The UFC returns to Florida this weekend for the first time since UFC 273 in April. UFC Fight Night takes place at Orlando's Amway Center on Saturday night (7 ET on ESPN+) with an intriguing card for fight fans to peruse.
This will be the first UFC Fight Night event held outside of the UFC APEX in Las Vegas since the promotion held its first-ever event in France in September. It's also one of the three remaining fight cards of the calendar year.
Saturday features a welterweight main event between Stephen Thompson (16-6-1) and Kevin Holland (23-8). Here are some thoughts on that, as well as a few other storylines around MMA -- including Larissa Pacheco's upset of the undefeated Kayla Harrison at the PFL World Championships on Friday.
Now things get interesting for Kayla Harrison
Everybody loses in MMA. Harrison is just the latest example of that. Honestly, this one wasn't that shocking. It's a major upset, but anyone who followed the PFL this season knew Pacheco was a potential problem. In my finals preview, I stated there were signs of a possible upset here -- most significantly, Pacheco reaching her prime, which just wasn't the case in their first two fights. What happens now with Harrison will be interesting.
Prior to this loss, Harrison made it clear she does not want to compete in the full season in 2023. She wants marquee fights. That's still plausible, but this result has an impact. It's hard to envision a 2023 in which she doesn't face Pacheco again. It just feels like that has to happen now, and this "dream" fight between Harrison and Bellator MMA's Cris Cyborg was never a slam dunk to begin with. Even had Harrison won, there was no guarantee the two promotions would figure that fight out, despite PFL's sincere efforts thus far. Everyone loves a comeback story, but what will Harrison's look like? If she's not fighting in the regular season, and the PFL is unable to put together a cross-promotional fight, Harrison's 2023 is very much up in the air.
Saturday is a big one for Holland -- and even bigger for Thompson
This is an example of how important a single fight can be for setting a narrative.
For Holland, the truth is, he's going to be fine, win or lose. Until he proves he can deal with high-level grappling, the reality is that we're not going to think of him as a legitimate title challenger. Not with wrestlers like Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington, Khamzat Chimaev, Gilbert Burns, etc., at welterweight as well. But that doesn't really matter. Perhaps at some point, a title will be part of Holland's appeal. But it doesn't need to be. He's been going the Cowboy Cerrone route of fighting very frequently in multiple weight classes, and it's working for him. These are all important fights, but the result means less for Holland's future.
Thompson, meanwhile, is two months away from his 40th birthday. And coming off of back-to-back losses, this is his first and only appearance of 2022. Part of the reason behind his inactivity this year was he didn't want to fight another wrestler. He wanted a stylistic matchup that would let him breathe and utilize his striking, instead of one that would force him to defend takedowns the entire time. If he wins, he's still top-five material in the division and possibly one win away from a title shot. If he loses, the narrative will inevitably turn into "How is Thompson's career going to end?"
Although I've gotten used to it, it's still amazing how much one fight can shape that discussion of a fighter's future. Thompson is a pro and one of the most laid-back guys in the sport, so he'll handle the pressure just fine. But make no mistake, the entire outlook of his 2023 and career is at stake on Saturday.
Checking in on Derek Brunson
Derek Brunson's ground game is too much for Darren Till as he eventually wins their main event matchup.
Brunson (23-8) was supposed to face Jack Hermansson (23-7) on this card, but he withdrew last week because of injury. He told me recently it's a hyperextended arm, and he's hopeful it will not require too much time off.
Before his last fight, a knockout loss to Jared Cannonier in February, Brunson, 38, said he wanted to fight only two more times. Ideally, he wanted to beat Cannonier, then win the UFC title and retire. I asked him if that was still the case, if his next fight would still be his last. He said the plan has been slightly readjusted, but he will take it fight by fight.
"It's performance-based," Brunson said. "Before my last fight, doctors told me I shouldn't run because of some tears in my knee, but I need to run for the cardio. Had I ran for my previous fight, I would have been in better shape and I would have won that fight, because I was winning until I got caught. If I'm not performing well, that is a different story. But I feel I can still dominate if I'm in good shape."
