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The 10: A look at February's biggest fights

Yes, losing the UFC heavyweight championship rematch between Fabricio Werdum and Cain Velasquez from atop this Saturday’s event in Las Vegas was certainly a gut-punch that no one was expecting, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still an assortment of entertaining, intriguing and important fights on the horizon throughout the remainder of the month.

Here’s a sampling of some of the best.

This is The 10.

UFC Fight Night: Hendricks vs. Thompson (February 6 – Las Vegas, Nevada)

Ray Borg vs. Justin Scoggins
In a division where fresh contenders are needed every 4-6 months because champion Demetrious Johnson keeps turning back challengers with ease, these two upstarts meeting in the Octagon is must-see and might land the winner in a Top 10 matchup later this year.

Borg is a 22-year-old Albuquerque product who has gone 3-1 in the UFC, dropping a razor-thin split decision to Dustin Ortiz in his debut before rattling off three straight victories heading into this one. After going 7-0 in the regional scene, Scoggins arrived in the UFC as an unbeaten 21-year-old, collecting a pair of wins only to stumble as he started to climb the divisional ladder before rebounding with a decision win over Josh Sampo.

Both are still early in their careers with plenty of room to grow, but given how quickly “Mighty Mouse” is working his way through the competition, and with and handful of flyweights matriculating to the bantamweight division in recent months, Borg and Scoggins are battling for a chance to ascend into the upper tier and bigger matchups later in the year.

Joseph Benavidez vs. Zach Makovsky
While this weekend’s first flyweight contest is all about the future, the second encounter carries more immediate championship implications.

Benavidez has done at flyweight the same thing he did earlier in his career at bantamweight – beat everyone in the division outside of the champion. Just as he went 15-0 in the 135-pound ranks against fighters not named Dominick Cruz, the 32-year-old is 8-0 at flyweight against the rest of the division and 0-2 against the current champion.

“Fun Size” has fought a steady diet of top competition since arriving in the UFC, most recently battling two-time title challenger John Dodson to a close decision loss at UFC 187. A fundamentally sound, technical grappler, the Philadelphia-based fighter doesn’t get the respect and recognition he deserves.

Benavidez is closing in on another shot at the belt and Makovsky is looking to vault to the top of the list of potential title challengers by pulling off the upset. Regardless what happens next, this one should be a tight, tactical affair.

Johny Hendricks vs. Stephen Thompson
Already an interesting fight when it was slated to be the co-main event, the stakes got raised a little when this one was promoted to the headlining act and adjusted to be a five-round fight.
 


Hendricks is coming off the most forgettable fight week experience of his career, as he was taken to the hospital the night before weigh-ins at UFC 192 and pulled from the card as a result of kidney stone caused by his weight cut. The former welterweight champion, who rebounded from his title loss to Robbie Lawler with a decision win over Matt Brown last March, not only needs to get back the cage and get his hand raised again, but first he needs to prove his weight cutting woes are behind him.

As “Bigg Rigg” is looking to rebound, Thompson is hoping to keep his momentum rolling with a victory in the biggest fight of his MMA career. “Wonderboy” has won five straight heading into Saturday night’s main event, earning stoppages of Robert Whittaker and Jake Ellenberger along the way. With his sport karate base and diverse striking arsenal, Thompson is difficult to prepare for and will always be a knockout threat, and his work with Chris Weidman will be put to the test here, as you can be sure Hendricks will look to employ his wrestling and put Thompson on his back.

With the members of the welterweight Top 10 getting paired off for spring engagements, these two will be looking to make a statement and earn a marquee assignment for later this year.

UFC Fight Night: Cowboy vs. Means (February 21 – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Dennis Bermudez vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri
With featherweight champion Conor McGregor on a quest to claim lightweight gold, now is the time for contenders to solidify their position in the pecking order in the 145-pound ranks.

Coming off back-to-back stoppage losses, Bermudez looks to get back to the form that helped him win seven straight, while Kawajiri eyes a third straight victory after having meticulously worn down Dennis Siver and Jason Knight in his two 2015 appearances.

The Long Island native is the better striker of the two and a stout wrestler in his own right, so the Japanese veteran could be in for a tough night. That being said, Kawajiri is as durable as they come, and though he’s slowed down some in what is the twilight of his career, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see “The Crusher” grind out another victory.

Cody Garbrandt vs. John Lineker
What do you get when you mix a diminutive Brazilian with an iron chin and concrete hands with a tatted up kid with slick combinations from a hardscrabble section of rural Ohio?

Fireworks.

Lineker dropped to bantamweight and didn’t miss a beat, waging a firefight with Francisco Rivera in his debut that saw both men land big shots and “Hands of Stone” come away with the first-round submission win. After sleeping Marcus Brimage in his promotional debut, Garbrandt won an emotional fight over Henry Briones with his young best friend Maddux Maple in his corner at UFC 189.

