Most of North America has turned into the ice planet Hoth.
Despite the days starting to get longer, it’s still cold and dark and windy and cold (yes, I know I said cold twice; that’s how much I dislike the cold) most days and so we all have to find comfort and warmth and joy in simple things like the fact that the month of March begins on a Friday this year.
Why is that something to be excited about, you ask?
With the first of the month falling on a Friday, that means there are five Saturdays in March and every single one of them features a UFC fight card loaded with exciting matchups, emerging prospects and intriguing contests.
The calendar is so packed with goodness this month that this column could easily be a double feature, if not a three-part epic, given that all 12 fights headed into the Octagon this weekend in Las Vegas art UFC 235 are interesting for one reason or another.
But alas, it’s not The 20 or The 30, so I’ve had to whittle things down to the fights that really make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up the most and believe me — it wasn’t easy leaving some of the terrific matchups on tap off this list.
After much thought and many revisions, here’s a look at the most exciting, intriguing, compelling fights coming your way in the month ahead.
This is The 10.
Jeremy Stephens vs. Zabit Magomedsharipov
Through his first four fights inside the Octagon, Magomedsharipov has validated the hype and proven himself to be one of the top rising stars in the UFC, showcasing an exciting arsenal of weapons and elite upside. So far, the only thing missing is a signature victory over an established, veteran opponent.
And they don’t make ’em much more established than Stephens.
Although he’s still only 32 years old, Saturday’s bout will be Stephens’ 30th fight in the UFC, making him just the third man to make that many appearances in the Octagon. He was in fine form prior to losing to Jose Aldo last summer in Calgary, but even then, the “Lil Heathen” had the former champion hurt before the Brazilian rallied to get the finish.
This is the step up and stern test that everyone has been waiting for Magomedsharipov to take and his performance on Saturday will go a long way to determine how far he may climb in the featherweight ranks and how quickly he might get there.
Will the veteran bounce back and stamp out the hot prospect’s scorching start or will the up-and-comer continue marching towards the top of the 145-pound weight class?
Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz
Saturday’s pay-per-view opener is a massive fight for both men, but for completely opposite reasons.
Garbrandt returns for the first time since his second loss to TJ Dillashaw, searching for his first win since claiming the bantamweight title at UFC 207. After 11 consecutive victories to start his career, “No Love” is now staring down the barrel of a three-fight skid if he can’t recapture the form that carried him to the top of the division in the first place.
Munhoz, on the other hand, is looking to finally make the jump from being a respected fixture in the middle of the Top 10 to a full-blown contender by knocking off the former titleholder and extending his winning streak to three.
This is a terrific fight because Munhoz is one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division, boasting clean, sharp boxing and an outstanding ground game, so Garbrandt will have to be at his best in order to get back into the win column and reaffirm his standing as one of the best fighters in the bantamweight ranks.
Robbie Lawler vs. Ben Askren
Back after spending the entirety of 2018 on the sidelines after suffering an ACL injury in his last fight, Lawler gets the call to welcome Askren to the Octagon for the first time in what should be an interesting clash of styles from the moment the fight begins.
Askren is one of the best wrestlers in the game, while Lawler has thrived off stopping takedowns and making people pay for getting in close with him, so it will be interesting to see whose strength wins out when they get to clinching. The other interesting wrinkle here is that while Lawler has been rehabbing a knee injury, he actually fought more recently than Askren, who called it a career following his November 2017 win over Shinya Aoki.
The former Bellator and ONE Championships champion has long professed that he’s the best welterweight in the world and always wanted the opportunity to prove himself on the biggest stage in the sport.
Will he maintain his unbeaten record and make good on his many boasts or will the former welterweight champion hand him the first loss of his career and show that Askren isn’t as good as he believes he is?
Tyron Woodley vs. Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title
Coming off his most dominant effort since winning the welterweight title, Woodley continues his “Everyone Can Get It” Tour with a showdown against Usman, who has gone 9-0 in the UFC.
Woodley, who wants to be regarded as the greatest welterweight of all time, is unbeaten in his last seven and has earned four consecutive successful title defenses. “The Chosen One” made quick work of Darren Till back in September, bouncing him from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Usman is undefeated in the Octagon and carries a 13-fight winning streak into his first title shot, looking to build off his unanimous decision win over former lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos three months ago. “The Nigerian Nightmare” has used his strong wrestling, high pace and steadily improving hands to rattle off win after win, but Woodley has never looked better, and knocking the champion from his throne will be a tough task.
Jon Jones vs. Anthony Smith for the UFC light heavyweight title
Jones makes the second fastest turnaround of his career, returning to the Octagon just 63 days after dispatching Alexander Gustafsson to reclaim the light heavyweight title he never lost in competition to put that belt on the line against the surging Smith in Saturday night’s main event.
“Bones” took a measured, patient approach to finishing “The Mauler” in their rematch at UFC 232, finally opening up with his offense in the final two minutes of the second round before putting his foe away early in the third. It was a sharp reminder of how gifted Jones is inside the cage and put him in a position to resume his domination of the division.
