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UFC 303: Where does Alex Pereira vs. Jiri Prochazka 2 rank among the best replacement main events?

UFC 295: Prochazka v Pereira
Alex Pereira and Jiri Prochazka | Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Nobody rolls with the punches quite like Dana White and the UFC.

Conor McGregor isn’t making that walk to the octagon this Saturday at UFC 303 (sorry, Michael Chandler), but in his place stands arguably the promotion’s most valuable player Alex Pereira to take on Jiri Prochazka. It’s an incredibly compelling main event, one that might even be better than the originally scheduled headliner.

This isn’t the first time that the UFC has pulled a rabbit out of its hat; frankly, the matchmakers have made it a habit of falling upwards even under the most discouraging circumstances. But what’s been their best magic trick?

Ahead of Saturday’s show in Las Vegas, MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew tip their cap to the best-ever replacement main events, a handful of which changed the course of UFC history.

(Note: we didn’t include matchups that were already scheduled for a card and simply promoted to the main event, nor did we consider main events that were already booked and just rescheduled for another date.)

Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz headline UFC 196 on Saturday night in Las Vegas. Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 1 — UFC 196

Why did it happen?

Conor McGregor was to take on lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos, but in a twist that may have single-handedly sent us spiraling into the darkest timeline, an injury forced dos Anjos out and in stepped fan favorite Nate Diaz. It wasn’t completely out of nowhere, as Diaz had previously made it clear that he felt McGregor was in the process of taking everything he’d worked for (motherf*cker).

How did it play out?

Disappointingly at first for McGregor and the UFC, but amazingly well for everyone in the long run from a business standpoint.

Diaz and McGregor did a fantastic job building up the fight, hitting all the right notes at the pre-fight press conferences and faceoffs, so when the time came for them to actually throw down, anticipation was at a fever pitch.

Then Diaz shocked the world, not only surviving the vaunted McGregor Left Hand of Doom, but firing back in classic Stockton style. He beat McGregor so badly on the feet that it was actually McGregor who chose to take the fight to the mat, which proved to be his undoing. Diaz subbed McGregor with a rear-naked choke to launch himself into superstardom, set up a box-office shattering rematch, and push the UFC itself closer to the unstoppable juggernaut you see today.

Seriously, imagine McGregor just fought dos Anjos. — Lee

Michael Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold 2 — UFC 199

Why did it happen?

UFC 199 featured a rematch for the middleweight title, just not the one we expected.

For years, Michael Bisping was the the guy who couldn’t win the big one. Heck, he couldn’t even get to the big one, frequently falling just one fight short of competing for the title. But a three-fight win streak (including a classic and controversial fight with the legendary Anderson Silva) kept him hovering around the championship picture and when Luke Rockhold vs. Chris Weidman 2 fell through, enter Bisping.

It was a ridiculous scenario considering that Rockhold manhandled Bisping the first time they fought, so this was expected to be a stopgap until Weidman was ready to fight Rockhold again.

How did it play out?

In the most surprising and uplifting way imaginable.

Bisping was a massive underdog given the fact that 19 months prior to their rematch, Rockhold basically knocked him out and then submitted him. Rockhold was wildly dismissive of Bisping once the fight started, carrying his hands down by his waist and his chin up in the air. For three minutes that didn’t hurt him, but after a particularly lazy effort where Rockhold leapt in with a jab, Bisping returned with a combination, stunning the middleweight champion with a left hook, and then pouring on the offense to pull off one of the greatest upsets in UFC history. — Meshew

Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua 1 — UFC 139

Why did it happen?

This UFC Hall of Fame inductee has become so revered that everyone forgets it was not the originally planned headliner for UFC 139.

The event took place after the UFC’s history-making debut on FOX in 2011, and some reshuffling had to be done to properly usher in the new era. UFC 139’s highly anticipated heavyweight title fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos was moved back a week to the inaugural FOX card, and MMA lifers Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua instead got the call to close out a pay-per-view.

How did it play out?

We got one of the 10 best fights of all time, so pretty good!

I actually have a distinct memory of watching this one in a half-filled Boston Pizza, with the customers mostly being a mix of hardcores and people looking for a quick chicken wing fix that probably didn’t even know there was a UFC pay-per-view on that night. It wasn’t a bad card, but the diners didn’t really come to life until the main event.

Henderson and Shogun immediately lit the octagon ablaze with hard-hitting exchanges. Henderson rocked Shogun with his signature H-Bomb right hand, but somehow his fellow PRIDE legend survived and made it to the championship rounds (which the UFC had only recently introduced for non-title main events).

Shogun grounded Henderson in Rounds 4 and 5 and just laid into him with heavy punches. Now it was Henderson’s turn to survive and he did, hanging on for a unanimous decision. The two ran it back in 2014 with Henderson definitively putting Shogun down for the count, but that first fight is unforgettable. — Lee

Yair Rodriguez vs. The Korean Zombie — UFC Denver (November 2018)

Why did it happen?

A dream fight between Frankie Edgar and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung was set to go down in Denver to ring in the 25th anniversary of UFC 1, but Edgar suffered an injury and was replaced by a fighter he demolished at UFC 211, Yair Rodriguez.

