’t get enough UFC? Subscribe to my podcast In This Corner with Brian Campbell where we break down everything you need to know in the Octagon.

3. Is there a ceiling to Brian Ortega’s potential? It has been quite an impossible journey for Ortega — the unbeaten submission specialist who has done nothing but win and defy expectations since joining UFC in 2014. The native of Southern California escaped a life of crime and a difficult upbringing when he began training jiu-jitsu with Rener Gracie, and his evolution into a title-contending fighter has been nothing short of impressive. A challenge like featherweight champion Max Holloway, himself on the verge of breaking out as UFC’s next rising star, should be a difficult one. Ortega, who shockingly stopped former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar via first-round knockout in March after Holloway got hurt, will need to prove he has five-round championship stamina along with elite striking to match his submission base. 

4. The evolution of Francis Ngannou must begin now. Can the Cameroonian slugger prove he’s more than just a one-punch knockout artist? He’ll need to in Saturday’s “get-well” offering against Derrick Lewis, which could strangely prove to be a de facto No. 1 contender’s bout considering the division’s glaring lack of depth. The bout is Ngannou’s first since a humbling decision loss to Miocic in January when “The Predator” entered as the trendy betting favorite and exited as a one-dimensional fighter who was not ready for prime time. If the 6-foot-4 menacing puncher can learn from defeat and continue to evolve, then the 31-year-old will likely see multiple chances at claiming gold in the future. 

5. Step-up bouts for Gohkan Saki, Paulo Costa could provide glimpse of future. Saki, a highly decorated kickboxer from the Netherlands, enters just his third pro MMA bout and second since his first-round KO of Henrique da Silva in his UFC debut last fall. The 34-year-old light heavyweight should receive a quick push should he get past Khalil Rountree Jr. and could prove to be an interesting addition to a thin division. Meanwhile at middleweight, it’s time to find out just how good Brazilian Paulo Costa really is. The chiseled unbeaten prospect known as “The Eraser” is 3-0 since his UFC debut in March 2017 and is fresh off a convincing second-round TKO of former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks. Up next is the always dangerous Uriah Hall in the preliminary card main event, which could prove to be a worthy showcase for Costa should he be victorious. 


Source link