Smith’s ascent is one of the best feel-good stories in quite some time, as the former middleweight journeyman moved up to light heavyweight last spring and rattled off three straight stoppage victories to secure a shot at UFC gold. Tough as nails, gritty as can be and extremely battle-tested, “Lionheart” is a considerable underdog, but isn’t the kind of guy who is going to be overwhelmed by the moment and fade when things get tough.
This is an incredibly intriguing and compelling contest and how it shakes out will shape what happens in the division for the rest of the year.
Derrick Lewis vs. Junior Dos Santos
This one is going to be tense from the second it starts, as Lewis and “Cigano” are two of the biggest power hitters in the heavyweight division and both will have sledgehammers with the other man’s name on them chambered and ready to fire right out of the chute.
Lewis is returning for the first time since his championship fight with Daniel Cormier at UFC 230 in New York City. While “The Black Beast” landed on the wrong side of the results, he’s still 9-2 in his last 11 bouts after beginning his UFC career with one win in his first three starts and he showed in his “Hail Mary” win over Alexander Volkov that all he needs is to land one shot in order to secure a victory.
As for Dos Santos, his return to being a title contender was one of the better second half stories of 2018, as the former champion registered a unanimous decision win over Blagoy Ivanov before heading to Adelaide and handing Tai Tuivasa the first loss of his career. After finally snapping his streak of alternating wins and losses, the Brazilian standout will look to make it three-in-a-row by handing Lewis a second consecutive loss.
While things at the top of the heavyweight division are uncertain at the moment, there is no question that the winner of this one will be among a handful of fighters jockeying for position in the title chase heading into the second quarter of the 2019 campaign.
Leon Edwards vs. Gunnar Nelson
This is my favorite terrific fight that no one is really talking about this month; a clash between the surging and still unheralded Edwards and the talented, but mercurial Nelson.
Since dropping a decision to Usman a little more than three years ago, the
27-year-old Edwards has put together a six-fight winning streak that includes unanimous decision victories over Vicente Luque, Bryan Barberena and Donald Cerrone. “Rocky” has shown steady improvement with each appearance and has quietly crept his way into the Top 10, with designs on moving further up the divisional standings in the year ahead.
Big things have been expected of Nelson since he debuted in the UFC in September 2012, but after winning his first four starts, the Icelandic welterweight has gone 4-3, dropping the key bouts that would carry him higher up the rankings. Last time out, however, Nelson rebounded from a rough opening round to finish Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira, and if he can replicate that effort here against Edwards, he’ll head into the second half the year in line for a marquee assignment.
Darren Till vs. Jorge Masvidal
Some of the most entertaining, compelling fights are the ones that come together organically between two guys who simply believe they’re better than each other and that’s what we have here.
Blessed with an ability to pick a fight with just about anyone, Masvidal managed to fire up Till and turn their war of words into a main event assignment. “Gamebred” has dropped his last two appearances and hasn’t fought since facing Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson at UFC 217, but the veteran is slick, savvy and skilled in every facet, so despite his layoff and losing skid, he will give Till all he can handle in this one.
After being finished by Woodley in his bid to claim the welterweight title, Till looks to bounce back with a big win over a wily veteran on home soil. The 26-year-old “Gorilla” is at his best when he’s pressing forward behind his long, powerful striking, but over his last couple outings, Till has been a little more hesitant.
This one has the potential to be an absolute corker and the banter between these two willing trash talkers should be great in the run-up to fight night.
Stephen Thompson vs. Anthony Pettis
“Smashville” will play host to one of the most exciting and entertaining matchups of the year later this month as former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis ventures to welterweight to square off with perennial contender Stephen Thompson.
Just saying, “Wonderboy vs. Showtime” out loud sounds awesome and that’s without these two offensive dynamos stepping into the cage and trying to best each other in a battle between two of the most electric striking specialists in the UFC.
Thompson has only registered one win in his last four starts, but no one would question his place in the division, as he went 0-1-1 in back-to-back championship bouts against Woodley before beating Masvidal and dropping a close decision to Till in his hometown of Liverpool. As for Pettis, he started his 2018 campaign with a slick submission win over Michael Chiesa before engaging in a wildly battle with Tony Ferguson that deserved more Fight of the Year attention than it received.
This one has the potential to look like Ken vs. Ryu inside the Octagon and I, for one, am here for every last second of it.
Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje
How’s this for a way to wrap up an insane month of action?
Two of the most consistently entertaining and aggressive offensive fighters in the loaded lightweight division will share the cage with one another in the main event of the UFC’s return to the City of Brotherly Love and there is a very real chance that it will produce the Fight of the Year.
Last time out, Barboza halted a two-fight slide by stopping Dan Hooker’s ascent up the lightweight rankings, battering the ultra-tough New Zealander until his body simply couldn’t take any more punishment. Now fully settled into his new digs at American Top Team, it will be interesting to see what the Brazilian veteran does for an encore.
As for Gaethje, all he’s done through his first four UFC appearances is be a part of the two best fights of 2017, one of the best fights of 2018 and make James Vick pay for talking all kinds of noise about him by felling the towering lightweight with a single clubbing blow back in July. All the Trevor Wittman pupil knows how to do is press forward and make this messy, which should result in another wild battle when he steps in against the lightning quick Barboza.
Personally, I couldn’t think of a better way to end the month than watching these two lock horns and throw down in Philly.