Mixed martial events in Brazil have always been something special. The enthusiasm of the arena crowds, in full-voiced support of their country’s fighters, has made it that way.
Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Brasilia will be different. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the promotion announced Thursday that its 12-fight card will play out in an empty Ginásio Nilson Nelson.
These are matters far bigger than the two fighters who will compete in the main event, but the lack of spectators in the arena will run counter to the original intention of Kevin Lee (18-5). The American lightweight faces Charles Oliveira (28-8), a Brazilian, in the headlining bout of a card that will air on ESPN (6 p.m ET main card, 3 p.m. prelims).
Lee, 27, is coming off a head-kick knockout of previously unbeaten Gregor Gillespie in Gillespie’s home state of New York. This week he’s in Brazil to challenge a Brazilian. And Lee has already said that if he wins he wants to face Russian phenom Islam Makhachev later this year, preferably in Central Asia.
There are a lot of “ifs” here, but imagine if Lee went through Gillespie, Oliveira, Makhachev, all on the road. Even with this weekend’s fights happening in an empty arena, and the immediate future beyond that uncertain, it still would be an impressive road show by Lee. It’d be like going on tour to fight only the guys nobody else wants to.
And on the other side of this main event you have Oliveira, who somehow just turned 30, despite his extensive career. When Oliveira made his UFC debut in 2010, Conor McGregor had just four professional fights to his name. Khabib Nurmagomedov was two years away from even stepping foot into the Octagon. And Tony Ferguson was an unknown, trying to earn a spot on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.
Oliveira has grown up in the UFC. Saturday will mark his 26th UFC appearance. He’s fought three former champions. And he’s never looked better than he has during his current six-fight win streak.
This weekend’s main event won’t determine the next lightweight title challenger. That’s just the unfortunate reality for Lee and Oliveira. Nevertheless, it is a truly marquee matchup at 155 pounds, with plenty of narratives to follow on either side.
By the numbers
11: UFC lightweight victories for Lee, tying him for the second most in the division since his debut in 2014. Beneil Dariush is the leader with 12 wins at 155 pounds, and Tony Ferguson and Francisco Trinaldo also have 11.
5-0: Oliveira’s UFC record in his native Brazil. Of course, in those bouts he had the support of an arena full of countrymen.
6: Consecutive finishes by Oliveira, the longest active finish streak in the UFC. Overall, the Brazilian has 15 UFC finishes, just one behind the promotion record of Donald Cerrone.
6: Main events for Lee since 2017, tying him with Cerrone and Junior Dos Santos for most during that time.
8: Consecutive lightweight fights in which Lee has not allowed a takedown. His 81.2 takedown defense percentage puts him fourth among active UFC lightweights, behind “Cowboy” Cerrone (90%), John Makdessi (86.8) and Thibault Gouti (83.3).
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
A look back
Five vs. five
Kevin Lee’s most recent results
Win: Gregor Gillespie (KO1, Nov. 2, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Rafael dos Anjos (SUB4, May 18, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Al Iaquinta (UD, Dec. 15, 2018)
Win: Edson Barboza (TKO5, April 21, 2018)
Loss: Tony Ferguson (SUB3, Oct. 7, 2017)
Charles Oliveira’s most recent results
Win: Jared Gordon (KO1, Nov. 16, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Nik Lentz (TKO2, May 18, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Win: David Teymur (SUB2, Feb. 2, 2019; Watch on ESPN+)
Win: Jim Miller (SUB2, Dec. 15, 2018)
Win: Christos Giagos (SUB2, Sept. 22, 2018)
“I’m the one that’s gotta take fights like this. I don’t get to fight ‘Cowboy’ [Cerrone] coming off two losses and looking a little chinny. I’ve got to fight the guy that’s coming up in his prime, with a whole lot of experience behind him, fought a whole lot of big names.” –Lee, speaking to ESPN about matching up with Oliveira
Brett Okamoto’s prediction
Not an easy one to pick. At all. On paper, it’s easy to say the matchup benefits Lee. He’s the stronger wrestler and thought of as the more powerful puncher. I’m not so sure that last part is correct, though. In pure power, he might have an edge. But Oliveira’s striking has been so impressive lately. He’s regularly hurting opponents on the feet, and it feels like he’s doing so very efficiently. Lee is the favorite, as he should be, but with this fight being in Brazil, five rounds, I’m going with the slight underdog. Oliveira submission, second round.
