Under The Radar: Enticing Fights Of UFC's Year-End Schedule
Welcome back to The Arena! As there's a slight lull in the activity from MMA's world leader, I thought I'd take this opportunity to look at the upcoming schedule and pick out fights that, on paper, look like they could be absolute barnburners, and something to keep an eye out on-
Wait, wait, wait. There's been massive things happening in the UFC, Mick, are you just going to ignore all that? Ah, the circus that was the end of UFC 229. It was stupid, it was chaotic, but I wanted to see where the dust settled before throwing in my two cents. Honestly, as bad as it looked at the time, it doesn't seem like much will come of this. UFC quickly threw some of the promotional machine behind Khabib, with some friendly banter on Instagram between Khabib and Dana White. Khabib's mate, Zubaira Tukhugov, got pulled from an upcoming fight against Artem Lobov. McGregor declined to press charges- he did throw a couple of punches in amongst the chaos. The Nevada State Athletic Commission will impose fines and perhaps a short suspension, but ultimately it looks like life goes on for Conor, Khabib and the UFC.
On the fight, Conor absolutely looked prepared for the ground game, at least in the early stages, but Khabib's pressure was just other-worldly. Conor can say he took a round from the Russian, but otherwise it was a very dominant performance by the defending champ, and nothing about it suggested Conor should get a re-match. Let's hope the bodies of Khabib and Tony Ferguson can hold up and we can finally get that fight booked.
Onto the topic at hand, UFC has two months and some change of MMA action to deliver in 2018, comprised of 10 events. The next big event on the calendar is the annual November show at Madison Square Garden, UFC 230. Unfortunately, it has been bitten by the injury bug, as Dustin Poirier was taken out of a very tasty match-up with Nate Diaz, and native New Yorker Chris Weidman will have to wait to avenge his title loss to Luke Rockhold, as everyone's favourite Calvin Klein model withdrew from UFC 230 a few days ago.
I'm going to try and look at fights here that might be hidden gems of sorts. We've got some very exciting main events booked towards the year's end, like Jones vs. Gustaffson 2, Shevchenko vs. Joanna and Holloway vs Ortega. This is about giving those fighters who might be under the radar of the casual UFC fan a little shine.
(NB: I'm just going to list them in their order on the schedule. Trying to navigate which fights I'm looking forward to more than other across 10 events is way too tricky)
1. Volkan Oezdemir vs. Anthony Smith- UFC Fight Night 138
The next UFC offering is a bit of a thin card, admittedly. They can't all be star-studded, but at least the headliner for this Fight Night should be a damn good one. The Octagon travels to Moncton, New Brunswick- yeah, where? Somewhere in Canada. But this battle features two of the most violent, hard-hitting contenders in the UFC's 205lb division. It's the first action inside the cage for Volkan since losing a lopsided battle for the title to Daniel Cormier. Conversely, Anthony Smith has been much more active, coming off back-to-back starchings of legends Rashad Evans and Shogun Rua.
As the event poster shows, ya boys love those quick, devastating, vicious knockouts. But how will it play out when they go head-to-head? Does someone go night-night quickly? Or is it going to be a long battle of hard-headed warriors?
How does Volkan bounce back from his first UFC loss, after DC pretty much rendered him helpless? Does he lose confidence? Does he change his style? Is he more determined than ever to make a statement?
Anthony Smith, the former middleweight known as "Lionheart", has looked sensational since moving up to light heavyweight. It has to be said, though, that Rashad and Shogun are past their best. Can Smith look as good against a man who is not on the downhill slide of his career? It's a highly intriguing match, and I expect it to be incredibly violent- however long it lasts.
2. Derek Brunson vs. Israel Adesanya- UFC 230
Adesanya is one of the most entertaining fighters to hit the UFC in quite some time- in and out of the cage. With an extensive background in kickboxing, he boasts a flashy striking style- and one of the best Instagram pages in the game. Dude is a master of the memes.
On a serious note, he has been extremely active in the cage this year. Debuting at UFC 221 in Perth, I was there live to witness his decimation of Rob Wilkinson, and his hilarious post-fight interview with Jimmy Smith, where he spoke about pissing all over the cage- like a dog marking his territory. He rapidly ascended up the ranks of the middleweight division from that point. While he looked human in eeking out a split decision victory over Marvin Vettori, his July fight against Brad Tavares- where he headlined the TUF Finale during International Fight Week- was his real coming out party. 5 rounds of taking the UFC veteran Tavares to school. No finish, but his striking and grappling was on point for 25 minutes.
Brunson has been towards the top of the 185 division for some time now. Very athletic and explosive, with devastating power in his hands, he's engaged in social media warfare with Adesanya and come out on the losing end. However, his fighting resume is legit, with KO/TKO victories over Ed Herman, Sam Alvey, Uriah Hall, and most recently Lyoto Machida. Losses to Whittaker, Jacare and Anderson Silva (although that last one is debatable) have him marked as a gatekeeper for the time being, but he is still a very dangerous threat to the rise of Israel Adesanya.
