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UFC 286 roundtable: Who’s under more pressure to win — Kamaru Usman or Justin Gaethje? Plus more

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UFC 281: Hooker v Puelles Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Two of the UFC’s biggest names could be facing do-or-die moments at UFC 286, as Kamaru Usman and Justin Gaethje both have their backs against the wall ahead their respective showdowns against Leon Edwards and Rafael Fiziev. But whose career is in dire need of a win more? MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew sidle back up to the roundtable to debate that plus more of UFC 286’s biggest storylines.

1. Who has more pressure to win: Kamaru Usman or Justin Gaethje?

Meshew: We ask and answer this type of question regularly in MMA discourse, and I always have the same answer. So unsurprisingly, this time will be no different: A loss stinks for either man, but the long-reigning champion can suffer it much, much better.

If Usman loses on Saturday, it will certainly suck for him. No one likes to lose, and his argument for being the greatest welterweight of all-time will effectively end (it was dubious to start with, but that’s neither here nor there). You know what that will mean? He’s still the second-greatest welterweight of all-time! In the scheme of things, is that so bad?

Gaethje, on the other hand, still has a legacy that’s up for grabs. He is arguably the most exciting fighter to ever enter a cage. But as far as actual trinkets, he only has one interim title, a belt which glints, but doesn’t shine like the real thing. A win puts him right back in the thick of the title conversation, whereas a loss definitively ends that dream. Gaethje needs it more.

MMA: MAY 07 UFC 274 Photo by Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marrocco: Since the Oscars just happened, I think of it like this: Usman has already won the Oscar, right? Whatever he does for the rest of his career, he will always be an Oscar-winner. Gaethje, on the other hand, is a multi-time nominee — or an interim nominee, if you like. That just doesn’t have the same kind of staying power, particularly in the fight business.

Gaethje might be the exception to that rule, because my god, the man has been a part of so many insanely exciting (and punishing) fights. But I really think he’s nearing the end of his time to put his forever stamp on the sport, and the matchup with Fiziev, a guy clearly more on the sunrise than sunset of his career, tells you everything you need to know about the stakes for him.

Martin: As much as Justin Gaethje might fade into “Fight of the Night” exclusivity with a loss at UFC 286, the only answer here is Kamaru Usman.

It wasn’t long ago that Usman was knocking on the door to break records that Georges St-Pierre set at welterweight. Some considered him in the running as potentially the best 170-pound fighter of all-time. Through four rounds and about four minutes in his rematch with Leon Edwards at UFC 276, Usman appeared ready to back up those claims by cruising toward his sixth title defense.

Instead, he suffered a shocking last-minute loss that saw a new champion crowned for the first time since 2019. Now, as he makes his return seven months later, Usman has to know that he’s potentially standing on the precipice of redemption or retirement at UFC 286.

In theory, Usman’s entire legacy shouldn’t hinge on one fight. But in a sport with a collective attention span that ranges from the time it takes to heat up a piece of pizza in a microwave to oh-wow-look-at-the-kitty, “The Nigerian Nightmare” needs to remind the world just how good he really is to help cement his legacy among the greatest welterweights in history.

Al-Shatti: Justin Gaethje has to be the answer here. Even with MMA’s gerbil-brain-sized attention span, Kamaru Usman can lose on Saturday and still go down as an all-timer who’s undoubtedly a top-3 welterweight ever (and very likely the best 170-pounder not named Georges St-Pierre). As far as legacies go, that’s a pretty special one to fall back on. Usman is a 35-year-old man with bad knees, so it’s not as if this gravy train was going to last forever.

But Gaethje?

At age 34, with oodles of miles already on his damage odometer, after faltering twice in two past attempts at the undisputed UFC lightweight title, we’ve officially reached do-or-die time for one of the most violent men to ever lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves. As sad as it is to say, this is probably the start of Gaethje’s last viable run to the top. History has shown the lightweight division to be extremely unkind to fighters past their mid-30s. Hell, if he won the title tomorrow, Gaethje would already be the oldest UFC lightweight champion ever.

