EDMONTON, Alberta — Max Holloway finds himself in a rare position on Saturday.
When he steps into the cage to face Frankie Edgar in the UFC 240 main event, “Blessed” will be just the second UFC fighter to enter a title defense coming off of a loss (the other was fellow Hawaiian B.J. Penn who fought and beat Kenny Florian at UFC 101 seven months after losing a welterweight title fight to Georges St-Pierre). Holloway’s last fight saw him lose a unanimous decision to Dustin Poirier with an interim title on the line this past April, a result that snapped a stretch of 13 straight wins for the champ.
On the other side, Edgar is getting his third shot at winning featherweight gold, a feat that would make him just the eighth fighter to capture titles in two UFC divisions. It’s been seven years since Edgar reigned as UFC lightweight champion and claiming a title that has eluded him so many times in the past could propel him up the all-time pound-for-pound rankings.
The stakes are also high for Cris Cyborg in the co-headliner. How will she rebound from just the second loss of her career, a stunning first-round KO at the hands of Amanda Nunes that cost her the featherweight championship? As usual, she’s a heavy favorite, but for the first time in ages there is an aura of vulnerability around the longtime titleholder, especially considering the rapid rise of her opponent, undefeated Felicia Spencer.
In other main card action, Geoff Neal faces Niko Price in what is nearly guaranteed to be a welterweight thriller, Olivier Aubin-Mercier looks to stop a two-fight skid when he meets blue chip lightweight prospect Arman Tsarukyan, and Canadian Marc-Andre Barriault fights veteran Krzysztof Jotko in a middleweight bout.
What: UFC 240
Where: Rogers Place
When: Saturday, July 27. The two-fight early preliminary card begins at 7 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN+, followed by a four-fight preliminary card on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
Two words: And. New.
(Full disclosure, this author has a bias towards Frankie Edgar from his pre-professional days, so take this pick with many, many grains of salt.)
Make no mistake, it’s going to take the best fight of Edgar’s career to pull off the upset here, and even that might not be enough. Take the speed he showed in his battles with B.J. Penn, the in-and-out movement he used to frustrate heavy hitters like Jeremy Stephens and Sean Sherk, the wrestling he used to dominate Yair Rodriguez, and the killer instinct he showed against Chad Mendes and Gray Maynard and that might not be enough.
There’s no simple solution for Holloway at 145 pounds, given the size and reach advantage he has over most of his opponents and more importantly, the skill with which he employs these physical gifts. Getting past Holloway’s jab will be an absolute nightmare for Edgar, who may concede a round or two figuring Holloway out. Any fighter who thinks they can gut it out during Holloway’s early offense will find themselves quickly tiring and becoming easy pickings for the champion in the later rounds.
Edgar is smarter than that and Holloway has yet to face an opponent with his mixture of technique and resilience (Aldo had the technique, but not the ability to come back once Holloway poured on the pressure in either of their matchups; Ortega had the comeback potential, but couldn’t match Holloway’s volume). There are few fighters who can mix up their wrestling and striking like Edgar and if he can land a few timely takedowns, it will change the whole complexion of the fight.
A lot of ifs will have to go Edgar’s way, but the timing could be just right for him. Maybe his team saw something in the 25 minutes that Holloway spent in a losing effort against Poirier. Maybe Holloway’s weight cuts are starting to catch up to him. Maybe Edgar has just the right combination of veteran savvy, endurance, and precision boxing to defuse Holloway.
Maybe, just maybe, Saturday evening ends with the words “and new” and an old soldier getting his hand raised.
Felicia Spencer absolutely has what it takes to defeat Cris Cyborg. It’s just not going to happen this weekend.
One box you can check off in Spencer’s favor is the fact that physically she’s a good match for Cyborg. A lot of the featherweight great’s previous opponents have been counted out as soon as her matchups are announced due to the fact that so many of them were clearly punching up in weight. Spencer is no blown-up bantamweight, she’s a solid ‘45er and she uses her strength well.
Megan Anderson learned that the hard way as she was bullied by Spencer en route to tapping out to a rear-naked choke submission, a maneuver that is quickly becoming Spencer’s signature finish. This could be the fight where we see Cyborg’s ground game tested, though the glimpses of it we’ve seen in the past have been promising and getting her down to the mat is another story altogether as her takedown defense is a proven commodity.
I picked against Spencer in the Anderson bout, badly overestimating Anderson’s ability to stifle Spencer’s grappling and I might be making the same mistake here. However, Cyborg is a step above Anderson across the board and she has more power than anyone Spencer has faced so far.
Cyborg by third-round TKO.
Niko Price has the gift and the curse.
As exciting as any fighter at 170 pounds, Price knows he can take a hit and fire back with even greater force if his opponent isn’t careful, and that has led to him being on both the giving and receiving end of some spectacular finishes. He can’t afford to gamble with Geoff Neal, who is establishing himself as a finisher of the highest order.
Neal has strong fundamental boxing skills and excellent timing on his counters. It’s that second factor that will be key in dealing with Price, an unorthodox fighter that is a legitimate threat to land a knockout shot from any imaginable angle (just ask Randy Brown). Price isn’t immune to being taken down either so if the fire gets too hot, Neal could just grab him and dump him on his back.
This fight is a test of whether Price can someday be a contender at 170 pounds or if he is relegated to the beloved, but competitively inconsequential ranks of the “action fighters.” On paper, Neal is the better striker and I like him to get the finish here in the first or second round.
I hate this matchup for both guys. If Olivier Aubin-Mercier loses, it will be his third straight and his UFC career will be in jeopardy; if Arman Tsarukyan loses, a 22-year-old prospect will fail to see his hand raised in his first two Octagon appearances. Style-wise, it should be a fun matchup, but considering the consequences looming over both their heads, it stinks.
It’s hard to have much faith in Aubin-Mercier these days, an standout who joined the UFC with a reputation as a grappling specialist. Sure enough, he has picked up his share of submission wins against opponents with limited ground games, but against an elite BJJ artist like Gilbert Burns and a relentless wrestler like Alexander Hernandez, he has floundered.
Tsarukyan is cut from much of the same cloth as Hernandez wrestling-wise and one could argue that he is even more adept at changing levels and manufacturing takedowns when his initial attempts are stuffed. He’s got an excellent motor and though Aubin-Mercier is difficult to put away, he’ll be in scramble and recover mode for much of this contest.
Tsarukyan takes the decision to earn his first UFC win here and “The Canadian Gangster” has to hope that the matchmakers give him one more kick at the can.
The best moments for Marc-Andre Barriault in his UFC debut were when he was aggressive. Unfortunately, those moments were few and far between and he was only able to show glimpses of the fighter that won titles at 185-pounds and 205-pounds in Canada’s TKO promotion.
He cannot allow Krzysztof Jotko to dictate the pace. Jotko has superior reach and he’s fought a higher class of opponent than Barriault. He’ll gladly keep his distance, picking Barriault apart with lunging jabs and leg kicks, so it’s imperative that Barriault be the one to step forward and force exchanges. Barriault has a respectable ground game too, but tangling with the long limbs of Jotko on the mat could be a recipe for disaster.
Predicting how a promising fighter will perform after a flat debut is an inexact science, but I’m willing to bet that Barriault was far from his best his last time out and that while he’s probably not close to peaking, he’ll show enough improvements to outpoint Jotko.