Another year is in the books, with the UFC delivering 42 events and more than 500 fights over the last 12 months. Included in that collection were six title changes, two interim champions being crowned and one “King of Cringe” relinquishing one of his two belts, freeing things up in the flyweight division as we head into 2020.
And while the first month of the new decade features just two fight cards, each is loaded with quality matchups and a host of compelling athletes to track as the year gets underway, including the return of an Irishman who has rarely been seen in the Octagon over the last couple years.
Here’s a look at the pairings that pique my interest most in the month ahead.
This is The 10.
Andre Fili vs. Sodiq Yusuff
There was a shake-up atop the featherweight division to close out 2019, with Alexander Volkanovski dethroning Max Holloway, sending a jolt of electricity through the always competitive 145-pound ranks, where Fili and Yusuff are both hoping to take a big step forward in the coming year.
Despite having already logged six full years on the roster, Fili is still just 29 years old and enters this one in the best form of his career, having won two straight and four of his last five overall. Always considered a potential contender, the longtime Team Alpha Male representative finally seems to be putting it all together and believing in his abilities to the fullest.
Yusuff followed up his breakthrough 2018 campaign with a pair of impressive victories in 2019, starting the year with a unanimous decision victory over Sheymon Moraes before punctuating things with a first-round stoppage win over Gabriel Benitez in July. The Nigerian-born prospect has won five straight overall and could establish himself as the next up and comer with championship potential in the featherweight ranks with a victory here.
Roxanne Modafferi vs. Maycee Barber
This is a crucial step up in competition for Barber, the undefeated 21-year-old with championship ambitions and three straight stoppage wins since entering the UFC. After needing a little time to find her footing in her flyweight debut against JJ Aldrich in March, the Colorado native followed up that second-round finish with a first-round TKO win over Gillian Anderson in October to push her record to 8-0 overall.
Having proven herself against the division’s prospects, Barber now steps into the cage with the most seasoned fighter in the division — the 37-year-old pioneer Modafferi, who split a pair of appearances in 2019.
This bout will go a long way in showing where Barber is at in her quest to become the youngest UFC champion in history and help dictate what her year inside the Octagon will look like. Modafferi is as game as they come and tough to put away, having only been stopped four times in her 16-year career, plus she’s sharpened up her striking in recent years to go along with her crafty ground game.
Will Barber begin 2020 with the biggest victory of her young career or will the savvy veteran foil her plans for divisional domination?
Anthony Pettis vs. Diego Ferreira
After spending 2019 competing at welterweight, Pettis returns to the lightweight division he once ruled for an ultra-competitive clash with Ferreira, a Fortis MMA product who has quietly put together a quality run of success over the last two years.
“Showtime” shocked a number of people by venturing up to the 170-pound ranks and scoring a knockout win over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in March, but they welcomed his addition to the division as that performance helped coax Nate Diaz out of exile and back into the Octagon. Though he fought valiantly, Pettis came away on the wrong side of the results in that clash with Diaz, and returns to his natural weight division with designs on getting back into both the win column and the championship chase.
Ferreira arrives at UFC 246 on a five-fight winning streak, with his last setback coming against former interim champion Dustin Poirier all the way back in 2015. The 34-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has posted two victories in each of the last two years, toppling Rustam Khabilov and Mairbek Taisumov each by unanimous decision in 2019.
Though Pettis is the far bigger name and boasts the better sizzle reel, Ferreira has proven himself to be a dark horse contender in this division and the type of well-rounded talent that no one should take lightly.
Claudia Gadelha vs. Alexa Grasso
Not only is this a critical matchup in the deep and talented strawweight division, but it’s a bout that will have an undeniable impact on the trajectory of both fighters, regardless of how it all shakes out.
Returning from a 13-month absence in June, Grasso delivered the best performance of her career, out-boxing former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz on the way to a clean sweep of the scorecards. Unfortunately for the former highly regarded prospect, the inconsistencies that have plagued her UFC career continued, as Grasso followed up that effort with a majority decision loss to former champ Carla Esparza in September, leveling her record in the Octagon at 3-3 and sending her into this year surrounded by question marks.
