This feature is my favorite thing I write each month because each time we flip the calendar, I get to discuss the 10 upcoming fights that intrigue me the most, and it provides me with an opportunity to spotlight some of the matchups that reside outside of the spotlight, but still pique my curiosity and trigger my long-range vision.
Last month it was the featherweight barnburner between Andre Fili and Sodiq Yusuff and the bantamweight clash a week later in Raleigh featuring Brett Johns and Tony Gravely. Both were exceptional matchups that landed on the preliminary portion of their respective cards and garnered less attention than several of the main card offerings, but still carried divisional significance and felt like they were sure to deliver once the action hit the Octagon.
This month, there are twice as many events as last month, and twice as many stealth pairings that feel like we’ll regard them as significant 12-18 months down the road.
There are also three championship bouts, a potential title eliminator, an interesting heavyweight clash and a crucial lightweight matchup that has morphed into a simmering rivalry.
February is going to be a lot of fun.
Here are the 10 fights I’m most interested in this month.
This is The 10 for February 2020.
Derrick Lewis vs. Ilir Latifi
This is the interesting heavyweight matchup I mentioned in the open — a pairing between the perennial contender Lewis and the cult hero Latifi, who ventures to the big boy ranks for the first time since the first few fights of his career more than a decade ago.
Lewis began his 2019 campaign with a stoppage loss to Junior Dos Santos, then revealed he’d been fighting on a ripped up knee for a couple years. After getting everything cleaned up and completing his rehab, the Houston native returned to the Octagon at UFC 244, registering a split decision win in a grueling battle with Blagoy Ivanov.
Following a stretch where he won five of six fights to climb to the outskirts of contention in the light heavyweight ranks, Latifi has dropped his last two contests and opted to relocate. The Swedish veteran is undersized for the division in terms of his height and reach, but it will be interesting to see how his considerable power translates while moving up and if he will carry a speed and quickness edge now that he’s fighting at heavyweight.
With things at the top of the division largely squared away for the moment, this bout is an opportunity for Latifi to vault right into the thick of the heavyweight title chase and Lewis to cement his standing as one of the top contenders in the division heading into the second half of the year.
Mirsad Bektic vs. Dan Ige
I’ve been on the record many times over saying I think featherweight is the most interesting division in the UFC right now, and I’d like to submit this matchup as Exhibit B in my defense of that position; Exhibit A was the Fili-Yusuff fight last month at UFC 246.
Bektic enters this one as what fantasy sports nerds like myself would call a “post-hype sleeper,” a guy who ticketed for big things, hasn’t delivered thus far, and is still trying to make good on all that promise. What’s curious to me is how or why anyone would write off a 28-year-old with obvious talent and a 13-2 record, where those two losses came against ranked veterans in fights that were designed to determine if Bektic was ready to enter the championship mix.
While Bektic arrived in the UFC with a bunch of hype, Ige crept in the back door unnoticed. After failing to secure a contract despite a third-round finish on the Contender Series, the Las Vegas-based Hawaiian scored a short-notice opportunity at UFC 220, dropping a unanimous decision to Julio Arce. Since then, Ige has rattled off four straight wins, putting him in line for a step up in competition and a chance to prove he’s one of the top featherweights in the division.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Katlyn Chookagian for the women’s flyweight title
The first championship fight of 2020 takes place in the flyweight division, as Shevcehnko goes searching for her third successful title defense against Chookagian, who looks to shock the world and pick up her fifth win since the 125-pound weight class launched in earnest at the start of 2018.
The reigning flyweight champ has lost one round over the course of her four fights in the 125-pound ranks, and the only two blemishes on her UFC resume are narrow losses to reigning featherweight and bantamweight titleholder Amanda Nunes. She is, without question, a special talent.
Chookagian enters as a considerable underdog looking to one-up Roxanne Modafferi after the women’s MMA pioneer authored a stunning upset of Maycee Barber at UFC 246 last month. The 31-year-old “Blonde Fighter” is 13-2 overall and 6-2 in the UFC, with each of those losses coming by way of split decision, which means one round on one card in two fights have kept her from being 8-0 and looked at in a totally different light.
Chookagian isn’t as dynamic as Shevchenko, but she’s active, moves well, and has continued to show improvements every time out. Will it be enough to knock “Bullet” from her throne? We’ll find out on February 8.
Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes for the light heavyweight title
If you’re not excited for this one, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Jones is the greatest fighter walking the Earth today — a prodigious talent who has continued to grow, evolve, improve, and remain dominant for more than a decade, all while turning back each and every challenger put before him. His reign has transcended three different eras in the light heavyweight division — the old guard, former champions; his contemporaries; and now the next wave of contenders — and despite his various issues away from the cage, he’s remained alarmingly consistent and unflappable inside the Octagon.
Reyes is the first true light heavyweight to climb the ranks and challenge Jones in some time and enters with the kind of confidence and self-belief you need in order to share the cage with “Bones.” He added two more wins to his resume in 2019, pushing his record to 12-0 overall, but it’s his athleticism, length, and power that are the true factors to consider when trying to forecast whether Reyes will be the one to hand Jones the first true loss of his career.
Dynasties or dominant champions don’t excite some fans, but I’m the opposite — I love to see greatness on display and even the slightest chance that a long-reigning champion could get unseated is enough to get me to the edge of my seat, rapt by what is set to unfold inside the Octagon.
John Dodson vs. Nathaniel Wood
These types of “veteran vs. prospect” fights always pique my interest and that is especially true when they take place in a packed division like bantamweight.
Dodson has struggled to have consistent success since moving to bantamweight following a very good run in the flyweight division, amassing a 3-4 record in seven appearances, but this is one of those cases where just looking at the results doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Each of those losses has come on the scorecards against a Top 10 fighter, including two split decision verdicts.
