UFC 290 roundtable: Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez, Moreno’s boogeyman, middleweight stakes, more

UFC 290 roundtable: Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez, Moreno’s boogeyman, middleweight stakes, more

The UFC’s annual International Fight Week celebration is here! This year’s card is headlined by two title fights, as Alexander Volkanovski and Yair Rodriguez collide to unify the featherweight title and UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno seeks revenge in his third crack at Alexandre Pantoja. UFC 290 has plenty of other threads to tug on as well, featuring a deep card stacked with ex-champs and contenders, plus up-and-coming talents as well.

Join MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, and Alexander K. Lee as they sidle back up to the roundtable to discuss the biggest storylines heading into UFC 290.

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

1. Where does Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodriguez rank among the best UFC title unification bouts?

Lee: The past decade has seen more unification bouts due to the proliferation of interim titles, and while several have turned out spectacularly (think Israel Adesanya vs. Kelvin Gastelum, which ended up being an all-timer after generating only moderate pre-fight buzz), I’m dipping deep into the well and bending the rules just a tad to answer this question.

As older heads fondly recall, there was once a time when the UFC hosted not one, but two genuine unification bouts featuring their own champion and a title from another promotion. That promotion was the hallowed PRIDE, and the two-division titleholder was Dan Henderson. “Hendo” had fought for the UFC earlier in his career, but when he returned to the promotion in 2007 he was one of the hottest names in the business coming off of an unreal knockout of Wanderlei Silva to capture PRIDE’s 205-pound belt.

The future UFC Hall of Famer also brought middleweight gold with him, allowing the promotion to immediately set up must-see title fights with Quinton Jackson and then Anderson Silva. Henderson lost both encounters, and as time goes on — we’re over 15 years removed now from these bouts — the results are remembered more as successful UFC title defenses for Jackson and Silva as opposed to the champion vs. champion fights that they were.

As much as the game has evolved since then, let’s not let the magnitude of these encounters fade.

Marrocco: For legitimacy, a term that’s very flexible in sports entertainment, it’s hard to argue with Henderson vs. Jackson. Then again, after this old head checked the internet, there was but one reference of title unification after Jackson’s win, and Henderson’s PRIDE belt certainly wasn’t handed over in the octagon (I’m not even sure Rampage got it in the mail afterward). Alas, another reminder that much of the meaning given to these things is more about getting us to reach for our debit cards.

For box office appeal and significance, I don’t think you can do any better in the UFC than Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor. This is where I ask you, the reader, to come back with me a whole eight years ago and remember the force that was a young, featherweight McGregor. Everyone knew he was the brightest star in the sport, but until he signed to fight Aldo, he lacked the ultimate validation of a title — or at least the undisputed one, not claimed in a fight against an off-the-couch Chad Mendes.

The UFC, to its credit, gave the bout the significance and promotion it deserved by taking it on a world tour, capitalizing on McGregor’s prodigious abilities on the mic and his nature foil in the staid, martial-arts-first Aldo. Sure, they were probably trying to juice the numbers for a sale in 2016, but the great work that came out of that promotional cycle, including a dynamite teaser promo, was top notch.

Save for The Money Fight, when has the UFC gone out of its way since then? We’re in turn-and-burn land now, and thus, the stakes of the fights have been muted. So it goes for Volk vs. Yair, a really, really good fight that feels like just another event on the schedule. It’s a very significant fight competitively, and the UFC at least gave it prime placement on International Fight Week. But other than that, it doesn’t feel as special, as much of a moment in combat sports history, as the showdown between McGregor and Aldo.

Al-Shatti: My pals above me hit the nail on the head.

In the pantheon of title unification bouts, Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez sits somewhere firmly near the middle, and that’s not meant as a slight. On the contrary, Saturday’s main event has been one of my most anticipated fights of 2023 since we witnessed the long-awaited Great Leveling Up of Yair Rodriguez this past February against Josh Emmett. Considering his bizarre five-year run from 2017-22, I wasn’t sure if that moment would ever come — the type of culminating aha moment we saw at UFC 284 where everything comes together and Rodriguez finally emerges as the ultra-dynamic hellion of a title contender who he showed flashes of becoming in his earliest days as the first TUF: Latin America winner.

In these eyes, the Rodriguez of today is the most intriguing non-Holloway challenger to emerge of Volkanovski’s four-year reign.

