After easing into the New Year with just a single fight card in January, business picks up exponentially in February, as more than 50 pairs of competitors will step into the Octagon at four events, each taking place on a different continent.
Not only does this month feature the usual assortment of matchups between top contenders and emerging talents looking to take another step forward, but it also includes the return of three former champions, each of whom enters into a dangerous matchup with visions of returning to the top of their respective divisions dancing in their heads.
There is also a terrific title fight featuring one of the most underappreciated talents in the sport today.
Here’s a look at some of the outstanding action on tap in the month ahead.
This is The 10 for February 2019.
Charles Oliveira vs. David Teymur
This is one of those contests that really highlights the depth and level of talent that resides in the UFC lightweight division, as both men enter on extended winning streaks, but unranked in the 155-pound weight class.
Oliveira, who is somehow still only 29, has won three straight and four of five since returning to the division in April 2017. Each of those wins has come by way of submission, which has allowed the Brazilian to establish a new record for the most submission wins in UFC history, which he extended last time out when he made quick work of Jim Miller and avenged the first loss of his career.
Across the cage, Teymur has gone 5-0 in the Octagon and carries an eight-fight winning streak into the cage. The Swedish standout has collected consecutive decision wins over Lando Vannata, Drakkar Klose and Nik Lentz to continue his run of success and can make a real statement to start the year by turning back “Do Bronx” in this one.
Jose Aldo vs. Renato Moicano
Back in July, Aldo showed everyone that he’s far from finished by taking out veteran Jeremy Stephens in the opening round of their clash in Calgary. Now the former featherweight champion squares off against his countryman Moicano in a crucial bout with championship implications.
Aldo looked outstanding against Stephens, showcasing the speed and aggressiveness that carried him during his lengthy featherweight title reign while collecting his first stoppage victory in nearly five years. Though he’s no longer the blur of electricity he was during his WEC days or early UFC tenure, the 32-year-old Brazilian remains an elite talent in the 145-pound weight class.
Moicano is kind of the forgotten man in the division — a 29-year-old with a 13-1-1 record overall that includes five wins in six starts inside the Octagon. He’s earned quality wins over Jeremy Stephens, Calvin Kattar and Cub Swanson, whom he finished in the first round last time out, and his lone loss came in a thrilling back-and-forth engagement against Brian Ortega where “T-City” had to pull off one of his patented third-round finishes in order to secure the victory.
This should be an outstanding fight and one that is tremendously instructive when it comes to determining how the top of the featherweight division shapes up as the 2019 campaign gets underway in earnest.
Raphael Assuncao vs. Marlon Moraes
When Moraes matriculated to the UFC after his dominant run under the World Series of Fighting banner, Assuncao was the man tasked with welcoming him to the Octagon. Following 15 minutes of give-and-take, the judges were split, with Assuncao coming away with a narrow victory and both men affirming their standing as elite contenders in the bantamweight ranks.
In the 20 months since their first meeting, both have cemented their place atop the list of prospective title challengers.
Assuncao has added wins over Matthew Lopez and Rob Font to extend his winning streak to four and his overall record in the division to 11-1, while Moraes rebounded by landing on the happy side of a split decision verdict opposite John Dodson before making quick work of Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera.
They are the top two contenders in the division and with former champs Cody Garbrandt and Dominick Cruz currently out of the mix, the winner of this one should be in line to challenge for the bantamweight title later this year.
*Note: this event airs in the standard, Saturday evening pay-per-view time slot in North America
Israel Adesanya vs. Anderson Silva
Well ain’t this an interesting matchup?
Adesanya was one of the breakout stars of 2018, debuting in February with a win over Rob Wilkinson and wrapping up the year with a first-round stoppage victory over Derek Brunson at UFC 230 in New York City. “The Last Stylebender” oozes star potential, offering a rare combination of in-cage abilities and magnetic charisma that has him on the cusp of title contention and quite possibly total and complete world domination.
