Stand and Deliver: UFC on ESPN 24

By Ben Duffy May 5, 2021
Ben Duffy/ illustration

In some ways, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But while it is true that every fight matters, some feel more important, for any number of reasons. In some cases, the elevated stakes are easy to define. Picture the fighter on a losing streak who knows he or she is likely fighting for their job; or conversely, any matchup on Dana White's Contender Series, where two hopefuls know that the brass ring is within their reach if they can win impressively. In other cases, a fight feels especially important for reasons that are harder to quantify, but no less real. Whether it’s the symbolic heft of being a pioneer in MMA from one’s country, or the simple added spice of two fighters who really hate each other’s guts, that fight means just a little more.

This weekend’s UFC on ESPN 24 lost its headliner and best fight when T.J. Dillashaw was injured in training a week ago, then lost one of its two most recognizable names when Diego Sanchez was released by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The promotion patched the holes in the boat with available materials, putting together a flyweight main event featuring two ranked strawweights, and keeping Donald Cerrone on the card by replacing Sanchez with Alex Morono. Despite the shakeups — or in some cases because of them — there is no shortage of fighters at “UFC Vegas 26” under a little extra pressure to stand and deliver.

No Letdowns, Marina Rodriguez

Rodriguez is 3-1-2 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but a decent argument can be made that she should be 6-0 (and therefore 16-0 overall). Her pair of majority draws against Randa Markos and Cynthia Calvillo and her split decision loss to Carla Esparza were all close, contentious affairs that were scored in her favor by a majority of media observers. Her most recent win, a second-round knockout of Amanda Ribas, was contentious as well, but in the other direction, as she had been getting the worse of things until a gaffe by referee Herb Dean changed the whole tenor of the fight. Nonetheless, the Ribas win represented the best victory of Rodriguez’s career to date, and catapulted the 34-year-old Brazilian into Sherdog’s strawweight Top 10.

By comparison, Rodriguez’s opponent in Saturday’s makeshift main event, Michelle Waterson, has greater name value than Ribas but would appear to be in a worse place competitively, and Rodriguez is a comfortable 2-to-1 favorite. In other words, “The Karate Hottie” appears to be a good next step for Rodriguez on her way to possible title contention. However, Waterson is in fact a sneaky trap fight, and woe betide Rodriguez if she looks past it in any way. However you scored the Markos, Calvillo and Esparza fights, what all three had in common is that Rodriguez had problems staying off the canvas, despite Markos not being known for her offensive wrestling and despite Esparza being one of the smallest fighters in the division. Waterson is another undersized strawweight, but despite her nickname, a big part of her surprising success in the UFC has been her effective wrestling and willingness to lean on it. If Waterson is able to negotiate Rodriguez’s superior reach and get her hands on the taller woman with any regularity, it’s anyone’s fight, and an upset would be a major blow to Rodriguez’s aspirations.

Prove You Didn’t Jump the Line, Gregor Gillespie

Is Gillespie’s UFC career over if he loses to Diego Ferreira on Saturday? Barring something freakish, almost certainly not. However, “The Gift” took a very fast track to his first Top 10 opponent, thanks to his college wrestling credentials and his undefeated MMA record. It turned out to be too much too soon, as Kevin Lee picked up a highlight-reel knockout in the first round of their fight at UFC 244. It’s 18 months later, and the UFC has not given Gillespie a soft bounce-back fight. Quite the opposite, in fact: Ferreira is another Top 10 fighter who arguably presents a worse stylistic matchup for Gillespie than Lee did.

One bad loss, like Gillespie suffered against Lee, is a speed bump, and plenty of future champions hit one on their way up. Two losses in a row, especially if Ferreira defeats Gillespie convincingly, would be an indication that he is not ready for ranked opposition. That’s fine, but he would need to win his way back up via the ladder he more or less skipped the first time around, and at 34, that would be a huge setback. In effect, Gillespie is at a career-defining crossroads this weekend. Despite the ridiculous depth of the UFC lightweight division, there is actually a bit of a need for fresh faces in title contention, but that window of opportunity will not be open for long. Gillespie can ill afford a slip right now.

Opportunity Knocks, Alex Morono…Better Open Up This Time

In some ways, Morono is playing with house money this weekend. Stepping up on just a few days’ notice to appear in his first co-main event, against a living legend and one of the UFC’s most recognizable stars in Donald Cerrone, the ratio of risk to reward appears slanted in favor of the 30-year-old Texan. He gets a fight with unprecedented visibility, a winnable matchup and — though fighters don’t think this way — the built-in “yeah, but” asterisk of the late-notice opponent, should he lose. All that on top of an unexpected paycheck sounds like a very good deal indeed for “The Great White.”

And it is, but there’s another narrative at work. Morono is a more than respectable 7-4 with one no contest since joining the UFC, but finds himself stuck in the monster logjam that is the No. 25-50 range of one of the promotion’s deepest and most cutthroat divisions. For fighters to break out of that jam into even the fringes of contention can sometimes take a six- or seven-fight winning streak; just ask someone like Vicente Luque or Belal Muhammad. One thing that can help a welterweight rise above the noise is a win over a big-name opponent. Morono had a shot last December, in the form of a matchup with former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champ Anthony Pettis. Morono came up short that night, as “Showtime” found himself in trouble in the first round, but rallied to sweep the second and third. In stepping up to face “Cowboy,” Morono once again has the chance to elevate his profile with the average fan. He needs to take advantage, because in the UFC 170-pound division, it’s rare enough for opportunity to knock once, let alone twice.

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