It’s hard to believe, but another year is close to coming to an end. No, we don’t know where the time went either.
Last we remember it was July, the MGM Grand Garden Arena felt like it was teleported to Dublin and Conor McGregor was claiming the interim featherweight title. Four months and a couple of weeks later, we’re at the start of December and that same venue is going to become a battleground once again, with warring factions from Brazil and Ireland poised to once again fill the joint to the rafters and cheer on their respective charges.
Here’s the thing about the month ahead inside the Octagon: it’s so good, there is no room on this list to include Jim Miller and Michael Chiesa squaring off in lightweight action, the potential grappling superfight between Demian Maia and Gunnar Nelson or the Top 10 matchup between Max Holloway and Jeremy Stephens, not to mention Michael Johnson facing Nate Diaz and entertaining middleweights Josh Samman and Tamdan McCrory potentially stealing the show in Orlando.
Any other month, those five fights are amongst the best of the bunch, but this month, they’re the honorable mentions, which should tell you a thing or two about the awesomeness ahead.
Here is The 10 for December 2015.
UFC Fight Night: Namajunas vs. VanZant (December 10 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Aljamain Sterling vs. Johnny Eduardo
Tucked away on the preliminary portion of the first event of the month, this is a battle between two Top 10 bantamweights that carries significant championship implications heading into 2016.
Sterling is a perfect 11-0 for his career and 3-0 in the Octagon. Most recently, the Serra-Longo Fight Team member picked up a third-round arm triangle choke submission win (from bottom!) against Takeya Mizugaki. He’s been making noise about wanting a Top 10 dance partner since dispatching the Japanese veteran and now he gets his wish.
The 37-year-old Eduardo returns for the first time since he scored a major upset win over former title challenger Eddie Wineland in May 2014. He’s lost just once in his last 14 fights (to top contender Raphael Assuncao), however injuries have limited him to just two appearances since August 2011.
Whoever emerges victorious will find themselves in the title conversation and potentially have a marquee matchup awaiting them in the New Year.
Rose Namajunas vs. Paige VanZant
Originally scheduled as a pairing between VanZant and Joanne Calderwood, an injury opened the door for Namajunas to step into the main event spot in a showdown of elite prospects in the strawweight division.
VanZant has carried over the momentum generated from her debut win at the end of November last year into 2015, collecting victories over Felice Herrig in April and Alex Chambers in September to land at No. 7 in the rankings. Still only 21, the Team Alpha Male fighter is a bundle of energy and potential and could advance to the next level with a win in her first main event assignment.
This time last year, it was Namajunas that was in VanZant’s position – heralded as the future of the division and carrying serious expectations on her shoulders. After losing to Carla Esparza in the first championship fight in the UFC’s newest division, the TUF 20 alum had a May appointment with Nina Ansaroff fall through at the 11th hour, but following a first-round submission win over Angela Hill, folks seemed to have remembered Namajunas’ unlimited upside as well.
This should be one of the most entertaining scraps of the month and the winner will be entrenched as the young upstart to watch in the 115-pound ranks going forward.
The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale (December 11 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Edson Barboza vs. Tony Ferguson
As much as we’re all disappointed that Khabib Nurmagomedov was forced from this pairing, having Barboza step up to face the former Ultimate Fighter winner Ferguson isn’t a bad Plan B and should still result in an electric encounter.
Barboza rebounded from his February loss to Michael Johnson with a unanimous decision win over Paul Felder in a bout that earned Fight of the Night honors at July’s UFC on FOX event in Chicago. The Rio de Janeiro native who splits his time between South Florida and the Jersey Shore possesses a devastating arsenal of kicks and throws them with unmatched speed, which is why he holds the record for the most kick-related stoppages in UFC history.
Since returning from an 18-month absence following his loss to Michael Johnson, Ferguson has been unstoppable, stringing together six consecutive victories to climb to No. 8 in the rankings and stand as a dark horse contender in the UFC’s deepest division. “El Cucuy” has an awkward, but effective, style, with the ability to settle the opposition with his hands or sub them out on the canvas.
