Summertime in the UFC is always hectic, with long stretches of consecutive weekends packed with fights, multiple pay-per-view events in July and August always coming along, not wanting to be out-done by its predecessor, meaning fans get eight events in nine weeks once we pass the halfway point for the year.
But even before we reach that point, where business picks ups and everyone starts jockeying for position before summer turns to fall and suddenly the homestretch is upon us, we get to enjoy the month of June, where the four-event slate kicks off on the first and offers far more fights than I can cram into a series called The 10.
The reason for that is largely because UFC 238, which takes place at United Center in Chicago on June 8, is absolutely loaded with talent and compelling fights, leaving no room to mention an intriguing fight like this weekend’s light heavyweight clash between veteran Jimi Manuwa and upstart Aleksandar Rakic or the similar welterweight pairing between Demian Maia and Anthony Rocco Martin scheduled for the end of the month in Minnesota.
UFC 238 is so packed with incredible fights that I genuinely could write this column based solely on that card alone, but that would mean excluding the other three events taking place this month, all of which feature exciting matchups. So instead, I have to skip over a pivotal flyweight bout between Katlyn Chookagian and Joanne Calderwood, a heavyweight banger between Tai Tuivasa and Blagoy Ivanov and a sneaky-good featherweight scrap featuring hometown favorite Ricardo Lamas and Calvin Kattar.
July is going to be terrific and August will be too, but the UFC’s spectacular summer starts this month with a host of incredible fights.
Here’s a look at the pairings that intrigue me the most.
This is The 10.
UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Smith — Saturday, June 1 (Stockholm, Sweden)
Alexander Gustafsson vs. Anthony Smith
The last two men to challenge Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title clash in the first main event of the month, with Gustafsson looking for his third straight victory inside the Ericsson Globe and Smith aiming to solidify his place amongst the division’s elite by knocking off the perennial contender.
Gustafsson lost to Jones last December in their long-awaited rematch, getting stopped in the third round. Now 32, the Swedish standout is just 3-4 in his last seven fights and feels like he’s at a bit of a crossroads. Smith faced Jones in March and landed on the wrong side of a lopsided decision, going the distance, but offering very little offense of his own. After a blistering start to his light heavyweight journey, “Lionheart” needs a rebound win in a big way.
What really makes this fight so compelling (at least to me) is that it could very well be a changing of the guard in the upper reaches of the 205-pound weight class. Gustafsson has been a fixture in the title picture for six years, while Smith burst on the scene in the second half of last year and is somehow still only 30 years old.
The winner remains in the title conversation and the loser takes a big step backwards, which means there is plenty on the line and therefore we should see the best from both men on Saturday in Stockholm.
UFC 238: Cejudo vs. Moraes — Saturday, June 8 (Chicago, Illinois)
Aljamain Sterling vs. Pedro Munhoz
With the bantamweight title on the line in the main event (more on that shortly), it’s time to sort out the contenders as well, and this one could potentially determine who gets the first crack at the new champion.
Sterling has won five of his last six and enters on a three-fight winning streak consisting of handing Brett Johns and Cody Stamann the first losses of their careers and a measured, complete performance against Jimmie Rivera. Across the cage, Munhoz has graduated from being the division’s underrated standout to a bona fide contender on the strength of his own three-fight winning streak, punctuated by a first-round knockout win over former champ Cody Garbrandt at UFC 235.
Both men have sharpened their skills after suffering some early UFC setbacks and have earned their place as contenders. Whether this plays out as a scramble-heavy grappling match, a standup battle or some amalgamation of the two, this is a legitimate Fight of the Night contender and a crucial matchup in a crowded, talent-rich division.
Tatiana Suarez vs. Nina Ansaroff
Just as the bout between Sterling and Munhoz could decide who is next in line in the bantamweight division, this one has the potential to establish who gets the first crack at new strawweight champion Jessica Andrade when “Bate Estaca” is ready to defend her title for the first time.
The 33-year-old Ansaroff’s growth and ascent into title contention has been an under-reported feel good story. After starting her UFC career with consecutive losses and dropping to 6-5 in her career, the American Top Team representative has rattled off four straight wins to climb within a couple wins of making good on her fiancée Amanda Nunes’ frequent declarations that she’s the next UFC strawweight champion.