But as good as this matchup is, it feels more in line with the Ngannou-Gane or Aldo-Holloway tier of title unification bouts rather than the Aldo-McGregors or Lesnar-Mirs of the world — a damn fine fight, but not one that’s going to explode off the marquee.

UFC Fight Night: Moreno v Pantoja

Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

2. Is Alexandre Pantoja the toughest test of Brandon Moreno’s career?

Al-Shatti: Considering that Brandon Moreno essentially just had to fight Deiveson Figueiredo four times (4!!!) in order to finally move on with his life as UFC flyweight champion, I’m going to go out on a limb and say no, Pantoja doesn’t represent the toughest test of Moreno’s career. But — and this is a big “but” — that doesn’t mean Pantoja can’t win in Saturday’s co-main event. Hell, I’m probably picking him to do exactly that. Ali Pants has long been the unsung terror of 125 pounds. Not only is he already up 2-0 over Moreno, he was — by far — the biggest loser of the three-year detour the division ambled down when Moreno and Figueiredo couldn’t decide who deserved to hold the belt.

To put it bluntly, Pantoja has been the deserving Next Man Up since 2021. That’s a wild fact to reconcile for the Brazilian considering we’re already hitting the second half of 2023.

Yet therein lies the rub: Pantoja is suddenly 33 years old in a division that discards anyone past the veerrrrry earliest of their 30s like 3-day-old sushi. So sure, I may be leaning toward Pantoja persisting to be the boogeyman of Moreno’s story and ending this fairy-tale run with a 3-0 series sweep, but would it shock me if a Suddenly Past His Prime Ali Pants shows up on Saturday looking just a smidge slower than we remembered and gets one-sidedly rinsed by a Very Much In His Prime Assassin Baby? Not in the slightest.

Marrocco: I’m with Shaheen here. Timing is absolutely everything in the fight game, and the difference between an in-their-prime contender and a prelim headliner is measured in fights, not years. Pantoja has had to wait for his golden opportunity for quite some time, and perhaps unfairly so. He also accumulated losses at the gate of contention, so it’s hard not to put the onus on him.

Late or not, he’s getting his chance, and if he shows up like he’s showed up in his three previous fights, I like him to pull off the upset against Moreno. The “Assassin Baby” certainly won’t make it easy; five years is a lot of time to improve, and he’s been fighting the very best 125-pounder not named Demetrious Johnson for three years in Figueiredo. For that reason alone, I would say Pantoja is not the toughest test of his career. But questions like these put a lot of emphasis on what’s happened in the past, and we won’t know who’s learned more — or simply just had a better night — until they get in the cage and settle things.

At the top of the flyweight division, the difference between a champ and a No. 1 contender is so small. It could be that Moreno’s best days were in the cage against Figueiredo, or his wins gave him the momentum and confidence he’ll need to avenge his previous loss to Pantoja. Given the slim betting odds, it doesn’t seem like many are confident in that.

Lee: Moreno has quietly put together one of the best résumés of any active MMA champion, with the epic Figueiredo rivalry capping off a seven-year run that also includes wins over Brandon Royval, Jussier Formiga, and Kai Kara-France (twice). He’s been fighting top-shelf competition since he signed up for The Ultimate Fighter 24 as a bright-eyed 22-year-old and one could argue that he faced his toughest test back in 2017 when he lost a decision to future Bellator bantamweight king Sergio Pettis.

But I’ll make the case for Pantoja because, simply put, he’s got the champ’s number.

Pantoja is Moreno’s boogeyman, much like Alex Pereira was for Israel Adesanya up until a few months ago. He submitted Moreno on TUF, beat him by decision when they ran it back in a more official capacity, and has kept Moreno in his sights despite the occasional loss that kept him from moving to the front of the line. There’s no one standing between Pantoja and Moreno now though.

We can downplay the previous results all we want, but this boogeyman stuff is no joke as Pereira proved in his first fight with Adesanya. No one can say for sure that the best version of Moreno beats the best version of Pantoja, all we know for sure is that they’ve crossed paths twice and Pantoja convincingly had his hand raised both times. He’s the toughest test because you have to believe that Moreno is always going have a cloud hanging over his career if he goes 0-3 against his nemesis.

