Featherweights take focus as UFC returns to T.O.
Jose Aldo celebrates after defeating Frankie Edgar during their featherweight championship mixed martial arts bout at UFC 200 on Saturday, July 9, 2016, in Las Vegas. (The Canadian Press/AP, John Locher)
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, December 8, 2016 3:23PM EST
Last Updated Thursday, December 8, 2016 3:24PM EST
TORONTO -- Another step in filling (The Notorious) Conor McGregor's sizable featherweight shoes will take place Saturday night at UFC 206 as the MMA juggernaut returns to Toronto for the first time since September 2013.
With the Irish superstar now focusing on his lightweight title, Jose Aldo has been upgraded from interim to featherweight champion. But McGregor's successor as the undisputed 145-pound title-holder won't be decided until 2017 when Aldo faces the winner of Saturday's main event at the Air Canada Centre -- either No. 2 contender Max (Blessed) Holloway or No. 5 Anthony (Showtime) Pettis.
Holloway and Pettis are fighting for the same interim title that Aldo won in July via unanimous decision over Frankie (The Answer) Edgar at UFC 200.
Confused? It's just the UFC's somewhat clumsy way of restoring order to the championship havoc caused by McGregor ruling two weight classes. The Irish star wanted to defend both titles but the UFC stepped in to avoid a championship logjam that might see fighters in one weight class chaff while McGregor attended to the other division.
All Holloway and Pettis care about is what awaits the winner, with an improved purse now they are in the marquee matchup.
"It means that we're getting a definite shot at the official title of 145 pounds. That type of title shot don't come a lot in this sport," said Pettis, a former lightweight champion in his own right.
"The water at this division was super-murky," said Holloway, adding an F-bomb for emphasis. "Now it's super-clear. You know, the winner of this fight gets to fight for the undisputed title. And it's always great to have extra cash in your pocket too, so it means a lot. So we will see what happens. We'll take care of business (Saturday) and it's a straight shot after that."
Aldo dethroned Mike Brown in November 2009 to win the WEC featherweight title and, when the UFC introduced lighter weight classes, became the UFC's first 145-pound champion. The Brazilian defended the UFC title seven straight times before McGregor knocked him out in 13 seconds at UFC 194 last December.
The 25-year-old Holloway (16-3-0), a stylish well-rounded fighter, has won nine straight since losing a decision to McGregor in August 2013.
The 29-year-old Pettis (19-5-0) made his featherweight debut in August, submitting Charles Oliveira. Pettis moved down a weight class after losing three straight at 155 pounds, a losing streak that started with Rafael Dos Anjos taking his lightweight title via unanimous decision at UFC 185 in March 2015.
When the Toronto card was originally announced, many hoped it would signal a return to action for former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. But that didn't happen and light-heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier was matched against No. 1 contender Anthony (Rumble) Johnson in a rematch of their UFC 187 fight won by Cormier via third-round submission.
That was scrapped when Cormier was injured in training, moving Holloway-Pettis up.
Former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans was also removed from the Toronto card after failing to secure a licence from the local commission for the second fight in a row. No. 10 middleweight Tim Kennedy, his opponent both times, will fight No. 8 Kevin Gastelum instead Saturday.
Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone, ranked fifth among welterweights, takes on No. 14 Matt (The Immortal) Brown in the co-main event.
The bouts are the first for Cerrone and Kennedy since stepping forward last week as two of the five high-profile fighters serving as the face of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association, a group created to protect the rights of UFC fighters.
There will be seven Canadians in action but only welterweight Jordan (Young Gun) Mein of Lethbridge, Alta., returning from a brief retirement, is on the main card.
Undercard fighters include No. 13 light-heavyweight Misha Cirkunov of Toronto, No. 9 strawweight Valerie (Trouble)( Letourneau of Montreal, bantamweight Mitch Gagnon of Sudbury, Ont., and lightweights John (The Bull) Makdessi and Olivier (The Quebec Kid) Aubin-Mercier of Montreal and Jason Saggo, who fights out of Charlottetown by way of Bolton, Ont.
Cirkunov, a rising 205-pound talent who has won all three of his UFC fights, gets a tough test in No. 8 Nikita (The Miner) Krylov of Ukraine, who has won his last five UFC bouts. Letourneau looks to return to the win column after losses to Joanne Calderwood and champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Saturday's show is the UFC's fifth in Toronto and the first since the new ownership of the UFC cut staff at its Canadian office.
A UFC spokesman said "We're tracking for a sellout" but would not discuss the Air Canada Centre capacity under fight-night configuration.
UFC 165, the last card in Toronto, drew 15,504 in September 2013 when then light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones beat Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson in a memorable five-round decision.
Prior Canadian shows this year were in Vancouver in August and Ottawa in June.
Since 2008, the UFC has staged 21 events in Canada with other stops in Calgary, Halifax, Montreal, Quebec City, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
The next show is slated for Halifax in February.