Whether you’re still reeling from the awesomeness of UFC 207 or remain a little under the weather from ringing in the New Year a little too hard, there is no time for rest when it comes to queuing up all the top bouts on tap for the opening month of 2017.
While the UFC is easing into another year with a tidy one-two punch of events in January, it’s a chance to get an early read on a couple surging contenders, see more from a few top prospects and watch a handful of battle-hardened veterans begin what should be busy campaigns in the Octagon.
Here is a look at the top fights headed your way in the month ahead.
This is The 10.
UFC Fight Night: Rodriguez vs. Penn (Sunday, January 15 – Phoenix, Arizona)
This is a critically important fight for both competitors, but for very different reasons.
For the former title challenger Moraga, he’s looking to halt a two-fight losing streak and reaffirm his standing as a dangerous veteran presence in the middle of the Top 10. Stepping in on short notice for Jussier Formiga, a win over Pettis puts him back in the win column and in position to challenge another veteran name or promising hopeful later in the year without feeling like his back is against the wall.
Starting his fourth full year on the UFC roster, this is the type of fight Pettis needs to win in order to take a step forward and establish himself as a contender. Having posted back-to-back wins over Chris Cariaso and Chris Kelades, “The Phenom” has managed to crack the Top 15, but a victory over Moraga would be a great way to kick start a potential climb up the rankings in 2017.
Any time you get a pair of fighters sitting a win away from title contention squaring off, you’re going to capture my interest, and the constant back-and-forth between these two on social media as this fight was coming together makes it even more interesting.
Back in September, Rivera pushed his winning streak to 19 with a unanimous decision win over Urijah Faber in a bout that made it clear that the East Coast staple wasn’t someone to take lightly in the bantamweight ranks. A few months earlier, Caraway rallied from a rough first round to grind out a split decision win over another surging upstart, Aljamain Sterling, giving him consecutive victories and a 6-2 mark overall in the Octagon.
A new era began in the bantamweight ranks at UFC 207 with Cody Garbrandt’s victory over Dominick Cruz and while “No Love” already has a couple potential dance partners waiting on him right now, the winner of this one should land on that short list as well.
People don’t appreciate Joe Lauzon enough.
I don’t care what his record is or that he’s been up and down over his last dozen fights or so – the guy is an ultra-reliable action fighter who has a way of bringing out the absolute best in his opponents and whenever he’s fighting, I’m excited and you should be too.
Held is a dangerous grappler looking to rebound from a decision loss to Diego Sanchez in his promotional debut in early November. After a quick start, the Polish submission specialist faded and fell to the original Ultimate Fighter, but with his first foray into the Octagon behind him, the 24-year-old has a chance to get things moving in the right direction here.
A pair of appearances yielded two more wins and two bonuses for Rodriguez in 2016 and he’ll kick off 2017 with the chance to earn his biggest win to date in his second straight headlining assignment.
After knocking out Andre Fili with a flying switch kick to the dome (later repeated by Fili’s teammate, Paige VanZant, against Bec Rawlings), “El Pantera” picked up a split decision win over Alex Caceres in August to extend his winning streak to six, the last five of which have come in the UFC. Now he gets the opportunity to face off against a living legend and UFC Hall of Famer.
Penn had designs on returning in 2016, but it just couldn’t come together. Fighting for the first time since July 2014 and after training with Team Jackson-Winkeljohn for long stretches over the last couple years, it will be interesting to see what the former two-division champion has left in the tank, especially against an aggressive, unorthodox youngster like Rodriguez.
UFC on FOX: Shevchenko vs. Pena (Saturday, January 28 – Denver, Colorado)
Eric Shelton vs. Alexandre Pantoja
Shelton and Pantoja meet in what is essentially the bronze-medal match from Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter as each were bounced in the semifinal round.
The former was the Cinderella of the season, upsetting No. 2 seed Yoni Sherbatov in the opening round and doing the same to Ronaldo Candido in the quarters before dropping a majority decision to eventual tournament winner Tim Elliott in the Final Four. The latter entered as the top seed in the competition, having won nine straight and 14 of 15 heading into the house. After getting through Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara France, Pantoja fell to Hiromasa Ogikubo in a close fight many believed should have went to a third round in the semis.
Now they get the opportunity to perform on the big stage, under the bright lights and, having seen the success Moreno has already enjoyed since coming off the show, don’t be surprised if both stick around and start making some noise in 2017.
