Matthew Semelsberger prepares to knock Alex Morono to the mat in a welterweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 277 on Saturday July 30, 2022 in Dallas. (Richard W. Rodriguez, Associated Press)
Estimated reading time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY – The last time UFC CEO Dana White was in Salt Lake City to promote UFC 278 earlier this summer, he released a nice but bold statement: mixed martial arts fighters from Utah would not be lost in the event.
“We’re doing 15 fights per card now,” White said before much was made official beyond the main card between Kumaru “The Nigerian Nightmare” Usman and Leon “Rocky” Edwards. “I’m sure we’ll end up with a few guys from Utah.”
Fast forward to the end of the summer, and on the eve of the promotion’s first-ever pay-per-view MMA card in the Beehive State, that promise has failed to materialize.
Twenty-two fighters will square off for UFC 278 at Vivint Arena beginning at 4:30 p.m. MDT on Saturday, but none are from Utah State. Of course, it’s not all about White or the UFC; a state that was once home to half a dozen UFC competitors has been reduced to just one fighter out of 700 contracted to the world’s top MMA organization.
When Court McGee, the Layton native who fights out of Orem, couldn’t recover from injuries sustained in his last fight in June at UFC Fight Night in Austin, the promotion was not in able to add a local fighter to the map. Kaytlin “Katniss” Neil competed on Season 30 of The Ultimate Fighter at the time, but the Lindon native fell short of capturing the TUF crown and was left without a current UFC contract.
So there haven’t been many options to sign a fighter up on a UFC contract for Saturday’s card, even in a preliminary fight.
Still, the high-profile event that sold out most Vivint Arena tickets on Friday afternoon was set to continue Saturday, headlined by a welterweight championship bout between UFC No. 1 Usman (20- 1) – considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter of the modern era with the longest active winning streak at 14 straight wins. One more win will tie him with Anderson Silva for the longest winning streak in UFC history.
Getting that victory is another matter, however, with challenger Edwards (19-3), whose 10-fight winning streak ranks third in UFC welterweight history. The Jamaica international, who fights outside of England, hasn’t lost since he first fought Usman, and he’s looking forward to making up for that fight in 2015.
Even if he had to ask his manager first where Utah is on a map. Not really; Edwards openly admits — often in colorful language unsuitable for publication — that he had no idea where Salt Lake City was when he was first assigned to headline arguably the biggest MMA fight in state history.
“When you’re a kid, you imagine Vegas or New York somewhere dramatic,” he added. “But a win is a win. I’m not disappointed.”
Edwards has been in Utah for two weeks, training and acclimating to the unique environment of the Wasatch Front. It’s a habit he’s developed over the course of his career and has served him well in adapting to, among other things, changes in altitude like what he’ll encounter in Salt Lake City.
“Usually the UFC takes you out on Tuesday of fight week,” said Edwards, who paid for the extra stay himself. “I wouldn’t have time then to acclimatize to the air, to the time zone.
“I don’t like to be rushed.”
Edwards and Usman both gained weight at Friday’s official weigh-in, tipping the scales at precisely 170 pounds to officially set up the highly anticipated rematch. The two main event co-fighters, former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and Paulo Costa, also gained weight in preparation for their fight.
The only cancellation came in a women’s bout when Shanna Young was pulled from the card due to a medical issue. The female bantamweight contender with a 9-5 UFC record was set to face Miranda Maverick.
Rockhold admits he’s never fought professionally in Utah, but he’s familiar with the state’s MMA scene. He was spotted earlier in the week training at The Pit with longtime friend Ramsey Niijem, who fights out of Orem. Both Nijem and Rockhold grew up in the Bay Area before Ramsey, 34, a former NCAA wrestling champion who was contracted to the UFC from 2011-15 after a stint on The Ultimate Fighter.
“Ramsey was always around my buddy Tark, sometimes in his corner,” Rockhold said during the UFC 278 media day. “They were working in the Bay Area. I’m always looking for the best guys around. .”
