The Ultimate Fighter
The days are shorter, nights are longer and there is a nip in the air. Somehow, we’ve worked our way back around to the final month of the year, a time traditionally filled with holiday cheer, festive gatherings and a whole lot of outstanding fight cards.
December has become one of the premier months on the UFC’s annual calendar, boasting a pair of Pay-Per-View events, an Ultimate Fighter Finale and the final offering on “Big FOX.” This year, a fun little fight card in Fresno, California has been added to the mix as well, making it pretty difficult to whittle down the collection of contests set to hit the Octagon in the next couple weeks to the number required for this monthly offering.
But I think I’ve come up with a pretty solid list.
Here is this year’s final installment of The 10.
Happy Holidays… be good to one another.
The Ultimate Fighter: A New World Champion– Friday, December 1 (Las Vegas, Nevada)
The unpredictability of Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter has carried over to the championship finals, making for a chaotic, but still exciting clash between top seed Roxanne Modafferi and upstart Nicco Montano.
A 17-year vet, Modafferi entered the competition on a two-fight winning streak and having won six of eight since her previous appearance on the long-running reality TV competition in Season 18. During that time, she relocated to Las Vegas and collected victories over the likes of Andrea Lee, DeAnna Bennett and Sarah D’Aleilo, securing the top seed in this season’s tournament.
After getting upended in the semifinals, Modafferi got a surprise second chance to challenge for UFC gold when Sirjara Eubanks was forced from this evening’s fight card. “The Roxy Renaissance” has been one of the most enjoyable stories in the sport over the last couple years and it could still have a storybook ending after all.
Seeded 14th in the 16-woman tournament, Montano has also advanced by turning back top seeds, beating No. 3 Lauren Murphy, No. 6 Montana Stewart and No. 2 Barb Honchak on her way to this weekend’s championship bout – a trio that makes up the toughest possible road to the finals for the Albuquerque resident.
Montano pondered putting her career on hold prior to flyweights becoming the focus of this season of The Ultimate Fighter, but with a little push from her coach Tom Vaughn, she threw her name in the ring and now could emerge as the ultimate Cinderella story by adding a victory over the No. 1 seed to her improbable and highly entertaining run to the UFC women’s flyweight title.
This season has been outstanding and, despite the changes, this clash for the flyweight title should still provide a fitting end to an entertaining competition.
UFC 218: Holloway vs. Aldo – Saturday, December 2 (Detroit, Michigan)
One night after Modafferi and Montano do battle to determine the first women’s flyweight champion in UFC history, the coaches from this season of The Ultimate Fighter will square off for bragging rights in a bout that will also have significant ramifications on the lightweight division.
Fighting for just the second time since losing the lightweight strap last November, Alvarez is looking for his first victory since claiming the title from Rafael Dos Anjos and to reaffirm his place in the upper echelon of the 155-pound ranks. After debuting with a thrilling victory in a symphony of violence opposite Michael Johnson, Gaethje aims to keep his unbeaten record intact while taking another sizeable step towards challenging for UFC gold.
Even without the top-end implications, this is an outstanding fight that has the potential to earn Fight of the Year honors. Both men are happy to take two to land one and are amongst the most resilient, tough-to-finish fighters in the business. Expect a demolition derby that ends decisively with the crowd on their feet.Alistair Overeem vs. Francis Ngannou
A classic pairing between a veteran looking to make one more run at the title and an up-and-coming standout in need of that signature victory that takes him from prospect to contender, this one should be fireworks from the jump and probably won’t last long.
Overeem bounced back from his title loss at UFC 203 with victories over Mark Hunt and Fabricio Werdum. At age 37, “The Demolition Man” is still a formidable force in the heavyweight ranks and precisely the type of proven, dangerous contender every hopeful has to beat at some point along the way in order to join the title conversation.
In the span of two years, Ngannou has gone from debuting in the Octagon to facing one of the most accomplished fighters in the division with a championship opportunity potentially hanging in the balance. The hulking Frenchman (by way of Cameroon) has collected five straight stoppage wins to emerge as the most compelling new name in the division in quite some time.
Overeem has become more patient in recent years, but still brandishes a ton of power, while Ngannou is a menacing presence who stalks forward with vicious intentions. Much like the Alvarez-Gaethje fight, this one should end with a thud and the audience in full throat, cheering on the heavyweight action for as long as it lasts.
Back in June, Holloway ventured to Rio de Janeiro and unified the featherweight titles with a third-round stoppage win over Brazilian legend Aldo. It was a tremendous battle, and now the duo will do it again at a neutral site.
Holloway has been perfect over the last three years, amassing an 11-fight winning streak to climb to the top of the 145-pound weight class. The Hawaiian standout might be the best striker in the sport today – a master at mixing crushing body blows into his combinations and connecting at a ridiculous clip, especially when he’s got his opponents on the ropes.
For nearly a decade, Aldo was unbeatable, and even after losing the featherweight title to Conor McGregor, the Nova Uniao product rebounded to reclaim UFC gold with a convincing decision win over Frankie Edgar at UFC 200. Now the 31-year-old looks to replicate what TJ Dillashaw accomplished last month in New York – reclaiming the title he once held by knocking off a champion who seems poised to reign supreme for a number of years.
Their first encounter was one of the best fights of the year – a technical, tactical contest that suddenly tilted in Holloway’s favor and ended before the close of the third round. The rematch should be just as much fun, if not more.
UFC Fight Night: Swanson vs. Ortega – Saturday, December 9 (Fresno, California)
While it doesn’t have the same buzz as the heavyweight clash from UFC 218 mentioned above, the final bout on the debut event in Fresno has a similar “veteran vs. prospect” vibe as that contest.
