The UFC shouldn’t be short on excitement to open 2021.
The promotion will head back to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to kick off its January schedule, with three compelling main events in an eight-day span. And each of those fights has title implications.
Adding to the intrigue is that it’s a rematch of their UFC 178 fight in September 2014. They were up-and-comers then, and while Poirier has had a fantastic career, including winning the interim lightweight title, McGregor’s popularity and success skyrocketed not long after he finished Poirier in the first round.
The UFC begins 2021 with what should be a featherweight thriller: former champion Max Holloway taking on Calvin Kattar on Jan. 16, with the winner possibly earning a title opportunity. Four days later, the UFC could see a welterweight title challenger emerge.
Leon Edwards, who is No. 4 in ESPN’s welterweight rankings, is set to face sizzling prospect Khamzat Chimaev in a matchup that was originally scheduled for Dec. 19 but was postponed because Edwards tested positive for COVID-19.
MMA fans were pumped when this fight was originally scheduled, and how could you blame them? Edwards has won eight straight, and Chimaev blitzed his competition in his first three UFC fights late in 2020, making history in the process.
ESPN’s expert panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim discusses those fights and more, breaking down what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: The Fight Island main event I’m most excited about is McGregor vs. Poirier.
Doug Kezirian explains why Conor McGregor’s fans placing a wave of bets on him to beat Dustin Poirier is impacting the odds.
Okamoto: One hundred percent. And that is saying something, because I really do think Edwards vs. Chimaev is a perfect matchup. Edwards should have already gotten his chance at a title by now, but the one thing that has hurt him is recognition, getting fans to care about him. Chimaev is the opposite. He’s unproven, but he has the entire fight world talking about him in less than six months. I love the fight, and I have no idea how it’s going to go. But McGregor vs. Poirier 2 still overshadows it, for me, by a mile. And that’s because I am truly hopeful we could see McGregor pick up where he left off in 2016.
McGregor was so hot at the end of 2016. He had just won his second UFC championship in dominant fashion. He wasn’t the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, but he looked like he could be the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. It felt like he was on a special run … and then that run was interrupted by a cash-grab fight with Floyd Mayweather. I’ve always wondered what McGregor might have accomplished had he not left the sport for money and boxing in 2017. It feels like, finally, we might find out in 2021.
Real or not: The 18-month layoff will hurt Edwards.
Leon Edwards describes his “stressful” 2020, and he discusses his upcoming fight against Khamzat Chimaev.
Wagenheim: Yes, of course, ring rust is real. It will close the gap in what under other circumstances would seem to be a mismatch between a top-five welterweight and a raw competitor with just three UFC fights under his belt. But will the advantage swing toward Chimaev? That depends less upon Edwards’ inactivity and more upon how much of Chimaev’s talent lies in wait, as yet untapped.
The last time Edwards set foot inside the Octagon, on July 20, 2019, he defeated former UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos. It was his eighth straight victory, a run that also included wins over Donald Cerrone, Vicente Luque and other contender-level opposition. Chimaev, by contrast, has gone from MMA nobody to main-eventer in a hurry, making a big-splash UFC debut in July and posting two more spectacular victories within two months. None of those wins came against anyone even close to the level of Edwards, but in every one of those fights, Chimaev also looked to be several rungs up the ladder from his opposition. Who knows where his ceiling is?
Edwards has never before been on the shelf for a year and a half. But he is a veteran of 21 pro fights, the past dozen in the UFC, so he has demonstrated an ability to adjust at the highest level. It’s safe to assume that he won’t self-destruct on Jan. 20. What we don’t yet know: Is Chimaev a good enough fighter to do the destruction?
Real or not: Chimaev’s momentum slowed down due to the delay of his fight with Edwards.
Khamzat Chimaev needs 17 seconds and one punch to knock out Gerald Meerschaert at UFC Fight Night.
Raimondi: I mean, slowing the momentum of a rocket ship about to burst into the stratosphere — and beyond — isn’t easy. I’d say “not real” on this one. If you want to argue that Chimaev’s momentum went from a 15 out of 10 to a 10, OK, sure. You could say that. But we’re still talking about a man who went 3-0 in the latter half of 2020 and dominated to the point where he earned a bout with Edwards, one of the top contenders in the welterweight division. Had that bout with Edwards happened on Dec. 19 as planned and Chimaev won, the question wouldn’t be about the top prospect in the sport’s momentum being slowed. It would be about when he’d be fighting for a title.
Of course, that bout did not happen. Edwards tested positive for COVID-19, and the bout was rescheduled for Jan. 20. But I just don’t feel like anyone thinks much differently about Chimaev than they did moments after he starched Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds at UFC Fight Night in September. Chimaev was not only the most exciting new fighter to step into the Octagon in 2020, he was one of the most exciting fighters, period. Chimaev earned two wins over 11 days in July, a modern UFC record. He has put two divisions — middleweight and welterweight — on notice with his prodigious wrestling skills and knockout power. I suspect we’ll be talking plenty more about Chimaev in 2021, and it won’t be about how his momentum has slowed.
Real or not: Max Holloway is one win away from a trilogy fight with Alexander Volkanovski.
Max Holloway says that as a competitor, his UFC 251 loss to Alexander Volkanovski doesn’t sit right, and Holloway wants them to fight 10 times to prove he’s better.
Okamoto: Real. The UFC had interest in booking a trilogy between Holloway and Volkanovski right away, right after Volkanovski beat Holloway for the second time in July by unanimous decision. And I have to say, I was surprised the UFC wanted to do that. I understand there was some controversy around that fight — many observers felt Holloway won the rematch — but to book the same title matchup three times in a row? I didn’t think the UFC would go for that, but that was the plan until Volkanovski said he wanted a different challenge.
Holloway vs. Kattar is the first main event of 2021. It will attract a lot of eyeballs, and the timing lines up (Volkanovski is likely to defend his title against Brian Ortega in the first quarter of 2021). If Holloway and Volkanovski both win — and that’s a legitimate if, as Kattar and Ortega are both very, very good — then yes, I do think we’ll see the trilogy as the next 145-pound championship fight.
Real or not: Rob Font and Kattar will put the New England Cartel on the map in 2021.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) December 20, 2020
Raimondi: Absolutely real, and coach Tyson Chartier’s master plan has already begun. Font finished the year with a shocking knockout win over Marlon Moraes last weekend. Suddenly, Font went from being considered a solid fighter coming off ACL surgery to a newly christened, legitimate bantamweight contender. If that performance against Moraes was any indication, Font could be in for a huge 2021. He might already be just one or two wins away from a title shot. Then there’s Kattar, who went 2-0 in 2020, including an incredible elbow knockout of Jeremy Stephens. Kattar is already an elite featherweight fighter, and if he manages to beat Holloway on Jan. 16, we’ll likely be talking about him being next for the belt opportunity.
While Kattar and Font are already top-five-caliber talents in their division, the New England Cartel could have some more rising stars hit the scene in 2021. William Knight, one of the pound-for-pound strongest men in the UFC, is someone to watch in the light heavyweight division. Don’t be surprised if 22-year-old prodigy Mitch Raposo finds his way into the UFC at some point next year. The region will be cold this winter, but the New England Cartel is red-hot right now.
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