April is one of the best months of the year inside the Octagon.
Nobody really thinks about it because so much attention is often focused on International Fight Week in July and the year-end event in December, with a couple traditionally strong dates scattered in there as well. But over the years, April has delivered some major events, memorable finishes and milestones in the careers of some of the sport’s biggest stars.
UFC 129 took place in April and, at the time, it was the biggest event in company history, with more than 55,000 people packing into Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Conor McGregor made his UFC debut in April. Jon Jones has successfully defended the light heavyweight title four times in April. Robert Whittaker announced himself as a middleweight title threat in April. Yair Rodriguez flying switch-kicked Andre Fili into the dark lands in April and current champs Daniel Cormier, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Kamaru Usman, Rose Namajunas and Max Holloway all earned key victories in their careers in the fourth month of the year.
One of the key figures set to compete in the Octagon this month, Dustin Poirier, began his journey to next weekend’s interim title clash with Holloway in April, earning his first victory in the UFC lightweight division in 2015, and he cemented his standing as one of the best in the 155-pound weight class just one year ago with his fourth-round stoppage win over Justin Gaethje.
April has always been a terrific month for UFC action and this year is no different.
Here’s a look at the best of what is headed your way in the month ahead.
Reis challenged for the flyweight title almost two years ago to the day, dropping a unanimous decision to Demetrious Johnson on FOX. He’d lose his next two as well, falling to current champ Henry Cejudo and perennial contender John Moraga before righting the ship and getting back into the win column last time out with a sweep of the scorecards against Ben Nguyen at the start of December.
The top seed on the flyweight season of The Ultimate Fighter, Pantoja got bounced in the semifinals, but has responded with four wins in five appearances inside the Octagon. After starting last year with a loss to Dustin Ortiz, the Brazilian standout has collected consecutive victories over Brandon Moreno and Ulka Sasaki to establish himself as one of the top talents in the weight class.
This should be an entertaining affair with the potential for lots of exciting scrambles and fast-paced action.
Both men were scheduled to compete at UFC 234 earlier this year in Melbourne, Australia, but only Adesanya made it to the cage, as Gastelum’s championship fight with Robert Whittaker was scrapped at the 11th hour when “The Reaper” was rushed into emergency surgery.
Adesanya was elevated to the main event, where he defeated Anderson Silva for his fifth win in his first 12 months on the UFC roster, and then he set his sights on Gastelum, who was standing in the crowd with Henry Cejudo’s championship belt slung over his shoulder after declaring himself the new ruler of the middleweight division after calling Whittaker’s inability to compete a “forfeit.”
With Whittaker still sidelined following his surgical procedure, the UFC opted to pair off the two contenders and put an interim title up for grabs in this middleweight clash that will set up an epic title unification bout sometime later this year.
Gastelum has made slow and steady progress since winning The Ultimate Fighter as a 21-year-old with an abundance of upside and little experience, culminating in back-to-back wins over Michael Bisping and “Jacare” Souza. As for Adesanya, “The Last Stylebender” has made a rapid rise from newcomer to cult favorite and on to being a contender by rattling off five straight wins and talking up a storm along the way.
This should be an intriguing clash of styles as Gastelum has the wrestling chops to test Adesanya’s takedown defense, while the charismatic New Zealander by way of Nigeria is a marksman in space with a diverse array of weapons at his disposal.
The winner gets a date with Whittaker whenever he’s ready to return, but even without those stakes tethered to this bout, this would be a must-see matchup.
These two met seven years ago on short notice, with Holloway filling in for Ricardo Lamas, who was filling in for Erik Koch, in a bout against Poirier at UFC 143. Holloway was a handful of weeks removed from turning 20 and only four fights into his professional career, while Poirier was climbing the featherweight ladder.
“The Diamond” got the best of things that night in Las Vegas, but you can expect things to be different when they square off again in Atlanta with the interim lightweight title on the line.
Holloway went 2-2 in his next four fights following his debut, but hasn’t lost since, rattling off 13 consecutive victories. He’s 4-0 in championship fights with four finishes, including back-to-back third-round stoppage wins over Jose Aldo and last year’s win over the previously unbeaten Brian Ortega at UFC 234 in Toronto.
Poirier’s unbeaten run isn’t nearly as long, but over his last three fights, the Louisiana native has shown he’s one of the elite lightweights in the sport by posting stoppage wins over Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez. The 30-year-old is 8-1 with one no contest result since returning to the 155-pound weight class, and he enters this one in the best form of his career.
Unless the Octagon mysteriously fills with quicksand, there is no way this one isn’t going to be electric. It’s not in either man’s DNA to have a boring fight and when they get in there together, it should blow the roof off State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
With her sister firmly entrenched atop the flyweight division, the eldest Shevchenko returns to action looking to prove that she is a legitimate contender in the 125-pound weight class by squaring off with one of its most experienced and beloved competitors.
Modafferi is a pioneer on the female side of the sport who finally secured her first UFC victory last summer when she collected a second-round stoppage win over Barb Honchack. The 36-year-old veteran was turned back by Sijara Eubanks in her next bout, but remains a stalwart in the division and should serve as a serious litmus test for “La Pantera” in this one.
An impressive performance on Season 2 of the Contender Series earned Shevchenko a UFC contract and she picked up a unanimous decision win over Ji Yeon Kim in November, just a few weeks before her sister Valentina claimed the vacant division title at UFC 231. Now 7-0 in her MMA career, this matchup with Modafferi represents a significant step up in competition for the 34-year-old, but also a chance to establish herself as one of the division’s elite.
This one should come down to who can dictate the terms of engagement, as Shevchenko is the superior striker by far, while Modafferi is significantly more experienced when the fight hits the floor.
