The big show rolls into Las Vegas again on 6th July, when the T-Mobile Arena plays host to UFC 239. When it moved over to ESPN, several people predicted they would struggle to get enough relevant fights—fights people would not only want to see, but would also pay to see. Some of the biggest stars of the sport were no longer able or willing to fight for various reasons. So far, those concerns have not materialized. UFC 238 looked good on paper and proved to be even better inside the octagon. The UFC 239 card looks equally stacked.
It heads off a busy month, with a card every weekend. Currently those events are looking good, but the men in suits will be sweating that the inevitable withdrawals don’t hit them too heavily. The heavyweight bout between former title contender Francis Ngannou and former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos has been pulled from UFC 239 and given its own headline slot at Minneapolis the week earlier. To mark your card, Oddschecker has a successful track record of predicting the outcomes of these events.
Jon Jones v Thiago Santos (light heavyweight title fight)
Despite events outside the octagon, there is a very good argument that says Jon “Bones” Jones is the most talented MMA fighter of all time. If he had not had all of that forced time away from the sport, we can only imagine what records he would have chalked up. The UFC’s problem is finding someone who will give him a fight worthy of the name. Anthony Smith looked like he could have been that man, but on the night, he was second in every respect. And despite Jones taking all five rounds to secure victory, the title holder was never in any distress or under any pressure. It’s the same story with Alexander Gustafsson, whom Jones despatched midway through round 3. Will Thiago Santos be any different?
The Brazilian will point to the fact that he was able to get rid of Anthony Smith in a little over 6 minutes. That was down at middleweight, however, and Smith has looked like a different fighter since stepping up to light heavy. Santos has certainly looked impressive, with a show reel of knockouts that have earned him his place as a title contender and a string of performance-of-the-night awards. He was knocked out by David Branch 14 months ago, and if it is a case of “whoever connects first wins,” the sensible money has to be on Jones. The American also has a lot more in his locker to ensure that it will not come down to merely a slugfest.
Amanda Nunes v Holly Holm (bantamweight title fight)
Holly Holm is in danger of being defined by her fight against Ronda Rousey. There is no doubting that she is an inspirational figure, but since that fight she has struggled to find her place in the sport, switching between feather and bantamweight and losing 4 of her 6 fights. Amanda Nunes is a beast of a fighter. The two-belt champion has looked unstoppable and unbeatable in all of her fights since her demolition of Rousey, with the exception of the split decision win over Shevchenko. The way she was able to out Cris Cyborg would have sent shivers down the spines of all her potential opponents. If she does the same to the Preacher’s Daughter in Vegas, there will be two different outcomes as a result. Where does Holly Holm go, and what does the UFC do about finding someone who can live with Nunes? It is at times like that when the lack of depth in the women’s weight classes becomes evident. Shevchenko is an obvious answer, and it may well be the case that there is more flipping between weights or even catch weight contests to fill the cards. That is for the future, however. Holm will certainly go into the fight thinking she has the skill set to dethrone the Brazilian. If she is to do that, she will have to—exactly like she did against Rousey—have a game plan that she is able to stick by to the letter and carry out. That’s easier said than done, with Amanda Nunes throwing fists, elbows, knees and kicks at you.
Jorge Masvidal v Ben Askren
Jorge Masvidal’s 46 MMA fights read like a who’s who of the sport for the last decade and a half. His last four fights have seen him go up against Cowboy Cerrone (W), Demian Maia (L), Stephen Thompson (L) and Darren Till, where he derailed the Scouse’s title prospects. On July 6th, Gamebred gets to add another name to that list when he takes on a fighter who has been brought in to put butts in the seats and ppvs in the bank. Ben Askren might have gotten his hand raised in his UFC debut, but the fight probably asked more questions than it was able to answer about how the former Bellator and ONE Championship title holder will fare in the UFC. The 34 year old will want to put on a performance to get a title shot in his next fight against the winner of Usman and Covington.
Best of the Rest
Luke Rockhold returns to the octagon for the first time in almost 18 months. It also sees him move up to light heavyweight in an attempt to curtail the increasing number of injuries he has been sustaining as a result of difficult weight cuts. Since his shocking defeat to Michael Bisping in June 2016, Rockhold has only fought twice, beating David Branch and losing to Yoel Romero. In Vegas, he goes in against the Pole Jan Błachowicz, who is coming off his own defeat to headliner Santos in Prague in February.
Diego Sanchez’s UFC career has been mixed, but he will be looking to carry on the momentum gained from back-to-back victories when he fights in the main card opener against Michael Chiesa. Maverick himself is looking to get his career back on track after losing to Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis, before stepping up to welterweight for most recent bout—a win against Carlos Condit.