The Ultimate Fighter
Putting this feature together from month-to-month is challenging, but this edition of The 10 easily takes the cake.
How do you narrow a field of 60-plus fights over six events down to 10? How do you roll out a list of bouts that fans have to check out between the 1st and the 31st and leave out former champions like Cain Velasquez, Johny Hendricks and TJ Dillashaw, all three of whom compete at UFC 200, one of the six – SIX! – events on tap for the month of July?
How do you skip over the Octagon debut of lightweight newcomer “Ill” Will Brooks, the return of Cat Zingano and Tony Ferguson looking to extend his winning streak against short-notice opponent and legitimate prospect Lando Vannata?
And how do you leave off a presumptive No. 1 contender bout between Rose Namajunas and Karolina Kowalkiewicz or a heavyweight slobberknocker pitting Roy “Big Country” Nelson against “The Black Beast,” Derrick Lewis?
Turns out you just have to write a long enough intro to mention them all before you get to the crème de la crème, as Nathan Diaz would say.
Here they are in this month’s edition of The 10.
UFC Fight Night: dos Anjos vs. Alvarez (July 7 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Eddie Alvarez for the UFC lightweight title
Back-to-back wins and a few things breaking in his favor have landed Alvarez where he always seems to end up – stepping into the cage to challenge for championship gold.
After rallying to beat Gilbert Melendez at UFC 188, the Philadelphia-based veteran fought a smart, tactical fight against Anthony Pettis in January to hand the former lightweight champion his third consecutive loss and establish himself as one of the top contenders in the division. With Conor McGregor’s focus elsewhere and a couple different potential challengers otherwise occupied, the talented 32-year-old was tabbed to face dos Anjos in the main event of the month’s first show.
In the Brazilian titleholder, Alvarez meets a fighter that is getting better with each successive appearance, riding a run of stellar performances and steady improvement to the top of the 155-pound weight class. Last December, dos Anjos solidified his place as the top man in the deepest division in the sport with a blistering first-round finish of Donald Cerrone and had it not been for a broken foot, perhaps he would have been the one to halt McGregor’s winning ways inside the Octagon.
Regardless of how this one plays out – strategic chess match, spirited grappling battle, back-and-forth clash on the feet – it should be an electric way to wrap up the opening event of International Fight Week and set the tone for the month of action ahead.
The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale (July 8 – Las Vegas Nevada)
Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Claudia Gadelha for the UFC strawweight title
While there is a heated rivalry at the top of the UFC 200 fight card that we’ll get to soon enough, this strawweight championship clash is a close second when it comes to combatants that simply cannot get along and are chomping at the bit to settle things inside the cage next week.
Jedrzejczyk earned her championship opportunity by getting the nod in a debated split decision victory over Gadelha in December 2015 and her star has only continued to climb since then, as she dominated Carla Esparza to win the belt and picked up a pair of title defenses to run her record to 11-0 heading into this one.
The challenger has only fought once since their initial encounter, collecting a unanimous decision victory over Jessica Aguilar at UFC 190 last summer, where she continued to show that while her grappling acumen gets the advanced billing, her boxing skills are up to snuff as well.
These two came close to throwing blows on numerous occasions during their time as opposing coaches on Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter and, finally, after many months of waiting, they’ll get the chance to get after each other once again next Friday night with the strawweight title hanging in the balance.
UFC 200 (July 9 – Las Vegas)
Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar for the interim UFC featherweight title
Both men would rather be facing McGregor for the undisputed title, but as far as consolation prizes go, this isn’t half bad.
Aldo returns for the first time since losing his belt to “The Notorious” one in December. His 13-second defeat ended 10-year, 18-fight unbeaten streak for the Nova Uniao product and seems to have reignited a fire inside the Brazilian standout, as he’s promised to get back to his aggressive, pre-UFC ways when he crosses the threshold into the UFC cage next Saturday night.
Edgar has been walking around with a chip on his shoulder for the last two years and he’s taken those frustrations out on an impressive collection of opponents during that time. Even though he’s a former lightweight champion, this might be the best “The Answer” has ever looked inside the Octagon and with the combined motivations of avenging his prior loss to Aldo and cementing himself at the top of the division, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the pride of Toms River, New Jersey turn in another sterling effort in this one.