3. Frankie Edgar vs. Chan Sung Jung- UFC Fight Night 139
This Fight Night in Denver marks the 25th Anniversary of the UFC, and the main event of this show could be a genuine Fight Of The Year candidate. Edgar bounced back from a devastating KO loss to current 145lb top contender Brian Ortega earlier this year by dominating Cub Swanson in a unanimous decision victory. He's been around this game a long time, but has always found himself at the top of whatever division he competes in. For any newer UFC fans reading this, he used to rule the roost as the UFC's 155lb Lightweight Champion- which was essentially his walk around weight, fighting guys that cut weight down from the 190lb mark! His only setbacks in the last 6 years have come to Jose Aldo and Brian Ortega... and the Ortega loss was the only time he's been finished. Ever. In a 13 year pro MMA career!
Chan Sung Jung, better known as the Korean Zombie, is making his first appearance in the cage since February 2017. Prior to that, he missed four years of MMA competition due to a combination of injuries and mandatory Korean military service. So why be so excited for his fight? Well, in that 2017 fight, he smashed longtime contender Dennis Bermudez in the first round. Also, his fights with Dustin Poirier and Leonard Garcia were not only FOTN, but possibly Fight of the Years! Zombie goes to war when he fights. And Edgar is of the same mold- his fight with Gray Maynard at UFC 125 is one of my favourite fights of all time. Going to have the beers and snacks ready for this one!
4. Donald Cerrone vs. Mike Perry- UFC Fight Night 139
Donald Cerrone will have the hometown advantage in this one- but I doubt he gives a shit. An all-action fighter, Cerrone was the perfect choice for this co-main event in Denver. He's one of the busiest fighters in UFC history- and the fact that his name is all over the record books is testament to that. Tied with Bisping and GSP for the most wins in UFC history at 20, and is tied with Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort for the most finishes at 14. Given that he's still an active fighter, and at 35 year old appears to have a few more years left in him, I expect that he will break those ties and sit alone at the top- perhaps as soon as this fight comes to a conclusion.
Mike Perry is relatively new to the UFC, but has won fans over quickly with his aggressive, somewhat reckless style. Which makes him the perfect foil for Cowboy Cerrone, really. Coming off a victory over Paul Felder in July, Perry looks to continue his momentum by taking out the legendary Cerrone- but this has been made personal, which adds a layer of intrigue. Cowboy left long time training camp Jackson-Winklejohn earlier this year, and Perry, who trains at that camp, has talked trash about their history there. So expect a ton of fireworks in the Mile High City!
5. Rafael dos Anjos vs. Kamaru Usman- TUF 28 Finale
Dos Anjos has been an absolute destroyer over the past couple of years. A long time UFC veteran, he sat in the middle of the pack for a good portion of his career, then one day a switch flipped. Coming in as an underdog challenger to Anthony Pettis, he ripped right through Showtime to clam the Lightweight Title, and although he lost that belt, he jumped up to welterweight and had more success than ever, annihilating Neil Magny and Robbie Lawler. Most recently, he suffered a setback to Colby Covington in an interim Welterweight Title fight. So, he'll be looking to return with a big statement win , to show that he's still elite, but that will be easier said than done.
Kamaru Usman has been a dominant force over his UFC career. His only MMA loss came outside the UFC, in his second pro fight in 2013. Since then, he has been unstoppable. The rumour has been that it's difficult to find Usman opponents because he's so dangerous, but also not that well known. If Usman can impose his will on RDA at the TUF 28 Finale, a lot more fans are going to know his name. One of the things against Usman also is his lack of finishes. In 8 UFC fights, there's been 6 decisions, 1 KO and 1 submission. He is an imposing grappler, but whether he can implement that game on the elite black belt in jujitsu dos Anjos remains to be seen.
6. Junior Dos Santos vs. Tai Tuivasa- UFC Fight Night 142
I might be a little biased because it features fighters from my home country, but I think UFC Adelaide has a few fights featuring fighters to watch out for. Most notably, the main event, where JDS is coming over to take on the Aussie heavyweight contender Tuivasa. He's undefeated, says what's on his mind and hits like a damn truck. He's been Mark Hunt's training partner since he was 20 years old, which I think says it all. As much as I'm a fan of him, his last performance wasn't his best against Andrei Arlovski, and I'm fairly sure he said the same. Either way, as the headliner, he'll want to make a big statement, and I'm tipping him to do so against the old war horse Dos Santos.
Dos Santos was never really the same after the Cain trilogy in my eyes. He has a win over Stipe Miocic, but Miocic avenged that as champ. He appeared to turn back the clock in his fight with Ben Rothwell, but in his most recent fight he won a lethargic battle against UFC debutant Blagoy Ivanov.