Wood enters this matchup with Dodson sporting a 16-3 record overall, which includes an active eight-fight winning streak (all finishes), the last three of which came inside the Octagon. He’s one of the top prospects in the division and this is the test he needs to pass in order to gain entry into the Top 15.
Can the 35-year-old Dodson get back in the win column and turn back the streaking Brit or will Wood pick up the biggest victory of his career and keep his momentum rolling as he looks to make an impact in the bantamweight division this year?
Corey Anderson vs. Jan Blachowicz
I absolutely adore this fight and love how much each man has improved since their first meeting at UFC 191. Additionally, this feels like the “Don’t Write Guys Off Too Early” Bowl because several years after each were declared “no real contenders,” here they are squaring off in a fight that could determine the next title challenger in the light heavyweight division.
Anderson is a testament to hard work, patience, and trusting the process — a once-green Ultimate Fighter winner who took some lumps a few years back, pushed through, and has looked outstanding over his last several outings. The 30-year-old has won four straight, most recently earning a first-round stoppage win over Johnny Walker at UFC 244, and feels like a guy who is finally putting all the pieces together.
Blachowicz was 2-4 after his first six trips into the Octagon, but the Polish veteran regrouped and is 6-1 since, with his lone setback coming against Thiago Santos, the last man to challenge Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title prior to Dominick Reyes. Last March, he made a statement by throttling Luke Rockhold, and while he narrowly edged out Jacare Souza in his most recent appearance, the former KSW standout has done more than enough over his last six wins and seven fights to prove he’s a legitimate contender.
Jimmy Crute vs. Michel Oleksiejczuk
I know they’re both coming off submission losses, but here are two light heavyweights under the age of 25 who have already shown flashes of championship potential and are facing off in a battle to see which one rebounds and takes a step forward to start the year.
After earning stoppage wins in each of his first two UFC appearances, a more experienced, more measured Misha Cirkunov submitted the 23-year-old Crute last time out in Vancouver. Despite the loss — which was the first of his career — there were still positive takeaways from the fight for the promising Australian and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if that bout ends up being the first key turning point in his young career.
Oleksiejczuk also enters off a submission loss, having gotten trapped in the Von Preux choke in his September meeting with Ovince Saint Preux in Copenhagen. The defeat snapped the emerging Polish fighter’s 12-fight unbeaten streak and should — like Crute’s loss to Cirkunov — serve as a learning opportunity, not something to hang his head about going forward.
There isn’t nearly as much depth in the light heavyweight ranks as there is at lightweight or welterweight, so a couple quality wins would get either one of these emerging talents into the thick of the chase, so it will be interesting to see which one can right the ship quicker after tasting defeat in the Octagon for the first time.
Paul Felder vs. Dan Hooker
Everything was cordial and polite between these two in April 2018 when Hooker respectfully asked Felder if he fancied a fight when “The Irish Dragon” was interviewing him in the cage following his victory over Jim Miller. Less than two years later, the bout is a reality and the tension between them is palpable.
There are actually a lot of similarities between these two as they head towards their main event clash in Hooker’s hometown of Auckland.
Both are in the midst of the best run of their respective careers and jockeying for position in the ever-crowded, ultra-competitive lightweight division. Each has only lost once since the start of 2017 — Felder is 5-1, Hooker is 6-1 — and they see this fight as the key to taking the next step forward in their quest for championship gold.
Stylistically, it should be an absolute slobberknocker because both guys like to come forward and engage — fighting to finish, rather than score points, and more than willing to take one to land an even better one in return.
Of all the fights on tap this month, this is the one I’m looking forward to the most, by far.
Brendan Allen vs. Tom Breese
This is the middleweight version of the “Crute versus Oleksiejczuk” fight and I’m as excited about this one as I am about that one.
Allen is one of my favorite prospects in the sport right now — a 24-year-old who already has a resume filled with tough fights against quality competition. The Roufusport representative has only lost to future UFC fighters and earned three wins in 2019 to push his record to 13-3 overall, including a first-round submission win on the Contender Series and a second-round finish of Kevin Holland in his promotional debut three months later.
Breese has been out of action since he returned to the middleweight division with a first-round stoppage win over “Judo” Dan Kelly in May 2018. Still just 28, the Birmingham native has tremendous size for the division, a deft ground game and proven power, all of which makes him a potential force if he can keep active.
Middleweight is undergoing a bit of a shift at the moment, with a new champion and some fresh names working their way into the Top 15, but every year seems to produce a new contender to follow and the winner of this one could land that role in 2020.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Deiveson Figueiredo for the flyweight title
With Henry Cejudo relinquishing the flyweight title, these two standouts will close out the month on “Leap Day” with a battle to crown the third champion in the division’s history.
Benavidez has fought for the title twice before, losing to Demetrious Johnson by split decision in the inaugural flyweight title fight before getting knocked out in a rematch 15 months later. Since then, the veteran has gone has gone 9-1 with wins over just about every contender in the division, as well as Cejudo.
After dropping his first fight back following an 18-month absence due to a torn ACL, Benavidez has rattled off three straight victories, including earning a second career win over both Dustin Ortiz and Jussier Formiga, which gave birth to his new nickname, “Joey Two Times.”
Figueiredo arrived in the UFC with a pristine 11-0 record and won four more to push his record to 15-0 once he touched down in the Octagon, including consecutive second-round stoppage wins over the previously unbeaten Joseph Morales and former title challenger John Moraga. He lost a decision to Formiga to begin his 2019 campaign, but responded by outworking Alexandre Pantoja at UFC 240 before submitting Tim Elliott to close out the year.
These are the two best flyweights on the roster right now and it will be nice to get the title chase back rolling in the 125-pound weight class this year.