UFC 238 is full of interesting storylines, including Donald Cerrone vs. Tony Ferguson, the connections to Conor McGregor even though he's not involved, and the future of the UFC's bantamweight and flyweight classes.
UFC 238 takes place this Saturday from the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, and offers the deepest fight card of 2019.
Per usual, Conor McGregor is not on the card–but he still dominates the coverage. And the 238 card has a direct link to McGregor, as “Cowboy” Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson fight to help determine the top contender for UFC’s Lightweight title. The champion will be determined at UFC 242 on September 7 in Abu Dhabi when champion Khabib Nurmagomedov fights interim champion Dustin Poirier.
McGregor would prefer not to fight Cerrone and Ferguson, avoiding both on his way to a rematch with Nurmagomedov or, in a best-case scenario, title shot against Poirier (whom McGregor has already defeated). Even with McGregor’s presence constantly looming, the Cerrone-Ferguson fight will decide the next top contender for the Lightweight title.
Top to bottom, despite a somewhat lackluster main event, the card is full of interesting fights. Here are the top five storylines entering UFC 238:
1. Will “Cowboy” Cerrone come one step closer to championship gold?
Donald Cerrone-Tony Ferguson is set to be a barnburner.
The fact that this fight was even made is shocking. It was widely assumed that Ferguson would wait for his shot at the belt, and he is also coming off the back of some difficult mental health issues. No one expected him to fight this soon, but Ferguson remains one of the best in the world. Who isn’t excited to see how he looks in his return?
People say the Diaz brothers are born fighters, and the same should be said for Cerrone. He has continued to reinvent himself and up his skill level. There are few better stories in MMA, especially considering how Cerrone’s son has completely changed his life.
For years, Cerrone repeatedly stated that he simply wanted to fight–and that he’d even take a fight date before he would receive his opponent. Titles were of no meaning, he simply wanted to show up and fight.
But that all changed after the birth of his son, which lit a new fire.
Cerrone is now on a quest for gold. If he beats Ferguson, he is the top challenger for whoever emerges from the Nurmagomedov-Poirier UFC Lightweight championship fight in September.
With a win over Ferguson, a title shot is undeniable. Cerrone already has more wins (23) than any other fighter in UFC history, and a win on Saturday allows him to finally have a chance at gold.
2. How does the 238 card connect to Conor McGregor?
Earlier in the week, Cerrone told Sports Illustrated that he wants a shot at the lightweight title after the Ferguson fight–and has no interest in fighting Conor McGregor.
“After I get past Tony, I’m going to get the belt,” said Cerrone. “Conor, f--- it, he missed his chance, he missed the boat.”
McGregor wants no part of Cerrone, instead opting to sit on the shelf until he receives a rematch against Nurmagomedov. If Cerrone wins, the title shot should be his, without question. At the age of 36, Cerrone will be on the cusp of fighting for the world title against Nurmagomedov, who is possibly the greatest mixed martial artist in the world.
McGregor deserves respect, and this reporter would never speak poorly of his skillset. Anyone who looks at McGregor’s body of work inside the Octagon and somehow surmises that he is not an incredible fighter is flat out wrong. But Cerrone is an extremely dangerous fight for McGregor. “Cowboy” has some of the most dangerous and exciting finishes in UFC history, and whether it is knocking someone out or head-kicking or submitting his opponent, they seem to come out of nowhere. Following the loss to Nurmagomedov, another defeat would reflect poorly on McGregor.
McGregor should fight Nate Diaz to complete the trilogy. But if “The Notorious One” is focused on gold, then the best-case scenario is for Poirier, who McGregor knocked out in September 2014, to win the title in September.
3. Valentina Shevchenko is a monster in the Octagon
Women’s fly champion Valentina Shevchenko defends her title Saturday against Jessica Eye.
Eye will not roll over when Shevchenko tries to maul her. That has happened with Shevchenko’s prior opponents, who almost psych themselves out getting ready for the fight–only to have Shevchenko execute in the cage at will. So Shevchenko is going to have a fight on her hands.
Eye is one of the best women’s fighters in the world, but she was at a disadvantage because UFC did not have a weight class at her natural weight, forcing her to fight much bigger opponents. Now that they have her natural weight class, she has the opportunity to solve the Shevchenko puzzle that has mystified so many others, and, in the process, win the flyweight title.
The flyweight division is fairly new, and it would be exciting to see a fighter claim the division. Both Shevchenko and Eye have the opportunity to do so here in a fight that is the second most compelling, behind Cerrone-Ferguson, on the card.
4. The Henry Cejudo-Marlon Moraes main event holds the future of the bantamweights… and the flyweights
The vacant bantamweight championship is on the line in the UFC 238 main event as current flyweight champ Henry Cejudo faces Marlon Moraes.
This title fight may not be compelling as a fight fan would normally expect entering a card of this magnitude–but there is a lot at stake, including more than just the bantamweight title.
This is where we finally learn the fate UFC’s flyweight division.
Cejudo knocked out TJ Dillashaw this past January, and if he can couple that with a win over Moraes, he will show without a shadow of doubt that he has what it takes to fight bigger opponents. With a win, Cejudo would also enter the status of “Champ Champ,” as he will hold both the bantamweight and flyweight titles.
An interesting aspect to that outcome would be if UFC decides to close the flyweight division, instead preferring to put all their muscle behind Cejudo and the bantamweight division.
However, Moraes is one of the best knockout artists among smaller weight fighters in the world. So the possibility of a Moraes victory is a realistic outcome.
If Moraes wins, then what? Does UFC keep Cejudo as the flyweight champ? Will UFC fold the flyweight division? A Moraes win creates a murkier situation. In my opinion, if Cejudo wins this fight, then the flyweight division is finished.
5. Tatiana Suarez’s role in the future of the UFC
Undefeated Tatiana Suarez (7-0) meets Nina Ansaroff (10-5) on the preliminary card, but the match has the potential to have major ramifications.
If Suarez wins, she will immediately be in line for a title shot against strawweight champ Jessica Andrade.
Before examining the Suarez-Ansaroff fight, there are two other fights on the main card–Petr Yan vs. Jimmie Rivera in bantamweight matchup and a showdown between heavyweights Blagoy Ivanov and Tai Tuivasa.
The UFC has their eye on Yan, which is another strong push into the market of Russia. He’s already building his mystique, and there are high hopes for him–but until he beats Rivera, the enthusiasm surrounding Yan needs to be tempered. If he wins, then there is a story.
As for the heavyweights, Ivanov is a former champion from World Series of Fighting. He has not been great in the UFC, and his backstory is more interesting than his future holds. Tuivasa is a big guy, who you can even compare to Andy Ruiz, with an exciting style. There is a lot of attention on him, and he could be the next fighter elevated in the heavyweight division if he can win this fight.
But neither of those fights compare with Suarez-Ansaroff.
Suarez is extremely dominant, a cancer survivor, and possesses an elusive “It” factor. Ansaroff is also a compelling story.
Ansaroff has won her last four fights, and her newfound cerebral approach was the direct result of losing back-to-back fights–to Juliana Lima in 2014 and Justine Kish in 2016. The turning point for Ansaroff was the victory over Jocelyn Jones-Lybarger in January 2017. Had she lost that fight, the UFC would have cut her. But she won and hasn’t lost since.
If Ansaroff defeats Suarez, she should have the title shot against Andrade. That fight might instead be given to Michelle Waterson, so it is possible that Ansroff is overlooked even with a win. But whoever wins the Suarez-Ansaroff fight should receive the next title shot.
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.