Gadelha only fought once last year after shifting her training camp to New Jersey, securing a unanimous decision win over Randa Markos in July. The former title challenger admitted she was cautious and fought safe, admitting it would take time to find a rhythm with Mark Henry and the rest of her new coaching staff, but it was a good victory over a game opponent and one that got the Brazilian standout moving forward again.
Both women have shown top-end talent at times, but each has struggled occasionally as well, which is what makes this matchup so compelling. The division is wide open beyond champion Zhang Weili and former champs Jessica Andrade and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, so a strong performance by either woman could catapult them into the thick of the chase to start the year, while a loss would move either of them even further out of contention.
In the words of De La Soul, “Stakes is high.”
Holly Holm vs. Raquel Pennington
Initially slated to face off for a second time as part of the main card at UFC 243 in October, the rematch between Holm and Pennington had to be postponed when the former champion suffered a hamstring injury. Melbourne’s loss is Las Vegas’ gain as the veterans will instead run it back in the co-main event of the first pay-per-view of the year.
Holm remains one of the most intriguing fighters on the roster and enters 2020 facing many of the same questions that followed her into last year. She’s won just twice since registering her iconic knockout victory over Ronda Rousey at UFC 193, but all but one of her five losses during that same span have come in championship fights, with the lone exception being her unanimous decision setback against current flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko.
She fought just once in 2019, suffering a first-round knockout loss to Amanda Nunes at UFC 239, and having turned 38 in October, it’s fair to wonder how much longer the former bantamweight champion can continue to compete against the division’s elite?
In that regard, Pennington is a perfect opponent to help gauge where Holm stands in the division at the moment, as the former TUF contestant and title challenger is a notoriously tough out who pushed “The Preacher’s Daughter” to her limits in her promotional debut way back at UFC 184, losing by split decision. Pennington was able to grind out a hard-fought victory over Irene Aldana in July and has won five of seven since her initial encounter with Holm, losing only to Nunes and recent title challenger Germaine de Randamie during that time.
Will she avenge her prior close loss, pick up a second straight victory and increase the scrutiny on Holm as the year gets underway or will the former champion bounce back and show she’s still got plenty left in the tank in 2020?
Conor McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone
For the first time since October 2018 and only the second time since he became the first “Champ-Champ” in UFC history, McGregor will cross the threshold into the Octagon for a highly anticipated showdown with Cerrone.
Of all the fighters discussed in this feature, McGregor might be the one with the biggest question marks hovering over him as he readies to return. He’s only fought once in the last three years, getting submitted by Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. But the highs with McGregor have been undeniable and if anyone is capable of returning from an extended hiatus to deliver a statement performance on the grand stage, it’s the sport’s biggest showman.
As always, Cerrone is more than game to saunter into the cage and sling leather, and this bout with McGregor is one that has been discussed and desired since the two went back-and-forth on stage towards the end of 2015. “Cowboy” comes in on a two-fight skid, having lost to Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje after starting his 2019 campaign with wins over Alexander Hernandez and Al Iaquinta, but he’s moving back up to welterweight for this one and he should be locked and loaded to put on a show and potentially spoil McGregor’s return in this one.
Josh Emmett vs. Arnold Allen
While the bout between Fili and Yusuff is definitely intriguing, this is the top featherweight clash on the calendar in January and the winner should find themselves in the thick of the chase in the 145-pound weight class.
It’s hard not to be happy for Emmett, who returned from numerous serious injuries and more than a year away to register a pair of stoppage wins in 2019. The Sacramento native scored a third-round knockout win over Michael Johnson in March that got lost in the shuffle as the list of Knockout of the Year candidates expanded throughout the year and followed it up with a hometown finish of Mirsad Bektic four months later.
Now 4-1 since returning to featherweight and 6-2 overall in the UFC, Emmett is the kind of powerful veteran who could sit anyone down and profiles as a tough out for everyone in the division.