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker v Vettori

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

3. Outside of the two title bouts, what’s the most intriguing storyline?

Marrocco: Is there any fight on UFC 290’s card with more imminent consequences than Robert Whittaker than Dricus Du Plessis?

I’m in agreement with my colleague Jed Meshew that this fight definitely didn’t have to get made. The UFC had Du Plessis as the apple of Israel Adesanya’s eye without having to do any heavy lifting, and instead, it wrote an open invitation to the MMA gods to scuttle the fight for what? A completely unnecessary trilogy? Nobody was asking for Adesanya vs. Whittaker 3, and Du Plessis appears entirely capable of losing to the ex-champion, who but for “The Last Stylebender” has shown himself to be one of the better middleweights to ever compete in the octagon.

Whittaker vs. Du Plessis is a pretty meritocratic play, I have to admit. If Du Plessis is truly ready for a challenge of Adesanya’s stature, he should have to clear the biggest hurdle of the division. At the same time, I’ve been so conditioned to throwing meritocracy out the window, I want the promotion to put on fights that offer intrigue beyond mere competition. Entertainment and intrigue isn’t only good for me — it’s good for Adesanya, who like many tends to fight better when he’s emotionally invested in the outcome.

UFC 290’s swing fight is the most intriguing storyline purely for what will happen if an outcome doesn’t happen and Du Plessis proves to be the beatable middleweight he’s appeared to be in his brief octagon tenture.

Lee: Is it too soon to pump Bo Nickal’s contender tires? Definitely. Is it entirely possible that we see him challenging for the UFC middleweight title within the next 12 months? Definitely!

Get all aboard the Nickal hype train, people, because the UFC sees stars and dollar signs in the decorated NCAA wrestling champion, and four fights into his pro career, he’s lived up to the hype and then some (with apologies to Jamie Pickett’s nether regions), absolutely crushing the competition. He’s yet to face a high-level opponent and Tresean Gore certainly doesn’t fit that bill, but the projections for Nickal continue to be off the charts.

Simply put, he’s the best prospect we’ve seen in ages — seasoned from a lifetime in the crucible of wrestling, training with an elite squad at American Top Team, and, at 27, young enough to grow considerably. And yes, the skill which he’s best known for just happens to be one area in which the current champion isn’t considered to be elite.

So don’t be surprised if Nickal runs through Gore and finds himself one win away from a title shot. Heck, Adesanya still needs a challenger for UFC 293 in Sydney, and the matchmakers might just be crazy enough to throw Nickal into the mix.

Al-Shatti: Call me old-fashioned, but as delectable as this year’s IFW lineup may be, my eyes can’t help but drift downward to fixate with loving pangs of nostalgia at the prelim headliner, because there’s a damn good chance Saturday is the final time we see Robbie Lawler grace the cage. It’s a bittersweet moment. In a sport plagued by uniformity, Ruthless Robert is a true one-of-one — perhaps the most violent competitor to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves and a shoo-in for any Mount Rushmore of the most entertaining fighters of all-time, without question.

Lawler’s reign as UFC welterweight champion from 2014-16 lifted the division out of its post-GSP malaise and still stands today as an all-time run of fistic fireworks. No other fighter has ever snatched up three consecutive Fights of the Year awards from this website like Lawler did for his title bouts against Johny Hendricks (2014), Rory MacDonald (2015), and Carlos Condit (2016) — the latter of which are widely hailed as two of the greatest fights of all-time.

The fact that Lawler became who he did in his second act remains as remarkable today as it was back then — none who watched Lawler plod around the Strikeforce middleweight division losing five of eight from 2009-12 could’ve foreseen the first-ballot Hall of Famer he’d ultimately become. Still, there was always a certain magic around Bob Violence, even dating back to the Bettendorf days, when Lawler and his Miletich Fighting Systems comrades gallivanted around the American Midwest razing and pillaging wherever they went. Those boys were the first true U.S.-born scourge of MMA’s modern era, and Lawler’s continued defiance of Father Time more than 23 years after his road began is a fitting tribute to the “F*** You” ethos that typified the sport for that early generation.

It’s not hyperbole to say a little piece of MMA history dies on Saturday when Lawler decides to hang up his gloves after his farewell against Niko Price. So as intrigued as I may be by the rest of this weekend’s lineup, no storyline has me more rapt than the ex-champ’s goodbye.

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