The biggest show of the year ends the UFC's biggest year on pay-per-view and marks the end of three straight nights of action in Las Vegas, Nevada, home of the UFC. UFC 194 takes place on Saturday night with two title fights headlining one of the deepest cards in company history. The main card comes your way on pay-per-view at 10 PM eastern time following preliminary card action starting at 6:30 PM eastern time on UFC Fight Pass before heading to FS1 at 8 PM eastern time.
The most-anticipated fight in UFC featherweight history finally takes place in the main event as long-time UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo takes on his rival, Interim UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor, in a fight that has been over a year in the making. In the co-main event, we have a second title fight as UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman puts his undefeated record on the line in his title defense against the rightful top contender, former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Luke Rockhold. Also on the card are numerous ranked fighters including Urijah Faber, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Max Holloway, Gunnar Nelson, Demian Maia, Jeremy Stephens and Yoel Romero. Let's take a deeper look into this amazing card as we bring you five storylines to keep your eye on at UFC 194 on Saturday night.
1. Can Conor McGregor dethrone Jose Aldo's reign as the king of the featherweight division?
The fight that has been over a year in the making is finally here after a big false start. The one that all of the fans have been talking about, waiting for, clamoring for. You can argue all you want about whether this is the biggest fight in UFC history, and while it may not be at the very top, it certainly is among the biggest fights in UFC history. It is definitely the biggest fight in the history of the featherweight division, a division that has been dominated since 2009 by UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo. Many have challenged Aldo, some have taken him to the limit, but 18 straight men have fallen victim to him one way or another. Nine straight of those fallen men have come in challenging him for the gold. Through it all, there has been one man wanting, willing, needing to take that championship away from Aldo for good, and he has gotten there by putting down 14 straight men who have been put in his path for gold. That man is Irish superstar Conor McGregor.
After over a year of hype, these two men will finally step foot inside the Octagon across from each other on Saturday night in the UFC 194 main event. When Herb Dean says "let's fight", it will finally be on. They were supposed to meet at UFC 189 in July, but Aldo pulled out of the fight two weeks before due to a rib injury. It wasn't the rib injury that kept him from actually fighting, but it would have likely prevented Aldo from making weight, thus forcing him to pull out. McGregor used this for more ammunition against Aldo, but he was still put with one final task laid out in front of him in the form of Chad Mendes on that July 11 night. No matter the circumstances surrounding how little preparation Mendes had, he still came to fight and controlled the first eight minutes of the fight. McGregor was in positions he had never been in, but he maintained his composure and still did fine work. Mendes gassed out in the second round, and McGregor felt that and finished him in the second round to win the Interim UFC Featherweight Championship.
McGregor is going to have the size advantage over Aldo, with two inches in height and four inches in reach. Aldo is one of the absolute best fighters in the world and has been for a long, long time. He does only have three wins by finish since winning the championship, and one was due to his opponent blowing out his shoulder. He lands a lot of kicks, and he will look to exploit that against McGregor. McGregor will likely let him kick, allowing Aldo some confidence, all while trying to land a counterpunch. Aldo can get hit with counters, and McGregor has some of the best striking in the division. McGregor lands a lot of punches, but he does tend to eat a lot of punches as well. He has shown he has a chin, eating some big right hands from Mendes. Aldo's ability to vary his strikes between his hands, kicks and knees will play a big factor. Aldo may also go for a takedown, and McGregor can be taken down. Both are effective on the ground.
There is going to be a lot of emotion in this battle. It has been building for a long time. No matter what each may say, they are in the head of each other. Aldo may shrug it off, but he clearly gets more affected by things than McGregor does. There have been rumors that Aldo may be done after this fight, but he has denied that, though any time those talks creep in, you have to worry about mindset. If we are talking about what is best for business, obviously a McGregor win would be huge. He is a superstar whether you like him or not. Everyone has a differing opinion, but the people react to him like he is somebody. His antics, the mouth, the way he is has gotten him the attention, but his fighting has backed it up. It is his chance to put that gold around his waist for good. To do it, he is going to have to beat the best. As they say, to be the man, you've got to beat the man.
2. Is this just the first fight in what could be a heated rivalry between Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold?
UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman is undefeated in his career, and he did something that Conor McGregor is attempting to do, and that is beat the long-time king of his division. Weidman scored a stunning knockout over Anderson Silva at UFC 162 in July 2013 to become the champion at 185 pounds. He defended the title over Silva in a rematch five months later, had a classic battle in winning a decision over Lyoto Machida in July 2014, and, most recently, scored a convincing stoppage of Vitor Belfort at UFC 187 in May. Injuries have slowed Weidman from being an active champion as this is only his seventh fight since the calendar turned to the year 2012. At 13-0, Weidman is on the way to being an all-time great, and all-time greats often have a defined career rival. Weidman may have found his in Luke Rockhold.
Rockhold has earned his title opportunity on the heels of four straight stoppage wins, scoring wins over Machida, Michael Bisping, Tim Boetsch and Costas Philippou. He is a former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion and has won 13 of his last 14 fights, with the lone blemish being to a TRT-ridden Belfort. He is the second best fighter at 185 pounds behind Weidman, and may be the man that can turn Weidman's loss column from zero to one. These two are closely matched and extremely well-rounded. Weidman has a lot of power and can end a fight with one punch, and he has strong wrestling to back it up, with good top position and underrated submissions. Rockhold is a pressure fighter and moves well on his feet, has good takedown defense, and can fight on the ground and off of his back as well. Rockhold has better conditioning of the two.
When it comes to that conditioning, Rockhold is a fighter that cuts a lot of weight. He is a huge middleweight. Weidman is a huge middleweight as well, but he approached this fight differently in being the lightest of his career. He weighed 192 pounds weeks away from the fight, and doesn't have to do that huge cut he normally does. It should help his conditioning, and that is something that will be needed. Rockhold is going to push the pace with his aggressiveness, and it will be Weidman's toughest fight to date. It will also be Rockhold's toughest fight to date. These two men are so evenly matched that if they fought 20 times, they'd probably each win ten. Both have very few weaknesses. In what will likely be the first of many battles, I see Rockhold's footwork and defense being the key difference in this one. It may get the best of Weidman this time, but they are on their way to being career rivals, and this likely won't be the last time they fight.
3. Who finds themselves as the next contender at 185 pounds when Ronaldo Souza and Yoel Romero square off?
In a fight that has been brewing for quite some time, middleweights Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Yoel Romero will finally fight after seeing prior bookings between the two being cancelled twice due to injuries to both men. Since the two were originally scheduled to meet in February at UFC 184, they have each fought once. Souza scored a submission win over Chris Camozzi in April after Camozzi replaced Romero, who pulled out due to injury. Romero had the bigger win in scoring a super impressive knockout win over Lyoto Machida in June. Both have firmly established themselves as the top two men at 185 pounds behind Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, and UFC 194 on Saturday night is being set up as a mini-tournament at middleweight, with the winner of both fights likely to square off next barring the need for a rematch between the Weidman and Rockhold winner.
Both men have some age on them, with Souza being 36 and Romero being 38, and this may be the last time either man has the chance to secure a title shot. They both have decorated backgrounds from where they came from. Souza is a world champion in jiu-jitsu, and Romero is an Olympic medalist in wrestling. Both men have muscular frames, though recent pictures have shown Souza has lost a little bit of size, whether it be due to drug testing or to the elimination of IV's. When it comes to the fight, Romero is more explosive and has better movement on the feet. The grappling battle will probably be negated as both have strengths, but in the event it goes down, the submission game belongs to Souza. This is a big toss-up but I do see Romero's power, his ability to pressure a fight and win in the clinch, where Souza struggles, being the different in edging a close decision.
4. Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson have an interesting battle in front of them. Who takes it?
A big way to tell how stacked this card is the placement of a welterweight bout between Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson. This could main event a lot of Fight Night cards but is finding itself on the biggest card of the year in what should be a very competitive grappling battle. Maia's grappling credentials are well-known and he has won three straight fights heading into UFC 194 on Saturday. Nelson is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a 14-1-1 record, and 13 wins by stoppage, with ten coming by submission. He is an excellent striker with a background in karate and is very adept at closing the distance. Training alongside Conor McGregor has him fully prepared for a striking battle, and his grappling experience has him primed for a ground battle.
