Welcome to the home stretch!
It may be getting colder out, but one of the things that makes this time of year a highlight for me is that the final three months of the UFC calendar are always packed with events and myriad compelling fights and this month is no different. The next four weeks feature events that include a Fight of the Year contender, a pair of bouts with championship ramifications and a collection of prospects that everyone should be paying close attention to as 2019 winds down returning to the cage.
Here’s a more detailed look at my favorite fights in the month ahead.
This is The 10 for October 2019.
Al Iaquinta vs. Dan Hooker
Over the last two and a half years, Hooker has turned himself into a must-see competitor in the lightweight division thanks to a series of punishing finishes and a gutsy, “too tough for his own good” loss to Edson Barboza last December. Along the way, the City Kickboxing representative and former featherweight has emerged as a dark horse contender in the deep 155-pound weight class, posting a 5-1 record heading into this crucial co-main event showdown with Iaquinta.
While Hooker has climbed the charts in the last couple years, the former TUF finalist has solidified his position as one of the numerous tough outs and talented competitors who make up the lightweight Top 10. Although he’s just 1-2 over the last 18 months, those losses came on the cards to Khabib Nurmagomedov — on 24 hours’ notice — and Donald Cerrone, with a victory over Kevin Lee sandwiched in between.
What makes this such an attractive pairing to me is that forecasting how it plays out is difficult, as both men are keen to take their lumps in order to land shots of their own and there are no real key advantage points on either side. Hooker is the more proven finisher, but Iaquinta has never been stopped due to strikes. Iaquinta has faced and beaten more top competition, but can you really discount Hooker’s chances given what he’s done since returning to lightweight?
This is one of those “I guess we’re just going to have to tune in and see how it all plays out” deals that should also work as the perfect appetizer to the tasty middleweight main course.
Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya for the undisputed UFC middleweight title
This is my favorite fight of the year and one I have been looking forward to since Adesanya claimed the interim middleweight title in April.
I genuinely think people forget how good Whittaker is because he’s been snake-bitten with injuries over the last couple years and they’ve always come at the absolute worst time, but the guy is 8-0 since moving to middleweight and enters off back-to-back thrilling battles against Yoel Romero.
He’s fundamentally sound, tough as nails and shown incredible resiliency in battling through rough patches against Romero and the various serious ailments that have slowed his momentum at times, and after missing out on his first two opportunities to defend his title at home, you can be sure he’s going to be extra hyped once he finally makes that walk in front of more than 55,000 people this weekend.
And then there is Adesanya, who showed in his interim title win over Kelvin Gastelum that in addition to having style and panache, he’s also got a ton of heart, a steely resolve and the tenacity to endure a slugfest and still find a little more when he needs it most. Now 17-0 overall, the Nigerian-born, New Zealand-based standout has the opportunity to complete one of the most impressive two-year runs in UFC history this weekend by toppling Whittaker and unifying the middleweight titles and he’d still have almost half a year to add to his accomplishments before officially reaching the start of Year Three.
Once the introductions are done, just go ahead and move yourself to the edge of your seat and get comfortable — this one is going to be special.
Mackenzie Dern vs. Amanda Ribas
Just four months after giving birth to her daughter, Dern will make her return to the Octagon against Ribas in a crucial clash between rising stars in the strawweight division.
A decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor whose transition to MMA has garnered an abundance of attention, the 26-year-old Dern edged out Ashley Yoder in her promotional debut at UFC 222, then returned two months later to make quick work of Amanda Cooper at UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro. Now 7-0 as a professional, this feels like the point where any of the questions that remain about Dern will start to be answered as she’s returning to a dangerous matchup and could find herself thrust into the Top 15 mix with another impressive effort here.
After nearly three full years without a fight, Ribas made a major impression in her UFC debut, walking into the Octagon with a smile on her face and defeating Emily Whitmire at the end of June. The American Top Team representative showed outstanding control on the ground and an ability to patiently work for the finish, establishing herself as someone to keep close tabs on going forward.
