Sitting Octagon-side at UFC 187 was one of the highlights of my year as a mixed martial arts reporter. I had inexplicably found myself in 'Sin City' at the end of May, having flown out from Dublin on a couple of days' notice. While I was already looking forward to a lot of the bouts that were on display that night at the MGM, I did not think that witnessing them firsthand would have been an option for that particular event.
The fact that Jon Jones had been forced out of his meeting with Anthony Johnson was a bone of contention among fans and media alike, and although the preliminary card was nothing to write home about, the main card was as explosive as any in recent memory. So much so in fact, that Jones' name was nearly forgotten about until the newly crowned light-heavyweight champion mentioned it after the main event.
Without a doubt, the heavyweight clash between Andrei Arlovski and Travis Browne is one of the most exciting rounds of fighting I have ever witnessed. Two goliaths stood in front of each other throwing devastating shots and both competitors met the canvas before Arlovski's hand was eventually raised. While Browne was the favorite to claim victory, the bout reintroduced the Belarusian to the heavyweight ten years after he claimed UFC's interim heavyweight strap against Tim Sylvia.
UFC 187 felt like the first time that Chris Weidman received the ovation that he deserves. Meeting Vitor Belfort, a contest that was a year in making due to various withdrawals and postponements, Weidman received a hero's welcome in Vegas. It was our first time witnessing the Brazilian post-TRT and despite the obvious changes to his physique, Belfort still managed to cause Weidman some trouble early on. Famously, Weidman eventually brought the contest to an end in the first round and in his post fight interview he instructed the crowd to 'stop doubting' him, which might go on to be remembered as a pivotal moment in the champion's career.
And that was only the co-main event. Daniel Cormier smothered Anthony Johnson in their light-heavyweight championship meeting before he submitting him with a rear-naked choke in the third round. 'DC' locked his sights on Jones and then Bader afterward to add to the drama. The overriding feeling I left Vegas with after the event was—'How is UFC 189 going to top that?'
Somehow, it did.
It had been 25 years since Irish fans had been so impassioned by a sporting event, and that week in Vegas they brought a carnival atmosphere to fight week. Sinead O'Connor, the all-night parties on the strip, Conor McGregor's endless sound bites and Chad Mendes stepping in as a very late replacement—before the fight even got under way the it was something that UFC fans had never seen before. The main event itself played put like a pantomime as Mendes silenced the McGregor's manic Irish support by putting the Dubliner on his back. The arena exploded in the second round when 'The Notorious' took the victory in the second round via TKO. An unforgettable atmosphere.
Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald fought in the most memorable welterweight championship showdown ever in the co-main event. It was five rounds of fury, devastation, heart and determination. It was a war, a fight that both men will be heralded for, for the rest of their lives.
The entire main card was of the highest quality that night. Thomas Almeida's flying knee KO of Brad Pickett, Gunnar Nelson's rear naked choke victory over Brandon Thatch and Jeremy Stephen's third round dispatch of Dennis Bermudez—the night was perfect from a spectator's point of view.
The frightening thing about it is, UFC 194 might be better than both of those blockbuster cards, at least on paper.
Outside of the metaphysical matchup between Ronda Rousey and Cris Cyborg, there is no fight that has been more eagerly anticipated than Jose Aldo versus Conor McGregor and the pair will finally meet to unify the featherweight titles at the December event.
This time, instead of fighting Belfort, a man who physically looked a shadow of his former self at UFC 187, Chris Weidman takes on Luke Rockhold in what seems to be a complete toss up between the two Americans. If that weren't enough from the middleweight division, the long-awaited meeting of Yoel Romero and Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza takes place on the same night.
To the joy of grappling fans around the world, jiu-jitsu icons Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson finally meet on December 12, the winner of which could be thrust into the shark tank at the top of the welterweight division. Surging Hawaiian featherweight Max Holloway meets the always-exciting Jeremy Stephens as well, where 'Blessed' will look to bolster his outside chance at title contention with an eighth consecutive win in a row.
It seems like a mouth-watering matchup is added to the MGM date every day. For a lot of MMA fans, the delight of a fight announcement is usually followed quickly by an overwhelming pang of doubt that someone might not make it to the dance—UFC 194 is filled with prime examples of bouts that elicit that very reaction. For the thousands of fans that will no doubt travel from Ireland, uttering words that rhyme 'Aldo' or 'rib' could get you in trouble.
Especially considering champions Aldo and Weidman, their luck when it comes to injuries hasn't been the best—the defense of their titles is really what gives the event it's glowing shine. Then there is Romero versus 'Jacare'—another bout that we will have patiently waited for since February to happen, but again a series of injuries have ruled the competition out in the past. It seems to happen with every card—UFC 187 and UFC 189 suffered the two biggest casualties imaginable in Jones and Aldo.
The names on a card can never really guarantee for an action-packed night of fights, but UFC 194's star-studded roster nearly makes for an exemption to the rule. Even though it is the fight itself that makes the difference, the names on the card mean everything right up until that takes place, and right now, we have every reason to get very excited for December 12.