Heavyweights looking to cement their standing as contenders while coming in off very different results collide in the main event of the UFC’s initial trip to Yubileyny Sports Palace.
Back in October, Volkov was 15 seconds away from picking up his fifth straight UFC victory, extending his overall winning streak to seven and establishing himself as the No. 1 contender in the heavyweight division when Derrick Lewis uncorked a “Hail Mary” that found a home and folded up the towering Russian. Seven weeks later, Overeem halted a grim two-fight losing streak that had many questioning whether his high-profile career was coming to a close by dominating newcomer Sergey Pavlovich in Moscow.
Now the two are paired off here in a battle that won’t carry either into immediate contention, but should tell us more about where they fit in the wide open heavyweight division.
This is a battle of Top 10 strawweights currently headed in opposite directions — one looking to reverse course, while the other hopes to keep plowing forward.
The first strawweight champion in UFC history, Esparza is 3-4 since winning the title and enters this one on a two-fight losing streak. After getting edged out on the cards in a fight against Claudia Gadelha that many felt went her way, there was no debating the results of her last fight, as she ran into rising star Tatiana Suarez and got mauled.
Souza was the strawweight champion in Invicta FC before dropping the belt to Angela Hill in a close fight nearly three years ago. Since then, she’s posted four straight victories — two under the Invicta FC banner and two more since matriculating to the UFC — and arrives in Florida looking to establish herself as one of the top contenders in the 115-pound weight class.
Despite her recent slide, Esparza remains a fixture in the Top 10 and a tough out for anyone hoping to scale the divisional ranks, which makes this a tremendous opportunity for “The Brazilian Gangsta” to make her mark in the UFC strawweight division.
The light heavyweight division has undergone some changes over the last 18 months and this bout represents an opportunity for potential further shifts.
Teixeira is one of the longest tenured fighters in the division — a veteran of 35 professional fights over 17 years who has shared the Octagon with the top names in the UFC over the last half-dozen years. After coming out flat against Corey Anderson in his lone appearance of 2018, the Connecticut-based Brazilian rebounded with a dominant performance against Karl Roberson to kick off his 2019 campaign.
Now he’s paired off with Cutelaba, a 25-year-old powerhouse who has spent the last two years sanding down the rough edges of his game to develop into an intriguing figure in the light heavyweight ranks. Last time out, “The Hulk” picked up his second straight first-round stoppage by stuffing takedowns and smashing home elbows in tight against Gadzhimurad Antigulov in Calgary.
Will the battle-hardened veteran collect his second victory of the year or will Cutelaba continue the changing of the guard in the 205-pound weight class by turning back Teixeira?
Originally scheduled to take place on the same January fight card in Brooklyn that produced Teixeira’s victory over Roberson, Lineker was scratched two weeks before the event due to a rib injury. Sandhagen stayed on the card and took out newcomer Mario Bautista in the first round, running his winning streak to five with his third consecutive stoppage win since signing with the UFC.
Now the bantamweights will clash in a bout that is even more compelling after the delay.
Lineker remains one of the biggest power hitters in the 135-pound ranks — a compact knockout artist who stalks his opponents and is happy to stand in the pocket and trade, trusting that his adamantium chin and dynamite hands won’t let him down.
Sandhagen has quickly established himself as an entertaining new addition to the division, thrilling fans with his attacking style and never-say-die attitude, both of which he showcased in his sophomore victory over Iuri Alcantara. The 26-year-old Elevation Fight Team member is on a roll right now and can thrust himself into the thick of the already crowded title chase by toppling “Hands of Stone” in South Florida.
Every time Hardy steps into the cage, there is going to be an upswell of attention and interest. But the thing with bringing in competitors with more celebrity than experience is that they only have a finite number of appearances to prove they belong. Brock Lesnar immediately showed that he was capable of hanging with the best heavyweights on the planet, while James Toney floundered and CM Punk was uncompetitive in a pair of lopsided losses.
Hardy showed promise on the Contender Series with a pair of rapid knockouts, but he struggled in his official Octagon debut against Allen Crowder in January. After failing to finish things in the first round for the first time in his career, the American Top Team representative began to fade and was ultimately disqualified after blasting Crowder with an illegal knee. Now he’s back.
The 36-year-old Smoliakov is 0-2 in the UFC and unbeaten everywhere else, going 9-for-9 outside of the Octagon, including bouncing back from his unsuccessful first stint on the roster with a first-round submission win in January. A Master of Sport in freestyle wrestling with a penchant for finishing fights early himself, “The Lifeguard” is skilled and experienced enough to go toe-to-toe with Hardy and dangerous enough to put him away if he starts to fade like he did against Crowder.
This is a massive fight for the former NFL star and, win or lose, the potential is there for a memorable slugfest or finish.
Not only is this a clash between Top 3 middleweights, but it’s also a rematch of a closely contested, somewhat controversial bout that people have been waiting to see run back for the last three years.
In their first encounter at UFC 194, Romero edged out Souza by split decision in a fight that was incredibly difficult to score and featured a couple stoppages where referee Marc Goddard had to address things with the Cuban standout, who started fast, but tired as the fight went on.
Since then, Romero has gone 2-2, posting wins over Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold while falling to Robert Whittaker in a pair of classic championship fights. As for Souza, he’s posted four wins in six starts, losing to Whittaker and landing on the unhappy side of a split decision verdict in a bout against interim title challenger Kelvin Gastelum.
With the championship picture expected to get cleared up by the end of the summer (or early fall at the latest), the winner of this one has the potential to position themselves at the front of the line to challenge whomever emerges from the eventual middleweight title unification fight later this year.