This weekend is an extremely busy one in MMA.
Hard to believe, but it really HAS been 10 months since we last saw Nurmagomedov in action. For my money, he is the second-most famous MMA fighter on the planet behind Conor McGregor. But as far as popularity goes, you could make a very strong case that he is the most popular fighter in the sport right now, considering how many fans seemed to have turned on McGregor these days. No matter how you slice it, Nurmagomedov is a mega star and bringing him, a devout Muslim, to Abu Dhabi was a really smart business move.
We’re still four days away, but UFC 242 already feels special, and by the time he walks to the cage, Nurmagomedov is going to come across like an icon to those in attendance. I’m looking forward to that scene.
In addition to UFC 242 this weekend, there’s Cage Warriors Unplugged 2, Invicta FC: Phoenix Series 2, LFA and Bellator 226. The last of those is the biggest non-UFC card of the weekend, as it features Ryan Bader defending his Bellator heavyweight title for the first time against veteran Cheick Kongo, and the start of the promotion’s 16-man featherweight Grand Prix. In other words, I hope you don’t have any plans on Saturday.
But before we get to all that, here are some thoughts on all things MMA:
“My name is Zhang Weili. I am from China. Remember me.”
What a line. What a moment.
It’s impossible to overstate just how huge this past Saturday was for the UFC, the sport, Zhang Weili and Chinese MMA.
For well more than a decade, the UFC desperately wanted a Chinese star. Not a champion, just a star. I remember when they signed Zhang Tiequan in 2010. He was the first Chinese fighter to compete in the UFC. I remember when he won his debut in just 48 seconds and everyone thought, “Whoa. What if they just found that Chinese star?!” Unfortunately for all involved, Zhang proceeded to lose his next three fights in the UFC and hasn’t fought since 2012. Other Chinese fighters have found success inside the Octagon, but none seemed close to title contention.
And then came Zhang Weili. She entered the UFC last year riding a 16-fight winning streak. We knew she was good, but even after three straight wins in the UFC, over former contenders Tecia Torres and Jessica Aguilar to boot, no one believed she would be fighting for a belt this year.
A Chinese fighter just won the UFC title in China. You know how massive that is? This is the what promoters fantasize about, while knowing deep down inside those types of moments are the longest of long shots.
So, the Zhang Weili era has arrived. And by all accounts, China is paying attention, which is obviously key. Her manager, Brian Butler, told me she has been hashtagged more than 300 million times on Chinese social media platforms since her win on Saturday. I’m not quite sure how to verify that, but it’s clear she’s already making an immediate impact. China, with its rich martial arts history and home to more than 1.4 billion people, has always been the great unknown in MMA, and now the UFC has a really good champion who hails from there. Jackpot. It sort of feels as if Zhang skipped the star stage and just dove right into the champion stage. Usually, you become a star and then a champion. So now the UFC must work backward.
You see, if Zhang loses in her first title defense, this will all be for naught. Sure, she’s a lot more famous and Aug. 31, 2019, will forever be a monumental date in the sport’s history, but she needs a title reign to really make an impact. I see people saying she can be the biggest star in MMA history. Maybe, but again, she needs to go on at least a semi-long run as champion for that to come true.
The next few months will be key. How does the UFC market her in between fights? Where does she fight next? Who does she fight next? There will be a ton at stake when making these decisions, more so than the usual decisions attached to a new champion.
It’s all right there for the taking. A moment and fighter the UFC has been searching for for years. I, for one, am curious to see how this story plays out.
The next steps
UFC president Dana White said he would like for Zhang to defend the title in the United States next. Normally, I’d be against this. Why would you take her away from China when there is so much potential there? Truth is, there is a reason the UFC only goes there once a year. It’s expensive and there’s a lot of red tape attached to those trips. So my hunch is they would want her first defense to be in the first quarter of 2020 in America, and, if all goes well, she defends the belt around this time next year back in China. They basically need to buy some time before the next trip, which, if she is still champion by then, could be monumental.
