New York City has always held my attention.
From Saturday Night Live and Patrick Ewing’s Knicks to being the birthplace of hip hop and setting for countless iconic shows, “the city so nice they had to name it twice” has always been at the center of my pop culture and sporting life.
It always has — and likely always will — feel like a place where anything can happen and quite often does, and even though I’m older now, big events in “The Big Apple” still have a different feel to them.
That includes UFC 295, which takes place this weekend at Madison Square Garden.
Some will argue that losing the original main event — a heavyweight title clash between Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic — has taken some of the shine off the UFC’s annual November event at MSG, but a quick scan of the card shows there are still heaps of exciting fights and promising talents poised to step into the Octagon on Saturday night, and the new interim heavyweight title fight represents a chance for the promotion to really go all-in on a youth movement heading into 2024.
Tomorrow’s fight card is aces from top-to-bottom, and as always, we’re here to provide you with a primer on the competitors to keep a close eye on and the fights that matter most.
Now you’re in New York! New York! New Yo-orrrrrrrrk!
FIGHTER TO WATCH: JOSHUA VAN
You know your baseball friend that is real charged up about the kid his favourite team just drafted that go assigned to Double A last week and is two, maybe three years away — at least — from having an impact with the big club?
I’m that guy with UFC prospects and Joshua Van is one of those fighters I’m long-term planning around. The reason I’m all-in on Van now is because I was too dismissive heading into his short-notice debut and instantly recognized the error of my ways.
The 22-year-old, who was born in Myanmar and fights out of Houston, rolled into the Octagon and completely out-worked Zhalgas Zhumagulov, a 21-fight veteran. Although he’s only been a pro for a tick over two years, Van is already 8-1 with a UFC victory under his belt, crispy hands, and an abundance of upside as he continues to learn, grow, and develop.
What’s cool about his fight this weekend is that rather than getting hustled up the divisional ladder after taking on and taking out a battle-tested opponent like Zhumagulov, Van has instead been paired off with Dana White’s Contender Series graduate Kevin Borjas, who won the first bout of the most recent season and is also in the early days of his career.
The two were supposed to meet on DWCS before Van was called up for his fight in June, and now they’re reconnecting in NYC.
Just like with those baseball players that get a ton of hype out of the gates, there are no guarantees that Van is going to pan out and become a perennial contender or Top 15 talent in the flyweight division. But he’s 22 years old, shows obvious promise, and has five years before he even starts inching into his physical prime.
Flyweight is poised to become one of the premier divisions in the UFC in the coming years — if it’s not there already — and Van could be someone we hear from a great deal as the 125-pound ranks rise to greater prominence.
FIGHTER TO WATCH: LOOPY GODINEZ
If Van is the long-term prospect that is just getting started, Loopy Godinez is one that has me grinning from ear-to-ear now that she’s thriving on the biggest stage in the sport.
Godinez touched down in the UFC in the spring of 2021 after just five pro fights, quickly earning a reputation as a strong grappler, tough out, and intriguing newcomer in the strawweight division. Since dropping a catchweight bout against Angela Hill last summer, the 30-year-old Mexican-Canadian has gone 3-0, posting decision wins over Cynthia Calvillo and Emily Ducote before absolutely beasting Elise Reed last time out at Noche UFC.
Am I biased because Godinez trained in Vancouver prior to decamping for Guadalajara two fights back, where she trains with flyweight queen Alexa Grasso and Diego Lopes, who we’ll talk about shortly?
Is it because her two sisters — Ana and Karla Godinez Gonzalez — wrestled at the University of the Fraser Valley right here and Abbotsford, where I live, for a couple coaches I know a little bit, before moving on to represent Canada as part of the National team?
Maybe a little, but it’s also because Godinez has sharpened her striking a great deal since teaming up with the crew from the Lobo Gym, and when you add that to her strength, power, outstanding grappling, and genuine affinity for getting into a fist fight, it combines to make her someone that could make waves in the 115-pound weight class in the not too distant future.
She faces a stern test this weekend at UFC 295, where she’s matched up with Tabatha Ricci, who has rattled off four straight victories after dropping her short-notice debut up a division. Like Godinez, “Baby Shark” is a grappler at heart, but she is more of a tactician and technician, where Godinez is more of a bulldozer.
Both women are currently stationed in the Top 15 — Ricci at No. 10, Godinez at No. 13 — and if Godinez is able to post a fourth consecutive win while pausing Ricci’s ascent, she could find herself sharing the cage with a Top 10 opponent next.
Bonus note: provided she doesn’t get too banged up here, I fully expect her to lobby to be on the January 20 fight card in Toronto after missing out on the opportunity to compete in Vancouver earlier this year.
FIGHTER TO WATCH: DIEGO LOPES
Lopes is teammates and training partners with Godinez in Mexico, and already one of the breakout fighters of 2023 in the UFC.
