The final event of 2023, UFC 296, gets underway at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas this Saturday night.
Freshly off the back of Tom Aspinall winning the interim heavyweight belt, Leon Edwards defends his welterweight championship in a bid to end the year with two British UFC champions.
With six of the top 10 welterweights all fighting on the main card of the event UFC 296 promises to be one of the best fight cards of the year which will have a long-lasting impact on the welterweight division.
Vicente Luque (#9) v Ian Garry (#10)
This is a fight that could have huge implications on the division. Luque v Garry opens the main card of UFC 296, and I don’t think that this, or the fact that they are the first of the three welterweight fights including top 10 fighters, is a coincidence.
In the build-up to UFC 296, Ian Garry has been all over the headlines. Whilst most of it has been speculation regarding his relationship, another big story was that Garry had been kicked out of the Team Renegade gym in Birmingham, the same gym where the champion Leon Edwards trains.
This immediately sparked online conversation as to what might have happened, with a story circulating that Edwards had knocked out Garry in sparring, but the Irishman was quick to tell his side of the story.
Garry told The Independent: “His head coach asked me not to come back to Renegade. Leon doesn’t want any insecurities or doubts on his own mats, within the gym, which I don’t fully understand.
“His coach said the words: ‘Ian is a threat, I cannot have Leon having any doubts or insecurities.’ That makes me think someone is weak-minded and can’t have another contender training on the mat.”
Of course, the champ shut down Garry’s claims in an interview with Sky Sports.
Edwards said: “The gym decided that he just wasn’t fitting for the gym. We’re just too different, he’s like a talker, a social media guy, brings his cameras everywhere. He’s late to sessions. It’s like two different cultures.
Having both Garry and Edwards on the same card helps add to the narrative surrounding the Renegade drama and all eyes will be on the UFC 296 press conference on Thursday, to see if it is addressed.
However, even if he gets a career-best win over Luque, which is far from a given, it would probably be too early yet to give Garry a title shot with other contenders further up the pecking order.
But that is why we have another big welterweight fight on the card…
Shavkat Rakhmonov (#5) v Stephen Thompson (#6)
As soon as this fight was announced I’ve been counting down the days until we get to see two of the division’s best strikers clash in a potential fight of the night.
Like Ferguson v Pimblett which takes place earlier in the night, this feels like a passing of the guard from Thompson, a 40-year-old UFC veteran, to Rakhmonov, the division’s most exciting upcoming talent, who boasts a flawless 17-0 record.
As with Luque v Garry, this fight will have a big impact on the division, and I think the UFC have planned out exactly what they want to happen.
A win for Rakhmonov propels him to title contention and I think it’s almost certain that his next fight would either be for the title or a title eliminator, especially if Edwards wins the main event and goes on to fight for the middleweight belt.
However, on the other side of things, a loss for Thompson could be great for the UFC as, if all goes to plan and Garry defeats Luque, it would allow them to set up a kickboxing masterclass between Thompson and Garry as the main event of a fight night in Dublin next year.
The UFC hasn’t been in Ireland since 2015 and, as the last event between Robert Whittaker and Darren Till was cancelled due to COVID-19, Irish MMA fans have been crying out for the organisation to return.
Dana White himself told TNT Sports that he wanted the organisation to return to Ireland next year and a fight between Ireland’s top UFC talent and a fan-favourite veteran would be a real treat for Irish fans.
Leon Edwards (C) v Colby Covington (#3)
Finally, the main event. Britain’s own champion Leon Edwards facing Colby Covington – Donald Trump’s favourite fighter.
As this is a championship fight, it is obvious that it will have a big impact on the division no matter what happens.
If Edwards wins, his options are almost endless. He can stay at welterweight and rematch Belal Muhammad after their previous meeting ended in a no-contest. He could fight the winner of Rakhmonov/Thompson in what would probably be the most exciting fight in the division. He could even let Garry skip the line if he wins his fight and finally put to rest the Renegade rumours.
However, another option that Edwards has expressed interest in is moving up to middleweight and facing the winner of the championship fight between Sean Strickland (c) and Dricus du Plessis next month.
He told Sky Sports: “Now is perfect; me going out there being the first-ever double-champion from the UK is the way to do it. That’s on the cards for sure.”
On the flip side, if Covington loses there’s a very good chance, he could place his gloves in the centre of the octagon and put an end to an incredible career.
A loss would mean Covington has lost three attempts to claim UFC gold, all within his last five fights, and with so much young talent coming through the welterweight division, it’s hard to see a world where the UFC can justify giving the 35-year-old another chance at the title after this.
But the fight could go the other way and blow the division wide open.
An instant rematch could be granted to Edwards should Covington take his championship off him, but Colby also told CODE Sports that he would “love to slap Sean Strickland around” at middleweight, should he be successful on Saturday night.
That, however, would be unlikely, instead, I would say the safe bet would be a fight with Muhammad displaying the best wrestling the division has to offer.
Meanwhile, Leon could fight another top contender in the division like the winner of Rakhmonov/Thompson or go up to middleweight anyway and face a top contender at that weight, maybe we’ll see a fourth encounter with Kamaru Usman.
Overall, it’s safe to say that whatever may happen this Saturday night in Sin City, the welterweight division is possibly in the greatest place it’s ever been, and if Edwards retains his belt, 2023 will have set a high bar for British MMA next year.