Swanson has been perfect since returning from a one-year hiatus a couple years back, collecting four straight victories to once again emerge as a serious contender in the featherweight division. One of the best boxers in the sport, “Killer Cub” is smooth and technical, with a strong ground game at his disposal if needed.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Ortega has steadily climbed the ranks since entering the UFC in July 2014 and stamped himself as a potential contender by collecting four straight third-round stoppage wins to push his record to 12-0 overall (with one no contest). Laid back with an outstanding guard, the 26-year-old could cement himself as a title threat by knocking off Swanson and pushing his winning streak to a baker’s dozen.
UFC on FOX: Lawler vs. Dos Anjos – Saturday, December 16 (Winnipeg, Manitoba)
If you’re looking for a slightly under the radar contest that could end up being the most explosive bout of the month, look no further than this potential welterweight slobberknocker.
Ponzinibbio has been quietly making steady progress up the divisional ladder before really making his presence known to the wider audience with a first-round stoppage win over Gunnar Nelson in Scotland during the summer. The victory pushed the Argentine’s winning streak to five and carried him to No. 10 in the rankings.
Perry, meanwhile, doesn’t do anything quietly, but has been making moves of his own since arriving on the biggest stage in the sport just 16 months ago. He’s earned Performance of the Night bonuses in back-to-back blistering finishes of Jake Ellenberger and Alex Reyes already this year and could put himself in the title conversation by replicating that feat in Winnipeg.
Robbie Lawler vs. Rafael Dos Anjos
While the winner of the above bout will likely find themselves on the short list of contenders in the welterweight division, the winner of this one could very well end up being the next man to challenge for the welterweight title once 2018 rolls around.
After 364 days away, Lawler returned to the cage and the win column in July with a hard-fought victory over Donald Cerrone. The former champion is still one of the most lethal finishers and durable fighters in the division, a risky combination for any opponent to contend with, and as he closes in on the twilight of his career, the soft-spoken knockout artist has his sights set on reclaiming the welterweight title.
Dos Anjos has been one of the pleasant surprises of 2017, which might sound odd to say given that he is a former lightweight champion, but after starting the year on a two-fight slide and switching divisions, the fact that he’s looking for a third straight win and potentially fighting for a title shot, it’s hard to argue otherwise. Following a methodical win over Tarec Saffiedine in his divisional debut, the Brazilian veteran ran through Neil Magny in September and looks to add a second straight stoppage win in Canada to his resume here.
Regardless of whether the winner gets a title shot or not, this is a compelling clash of styles that should answer any lingering questions anyone has about these two veteran contenders heading into the New Year.
UFC 219: Cyborg vs. Holm – Saturday, December 30 (Las Vegas, Nevada)
This card is laced with outstanding matchups and while there are a couple others that could have taken the place of this one in a pinch, the fact that Calvillo is looking to wrap up an incredible rookie campaign in the UFC with a fourth victory and a win over a former champion just couldn’t be overlooked.
The Team Alpha Male product made her promotional debut in March, followed it up with another win a month later in Buffalo and then made it three-in-a-row in the Octagon by besting Joanne Calderwood at home in Scotland over the summer. It was the culmination of an 11-month run that saw her go from making her pro debut to fighting in the co-main event of a UFC card and now she has the chance to establish herself as a legitimate contender by toppling Esparza here.
Injuries have slowed the inaugural women’s strawweight champion since her title reign came to an end in March 2015, but the Team Oyama representative is coming off a quality win over Maryna Moroz in June and three straight strong showings, with the only blemish on her record being a suspect split decision loss to Randa Markos last spring.
With a new champion atop the division creating new possibilities for the top contenders, the winner of this one should find themselves in the championship mix as 2018 gets underway.
After closing out last year with a dominant victory over Michael Johnson where he provided his own in-fight play-by-play, many fans anticipated Nurmagomedov fulfilling his dream of fighting for the lightweight title in 2017, but it wasn’t meant to be. Now, the unbeaten grappler faces another stiff challenge to close out this year and once again put him in a position to potentially fight for gold once 2018 gets underway.
Barboza enters on a three-fight winning streak and is coming off one of the most impressive knockouts of the year – a second-round flying knee finish of Beneil Dariush back in March. Having come up short in previous encounters that would put him in the thick of the title chase, the Brazilian Muay Thai specialist has never looked better as he heads into the next biggest fight of his career.
Even with nothing at stake, a bout like this would be highly anticipated and all kinds of exciting, but when you add in the lingering questions about title shots and surrounding it with additional outstanding battles in the lightweight division, the importance and intensity gets cranked up to 11.
Only four fighters have managed to win UFC gold in two different divisions, but Holm gets a second chance to accomplish the feat in the final bout of 2017. All she has to do in order to make history is stop one of the most dominant fighters of the last decade.
Holm came up short in her initial bid to claim the featherweight title back in February, dropping a close, controversial decision to Germaine de Randamie, but rebounded with a signature win over Bethe Correia in Singapore four months later. Back in the win column for the first time since winning the bantamweight title at UFC 193, “The Preacher’s Daughter” gets the chance to close out the year by picking up a second belt.
Standing in her way is Cyborg, who rolled into Anaheim and claimed the vacant featherweight strap with a patient, yet powerful, performance against Tonya Evinger at UFC 214. The victory pushed the Brazilian superstar’s unbeaten streak to 18 and re-affirmed her as the most dominant force on the female side of the sport – and one of the most accomplished and successful competitors in all of mixed martial arts.
Stylistically, this one should be interesting as Cyborg likes to dictate the terms of engagement and get after her opponents, which plays into Holm’s preference to counter. Expect fireworks.