UFC 303 preview: After Conor McGregor's withdrawal, what does the pay-per-view really have to offer?

Say this for the UFC: no fight promoter has ever been better at scrambling for a backup plan and finding gold down there at the bottom of the barrel. Some of that is the result of experience, having been here many times before. Most of it is the strength of the UFC roster. Hundreds of fighters under contract, the cream of the MMA crop, so really all matchmakers have to do is start dialing and don’t stop until there’s a new main event.

Still, with Conor McGregor out of the UFC 303 main event bout against Michael Chandler due to a broken toe (and the pinkie toe, no less, the littlest piggy), the replacement rematch between light heavyweight champ Alex Pereira and former champ Jiří Procházka can’t help but feel like a little bit of a consolation prize.

These two fought less than a year ago. It was a thrilling fight the first time, for as long as it lasted. The rematch will probably be much the same. Between the quiet menace of Pereira and the samurai intensity of Procházka, I’m not sure you could make a bad fight between these two. If you told me I had to watch them fight once a month, I’d have zero problem with it.

And yet, this was supposed to be the big summer blowout. The return of McGregor. The spectacle and the superstar sizzle descending on Las Vegas just in time to capitalize on the lull between the conclusion of the NBA and NHL seasons and before football season starts to ramp up again. Instead it’s a UFC pay-per-view that feels solidly good without being great, and it’s all because of one little toe.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 11: Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic faces off against Alex Pereira of Brazil in the UFC light heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jiří Procházka and Alex Pereira last fought at UFC 295 on Nov. 11, 2023, in New York. Pereira won via second-round TKO. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The irony, of course, is that Pereira is quite literally stepping in on broken toes of his own. One toe he injured while training for his bout at UFC 300 (which, by the way, was only two months ago). The other he injured in that knockout win over Jamahal Hill.

But when the call came to jump in on short notice and defend his title, Pereira answered anyway and got right back to work. Maybe that’s just the kind of thing that’s harder to convince yourself to do when the alternative is staying safe and sound on your luxury yacht.

Here’s a quick rundown on all that the UFC 303 pay-per-view event has to offer this Saturday:

Who they are: Garry is an undefeated youngster who talks the part of a would-be star but also fights smart even when it means being slightly boring. Page (or “MVP” for those in the know) is a fun, flashy striker with an unpredictable style that can make opponents seem foolish — at least when they let him lead the dance.

Why it matters: We’re trying to answer a couple questions here. Is Garry as good as he says, and is he truly on the verge of being a title contender in the UFC’s 170-pound division? Is Page too late to the UFC party, and too one-dimensional to really make a splash there after years as a dependable but never elite attraction for Bellator? Someone’s on the way up, and someone’s on the way down here. We just haven’t figured out which is which yet.

Who they are: Bueno Silva seemed like a good candidate to claim the vacant women’s 135-pound title, but came up short against Raquel Pennington in January. Chiasson won a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” at featherweight, but lately has been winning one and losing the next with a troubling regularity.

Why it matters: Bueno Silva is ranked third at bantamweight and probably wouldn’t need too many wins to get back to a title shot. Chiasson is a big fighter for this weight class, but she still seems pretty raw at times and hasn’t beaten anyone of note in the UFC. This would be a major step forward for Chiasson if she could win, while Bueno Silva is just trying not to fall in the rankings.

Who they are: A couple of 35-year-old fighters trying to squeeze what they can out of their remaining years in the cage. Smith breathed some life back into his career with a surprising submission win in May. Dolidze has lost two straight and is fighting at light heavyweight here after several years down at middleweight.

Why it matters: Technically, both these guys are replacements. Dolidze is actually a replacement for a replacement, but whatever. It’s an entirely new fight at this point, and one that’s acting as a Band-Aid for a particularly beleaguered spot on this lineup. Consider this fight the bridge between the main card warm-up and the big stuff.

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - FEBRUARY 24: Brian Ortega reacts after defeating Yair Rodriguez of Mexico in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Arena CDMX on February 24, 2024 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brian Ortega is coming off a win over Yair Rodriguez on Feb. 24, 2024, in Mexico City, but is just 2-3 in is last five fights. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Who they are: Ortega was once a bright-eyed (literally) young prospect who seemed destined for greatness. After two unsuccessful title bids, the second of which saw him come so very close, he’s in that uncertain phase where a weight class jump may be imminent. Lopes may have the haircut of a mid-2000s emo bassist, but his three-fight finishing streak suggests he’s developing into a genuinely dangerous featherweight.

Why it matters: Ortega is the biggest name Lopes has ever fought, and doing so in the co-main event here is a tremendous opportunity for him to get a win that would force people to take him seriously as a potential title contender. But Ortega is a wily one, especially on the mat, and he’s coming off a win that helped refute any suggestion that he might be primed to sink into a stepping stone role.

Who they are: Pereira is the reigning 205-pound champ and the former 185-pound champ, either of which would be impressive enough. The fact that he’s done all that in just under three years with the UFC makes it almost unbelievable. Procházka was the champ for a minute before a shoulder injury forced him to give up the belt. He pulled off a big knockout win on the UFC 300 undercard in April, which means he has the advantage over Pereira in rest time between fights by roughly one hour.

Why it matters: Well, it’s for the UFC 205-pound title, isn’t it? Pereira is brimming with confidence at this stage of his title reign. He’s remained very busy, and this will be his fourth fight in less than a year. That’s a lot for a light heavyweight and a whole lot for a current champ. Will it equal momentum or burnout? Procházka hopes it’s the latter, because if he loses a second time to Pereira there probably won’t be an offer for a third.