You’re going to think I’m weird (or weirder than you already thought), but writing this series is one of the things I’ve missed the most over the last few months.
Yes, I’ve missed hanging out with friends and going out for dinner and all of those things most people have lamented, but there is something about sitting down to put together this snapshot of the upcoming month that always invigorated me.
Sitting down to write this month’s return has hit me with that same jolt of energy, plus a little bit of the feels because, for me, this is another step towards normalcy and it’s really nice to be back thinking about a full month of mapped out events.
It’s also pretty easy to get excited given the slate of fights on tap this month as the UFC takes up residence on Fight Island for four events.
This is the July 2020 edition of The 10.
UFC 251: Usman vs. Burns
Saturday, July 11
Jessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas
A rematch of the UFC 237 championship clash that saw Andrade unseat Namajunas from the strawweight throne, this second go-round between the former titleholders could determine who is next in line to challenge reigning champ Zhang Weili.
This will be the first appearance for each woman since losing the title, as Namajunas hasn’t competed since last May and Andrade has been out since dropping the belt to the current titleholder last August in a bout that lasted just 42 seconds. While there is less than a minute of new footage to examine since their first encounter, this one isn’t so much about what they’ve done differently since that contest as much as it is a chance to see what adjustments each will make when they share the Octagon together for a second time.
Andrade won the first bout after elevating Namajunas and slamming her to the canvas roughly three minutes into the second round. She had attempted to do so earlier in the frame, but was forced to return the then-champion to the canvas as Namajunas worked on a kimura trap. Soon after, Andrade tried for a second time and found success, claiming the strawweight title with a vicious slam knockout.
What doesn’t show up in the final results, however, is that Namajunas dominated the first round, using her smooth, fluid striking and quality footwork to piece up Andrade from the outside. Through the first five minutes, it appeared like the champion was set to coast to another successful title defense, only to have Andrade make the necessary adjustments to get inside, scoop Namajunas into the air, and slam her to the canvas.
More than a year later and with roughly eight minutes of experience against one another to draw from, what will a second meeting between the two look like on July 11? Can Namajunas stick her jab consistently and keep Andrade at range or will the powerful Brazilian once again find a way to close the distance and demonstrate her strength in close quarters?
I can’t wait to find out the answer to those questions.
Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo for the vacant UFC bantamweight title
Henry Cejudo surprised everyone when he announced his retirement following his second-round stoppage victory over Dominick Cruz at UFC 249, paving the way for Yan and Aldo to battle it out for the vacant bantamweight strap on Yas Island.
The Brazilian legend was originally supposed to be the one sharing the Octagon with Cejudo this summer but was pulled from the bout due to visa issues. He was a surprise choice as a title challenger given that he landed on the wrong side of a split decision verdict in his divisional debut opposite Marlon Moraes last December, however there is no denying that Aldo is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and in the rare class of competitors who can merit a championship opportunity on pedigree.
Yan arrived in the UFC two years ago and has been laser-focused on fighting for championship gold from Day One, racking up six straight wins inside the Octagon and nine consecutive victories overall to cement his standing as one of the top bantamweights in the world. The confident Russian enters this one off a third-round stoppage win over Urijah Faber, eager to add another legendary figure to his list of vanquished foes.
Aldo looked good in his fight with Moraes, going shot-for-shot with his countryman in a close bout that many believed he deserved to win, and his “big fight” experience should, in theory, serve him well here. Meanwhile, Yan has encountered very little resistance since arriving in the UFC but is stepping into a five-round championship fight with the pressure of being the favorite resting on his shoulders.
Whomever emerges as the new bantamweight champion won’t have much time to celebrate and savor the moment though, as Aljamain Sterling is waiting in the wings to face the winner following his outstanding performance last month at UFC 250.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway for the UFC featherweight title
Last December, Volkanovski walked into the cage and delivered a masterful performance to wrestle the featherweight title away from Holloway, attacking his lead leg right out of the chute and never relenting, ultimately leading to the Australian collecting the victory with scores of 48-47, 48-47, and 50-45.
