The MMA mountaintop could have new occupants in 2020.
Saturday’s UFC 245 event in Las Vegas brings us a trio of title bouts, as welterweight champion Kamaru Usman meets nemesis Colby Covington, featherweight champion Max Holloway looks to become the first fighter to defeat Alexander Volkanovski inside the Octagon, and bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes has to defeat Germaine de Randamie a second time to continue her reign.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Usman and Covington. This is Usman’s first title defense since dethroning Tyron Woodley in March, and he’s been on a collision course with Covington ever since. Their personalities couldn’t be more different; Usman presents himself as the confident, yet humble champion, and Covington embraces his role as a polarizing figure that’s drawn plenty of attention and criticism for his over-the-top, right wing persona. Their fight is not just a battle for gold – nay, it may be a battle for the soul of America itself.
(Or they’re just fighting for money. It could be that too.)
Holloway didn’t miss a beat in his return to 145 pounds after he failed to capture the interim lightweight championship in April. He comfortably outpointed Frankie Edgar at UFC 240 to bring his featherweight winning streak up to 14. If he wants to extend that, he has to stop Volkanovski, who himself has won an impressive 17 straight. That streak includes a 7-0 start to the Australian’s UFC career and wins over two-time champion Jose Aldo as well as three-time title challenger Chad Mendes. He’s as dangerous as any challenger that Holloway has faced, and if there’s anyone still overlooking Volkanovski, they could be in for a shock on Saturday night.
The evening’s first title fight might look like a mandatory title defense for Nunes, who arguably is the most dominant champion in MMA today. But De Randamie has earned a second shot at defeating “The Lioness.” De Randamie hasn’t lost since Nunes beat her six years ago, and in that time, she picked up her own gold in 2017 to become the inaugural UFC women’s featherweight champion. She remains one of the UFC’s best standup fighters, and given her accolades in kickboxing, should she win a world title in another division, it would reshape the narrative of where she belongs among the all-time combat sports greats.
In other main card action, Aldo drops down to 135 pounds (gulp) to fight No. 1 contender Marlon Moraes, and bantamweight blue-chipper Petr Yan looks to add “The California Kid” Urijah Faber to his hit list.
What: UFC 245
Where: T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas
When: Saturday, Dec. 14. The four-fight early preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET and will air on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
They don’t come more evenly matched than this.
While it’s fun for fans to say things like, “Kamaru Usman is going to annihilate Colby Covington,” or “Colby Covington is going expose ‘Marty Fakenewsman,’” the truth is these two are perfectly designed for a five-round world title fight. Their cardio is top notch, they’re two of the best wrestlers at 170 pounds, and they’ve both improved a lot as strikers during their time in the UFC.
While I wouldn’t favor either man to win a Glory kickboxing tournament, there’s no denying the amount of pressure these fighters put on their opponents with their volume striking. Usman made Tyron Woodley’s punching power a non-factor when they fought and Covington outclassed Robbie Lawler in a standup battle, which would have been an absurd notion until you actually saw it happen.
This fight will feature both men in each other’s faces for its duration, with neither wanting to show the slightest hint of weakness. All it will take is a brief opening to land a few significant strikes, and it may only take one big flurry to steal a round, given how close the action is likely to be. The reach measurements favor Usman, but given Covington’s ability to close the distance, that may be a non-factor.
When it comes to fighting, and how their careers have progressed, these two have a lot more in common than they’d like to admit. It’s almost a shame there’s so much manufactured drama in their rivalry, because in a perfect world, just the competitive aspect would be enough to sell this fight.
Covington made the decision a long time ago that it wasn’t, and now it’s time for him to put his money where his big mouth is. I think he gets it done.
How soon is now?
Where you stand on Alexander Volkanovski’s chances of upsetting Max Holloway depends on how highly you view Volkanovski as a championship contender. If you think it’s inevitable that he someday wins a UFC title, then why can’t it be this weekend? Why can’t he be the first fighter to beat Holloway at 145 pounds since Conor McGregor? “The Great” has all the skills we associate with a UFC champion: Speed, cardio, strong striking, wrestling, creativity. So why not now?
Because it’s Max friggin’ Holloway, that’s why.
As well-rounded as Volkanovski is, we’ve yet to see if he has that extra gear to excel in the championship rounds. It’s not to say he can’t, but he’s never had to go to a fifth round. And we have an abundance of evidence that Holloway does. There are few fighters that can match Holloway’s output for 25 minutes, and though the reach measurements surprisingly favor Volkanovski, they don’t take into account how effective Holloway is at using kicks to establish distance and punish his opponents.