Brunson said he's hopeful the UFC will rebook his fight against Hermansson in 2023, possibly as early as February. Hermansson is facing Roman Dolidze this weekend.
What does this fight mean for Rafael dos Anjos?
On the surface, it feels a little ... random. Dos Anjos is the No. 6-ranked lightweight, but he's fighting an unranked welterweight in Bryan Barberena. So, what are the stakes of this fight and what is dos Anjos trying to set up?
His manager, Giovanni Biscardi, told me this fight is about "freeing" dos Anjos from the current box that he's in -- which is "a ticket into the lightweight top 10." No one above dos Anjos in the 155-pound rankings was willing to fight him, and he felt he was in a position where he was constantly going to be asked to fight down.
Is dos Anjos looking to make a permanent move to welterweight? According to Biscardi, the answer is no. This fight is to establish dos Anjos as a player at both lightweight and welterweight. Create more options. He's a former lightweight champion, who just fought Rafael Fiziev to a very competitive fifth-round knockout loss. He's not a title challenger, but there's no question he's elite. And he wants matchups that reflect that. He doesn't want to be known as a "test" for an up-and-comer.
There are plenty of options that excite dos Anjos. Michael Chandler at lightweight? That's fun. Jorge Masvidal at welterweight? Same. The dream matchup is Conor McGregor, whom he was supposed to fight in 2016 but couldn't because of an infamous foot injury. He'd also love to fight Charles Oliveira, because he doesn't like the idea of anyone thinking he's not the best Brazilian lightweight in the world.
Dos Anjos is still motivated and very committed to the UFC. There are still big chapters to be written in his career, and this fight is about opening those up.
Glover Teixeira's decision to turn down a title fight
The biggest news that came out of last week was unfortunate. Jiří Procházka vacated his UFC championship without a single defense, after suffering a shoulder injury that is likely to keep him out for a long time. Procházka mentioned a time frame of six months in an Instagram post. I sure hope that's the case, but based on talking to the UFC and Procházka's team, there is no guarantee he fights at all in 2023.
One of the surprising details of that story was that the UFC offered Teixeira a title fight against Magomed Ankalaev at UFC 282, before settling on Ankalaev vs. Jan Blachowicz for the championship. Teixeira told me last week that it was his decision to decline the fight, because Ankalaev is a tricky southpaw and a very different opponent than the one he was preparing for in Procházka.
Teixeira offered to face Blachowicz at UFC 282, or to face Ankalaev at UFC 283 one month later. The UFC needed a main event in December, however, which is why it moved on from Teixeira. This is an unfortunate situation all the way around, and Teixeira's disappointment and frustration were evident when I spoke to him. I think once the initial disappointment of missing out on the title fight wears off, however, Teixeira will understand the UFC's need to salvage a main event, and as long as Teixeira fights for the belt next, all parties should walk away happy. UFC hasn't offered a guarantee that will be the case, but that's what I'm guessing will happen.
UFC 282's new look
Thiago Santos and Magomed Ankalaev trade shots in the light heavyweight main event of UFC Fight Night.
The final UFC pay-per-view of the year was already lacking star power and now it's taken a big hit with Procházka out of the main event. In terms of name value, this is not one of the strongest cards of the year; however, I think the prelims are going to make for a well-constructed night.
While not made official as of yet, I'm hearing a middleweight fight between Darren Till and Dricus Du Plessis will now move onto the main card. So, you're looking at a card in which you get a few action fights involving guys such as Joaquin Buckley and Edmen Shahbazyan early on. Billy Quarantillo vs. Alexander Hernandez is a sleeper for Fight of the Night -- you heard it here first. Plus, the storyline of 18-year-old Raul Rosas Jr. making his UFC debut.
Then you move into Bryce Mitchell vs. Ilia Topuria to start the main card, followed by a crucial fight for the career of Till. Paddy Pimblett vs. Jared Gordon is not an A+ co-main event, but if Paddy's meteoric rise continues, we'll look back on it and think differently. Listen, I'm really not trying to sell anyone on UFC 282. Compared to UFC 280 and 281, it's not as pretty of a lineup. But I'm giving my personal prediction, it's going to be one of those cards that sneak up on us, because it's a low-key fun one.