Now they’re set to run it back, and much like the bout between Andrade and Namajunas, the excitement about this rematch is in seeing if the champion can replicate his effort and how the challenger will respond.
Volkanovski doesn’t get enough credit for the success he’s enjoyed in the UFC. The former rugby man is 8-0 with a host of lopsided, dominant victories, including handing Jeremy Kennedy the first loss of his career, bludgeoning Darren Elkins, sending Chad Mendes into retirement, and becoming the first man to beat Holloway at featherweight in more than six years. The champion is a compact bundle of strength with tremendous cardio, and profiles as the kind of guy who could very well enjoy a lengthy reign over the 145-pound weight class given what he’s done thus far.
For the first time since his bout against Anthony Pettis at UFC 206, Holloway will stride to the cage without UFC gold in his possession, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the Hawaiian standout responds to losing the belt he held, in full or in part, since that December evening in Toronto. Holloway had his moments in the first encounter but didn’t have an effective answer for Volkanovski’s low kicks and forward pressure, the latter of which is usually a staple of his own offensive game.
It sounds simple, but this one is going to come down to who dictates the pace and who is the one doing the pressuring. Volkanovski has thrived throughout his entire UFC run on coming forward and drowning his opponents with relentless pressure, and Holloway is at his best when he’s leading the dance, so don’t be surprised if these two spend the opening round battling to be the one advancing.
Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns for the UFC welterweight title
Longtime friends and training partners, Usman and Burns are putting their personal relationship aside in order to throw down to determine who is the top welterweight in the world.
After claiming the title with a dominant victory over Tyron Woodley in March, Usman successfully defended the belt in a hard-fought, back-and-forth grudge match against Colby Covington at UFC 245. Over the course of the 24-minute affair, the champion showcased his heart and toughness, as well as the impressive conditioning that he has been known for throughout his UFC run, ultimately earning the stoppage in the final minute of the fight.
Burns has been an absolute revelation since making the permanent move to welterweight last summer, posting four straight victories to secure this opportunity. A world-class grappler, the Brazilian has demonstrated improved striking and a more aggressive style during his time in the 170-pound weight class, most recently pitching a shutout against Woodley.
At this point, it feels like Burns is playing with house money. The challenger wasn’t ranked at lightweight this time last year and only cracked the welterweight Top 10 in March following his first-round stoppage win over Demian Maia. Now, just a handful of weeks after defeating Woodley, he’s fighting for championship gold against an opponent he knows exceptionally well, with the chance to cinch up Fighter of the Year honors with a victory.
Much like Volkanovski, Usman’s overall success in the UFC doesn’t get enough recognition, but he’s 11-0 inside the Octagon and has shown, especially over his last two outings, that he is a truly elite talent. He’s won 15 consecutive fights overall and while Burns has been red hot as of late and carries a ton of momentum into this one, Usman has consistently been able to impose his will on the opposition and back up his claim to being the best welterweight on the planet every time out.
There are a ton of entertaining and compelling fights lined up for the month of July, but this is the one I’m looking forward to the most.
UFC Fight Night: Kattar vs. Ige
Wednesday, July 15
Pedro Munhoz vs. Frankie Edgar
Originally scheduled to make his bantamweight debut at the start of the year, Edgar will finally make his first foray into the 135-pound ranks here in a matchup against the divisional stalwart Munhoz.
A former lightweight champion and perennial featherweight contender, Edgar arrives in the bantamweight division on a two-fight skid and having earned just a single victory since the middle of 2017. He was stopped early in two of his last four outings, but went the distance with Holloway last summer, showing that he’s still capable of hanging with elite talent.
