Ariel Helwani on Dominick Cruz's future, the heavyweight title picture and UFC 249
Not sure if you've heard, but there is an actual UFC event happening this weekend.
UFC 249 is the promotion's first show in almost two months, and it's the first major sporting event to happen in the United States since mid-March.
I think the excitement for this card in Jacksonville, Florida, is twofold:
1. It is a really good card on paper. Top to bottom, every fight has some intriguing storyline attached to it, and that hasn't always been the case.
2. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. I have long advocated for the UFC to hold fewer events. Not because I dislike watching MMA events -- obviously, I don't -- and not because I dislike covering them, but because if you see the way stick-and-ball-sports-league fans react when their team returns from the offseason, you can't help but wonder how UFC fans would react after a two- or three-month break. It has been years since the UFC had a break like this, so we haven't been able to test this theory. But now, I think what the brass will realize is a little pause in the action makes the fan long for the product just a little more and lets you tell stories a little better.
Do I think this becomes the norm moving forward? Obviously not. But it has been interesting to monitor, and it has confirmed what I have always believed, which is that a break would serve everyone well.
In any event, that break is over. The UFC is back.
And that means there are a lot of things on my mind, so without further ado ...
1. If Dominick Cruz loses this fight Saturday to Henry Cejudo, is there a chance he calls it a career? He hasn't told me this, but I wouldn't be surprised. Cruz has made no secret of the fact that he was interested in a title fight after his recent long layoff and nothing else, so if he loses to Cejudo, will he be motivated to climb that ladder again? One wonders.
2. I've been asked a bunch of times recently: What is truly at stake for the winner of Saturday's main event involving Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje? Is it really Khabib Nurmagomedov? Or is it Conor McGregor? Does the loser get McGregor? Does McGregor want the loser? When will McGregor be able to fight again? How about Nurmagomedov?
So many questions attached to this one fight, right?
How about this: Let's just enjoy what should be a phenomenal matchup between two of the most exciting fighters of all time. Honestly, other than a freak accident like a low blow early or an eye poke, can you foresee any scenario where this fight doesn't deliver? I can't. Let's enjoy it and worry about what's next for the winners and losers next week, OK?
3. Speaking of McGregor, there are no real talks regarding his return to action just yet, but his head coach, John Kavanagh, told me that their gym, SBG Ireland, will reopen on Aug. 10. So, some light emerges at the end of the tunnel.
4. There's an interesting dilemma brewing at heavyweight.
Here's where we stand:
Cormier was in, Miocic was likely in but had not fully agreed yet because of his eye injury.
The coronavirus pandemic hits, and everything gets delayed.
Cormier wants to go in August, Miocic is hesitant.
This is a potential problem for the UFC. It has floated the idea of an interim title fight between Cormier and the winner of this weekend's Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik fight or just stripping Miocic.
I sincerely hope Miocic doesn't get stripped, and I also sincerely hope Cormier's retirement fight isn't an interim title fight. It has to be the trilogy fight. No questions asked.
I sympathize with Miocic, much like I sympathized with Amanda Nunes' decision to withdraw from this weekend's card. The champ, especially one who isn't a massive draw without the belt, has to risk so much more fighting during these less-than-ideal times. Should they lose as a result of poor training conditions, they move all the way down the ladder, both in pay and stature. The risk might not outweigh the reward.
Now, Nunes needed only an extra month because she is slated to return in June, so I am curious to see how this plays out with Miocic.
5. Lots of pressure on Anthony Pettis' shoulders going into this weekend, in my opinion. He has lost his past two fights and is approaching the end of his contract. We know where his opponent, Donald Cerrone, is right now in his career, but I think there are many -- including myself -- who still believe Pettis can turn back the clock. A loss to Cerrone would seriously derail his plans to cash in on another big contract.
6. I'd also argue that there's a lot of pressure on Cejudo's shoulders going into this weekend, too. He has talked a lot over the past year, and if he loses this fight, all of a sudden he'll be title-less, and that's a tough spot to be in for a guy whose gimmick is based on having all the gold.
7. I am really intrigued by the Fabricio Werdum vs. Aleksei Oleinik fight, if only because it's a dream matchup for fans of heavyweight grappling. This might be the best heavyweight grappling matchup ever on paper. I'm also curious to see how Werdum looks coming off his USADA suspension and two-year layoff. His head coach, Rafael Cordeiro, told me Monday that he thinks Werdum knocks out the Russian, and while that sounds great, I sort of feel like that will be a letdown. I want to see these guys grapple, and I want the fight to end via submission.