The threat of the takedown will do wonders for Volkanovski’s chances. Even if he only manages to press Holloway against the cage, every second spent there is one where Holloway isn’t utilizing his killer jab and Volkanovski can fire away with short strikes. Of course, Holloway is also excellent in the clinch, so Volkanovski can’t hang around in that position unless he wants to get sliced up with elbows and uppercuts.
Volkanovski has plenty of tricks in his arsenal, and his willingness to take risks bodes well for him as long as he stays confident. The more he can mix things up, the longer he can keep Holloway from settling into a rhythm. That’s easier said than done when you have Holloway breathing fire in your face.
This will be a fun one, with the two fighters alternating the role of predator and prey throughout. But it’s Holloway who will dictate the pace for the most part, and despite Volkanovski’s best efforts, he’ll fall just short on the scorecards.
Let’s make one thing clear: In a straight standup fight, Germaine de Randamie has a chance against anyone.
De Randamie’s abbreviated run at 145 pounds arguably did more harm for her reputation than good, if only because some were less than convinced by her foul-blemished championship win over Holly Holm and her unwillingness to fight Cris Cyborg. That’s fair. Just keep in mind that perception has little to do with how “The Iron Lady” actually performs on fight night.
She’s one of the toughest outs at bantamweight, a veteran who’s soundly dismissed up-and-comers like Aspen Ladd and Raquel Pennington. Unlike Cyborg, she’s not going to rush into a brawl with Amanda Nunes, because 1) she’s too smart to turn a championship fight into a toss-up, and 2) she really doesn’t have the power to just be standing and trading shots in this matchup.
This will be a test of technique, one that Nunes may be tempted to take if she’s truly dedicated to becoming a standup specialist. That happens sometimes with champions; they become obsessed with showing everyone they can win not just on their terms, but those of their opponents. In fairness to Nunes, she hasn’t been proven wrong yet. She absolutely demolished Holm and Cyborg, two fighters who were considered superior strikers on paper.
What’s really working in Nunes’s favor is that she has the option to take this to the mat, and once there, it’s only be a matter of time until she submits or punches De Randamie into oblivion. That’s essentially how their first fight played out. As experienced as De Randamie is, her ground game remains rudimentary.
This one will be fun while it lasts, but once Nunes gets tired of playing around (and eating De Randamie’s precise punches and kicks), she’ll wise up, take De Randamie down, and finish with ground-and-pound.
Look, Jose Aldo is a grown man, and he knows his body better than any of us do. If he feels he can safely drop down to bantamweight, that’s his decision, and we should respect it.
But we don’t have to like it. I absolutely hate it. I hate that he’s going down in weight instead of up. I hate that he feels the need to do this because of how the UFC works, where once you get to the top, there’s nowhere else to go but down, and it’s not good enough for us –or him, apparently – to just have a legend stick around in his proper weight class and take fun fights and cash checks. I hate that this kind of extreme weight cutting still exists as we head into the year 2020.
I don’t hate Marlon Moraes, and even if Aldo does and says all the right things as he self-emaciates, this should be an easy win for Moraes – well, as easy as a win can be when you’re facing one of the five greatest pro mixed martial artists of in history – over a depleted Aldo.
Moraes by second-round knockout.
Petr Yan is exactly the kind of new generation, multi-faceted striker that always gives Urijah Faber problems, and I’m expecting him to pick up a lopsided win over “The California Kid” here.
At 40, Faber still brings a lot to the table. His wrestling is as sharp as ever, and the man can still crack if you get careless, as Ricky Simon learned the hard way in July. Faber is no sitting duck, and if Yan makes the same mistake as Simon, rushing in at the first hint of vulnerability, he could end up becoming another chapter in Faber’s storied legacy (not that Yan seems all that impressed by Faber’s accomplishments).
But this is Yan’s fight to lose. He has good takedown defense, at least enough to prevent Faber from simply rushing him down and controlling him on the ground, and power in both hands. He also knows his way around a leg kick, a technique that has given Faber nightmares in the past. Add in the speed advantage, and you can see why Yan is such a heavy favorite.
I’d be surprised if Yan can actually finish Faber, but I’d be even more surprised if Faber finds a way to stifle yet another would-be contender.