This is going to be an interesting battle between two grappling wizards. Maia is the better wrestler of the two, and Nelson is the better striker of the two. Maia works excellently from the top and Nelson works well both on top and bottom. Nelson has better ground-and-pound and is more aggressive than Maia when he has opponents on their backs. Nelson closes well on his feet and has some big power in his hands, but he does leave his hands down and opens himself up for counterstrikes. Maia is not someone who will knockout Nelson, but he will use his boxing to set up the trips and takedowns. This is a tough fight to call and an interesting one to boot. It could turn into a boring and methodical affair, though, and if one makes a mistake, the other will exploit it. I lean toward favoring Nelson due to his striking in what will be a close contest.
5. Is this the best card of all time?
UFC 194 is the card of the year, and it may very well be the best card of all time. All ten of the main card competitors are ranked inside the top 12 of their respective divisions, and we have a handful of ranked fighters competing on the preliminary card. Rounding out the main card is an excellent featherweight bout between Max Holloway and Jeremy Stephens. Holloway has been on quite the rise at 145 pounds, having won seven straight fights to make himself a legitmate title contender. He gets another tough opponent in Stephens, who has vicious knockout power and is coming off a knockout win over Dennis Bermudez in one of the best fights of 2015 at UFC 189 in July.
Urijah Faber headlines the preliminary card, moving back down to 135 pounds and taking on Frankie Saenz, winner of seven straight fights. While not the highest-profile bout for Faber, he has two straight wins at 135 pounds, and finds himself on a collision course for a fight against former teammate T.J. Dillashaw. If Faber and Dillashaw both win their fights, that is expected to be the next title fight at 135 pounds. In women's strawweight action, undefeated Tecia Torres takes on RFA champion Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger, making her UFC debut on short notice as an injury replacement for Michelle Waterson. The card also features three former "TUF" winners. Warlley Alves puts his undefeated record on the line against another undefeated fighter, Colby Covington. Leonardo Santos takes on rising lightweight Kevin Lee, who has won four straight fights. Finally, Court McGee returns from a two-year layoff to take on Marcio Alexandre Jr. This is a deep card with a lot of fun fights on Saturday night.
Full UFC 194 Fight Card, Betting Odds and Predictions
MAIN CARD (PPV- 10 PM ET/7 PM PT)
UFC Featherweight Championship: (C) Jose Aldo vs. (IC) Conor McGregor
Betting Odds: Aldo (-105), McGregor (-115)
Prediction: McGregor by knockout in round 3
UFC Middleweight Championship: (C) Chris Weidman vs. (#1) Luke Rockhold
Betting Odds: Weidman (-135), Rockhold (+115)
Prediction: Rockhold by decision
Middleweights: (#2) Ronaldo Souza vs. (#3) Yoel Romero
Betting Odds: Souza (-150), Romero (+130)
Prediction: Romero by decision
Welterweights: (#6) Demian Maia vs. (#12) Gunnar Nelson
Betting Odds: Maia (-115), Nelson (-105)
Prediction: Nelson by decision
Featherweights: (#5) Max Holloway vs. (#8) Jeremy Stephens
Betting Odds: Holloway (-550), Stephens (+425)
Prediction: Holloway by decision
PRELIMINARY CARD (FS1- 8 PM ET/5 PM PT)
Bantamweights: (#4) Urijah Faber vs. (#13) Frankie Saenz
Betting Odds: Faber (-750), Saena (+525)
Prediction: Faber by submission in round 2
Women's Strawweights: (#5) Tecia Torres vs. Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger
Betting Odds: Torres (-300), Jones-Lybarger (+250)
Prediction: Torres by decision
Welterweights: Warlley Alves vs. Colby Covington
Betting Odds: Alves (+100), Covington (-120)
Prediction: Alves by decision
Lightweights: Leonardo Santos vs. Kevin Lee
Betting Odds: Santos (+500), Lee (-700)
Prediction: Lee by knockout in round 3
PRELIMINARY CARD (UFC FIGHT PASS- 6:30 PM ET/3:30 PM PT)
Lightweights: Joe Proctor vs. Magomed Mustafaev
Betting Odds: Proctor (+305), Mustafaev (-365)
Prediction: Mustafaev by decision
Lightweights: John Makdessi vs. Yancy Medeiros
Betting Odds: Makdessi (-165), Medeiros (+145)
Prediction: Medeiros by decision
Welterweights: Court McGee vs. Marcio Alexandre Jr.
Betting Odds: McGee (-175), Alexandre Jr. (+155)
Prediction: McGee by submission in round 2