8. I was pleasantly surprised to see Cordeiro holding mitts for Mike Tyson in that viral video last week. Truth be told, I didn't notice it was him until someone told me three days later. I guess I was just so mesmerized by the sight of a 53-year-old Tyson hitting with that kind of power and speed. In case you don't know, Cordeiro is one of the all-time great coaches in MMA history. He was the head coach over at the famed Chute Boxe Academy in Brazil years ago and groomed the likes of Anderson Silva, Shogun Rua and Wanderlei Silva. Then he moved to the States to open Kings MMA and has been training champions like Werdum, Rafael dos Anjos and Cris Cyborg. A mutual friend brought them together, and I must say it's pretty cool to see MMA and boxing collide in the most unlikely way. Most amazing is the fact that Cordeiro said that video was taken during their first training session three weeks ago and Tyson looks much better now. I can't imagine what that must look like.
9. Do I want to see Mike Tyson return to action? Not really. Do I need to see him back? No. Would I watch? Absolutely. Sorry if that makes me a bad person, but I suspect you are lying if you say otherwise. He's Mike Tyson. Enough said. And, yes, I know hitting mitts is different than being in an actual fight. I'm aware. But did you see that clip? That was remarkable.
10. How wild is this? Zhang Weili left her home in China to train in Thailand on Feb. 1. A week later, she was forced to quarantine for two weeks in Abu Dhabi before arriving in Las Vegas on Feb. 22 for her March 7 title fight at UFC 248. She then stayed in Vegas for six weeks after the fight to avoid any risks that could come with traveling back to China as the threat of the coronavirus increased. She then left Las Vegas on April 19, had to stay in strict quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, and on Monday finally got to return home, more than three months later. What a saga for the strawweight champ.
11. I reported Tuesday that the UFC is hoping the June 6 card will be able to take place at the Apex in Las Vegas, but it hasn't been finalized yet because the Nevada State Athletic Commission isn't up and running. Nevada opening up would be a gift from above for the UFC because it would be easier running all the events there, and I suspect whenever Nevada opens for business many events will take place. Amazingly, that card is a month away and we still don't know what the main event will be. Will it be Amanda Nunes vs. Felicia Spencer, or something bigger? One fight that has been discussed for that card is Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen, which is a potential No. 1 contender fight at 135, but it hasn't been signed yet.
12. Looking forward to seeing how Michelle Waterson rebounds from her loss to Joanna Jedrzejczyk when she faces former champ Carla Esparza on Saturday As you might know, Waterson's daughter, Araya, has been a fixture at all of her fights since she was born, but this will be the first time she misses her mother fighting live, according to Waterson's husband, Josh. The family decided Araya would be best not traveling during this time.
13. Don't get all excited about any rumors regarding Jorge Masvidal fighting a secret opponent or even Conor McGregor any time soon. According to the people I've talked to, there has been no talk of Masvidal fighting McGregor soon or anyone not named Kamaru Usman.
14. I was bummed to see that WWE released Cain Velasquez recently, but I think this could be a blessing in disguise for the former UFC heavyweight champion. He seemed better suited wrestling for one of the Lucha Libre promotions in Mexico, while wearing his El Toro mask.
15. Obviously a massive question heading into this weekend is how the UFC will ensure the health and safety of the athletes in Jacksonville. Most of the fighters are scheduled to check in Wednesday, so that remains to be seen, but reports are that everyone is being tested for COVID-19 once they check in and they are able to get those results in 24 hours. They are also given an antibody test to determine if they've had COVID-19 or were exposed to it and are given daily temperature checks.
16. I'm also told USADA has resumed testing for the upcoming UFC fights. I know a few fighters were worried about that.
17. I don't hate the Tyron Woodley vs. Gilbert Burns fight, but man, do I wish they could figure out how to do Woodley vs. Colby Covington once and for all. This would seem to be the perfect time for it while Leon Edwards can't fight in the U.S. due to travel restrictions.
18. I asked Ben Rothwell, who fights Ovince Saint Preux next week, recently how he feels about fighting and training in the midst of a pandemic, and I think he summed it up very well and echoed a lot of the sentiments I heard from other fighters.
"[I'm] healthy," he said. "It's been a struggle, the up and down of emotions. But it's going down now. Honestly, I'm happy. Thirty million people losing jobs -- it's tough times, business losing [money] and closing all around me, people hurting and stressed. And I get an opportunity.
"Winning fights really makes a difference financially, and even more so now."
19. If you're wondering about Bellator, it is hoping to return in July. Location, dates and fights TBD.
But the UFC is back Saturday. It's been a minute, as the kids say. Enjoy the fights.