The UFC is back in town.
The Fight Night event — actually, it’s more like Fight Day — arrives Saturday with a 14-bout card at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Prelims begin at 11:30 a.m. and the main card, which features the UFC debut of former Jaguars defensive end Austen Lane, starts at 3 p.m.
The main five-bout card will be televised on ABC.
It’s the fourth straight year that the biggest promotion in mixed martial arts has been in Jacksonville, something that began when the area welcomed the event to town during the pandemic. UFC president Dana White has made the city a revolving stop every year since 2020.
Wednesday’s media day kicked off the festivities, largely a respectful and low-key outing with only small pockets of trash talk. Welterweight Phil Rowe, the most vocal of the fighters, said that he tried to show opponent Neil Magny some respect on the way to the press conference, but Magny and his contingent ignored him. That prompted a funny reaction from Rowe, who livened up media day.
“I’m normal. These guys are weenies. We fight, it’s what we do. We’ve been fighting a long time. [It’s] Common courtesy. ‘How you doing, good to see you, good morning.’ When they’re in fight mode, I guess they’re weird. Most of them are weird,” Rowe said.
“A select few have common courtesy, are normal people, ‘How you doing, good to see you, good day.’ That doesn’t change anything Saturday.”
Rowe’s reaction to being brushed off, followed by an in-depth explanation of how difficult cutting weight is, were two of the more excitable moments of Day 1. But fighters largely focused on Saturday and what victories would mean. For fifth-ranked featherweight Josh Emmett, it’s a massive task. He faces unbeaten Ilia Topuria (13-0), the ninth-ranked fighter in the world, in the main event.
For Emmett, it’s a monster assignment. Topuria is seen as a rising and marketable star in the UFC, next in line for a quick ascent. Emmett could hit pause on the hype train. He lost to Yair Rodriguez in his last bout, an interim title eliminator that propelled Rodriguez to a championship shot.
“This is my career, this is my livelihood. I want to get back in there. I’m still ranked fifth in the world and I’m fighting a tough opponent. I just have to go out there and make a statement and then I’m right back in title contention and talk,” Emmett said. “Consistency is key and here we are. I’m turning around fighting four months later and couldn’t be happier about it.”
A win over a veteran like Emmett would mean massive jump in the rankings for Topuria, potentially something comparable on a smaller scale to what Sean O’Malley’s win over Petr Yan in the bantamweight division last October. O’Malley jumped 10 spots (from No. 11 to 1) with the win and will fight Aljamain Sterling for the title at UFC 292 on Aug. 19.
A Topuria win would vault him up the featherweight list and put him in the mix for a shot at champion Alexander Volkanovski. Topuria said that he thinks Alexander “The Great” has earned his mentions as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but stopped short of calling him the best, saving that for heavyweight Jon Jones.
“I want to test myself with him [Volkanovski],” Topuria said. “I didn’t have any doubt that I can finish him in the first two rounds Can’t wait to get this one on Saturday night.”
Unlike in years past, this card has two fights with local ties.
Lane, a fifth-round pick of the Jaguars in 2010, segued into the fight game after his NFL career ended. He fought five times as an amateur before making his professional debut in 2017. It took Lane another five years to land a UFC contract, which he did with a TKO last November in White’s “Contender Series.”
Rowe, a 2008 graduate of Matanzas High School, in Palm Coast, is making his second stop in Jacksonville. Rowe (10-3) fought his third professional fight here in 2015 at the House of Fame 4 at the Landing and picked up his first win.