Five Questions for UFC 268: Is Colby Covington the toughest challenge for Kamaru Usman?

Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman defends his UFC title against Colby Covington, in a rematch of their tremendous 2019 fight, which Usman won by fifth-round TKO. The bout on Saturday headlines a packed UFC 268 card that also includes another title rematch, a must-see lightweight fight and an opportunity for a few fighters to get back into the win column.

Usman is once again the favorite, but how much of a threat is Covington to Usman’s 18-fight unbeaten streak? Is he the biggest challenge remaining for Usman in the welterweight division?

In the co-main event, Rose Namajunas defends the strawweight title she took from Zhang Weili with a first-round KO at UFC 261 in April. Zhang has already been a part of some incredible UFC fights, against Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and built up a tremendous profile for herself. But as the face of UFC in China, could the UFC’s plans of expansion in that country be impacted by another loss for Zhang?

Beyond the two title fights, there’s also a lightweight matchup between top lightweight contenders Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler, which could steal the show before the title fights even enter the Octagon.

Also on this deep card, Alex Pereira makes his UFC debut. While Pereira has only 4 fights in MMA, he’s 34 and a veteran in kickboxing with 33 victories in 40 fights, including two wins against current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. What can we expect from Pereira when he faces Andreas Michailidis in a middleweight bout?

The depth continues down the UFC 268 card, as Shane Burgos, Frankie Edgar, Al Iaquinta and Edmen Shahbazyan all feature in undercard bouts, as each looks to rebound from a loss — so which fighter among them has the best chance to get back into the winning circle.

Our panel of Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi take on these topics and share their thoughts.

Is Colby Covington Usman’s most difficult opponent left at welterweight?

Okamoto: I’m going to give Covington credit here and say, “absolutely.” Now, I will add this answer could easily turn out to be incorrect. When I look at those welterweight rankings, a big name that pops out at me is Stephen Thompson. Stylistically, he might be a terrible matchup for Usman. He’s a long, unorthodox, unpredictable striker who is very hard to take down, and he hasn’t shown a tendency to fold under volume. That could be a really tough fight for Usman.

Khamzat Chimaev could be a tough matchup, too. It’s too early to know for sure of course, but I am on the Chimaev bandwagon. Could this guy end up being a pound-for-pound great, multiple division champion? It feels like it’s in his range of outcomes, yeah.

But to overlook Covington here, I just don’t think I can do it. He has given Usman his toughest test to date by far. I always thought stylistically this was a tough matchup for Covington, because everything he does well, Usman does just about as well, or better. His path to victory requires a perfect fight. But we saw an extremely competitive fight two years ago that could have gone either way between these two, and Covington has only fought once since and has changed camps, so there’s a mystery factor in what he’ll bring to this one.

And for those reasons, I will say that yes, this is the toughest challenge Usman could be facing on Saturday in his division.


Will another loss from Zhang Weili impact the UFC’s growth in China?

Raimondi: Potentially, yes. And that is one of the things that has likely weighed on her this year, knowing that she is the face of the UFC in China. It’s interesting that she decided to leave her home country for training camp and move over to Fight Ready in Scottsdale, Arizona. She’s not necessarily the big fish in that pond with the likes of former UFC double champ Henry Cejudo (who is coaching her) and former UFC flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo also there right now.

How much a Zhang loss would diminish the UFC in China is much harder to quantify. It certainly wouldn’t be a death knell. With or without Zhang as a champion, the UFC has massive plans in China. UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told me over the summer that execs envision the promotion’s popularity in China rivaling that of the UFC’s popularity in the United States in a few years.

Having a homegrown hero like Zhang would only be a boon as the UFC tries to grow exponentially in one of the richest countries in the world. But a bigger issue right now is the pandemic. The UFC has not been able to run shows in China since 2019, and that has had more of an impact right now than whatever happens with Zhang.

There is also a lot of confidence that the UFC Performance Institute will develop new Chinese talent that will integrate into the UFC in the coming years. So Zhang and the likes of Li Jingliang and Yan Xiaonan will have some reinforcements in the future.

