For the seventh time in eight years since the sport of MMA was legalized in the state of New York, the UFC will invade Madison Square Garden on Saturday for a pay-per-view card that has been highly anticipated since it was first announced.
The only problem with UFC 295, however, is that the faces above the marquee were changed at the last minute following an injury to heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Still, the show must go on as a pair of title bouts — one for the vacant light heavyweight belt and the other for the interim heavyweight strap — headline the event.
Let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering this weekend’s card.
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1. This is not your father’s UFC at MSG card
Ever since Conor McGregor headlined the first UFC event at Madison Square Garden at UFC 205 in 2016, the promotion’s annual trip to “The World’s Most Famous Arena” (save for a year off in 2020 due to the pandemic) has become a de facto “major,” akin to the Kentucky Derby in horse racing or the Masters in golf. Initially, adding the star power of Jones and Stipe Miocic to the main event made this feel like a superfight. If there was any chance UFC could justify raising prices so brazenly (nosebleed seats opened at over $900 apiece), pairing the sport’s G.O.A.T. against the greatest heavyweight champion in UFC history might have been it. But Jones’ injury created one heck of a star void atop the event, especially considering the undercard isn’t close to the typical standards of a deep UFC PPV at MSG. Fans will still receive two quality title bouts as former 205-pound champion Jiri Prochazka faces Alex Pereira and heavyweights Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall meet for the interim title, but this feels anything like a typical MSG affair.
UFC at MSG main events
|2016||Conor McGregor (c) vs. Eddie Alvarez (c)|
|2017||Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping (c)|
|2018||Daniel Cormier (c) vs. Derrick Lewis|
|2019||Jorge Masvidal vs. Nate Diaz|
|2020||No event (pandemic)|
|2021||Kamaru Usman (c) vs. Colby Covington 2|
|2022||Israel Adesanya (c) vs. Alex Pereira|
2. Pereira sits on the verge of insane combat history
Just two years and six fights into his UFC journey, the former two-division Glory kickboxing champion is just days away from potentially securing a second UFC title in as many weight divisions. It’s insane to think about considering Pereira was 33 when he made the full-time switch to MMA despite having just three pro fights (dating back to 2016) on his resume. Yet, the quiet and humble Brazilian slugger has enjoyed incredible success in such a short period. For all of the recent talk about Francis Ngannou’s switch to boxing, and a performance against Tyson Fury that suggests a potentially bright future, Pereira is the real two-sport combat freak. And now “Poatan” has the chance to add the always dangerous Prochazka to the list of current or former UFC champions he has defeated, which also includes Sean Strickland, Adesanya and Jan Blachowicz.
3. Prochazka returns to a light heavyweight division in full chaos
Luckily for Prochazka, the all gas and no brakes Czech kickboxer, chaos is what he has been accustomed to through just three UFC fights. The longtime RIZIN veteran never met a bout he couldn’t turn into a fan-friendly brawl, complete with explosive strikes and very little thought of defense. But Prochazka’s style has been effective as he currently rides a 13-fight win streak in his return from vacating the 205-pound UFC title he won by submitting Glover Teixeira, the mentor and trainer of Pereira, in their fight of the year at UFC 275. Prochazka’s injury, however, created a frantic timeline for the division. Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev fought to a disappointing draw for the vacant title in December before Jamahal Hill defeated Texeira for the belt one month later, only to then vacate it due to his own injury over the summer. One could forgive UFC fans for not having any clue who the best 205-pound fighter in the promotion actually is.
Last five UFC light heavyweight title reigns
- Jon Jones (2018-2020): 597 days*
- Jan Blachowicz (2020-21): 398 days
- Glover Teixeira (2021-22): 225 days
- Jiri Prochazka (2022): 164 days
- Jamahal Hill (2023): 174 days
*note: Jones’ three title reigns combined for 2,098 days
4. Is Sergei Pavlovich the next heavyweight destroyer?
The 31-year-old native of Russia has certainly looked the part over his last six fights, all of which Pavlovich won via first-round knockout. The win streak has been a far cry from the disastrous UFC debut for Pavlovich when he suffered his lone MMA defeat via first-round TKO to Alistair Overeem. Pavlovich has fought the five-round distance just once, under the Fight Nights Global banner back in 2017. That doesn’t mean we have any idea what he looks like inside the Octagon at the start of Round 2. With hulking power and size, Pavlovich is a threat for anyone and appears to be a scary force who could take over the division moving forward. And he enters as a slight betting underdog against the more well-rounded Aspinall, who accepted the fight on just two weeks’ notice after Jones announced his injury.
5. It’s obvious UFC still has huge plans for Mackenzie Dern
Despite just a 2-2 record over her last four fights, there’s still time for the 30-year-old Dern to make a marketable run as UFC champion. Questions remain, however, whether Dern can raise her striking up to the level of her phenomenal jiu-jitsu. Dern is still a bit of a mixed bag as a title contender. She has a great chin and a willingness to come forward yet struggles with takedown percentage and some of the finer technical parts of her game. The UFC has given her an opponent at MSG in Jessica Andrade, a former strawweight champion, who has fallen on hard times of late. The 32-year-old Brazilian slugger is just one year older than Dern but brings with her plenty of mileage. Andrade will fight for the fifth time overall in 2023, which is concerning only because she’s fresh off a three-fight losing streak — all by stoppage — over a span of just six months. Andrade hasn’t been particular in accepting assignments and could find herself under water on the ground in the type of fight designed to showcase Dern’s strengths in hopes of a title shot in 2024.