Five championship bouts. Several other top-10 showdowns. A few high-profile rematches. More than a dozen fights featuring former world champions.
The UFC has quite a summer of fighting lined up. After taking this coming weekend off, the promotion makes a big splash on July 11 in Abu Dhabi with UFC 251, featuring a trio of title bouts. That will be followed by three more fight cards in the United Arab Emirates through the month, and then it’s back to the United States for a run that, by the end of August, will include five additional events. With lots of fights. Big fights.
The UFC will kick off its four “Fight Island” events with UFC 251, which features three championship bouts. In the main event, welterweight champion Kamaru Usman will defend his title against teammate Gilbert Burns. Prior to that, Alexander Volkanovski will put up his featherweight crown against former champ Max Holloway, and Petr Yan will face Jose Aldo for the vacant bantamweight belt.
Purchase UFC 251 here
UFC 251: Usman vs. Burns
• July 11, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
• 6 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN PPV
When I was asked to write about the five most anticipated fights of the summer, my initial thought was to assemble a list of the top dozen or so and circulate it among the ESPN team to get a consensus of which ones most resonate with the group.
“No,” I was told, “this is your list.”
Ah, yes, OK then.
It makes sense to approach the exercise this way, actually, because every fan will look at the summer schedule and have different fights pop out for them. We all have our own preferences. Some might point to those five title fights on tap between now and Labor Day and be done with their list. For me, title bouts represent less than half of my top-five listing. I did include three rematches, though, while other fans might avoid that type of booking, thinking, “Been there, done that.”
No matter your taste, there’s a fight for you. Several, in fact. Here are my picks:
Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier 3
Aug. 15 in Las Vegas
The August fight between Daniel Cormier, left, and Stipe Miocic has become one of the most anticipated trilogies in UFC history. Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
Let’s start with the fight on my list that’s farthest off in the future. Why? Because the UFC 252 main event is the fight of the summer — and I seriously doubt I am alone in that sentiment. The eager anticipation of finally getting to see Miocic and Cormier complete their heavyweight championship trilogy will fuel us through the sweaty dog days ahead. What could be better? Cormier knocked out Miocic in the first round in July 2018 to become a two-division champ. In the rematch 13 months later, Stipe overcame a rough start to regain his title with a fourth-round TKO. Who’ll fall this time?
There’s even added intrigue surrounding the third meeting. These two men started out on fairly cordial terms, but two years later their rivalry has an edge to it. That’s what happens when it’s just you and one other fighter spending an extended stretch jockeying for the throne that sits atop Heavyweight Mountain. There have been head games, microaggressions amplified to the point where these fellows seem to share this one sentiment: I definitely cannot allow myself to lose to that guy. With Cormier committed to retiring from MMA after this night, the result here will be his enduring final memory as an active prizefighter. And for Miocic, who has seen no one but DC in front of him for two years? He wants to get this man out of his face as soon as possible.
Bottom line: If I were singling out my most hotly anticipated fight of the summer, this would be it. If I were putting together a list of three must-see bouts, I might just go with this completion of the trilogy along with taped replays of Miocic-Cormier 1 and 2. Can’t wait.
If you like watching heavyweights …: Junior dos Santos vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik (Aug. 15), Derrick Lewis vs. Alexey Oleinik (Aug. 8), Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson (July 25).
Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till
July 25 in Abu Dhabi, UAE
Robert Whittaker explains how a Christmas Day training session made him feel burnt out, causing him to question if he still wanted to fight and to realize he needed a break.
Sometimes a champion is knocked off a throne and seemingly falls off the face of the earth. That’s what appears to have happened to Whittaker, who has watched the middleweight division move on since he dropped his belt to Israel Adesanya last October. In some respects, Adesanya already was the star of the weight class even while Whittaker still reigned, because of both the stupendous flair of “The Last Stylebender” and also Whittaker’s injury absences and buttoned-down demeanor. But here comes an opportunity for the ex-champion to get back on the map. Or not.
What makes this matchup especially appealing for me is that it came out of left field. As recently as nine months ago, who could have foreseen Till sharing the cage with Whittaker or any top 185-pounder? But then, in November, the longtime welterweight moved up a division and jumped right into the deep end of the pool, taking on highly ranked Kelvin Gastelum. Till’s split-decision win made him an instant contender. If he beats Whittaker, the sky’s the limit.