This was truly unexpected as Rodriguez was involved in a prolonged dispute with the UFC over the fighter allegedly declining fights to the point that he was reportedly released. However, everyone made nice and “El Pantera” was suddenly set to fight the Zombie.

How did it play out?

Just seven months prior to this fight, Zombie made his return to MMA from military service with a scintillating knockout of Dennis Bermudez. Then he hurt his knee and there were once again questions about what Zombie would look like. Well, for 24 minutes and 58 seconds, Zombie looked incredible. Zombie battered Rodriguez around the cage for the entire fight and with seconds left in the bout, it was clear that Zombie was about to win a decision.

Until he didn’t.

Ever the showman, Zombie charged in with just seconds left. It was a disastrous decision as Rodriguez slipped Zombie’s rush, throwing a back/up elbow that landed perfectly on the chin and immediately slumped Zombie face first to the canvas.

A literal last-second knockout that is also quite possibly the coolest KO in UFC history. — Meshew

 Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Yair Rodriguez and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung

Steve Jennum vs. Harold Howard — UFC 3

Why did it happen?

This is the original last-minute UFC fix.

Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie were expected to run through their UFC 3 competition and meet in a rematch from UFC 1, but Shamrock was injured after winning his semifinal bout and Gracie bowed out of the semis altogether, throwing in the towel prior to his fight with Harold Howard.

Back in then, the only contingency that the matchmakers thought of in the case of injury forcing a fighter out of these one-day tournaments was to have a replacement fighter jump right in to take a spot. And by right in, I mean right in.

Howard went on to face a reserve, Steve Jennum, who hadn’t competed at all that evening.

How did it play out?

A well-rested Jennum avoided some wacky Howard strikes, fought off a guillotine choke (they were mixing the martial arts, for real!), and then scored a big takedown. Falling right into mount, Jennum finished Howard with ground-and-pound to forever etch his name in the books as a UFC tournament champion.

In subsequent years, fighters were required to win a bout to become reserves, to avoid situations like a fresh Jennum just strolling into the final. As for Jennum, he returned at UFC 4, defeated his opening round opponent, and then, fittingly, had to bow out of the tournament with an injury. — Lee

T.J. Dillashaw vs. Renan Barao 1 — UFC 170

Why did it happen?

T.J. Dillashaw’s stock was rising fast, but few expected him to win a UFC title in the first three years of his run with the company. Though the prized Team Alpha Male prospect had plenty of intrigue behind him and some nice wins, championship gold felt at least a couple more fights away especially after a streak-busting loss to Raphael Assuncao.

But when a lingering injury left Assuncao unable to make a bantamweight title date with Renan Barao at UFC 170, Dillashaw was asked to step in and challenge the champion. Oh by the way, Barao was unbeaten in 35 straight fights up to this point.

How did it play out?

It’s hard to overstate how much hype there was around Barao, was considered by many to be one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Seriously, the debate was between Jon Jones, Jose Aldo, Demetrious Johnson, and Barao. He was at that level.

And Dillashaw whooped him.

Barao was a -1000 betting favorite and Dillashaw beat him like a yard dog. It wasn’t remotely competitive. Barao had no answer for Dillashaw’s movement, speed, or his darting in-and-out style of striking. In fact, Dillashaw nearly finished Barao in the first round, forcing the champion to show his grit and hang on. That proved to be the best part of the fight for Barao as Dillashaw wailed on him for the next 17 minutes before finally closing the show with a mercy-kill of a finish in the fifth round that began with a head kick on the exhausted and battered Barao.

Out of nowhere, the Dillashaw era began. — Meshew

Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno 1 — UFC 256

Why did it happen?

Since this whole conversation was started by a Brazilian saving a card, how can we forget Deiveson Figueiredo making the fastest turnaround by a champion in UFC history?

Figueiredo beat Alex Perez at UFC 255 and that looked to be a neat bow on his 2020 campaign. However, UFC 256 in December needed a headliner and after multiple reported and rumored bouts fell through (including Amanda Nunes vs. Megan Anderson, and Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan), Figueiredo had to do a Grampa Simpson loop back to the cage just 21 days later to fight Brandon Moreno, who also won at UFC 255.

How did it play out?

In an instant classic, Figueiredo and Moreno further established their human buzzsaw bonafides as as they shredded each other for five rounds. This was the highest of high-level MMA and the result was only slightly spoiled by Figueiredo losing a point for a low blow, which resulted in a majority draw rather than a win on points for the champion.

Not that it mattered as this was the beginning of a classic rivalry. Moreno had always been viewed as something of a fun-loving action fighter that wasn’t to be taken too seriously as a contender, but he stood toe-to-toe with the most dangerous finisher in the 125-pound division. He won their rematch six months later, which turned out to be just the second of four consecutive fights between these two warriors. — Lee

Conor McGregor vs. Chad Mendes — UFC 189

Why did it happen?

