By Isaac Feldman
The main and co-main events at UFC 231 — taking place Saturday night in Toronto — combine some of the themes we’ve seen in the world of mixed martial arts over the last few years.
Let’s take a look:
Missed weight and missed opportunities
Max “Blessed” Holloway, the UFC featherweight champion, is fighting Brian Ortega in the main event. Holloway had to pull out of their first scheduled bout at UFC 226 in July due to undisclosed health issues. Holloway appeared drowsy and unresponsive in a FOX Sports interview, leading to speculation over whether he possibly was suffering from post-concussion symptoms or the ill effects of a problematic weight cut. But Holloway’s issues didn’t start in July. The New York State Athletic Commision denied Holloway the chance to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 for a historic second belt because of what the NYSAC deemed a drastic weight cut.
Missing weight is very common in MMA. The UFC and other organizations are trying to find a formula that will prevent a fighter from serious health fallout — even death — because of a steep weight cut. Holloway, 27, is rumored to walk around at north of 180 pounds, but hits the scales under 145.
On Friday morning, Holloway officially weighed in at 144.5 pounds; Ortega weighed 144.75.
The UFC had instituted a morning weigh-in (at 8 a.m. local time) to theoretically give fighters more time to recover from their depleted physical state. But missed weights remain a big problem.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the former UFC women’s champion at strawweight (115 pounds), also has been in the spotlight for what’s happening on the scales. There’s emerging research into the difference between men’s and women’s weight cuts. Female fighters have said weight-cutting affects their hormones and is especially difficult during a menstrual cycle. When Jedrzejczyk lost her title at UFC 217, it was later revealed, she was extremely weakened from her weight cut. Jedrzejczyk hired a new nutritionist to ease her drastic weight cut.
Around the same time, the UFC started a 125-pound division, which enables the Polish fighter to worry more about her skills and less about tipping the scales. Jedrzejczyk (15-2), who faces Valentina Shevchenko for the vacant title, has the opportunity to become the first woman in UFC to be a two-division champion. Jedrzejczyk said this week that she might return to 115, but her decision may change if she makes history.
The year of undefeated superstars
Holloway’s challenger is Ortega, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) prodigy. “T-City” is the UFC’s newest poster boy. The 27-year-old is a good-looking and well-spoken young fighter. The BJJ black belt brings another undefeated record (13-0) into the Octagon for a title fight in 2018.
The UFC has made it pretty obvious what they look for in developing young talent into superstars: Be a great fighter and an even better promotional tool. In 2018, UFC has pushed undefeated fighters such as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Darren Till into title fights to see if they sink or swim. Nurmagomedov and Till are foreign fighters — from Russia and England, respectively — who are good on the mic and have an aura that MMA fans gravitated to in Conor McGregor’s pre-title fight days. The same is true for Ortega, who already carries himself like a champion. The Mexican-American grew up in inner-city Los Angeles and got into martial arts at a young age. Winning the featherweight title would give Ortega a bigger platform for his positive message. The UFC would not mind if Brian Ortega was the new face of the organization.
The uncrowned queen
Shevchenko has had two of her past four scheduled fights cancelled because her opponent couldn’t make weight or had an injury. In the past, "Bullet" has been at a considerable size disadvantage pitted against elite fighters. At UFC 215, Shevchenko fought at bantamweight (135 pounds) against Amanda Nunes, who was at least 15 pounds heavier on fight night. Nunes’ obvious strength advantage and bigger frame resulted in a unanimous decision win over Shevchenko. Nunes has since moved up to featherweight (145 pounds) — she’s fighting at UFC 232 later this month.
Shevchenko (15-3) is fighting Saturday night for the UFC’s inaugural women’s flyweight (125 pounds) title. It’s perfect timing for Shevchenko, who can now fight at a more natural weight, without the clear size discrepancy. Expect Shevchenko to be a mainstay in the flyweight division.
Follow @ike_cbs, @TheHoffWFAN and @_OutsideTheCage on Twitter for all your MMA and UFC coverage. Listen to their "Outside The Cage" podcast. The next live post-fight show is Dec. 9 after UFC 231 midnight-2 a.m. EST on CBS Sports Radio.