UFC 241 Card Loaded With Fascinating Storylines

Justin Barrasso
Sports Illustrated

UFC 241 takes place this Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Headlined by Daniel Cormier defending his Heavyweight title against former champion Stipe Miocic, 241 offers a combination of depth, marquee matchups and speculation over what comes next.

In addition to Cormier-Miocic, the card also features the return of Nate Diaz, who will step into the Octagon for the first time since August 2016 to face a scorching hot Anthony Pettis. UFC 241 also features a potential breakout star in middleweight Ian Heinisch, who looks to solve the Derek Brunson puzzle in his star-crossed journey to stardom.

As good as the card looks, the scenarios from the possible outcomes are equally as intriguing. If Cormier defeats Miocic, that sets up the potential for a rematch with Jon Jones. And if Diaz is able to overcome Pettis, then the logical move for his next fight is to have the finale of his trilogy with Conor McGregor.

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UFC president Dana White spoke with Sports Illustrated to provide a “State of the UFC” address before 241, touching on the fights and the potential fallout from the outcomes.

The main event for 241 is Cormier (22–1–1) against Miocic (18–3), which is a rematch of the July 2018 fight at UFC 226 when Cormier won the heavyweight title. Cormier knocked out Miocic in the opening round, and he is the favorite entering Saturday night’s event.

“All of that has to be answered on Saturday, but if Cormier wins, the Jon Jones fight is obviously a fight everybody wants to see,” said White. “But I also think that a fight between Cormier and Francis Ngannou is a fight people would also want to see, and that would be big for Cormier’s legacy.”

Standing 6'4", Ngannou is a force and would present an obstacle for Cormier, but he lost by unanimous decision to Miocic in January 2018. If Miocic wins, there is also the potential for a rematch with Ngannou, who has knocked out his past three opponents, but their first fight did not have fight fans clamoring for a rematch. A rubber match against Cormier would make the most sense if Miocic regains the title.

The welterweight fight between Anthony Pettis (22–8) and Nate Diaz (19–11) is also a matchup layered with possibilities.

Pettis is on an incredible hot streak after his return to welterweight. He finished Stephen Thompson in the second round during their fight this past March, looking like the same “Showtime” Pettis who once appeared on a Wheaties box. But there is also a tremendous amount at stake for Diaz, who makes his fighting return after three years away from the cage.

An integral part of the plot in this fight is if Diaz wins, does that finally open the door to a third match with McGregor?

“I can’t tell you what the Cormier-Stipe fight is going to look like, or what it will look like for [Yoel] Romero and [Paulo] Costa, but I guarantee there is no way in hell that the Pettis-Diaz fight isn’t incredible,” said White. “Pettis looked unbelievable in his last fight, and who knows what Diaz is going to look like after three years off, but one thing we do know is that anytime the Diaz brothers come to fight, they come to fight. I think that fight is going to be ridiculous.

“Should Pettis win, he’s in that 170-pound division and he did finish ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, and if he beats Diaz, you’re looking at absolute beasts in [Jorge] Masvidal, [Colby] Covington, [Tyron] Woodley, and obviously the champ [Kamaru] Usman. We’ll have to see how this fight looks and what’s next for him. Should Diaz win, I honestly don’t know. Nate Diaz is always unpredictable.”

The middleweight fight between Yoel Romero (13–3) and Paulo Costa (12–0) also holds implications both in and out of the cage. The biggest question is how Costa will respond to a dangerous opponent in Romero. A win will keep the 42-year-old Romero in contention for a title shot, but a victory by the 28-year-old Costa could make him the new force at 185 and the next Brazilian mega-star.

“If Costa wins this fight, it will automatically catapult him into the top three,” said White. “If you look at the way Costa fights, it’s impossible for that fight to suck. This guy just comes forward and does not stop punching, and Romero is a beast.

“We’ve got [UFC Middleweight champ Robert] Whittaker-[Israel] Adesanya coming up, and you also have [Kevin] Gastelum ranked third, so there are going to be so many fun fights.

The card also features a featherweight fight between Gabriel Benitez (21–6) and Sodiq Yusuff (9–1).

“When Yusuff fought on the Contender series, this guy pulled 3.5 million viewers,” said White. “That’s 3.5 million people watching this guy, those are massive numbers, and he is a rising star.”

UFC is in constant search of a breakout star, and there is no one better positioned for that spot than Ian Heinisch (13–1). Heinisch’s incredibly fascinating story includes time spent locked up in New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail that almost cost him his life but ended up changing him entirely. His opponent, Derek Brunson (19–7), is ranked eighth in the middleweight division, and a win by Heinisch is necessary to continue his climb.

“It’s been amazing to see Heinisch get ranked in the top ten so quickly after the Contender series,” said White. “He has a very unique story, and that’s going to be a very fun fight.”

White also remains focused on global expansion entering 241. UFC spent last weekend in Montevideo, Uruguay for a card headlined by women’s Flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko defeating Liz Carmouche, and the international flavor continues for the next six fight nights following 241.

“You can’t get any more international than us,” said White. “We went from Uruguay last week to Anaheim, and then we’re in Shenzhen, China for a [UFC women’s Strawweight champ Jessica] Andrade title fight, then go straight from there to Abu Dhabi for another title fight [for the Lightweight title between champ Khabib Nurmagomedov against interim champ Dustin Poirier], Vancouver, Mexico City, Copenhagen, then Melbourne, Australia for another title fight [Middleweight champ Robert Whittaker vs. interim champ Israel Adeanya].

“We’re going to Singapore, Brazil, and New Zealand all before the end of the year. Other than soccer, we’re the most international brand in the world.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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