The most exciting part of a horse race is when the field reaches the top of the stretch and begins the sprint to the finish line, but those in the know will tell you that the most important moves take place down the backstretch and into the final sweeping turn before the field hits the top of the lane.
That’s what this month’s slate of events feels like to me — the crucial moments leading up to the thrilling stretch drive where everyone is jockeying for position, trying to find their lane and formulate their attack.
While the September slate is headlined by the lightweight title unification bout that tops UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, the other critical matchups this month all take place on the fringes of contention, where the victors will move into position to make a push towards being in the title conversation and those who come up short will fade back into the pack.
Here’s a look at the key fights to watch as the UFC moves towards the home stretch.
This is The 10.
Joanne Calderwood vs. Andrea Lee
With flyweight champion and real-life Bond girl Valentina Shevchenko having dispatched two contenders in three months, there is clearly a need to keep the queue stocked with potential adversaries for “Bullet” and this one is built to elevate the winner into the title conversation.
Calderwood is coming off a narrow loss to No. 2-ranked contender Katlyn Chookagian in June, but won her two appearances prior to that and has looked like a renewed fighter since relocating to Las Vegas and making the full-time move to the 125-pound weight class. As for Lee, she carried a four-fight winning streak with her into her UFC debut and hasn’t missed a beat since matriculating to the Octagon, posting three straight victories to establish herself as a legitimate threat in the 125-pound ranks.
This is a crucial pairing for both women, as Calderwood needs to show she can beat another contender, something she’s struggled with in the past, while Lee takes a step up in competition with designs on continuing her march towards the top of the division.
Islam Makhachev vs. Davi Ramos
The second of four lightweight bouts taking place on Saturday’s main card and the first of three straight pairings in the 155-pound division to close out the show, this is the sneaky-important one of the bunch.
Compact and strong, Ramos has quietly proven to be a dark horse threat in the lightweight ranks — an elite grappler with powerful striking that gets better every time out. After losing his debut on short notice, up in weight, the 32-year-old has rattled off four straight wins to put himself on the doorstep of the Top 15.
Makhachev has garnered much more attention than Ramos during the course of his five-fight winning streak, with the 27-year-old garnering comparisons to his countryman and “big brother,” Khabib Nurmagomedov. The reality is that while Makhachev isn’t as smothering and suffocating as the reigning lightweight champion on the canvas, he’s an excellent grappler in his own right and is dynamic and explosive as well.
Lightweight is brimming with talent, a great deal of which will be on display this month, and so it’s imperative for each of these hopefuls to have a good showing in Abu Dhabi and earn another victory if they hope to take another step up the competitive ladder before the year is out.
Edson Barboza vs. Paul Felder
These two fought for the first time a little over four years ago, with Barboza earning a unanimous decision victory. But as they ready to run it back, the veteran lightweights enter in very different positions than they did in their first encounter.
Barboza wasn’t quite established as a Top 10 fixture the first time around, but he’s entrenched in that position now. However, the Brazilian striker has also dropped three of his last four, leaving many to wonder how much more he’s got left in the tank after a four-year run fighting the division’s elite.
For Felder, that first meeting almost immediately felt like a case of “too much, too soon” as he took the bout after just two appearances inside the Octagon. Over the last three years, the Philadelphia native and UFC analyst has amassed a 6-2 record, including wins over Charles Oliveira and James Vick. In fact, his last undisputable lightweight loss came in that first bout with Barboza.
Much like the flyweight bout between Calderwood and Lee, this lightweight co-main event pairing carries similar importance, as Barboza could use a victory to silence whispers that he’s on the decline and a win over someone as established and tested as the 33-year-old veteran is exactly what Felder needs in order to proves he’s a legitimate contender in the crowded 155-pound division.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Dustin Poirier for the undisputed UFC lightweight title
If you’re not excited for this one, you’re not a fight fan — simple and plain.
Nurmagomedov is an undefeated juggernaut with a suffocating top game and superstar potential, while Poirier is a fight game lifer who has forged a championship career out of a tireless work ethic, incredible resiliency and the sheer force of his conviction.
While no man has been able to defeat Nurmagomedov as of yet, “The Diamond” has forecasted being the first with the kind of icy calm that demands you consider the possibility, and the performances he’s turned in while registering consecutive victories over Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway show he’s got the skills to hang with the best fighters in the world.
But Nurmagomedov has been on a different level than everyone else for some time, delivering the kind of efforts that leave his opponents demoralized and broken, forced to listen as he tells them to quit while grinding them into oblivion.
Can Poirier continue his incredible run and hand “The Eagle” his first career loss or will Nurmagomedov’s unbeaten run continue unimpeded?
Misha Cirkunov vs. Jimmy Crute
Light heavyweight is in the midst of a restocking of sorts as veteran holdovers, divisional transplants and fresh faces continue to shuffle about in the quest to make headway in the division.
In terms of the young, still untested class climbing the ranks, Crute has to be considered amongst the best, as the 23-year-old Australian heads into this one with a 10-0 record and consecutive stoppage wins inside the Octagon. The Contender Series alum submitted Paul Craig in his debut before besting Sam Alvey in less than three minutes last time out, and with a victory here, he should find himself in the Top 15.