Munhoz has been a fixture in the division for the last seven years, spending the last several years stationed inside the Top 10 and serving as the dangerous threat in the middle of the rankings that championship hopefuls need to defeat in order to climb further up the competitive ladder. After beginning his UFC run with only one victory in his first four starts, the Brazilian has gone 7-2 over his last nine, including stoppage wins over Rob Font, Bryan Caraway, and Cody Garbrandt.
All eyes will be on Edgar in this one, as people look to see if the constant championship contender and former titleholder can instantly establish himself as a player in a third division or if his recent lack of success has been a sign that Father Time is starting to catch up to “The Answer.” Munhoz is a perfect opponent for Edgar’s divisional debut in every way, and how this one plays out should provide a great deal of clarity on where Edgar fits in the division.
Calvin Kattar vs. Dan Ige
Neither of these featherweight hopefuls have any interest on resting on their laurels, as just a handful weeks after registering the biggest wins of their respective careers, both Kattar and Ige were quick to sign on the dotted line and face each other in this crucial main event matchup.
After dropping a unanimous decision to Zabit Magomedsharipov last November in Russia, Kattar got back into the win column at the start of May when he threw his name in the “Knockout of the Year” race by stopping Jeremy Stephens in the second round. The 32-year-old member of the New England Cartel has now earned finishes in each of his last four victories and is seeking to cement his place in the featherweight pecking order by posting a second win in three months.
A week after Kattar stopped Stephens, Ige edged out former lightweight standout Edson Barboza in a tooth-and-nail tilt in Jacksonville, Florida. Regardless of how you scored the fight, it was apparent throughout that the Hawaiian’s days of being an unheralded figure in the featherweight division were over as he went shot-for-shot with the far more experienced Brazilian.
Coming just a handful of days after the championship rematch between Volkanovski and Holloway and without a clear and obvious No. 1 contender seated atop the rankings, this is a pivotal matchup when it comes to positioning in the 145-pound weight class and should be a banger from the get-go.
UFC Fight Night: Figueiredo vs. Benavidez II
Saturday, July 18
Alexandre Pantoja vs. Askar Askarov
The focus of this card is on the flyweight division and before the main event participants run it back to determine the new king of the 125-pound weight class, Pantoja and Askarov will go toe-to-toe in a clash of contenders jockeying for position in the championship chase.
Pantoja has been excellent since arriving in the UFC following his time on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter, where he was the top seed in the 16-man tournament and advanced to the semifinals. The 30-year-old Brazilian has gone 6-2 inside the Octagon, with victories over Neil Seery, Brandon Moreno, and Wilson Reis. After losing to Deiveson Figueiredo last summer in a Fight of the Night-winning tilt, “The Cannibal” closed out the year with a first-round knockout win over Matt Schnell, earning a second straight bonus in the process.
Askarov has quickly and quietly established himself as someone to watch in the 125-pound weight class, battling Moreno to a draw in his debut before dominating former title challenger Tim Elliott in his sophomore appearance earlier this year. Undefeated in a dozen professional appearances, the 27-year-old Russian fought a quality slate on the regional circuit prior to joining the UFC and now he gets the opportunity to show he’s one of the very best flyweights in the world in this bout with Pantoja.
The winner of this one will be in excellent position within the division heading into the second half of the year, especially given that both have already shared the cage with Moreno, who currently sits at No. 3 in the rankings, one spot ahead of Pantoja and four spots north of Askarov. “The Assassin Baby” and streaking Alex Perez are the only two contenders ahead of this tandem, so the victor could find himself in a three-man race for a championship opportunity, especially if things end in dramatic fashion here.
Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Joseph Benavidez for the vacant UFC flyweight title
These two flyweight standouts met to determine who would claim the throne abdicated by Henry Cejudo for the first time in February, but nothing was formally resolved as Figueiredo missed weight, eliminating himself from the opportunity to win the vacant title. In the cage the following evening, the Brazilian earned a second-round stoppage victory, however the finishing sequence was kicked off by an inadvertent clash of heads that clearly impacted Benavidez.
