After January and February featured a combined seven events, March offered a bit of a respite for fight fans, as there were just two shows in the third month of the year.
While those two events delivered a ton of excitement – and two new champions in Rafael dos Anjos and Joanna Jedrzejczyk – there were also a couple weekends where UFC enthusiasts had to long for a little Octagon action.
Wait no longer though, as the schedule ramps back up in April with four events on four different platforms and more amazing fights than this column can contain.
This is the April 2015 edition of The 10.
UFC Fight Night: Mendes vs. Lamas (April 4 – Fairfax, Virginia)
Jorge Masvidal vs. Al Iaquinta
Two fighters on three-fight winning streaks, making steady progress up the lightweight rankings, collide in the co-main event of the month’s first show.
Iaquinta has been on fire of late, picking up three consecutive technical knockout victories over the last eight months, stopping Rodrigo Damm, Ross Pearson and Joe Lauzon to push his record to 11-3-1 overall. The former TUF finalist and Serra-Longo Fight Team member has always had excellent conditioning and good scrambling abilities, but his striking has improved by leaps and bounds since his TUF 15 loss to Michael Chiesa and transformed him into a dangerous matchup for anyone in the lightweight ranks.
While Iaquinta has been making noise on his way up the divisional ladder, Masvidal has been the opposite – stringing together three straight victories over Pat Healy, Daron Cruickshank and James Krause without much fanfare. The 30-year-old American Top Team product has crisp boxing, tremendous takedown defense and underrated wrestling, plus a healthy dose of swagger and a desire to mix it up with the best in the division.
The winner of this one will be in position to do just that in the second half of the year and the penultimate bout of the month’s first fight card should be electric as a result.
Chad Mendes vs. Ricardo Lamas
Featherweight champion Jose Aldo fought twice in 2014, picking up a unanimous decision win over Lamas in February at UFC 169 before doing the same against Mendes in an entertaining scrap at UFC 179 in October. Eager to earn another shot at championship gold, Mendes and Lamas now meet in one of the best non-title matchups the UFC could possibly make.
Since losing to Aldo in February, “The Bully” has picked up back-to-back wins, grinding out a victory over Hacran Dias despite a broken hand before bringing Dennis Bermudez’ seven-fight winning streak to a halt in November at UFC 180. Lamas looked like a man possessed in Mexico City, picking up a first-round submission finish of the surging former TUF finalist that should serve as a reminder that he’s one of the top featherweights in the world.
No one will try to argue that Mendes isn’t one of the best 145-pound competitors on the planet, as the Team Alpha Male standout is 16-0 against opponents not named Jose Aldo. Between his two setbacks against the Brazilian standout, Mendes rattled off five consecutive victories and made great strides in his striking, earning first-round stoppage wins over Cody McKenzie, Yaotzin Meza and Darren Elkins before stopping Clay Guida in the third and outworking Nik Lentz.
While an immediate title shot might not be in the offing for the winner, a spot on the short list of contenders is guaranteed.
UFC Fight Night: Cro Cop vs. Gonzaga II (April 11 – Krakow, Poland)
Claudia Gadelha vs. Aisling Daly
The women’s strawweight division has been thrust into the spotlight after Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s championship victory in Dallas and the division remains front-and-center in April with four pivotal divisional battles taking place, none more important, perhaps, than this matchup between Gadelha and Daly.
Last time out, Gadelha dropped a close split decision to the new champion in a back-and-forth fight in December. It was the Nova Uniao product’s first professional loss and one that Gadelha definitely wants to get back, especially now that Jedrzejczyk stands atop the division.
Daly, meanwhile, is coming off a dominant win over Alex Chambers at the TUF 20 Finale where she submitted the Aussie in the opening round. Unfortunately, the SBG Ireland representative missed weight. Should “Ais the Bash” hope to contend in the UFC’s newest division going forward, she’ll need to get a victory over the scale on Friday and a win over Gadelha on Saturday.
Jimi Manuwa vs. Jan Blachowicz
The top end of the light heavyweight division is set with champion Jon Jones, No. 1 contender Anthony Johnson and recent title challengers Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson established as the best in the 205-pound ranks. But there is room for new names to emerge and potentially climb the ranks quickly and the winner of this fight could find themselves in a position capitalize on that opportunity.
Manuwa returns for the first time since losing to Gustafsson last March in England, the first loss of his professional career. Up until that point, "Poster Boy" had picked up 14 consecutive victories, all by way of stoppage, including three straight in the UFC against Kyle Kingsbury, Cyrille Diabate and Ryan Jimmo. While the loss to Gustafsson halted his momentum, losing to the former No. 1 contender is far from the end of the world and the London-based fighter jumpstart another winning streak with a strong showing in Krakow.
After racking up 17 wins in 20 fights, Blachowicz made his UFC debut in October, picking up a first-round stoppage win over Ilir Latifi after blasting the bulky Swede with a heavy kick to the midsection. The 32-year-old now gets a "home game" against Manuwa with a chance to quickly establish himself as a new threat in the light heavyweight division.
Both men have a penchant for finishing fights, having gone to the scorecards just seven times over a combined 30-plus fights, so expect someone to get knocked out when they hit the cage on April 11.
Mirko Cro Cop vs. Gabriel Gonzaga
When these two met for the first time, Gonzaga produced one of the greatest upsets in UFC history and a finish that couldn’t have been better scripted had it come straight from Hollywood.
