While UFC 209 lacks the start power of a Conor McGregor, it does have two top-bill bouts that should satisfy even the most die-hard fan. John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Saturday night's UFC 209 lacks the star power of Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey.
Instead, the event at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas features a double bill at the top that should satisfy even the hardest-to-please hardcore fight fans: a welterweight title rematch between champion Tyron Woodley and challenger Stephen Thompson and a five-round tilt between lightweight standouts Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.
Woodley (16-3-1) vs. Thompson (13-1-1) is a runback to their first bout at UFC 205 in November. The duo went 25 memorable minutes at New York's Madison Square Garden, with Woodley all but finishing Thompson in the fourth round, then Thompson rallying to nearly win it in the fifth. One judge voted Woodley the winner, but the other two ruled it a draw, and Woodley retained the title via majority draw.
Little has changed in either fighter's strategy leading up to the second fight. Woodley, of Ferguson, Mo., is a former University of Missouri wrestler who blends his grappling skill with heavy hands. Thompson, of Simpsonville, S.C., is a kickboxing savant nicknamed "Wonderboy" who likes to throw flashy strikes from the outside, then rush in and finish the job.
Both fighters nearly won during the first bout in the moments in which they dictated the flow, so whoever can impose his will best likely will come out the winner.
For his part, Woodley feels he won the first fight, but was willing to accept the rematch in order to satisfy public demand and leave no doubt he is the champ.
"I can say what I think the reasons why the rematch is happening," Woodley said. "But obviously, the fight was a draw according to the judges, and it was a Fight of the Night, the biggest card in UFC history, so everyone wants to see it again and I'm ready to roll."
Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, meanwhile, is a bout hardcore fans have long craved. Nurmagomedov (24-0), a native of Dagestan who often trains in San Jose, Calif., has been unstoppable in the cage. A combination of elite Russian sambo grappling and ruthless ground-and-pound offense has Nurmagomedov unbeaten in eight UFC matchups, with only a two-year absence due to knee injury from April 2014-April 2016 able to slow him down.
Ferguson (22-3), meanwhile, has earned his spot the hard way. The Ventura, Calif., native got little promotional push from the company and earned his way into the spotlight by winning fights in an exciting manner until he could no longer be ignored. He carries a nine-fight winning streak into the bout and pocketed $50,000 Fight of the Night or Performance of the Night post-fight bonuses in each of his past five bouts. A decision victory over former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in November helped him earn this week's spot.
"I'm going to make history," Nurmagomedov said. "I'm going to break this guy. He thinks he's tough, but when cage (closes), me and him alone inside the cage, I'm going to break this guy."
"You ain't breaking (expletive)," Ferguson responded.
The bout is being contested for a questionable UFC interim lightweight title belt. Fans and insiders alike have come to ridicule the UFC's over-dependence on such belts in recent years. The belt is being awarded this time because McGregor, the current lightweight champ, is out on sabbatical expecting the birth of his first child. But in this case, fans have overlooked the belt as a promotional prop, since it means a fight they long wanted to see is scheduled for five rounds as a title fight instead of the three-rounder it would be otherwise.