Now here we are, five months later, ready to do it all over again.
Figueiredo has lost just once in his career — a unanimous decision setback against Jussier Formiga in March 2019 — and was adamant that he was going to dominate Benavidez ahead of their first meeting. While he certainly looked very good at times, the greater focus going into this rematch will be on his weight, as he was two-and-a-half pounds over the championship limit in February and a tough cut is likely to have an impact on his performance the following evening.
It was difficult not to feel for Benavidez following the first bout between these two, as he did everything that was asked of him over the six years since his second title loss to Demetrious Johnson in order to secure another shot at championship gold, including posting a 9-1 record and rebounding from a torn ACL. Then, Figueiredo misses weight and early in the second round, they clash heads and the Brazilian chases down a finish.
The only thing missing from Benavidez’ resume is a championship victory and this could very well be his final chance to cross that accomplishment off his professional bucket list. Hopefully the sequel goes off without any of the drama and complications of the original and we get to see the ultra-competitive, fast-paced championship fight everyone was eager to see in February.
UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Till
Saturday, July 25
Fabricio Werdum vs. Alexander Gustafsson
A former champion looking to snap a two-fight skid after a rusty showing back in the spring locks up with a perennial light heavyweight contender making his return to the cage up a division as Werdum welcomes Gustafsson to the heavyweight ranks.
Werdum returned to the Octagon at the start of May after serving a two-year suspension, dropping a split decision to Aleksei Oleinik at UFC 249. The former heavyweight kingpin started slowly but rallied down the stretch to make it a close fight on the scorecards, which raises the level of intrigue as he readies for his second bout of the year.
Gustafsson pressed pause on his career following his submission loss to Anthony Smith at home in Stockholm last summer; it was his second consecutive stoppage loss and fifth defeat in eight fights dating all the way back to his first meeting with Jon Jones. But now “The Mauler” is returning, shifting up to heavyweight where his speed and technical striking could make him an interesting addition to the division.
This fight is the rare case where it’s difficult to know what to expect from either man. Werdum looked sluggish to start his bout with Oleinik, then found another gear later, making you wonder if he just needed to shake off the rust or if he took the lumbering Russian lightly? As for Gustafsson, it’s been more than three years since his last victory and while a heavyweight renaissance isn’t out of the question, he first needs to show that he’s rekindled the fire that made him a perennial title contender in the 205-pound ranks first.
Robert Whittaker vs. Darren Till
Middleweights eager to stake a claim to a title shot in the not too distant future clash here as the former champ Whittaker returns for the first time since losing his belt to take on Till, who is making his sophomore appearance in the UFC’s 185-pound weight class.
Last we saw Whittaker, he was getting the business end of things in his title unification bout against Israel Adesanya at UFC 243. The loss was his first since moving to the division and snapped a nine-fight winning streak for “The Reaper,” who had previously won back-to-back grueling battles against Yoel Romero to establish himself as the top man in the middleweight ranks.
Originally positioned to face Jared Cannonier at UFC 248, Whittaker withdrew from the bout, eventually disclosing that he was suffering from burnout and had pressed pause on training. Now ready to return, it will be interesting to see what a refreshed version of the former champion looks like at the end of the month.
Till made his UFC middleweight debut towards the end of last year, edging out Kelvin Gastelum in a hotly contested clash at UFC 244. The victory snapped the Liverpool man’s two-fight slide and instantly propelled him into the championship race, and a victory in this one could move him to the top of the list of contenders as the company embarks on the final five months of the 2020 campaign.
Both men have a great deal to prove in this one, which should make it a spirited affair from the outset. Though he’s lost just once since relocating to the 185-pound weight class, Whittaker was outgunned and stopped by Adesanya and needs to show he’s got the hunger back, while Till could use a statement performance to really separate himself from the rest of the pack chasing “The Last Stylebender” at the moment.
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