In the meantime, if Zhang can win back the UFC women’s strawweight title, that would help the UFC’s efforts in China. But even if Rose Namajunas retains Saturday, the UFC will still feel very good about where it is in China, and even better about where it could be in five to 10 years.


Is Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler the best fight on the card?

Wagenheim: It’s usually all about championship fights for me. Those are the contests that decide who is the best in the world, and that’s what everyone from fighter to fan is into this sport for, right? When there’s an especially worthy challenger to the throne, that ramps up the intrigue. And UFC 268 has two such high-stakes showdowns. Both Colby Covington and Zhang Weili have what it takes to beat the champs. What a powerful 1-2 combo.

But if you were to tell me I was allowed to watch just one fight on Saturday night, well, first I would get on my knees and beg for at least three or four more. I mean, title bouts aside, there’s a Frankie Edgar fight on tap, and I never miss one of those. If given no leeway, though, and forced to choose just one fight, I’d go with Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler.

In a sport built upon intoxicating thrills, Gaethje takes that buzz to a higher level. His nickname, “The Highlight,” is both pinpoint accurate and a bit deceptive — because the highlights of his fights are often the entirety of those fights, not just sporadic moments on a video clip. And when Gaethje collides with Chandler — another all-action, no-reverse-gear lightweight force of nature — it promises to be a tough act to follow. Even for a couple of champions and their exceptional challengers.


What can we expect from Alex Pereira’s UFC debut?

Raimondi: This is flying under the radar because UFC 268 is such a deep card with two excellent title fights. But Pereira’s signing was a significant one for the UFC. The Brazilian striker owns two victories over Israel Adesanya in kickboxing, where Pereira is a former two-division Glory champion. He is legitimately one of the top pound-for-pound kickboxers in the world right now, yet giving MMA his full focus. Pereira had an incredible, highlight-reel knockout win in LFA in November 2020. After that, he fought twice in Glory, going 1-1. The UFC will be his combat-sports priority now.

Pereira’s opponent is Andreas Michailidis, a veteran of MMA with a UFC victory under his belt in his last bout and championships in smaller promotions. This won’t be an easy fight; few are in the UFC. Pereira is a -260 favorite, per Caesars Sportsbook, so he is expected to win. But it’s hard to know how things will shake out when fighters from other combat sports transition to MMA. Pereira has only four pro MMA fights and he lost his debut back in 2015.

Some elite kickboxers become Adesanya, the UFC middleweight champion and one of the best fighters in the world pound-for-pound. Others like Gokhan Saki give MMA a try in the UFC, but it doesn’t work out. Saki re-signed with Glory recently and is done with mixed martial arts. Which will Pereira be? Likely closer to Adesanya. It’ll be interesting to find out and see how is game evolves in this relatively foreign environment — and it’s happening on the big stage of the UFC. Pereira has been training with new UFC light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira, so you know he’ll at least be well-prepared. If Pereira somehow climbs the ladder, a title fight with Adesanya down the road would be a promotional dream.


Which fighter will have the best bounce-back fight: Shane Burgos, Frankie Edgar, Al Iaquinta or Edmen Shahbazyan?

Legaspi: Shane Burgos might be coming off a loss against Edson Barboza at UFC 262 in May, but that was one of the best fights of the year. So, I’m going to go with Burgos over Billy Quarantillo as the most likely bounceback result for UFC 268. The matchmaking on this one seems to be perfect and it’s flying under the radar with so many high profile fights on the main card.

Burgos has the perfect partner in Quarantillo for another back-and-forth fight. Both of them are coming off of fight-of-the-night performances. Billy Q went to war with a very technical southpaw in Gabriel Benitez, and since his TKO victory against Kamuela Kirk to secure his UFC contract, Quarantillo has proven to be entertaining in every Octagon appearance.

I believe Burgos has faced better opposition and that will help him to win the fight. But I can easily see a great fight that leads to bonus checks in both of the fighters’ pockets.

Iaquinta will feel the love fighting so close to home, but his long absence could be an issue. Frankie Edgar will be facing a young, aggressive Marlon Vera that probably learned the lesson after showing too much respect for Jose Aldo. “Chito” Vera looks like a well-rounded threat in the bantamweight division and won’t be an easy win for the former lightweight champion.

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