It’s a position Silva knows well, having occupied the same space for numerous years as he ruled the middleweight ranks. The last several years haven’t been particularly kind to the Brazilian icon, who has managed just a single victory in four starts since his horrific leg injury in his second bout with Chris Weidman.
But Silva remains a massive name with an undeniable mystique and this pairing carries massive opportunities for both parties. If Adesanya wins, he’s toppled a former champion and collected the most high-profile win of his career, while if Silva is victorious, it propels “The Spider” into one last run at the middleweight title.
Either way, this one should be tons of fun.
Robert Whittaker vs. Kelvin Gastelum for the UFC middleweight title
Injuries limited Whittaker to just a single appearance in 2018 and have contributed to people forgetting that the reigning middleweight champion is one of the toughest, most talented fighters on the roster.
In consecutive bouts against Yoel Romero, “The Reaper” has shown grit, heart and a whole bunch of skill in registering a pair of victories over the ultra-athletic Cuban contender. Last year’s triumph at UFC 225 in Chicago pushed Whittaker’s record to 8-0 in the division and extended his winning streak to nine overall.
Now healthy and ready to kick off his 2019 campaign at home in Australia after missing out on the opportunity last year, you can be certain that the 28-year-old champion will be looking to make a statement in this one.
As for Gastelum, he’s looking to join the collection of former Ultimate Fighter winners to rise to the top of their respective divisions and claim championship gold. Once a raw prospect with vast potential, the 27-year-old has found his footing at middleweight and developed into the dangerous, well-rounded threat everyone envisioned during his time as a member of Team Sonnen on Season 17 of the long-running reality TV competition.
Given their ages and elite talents, the UFC 234 main event could be the first of multiple matchups between Whittaker and Gastelum and should be every bit as exciting as the champion’s last two title fight appearances.
Jimmie Rivera vs. Aljamain Sterling
Bantamweight is my pick for the most interesting division in the UFC right now (with lightweight and light heavyweight occupying second and third, in case you were wondering) and a fight like this is exactly why.
After having his incredible 20-fight winning streak snapped in June, Rivera rebounded with a unanimous decision win over John Dodson in September, silencing any whispers that he was set to fall out of contention in the simmering 135-pound weight class.
Six months earlier, Sterling found himself on the wrong end of the results against Moraes, eating a knee to the dome as he dipped in for a takedown that left him out on the canvas. Since then, however, “The Human Anaconda” has responded by handing Brett Johns the first loss of his career and forcing surging newcomer Cody Stamann to tap to a modified kneebar.
Not only is this a clash of two of the division’s best, but it’s also a battle for Tri-State Area supremacy as well, as Rivera reps Team Tiger Schulmann, while Sterling is a member of the Serra-Longo Fight Team.
The winner lays claim to a spot in the Top 5 and puts himself in line for a marquee matchup in the spring, while the loser remains a dangerous presence in the Top 10.
Alex Caceres vs. Kron Gracie
Caceres has been a model of inconsistency since graduating from Season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter, posting a 9-9 record with one no contest while bouncing between featherweight and bantamweight.
He’s never won more than two straight, yet he’s only dropped three-in-a-row once in his career as well, and for every rough outing, there has been an eye-opening counter that makes you wonder if the now 30-year-old enigma is finally figuring things out.
But the inclusion of this fight is all about Gracie.
The 30-year-old is the youngest son of Rickson Gracie, and while he has limited experience, making just four appearances — and none since 2016 — there is reason to be excited about the arrival of the latest member of “The First Family of the UFC” making his debut in the Octagon.
Each of Gracie’s last two victories have come against established names, as he submitted Hideo Tokoro and Tatsuya Kawajiri in back-to-back appearances four months apart while competing under the Rizin banner.
If he is able to bring those same skills with him into the cage in Phoenix and register a debut victory over an experienced, awkward foe like Caceres, there will be a tremendous amount of buzz surrounding the newest Gracie to grace the UFC cage.
