Two weeks in a row without a UFC event felt like a long, cold winter to fight fans worldwide. But here to emphatically thaw that bitter frost is the UFC’s return to Rio de Janeiro.
There are special locales with special fighters and special fans sprinkled all across the globe, but suffice it to say, few can hold a candle to the fervor one experiences watching MMA in Brazil. Few countries, if any, have produced more world-conquering athletes in the sport, and few fan bases love them more for it.
To that end, we offer UFC 224. Featuring some of the country’s hottest and most-feared talent up and down a card littered with pivotal matchups, this event encapsulates everything that makes Brazil what it is to the MMA community.
These are the reasons to watch UFC 224.
Winning Streaks on the Line in the Main Event
It seems like only yesterday that Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington were sitting side by side at February’s Fight Night Orlando, both cheering on Tecia Torres. And the promotional duties for their headlining bout at UFC 224 have been nothing short of cordial. Make no mistake, however. When these two step into the Octagon Saturday, it will be anything but friendly.
Nunes has coolly dominated the women’s bantamweight division since wresting the belt from Miesha Tate two years ago. After dispatching powerhouses like Ronda Rousey and Valentina Shevchenko (twice), it’s a fool’s errand to underestimate her, particularly in front of her native Brazilian fans on the Pay Per View stage.
It has been a long road back for Pennington, who has been sidelined by injuries both in and out of MMA since 2016. Her last outing retired Tate, and she carries a four-fight win streak into Rio. Expect ‘Rocky’ to bring the frustration of her long layoff into the Octagon and look to make a statement in her first ever title shot.
Heavy Hands and Hardware Hopes in the Co-Main
Two middleweights with title aspirations will look to cement their spot in line for the winner of UFC 225’s title match between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero.
Jacare Souza contemplated retirement following a rash of injuries and recoveries that slowed his return to The Octagon. But a stiff KO of Derek Brunson seems to have rejuvenated the 38-year-old who is about to finish a successful, injury-free camp in the U.S. and return to a hero’s welcome in his native Rio.
Kelvin Gastelum was last seen starching a short-notice Michael Bisping in China last year, and will look to carry that momentum into Brazil on the hopes that dispatching another top veteran will finally seal his shot at the belt.
With Luke Rockhold moving up a weight class, and Chris Weidman still some distance out from returning, there is currently some breathing room in the middleweight division, and neither Souza or Gastelum are unrealistic to believe this is their moment. This realization should make for an excellent, crowd-pleasing scrap.
Brazilian Legends Collide
Belfort. Machida. Brazil.
Those three words alone are enough to make longtime fight fans salivate. The fanfare that both of these fighters will receive upon their walkout is difficult to articulate; few fighters have meant as much to their country or their sport.
As unfathomable as it is, Vitor Belfort actually fought in UFC 12. UFC 12! And after circumstances stymied a farewell bout with Uriah Hall back in January, a sendoff in his home country (should he decide to retire) seems like the storybook ending a career like Belfort’s deserves.
He’ll first have to get through Brazil’s other favorite son, ‘The Dragon’ who is fresh off a rejuvenating win against hot newcomer Eryk Anders.
Both men are Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belts and their Jedi-level skills bring all the potential of a classic to this one. Considering all the years these two have been around, and the number of professional fights between them, how is it possible they’ve never met in the Octagon before? Who knows. Let’s just take these gifts as they’re given to us.
Return of Dern
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu world champion @MackenzieDern has a dream to impact the UFC like @demianmaia, @bjpenndotcom & Royce Gracie did. See if she can keep the hype going this Saturday at #UFC224 in #UFCMinute pic.twitter.com/G80MqSK725
— UFC News (@UFCNews) May 7, 2018
Making her sophomore UFC appearance a mere two months after her debut, Mackenzie Dern rides a tidal wave of hype into her second home of Brazil. Armchair critics claim the turnaround is too soon, but Dern couldn’t pass up the opportunity for her father (jiu-jitsu legend Wellington ‘Megaton’ Dias) to witness her perform in an MMA fight for the first time.
Coming off a split decision win over Ashley Yoder, Dern will face the proven striking ability of Amanda Bobby Cooper, which will make for an interesting contrast of styles against Dern’s BJJ prowess.
A Be-In-Your-Seat-For-This-One Battle
Se as "Mãos de Pedra" de @johnlineker encontrarem seu queixo, você vai cair...
The second fight of the main card is the type of bout where the matchmakers smile with satisfaction at a job well done. Radiating all sorts of Fight of the Night potential comes two title-seeking dark horses in the form of Brian Kelleher and John Lineker.
Kelleher returns to the scene where he initially drew the ire of the local fans and hit his stride as a force in the bantamweight division with his first-round submission over Brazilian Iuri Alcantara. Two recent wins over Damian Stasiak and Renan Barao have his confidence rightfully up, and he’s got his sights set on Dominick Cruz next.
Before his dream fight could even be considered, however, he’ll have to get through “Hands of Stone” Lineker, who is still stinging from having to withdraw from his scheduled UFC 219 match with Jimmie Rivera due to brutal tooth pain. Lineker could taste his title shot before that withdrawal, and will be eager to continue knocking on the door.
Aspirations aside, the finish-heavy styles of these two men, at least on paper, make for what should be one of the most entertaining clashes of the entire evening.
Steve Latrell is a digital producer and writer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TheUFSteve