This one sets up as an elimination bout of sorts, where the winner becomes the young grappling standout that gets a push in 2020, although the loser won’t cede too much ground given their respective pedigrees and overall potential.
Cub Swanson vs. Kron Gracie
When the dust settles in this one, we’re going to have a much better understanding of where each of these men are at in their respective careers and how that factors into the hierarchy in the featherweight division.
There are going to be people who automatically want to dismiss the 35-year-old Swanson because he enters on a four-fight losing streak, but that would be a mistake as those losses have all come against a pair of title challengers, a proven Top 10 stalwart and an up-and-coming contender. “Killer Cub” has bounced back from rough spots before and has a considerable edge in experience and is a complete fighter who could certainly spoil Gracie’s sophomore appearance in the Octagon.
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting Gracie to look as good as he did in his promotional debut back in February, where he calmly sauntered into the cage, climbed on Alex Caceres’ back, kicked off the fence and choked him out. I was blown away and have been waiting to see what he does for an encore ever since.
This is a step up in competition and he’ll need to wade through some quick, sharp punches in order to make this a grappling match, but given what he’s done thus far in his relatively brief, but impressive MMA career, the possibility that Gracie is just a next-level grappler who suffocates opponents and imposes his will on them without much resistance is one that cannot be dismissed.
Will Swanson get back into the win column by showing the second-generation submission ace isn’t quite ready to move into the Top 15 or can Gracie continue to dominate and put himself in a position to make a serious run at contention in 2020 with a second straight UFC win?
Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Michelle Waterson
Three different women have sat upon the strawweight throne in 2019 and these two veterans are set to battle it out in hopes of being the one to challenge newly crowned champion Weili Zhang when she defends her title for the first time.
Jedrzejczyk hasn’t fought since her failed bid to claim the flyweight title last December at UFC 231 in Toronto. The former champion is just 1-3 in her last four fights and this one feels like a referendum on where she stands in the division she once dominated, as win puts her right back into the thick of the title chase, but a loss will leave everyone wondering what she has left in the tank.
There was a push within the MMA community for Waterson to get a title shot following her win over Karolina Kowalkiewicz back in March as the victory pushed her winning streak to three, but it didn’t come to pass. But a victory over Jedrzejczyk in Tampa, coupled with Tatiana Suarez’ injury issues, could put the veteran fan favorite in a position to challenge for the title in 2020.
Strawweight has been in a fluid state since Jedrzejczyk was dethroned two years ago and this is a chance for these two women to solidify their places in the hierarchy heading into next year.
Maycee Barber vs. Gillian Robertson
As intrigued as I am by the Dern-Ribas fight in Tampa, this clash between Barber and Robertson piques my interest even more.
The 21-year-old Barber has a stated goal of being the youngest UFC champion in history, complete with a countdown clock synched to the day she’ll be older than Jon Jones was when he claimed the light heavyweight title. After beginning her UFC tenure with a second-round win over Hannah Cifers at strawweight, Barber moved up to flyweight and took some lumps early against JJ Aldrich before rallying to stop the surging TUF alum back in March.
Less than two years into her time as a member of the UFC roster, the 24-year-old Robertson has already posted four wins in five starts, all of which have been finishes. She’s responded to her submission loss to Mayra Bueno Silva with a pair of dominant performances, continues to show improvements each time out, and yet somehow enters this one ranked several spots behind Barber.
Neither is quite ready to be considered a contender at this point of their respective careers, but this one will go a long way to identifying who is closer to cracking the Top 10 and just how much upside each one has as a prospect going forward. Both women are driven, tenacious competitors and this one has the potential to steal the show in Boston.
Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens
Let’s be honest: the notion that 45-fight veteran Jeremy Stephens would be scared to fight anyone is laughable, as is the idea that the 33-year-old was looking for a way out after clearly getting poked in the eye when these two shared the cage for 15 seconds last month in Mexico City.
The fact that things played out the way they did and this has become a heated feud rather than just a tremendous fight make these even more of a must-see matchup than it was the first time around, but the elements that made their main event clash in Mexico City such a compelling contest remain.