Don’t sleep on this fight just because it’s for an interim title. This one has Fight of the Year potential.
Miesha Tate vs. Amanda Nunes for the UFC women’s bantamweight title
After snatching victory – and the women’s bantamweight title – from the jaws of defeat (and Holly Holm’s grasp) back in March, Tate defends her belt for the first time in a “tougher than most people are letting on” pairing against Brazilian powerhouse Nunes.
Tate seems to be one of the few people that aren’t looking beyond this bout to potential marquee matchups in the winter, saying on Wednesday’s media call that she’s watched too many new champions turn around and lose their belts in short order by being worried about what comes next. The tenacious champion has looked excellent over her last three outings and won five straight heading into this one, showing improved striking and the fortitude to fight through everything that comes her way, which produced her thrilling championship victory three months ago.
Earlier that same night at UFC 196, Nunes took home her third consecutive victory, scoring a unanimous decision win over Valentina Shevchenko in the Pay-Per-View opener. While everyone seems to focus on the Brazilian’s gas tank and penchant for fading later in fights, few are really discussing the legitimate fight-changing power Nunes carries in her hands. If she connects flush, we could have a new champion, again, and the women’s bantamweight division will be thrown into even further disarray.
Brock Lesnar vs. Mark Hunt
On what should be a spectacular night, this is the special attraction and it stands as one of the most intriguing bouts of the year.
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In one corner, you have Lesnar – the former UFC heavyweight champion who walked away from the sport five years ago and returned to the world of professional wrestling, only to feel like he had unfinished business in the Octagon after diverticulitis limited him during his initial run in the cage. An athletic specimen unlike anyone his size, “The Beast Incarnate” wanted another chance to challenge himself and he returns on the biggest platform of the year, one of three men to have fought at UFC 100 who will also compete at this summer’s landmark event.
In the other corner, you have Hunt – one of the preeminent knockout artists in the sport; a guy that was once on the brink of being bought out of his contract, but who opted to fight it out instead and turned into a Top 10 fighter. Entering this one on the strength of consecutive first-round knockout wins over Antonio Silva and Frank Mir, “The Super Samoan” is the kind of devastating power hitter that poses a real threat to anyone, but especially a guy like Lesnar.
Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones for the undisputed UFC light heavyweight title
Everyone has been waiting for this one since Cormier won the vacant title with a third-round submission finish of Anthony Johnson at UFC 187 and then looked right in the camera and delivered a clear message to the man that used to hold the belt.
“Jon Jones – get your **** straight! I’ll be waiting for you!”
Originally scheduled to go down at UFC 197 earlier this spring, Cormier was forced out of the bout at the 11th hour, leading to Jones picking up a unanimous decision victory and the interim light heavyweight belt he’ll carry into this one by defeating Ovince Saint Preux in April. “Bones” looked a little rusty in that one, admitting Thursday that he fought down to the level of his competition, but don’t expect any of that when these two renew hostilities inside the Octagon to close out UFC 200.
Cormier has looked very good in earning a pair of wins since their first encounter and before he was stripped of the title and put on the shelf, Jones was the most dominant, most talented fighter in the sport. Both should be at their absolute best for this one and it should be something special.
UFC Fight Night: McDonald vs. Lineker (July 13 – Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
Michael McDonald vs. John Lineker
The emergence of the bantamweight division has been one of the biggest stories of the year, with Dominick Cruz returning to the top of the weight class with victories over TJ Dillashaw and Urijah Faber, Cody Garbrandt establishing himself as the top young gun in the 135-pound ranks and Bryan Caraway proving he shouldn’t be counted out by turning back upstart Aljamain Sterling.
McDonald and Linker battle in this one to be included in the upper tier of talent in the surging weight class and it should be an action-packed affair.
Following two years on the sidelines dealing with myriad injuries and issues, “Mayday” returned to the cage and the win column with a second-round submission win over Masanori Kanehara at UFC 195. Still just 25, the Modesto, California native has already fought for UFC gold in the past, packs dynamite in his surgically-repaired hands and has a slick ground game to compliment his power.