Allen has made slow and steady progress up the ranks in his five years on the UFC roster, with 2019 being his biggest year to date. The Brit posted unanimous decision wins over Jordan Rinaldi and Gilbert Melendez to push his record inside the Octagon to 6-0 and extend his winning streak to eight overall. He turns 26 three days before this fight, which means despite all his prior success and impressive potential, he’s just now reaching the start of his athletic prime.
Allen has long felt like a future contender and someone who doesn’t quite know how good he is just yet. If that happens, the British featherweight could become an even greater force to be reckoned with inside the cage.
Rafael Dos Anjos vs. Michael Chiesa
After beginning his welterweight journey with three consecutive victories, Dos Anjos has settled into position as the man you have to beat if you want to be considered a contender in the 170-pound weight class, which makes this pairing with Chiesa such a delectable offering.
Though he’s just 1-3 over his last four outings, the former lightweight champion went the distance with Colby Covington, Kamaru Usman and Leon Edwards in those three defeats, mixing in a fourth-round submission win over Kevin Lee in May prior to facing Edwards. The Brazilian veteran remains as tough as nails and dangerous in all areas, and when he’s firing on all cylinders, there are few in the welterweight division as skilled and talented as Dos Anjos.
Chiesa moved to welterweight at the end of 2018, abandoning the lightweight division after missing weight prior to his UFC 226 loss to Anthony Pettis. He looked outstanding submitting former interim champ Carlos Condit in his debut and followed that up by dominating Diego Sanchez for 15 minutes in his lone appearance of 2019.
Will “Maverick” make it through the battle-hardened guardian of the Top 5 or will Dos Anjos turn back another hopeful who isn’t quite ready to hang with the big boys in the welterweight division?
Brett Johns vs. Tony Gravely
Bantamweight is flush with contenders and upstarts at the moment, but these two are looking to kick off 2020 by proving they deserve to be counted in that group of emerging fighters to watch in the 135-pound division as well.
Anyone who dismisses Johns simply because he enters this one on a two-fight skid hasn’t been paying close enough attention to the Welshman. After winning three straight to beginning his UFC career and extend his overall winning streak to 15, “The Pikey” dropped a pair of decisions to Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz in 2018. He picked up a knee injury early last year and never made it into the cage, but he gets a chance to start 2020 off with a nice early win and remind everyone that he’s still one of the top young talents in the division.
A graduate of the Contender Series who fought a tough slate on the regional circuit, Gravely is an intriguing new addition to the already competitive bantamweight mix. The 28-year-old has won seven straight and 11 of his last 12 dating back to early 2017. Each of his four career losses has come against legitimate talents, and he’s stopped everyone he’s faced during his current run of success, winning a pair of titles along the way.
This is a massive fight for both men and one that could have an impact on the rankings both now and in the future as each of these competitors should be Top 15 fixtures for the next several years.
Curtis Blaydes vs. Junior Dos Santos
Top 5 heavyweights looking to cement their positions in the championship picture and start 2020 with a bang clash in the second main event of the year as Blaydes and Dos Santos lock horns at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
You have to hand it to Blaydes — after getting his six-fight winning streak snapped by Francis Ngannou at the end of 2018, the Elevation Fight Team member dusted himself off and went right back to work, registering wins over Justin Willis and Shamil Abdurakhimov to reaffirm his standing as one of the top competitors in the division. Thus far, Ngannou is the only man to beat the soft-spoken, steadily improving 28-year-old and if he can push his winning streak to three by toppling the former titleholder Dos Santos, Blaydes will set himself up for yet another big fight later this year.
Dos Santos also had a winning streak snapped by Ngannou, watching his tidy three-fight run of success come to a screeching halt just 71 seconds into their headlining clash at the end of June. Despite the setback, “Cigano” had shown in the run-up to that bout that he is still one of the more capable and complete heavyweights in the division and his sharp boxing and big fight experience could play a key role in determining the outcome of this one.