Marquardt’s second stint in the UFC has been inconsistent, but the former middleweight champion rebounded from an ugly knockout loss to Thiago Santos in May with a savage second-round finish of Tamdan McCrory in September to set up this intriguing veteran clash with Alvey.
While he didn’t get to fight as much as he would have liked, “Smile’N Sam” did notch four appearances and three wins in 2016, bouncing back from a losing effort against Elias Theodorou to beat Eric Spicely, Kevin Casey and Alex Nicholson to close out the year. The perpetually happy, eager-to-fight Alvey has become a fan favorite and somehow managed to turn Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” into a campy, but fun, walkout song.
Plus, if he’s able to notch a fourth straight win to start the year, the former TUF cast member could find himself cracking the Top 15 and given how active he likes to stay, a more high-profile pairing could follow in February or March, so stay tuned to this one and see what happens.
Raphael Assuncao vs. Aljamain Sterling
Initially booked for the UFC’s first trip to Albany, Sterling was forced out with a minor injury and the clash of bantamweight hopefuls looking to bounce-back was re-booked for this event in Denver.
After nearly two years on the sidelines dealing with myriad ankle injuries, Assuncao got a stern test in his return to work, facing off with TJ Dillashaw at UFC 200. While he came up short, it was his first loss since shifting to the 135-pound weight class and a reminder of how good the Brazilian-born, Atlanta-based veteran is when healthy.
For Sterling, this is an opportunity to rebound from the first loss of his professional career with a strong performance against an established threat after coming up short in his bout with Bryan Caraway back in May. “The Funkmaster” started hot in that one, but faded fast, and needs to show he’s make the requisite adjustments in order to compete with the division’s elite.
After starting 2016 on a six-fight winning streak and in title contention, things went seriously south for Arlovski as the former champion dropped three straight contests to slide back into the middle of the pack in the heavyweight division. Now, the cagey veteran looks to rebound and start 2017 off right, but in order to do so, he’ll need to stop one of the most promising newcomers to arrive in the division in quite some time.
Ngannou is already a scary proposition due to his sheer size and obvious power, but what really makes him stand out as a prospect is how much he’s developing between fights and continuing to show each time he steps into the cage. After blistering Curtis Blaydes and Bojan Mihajlovic, Ngannou nearly ripped Anthony Hamilton’s arm off with a kimura last month in Albany to win his eighth straight and fifth in the UFC.
If he adds Arlovski’s name to his list of conquests, the 30-year-old will establish himself as the one to watch in 2017.
Regardless of recent performances, a matchup between these two veterans would find its way onto this collection because both are thoroughly entertaining and always down to scrap. The fact that they’ve both been making some noise in the welterweight division only makes it more fun.
“Cowboy” thought he was just moonlighting at 170 pounds when the year began, but after four straight finishes, he’s climbed to No. 5 in the rankings and is showing the best form of his lengthy career. Masvidal made the move up the previous summer and dropped a couple split decisions earlier in his welterweight run, but with back-to-back wins over Ross Pearson and Jake Ellenberger, “Gamebred” has shown that he’s just as smooth and underrated here as he was at lightweight.
Both men fought in early December and wanted to get back at it – Cerrone eager to fight in his home state of Colorado; Masvidal hunger to lock up with a guy he’s been chasing for years – so the papers were signed, the bout is set and the fans get one helluva fight to set the table for the main event.
With Amanda Nunes having cemented her standing atop the women’s bantamweight division with her 48-second dismantling of Ronda Rousey at UFC 207, this clash of top contenders could very well determine who will be the first to challenge “The Lioness” for her title in 2017.
Shevchenko rebounded from a decision loss to the champion in March with a dominant effort against Holly Holm in July, also in the main event of a UFC on FOX event. The 28-year-old kickboxer counters well, has excellent conditioning and isn’t bothered by the big stage, having fought a trio of talented, established names in her first three Octagon appearances.
As for Pena, she picked up her fourth straight UFC victory – and third consecutive win following knee surgery – with a dominant decision against Cat Zingano at UFC 200 in July. A strong positional grappler with a very good top game, Pena has been able to dictate the location of all her UFC appearances to date and if she can do the same against Shevchenko and earn another victory, the title shot she’s been demanding for the last year could follow.