Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s weight cut issues may have killed off Saturday night’s co-main event against Tony Ferguson, but UFC 209 continues to chug along regardless.
The event’s headliner features a rematch between Tyron Woodley and Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson for the former’s welterweight after their back-and-forth majority draw inside Madison Square Garden for the UFC’s inaugural New York City show at UFC 205.
In addition to the aforementioned main event, surging lightweight Lando Vannata takes on TUF alum David Teymur, while there’s also a heavyweight clash between Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt—a fight which could headline a card in its own right. The preliminary portion of the show provides an additional heavyweight affair between Marcin Tybura and Luis Henrique, as well as a featherweight fight pitting Mirsad Bektic—one of the division’s hottest talents—against 145lbs stalwart Darren Elkins. And that’s not even mentioning the Fight Pass prelim fights, including a contest between two exciting relatively new light heavyweight additions to the UFC roster, Paul Craig and Tyson Pedro.
Despite the disappearance of Khabib vs. Ferguson, UFC 209 remains a solid card and it’s only natural for other interesting fights to slip under the radar—in this case, it’s the middleweight scrap between former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans and Australia’s four-time judo Olympian Dan Kelly.
Evans has had a tough time of it recently. A spate of injuries has limited his minutes inside the Octagon to two fights since November 2013, with both appearances in the cage resulting in losses to Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira—a galling slump considering the former 205lbs titleholder was once pulling in over a million pay-per-view buys like he did against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 114.
With things not going his way, “Suga” sought pastures new by moving down to middleweight away from the division he was once king. However, he encountered issues in trying to make his debut in his new home at 185lbs.
Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC
Evans was set to face veteran Tim Kennedy in his middleweight bow at UFC 205, but was pulled out of the fight not long before the event after the New York State Athletic Commission found an undisclosed irregularity from his pre-fight medical exam. The fight was then rescheduled for UFC 206 a month later, but Evans was again pulled from the fight for the same reason. Kennedy, meanwhile, took on a late replacement in Kelvin Gastelum, lost, and promptly retired.
Luckily for him, Evans underwent an additional medical screening with a neurologist and was cleared to fight—a major relief for the winner of season two of The Ultimate Fighter. Now, he can look forward to the latest chapter of his eventful career.
“It definitely feels like a second career,” Evans said as reported by Fox Sports. “Because it feels like I’m starting all over. Almost every aspect of it. From training situations to just getting cleared to a new weight class, everything feels brand new.
“I feel like a new kid on the block. It’s refreshing. I’m excited, I’m nervous, I have all those rookie feelings but I know I can do it because I’ve done it before.”
A relatively-undersized light heavyweight, it had long been suggested that Evans made the jump down in weight to remain competitive as the years go by. Another elder statesman in 39-year-old Aussie Kelly is there to welcome Evans to a division filled with older fighters, rocked by the recent news that returnee Georges St-Pierre will be competing for Michael Bisping’s middleweight title.
Despite his accolades as a judoka, Kelly’s success within the UFC has come as somewhat of a surprise, going 5-1 inside his ongoing UFC tenure while standing out as one of the few unchiselled men to grace the Octagon.
Joining the UFC roster at the tender age of 37, Kelly has beaten Luke Zadrich, Patrick Walsh, Steve Montgomery, Antonio Carlos Junior and Chris Camozzi—his sole loss coming to the in-form Sam Alvey.
Kelly has been the underdog in almost all of his UFC fights so far, and Saturday night is no different, but he is excited to be matched up against an opponent with the name power Evans possesses. Evans was a champion while Kelly was still training and competing on judo’s international stages, so the match-up came as a bit of a surprise to him.
“It was such a massive opportunity and I’m really excited for it,” Kelly said as reported by Fox Sports. “I would never have dreamed about a matchup like this. I knew I was close to a ranked guy and Rashad’s not ranked at middleweight, but what a name, what an icon of the sport. I was just grateful for the opportunity.”
Opportunity is the theme that dominates the narrative around this fight. For Evans, UFC 209 is the chance he has been yearning for to help reinvigorate his career as a middleweight. For Kelly, a good performance against Evans is the opening he would need to make one of the most unexpected surges up the middleweight rankings.
Check out these related stories:
Nurmagomedov/Ferguson Fight Canceled After Nurmagomedov Is Rushed to the Hospital
UFC Files Motion to Dismiss Mark Hunt Lawsuit, and Nate Diaz Throws His Support Behind the Heavyweight
The Tactical Guide to Woodley vs. Thompson II