The 28-year-old Brazilian made his promotional debut on May 6 at UFC 288, dropping a competitive decision to undefeated Russian Movsar Evloev; he accepted the fight four days earlier.
Most people — myself included — expected Lopes to get rolled because (a) he took the fight at the outset of Fight Week, coming in cold, and (b) Evloev is super-talented and highly skilled, but the aggressive grappler proved us all wrong by taking the fight to his unbeaten adversary and sending his stock skyrocketing despite landing on the wrong side of the scorecards.
Lopes followed that up by submitting Gavin Tucker in 98 seconds in his first full-camp appearance in the Octagon, jumping into a triangle choke attempt when the Newfoundland native looked to grab a single leg and eventually adding an armbar into the submission mix for good measure.
The man with the 2010 Bieber mullet — swoop in the front, party in the back — is an all-action addition to the 145-pound weight class and the kind of attacking fighter that you just can’t take your eyes off whenever he’s in the cage. Sabatini is an excellent test at this point, and there are no guarantees that Lopes will ever ascend beyond his current place in the divisional hierarchy, and d’you know what?
It doesn’t matter.
Fighters like Lopes are must-see TV and whether he becomes a contender or not, you should make a point of watching him compete and thank me later.
That being said, he’s so dynamic, so aggressive, and working with such a great crew that I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see him work his way into the Top 15 in 2024.
INTERIM HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE FIGHT: SERGEI PAVLOVICH VS. TOM ASPINALL
Here’s what I said ahead of Aspinall’s return to action in July and the complexion of the heavyweight division at the time:
On paper, (Aspinall) matches up well with Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic, the two men that will battle for the heavyweight title in November at Madison Square Garden, and his abilities on the ground would likely make him the favorite over Gane as well.
(Sergei) Pavlovich looms as a dangerous dance partner for anyone in the division — a monster of a man with bazookas on the end of his arms and sniper-like marksmanship — and it’s likely that the two will cross paths at some point in the not-too-distant future.
To be clear: I get stuff wrong all the time too, because a week later, I suggest Dricus Du Plessis was going to get whacked by Robert Whittaker and the exact opposite transpired.
These two behemoths were always going to run across one another and I am absolutely fascinated to see how things play out on Saturday, because perhaps more than any championship pairing in recent memory, there’s far more about Pavlovich and Aspinall that remains unknown than there is that is known about them each.
Each has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the UFC — Pavlovich has earned six straight first-round knockout victories, while Aspinall is 6-1 and his only defeat came in a bout where he tore his ACL just 15 seconds into the contest.
Both are not your typical lumbering, low output, limited cardio heavies — they’re big, yes, but they’re athletic and nimble, and the question about how that will carry over should this fight escape the first round is one of the main points of interest. So too is how each of them will hold up when faced with the other’s best attacks, as neither has really been tested much inside the Octagon.
Losing the fight between Jones and Miocic took an historic contest off the board, but make no mistake about it: this is the better fight to figure out the future of the heavyweight division in the UFC, and it should make for captivating theatre on Saturday night at MSG.
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE FIGHT: JIRI PROCHAZKA VS. ALEX PEREIRA
Just as it does in the co-main event, the spectre of Jon Jones looms over this contest as well because in the nearly four years since “Bones” edged out Dominick Reyes to retain the light heavyweight title before ultimately relinquishing the belt and venturing to the big boy ranks, things have been chaotic at the top of the 205-pound weight class.
Let’s get one thing crystal clear before continuing though: any mention of things being messy since Jones’ departure has to — HAS TO — acknowledge that they were equally, if not more messy, during long stretches of his segmented reign over the division.
Prochazka won the title at UFC 275 in Singapore, submitting Glover Teixeira in the final 30 seconds of a fight he was on track to lose, but was forced to vacate the title before ever getting the chance to defend it after suffering a serious shoulder injury; this is his first fight back.
Pereira won the middleweight title in the main event of last year’s MSG extravaganza, knocking out Israel Adesanya in the fifth round of a fight he was losing, but dropped the title back to “The Last Stylebender” in April before relocating to the light heavyweight ranks this summer and posting a split decision win over former champ Jan Blachowicz.
Now the two powerful, but dramatically different strikers clash in NYC with UFC gold hanging in the balance and folks rightfully cannot wait to see these two marauders get locked inside the Octagon with one another.
Both contain menacing power, with Prochazka being a more creative, unorthodox striker in comparison to Pereira’s technical, classic kickboxing approach, making this is one of those fights that could go 25 seconds or 25 minutes, and no matter how long it does last, I’ll have that anticipatory tension and excitement coursing through my body, knowing the next shot could be the one that ends the fight.
Not every fight carries that kind of energy, but this one does, and you do not want to miss it.