Rodriguez is a sublime talent whose only loss in the UFC came in a matchup against Frankie Edgar when “El Pantera” was still in the developmental stage of his career. While he’s far from a finished product, Rodriguez showed toughness and resolve in his last-second win over Chan Sung Jung and has the kind of explosive, inventive style that makes him a threat to anyone that stands across the cage from him.
Stephens is now winless in three starts, but much like I said with Swanson earlier, it’s hard to fault him too much because he caught a body blow from Jose Aldo after having the Brazilian legend on the ropes and dropped a decision to rising star Zabit Magomedsharipov after that. He remains the perfect “Entrance Exam” all aspiring contenders need to pass in order to move into the upper echelon of the featherweight ranks and could certainly remind Rodriguez of the lesson Edgar taught him in Dallas at UFC 211.
Dominick Reyes vs. Chris Weidman
Occasionally a fight comes along that just feels like the right pairing at the exact right time because of the lingering questions surrounding both competitors and this is one of those times.
Weidman finally makes the move to light heavyweight after finishing his run at middleweight with just a single victory in his last five fights. Each of those losses came by way of stoppage and even the bout he won against Kelvin Gastelum featured some dicey moments for the former champion. We’ve seen less accomplished competitors thrive after making a similar change over the last couple years and now we’ll find out how much of Weidman’s struggles had to do with depleting himself to make the 185-pound limit and if he too can discover new life in a new division.
After becoming a viral sensation on the regional circuit and making quick work of his first three UFC opponents, Reyes’ momentum and progress up the divisional ladder has slowed a little over his last two fights, decision wins over Ovince Saint Preux and Volkan Oezdemir. Many believed he lost the bout with Oezdemir and this matchup affords him an opportunity to render those objections mute by taking out an even bigger name in his first main event assignment.
With Jon Jones continuing to dispatch challengers and no clear cut No. 1 contender standing at the ready, a big effort from either man should put them in front and center in any discussion about potential title challengers heading into the final two months of the year.
Cyril Gane vs. Don’Tale Mayes
Here’s the thing: Gane is one of those dudes that you just have to make a point to watch because he’s got a little of that Francis Ngannou to him and not just because he trains out of the same gym in Paris as “The Predator.”
There are just some fighters who come along where you can tell at first glance that there is something different about them and Gane is one of those guys. He dominated in his three fights under the TKO banner and showed in his UFC debut that he’s more fundamentally sound, more fluid and more well-rounded than your typical six-foot-five heavyweight with a history of knocking people out.
Mayes is the only man to fight on all three seasons of the Contender Series and each time out, the heavyweight prospect looked better and better. Since losing to Allen Crowder in Season 1, the 27-year-old has gone 4-0, alternating regional circuit victories with Contender Series wins over Mitchell Sipe and Ricardo Prasel to finally make his way onto the UFC roster.
Both are big, powerful heavyweight prospects with unknown ceilings at this point, which makes this a crucial pairing as both look to make their marks and position themselves for greater opportunities in 2020.
Demian Maia vs. Ben Askren
If you’re a grappling enthusiast, this is Christmas come early because while matchups between two groundfighting experts can often result in ugly kickboxing matches where neither wants to commit to a shot or get shown up on the canvas, Maia and Askren could very well agree to start each round on the ground just because they’re each so confident in their own skills and always look to play to their strengths.
Not to keep going back to my previous point about Cub Swanson, but Maia is a perfect example of why counting a veteran out after a couple losses is a colossal mistake. Heading into this year, everyone was ready to send the Brazilian standout out to pasture after three straight losses to Tyron Woodley, Colby Covington, and Kamaru Usman, but Maia has responded with a submission win over Lyman Good and a decision victory over the surging Anthony Rocco Martin to show he’s still got something left in the tank.
As for Askren, each of his first two trips into the Octagon have been memorable, but probably not in the way that he would like, as his debut ended in controversial fashion and his sophomore appearance lasted just five seconds. To his credit, the curly-haired grappler has handled it all with aplomb and continued to pursue tough matchups like this, proving at the very least that he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way in order to prove he’s deserving of a place in the Top 10.