4 major storylines at UFC Vegas 31

Oct 18, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Jeremy Stephens walks to his corner in between rounds of a fight against Yair Rodriguez (not seen) in a featherweight bout during UFC Fight Night at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

UFC Vegas 31 does not have the pomp and circumstance that UFC 264 did last week. The Ultimate Fighting Championship events that come on the heels of a pay-per-view always get lost in the smoke of the previous week’s fallout. Especially, this last one and its controversy after Conor McGregor’s unfulfilling defeat to Dustin Poirier.

However, Saturday’s event inside the UFC Apex does have several worthwhile narratives. Including two sides of the retirement coin, and a headlining opportunity for the current “it” fighter in the lightweight division. So, let’s get into the major storylines coming to your ESPN and ESPN+ screens on July 17.

Is Islam Makhavchev the heir apparent to Khabib Nurmagomedov?

The hype surrounding Islam Makhachev is serious. He’s one of several Dagestani talents retired UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov took under his wing and is now fully invested in as a mentor. He is currently riding on a seven-fight win streak in the Octagon and only seems to be getting better. Makhachev is in his prime at 29, and oh yeah, he’s also a lightweight like Nurmagomedov. Meaning, the narrative that he is the next Nurmagomedov is full steam ahead.

That’s why Saturday night is such a pivotal moment for the ninth-ranked lightweight. He gets his first main event spot in the UFC, and in a matchup with a talented fighter ranked below him, so there is a lot more risk than reward for Makhachev. But that’s what superstars and future contenders are supposed to do right? Take on all comers en route to climbing up title contention, and eventually planting your flag on the division mountaintop. This moment can either be the Russian’s first steps in his march to elite lightweight status or the instant where it all fell apart and the air came out of the Islam-balloon.

The big money is on victory number eight Saturday night.

Miesha Tate’s five year retirement ends at UFC Vegas 31

Miesha Tate stunned the sport when she chose to retire from the UFC at 29-years-old. Women in this sport bear a burden their male counterparts don’t. At some point, they have to put their careers on hold for parenthood. Men can add children to their families and keep chugging along with fight camps. The time lost from pregnancy, recovery from birth, and enjoying that valuable early time with a newborn can cut a year or more out of a fight career. Tate made the difficult choice of leaving the UFC behind in her prime, so she could becoming a mom before that possibility became less likely.

Now she’s back, and the question is, did she wait too long? She’ll return to Octagon a month away from her turning 35. A point that’s universally considered the end of one’s athletic prime. Tate also returns to a different sport. The technique and skills throughout the industry are higher than they were five years ago.

Luckily for her, she returns to face one of the few fighters on the women’s roster older than her in 44-year-old Marion Reneau. A competitor on a four-fight losing streak and planning to retire afterward. Tate may be able to pass this first litmus test against currently ranked talent. However, if she is confronted with difficult moments in a fight she is a betting favorite in despite the long layoff, it could be a sign that “Cupcake” waited too long to end her extended hiatus from the Octagon.

Is Jeremy Stephens fighting to keep his roster spot?

Who doesn’t enjoy a Jeremy Stephens fight? Am I right? The man always delivers win or lose. However, UFC Vegas 31 is a crossroads moment for the 35-year-old “Lil Heathen.” He has lost four straight, is no longer ranked, and his asinine decision to push and injure Drakkar Klose before their UFC Vegas 24 booking in April surely did not get him in the UFC’s good graces.

With 46 fights (28-18) and 16 years of competing under his belt, a fifth defeat will put him in the crosshairs of management looking to shed some salary. Granted, a losing streak that includes losses to talent like Calvin Kattar, Yair Rodriguez, Zabit Magomedsharipov, and Jose Aldo does help his case for leniency. However, these are different times, and when legends like Alistair Overeem and Junior dos Santos can get sent packing in rough stretches, then Stephens needs to get a win or risk finding out what free agency is like without the UFC in the bidding.

Farewell to “The Belizean Bruiser”

ufc vegas 31
Sep 2, 2017; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Marion Reneau (red gloves) reacts to fight against Taltia Barberena (not pictured) during UFC Fight Night at Ahoy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Marion Reneau will serve as Tate’s welcome back host on Saturday, However, while “Cupcake” returns to competition, Reneau will be performing in her UFC finale. Reneau, 44, will not go down as a legend of the sport, and within five years she may be a name that generates an, “Oh yea I remember her,” response. That doesn’t mean the twelfth ranked 135-pounder didn’t do some notable things in her 9-7-1 run in the sport.

During her 12-fight stint in the promotion, she put together a damn solid schedule against strong competition. Although she came up short in fights against former title challengers Raquel Pennington and Cat Zingano, as well as eventual bantamweight champion Holly Holm, none of those women finished her. Heck, all seven of her defeats are by decision. Furthermore, she does have some big wins on her resume against a future flyweight champion in Jessica Andrade, and another bantamweight title challenger in Sara McMann

“The Belizean Bruiser” may not get an invitation to the UFC hall-of-fame but she’s had a run worth respect, and on behalf of fans and media I thank her for her services towards furthering Octagon violence. Godspeed “Bruiser.”