Francis Ngannou vs. Cain Velasquez
If this one doesn’t get you all fired up, you might be dead.
Following an embarrassing first seven months of 2018, Ngannou returned with an eye-opening performance in November, knocking out surging contender Curtis Blaydes in 45 seconds to remind everyone of his ferocious power and incredible speed.
Having made changes to his training camp and learned from his disappointing performances against Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis earlier in the year, “The Predator” once again looked like an imposing threat and re-positioned himself in the thick of the title chase heading into this year.
Now he’s set to square off with Velasquez, the oft injured, two-time former champion. When healthy, Velasquez has been one of the most impressive, unstoppable forces in the heavyweight division — a bulldozer with outstanding cardio, quick hands, great wrestling and a punishing top game.
Unfortunately, injuries and general health issues have limited the American Kickboxing Academy product to just four appearances in the last six years and one since losing the heavyweight title to Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188 and that was more than two years ago.
If he’s healthy, Velasquez becomes an automatic contender and an intriguing fighter to follow in 2019... or he could end up being the next man to get knocked into the dark lands by the devastating knockout artist Ngannou.
This is a colossal heavyweight clash and an incredible way to cap the UFC’s first full show on ESPN.
John Dodson vs. Petr Yan
Earlier I said that bantamweight currently stands as the most interesting division in the UFC and Yan is another one of the reasons.
The Russian prospect, who turns 26 a couple weeks prior to the event, didn’t make his Octagon debut until June, yet still ended the year with a 3-0 mark and a place in the Top 15.
After impressing hardcore fans with his two bouts against Magomed Magomedov under the ACB banner, “No Mercy” did the same with UFC loyalists by engaging in a trio of action-packed bouts in 2018, bookending a unanimous decision win over Jin Soo Son between emphatic stoppages of Teruto Ishihara and Douglas Silva de Andrade. Currently riding a six-fight winning streak, he’s one of the most intriguing emerging talents in the entire promotion.
This fight with Dodson is his entrance exam into the Top 10 — the type of tough matchup against an established foe every hopeful has to ace in order to advance to the next stage of their development, and Dodson is a more difficult test than most.
The former Ultimate Fighter winner has alternated wins and losses since moving to bantamweight in 2016, however saying that doesn’t quite paint a complete picture of the Albuquerque native’s time in the 135-pound ranks.
Each of Dodson’s last five fights — two wins and three losses — have gone the distance, with two of those setbacks coming by way of split decision. If one judge saw one round differently in each of his fights against John Lineker and Marlon Moraes, “The Magician” would have carried a five-fight winning streak into his aforementioned bout with Rivera back in September.
He’s an entrenched member of the Top 10 and a difficult puzzle for anyone to solve, so if Yan can complete the task, it will launch the UFC sophomore into the title conversation.
Jan Blachowicz vs. Thiago Santos
Both of these men had transformative years in 2018.
Entering last year on a two-fight winning streak, many wondered if Blachowicz had what it takes to be a legitimate contender in the light heavyweight division. In March, he avenged his earlier career loss to Jimi Manuwa and then in September, he added a second-round submission win over Nikita Krylov to drive home the point that he was very much deserving of a place in the championship chase in the 205-pound weight class.
Santos made five appearances in the Octagon in 2018, starting with a thrilling second-round stoppage win over Anthony Smith before getting knocked out by David Branch 11 weeks later. That loss, coupled with Smith’s immediate success after shifting to light heavyweight got the Brazilian thinking about making a similar move and following a decisive win over Kevin Holland at UFC 227, “Marreta” went up a division and registered two more victories.
First, he earned a stoppage win over Eryk Anders at home in Brazil in September and then he closed out the year by knocking out Manuwa in one of the wildest, most entertaining six-minute fights you’re ever going to see.
Now the two clash in the main event of the UFC’s debut in the Czech Republic with a place in the Top 5 hanging in the balance.
Light heavyweight looks like it will be active and fully of intrigue in 2019 and this is a terrific way to get things started.