As UFC ring announcer Bruce Buffer would say, “it’s time.” And it’s about time, too.
After years of waiting for New York to once again sanction professional mixed martial arts and lift a ban in place since 2001, the sports’ premier promotion will set up shop at Madison Square Garden for Saturday’s UFC 205 pay-per-view.
But it wasn’t enough for MMA to simply make it to the World’s Most Famous Arena. The UFC needed a top-shelf lineup of fights to match, and president Dana White promised just that for years.
With the moment at hand, hype has become reality with perhaps the most impressive bout lineup to make it to fight week, an event that not coincidentally takes place on the 23rd anniversary of the promotion’s first event.
Conor McGregor, the Irishman who holds the company’s featherweight championship and the distinction as the top star in combat sports, will look to make history as the UFC’s first simultaneous two-division champion as he challenges lightweight king Eddie Alvarez in the headliner.
Recently crowned welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk also put their titles up for grabs, and they’re joined by three other former UFC champs who will compete throughout the event.
Read on for amNewYork’s predictions for the six-fight main card, which begins at 10 p.m. As a member of the UFC’s media generated rankings panel, I’ve noted which fighters are ranked in their division and the pound-for-pound rankings when applicable. Full rankings are available at ufc.com/rankings.
(C, 9 P4P) Eddie Alvarez vs. (C FTW, 4 P4P) Conor McGregor
If McGregor (20-3) is to have his signature moment at the Garden, he better be prepared for a grueling bout. Alvarez (28-4), who is making his first 155-pound title defense, is a veteran with several classic, back-and-forth bouts on his resume.
The Irishman showed his mettle with a gutsy win over Nate Diaz in August, but he also further cemented his lackluster cardio as a weakness. While McGregor’s output fades during a fight, Alvarez often gets better as he absorbs punishment.
It’s no secret McGregor is going to look to take Alvarez’s head off early with distance striking, punctuated by a pinpoint left hand. But Philadelphia native Alvarez has more tools at his disposal, including takedowns that should keep McGregor off balance and worn down midway through the five-round affair.
There’s no counting out McGregor, whose career is defined by defying his critics, but look for Alvarez to punish the challenger on the mat before securing a TKO or submission in Round 4.
(C, 10 P4P) Tyron Woodley vs. (2) Stephen Thompson
Woodley (16-3), whose path to the 170-pound crown was capped by a KO of heavy-hitting Robbie Lawler in July, came up through the ranks as a former collegiate wrestler. He would be wise to rely heavily on that base against elite kickboxer Thompson (13-1).
The challenger’s karate arsenal is superior to the champ’s more power-packed punching. He should be able to produce a high output even in the later rounds, something that will be more difficult for the thickly-muscled Woodley.
If Woodley chooses to grapple, he might be able to capitalize with his first submission in seven years. It’s more likely for Thompson to control distance early, wear Woodley down and secure a clear five-round decision.
(C, 11 P4P) Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. (2) Karolina Kowalkiewicz
Save for McGregor, there may be no more cocky champ in the sport than Jedrzejczyk (12-0). Her advice to those who can’t pronounce her surname: Call her Joanna Champion.
The bravado is well earned. She claimed the 115-pound championship in dominant fashion in March 2015 and has successfully defended her crown three times thanks to combination-heavy a muay Thai game.
Her challenger, fellow Poland native Kowalkiewicz (10-0), may be the only woman in her division whose striking isn’t leagues behind.
But the edge remains firmly in Jedrzejczyk’s hands — and feet, elbows and knees — and even in the mental game thanks to an amateur MMA victory four years ago. The champ will remain unbeaten as she coasts to a decision.
(2, 14 P4P) Chris Weidman vs. Yoel Romero
Weidman’s (13-1) work in lobbying for the UFC to return to the Empire State almost overshadows his status as an elite middleweight. Almost.
The Long Island native and former 185-pound champion best known for dethroning all-time great Anderson Silva could secure a title shot with an impressive win over the Cuban defector and 2000 Olympic silver medal-winning freestyle wrestler. Romero (11-1) may do the same, but with this being his first fight after a controversial positive test for banned substances the path to gold is cloudier.
Romero has a knack for coming on strong late, but Weidman’s well-rounded skill set should be able to navigate Romero’s powerful striking in winning a three-round decision.
(7) Kelvin Gastelum vs. (10) Donald Cerrone
Cerrone (31-7), better known as Cowboy, has been a revelation since moving up from lightweight to welterweight following an unsuccessful championship bid. His striking remains crisp and he’s always a threat with submissions.
Gastelum (12-2), the former winner of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show, has had trouble making the 170-pound limit before. A rough weight cut would put the top-10 welterweight in trouble against a finisher like Cerrone.
But it shouldn’t matter either way. Gastelum’s best asset is size, whereas Cowboy has several paths to victory. Our pick: Cerrone by second-round submission and a chance at a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus.
(1) Miesha Tate vs. (10) Raquel Pennington
Tate (18-6) chose to defend her bantamweight title for the first time in July instead of waiting for a possible third Ronda Rousey bout. It backfired as Amanda Nunes scored a first-round finish.
She’ll look to bounce back against Pennington (8-5), who once was on Tate’s team when the former champ coached on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Pennington has grown since appearing on the show, but the student has yet to surpass the master. Tate should have little trouble scoring a submission, even as early as Round 1.