Frankie Edgar vs. Chad Mendes
This one feels like it’s been a long time coming, as Edgar and Mendes have run parallel as two of the top contenders in the featherweight division for the last several years.
Mendes was called in to challenge Conor McGregor for the interim title on short notice in July and came up short, controlling the bout early before “The Notorious” one ended it late in the second. Still, “Money” is 17-0 in his career and 8-0 inside the Octagon in non-title fights, so his credentials as an elite competitor can’t be challenged.
As for Edgar, all he’s done since losing to reigning champ Jose Aldo in his divisional debut is rattle off four straight wins, most recently dominating Mendes’ teammate Urijah Faber in the main event of the UFC’s debut in Manila. The former lightweight champion has never looked better and could position himself for a title shot in the first half of 2016 with a win in this one.
UFC 194: Aldo vs. McGregor (December 12 – Las Vegas, Nevada)
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza vs. Yoel Romero
Third time’s the charm? These two surging middleweight contenders have been paired together twice before, but each time, something has come up to scuttle the fight, with each man being forced to withdraw once. Hopefully this one goes off without a hitch because it’s an amazing matchup and the winner should be in line for a title shot in 2016.
“Jacare” hasn’t lost in over three years, picking up three victories in Strikeforce before adding another five in the UFC to bring his current winning streak to eight. He has seven finishes in those eight bouts, including a Submission of the Year contender from his most recent outing against Chris Camozzi in April.
Ironically, the last time Romero lost was the same night as Souza’s most recent defeat – September 10, 2011 – when he fell to Rafael Cavalcante in a light heavyweight contest. A flawless 6-0 since moving to middleweight, Romero combines world class wrestling with outstanding athleticism and raw power and, like his Brazilian opponent, he too enters having collected a string of impressive finishes on the way to this clash.
Chris Weidman vs. Luke Rockhold for the UFC middleweight title
With all due respect to the terrific middleweight title fights that have taken place in the past, this is the best championship bout in the history of the 185-pound ranks and it’s incredible how much it has managed to fly under the radar.
All Weidman has done since entering the UFC as a short notice replacement against Alessio Sakara in March 2011 is make a steady climb up the ladder with five straight wins, end Anderson Silva’s reign atop the division, defeat “The Spider” in an immediate rematch and then turn back Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort to push his record to 13-0. “The All-American” might be the most under-appreciated champion in UFC history, which is crazy given all that he’s accomplished and that he might end up being the best middleweight to ever grace the Octagon once everything is all said and done.
Rockhold has made an impressive case for a title shot over the last two years and just might be the man to unseat the unbeaten champion from the middleweight throne. In his last four outings, the American Kickboxing Academy standout has scored four finishes and four bonuses, dropping Costas Philippou with a nasty body kick before subbing out Tim Boetsch, Michael Bisping and Lyoto Machida, forcing each to tap to something different.
Stylistically, this is a fight that can go anywhere and both men are comfortable wherever the exchanges take place. These are clearly the two best fighters in the division right now and UFC 194’s penultimate fight should be a classic.
Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor for the undisputed UFC featherweight title
A year in the making, we’re finally going to get Aldo vs. McGregor and there is no way that it won’t deliver. No matter how this fight plays out, regardless of who wins, everyone is going to be talking about this highly anticipated matchup and what transpires in the Octagon on December 12.
McGregor has become one of the most recognizable and polarizing fighters in the sport, backing up his boasts and prophecies with six consecutive UFC wins, including a second-round technical knockout win over Chad Mendes in July to claim the interim featherweight title.
The SBG Ireland product strikes from unconventional angles and walks forward without hesitation, trusting in his chin and his power in every exchange. He’s predicted an early finish in this one, just as he has each of his previous UFC appearances, and if he comes through here, it will be hard to deny McGregor the place in the pantheon of all-time greats he believes he’s already due.