The new generation has been knocking at the door at 155 pounds for a few years now. If Gaethje is unable to hold off Rafael Fiziev, his time feels like one that isn’t coming back.

2. Where does Edwards vs. Usman rank among UFC trilogies?

Al-Shatti: Probably higher than you’d think, to be honest.

Don’t believe me? Let’s zip through a quick list of notable UFC championship trilogies: Edgar-Maynard, Liddell-Couture, Hughes-GSP, Miocic-DC, Penn-Hughes, Velasquez-JDS, Volkanovski-Holloway, Sylvia-Arlovski, Edgar-Penn, Couture-Belfort, Ortiz-Shamrock. We left out a few, but those are most of the big ones. And one thing you’ll notice? The quality of the actual fights themselves (and their respective competitiveness fight-to-fight) plummets right off a cliff somewhere after the Miocic-DC or Penn-Hughes dividing line.

UFC 252: Miocic v Cormier 3 Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

So it’s not as if we have some high bar to clear here. If we had to rank Edwards-Usman right now, it’d undoubtedly fall somewhere in the bottom half. No one even remembers the first fight, and the rematch isn’t exactly the most riveting re-watch outside of a few minutes.

But — and this is the big “BUT” — there is potential here for Edwards-Usman to rocket into the top half of the conversation. Edwards’ late heroics remain one of the most iconic comebacks in UFC history. If the rubber match proves to be a barnburner — regardless of who wins — we’re instantly looking at a trilogy we’ll remember closer to the highs of Liddell-Couture or Hughes-GSP rather than the lows of Sylvia-Arlovski or Ortiz-Shamrock.

Meshew: So, I originally was going to say “Low” and wrote out my entire answer explaining why, and then something happened: I tried to compare it to other UFC trilogies, and realized almost none of them have been good.

Seriously, if you go look back at the trilogies that defined the sport and the promotion over the years, you’ll find that few of them hold up. The fights either fail to deliver, or with the benefit of hindsight, simply aren’t that impressive. Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos was supposed to be awesome, but we got one flash-KO and two all-world ass-whoopings. Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes was the same, only it was a flash submission. Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard had two insane fights, but their first was a dud. The list goes on.

The truth is, we won’t really know where it stands until after Saturday night. If Edwards and Usman put on a “Fight of the Year,” then that coupled with Edwards’ “Comeback of the Century” will put this rivalry very high on the list. But if Usman Usmans all over Edwards like he did in the first one, resulting in a tedious 25-minute affair, then this trilogy will be mostly forgotten about, and for good reason.

Martin: Typically trilogies are supposed to be about parity, or at least incredibly high stakes, but the reality is the first fight between Usman and Edwards took place on the early prelims of a UFC on FOX card that no one really remembers, so that hurts their case. The second fight was technically billed as a rematch, but both fighters had come so far from the first encounter that it almost didn’t warrant mentioning it.

Yes, Edwards pulled off a shocking fifth-round knockout to finish Usman in a fight he was losing in fairly lopsided fashion, but that’s really the only truly memorable highlight. Well, that and a pre-fight interview where Edwards hilariously admitted he had no idea where Utah was until he learned he was traveling there to face Usman.

When you say Edwards vs. Usman 3, it just doesn’t scream all-time rivalry compared to past trilogies like Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture, Wanderlei Silva vs. Quinton Jackson, or Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard. It’s going to take a Herculean effort in this third fight — perhaps a back-and-forth war — to make it feel like Edwards vs. Usman 3 is special rather than two dudes just fighting each other for the third time.

Marrocco: Two of the examples Damon cited — Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture, Wanderlei Silva vs. Quentin “Rampage” Jackson — are the best examples of trilogies for me. They’re just as much about the larger-than-life rivalries of the fighters as the question of who is more dominant. In most cases, time isn’t on the side of one fighter and the contest winds up a sad reminder of that (which is why I am choosing not to count Silva vs. Jackson 4). You need really pivotal characters and, as a promoter, make the fight when it needs to be made to make it worthwhile.