And that’s why her first title defense is so important.
As for who she will fight next, I think Zhang has three options:
1. Rose Namajunas. I know Namajunas hinted at retirement in May, but I don’t think she is done yet. Still, I think she’d like more time off.
2. Tatiana Suarez. I spoke to Suarez on Saturday and she told me that her neck is still giving her problems and her return timetable is still up in the air.
3. The winner of the Michelle Waterson vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk fight on Oct. 12. I think the UFC will wait for that fight to play out before deciding who Zhang will fight next. No need to rush things. If Waterson wins, I think she’s the definite frontrunner, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jedrzejczyk gets the nod if she wins, too.
More than meets the eye
Zhang’s pro record is now 20-1. She has won 20 in a row after losing her pro debut to Meng Bo in 2013, but according to her manager, Brian Butler, that fight wasn’t a pro fight and shouldn’t count on her record:
“I was sitting at a dinner with her and she told me the story of her first loss,” Butler told ESPN on Sunday. “Technically, it shouldn’t even be on her pro record because the fight was an amateur fight and the fight was never completed. The ref, for no reason, stopped the fight after the second round, so all three rounds weren’t even completed. Everybody was confused. There was never any explanation given.”
Weird, right? Butler is correct, by the way. Every major fight database has her losing via unanimous decision after two rounds. And before you say, So what? Remember, 20-0 is a whole lot different from a marketing perspective than 20-1. Just ask Jon Jones. It might be hard to find out what really happened here, but I’m on the case. Stay tuned.
Dawn of a new era
Not to be forgotten, Li Jingliang, who for the longest time seemed like the UFC’s top Chinese fighter, had his best performance to date when he defeated Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos via third-round TKO on Saturday. When you consider how good he looked in that fight, as well as Zhang’s win and Song Yadong rising up the ranks, too, the future feels supremely bright for Chinese MMA all of a sudden.
Perfect UFC 242 primer
Before he takes on Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 242, relive the best moments of Dustin Poirier’s career. Order UFC 242 here https://plus.espn.com/ufc/ppv.
If you have never seen the documentary, “Fightville,” do yourself a favor and check it out before Saturday. Not only is it one of the best MMA docs ever, but it also features a very young Dustin Poirier trying to make a name for himself in the regional Louisiana MMA scene. It will give you great appreciation for the long journey Poirier has been on to get to this point. “Paid in full” isn’t just a cute slogan he came up with. No, Dustin Poirier has earned this moment.
The UFC’s first pay-per-view in Abu Dhabi in almost 10 years has me feeling nostalgic this week.
You see, UFC 112 is an event I will never forget.
That was the UFC’s first trip to Abu Dhabi back in April 2010. Three months prior, Flash Entertainment, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi government, purchased 10 percent of the promotion, so the event felt important. The start of a new chapter, if you will. Everyone knew the UFC wanted to make a splash in its UAE debut.
The whole week was memorable, from the makeshift outdoor stadium being built in a couple of months, to the surprisingly knowledgeable fan base eating up all the fight week activities. It just felt like a really special time for the company and the sport.
And then the event happened. To be clear, it was a fine event, highlighted by Frankie Edgar beating BJ Penn for the first time to capture the lightweight title, but it ended with a bizarre showing from then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva against Demian Maia, which left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. As you may recall, White was unhappy with Silva that night. The mood was awkward and uncomfortable. No one knew how White and the UFC would reprimand Silva for his lackluster showing and, more importantly, for ruining the most-anticipated moment of their big UAE debut.
