UFC 303 highlights – No drama needed, Alex Pereira is MMA's biggest star

UFC 303 highlights – No drama needed, Alex Pereira is MMA's biggest star

The impressive title fight performance of Alex Pereira vs. Jiri Prochazka headlined the 13-fight card at UFC 303 in Las Vegas. In the co-main event, Dan Ige entered at short notice, but Diego Lopez let the promotion know he's ready for center stage. But what were the biggest moments of International Fight Week, and who were the biggest standouts on the card? Brett Okamoto, Andreas Hale and Jeff Wagenheim offer their final thoughts.

Wagenheim: It just keeps getting better for Alex Pereira. Signing up for this title fight just two weeks ago, and that too while he was out of the country and far from his training gym, was a tall order. But his performance on Saturday sent the UFC light heavyweight champion soaring.

Pereira's head-kick knockout 13 seconds into Round 2 of the UFC 303 main event, after he dropped former champion Jiri Prochazka with a left hook on the horn at the end of the opening round, left the crowd at T-Mobile Arena stunned and eager to see more from this swashbuckling powerhouse. Maybe this will be another title defense at 205 pounds, or perhaps he's ready to move up to heavyweight.

In Pereira's postfight interview inside the cage, commentator Joe Rogan was already trying to sell the move to heavyweight, which could lead “Poitan” to an unprecedented accomplishment. In just nine trips inside the Octagon, he's already captured championships at middleweight and light heavyweight. No one has ever won UFC belts in three weight classes.

“I think it's in my future,” said Pereira, who was a two-division kickboxing world champion in another sporting life. “I said the same thing the last time I was here. … There wasn't a lot of interest in the organization. … I think the fans have a lot of say in it — whatever they want. At the end of the day, these are the people who pay for it. If that's what they want, it's going to be inevitable.”

On one hand, the UFC's heavyweight division doesn't need to further escalate the current stalemate between champion Jon Jones, interim champion Tom Aspinall and former champion Stipe Miocic. And the 205-pound division could still use the star power of Pereira, who was tepid before this night but dazzling now.

But it's not possible to micromanage an event like Pereira. If you're the UFC, you find the most interesting opportunities for them and let them achieve things that no one could have imagined just a few years ago.

This isn't the second coming of Conor McGregor, whom Pereira replaced on Saturday. The Irishman is the sport's biggest star ever, but his influence extended far beyond the cage and, nowadays, it's almost entirely theatrical. Pereira, by contrast, is a fighter through and through. His mic time is straight-laced and spoken through an interpreter. What makes him a stand-out star in the UFC is what happens once he steps into the cage. It starts with his eerily steady gaze during introductions and ends with a fearsome knockout. Fans will eat that up more happily than tired theatrics.

Lopez and Ige elevated to star status after UFC 303

Hale: Yes, Diego Lopez won and extended his winning streak to four in a row with a unanimous decision win over Dan Ige. However, the real story is how this fight came about and how Lopez and Ige won despite having no idea they would be fighting each other four hours before the bout.

Let's start with Ige.

On Saturday morning, he was going to bouts as a fan. By Saturday night, he was in the co-main event and having a strong final round as he tried to pull off a noteworthy upset in a bout he had no business being in.

As for Lopes, he could have backed out of this fight at any time. He could have dropped down to the weight limit for his fight with Brian Ortega on Friday morning, which was raised to 155 pounds. When Ortega got sick and had to drop out, Lopes didn't want to risk facing another opponent, especially one as tough as Ige, whose catchweight was 165 pounds. But he did.

Winning and losing don’t matter as much as the courage it took for both fighters to hold this co-main event together and deliver an exciting bout for the fans.

Ige has now etched his name in the history books and established a legacy that will be remembered. Give him whatever he wants next – provided it doesn't interfere with Lopes' plans.

For Lopes, his arrow was already pointing to the ceiling. If he wants to fight UFC Noche at The Sphere, then do that. If he wants to take a fight with someone like Alexander Volkanovski — who he later called out — then give it to him. If Volkanovski is ready.

Stars were born on this night, no matter who the winner is. Stars sometimes receive favorable treatment because of their status, and Lopes and Ige should be willing to ask for a favor or two to move on.

The moment of truth is arriving for Machado Gary

Okamoto: The UFC has nurtured Ian Machado Gary's career beautifully. Really. And Machado Gary has repaid the UFC by evolving and turning himself into a proper welterweight contender. He has taken timely steps up in the competition, and it doesn't always look like a walk in the park, but that can be a good thing. A close split decision win against Geoff Neal in February and another close win against Michael Page on Saturday – these experiences have been valuable to his overall career, and he has maintained his perfect record even in these close bouts.

That being said, there is no building up anymore. Machado Gary has entered that category where it is going to be hard to find holes to exploit. As great as it has been to watch him come out on top from these challenging situations, there is something to be said about those challenging situations. Machado Gary has not always looked extremely comfortable in various aspects of these bouts. He has overcome that with self-belief, great decision making and very good skill, but still, there won’t be such clear paths to victory against future competition.

Well, his history of bouncing around in the gym doesn't hold him back. And in fact, it's hard to say it's a bad thing that in a fight against Page, he has trained Dutch-style kickboxing with the likes of Henri Hooft, but now he also has the Muay Thai Chute Boxe style, not to mention Demian Maia. Normally, when fighters bounce around in the gym, it's not usually considered a good thing, but it certainly seems to be working for Machado Gary.

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