In that sense, Edwards vs. Usman starts with a leg up. The UFC isn’t waiting until one of them is halfway to Palookaville before the trilogy. But to me, this doesn’t have the same juice as the classics. It’s mostly about whether Usman — who fell short of Georges St-Pierre’s title defense record — will fully pass the torch to Edwards, starting a new welterweight title reign. Edwards’ last-second knockout of Usman was one of the best in recent memory. But unless they deliver a classic, I can see this trilogy relegated to the category of...that happened.

3. What undercard fight is most intriguing?

Marrocco: Nostalgia is probably at the root of my pick, Gunnar Nelson vs. Bryan Barberena. Specialists are in short supply these days, and it was always a pleasure to see Nelson dismantle opponents on the mat.

As he rose in the welterweight division, Nelson tried – or was forced to try – his standup skills and ran into problems near the top of the rankings. Then a knee injury sidelined him for three years. Back in the game after a 2022 win over Takashi Sato, Nelson, 34, is poised for one last run at the belt.

Barberena is an iron-jawed guy who loves to slug it out, so that could be the opening Nelson needs to do what he does best and submit “Bam Bam.” And if he can’t, we probably get one of those sloppy slugfests that Barberena is so darn good at getting into.

UFC Fight Night: Nelson v Sato Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Al-Shatti: I’m tempted to choose Lerone Murphy vs. Gabriel Santos here, if only so I can spend the next 150 words ranting about the lunatic whose answer to getting shot twice in the face was to spit out the bullets and catch a ride to the hospital. But since Murphy deserves a much better fight than a top prospect about to make his UFC debut, I’ll default back to Saturday’s main-card opener: Marvin Vettori vs. Roman Dolidze.

Vettori is always good for a weird time, but really the main draw here is Dolidze, who’s risen from out of nowhere to creep within Genuine Main Player status at middleweight.

Four straight wins with three straight “Performance of the Night” bonuses is one thing. No doubt, running through the likes of Jack Hermansson and Phil Hawes in the first round is a heck of a feat. But pulling off those same levels of violence against Vettori? Hey, if that happens, we’re suddenly talking about a *very* intriguing new name here at 185 pounds.

Martin: UFC 286 is a top-heavy card with a whole lot of local talent filling out the prelims. But as much as Muhammad Mokaev is probably the prospect with the highest ceiling on the undercard, I’m going to pick Juliana Miller vs. Veronica Macedo as one to watch.

On paper this isn’t a particularly competitive fight — Miller is one of the biggest betting favorites at UFC 286 — but she appears to be a recent The Ultimate Fighter winner with real potential. She’s a mauler on the ground and has a lot of charisma on the microphone.

That’s a really fun package, so look for Miller to get the night started right and possibly set herself up as a great addition to the flyweight division, which has arguably become the most interesting weight class in all of women’s MMA.

Meshew: Am I allowed to say none of them?

Don’t get me wrong, UFC 286 is a very solid pay-per-view, but the prelims leave a lot to be desired in terms of name quality. On paper this event is less interesting than either of the UFC’s trips to London in 2022, despite featuring many of the same names. But if you’re going to make me choose, it’s the Muhammad Mokaev vs. Jafel Filho fight.

Mokaev is 22, 8-0, and has all the promise in the world. We’re talking about a prospect on par with Bo Nickal who should theoretically be a threat to break the record for youngest-ever champion. But after making a splash with a sub-one minute finish in his UFC debut, Mokaev has underwhelmed against Charles Johnson and Malcolm Gordon.

Mokaev’s problem in those fights has been his total lack of a killer instinct, settling for control over damage. It’s the same issue that plagues Mackenzie Dern and keeps her from being a real title threat, so I’m interested to see if Mokaev can show some mean in him against a guy making his UFC debut.


Who’s under more pressure to win at UFC 286?

  • 39%
    Kamaru Usman
    (153 votes)
  • 60%
    Justin Gaethje
    (235 votes)
388 votes total Vote Now

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