Is UFC 303 actually better now?

Is UFC 303 actually better now?

Earlier this week, the dreaded news regarding UFC 303 that many MMA fans long anticipated finally went public: Dana White took to social media and announced that the return of Conor McGregor—the most popular name in the sport’s history—would have to wait.

In its place at UFC 303 came a fight between UFC light heavyweight champion Alex Pereira and former titleholder Jiri Prochazka, a pair of nasty finishers who have gained a reputation for putting on entertaining performances.

No matter how long the promotion delayed its announcement of the canceled bout for UFC 303, and no matter what was revealed in its place, the change would be a disaster for the promotion business-wise and would upset many. A McGregor fight can be without a title circumstance, a big rivalry, or even much momentum in the star’s sails and still be a massive live gate and pay-per-view hit. The mainstream pull of “The Notorious” is hard to match or replicate, hence why a return fight for him not even in his regular weight class earned the main event slot in one of the promotion’s biggest shows of the year.

All of a sudden, one of the biggest events of the year for the promotion became simply just another card in the schedule for many. But should those tuning out maybe stick around instead? Maybe. While UFC 303 isn’t a stellar card and certainly not in the running for one of the biggest shows of the year, it’s way better than it was before. Let’s look at where it was before, where it is now, and why the change due to circumstances actually wasn’t that bad for fans.

The Return of Notorious

Conor McGregor confirms UFC 303 fight with Michael Chandler is on amid scrutiny see ya's soon

It’s undeniable how big of a name McGregor is. If you asked the average person who they associate with MMA, McGregor is likely one of the first fighters to be mentioned. His buzz is massive and justifies why he gets placed in so many big fights. But there’s a reality to face about his matchup against Michael Chandler: While it is a bout that was expected to receive lots of hype, it isn’t a particularly stellar fight.

There are many factors that make McGregor’s return less intriguing that his previous outings. He’s coming off a pair of losses, both that came via finish against Dustin Poirier in 2021. He’s moving up to 170, a weight class he has only briefly flirted with in the past. He’s also coming off the longest layoff of his career, now set to stretch past the three-year mark. The 35-year-old isn’t getting any younger and certainly isn’t close to a title opportunity at the moment, or even if he put away Chandler. These quick-hit facts illustrate what type of a fight this was.

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Now let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to watch a fighter who isn’t the best in the world. MMA, like any sport, is entertainment at the end of the day. Success through competition isn’t the sole factor that sells fights, and often is the least important thing when it comes to getting the public’s attention. But even the other side of the fight against Chandler, the promotion, hasn’t brought up the bout’s value much either.

McGregor will always get attention for his over-the-top and at times too-much personality, and that doesn’t change no matter who he faces. But realistically, the most attention was on him when he had not just a dance partner in the cage, but on the mic. The way McGregor would prod and poke at folks like Floyd Mayweather, Nate Diaz, Eddie Alvarez and others became big parts of their fight promotion.

Yet, there really hasn’t been much of that with McGregor and Chandler thus far. While the fighters never got their official media tour underway—with a press conference date in Dublin, Ireland being cancelled roughly two weeks back—this fight has essentially been kicked around as an idea by both fighters for more than a year.

Chandler has been jerked around by McGregor since early 2023, with the bout being delayed and the former Bellator champ going months on end without a paycheck. Through the online mind games, a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” and more, the former Bellator champ hasn’t taken the bait that the Irishman has thrown out. He has instead been patient and diplomatic, two words that are never used when describing why a fight is appetizing.

What does a fight between McGregor and Chandler have? Besides the legacy hype that will follow McGregor for maybe the rest of his life, there is not much. Little meaning in its division, either fighter’s careers or even the general MMA zeitgeist. It’s not a bad fight and certainly would be more popular than the average PPV card. Apart from the public excitement to see McGregor compete, there’s little that the fight brings to the table. Some might see the show as not worth watching now that he’s off. But, let’s compare it to what we now have and see if that’s a fair assessment.

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A Stellar Light Heavyweight Sequel

Alex Pereira confident ahead of UFC 303 title fight with Jiri Prochazka I have my ancestors with me

It’s hard to argue against the idea that Alex Pereira is one of the most exciting names in MMA at the moment. In just a few years he has gone from a veteran kickboxer with just a few fights in MMA, to a two-time champion who is trying to carve out the first era at light heavyweight since the end of Jon Jones’ reign.

Pereira has a style that is hard for viewers to not get behind, being an all-action striker. The damaging blows he mastered in kickboxing means that he has yet to go the distance through five championship fights. Just one of his UFC wins didn’t come via finish, and the others provided highlight-reel moments.

Something about Pereira’s current run that feels really special. It’s not just the moments that he’s creating, but the frequency at which they have emerged. UFC 303 will be his ninth appearance since his late 2021 promotional debut. He has stepped up on some of the promotion’s biggest stages: Three different Madison Square Garden cards, the huge UFC 300 PPV, and now International Fight Week. There are a lot of interesting things going on in MMA, like the dominance of Islam Makhachev and the rise of Sean O’Malley. But few have been as present in the promotion’s biggest spots over the past few years as Pereira. Because of his current run, the Brazilian champ feels more must-see than ever.

There’s also some solid storytelling behind a rematch between Pereira and Jiri Prochazka. On paper, it seems like there’s no reason for them to meet once again, especially so soon. The first time they fought, Pereira scored a second-round finish due to strikes. But if you go back and watch the fight, you may remember that there was somewhat of a discourse around an early stoppage. It wasn’t a full-on controversy, but Prochazka did mention his belief that the fight should have gone a little longer. If the promotion wants a little extra something to lean on when pushing the fight, they should focus on that.

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Pereira is a brutal striker, and Prochazka fights with a kill-or-be-killed style. Both have hardly been seen in a dull moment since joining the UFC. It’s a stellar fight and one that doesn’t really need to be sold to the diehard fans who know what to expect.

The Clear Caveat For UFC 303

Jiri Prochazka offers to fight Aleksandar Rakic at UFC 299 on short notice in Miami

The new UFC 303 main event isn’t perfect. If there’s one glaring criticism of the matchup, it’s that the fighters have just a little over two weeks to prepare for a five-round booking. The fact that we will know both Prochazka and Pereira will enter the bout less prepared than they usually are does take something away from the bout.

For Prochazka, an unsuccessful result in the fight will definitely sting. The Czech fighter might look back on the bout with regret if he loses: “Did I waste my potentially only opportunity at avenging a loss to Pereira on a booking that I had little time to prepare for?” he might think. The short-notice opportunity certainly hurts him more than Pereira, who could probably petition for a trilogy fight between them if he comes out with a loss.

The talk-heavy promo style and the long MMA history that McGregor brings into fights won’t be carried into Las Vegas when Pereira and Prochakza meet. Instead, a clash between two fan-friendly talents who are much easier to associate with the current MMA moment that we’re living in will fight. A fighter who has dominated headlines in two divisions, and one of his rivals who has the motivation to avenge a previous loss. It’s not ideal business for UFC, who will likely miss out on millions without McGregor’s presence. But when looking through the lens of a fan, it’s hard to scoff at the new headliner.

Are you more or less excited for UFC 303 later this month?