What else to look for … beyond the main event
The rest of the card, co-main event on down:
ESPN, 6 p.m. ET
Demian Maia vs. Gilbert Burns | Welterweight
Renato Moicano vs. Damir Hadžović | Lightweight
Johnny Walker vs. Nikita Krylov | Light heavyweight
Francisco Trinaldo vs. John Makdessi | Lightweight
ESPN, 3 p.m. ET
Jussier Formiga vs. Brandon Moreno | Men’s flyweight
Randa Markos vs. Amanda Ribas | Strawweight
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos vs. Aleksei Kunchenko | Welterweight
Rani Yahya vs. Enrique Barzola | Men’s bantamweight
Maryna Moroz vs. Mayra Bueno Silva | Women’s flyweight
Bruno Silva vs. David Dvořák | Men’s flyweight
Veronica Macedo vs. Bea Malecki | Women’s bantamweight
Grounds for excitement over the co-main event
In Demian Maia‘s last fight, he submitted Ben Askren, a onetime Olympic wrestler who’d built a storied MMA career on his ground game. It was impressive but not shocking. Maia, whose submission grappling resume includes gold medals at ADCC, the Mundials and the World Cup, is perhaps the sport’s most highly esteemed practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Inside the Octagon, Maia has tapped out several guys who’ve otherwise made a good living on the canvas. Askren. Carlos Condit. Chael Sonnen. The Brazilian has 11 submission wins in the UFC, the second-most ever.
Gilbert Burns is not shaking in his boots. First of all, he’s not wearing boots. Jiu-jitsu black belts perform barefoot.
And Burns, who faces Maia in the middleweight co-main event, is not just any black belt. He is a three-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion. In MMA, he has eight career submissions, four of them in the UFC.
Maia enters Saturday on a three-fight win streak, and Burns has won four in a row.
Neither man has ever been subbed in MMA.
Odds ‘n’ ends
Some undercard tidbits from Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats & Information:
Maia vs. Burns is the only Brazil vs. Brazil bout on Saturday’s card. But 11 of the 12 fights feature at least one Brazilian. The lone bout without a representative of the home country is the opener, a women’s bantamweight fight pitting Colombia’s Veronica Macedo against Bea Malecki of Sweden.
If you’re looking for a foreigner to grab a win over a Brazilian, Aleksei Kunchenko might be your guy. Along with having a 20-1 record, he is Russian. Why is that important? Among the six foreign countries to have had athletes in at least five UFC fights against a Brazilian in Brazil, only Russia has a winning record, at 12-8. Kunchenko faces Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos, who is 3-1 in the UFC when fighting in Brazil. Dos Santos is coming off an August loss to Li Jingliang, which snapped a seven-fight UFC winning streak.
Renato Moicano comes into his meeting with Damir Hadzovic on a two-fight losing streak, faltering against top-10 featherweights Jose Aldo and Chan Sung Jung. Despite that, Moicano is the biggest favorite on the card, at -310, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Johnny Walker, who fights Nikita Krylov, is looking to get back in the win column after getting knocked out by Corey Anderson in November. Walker is one of only 11 fighters who have started their UFC career with the first five fights ending by knockout, win or loss. Krylov has won four UFC fights by submission, one behind the light heavyweight record, shared by four fighters.
Francisco Trinaldo will be making his 21st UFC appearance, with a record 16 of those coming in Brazil. He is 12-3 in his UFC career in Brazil, winning his last three fights there.
Jussier Formiga has won nine fights in the UFC, leaving him one shy of joining Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez as the only flyweights to win 10 fights. He will tie Johnson for the second-most Octagon appearances in flyweight history, with 15.