Stand and Deliver: UFC on ESPN 27
Illustration by Ben Duffy / Sherdog.com
In some ways, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while every fight counts, some seem to matter more. In some cases, the reasons are easy to define. Imagine the fighter on a losing streak who knows he’s probably fighting for his job; or conversely, any clash over Dana White’s Contender series, where two hopefuls know the brass ring is within their grasp if they can win impressively. In other cases, a fight seems particularly important for reasons more difficult to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the pressure of being a pioneer of MMA in his country, or the added spice of two fighters who really hate each other, this fight just means a little more.
This weekend, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to the Apex in Las Vegas with UFC on ESPN 27. For a column dedicated to highlighting which fighters are under fire to perform right now, the headliner provides one of the most extreme cases of this phenomenon we’re likely to ever see. More on that in a moment.
The rest of the dozen or so fights that make up “UFC Vegas 32” also feature many athletes in high pressure situations. There are old prospects looking for a second chance and a few who are probably looking at their last chance. There are also a few late replacements who will have a fighter facing the unreasonable expectations of a crushing betting favorite. Here are three fighters under pressure to stand up and deliver at UFC on ESPN 27.
Now or never, all or nothing, TJ Dillashaw
Dillashaw was one of the steepest drops from grace of any of the best fighters in MMA history. In three months, he went from being one of the sport’s top five pound-for-pound fighters to an example of pride in his unsuccessful attempt to become a two-division champion, and finally a drug-tainted outcast. Now he’s coming back, and although MMA loves second chances – including the UFC, whose promotional videos depicting the suspension as something that happened to Dillashaw rather than something he did to himself – even are a hilarious exercise in historical revisionism – this is probably his last chance.
It’s no exaggeration to say that in many ways Dillashaw’s legacy rests on his headlining fight against Cory Sandhagen in Saturday’s main event. Such is the fate of an elite fighter returning from a high-profile suspension for performance-enhancing drugs: Dillashaw’s past, as well as his future accomplishments, become suspect. The former bantamweight champion has the potential to tarnish, or start validating, a decade of work in 25 minutes or less. If he does poorly, even in a winning effort, and especially if his once-stellar pace and cardio isn’t on display, there are a large number of fans who will conclude that erythropoietin was Dillashaw’s secret sauce from the start. . It doesn’t matter if he’s a 35-year-old man with a very hectic style, who returns after more than two years in a division that is generally not kind to the elderly. It may not be entirely fair, but again, this is a situation of its own.
On the other hand, redemption – real redemption, not a promoter who sweeps things under the rug – is here to take. It’s a simple two-step plan: one, don’t fail another drug test; and two, winning fights. It starts this weekend at the Apex.
The nickname is about to get ironic, Maycee Barber
As 2019 drew to a close, “The Future” was about as relevant as one could find in mixed martial arts. Barber, who was only 21 at the time, was 8-0 with seven finishes and mutilated his top three UFC opponents. His status as an MMA-trained prodigy literally from childhood, his physique, his aggressiveness and his finishing instincts, all pointed to a fighter who would be a flyweight contender sooner rather than later.
Eighteen months later, Barber is on a two-game losing streak and is in danger of becoming the past, at least for the UFC roster. The first of those setbacks, against Roxanne Modafferi in one of the biggest upheavals of 2020, was at least partly excused by a battle injury from Barber, and an incredibly tough and cunning opponent in “The Happy Warrior” who took full advantage. More concerning was Barber’s loss to Alexa Grasso in February, as Barber found herself outclassed and beaten for two of the three rounds by a former strawweight who was generally considered a striker. More than the simple “L”, it was the first time that a healthy barber was unable to impose his will on an opponent.
That brings us to this Saturday and the main card clash with Miranda Maverick, perhaps the hottest prospect in the division. Like Barber, Maverick is young, athletic and energetic. Unlike Barber’s top 10 opponents, Maverick will likely enter the cage as a betting favorite. The UFC’s choice to match Maverick and his five-game winning streak against Barber in a two-fight skid looks like feeding old lions to young ones, as ridiculous as it sounds when referring to a fight between 23 years old and one of 24 years old. Barber’s job is likely secure even if she loses this weekend, but all the last vestiges of her blue chip status are absolutely on the chopping block.
Don’t Get Down As “The Bread Truck Guy” Mickey Gall
Looking back, was it inevitable that Gall’s career in the UFC would be associated with gadget and sideshow fights? After all, he signed up for promotion as a 1-0 fighter with the chance to become Phil Brooks’ first opponent in MMA. After easily calling on Mike Jackson to win the “CM Punk” derby, and then doing an equally quick job of Brooks himself, Gall choked on Sage Northcutt, who was seen as another symbol of the hype machine. of the UFC and his unsuccessful search for new stars, but in fact turned out to be a UFC-level welterweight.
After Northcutt’s victory in December 2016, things took a turn for the worse. Imagine if Gall had gone from there to become one of the Top 10 welterweights; it’s easy to imagine yourself saying, “Can you believe he was originally brought in to fight CM Punk?” as a humorous note that enhanced, rather than defined, his career. Instead, Gall stagnated, alternating wins and losses, mostly against fighters who were later knocked out of the UFC, and the narrative is closer to “Can you believe the guy is still here?” Even if your columnist loves Jackson, if he’s the only fighter you’ve beaten that’s still on the UFC roster – as is the case with Gall – that’s not very good-looking.
Gall’s job can be sure even with a loss to Jordan Williams on Saturday. The 29-year-old is, after all, quite a paper 5-3 in the UFC. However, his chances of dropping more than a footnote – or Mike Perry’s latest Octagon win – are about to wane.