Late in the opening round of their title eliminator tilt at UFC 70, the Brazilian submission specialist “Cro Cop’ed” Cro Cop, blasting the heavyweight icon with a high kick that sent him crashing to the canvas just as he had done to countless opponents during his career.
Gonzaga went on to fight Randy Couture for the heavyweight title while Cro Cop would depart the UFC for the first time one fight later. After a 3-4 run in his second stint with the organization, the PRIDE veteran picked up three wins in four appearances and earned a third opportunity inside the Octagon.
Will history repeat itself or will the Croatian legend get his revenge?
UFC on FOX: Machida vs. Rockhold (April 18 – Newark, New Jersey)
Cub Swanson vs. Max Holloway
When a battle between Top 10 featherweights with a penchant for putting on exciting fights is the third of four fights on the main card of an event, you know you’ve got a monster on your hands.
Swanson enters this showdown on FOX looking to rebound from a one-sided loss to Frankie Edgar last November in Austin, Texas. Entering the bout on a six-fight winning streak, “Killer Cub” couldn’t muster any prolonged offense and found himself planted on the mat repeatedly. Now out to start another winning streak, he’ll first have to get through a talented Hawaiian that has been on a tear.
Despite the fact that he just turned 23 in December, Holloway is already 15 fights into his professional career and 8-3 in the UFC. As impressive as he has been during his current five-fight run of success, the bigger takeaway might be that his only two setbacks since losing his debut to Dustin Poirier on short notice have come by split decision to Dennis Bermudez in a fight many believe he won and on the cards against Conor McGregor. Simply put, “Blessed” has big time potential and a win over Swanson will elevate him to the next level in the featherweight ranks.
Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza vs. Yoel Romero
Originally scheduled for last month’s UFC 184 pay-per-view in Los Angeles, this middleweight scrap stands as one of two pivotal contests in the 185-pound weight class taking place inside Prudential Center.
Over his bout with pneumonia, Souza looks to extend his winning streak to eight and a perfect 5-for-5 since transitioning to the UFC from Strikeforce. Having picked up wins over Yushin Okami, Francis Carmont and Gegard Mousasi in his last three, a win here would keep “Jacare” in line for a future shot at the middleweight title.
Romero has been equally impressive since joining the UFC, picking up five consecutive victories, including a pair of come-from-behind finishes and back-to-back wins over Brad Tavares and Tim Kennedy. The Olympic bronze medalist is an athletic specimen and still developing as a fighter, which should be a scary thought to everyone in the division.
Lyoto Machida vs. Luke Rockhold
The reason the Jacare-Romero winner is unlikely to get the next title shot is because Machida and Rockhold are standing in their way.
Though “The Dragon” fought for the title last July, coming out on the wrong side of a unanimous decision result at UFC 175, Machida has since rebounded with a blistering first-round stoppage win over CB Dollaway, and if he puts up a similar performance against the surging Rockhold, it will be hard to deny the former middleweight champion a second opportunity to challenge for gold.
Since losing his UFC debut to Vitor Belfort just shy of two years ago, the final Strikeforce middleweight titleholder has turned in three straight dominant outings. Rockhold started 2014 with a first-round TKO win over Costas Philippou, followed that up with a slick first-round submission win over Tim Boetsch and closed out the year by stopping Michael Bisping in the second round.
Whoever has their hand raised here will likely face the winner of the UFC 187 battle between champion Chris Weidman and challenger Vitor Belfort.
UFC 186 (April 25 – Montreal, Quebec)
Alexis Davis vs. Sarah Kaufman
Sure, there are bigger names fighting on the main card that might capture more casual fan interest, but this is one of the best matchups hitting the Octagon in Montreal.
Davis sits at No. 3 in the women’s bantamweight division and returns for the first time since her first-round stoppage loss to Ronda Rousey in their championship bout at UFC 175. The Port Colborne, Ontario native won five straight before sharing the cage with the dominant champion and looks to kickstart another climb to the top of the division against a fellow Canadian and a familiar foe in this one.
Kaufman was the last person to beat Davis prior to her fight appearance at UFC 175 last July, picking up a majority decision win in a wildly entertaining scrap under the Strikeforce banner the night Rousey rose to the top of the division. The Adam Zugec-trained fighter has been out of action since picking up a decisive decision win over Leslie Smith last April and is unbeaten in her last six non-title appearances.
Demetrious Johnson vs. Kyoji Horiguchi
Demetrious Johnson might be the most underrated fighter in the UFC today. The first and only flyweight champion in UFC history, “Mighty Mouse” has already collected five successful title defenses since claiming the title at UFC 152, most recently forcing Chris Cariaso to tap to a kimura midway through the second round of their encounter at UFC 178 in September.
Looking to end Johnson’s reign atop the 125-pound division, the 24-year-old Horiguchi has picked up four wins in as many appearances under the UFC banner to run his overall winning streak to nine. The protégé of Japanese superstar and current UFC competitor Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, Horiguchi boasts good power and strong grappling skills and has been tabbed as a title threat since his arrival on the big stage 18 months ago.
Having already turned back challenges from five of the top six-ranked fighters in the division, Johnson will surely enter the Saturday, April 25 bout as a significant favorite, but don’t count Horiguchi out. We’ve already seen two titles change hands this year and that's a clear reminder of what can happen when you think you’ve got this sport all figured out.