As for Suarez, she just might be the best prospect on the entire roster, if you can call someone who steamrolled a former champion last time out to earn her seventh straight victory a prospect at this point. The former Ultimate Fighter winner brings a different level of grappling to the division and has dominated Alexa Grasso and Carla Esparza in consecutive outings, setting up this showdown with Ansaroff.
While Andrade has mentioned giving former champ Rose Namajunas a rematch on her home turf and Michelle Waterson is definitely in the mix, the winner of this one should head into the second half of 2019 as the leader in any discussion about the next title challenger in the 115-pound weight class.
Jimmie Rivera vs. Petr Yan
In his first nine months as an active member of the UFC roster, Yan rattled off victories over Teruto Ishihara, Jin Soo Son, Douglas Silva de Andrade and John Dodson, showcasing punishing striking, strong grappling and a healthy dose of moxie along the way. The 26-year-old Russian believes he’s the best bantamweight in the world and is on a quest to prove it, seeking out the toughest fights possible at all times, which is pretty damn commendable.
At UFC 238, he steps in with Rivera, the Team Tiger Schulmann standout who ran his winning streak up to 20 by starting his UFC run with five consecutive victories, including wins over Munhoz, Urijah Faber, and Thomas Almeida. He is the quintessential guardian to the upper echelon in the loaded 135-pound weight class and the toughest test to date for Yan.
Though the Sterling-Munhoz winner will be the clubhouse leader in the quest for the next title shot in the bantamweight division, Yan could potentially overtake them by continuing his blistering run of success with an emphatic showing against Rivera, who wants nothing more than to halt the confident upstart’s marauding ways and get back into the title mix himself.
Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone
Do I really need to explain?
Ferguson has won 11 straight, most recently collecting a stoppage win over former champ Anthony Pettis following the second round of the Fight of the Night-winning clash at UFC 229 last October. Injuries and personal issues have kept “El Cucuy” out of the cage since then, but he’s been sidelined multiple times during this outstanding run and always picked up right where he left off in the past, so why should this time be any different?
Meanwhile, all Cerrone has done since declaring his intentions to return to lightweight and make a run at the title late last year is cut back down to ’55 and defeat Alexander Hernandez and Al Iaquinta to put himself right back in the thick of the championship chase.
There are always a ton of moving pieces to consider in the lightweight division, but the fact of the matter is that whomever emerges from this one with their hand raised has to be at the top of a very short list of potential title challengers going forward.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Jessica Eye for the flyweight title
After moving down to the 125-pound weight class at the outset of 2018, Shevchenko claimed the division’s vacant title with a dominant decision win over former strawweight titleholder Joanna Jedrzejczyk last December in Toronto. Now 2-0 in the division and entrenched as one of the top female talents in the sport, “Bullet” looks to defend her title for the first time in a co-main event clash with Eye.
Some will consider the challenger fortunate to be in this position, as her path to fighting for UFC gold includes a pair of split decision wins sandwiched around a unanimous decision nod over Jessica-Rose Clark. While that’s true, the 32-year-old Eye is also now 13-1 when competing below the bantamweight division, where she spent the first seven fights of her UFC career.
While the champion has always made a habit of training around the globe, Eye recently relocated to Las Vegas from her hometown of Cleveland, seeking a fresh start as she goes in search of his first championship victory inside the Octagon.
This should be a spirited affair from start to finish and be the kickoff to a number of outstanding championship fights in the 125-pound weight class over the next 18-24 months.
Henry Cejudo vs. Marlon Moraes for the bantamweight title
This is such a terrific fight. Seriously.
All the people who said, “UFC 238 needed a fight like Ferguson vs. Cowboy to spice things up and get people interested” just don’t seem to understand what a truly outstanding piece of matchmaking this is.
Entering on a four-fight winning streak, Cejudo has the chance to close out one of the most insane years in UFC history with a win here. Last summer, he upset Demetrious Johnson to claim the flyweight title, and then in January, he knocked out then-bantamweight titleholder TJ Dillashaw in 32 seconds to defend said title. Now, he’s moving up a division in search of a second championship.
