Special things happen when the UFC comes to New York; so special that it’s dumbfounding to remember that UFC 205, the promotion’s inaugural event in the Empire State, was less than two years ago.
The first walkout song has yet to be played, the first Bruce Buffer introduction has yet to be uttered, and the first punch has yet to be thrown, but the events leading up to Saturday’s UFC 223 have already guaranteed that this chapter will be one of the most pivotal in the UFC+NYC saga.
These are the reasons to watch UFC 223: Khabib vs Iaquinta.
The Russian demolition machine
No fighter has amassed the record Khabib Nurmagomedov has (25-0) without being the champion, and more specifically, nobody has destroyed opponent after opponent like Khabib without being champion. So dominant is his buzz-saw approach that even imaginary matchmaking becomes a challenge, as fight fans elicit statements like “I can’t imagine [insert fighter] ever beating this guy.”
With circumstances being what they are in the lightweight division, “The Eagle” has never been closer to seizing his destiny and putting his non-champion days in the rearview mirror.
Bonkers. Bananas. Brooklyn.
When the gods of MMA decided for a fourth time that we were not worthy of a bout between Tony Ferguson and Khabib, they briefly teased us with a “Blessed” replacement in featherweight champion Max Holloway. When it became clear that Holloway was also not meant to be, the actions of certain Irish champion were already wreaking havoc up and down the card, and names like Paul Felder and Anthony Pettis were bandied about until it was eventually settled that Ragin' Al Iaquinta would be the one to try to stand between The Eagle and the lightweight belt.
Along the way, four fights were scratched from the card, a bus window was broken, Michael Chiesa was bleeding out of his forehead before any fights took place, and the world watched as Conor McGregor was led out of a police station in handcuffs.
All of this happened in less time than it takes to watch a Ken Burns documentary, and the bouts still haven't started yet! It would be wonderful to assume we can all sit back and enjoy some fights now, but let's not jinx it just yet. As we're fond of saying around here, this is MMA, where anything can and often does happen.
The rematch of rematches
Once teetering on the precipice of Rousey-like supremacy, Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s defeat at the humble hands of Rose Namajunas at UFC 217 is still one of the most stunning moments in women’s MMA in recent memory.
Radiating humility and heart as champion, Namajunas stands at the front of a swelling brood of young fighters that seem to signal a changing of the guard throughout the sport. Still, the shadow of Jedrzejczyk’s previous domination looms large over this rematch, and it’s difficult to imagine either fighter getting the quick and decisive win Rose walked away with last time.
Was it a “fluke” as Joanna has deemed it, or was it the first chapter of a new champion’s fairy tale? Thrills await as we find out the answer.
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That other strawweight barnburner
So stacked is the UFC 223 card that the entire prelim lineup could stand on its own as a Fight Night event. Look no further than the prelim headliner between Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Felice Herrig as an example.
Kowalkiewicz doesn’t fear either fighter in the co-main, having defeated the current champ and gone the distance with Jedrzejczyk. Further emboldened by a recent win over Jodie Esquibel, she can smell her path back to another title shot.
It’s a path, but it’s not the easiest path. She’ll first have to get past a surging Felice Herrig. Fresh off that feisty showdown with Cortney Casey in December, Herrig is the owner of the longest active winning streak in the division (4), and she’s poised to leapfrog a stack of names in that division if she can add Kowalkiewicz to her string of victims.
That other Russian demolition machine
It’s a poorly kept secret that just two fights (and two Performance of the Night bonuses) into his UFC career, Zabit Magomedsharipov is already having trouble finding takers willing to stand across from him and risk the mauling that befell his previous opponents. If he can continue his streak against a tough Kyle Bochniak, look for Zabit to start breaking the entire featherweight division wide open.
In the original version of this article, I noted that this might be your last chance to see Zabit in an early prelim slot. In the chaos of the week that has followed, he started as the first fight of the night, was then bumped up to the FS1 card, and ultimately to the main card. We may all have been robbed to see him kick off the show, but we should also be encouraged by seeing a young talent who has proven he has the goods move into a more fitting showcase.
Steve Latrell is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TheUFSteve