Five Questions with Phil Chertok: UFC 242, Zhang Weili wins title

Phil Chertok reflects on Zhang Weili’s title victory, the UFC returning to Abu Dhabi with Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier for the lightweight title.

This week, we chat with POST’s Phil Chertok about the UFC crowning a Chinese champion after Zhang Weili stopped Jessica Andrade in the first round of their championship fight this past weekend in Shenzhen.

Then, it’s a look towards UFC 242 on Saturday from Abu Dhabi and the promotion’s return after a five-year hiatus. With the return, some have looked at certain humanitarian issues within the country and asked the question of what role sport plays within a larger geopolitical picture. Phil provides his feelings on separating sports from politics and how he views this weekend’s event.

Then, it’s a discussion on the main event with Khabib Nuramgomedov returning for the first time since defeating Conor McGregor to defend his lightweight title against Dustin Poirier. It’s as strong a title fight as you could make at lightweight with a clear contender awaiting the winner in Tony Ferguson.

Don’t forget to tune into our UFC 242 POST Show this Saturday night with Phil Chertok and John Pollock.

How big could Zhang Weili be for the Chinese market and what was your reaction to her stoppage of Jessica Andrade?

It’s hard to measure the new strawweight champion’s potential impact in that market, the UFC has only had six events in China to date and it’s difficult to understand how much brand awareness there is for it. There’s no doubt that having a local champion is the perfect opportunity to grow that brand and Weili’s charming personality should help the UFC increase its presence in a growing economy with a rich history in martial arts.  As far as her actual fight, it was tremendous, she used good footwork, poise and killer instinct to make Jéssica Andrade pay for her aggressive style and finished her in under a minute. With continued performances like that, Weili should continue to grow her stock, not just at home, but globally as well.

As a fight fan, do you focus on the politics of such cards like UFC 242 taking in Abu Dhabi where the UFC has partnered with the government to present these shows? Conversely, the Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz fight taking place in Saudi Arabia and the criticism that decision has been met with?

Perhaps it’s cynical of me, but I think about the politics about as much as I think of the factory workers responsible every time I lace up my Puma’s, tap on my iPad or select same-day shipping via Amazon Prime. I think about it as much as I think about the ethics around factory farming and animal cruelty when I’m rubbing down a tender pork shoulder to throw in the smoker (Using BPC signature rub of course!). Our lives are filled with decisions that have an impact far beyond our awareness. I’d be lying if I said I never take political or ethical considerations into purchases but it’s pretty rare and it’s hard to explicitly state the criteria I use when making those choices. Ultimately those choices come down to our emotions as much as we like to rationalize them. Currently, my emotions are perfectly fine with watching the UFC partner with the Abu Dhabi government to put on one of the biggest fights of the year.

The Abu Dhabi government has a long history of supporting martial arts, even before state-owned Flash Entertainment bought a stake in the UFC during the Zuffa era. Prior to owning a piece of the world’s biggest MMA promotion, Abu Dhabi was famous for hosting the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Championships, an elite no-gi grappling event that first took place in 1998. Because of the country’s history of involvement in martial arts, Khabib headlining and the long break since the UFC’s first event in the country, I’m actually celebrating this event. I’m viewing this as an opportunity to connect with a different culture over our common love of martial arts. Maybe I’m just being willfully ignorant but that’s the story I’m telling myself.

What does Dustin Poirier have to do in this fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov to be successful, and who are you picking to win the fight?

Poirier has to use good footwork to evade Khabib’s entries and to separate whenever he’s able to scramble out of a grappling exchange. If he can survive a couple of rounds of Khabib’s pressure and still have enough gas in the tank, he might be able to use his crisp boxing to slow down the undefeated champion and take control of the back half of the fight. Do I think he’s going to be able to execute that plan? No, I do not. Khabib is undefeated for a reason and has not remotely looked vulnerable in the Octagon. Poirier is an excellent fighter but it’s hard to see how he’s going to deal with Khabib’s wrestling. “The Diamond” has more than enough skill to do well in the grappling exchanges and can get back to his feet but I don’t see how he’ll be able to stop the relentless smothering that Khabib is capable of. Even if Poirier is able to get up regularly or stuff many of the Eagle’s takedowns, Khabib is still going to be in his face shoving him up against the cage, making it impossible for Dusting to get his striking off. For those reasons, I’m picking the champ to retain the belt.

Is Tony Ferguson the clear-cut challenger-in-waiting for the winner of this lightweight title fight, or could he be bypassed again?

The answer to both questions is yes. It’s ridiculous at this point that Tony Ferguson has not fought for a UFC title, he’s on a twelve-fight win streak and is one of the most exciting fighters in the game. At the same time, his career has been hampered by bad luck and injuries that have taken him out of major fights. This sport is crazy and there’s a plenitude of ways that he could be put back in line, but if luck and sanity hold out, he’s definitely the number one contender.

What other fights stand out for you at UFC 242 this weekend?

It’s hard not to pick the co-main event, a rematch between Edson Barboza and Paul Felder. They are both exciting fighters and their first contest was thrilling, I expect nothing but the same from these two strikers. While both are a bit stuck in the stacked lightweight rankings, having a thrilling performance on such a big card could be the boost each needs to make a run for a title shot.

Catch Phil Chertok on our UFC 242 POST Show this Saturday night after the card alongside John Pollock