Another fighter who knows Utah well is third bantamweight Jose Aldo (31-7), the Brazilian superstar who follows the Utah Jazz. Saturday will be Aldo’s first fight in Salt Lake City, where he’s scheduled to face Georgia’s Merab Dvalishvili on the pay-per-view card — but it’s not the first he’s known to Utah’s sports fan base.
“A lot of positive energy. I followed what this city is because of the Utah Jazz, and I saw how they are,” Aldo said in Portuguese. “What I expect is for people to come out and be as enraged and passionate about the sport as they are about the Jazz. I think a lot of good things are going to happen.”
For Alexandr Romanov, the No. 13 ranked featherweight in the promotion, Salt Lake City ranks high in his pro saves. That’s because the 31-year-old Moldovan has never fought on a UFC card outside of the promotion’s Apex training facility in Las Vegas.
That means Romanov’s fight against Marcin Tybura on Saturday night will be his first since signing with the UFC in a full-size cage and likely with the biggest crowd since arriving in the United States.
“It will be a lot of fun for me,” Romanov (16-0) said. “It’s a really big opportunity to show that I’m ready to fight in the top 10.
“I come here for the title. I think guys who don’t think about the title, they don’t have a future in this division. I’m like a professional and I think I have to win 3-4 more fights and try to get a title shot.”
The UFC is making its first appearance in Utah since August 6, 2016, when rising featherweight Yair Rodriguez defeated Alex Caceres in the main card of the UFC Fight Night appearance.
This event drew 6,689 fans to Vivint Arena with a total gate of just $481,033, considered a low mark for the organization despite McGee’s inclusion on the card in a fight he won over Dominique Steele by unanimous decision.
Anyone in the organization will say that UFC Fight Night is a completely different beast of a pay-per-view card, from promotion to high-end fighters to a long list of festivities and parties before, during or around. of the fight that will be known as UFC 278.
But that makes UFC 278 more important to be considered a success, both in the local market and nationally. And that means more than just ticket sales and a full gate, but also quality and entertaining fights.
“I think there was a big budget to bring the UFC here, I’m pretty sure,” Rockhold said. “But I think MMA is growing all over the world, and that should be some inspiration.
“I heard the last one was empty, but we’ve put it on vacation. Hopefully we’ll put some people in the arena.”
The UFC has been in a completely different place since 2016. Back at Fight Night in Salt Lake City, Connor MacGregor was just weeks away from defending his title against Nate Diaz, and the UFC was gearing up for its first promotion. in Canada with UFC on FOX 21. The idea of a long-term deal with ESPN that would place the PPV cards under the ESPN+ streaming service ticket was almost inconceivable.
Six years later, the MMA scene in Utah has completely changed as well. Most are hoping for the best before Saturday.
“We won through a pandemic,” Aldo said, “and even with a pandemic, the UFC grew.”
Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City
Saturday, August 20 (4:30 p.m. MT)
Main Card (on ESPN+ PPV)
- Welterweight Championship: No. 1 Kamaru Usman (20-1) vs. No. 2 Leon Edwards (19-3)
- Average weight: No. 6 Paulo Costa (13-2) against Luke Rockhold (16-5)
- Bantam-weight: No. 3 Jose Aldo (31-7) against No. 6 Merab Dvalishvili (14-4)
- Female Bantamweight: Wu Yanan (12-5) against Lucie Pudilova (13-7)
- Mid-heavyweight: Tyson Pedro (8-3) vs. Harry Hunsucker (7-5)
Preliminary matches (on ABC, ESPN, ESPN+)
- Heavyweight: No. 11 Marcin Tybura (22-7) vs No. 13 Alexandr Romanov (18-0)
- Lightweight: Leonardo Santos (18-6-1) against Jared Gordon (18-5)
- Lightweight: Sean Woodson (9-1) against Luis Saldana (16-7)
- Welterweight: AJ Fletcher (9-1) against Ange Loosa (8-3)
Early Preliminaries (on UFC Fight Pass)
- Flyweight: No. 11 Amir Albazi (14-1) against Francisco Figueiredo (13-4-1)
- Bantam-weight: Aoriqileng (23-11) against Jay Perrin (10-5)
- Flyweight: Daniel Da Silva (11-3) against Victor Altamirano (10-2)