Bantamweight has quickly become a deep and competitive division, and though these two aren’t ranked in the Top 10 at the moment, the winner should break through into that group and join the crop of young talent making waves in the 135-pound ranks.

Derek Brunson vs. Roan Carneiro
This a battle between two fighters that don’t get enough shine trying to break into the upper echelon of the middleweight division, and Pittsburgh’s co-main event could potentially steal the show and should tell us a little more about one or both competitors and where they stand in the 185-pound ranks.

Carneiro returned to the Octagon for the first time since UFC 88 last February and extended his winning streak to six by putting Mark Munoz to sleep at UFC 184. The veteran Brazilian is in the midst of the best run of extended success of his career, and with the elbow injury that forced him off last fall’s show in Japan behind him, “Jucao” is aiming to add another tick in the win column and take another step closer to the Top 10.

A winner of three straight and five of six since arriving in the UFC, Brunson is a bit of a late bloomer who has been making up for lost time as of late. After turning pro at age 26, the North Carolina native and Jackson-Wink Academy product has taken a major step forward in the last two years, posting first-round finishes of Ed Herman and Sam Alvey in his last two appearances.

There is room for forward movement in the middleweight division at the moment and the winner of this one should be a prime candidate to climb the ladder into the Top 10.

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone vs. Tim Means
Fresh off a first-round knockout loss to lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, Cerrone lobbied the UFC to let him saddle up again real soon and the organization obliged with a welterweight matchup against fellow Albuquerque resident Means.

“The Dirty Bird” has won five of his last six following a brief, two-fight departure from the Octagon, his only loss during that stretch coming against Top 10 staple Matt Brown. Most recently, the rangy, inventive striker earned a knockout win and Performance of the Night bonus against John Howard.
 


Having exhausted most of his options at lightweight for the time being and not looking to make another cut to ‘55, but eager to fight, a move up to welterweight makes all kinds of sense for the ornery Cerrone. Whether it’s a one-time thing or a permanent trip, this matchup with Means will be a quick indication of whether “Cowboy” can bring the same aggressive style that made him a perennial contender at lightweight to the 170-pound weight class.

UFC Fight Night: Silva vs. Bisping (February 27 – London, England)

Tom Breese vs. Keita Nakamura
Returning to London for the first time in nearly two years, this welterweight contest kicks off the three-pack of intriguing matchups that takes place at the O2 Arena.

A Japanese veteran who made three Octagon appearances earlier in his career, Nakamura returned to the UFC last September and extended his winning streak to five with a third-round submission win over Li Jingliang. Now 10-1 with 1 no contest over his last 12 appearances, the 31-year-old “K-Taro” aims to continue his impressive run by handing Breese the first loss of his professional career.

The 24-year-old Birmingham native, who now lives and trains in Montreal at the Tristar Gym, spent nearly two full years on the sidelines from 2012 to 2014, but has won three straight since returning to establish himself as one to watch in the 170-pound division. His two most recent victories have both come in the Octagon and before the close of the first round, with Breese earning TKO stoppages over Luiz Dutra Jr. and Cathal Pendred.

Will the seasoned vet extend his resurgent run or will the unbeaten prospect continue his climb towards the Top 15?

Gegard Mousasi vs. Thales Leites
This is one of those great veteran battles that has the potential to be a very entertaining, highly competitive affair.

After earning back-to-back victories over Dan Henderson and Costas Philippou, Mousasi looked like he was finally poised to make a run in the middleweight division, but a Uriah Hall flying, spinning back kick derailed those plans. A level 3-3 since shifting to the UFC, if the enigmatic Netherlands product is going to crack the Top 5 and become a contender, he needs to restart that ascension here.

Leites is in a comparable position, having rattled off five consecutive victories upon returning to the Octagon before dropping a split decision to Michael Bisping in the main event of last summer’s Glasgow debut. It was a close battle that felt like it was up for grabs going into the later rounds, but the Brazilian wasn’t able to seal the deal and now he’s forced to regroup.

Anderson Silva vs. Michael Bisping
While “The Count” would have preferred to get this fight while Silva sat atop the middleweight division, Bisping finally gets his chance to face the legendary Brazilian and a victory would bring him one step closer to the ever-elusive title shot he has long coveted.

After alternating wins and losses for three years, Bisping posted a pair of wins in 2015, getting the nod on the scorecards in bouts with CB Dollaway and Thales Leites to push his record to 27-7 overall and 17-7 inside the Octagon.

Once the undisputed best fighter in the sport, this is a critical bout for the returning Silva, who spent the last year on the sidelines after testing positive for banned performance-enhancers following his UFC 183 bout with Nick Diaz. Following a six-and-a-half-year run without a loss, “The Spider” has now gone more than three years without registering a victory.
 


There is a lot at stake for these two veterans, as the winner will move into the Top 5 and earn a place in the title conversation, while whoever comes out on the wrong side of the result may fall out of the mix for good. Both men believe they’re still capable of challenging for and winning the title, so expect this one to be electric from the outset in front of the fired up English fans.

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