UFC 223 Early Preview: What Are the Biggest and Best Fights Set for Brooklyn?

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistMarch 5, 2018

Khabib Nurmagomedov will finally face off with Tony Ferguson at UFC 223.
Khabib Nurmagomedov will finally face off with Tony Ferguson at UFC 223.Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

UFC 223, the biggest MMA event of the spring, is approaching quickly—and it's worth getting excited about.

While many recent UFC pay-per-views have relied heavily on the novelty of seeing up-and-comers, UFC 223 is rife with established, elite-level talent.

              

Date: April 7, 2018
Location: Brooklyn, New York

                 

Full Card (Bout Order TBA)

  • Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
  • Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk
  • Calvin Kattar vs. Renato Moicano
  • Michael Chiesa vs. Anthony Pettis
  • Al Iaquinta vs. Paul Felder
  • Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Felice Herrig
  • Ray Borg vs. Brandon Moreno
  • Joe Lauzon vs. Chris Gruetzemacher
  • Bec Rawlings vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith
  • Alex Caceres vs. Artem Lobov
  • Evan Dunham vs. Mairbek Taisumov

There is a lot to sift through with this card, but what is the best fight? Read on to find out in Bleacher Report's early preview.

Conor McGregor has been gone for a long time, but his presence is still being felt.
Conor McGregor has been gone for a long time, but his presence is still being felt.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

                

Story Entering UFC 223

Conor McGregor hasn't stepped into the Octagon since 2016, but his shadow still looms large over the UFC.

That has hit the promotion's most talent-rich weight class, the lightweight division, particularly hard as it has become a battleground for the bickering between its champion and company brass. The 155-pound titleholder will not take a dollar less than he thinks he deserves, while the UFC is trying to lower his asking price by showing the promotion is just fine without him.

The men caught in the middle of, and harmed the most by, this situation are Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov.

In another time, Ferguson and Nurmagomedov would already be regarded as all-time-great-caliber fighters. Ferguson's in-cage creativity, knack for scoring finishes and inhuman cardio have already cemented his spot above the crowded lightweight pack.

Nurmagomedov, at the same time, has cultivated a persona as one of the most terrifying figures in MMA. Raised in war-torn Dagestan and groomed from a young age to be Russia's finest combat athlete, he has lived up to his pedigree in the Octagon by ferociously mauling all comers.

Having two elite mixed martial artists come together to settle a yearslong beef is interesting under almost any circumstances. Still, it's hard to look over the card and not feel like there's a McGregor-shaped hole.

Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov have been set to face off many times in the past but have yet to fight.
Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov have been set to face off many times in the past but have yet to fight.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

                  

Main Event: Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov

In a vacuum, Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov is an amazing fight and remains the biggest bout on this card despite any outside issues. In fact, a strong case can be made it's the most compelling matchup the UFC can make.

Both men's resumes are beyond dispute, with Ferguson on a 10-fight UFC winning streak (with seven finishes) and Nurmagomedov sporting a perfect 25-0 record. Their combined trophy mantels include a slew of recognizable names, including Rafael dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, Josh Thomson, Michael Johnson and Kevin Lee, and neither has had much trouble amassing those victories.

The two have risen to the top of the pack side by side, but each time it seemed their paths would cross, one thing or another (or yet another) would get in the way. Despite the potential for fan exhaustion with the pairing, enthusiasm has remained steadily high since they were first linked in 2015, and rightly so. It's impossible to guess how it will pan out.

Will Ferguson wilt when faced with Nurmagomedov's savage wrestling attack? Will Nurmagomedov crumble under Ferguson's relentless pace? The world is dying to know.

Rose Namajunas will have to prove her win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk wasn't a fluke at UFC 223.
Rose Namajunas will have to prove her win over Joanna Jedrzejczyk wasn't a fluke at UFC 223.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

               

Co-Main Event: Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk 2

Jedrzejczyk wasn't just a UFC champion. That 12-pound belt was a part of her identity. 

Like a duck to water, Jedrzejczyk took to the life of a combat sports celebrity. She actively sought the spotlight and made the most of her time on camera in a way few others have. She swaggered on social media with impunity. She talked the talk on the microphone and walked the walk on the canvas.

And then she lost to Namajunas at UFC 217, getting rocked early in the first round and finished shortly thereafter. It was a stunning upset that raised one simple question: What the heck happened?

Did Jedrzejczyk lose her edge after changing gyms? Had the wear and tear from her lengthy combat sports career added up? Is the cut to 115 pounds too difficult for her at 30? Was November 4, 2017, just an off day? Or had the talented Namajunas turned a corner and become a championship-level competitor?

Those questions will be answered at UFC 223.

From a pure X's and O's standpoint, there is plenty of reason to doubt how Namajunas holds up against Jedrzejczyk.

Namajunas isn't known for her power-punching game and, in fact, has historically struggled against gifted strikers. Unless she can score another quick knockout or quietly has a better-than-advertised set of wrestling skills, everything on paper suggests Jedrzejczyk will once again be able to demand people call her Joanna Champion.

Still, it's impossible to ignore how their UFC 217 bout went. That mystery, coupled with the guaranteed high-level action, makes this the best fight on the card—and arguably the best on the UFC calendar.

Anthony Pettis just hasn't looked the same in recent years.
Anthony Pettis just hasn't looked the same in recent years.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

                 

Best of the Rest

Michael Chiesa vs. Anthony Pettis: Pettis is still in a tailspin three years removed from losing the UFC lightweight title, but the promotion isn't giving him much help. He faces a tricky Chiesa next, and Chiesa will likely give him issues in all areas of the cage and thus send him deeper into the loss column.

Al Iaquinta vs. Paul Felder: Iaquinta seems to have buried the hatchet with the UFC brass and still seems to be a bona fide top-10 lightweight. He will have the chance to cement his place among the division's elite with a bout against the surging Felder.

Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Felice Herrig: Strawweight veteran Herrig has found new life in her career over the past year and has a massive opportunity. Set to face Kowalkiewicz (the last woman to beat Namajunas), she has a chance to force her way into the title picture and get a shot at the belt that has long eluded her.

Ray Borg vs. Brandon Moreno: Moreno and Borg are compelling flyweight talents. Unfortunately, they are also both coming off losses. One needs to win to maintain his legitimacy as a top-end contender in the division.

Evan Dunham vs. Mairbek Taisumov: Taisumov has quietly been one of the lightweight division's best fighters in recent years, consistently thrashing opponents in the UFC's smaller European shows. He gets a big step up in both visibility and opposition here, as he is set to fight lightweight veteran Dunham.

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