This month in MMA: UFC’s International Fight Week still packs a punch

Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier will headline UFC 226 during International Fight Week in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

At its peak, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s International Fight Week was the mixed martial arts equivalent of Super Bowl week.

What started off as a tradition whereby the company would stage one of its biggest shows of the year on Fourth of July weekend morphed into a week-long celebration of the sport, with as many as three fight cards on as many nights; annual inductions into the company’s Hall of Fame; and a sprawling Fan Expo convention at Mandalay Bay.

Under new owner WME-Endeavor, International Fight Week has been trimmed back some, with the full-blown Fan Expo replaced with a scaled-down “UFC Fan Experience” event. But the 2018 version still packs a punch.

This week’s ledger in Las Vegas includes the 2018 UFC Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Pearl at the Palms Theater on Thursday, with a class headed by Ronda Rousey. The Palms will also host Friday night’s “Ultimate Fighter 27” Finale, which will crown the champion of the 27th season of the company’s flagship reality series.

Those will serve as the preliminaries to Saturday’s main event, which, as of this writing, is the most stacked card of 2018. The main event of UFC 226 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas features UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic (18-2) against light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier (20-1, 1 no-contest) for the former’s title. Miocic is looking to extend his UFC record of three straight heavyweight title defenses while Cormier, who was 13-0 at heavyweight before dropping to 205 pounds, looks to join Conor McGregor as the only two fighters in UFC history to simultaneously hold two weight-class belts.

Add to that bouts like the featherweight title fight between Max Holloway and Brian Ortega (see below), Francis Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis, and Michael Chiesa vs Anthony Pettis, and you understand why, even though International Fight Week isn’t quite what it used to be, it’s still worth marking on your calendar.

Men’s fight of the month: Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega, UFC 226, Las Vegas, July 7

Sure, we’ve already dug into International Fight Week, but we’ve got to give this fight a little extra callout. There are few fights that could be made in 2018 that better represent the best of the next generation of fighters than the bout between featherweight champion Holloway and top contender Ortega.

UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway takes a 12-fight win streak into his title defense against Brian Ortega. (AP)

Holloway (19-3) is gaining fans both through his new school, all-action style, a forward-moving buzzsaw of kickboxing motion which never allows opponents to catch a breath. But he’s also popular because of his old-school attitude. Holloway has proven willing to take on all comers even after making it to the top, a refreshing change of pace in a time when stars are more likely to pick their spots.

Holloway takes a 12-fight win streak into his title defense against Ortega (14-0, 1 no-contest), a Torrance, California native who has arrived on the scene and reminded folks that Gracie jiu-jitsu remains timeless. Throughout his rise, Ortega developed a knack for pulling off submissions in fights he was losing. Then he proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony as he became the first fighter ever to knock out Frankie Edgar at UFC 222 in the bout which sealed his title shot.

Women’s fight of the Month: Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Tecia Torres, UFC on FOX 30, Calgary, July 28

July is short on marquee women’s fights, but there are nonetheless a handful of interesting matchups on deck, as notable contenders try to work their way into title position. Such bouts including the flyweight matchup between Roxanne Modafferi and former Invicta champ Barb Honchak at the July 6 Ultimate Fighter Finale in Las Vegas; and the bantamweight scrap between popular Cat Zingano and streaking Marion Reneau at UFC Boise on July 14.

The best women’s fight in July is the strawweight matchup between former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and rising star Tecia Torres. (AP)

The best bout on the slate, though, is the strawweight matchup between former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and rising star Tecia Torres (10-2) in Calgary. Jedrzejczyk is 14-2, but her two losses are to Rose Namajunas, who knocked “Joanna Champion” out at UFC 217 and then retained the belt via unanimous decision at UFC 223. Torres is 5-2 in the UFC, but like her opponent, she is also looking to shake off a loss, a unanimous decision against Jessica Andrade on Feb. 24 which snapped a three-fight win streak.

Under the radar: Professional Fighters League off to hot start

The PFL has ambitious plans, as it will reward fighters in several weight classes $1 million checks at the end of a year-long series of bouts, which consist of a regular season followed by playoff tournaments in each weight class.

And while it remains to be seen whether the company will do the television ratings and ticket sales necessary to make the concept work in the long run, there’s no doubt the promotion’s first two cards, held in June, have been an artistic success. The regular-season format awards six points for a first-round finish, five in the second, four in the third, and three for a decision, which has made for furious, urgent action over the course of the first two rounds.

PFL returns to action on July 5 in Washington D.C., where marquee star Jake Shields (32-9-1) meets Ray Cooper III (13-4) in a welterweight main event (Trivia note: Shields fought and defeated Cooper’s father, Ray Cooper Jr., in a 2004 fight). PFL 4 will be held on July 19 at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.

Keep an eye on: Nick Newell’s “Contender Series” fight

For years, Nick Newell has wanted a chance to get into the UFC. The Connecticut native is a congenital amputee below his left elbow. But that hasn’t stopped him from racking up a 14-1 pro MMA record, with his lone loss coming to UFC lightweight star Justin Gaethje. The UFC has resisted signing Newell, in large part because of fears of bad press should a fighter with a disability get badly hurt in a fight.

Nick Newell will get his chance at a UFC contract when he fights on “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.” (AP)

But Newell may get into the UFC through the side door. Newell has signed for a July 24 bout against Alex Munoz (4-0) on “Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series,” which airs on UFC Fight Pass from the company’s Las Vegas gym. The series gives up-and-coming fighters a chance to fight in front of UFC president Dana White, with select winners getting offered a UFC contract. While Newell has plainly progressed beyond the level of most of the fighters who compete on the series, it appears this will be his best path to the UFC.

This month in MMA history

Brock Lesnar (top) puts the finishing touches on Frank Mir in their heavyweight title bout at UFC 100. (Getty Images)

July 11, 2009: What was for many years the biggest night in UFC history, UFC 100, went down at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Brock Lesnar unified the heavyweight title with a second-round TKO of interim champ Frank Mir in the main event; Georges St-Pierre retained the welterweight belt with a decision win over Thiago Alves; and Dan Henderson had a legendary knockout win over Michael Bisping. The 1.6 million pay-per-view buys was an MMA record which held up until the Conor McGregor era.

July 19, 2008: Affliction MMA put on its first show in grand style at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Fedor Emelianenko needed just 36 seconds to submit former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in the main event of a show that featured five former world champs. The UFC counter-programmed the show with a live card on basic cable featuring Anderson Silva, but the Affliction show still did 100,000 PPV buys and a $2 million live gate. The company, however, drastically overspent, and pulled the plug before what would have been its third show the following summer.

July 1, 2006: The Saitama Super Arena in suburban Tokyo was the setting for the PRIDE’s “Critical Countdown Absolute,” which featured the quarterfinals of the memorable 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix tournament. In tournament bouts, Josh Barnett needed 2:02 to submit Mark Hunt; Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira earned a decision over Fabricio Werdum; Mirko Cro Cop defeated Hidehiko Yoshida via TKO; and Wanderlei Silva did the same to Kazuyuki Fujita. The tournament was ultimately won on Sept. 10 by Cro Cop, who made Barnett tap to punches in 5:32.

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