I’ll never forget that post-fight news conference. The tension in the air was palpable. I was one of three North American journalists who made the trip to cover the event, so I felt pressure to really capture the scene as best as possible. I remember enjoying that pressure very much. The presser wasn’t streamed online, so I decided to live-tweet all the newsworthy moments. I started the night with 4,000 Twitter followers and ended with 7,000 (I vividly recall fighters Joe Lauzon and Patrick Cote following me during my tweet-a-thon). The MMA world was captivated by this story and it felt like everyone was relying on me for the post-fight coverage.
But you know what will stick with me forever from that night? After the news conference, and after his customary postfight scrum, once everyone started filing out of the very humid tent we were in, I asked White for an interview. I knew he didn’t want to do it, but I had to try. He said yes. That was the first YouTube interview I ever did that generated more than a million views, and it did so in less than 24 hours. That’s an interview I’ll never forget. To be honest, it felt like a turning point in my young career. And I’ll always be appreciative of the fact that White said yes to my interview request.
Here’s hoping the main event at UFC 242 ends on a brighter note.
On my mind
I really like that Carlos Condit vs. Mickey Gall fight on Dec. 7. Classic Joe Silva fight. Can the vet get back on track or does the youngster get a huge win. Nice one. … Very curious what the UFC will do with their Nov. 2 and Dec. 14 pay-per-view shows. I can see them putting three title fights on the year-end card. Sometimes the cupboard is bare and sometimes it’s overflowing. This time it’s the latter. But what about MSG? As I’ve mentioned on the show recently, the main event for that card is not a done deal yet. No doubt, the biggest fight they could put on right now is Nate Diaz vs. Jorge Masvidal, but can they get that deal done so soon? Seems like a long shot. Interesting times ahead. … Not enough people are talking about Kai Kara-France. The flyweight New Zealander has now won eight in a row and trains out of City Kickboxing, a gym that is also home to Israel Adesanya, Alexander Volkanovski and Dan Hooker. Remember his name, too. … Paige VanZant‘s comments last week made quite the splash, eh? Surprised how much that spread. I think she ends up with her husband in Bellator after her final UFC fight. … Cris Cyborg hasn’t signed with anyone yet. I’d be surprised at this point if she doesn’t sign with Bellator, too. … That photo of Stipe Miocic cleaning a toilet at the firehouse while wearing the UFC title was tremendous. Even better was the mustache he was sporting. Please keep that, Stipe. … Henry Cejudo hasn’t fought in three months, yet he seems to be in the news every few days due to his spectacular use of social media. I mean, even Zhang was asked about him in her postfight news conference. He’s doing a great job of keeping his name out there. … Jessica Andrade handled that loss really well, but she has to be lamenting the way she approached that fight. Why so aggressive to start? … Junior dos Santos is currently competing in the Brazilian version of “Dancing With the Stars.” Do yourself a favor and find the clip of his performance this past week. He may not be the smoothest dancer, but he is so darn likable you can’t help but smile while watching him do his thing out there. … One week later, I still feel really torn about Darren Till vs. Kelvin Gastelum at MSG. On the one hand, I love that Till is finally moving up to 185. This move is a year overdue. On the other hand, Gastelum is no easy out. Fascinating fight. … Please no more BJ Penn fights in the UFC. Please.
One last thing
Good to hear both Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier say that Tony Ferguson should get the next title shot. It would be a crime if this doesn’t happen.
And with that, here’s today’s Helwani Show lineup (Note the 1:30 p.m. ET start time. That’s for this week only.)
1:30 p.m. — New UFC strawweight champion Zhang Weili will join us to recap her historic win this weekend.
2:30 p.m. — Carlos Condit will discuss his Dec. 7 fight against Mickey Gall.
2:45 p.m. — Dominick Cruz will respond to Henry Cejudo’s recent callout and also update us on his shoulder rehab.
3:05 p.m. — In his first interview since UFC 238, Tony Ferguson will discuss his place in the division and his future.
3:45 p.m. — Darren Till will preview his UFC 244 middleweight debut against Kelvin Gastelum.
4:05 p.m. — Kevin Lee will update us on what’s next for him.