After struggling to consistently make the flyweight limit, Lineker moved up to bantamweight and announced himself as an immediate contender with a first-round submission win over Francisco Rivera that capped one of the most insane 60-second stretches of action you’ll ever see in the Octagon.
Seriously – pull up UFC FIGHT PASS and watch it right now; you can thank me later.
“Hands of Stone” followed up that performance with a unanimous decision win over Rob Font at UFC 198 and makes the quick turnaround here in hopes of solidifying a place on the short list of contenders in the suddenly deep and always competitive bantamweight division.
UFC on FOX: Holm vs. Shevchenko (July 23 – Chicago, Illinois)
Holly Holm vs. Valentina Shevchenko
In her last two appearances, Holm has experienced the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum – shocking the world with her blistering second-round knockout win over Ronda Rousey at UFC 193 and awakening to the agony of defeat after being choked out in the final 90 seconds of her first title defense against Miesha Tate at UFC 196.
To her credit, the longtime Jackson-Wink MMA Academy representative has stayed pretty even keel through all of it and gets the chance to get right back in the win column with this main event assignment on FOX in what should be an entertaining striking match.
Shevchenko debuted with an upset win over former Strikeforce champ Sarah Kaufman in December before starting slow and running out of time in her UFC 196 encounter with Nunes. The Kyrgyzstan-born, Peru-based Shevchenko came on strong in that clash as Nunes started to tire and this time around, she’ll have an additional two rounds to work with against Holm.
While it doesn’t carry the same profile as some of the other bouts in this collection, this is a pivotal clash for the former champion and her hopeful opponent, as a second consecutive loss could knock Holm out of the title picture, while an upset win would vault Shevchenko into the mix.
UFC 201: Lawler vs. Woodley (July 30 – Atlanta, Georgia)
Demetrious Johnson vs. Wilson Reis for the UFC flyweight title
“Mighty Mouse” continues his march towards Anderson Silva’s record for consecutive successful title defenses as he puts his belt on the line for the ninth time against Reis, a former hot prospect who has settled into being a cagey veteran in the UFC’s flyweight division.
It’s always interesting to hear the groans when guys like Reis are awarded championship opportunities because they usually come from the same people that constantly lobby for Nick Diaz to permanently fight for UFC gold and who had zero complaints when Lesnar challenged for the heavyweight title after beating Heath Herring to level his UFC record at 1-1. Sometimes, you’re just in the right place at the right time and it leads to the promotion calling your name.
Johnson enters off arguably the best performance of his career – a first-round technical knockout victory over Henry Cejudo at UFC 197 that saw him pop right back up after being taken down by the Olympic gold medalist and then fold him over with a series of serious knees to the midsection and head. The most complete fighter in the sport today, a win here would put the first and only flyweight champion one victory away from tying Silva’s mark.
Robbie Lawler vs. Tyron Woodley for the UFC welterweight title
Last, but certainly not least, in this cavalcade of compelling fights set to take place this month is a welterweight title clash between two men that rep American Top Team – the champion Lawler, who has turned his career around since setting up shop in Coconut Creek and the challenger Woodley, who started at the South Florida gym as a sparring partner for some of their veterans and now owns an affiliate school at home in Brentwood, Missouri.
Lawler has been in back-to-back instant classics against Rory MacDonald and Carlos Condit, pushing his winning streak to five and continuing one of the most unexpected career renaissances in recent memory. Brandishing devastating power, a great chin and some of the best takedown defense in the business, Lawler is a nightmare matchup for anyone in the 170-pound weight class and has zero intention of relinquishing the welterweight title any time soon.
Circumstances beyond his control have kept Woodley out of action since earning a split decision win over Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 183. An October 2015 bout with former Johny Hendricks fell apart the day before the fight when “Bigg Rigg” was rushed to the hospital due to complications from his weight cut and the right matchups just haven’t materialized in the interim to get “The Chosen One” back in the Octagon.
A bit of a Jekyll and Hyde in the cage, Woodley will need to be at his absolute best if he wants to bring championship gold back home. When he’s on and clicking, the University of Missouri product mixes fast hands and knockout power with driving takedowns, a dominant top game and underrated submissions skills.
This family affair should provide a proper ending to an outstanding month of action under the UFC banner in July.