Saturday should go down as the night the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s featherweight division closes the door on the Conor McGregor era.
Champion Jose Aldo (26-2) will meet interim champ Max Holloway (20-3) to unify the titles in the main event of UFC 212 at Jeunesse Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will also end a saga that began with McGregor knocking out Aldo in just 13 seconds to claim the gold in December 2015.
The Irish superstar never attempted to defend the 145-pound belt, instead splitting a pair of huge-money welterweight matches with Nate Diaz, then knocking out Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden last November to win the UFC lightweight title.
But the division had to soldier on while McGregor focused his attention elsewhere. Aldo, of Manaus, Brazil, defeated former lightweight champ Frank Edgar last July to claim a UFC interim featherweight title, then was promoted to the full championship when McGregor was stripped of the featherweight belt after winning the lightweight title.
Then, in a convoluted bit of promotion, with an unhappy Aldo threatening retirement because he was passed over for a rematch with McGregor in favor of the Alvarez fight, the UFC crowned Holloway, of Waianae, Hawaii, an interim champ by virtue of a December win over another former UFC lightweight champ, Anthony Pettis.
Since then, it’s become apparent McGregor, who had to starve himself down to the featherweight limit, is never fighting at 145 pounds again, if he ever fights mixed martial arts at all. If his hoped-for boxing match with Floyd Mayweather comes off, he’s expected to make enough money to never have to fight again, if he so chooses.
Aldo, for his part, believes McGregor knows deep down that the knockout was a fluke, and as such, never wants to have a rematch.
“The UFC tried to make this fight happen again, and it didn’t (happen),” Aldo said through an interpreter. “The guy does not want to fight with me again. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with me anymore and that’s fine. It happened. It’s in the past.”
Holloway, likewise, says it’s time to for everyone to move on.
“At the end of the day, he was the 2015 champ, you know?” Holloway said. “This is two years later already. He never, ever once talked about defending the ’45 belt, ever.”
While McGregor’s fans will forever hold the loss over Aldo’s head, every fighter gets caught at some point. McGregor himself once lost in short order to a journeyman named Joe Duffy on the European regional circuits.
And Aldo vs. Holloway, on its own merits, is one of the finest fights on paper in 2017.
Aldo was the linear world featherweight champion for six years, winning what was then the World Extreme Cagefighting title, which later became the UFC title, in November 2009.
With precise striking capability and next-level footwork, Aldo won 18 consecutive fights, including nine successful UFC/WEC title defenses. The 30-year-old Aldo answered critics who thought the McGregor loss indicated he was past his prime with a masterful performance in shutting down one of the game’s all-time greats in Edgar last summer.
Holloway, though, just might be “The Next One” at 145 pounds. Holloway was just 21 when he dropped a unanimous decision to McGregor in 2013, the only UFC fighter ever to take McGregor the distance at featherweight. Since then, he’s rattled off 10 consecutive victories, each more impressive than the last, using speed and a dynamic kickboxing style to mow through the opposition.
The evening’s co-feature bout showcases a pair of strawweight fighters who are looking to get back into title contention. Brazil’s Claudia Gadelha takes a 14-2 record into her fight with Poland’s Karolina Kowalkiewicz, who sits at 10-1. Their combined three career losses have all come at the hands of the UFC’s dominant 115-champion, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, leaving their bout a battle for relevance in the divisional scheme.