I think both men have something to prove, and this will be Tuivasa's coming out party. He can keep the shoeys to himself, though. I'm an Aussie, but that shit is disgusting.
7. Tyson Pedro vs. Shogun Rua- UFC Fight Night 142
Pedro is a 25 year old light heavyweight with a fuck ton of potential. His last fight against Ovince St. Preux was wild. Pedro dropped him and was doing great until OSP snatched a Hail Mary kimura. Just like you can have wins that don't do much for your stock, you can also have losses that increase your stock. Pedro might have lost to OSP, but it was a great showing where he showed he can hang with the top of the division.
Shogun Rua is coming off the Anthony Smith KO loss, but before that he won 3 straight fights, so he's not completely shot. In fact, last time he came to Australia, when many thought he was done, he gave then-rising star James Te-Huna a 1st Round KO loss. So, it's a chance for Shogun to turn the clock back one more time and show he still has it, or it's time for a young Aussie star to beat a legend. Either way, I'll be happy with the outcome, but picking Tyson Pedro for the big W here.
8. Jimi Manuwa vs. Thiago Santos- UFC 231
In Manuwa, we have one of the hardest-hitting, most dangerous guys in the 205 division. Thiago Santos was that man at 185 for some time, but in his most recent fight, jumped up to light heavyweight and decimated Eryk Anders. It was an incredibly impressive performance, and set the stage well for this pivotal clash in Toronto at UFC 231. The attention will rightfully be on Max Holloway and Brian Ortega on this night, but I expect Manuwa and Santos to bring a beautiful display of violence to the Octagon.
9. Edson Barboza vs. Dan Hooker- UFC on FOX 31
This event will be headlined by a battle of top 155ers when Kevin Lee takes on Al Iaquinta, but it's honestly this fight that gets my dick hard (err, metaphorically). Barboza has been a dangerous contender at lightweight for quite some time, with maybe the best leg kicks in the UFC today. Until he ran into Khabib, he was on a career best run, beating Pettis and Melendez before killing Beneil Dariush with a flying knee. His most recent fight, he lost to Kevin Lee by doctor stoppage. At first, I couldn't recall watching this fight at all, then I remembered- Lee was in fine form and controlled a lot of the fight, but Barboza, bloodied and beaten up, pulled off a spinning wheel kick that had Lee doing the chicken dance. That speaks to the skills and danger possessed by Edson Barboza, even when it looks like he's down and out, those wicked kicks can be a huge factor in the fight.
As for Dan Hooker, the young Kiwi had a good, if not spectacular start in the UFC, but over the last year or so started racking up statement victories against name competitors in the UFC lightweight division. The first of these was a huge flying knee KO of veteran Ross Pearson. Six months later he hit a wicked guillotine choke on fellow contender Mark Diakiese. Hooker's vicious knees came back into play taking out Jim Miller in April this year, and then had a quick turnaround to punch out Gilbert Burns in the first round at UFC 226.
Hard to pick a winner here, I really like both guys and they're both dangerous as hell when on their games... hmm, Barboza. He's been at the top of the division whereas Hooker is untested at the highest level. It's basically a coin toss pick though.
10. Carlos Condit vs. Michael Chiesa- UFC 232
Looking at the UFC 232 line-up... ooh boy, it's a loaded card. Headlined by Jones vs. Gustaffson 2, co-main of Cyborg vs. Nunes, you've got the return of BJ Penn on the undercard... but I love Carlos Condit, so he gets the spotlight here, welcoming Michael "Maverick" Chiesa to the welterweight division.
I always though Chiesa, at 6 foot tall, was a bit too big for 155, and I guess as he gets older, that weight cut was becoming too much. He did miss weight in his last fight, a submission loss to Anthony Pettis. Certainly no shame in that loss, and here we are. Chiesa won the only season of TUF that was live, and has names like Jim Miller, Al Iaquinta and Beneil Dariush on his record. He has a deadly submission game, with 10 of his 14 wins coming via sub, and 8 of those 10 coming via rear naked choke. Basically, if Chiesa gets your back, you're fucked.
Carlos Condit has had a long and distinguished career. Following a FOTY against Robbie Lawler, he talked about retirement, but opted against it. Hoping the Natural Born Killer has another standout performance in him, but he's lost 3 straight since dropping the questionable split decision to Lawler in January 2016. He's had some incredible fights and moments in the UFC. As far as career accolades, he was an Interim Welterweight Champion, but that doesn't tell the whole story of Condit. In addition to the fight with Robbie Lawler, he's had classics with Martin Kampmann (X2), Rory MacDonald and Johny Hendricks. He also nearly KOed GSP during his reign of terror. Carlos Condit is the fucking man.
So, yeah, without even touching on the PPV main events, plenty to love in the UFC over the next two months! I hope reading through this article has alerted you and gotten you hyped for some of the great MMA action coming our way soon!
Until next time, take care,