But in the midst of McGregor’s ascension, some folks seem to have forgotten that Aldo is the one and only man to hold the UFC featherweight title and hasn’t lost in more than a decade, winning 18 consecutive fights while climbing to the top of the division in the WEC and maintaining his place on the throne through seven successful title defenses in the Octagon.
There has never been an occasion where the Nova Uniao product hasn’t risen to the occasion in the cage and rest assured he’ll do the same when he finally gets to fight McGregor here. This one is personal for the normally subdued and respectful Aldo, and that should turn the UFC 194 main event into an epic collision on December 12 inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
UFC on FOX: dos Anjos vs. Cerrone II (December 19 – Orlando, Florida)
Randa Markos vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz
While not the most name brand fight on this list, make no mistake about it – this strawweight clash is a serious tilt that will have an impact on the top tier of the divisional hierarchy heading into 2016.
After dropping a split decision to Jessica Penne at the TUF 20 Finale last December, the surprise semifinalist Markos rebounded with a unanimous decision win over fellow cast member Aisling Daly in Montreal. Following the win, the Windsor, Ontario native decamped for La Belle Province, shifting her training to the Tristar Gym, where the elite coaching and top-notch training partners should hasten her development.
Kowalkiewicz gets the chance to make an instant name for herself in her UFC debut by knocking off the eighth-ranked Canadian in Orlando. Unbeaten through seven fights, the 30-year-old Polish fighter picked up a split decision win over Mizuki Inoue in her lone Invicta FC appearance in November 2014 and followed it up with a similar result against Kalindra Faria in February.
The winner of this one could find themselves on the short list of potential title challengers as 2016 kicks off.
Junior Dos Santos vs. Alistair Overeem
A fight three years in the making, these two heavyweight bombers finally collide in a contest that still carries significant title implications.
Overeem has taken a more patient and measured approach over his last four outings, winning three of those contests, including each of his last two. Still a knockout threat, the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion has improved his conditioning and revamped his style since joining the Jackson-Wink MMA crew in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is an added dimension opponents now have to deal with.
Returning for the first time since beating Stipe Miocic last December on FOX, Dos Santos remains one of the division’s elite, even though the aftermath of battle and a mounting list of injuries have limited him to roughly one fight per year as of late. “Cigano” still carries heavy hands and surprising quickness, and it will be interesting to see how his shift to American Top Team will impact his performance upon his return.
The heavyweight title picture isn’t particularly clear at the moment, so a blistering finish or strong performance from either man could put them in the conversation for a title shot at some point in 2016.
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Donald Cerrone for the UFC lightweight title
2015 in the Octagon closes out with a lightweight title fight that is also a rematch, as new champion dos Anjos defends his belt for the first time against the surging Cerrone in a do-over of their encounter from August 2013 in Indianapolis.
“Cowboy” came out on the wrong side of the result that night, but hasn’t lost since, picking up eight consecutive victories, five finishes and four more bonus checks to help him make further additions to the BMF Ranch. Always a talented competitor, Cerrone seems to have overcome the mental block that caused him to stumble in the spotlight earlier in his career, and with the opportunity to close out the year by winning championship gold, you best believe the ornery Albuquerque resident will be ready to fight like hell once the referee says, “Go!”
Dos Anjos surprised a lot of people in winning the lightweight title – not because of the fact that he won, but more because of how he won. The Kings MMA product dominated Anthony Pettis from the outset, battering “Showtime” from start to finish to earn a clean sweep of the scorecards and claim UFC gold for the first time in his career. He’s shown a tremendous amount of development over the course of his UFC career, and his previous win over “Cowboy” should bolster his confidence heading into his first title defense.
Lightweight is the most talent-rich division in the UFC and whoever wins this one won’t be afforded much time to relish their victory, as a collection of contenders are already queuing up to challenge for gold in 2016.