If you like watching showdowns at the crossroads …: Kelvin Gastelum vs. Jack Hermansson (middleweight, July 18), Chris Weidman vs. Omari Akhmedov (middleweight, Aug. 8).
Frankie Edgar vs. Pedro Munhoz
July 16 in Abu Dhabi, UAE
Frankie Edgar, right, has earned the reputation for being one of the UFC’s most exciting fighters. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
There are championship fights and high-stakes contender bouts that, looking at the big picture, mean more for the UFC and its various weight-class hierarchies. But sometimes you just have to go with what excites you. And I like me some Frankie Edgar fights. Those of us who have followed the man’s career seemingly forever have always had to strap ourselves in for lots of ups and downs — sometimes in the same fight, sometimes in the same round. As of this month, Edgar has been in this sport for 15 years, and not a second of that has been boring. The past couple of years have not been so kind to this former champion, though. Edgar, who is moving to bantamweight, has lost three of four and seems relegated to a gatekeeper role.
That brings me to Edgar’s opponent. Munhoz suffered a momentum-killing loss to Aljamain Sterling over a year ago and has not fought since. But just a few months before that defeat, he KO’d Cody Garbrandt and was on a roll. Munhoz had established himself as a rising bantamweight contender, and a win here could restore that status to his name.
If you like watching rising contenders …: Calvin Kattar vs. Dan Ige (men’s featherweight, July 15), Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Derek Brunson (middleweight, Aug. 1).
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway
July 12 in Abu Dhabi, UAE
Alexander Volkanovski, right, took the UFC featherweight title from Max Holloway last December. Steve Marcus/Getty Images
The first time these two shared the Octagon, back in December, Volkanovski put on a stunning performance to become UFC featherweight champion. It was his 18th consecutive victory, so everyone already knew the Aussie was formidable. But who was prepared to see Holloway dethroned so decisively? Max had won 14 of his previous 15 fights, the lone loss coming against Dustin Poirier at lightweight. He had the look of a champion destined to reign for a long while.
This is Holloway’s opportunity to seize back the belt and the mojo he lost. It is Volkanovski’s opportunity to shut up any who still doubt he’s the better fighter, not just a guy who had one great night. That’s what draws me to this UFC 251 co-main event, even more than the welterweight title fight at the top of the marquee. Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns is going to be an electrifying scrap, but the 145-pound rematch that will take place right before it has stakes that are more personally consequential and primal than a championship belt. It is a matchup of two men who have already proved themselves yet still must remind us what they’re made of. It is the bout I’m most looking forward to that evening.
If you like watching rematches …: Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Joseph Benavidez (July 18 for vacant men’s flyweight title).
Rose Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade
July 12 in Abu Dhabi, UAE
Jessica Andrade slammed Rose Namajunas to the canvas in Round 2 en route to capturing the UFC strawweight title last May. Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images
Here’s another rematch on that loaded UFC 251 main card, this one between a pair of former strawweight champions. And yes, I’m including this fight over two of that evening’s three title bouts — Usman vs. Burns at welterweight and Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo for the vacant men’s bantamweight championship. I’ll watch all of them, of course, but this one is particularly fascinating for me to contemplate because of how the first meeting took such an abrupt about-face. Namajunas was piecing up Andrade until Andrade picked up Namajunas. The slam that ended the fight was scary vicious.
Namajunas has not fought since losing the belt that night in May 2019. Andrade has spent just 42 seconds in the Octagon since then, dropping the title to Zhang Weili less than four months later. So both women are coming off low points. Both have essentially disappeared. And both, upon finally reappearing, have something to prove, perhaps to themselves as much as to the public. This rematch originally was scheduled for April, but the booking fell apart. Here it is, finally. It is well worth waiting for.
If you like watching women in the ESPN rankings …: No. 6 Carla Esparza vs. No. 9 Marina Rodriguez (strawweight, July 15), No. 5 Irene Aldana vs. No. 6 Holly Holm (bantamweight Aug. 1).