Featherweight king Jose Aldo was supposed to silence McGregor at UFC 189, but an injury forced him out of their heavily hyped contest and in stepped Chad Mendes. No, Mendes didn’t have anywhere near the star power of Aldo, but if there’s one thing he was known for, it was wrestling. And McGregor had, ahem, notoriously been kept away from fighters who could put him on his back.

Was the hype train about to go off the rails?

How did it play out?

McGregor earned his stripes.

For those who weren’t fans at the time, you look back on McGregor’s UFC run before the title and see Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier and are understandably wowed, but the truth is, those wins weren’t a huge deal at the time as neither fighter were was they would go on to become. Instead, the line on McGregor was that the UFC was cherry-picking opponents to make him look good, much like they did with Alex Pereira. Until Mendes stepped in.

For many of the cynical hardcore fans, Mendes presented an impossible challenge for McGregor: a durable guy who would simply take him down repeatedly. So when McGregor accepted the fight on short notice, everyone applauded his moxie but believed it would backfire on “Notorious.” They were dead wrong.

Mendes had plenty of success early in the fight, scoring takedowns nearly at will, but it wouldn’t last. McGregor correctly assessed that the short notice would hurt Mendes’ cardio, and so he attacked the body early and often, draining the gas tank. Mendes couldn’t keep up the offense and once he faltered at the end of Round 2, McGregor turned it on, dropping Mendes with his patented left hand and then pouring on the punishment for the finish.

The UFC would never be the same. — Meshew

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua Photos
Jon Jones and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua

Jon Jones vs. Shogun Rua

Why did it happen?

Once upon a time, Jon Jones was the ultimate opportunist.

Seven fights into his UFC career, everyone recognized Jones was a prodigy and that UFC champion status was a matter of when, not if. One of his contemporaries was Ryan Bader, and Jones toyed with him before tapping him out before Round 3. He was so dominant that he made it an easy choice for the UFC to ask him to replace Rashad Evans at UFC 128 immediately after the Bader win.

Evans was booked to challenge light heavyweight champion Shogun Rua, but a knee injury sidelined Evans, leading to Jones taking the place of his close friend and training partner. But that was a drama for another day.

In that moment, it was all about Jones.

How did it play out?

You know the phrase “changing of the guard” as it relates to sports? This fight is the platonic ideal of that phrase.

Shogun is a Hall of Famer and an incredible fighter, but also a relic of a bygone era, where being well-rounded and tough, with a few exceptional skills was good enough to be champion. Enter Jones, who was all of those things plus enormous and a great athlete. Shogun never stood a chance.

Rewatching this, before they even touch gloves it’s apparent who is going to win. Jones appears a full weight class bigger than Shogun, while moving at twice Shogun’s speed. Jones takes Shogun down and from there it’s big brother time. He mushes Shogun with his physicality and length, and Shogun eats about 436 elbows until he finally stands up. But the battle is already lost.

Shogun fights through the exhaustion, but things get progressively worse as Jones smacks him around in all phases, nearly stopping the bout with ground-and-pound in the third. Shogun survives, but only briefly as once he gets to his feet, Jones continues to assault him, wrapping things up with a body shot and then a knee to the defeated champion along the fence, ushering in perhaps the most dominant championship era in MMA history. — Meshew

Alex Pereira vs. Jiri Prochazka 2 — UFC 303

Why is it happening?

Conor McGregor injured a toesie-woesie.

How does this compare to the rest?

Lee: Objectively, I know this is a better fight than McGregor vs. Chandler in several ways, but I can’t help but feeling that something was lost here.

Pereira-Prochzka deserves its own build, not to forever be known as “the rematch that happened because Conor couldn’t fight.” It’s entirely possible that what occurs on fight night is so epic that years from now we hardly remember why this matchup came together the way it did, but I doubt it. The McGregor shadow looms large.

So for that reason, I’m not comfortable tagging this as the best replacement main event ever simply because it shouldn’t be a replacement and we all know it. I’m tired of having to see great fighters clean up after the UFC for having an overstuffed schedule. Hats off to Pereira and Prochazka for doing this and you can bet I’ll be glued to the screen, but that would have been true if they fought three months from now, too.

A replacement main event, in name only.

Meshew: When we first conceived of this exercise, I didn’t realize how much what ends up happening can color these things historically. For every Jones vs. Shogun moment, where most of us in the know were fully aware what was about to happen, there’s a Bisping vs. Rockhold, where no one saw it coming. Heading into a fight like that, you’d be justified in not caring about a rematch of a non-competitive fight. But then Bisping pulled off a miracle and now it’s an indelible moment in UFC history.

This fight won’t reach those lofty heights, if for no other reason than the fabric of MMA history won’t unravel with either outcome. If Pereira wins, his miraculous run keeps going and if he loses, they rematch. By that measure, this fight can only be so good.

On the other hand, from all the fights we’ve talked about today, there might not be a single one with more potential to be memorable on its own merits. Both Pereira and Prochazka are among the most exciting fighters in MMA today and their styles are uniquely suited to one another to deliver incredible action. Heading into this one, Fight of the Year is absolutely in play, and the only other matchup from the above list that had that potential was Zombie vs. Rodriguez.

This is a special one, no doubt.


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