While the have been other “Champ Champs,” none of them rose to that level of distinction in less than a calendar year.
But you better believe that Moraes is ready, willing and able to turn Cejudo’s dream scenario into a real-life nightmare.
After landing on the wrong side of a split decision loss to Raphael Assuncao in his promotional debut two years ago, the former World Series of Fighting champion has rattled off four straight victories, edging out John Dodson on the cards before adding first-round stoppages of Sterling, Rivera, and Assuncao to his resume, completing the task in five minutes and seven seconds combined.
This is the best fight of the summer and I cannot wait for UFC 238 to get here!
UFC Fight Night: Moicano vs. Korean Zombie — Saturday, June 22 (Greenville, South Carolina)
Andrea Lee vs. Montana De La Rosa
While the clash between Chookagian and Calderwood at UFC 238 will likely determine who is next in line to challenge for the flyweight title, this one is a little more intriguing to me because it establishes the best up and coming talent in the surprisingly deep and competitive division.
Lee has been a darling of the MMA community for a number of years and has thus far validated the hype with consecutive decision wins in her first two Octagon appearances, pushing her overall winning streak to six. As for De La Rosa, the 24-year-old former TUF 26 contestant has earned three straight submission wins since coming off the show, most recently collecting a Performance of the Night bonus for her second-round finish of Nadia Kassem at UFC 234.
This one has the potential to be a scramble-fest filled with submission attempts, sweeps and grappling goodness, but it could also turn into a standup battle where De La Rosa is forced to show that she’s capable of hanging on the feet with the more accomplished, more polished kickboxer Lee.
Either way, it should be a crackerjack of a fight and put the winner in prime position to make a run towards the title heading into the second half of the year.
Renato Moicano vs. Chan Sung Jung
This is just one of those fights where the second it was announced, everyone started salivating, knowing full well just how wildly entertaining and competitive it will be when these two featherweight standouts hit the cage at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
Moicano carries a 13-2-1 record into his first UFC main event assignment, with his losses coming to Brian Ortega (in a fight he was winning) and former divisional kingpin Jose Aldo. The 29-year-old is tough as nails, happy to stand in the pocket and trade and capable of making very good fighters look completely outgunned.
All Jung did in November in his first fight back following a serious knee injury was combine with Yair Rodriguez to deliver arguably the best fight of the year — a back-and-forth instant classic that literally went right down to the final horn. The 32-year-old has six post-fight bonuses in as many Octagon appearances and the potential for him adding to his collection in this one are extremely high.
Featherweight is one of the most interesting and fluid divisions in the UFC at the moment, and this contest will factor into how things shake out in the 145-pound ranks over the second half of 2019.
UFC Fight Night: Ngannou vs. Dos Santos — Saturday, June 29 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Francis Ngannou vs. Junior Dos Santos
Las Vegas’ loss is Minneapolis’ gain as the heavyweight banger between Ngannou and “Cigano” gets shuffled to the larger of the Twin Cities and slotted in as the new main event, not that anyone expects this one to go the full five rounds.
Last year started out really, really poorly for Ngannou, as he got dominated by Stipe Miocic in his bid to claim the UFC heavyweight title and then froze up in his return fight against Derrick Lewis at UFC 226. But after rebounding with a 45-second knockout win over Curtis Blaydes in Beijing to close out 2018 on a high note, “The Predator” kicked off his 2019 campaign with a 26-second stoppage win over returning former champion Cain Velasquez.
Conversely, everything has gone swimmingly for Dos Santos since he returned to action midway through last year, as the former titleholder has collected three straight wins, culminating in a second-round technical knockout victory over Lewis in March.
With champion Daniel Cormier set to run it back with Miocic later this summer in Anaheim, there is a very real possibility that the winner of this one will be next in line to challenge for the title, regardless of who wins at UFC 241. Both men have been at their scary best in their most recent outings and June’s final fight should go a long way to answering any remaining questions people have about Ngannou’s growth and Dos Santos’ resurgence.