UFC 303 takeaways: No theatrics needed, Alex Pereira is MMA’s biggest star

UFC 303 takeaways: No theatrics needed, Alex Pereira is MMA’s biggest star

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A 13-fight card at UFC 303 in Las Vegas was headlined by a dominant title fight performance from Alex Pereira vs. Jiri Procházka. In the co-main event, Dan Ige stepped in on short notice, but Diego Lopes put the promotion on notice that he’s ready for the center stage. But what were the biggest moments from International Fight Week, and who were the biggest standouts on the card? Brett Okamoto, Andreas Hale and Jeff Wagenheim offer their final thoughts.

Wagenheim: It just keeps getting better for Alex Pereira. Merely agreeing to this title fight, taking it on just two weeks’ notice and while he was out of the country and far away from his training gym, was legendary enough. But his performance on Saturday elevated the UFC light heavyweight champion into the stratosphere.

Pereira’s head-kick knockout 13 seconds into Round 2 of the UFC 303 main event, after dropping former champ Jiri Procházka with a left hook right at the horn ending the opening round, left the crowd at T-Mobile Arena stunned and eager for more from this electrifying powerhouse. Maybe it’ll be another title defense at 205 pounds, or perhaps he’s ready for a move up to heavyweight.

In Pereira’s postfight interview inside the cage, commentator Joe Rogan was already trying to sell the heavyweight move, which could catapult “Poatan” toward an unprecedented achievement. In just nine trips inside the Octagon, he has already captured the championship at middleweight and light heavyweight. No one has ever won UFC belts in three weight classes.

“I think that’s in my future,” said Pereira, who was a two-division kickboxing world champ in another sporting life. “I said that last time I was here. … There didn’t seem to be much interest in the organization. … I think the fans have a lot of say in this — whatever they want. In the end, these are the people paying for this. If this is what they want, it is going to be inevitable.”

On the one hand, the UFC’s heavyweight division doesn’t need to add to the existing gridlock between champion Jon Jones, interim champion Tom Aspinall and ex-champion Stipe Miocic. And the 205-pound division could still use Pereira’s star power, which was shining brightly before this night but now is dazzling.

But there’s no micromanaging a phenomenon like Pereira. If you’re the UFC, you find him the most intriguing opportunities out there and let him achieve more of what, just a few short years ago, no one saw coming.

This is not the second coming of Conor McGregor, whom Pereira replaced on Saturday. The Irishman is the biggest star the sport has ever seen, but his impact was built far beyond the cage and, these days, is nearly all about melodrama. Pereira, by contrast, is all fighter. His mic time is straightforward and spoken through an interpreter. What makes him a star like no one else in the UFC is all about what happens once he steps into the cage. It begins with his chillingly stoic stare during introductions and ends with a chillingly scary knockout. Fans will happily eat up more of that rather than tired theatrics.


Lopes and Ige earn star treatment after UFC 303

Hale: Yes, Diego Lopes picked up the victory and extended his winning streak to four in a row with a unanimous decision win over Dan Ige. However, the real story is just how this fight ended up happening and how Lopes and Ige delivered despite having no idea they would be fighting one another until about four hours before it happened.

Let’s start with Ige.

On Saturday morning, he was going to the fights as a fan. By Saturday night, he was in the co-main event and had a strong final round as he sought to pull off what would have been a remarkable upset in a fight he had no business being in.

As for Lopes, he could have pulled out of this fight at any time. He could have shot down the weight limit for his fight with Brian Ortega being bumped up to 155 pounds on Friday morning. When Ortega fell ill and had to pull out, Lopes didn’t have to risk facing another opponent, especially one as tough as Ige, at a catchweight of 165 pounds. But he did it.

Winning and losing don’t necessarily matter as much as the guts it took for both fighters to keep this co-main event together and deliver an exciting fight for the fans.

Ige has now etched his name in the history books and established a legacy that will be remembered. Whatever he wants next, give it to him — so long as it doesn’t interfere with Lopes’ plans.

As for Lopes, his arrow was already pointing at the ceiling. If he wants to fight at UFC Noche at The Sphere, do it. If he wants a fight with someone such as Alexander Volkanovski — whom he called out afterward — give it to him. If Volkanovski is down.

Stars were born on this night, regardless of the victor. Stars sometimes receive favorable treatment because of their status, and Lopes and Ige should feel inclined to call in a favor or two going forward.


Moment of truth coming for Machado Garry

Okamoto: The UFC has orchestrated Ian Machado Garry’s career beautifully. Truly. And Machado Garry has repaid the UFC by evolving and turning himself into a proper welterweight contender. He has taken appropriately timed steps up in competition, and it hasn’t always looked like a walk in the park, but that might be a good thing. A close split decision win against Geoff Neal in February and another close one on Saturday against Michael Page — these experiences are valuable to his overall arc, and he has maintained his perfect record even in these close ones.

That said, there is no building now. Machado Garry has entered the echelon of the division where it’s going to be hard to find holes to exploit. As good as it’s been to see him come out of these challenging situations on top, there’s also something to be said about those challenging situations themselves. Machado Garry has not always looked supremely comfortable in different facets of these fights. He has overcome that with self-belief, excellent decision-making and very good skills, but again, there won’t be such clear paths to victory against future competition.

By the way, his history of bouncing around gyms doesn’t seem to be holding him back. And in fact, it’s hard to say it’s a bad thing that in a fight like the one against Page, he has trained Dutch-style kickboxing with the likes of Henri Hooft, but now also has the Muay Thai Chute Boxe style in his corner, not to mention Demian Maia. In general, it’s usually not viewed as a great thing when fighters bounce around gyms, but it certainly seems to be working for Machado Garry.



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