Cirkunov started his UFC tenure with four straight wins, but has gone 1-3 over his last four bouts, losing to former title challengers Volkan Oezdemir and Glover Teixeira, as well as surging Brazilian contender Johnny Walker. The Latvian-Canadian is a strong grappler and the kind of seasoned, tested foe who should be able to push Crute and take advantage of any holes that remain in the Australian prospect’s game.
While a spot in the title conversation isn’t on the line in this one, the outcome should help to further delineate things in the 205-pound weight class heading into the final quarter of 2019.
Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje
Do I really need to say anything?
I mean, in one corner, you have the guy with the most wins, most finishes and most bonuses in UFC history — the last true gunslinger left in the sport — and in the other corner, you’ve got a fella who deploys a “kill or be killed” approach in the cage and has garnered six bonuses in five fights.
Israel Adesanya and Kelvin Gastelum set the Fight of the Year bar pretty high with their championship clash at UFC 236, but if anyone is going to top it, my money would be on these two certified savages.
Carla Esparza vs. Alexa Grasso
The strawweight division might boast the most intriguing collection of contenders at the moment, offering an eclectic mix of veterans, upstarts, former champions and fringe names to track, including these two combatants who lock horns later this month in Mexico City.
Esparza occupies a weird position in this division, as she was the inaugural champion, but never defended the belt and has gone 4-3 since, although two of those losses were shaky split decision verdicts that very easily could have gone the other way. Entering off a unanimous decision win over former Invicta FC champ Virna Jandiroba in April, “The Cookie Monster” can further entrench herself in the Top 10 with a second consecutive victory.
After arriving in the UFC with a ton of hype and scoring a decision win in her debut, Grasso went 1-2 in her next three fights, getting passed up in the prospect rankings by Tatiana Suarez before injuries left her sidelined for more than a year. But the 26-year-old returned to action in May and delivered a masterful performance against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, rekindling talk of her championship potential, and if she can replicate that effort against Esparza, the volume on that conversation will get cranked up to 11.
Yair Rodriguez vs. Jeremy Stephens
Last we saw Rodriguez, the Mexican dynamo was hitting Chan Sung Jung with the most ridiculous elbow ever to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at literally the last second of their main event clash last November in Denver. That bout ended an 18-month hiatus and showed that the former TUF Latin America star is still one of the most electric prospects on the UFC roster.
Now he steps back in with another veteran in Stephens, who has dropped two straight, but remains a dangerous, established presence in the middle of the featherweight rankings.
People tend to cringe when the word “gatekeeper” gets used, but that’s precisely what the 33-year-old is at this point — he’s between the 6th and 10th best featherweight in the division and the “level boss” you have to beat in order to advance to facing the “big boss” at the end of the game.
This one was always going to be full of excitement, but fighting in front of a raucous crowd at Mexico City Arena will make this one even more spectacular.
Nicolas Dalby vs. Alex Oliveira
A longtime fan favorite, Dalby makes his return to the Octagon in an immediate “see where you fit” fight with the ever-ready, ever-dangerous Oliveira.
Dalby’s first stint in the UFC began with a split decision victory over Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos that pushed his record to 14-0. He followed it up with a come-from-behind majority draw with Darren Till where he showed his heart and resilience. He lost his next two fights, got released and fell into a deep depression, which led to battles with alcohol.
But after dropping a split decision to Carlo Pedersoli Jr. in his return to the cage, the Danish standout ripped off three straight stoppages, claiming the Cage Warriors interim welterweight title before he and Ross Houston engaged in their bloody “Champion vs. Champion” clash that ended in a no contest in June.
Healthy, focused and fighting the way he did at the outset of his career, Dalby has a chance to prove he’s a viable threat in the welterweight division in this showdown with the durable and exciting Oliveira.
The Brazilian “Cowboy” has logged 15 appearances in a little more than four years on the UFC roster, earning nine victories and a reputation for being a tough out. If Stephens is the epitome of a gatekeeper, Oliveira is his junior-level associate ¬— a guy who hasn’t been able to consistently crack the Top 15, but serves as the litmus test for anyone with designs on doing so.
Jack Hermansson vs. Jared Cannonier
More than any other bout on this list, the middleweight main event in Denmark exemplifies the idea I was talking about off the top, as the winner isn’t going to be next in line to challenge for the title, but will set himself up nicely as fall turns to winter.
Over the last two years, Hermansson has gone from living just outside the Top 15 to residing in the Top 5 thanks to a four-fight winning streak that includes first-round submission wins over Gerald Meerschaert and David Branch and a steely decision win over Jacare Souza. The former Cage Warriors champion has won six of his last seven and has proven himself to be one of the more well-rounded talents in the division.
The UFC’s “Incredible Shrinking Man,” Cannonier started his career at heavyweight, dropped to light heavyweight for five fights, and then moved to middleweight, where he’s earned consecutive stoppage wins over Branch and Anderson Silva to enter the Top 10. Although he’s 35, Cannonier got a late start in the sport and therefore hasn’t accumulated the kind of wear and tear most fighters his age have built up, making him arguably the most intriguing contender in the middleweight ranks at the moment.
Last month featured a No. 1 contender bout in the 185-pound weight class and next month kicks off with the title unification tilt between Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya, but don’t overlook the importance of this one in figuring out how things stack up in the middleweight division going forward.